A proposal to convey federal land at the historic Point Retreat Lighthouse on Admiralty Island to a nonprofit group is drawing ire from some local residents, but the Alaska Lighthouse Association says it has no plans to develop or drastically change the property.
The lighthouse, which was established in 1904, sits at the tip of the island, about 17 miles from Juneau's airport. The lighthouse buildings and the surrounding 1,505 acres of property are now under a 30-year U.S. Coast Guard lease to the Alaska Lighthouse Association, according to its president, Dave Benton.
Under a rider to a transportation appropriations bill approved by the Senate earlier this month, the Coast Guard would convey the Point Retreat light station to the association. The bill is now headed to a conference committee, where differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation will be addressed.
Groups such as the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council object to the transfer, calling it a "giveaway of public land." Grassroots organizer Matthew Davidson said SEACC doesn't oppose the transfer of the lighthouse and 10 acres immediately surrounding it, but objects to the transfer of 1,505 acres of property, which it estimates is worth about $4 million.
"If the land is removed from public ownership, our concern is they could do anything with it. It's unnecessary for the operation of a lighthouse and should remain in public ownership," he said.
Davidson said the property would be better managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which is in charge of the adjacent 955,000-acre Admiralty Island National Monument and administered 1,495 acres of the lighthouse property for nearly 45 years.
In 1998, Congress allowed the Coast Guard to convey the Point Retreat Lighthouse and three other Southeast Alaska lighthouses to nonprofit groups with the stipulation that the buildings and property would revert back to the federal government if not used for "the public benefit for the interpretation and preservation of maritime history," according to the legislation.
Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, inserted the new rider to the appropriations bill. It transfers the currently leased property to the lighthouse association.
Stevens' press secretary, Melanie Alvord, said the new legislation would not lift the 1998 restrictions.
"The new language does nothing to supersede that. It simply transfers the property for use for the Alaska Lighthouse Association under those terms," she said.
The 100-member Alaska Lighthouse Association has no plans to put in a golf course or other development and simply wants to preserve the site's maritime heritage, Benton said. The association is interested in the 1,505 acres because it historically has been a part of the Coast Guard station, he said.
Carl Rosier, president of the Alaska Outdoor Council, said his group has recommended against turning over the full 1,505 acres to the nonprofit organization. While the council doesn't object to the lighthouse transfer, it is worried about public access to lands used for bear and deer hunting, he said.
"It's not fair to the public and it's not good government. It's great the people have stepped forward and put together an organization to take on the lighthouse ... but we don't think they should have access to 1,500 acres of public land," he said.
Benton said his association is interested in working on a conservation easement with SEACC and is willing to put into writing what can and can't be done on the property. Hunting, fishing and camping are and will be allowed, he said.
"The association has no plans to disrupt the use patterns of local folks out there," he said. "Our intention is to fully allow it to continue."
Once the lighthouse buildings are fixed up, the association is interested in using the land for educational purposes, possibly giving students an opportunity to participate in coastal and other outdoor field programs, Benton said.
Meanwhile, volunteer-led work to restore the Point Retreat lighthouse is under way. The association is putting in utilities and stabilizing the buildings and has a small grant to restore the 1920s lantern room, Benton said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.