Democrats on Tuesday walked out of a U.S. Senate committee hearing on a bill to privatize acreage at Berners Bay, stalling a vote on the proposed Cape Fox Corp. land exchange.
At least until next week, the Cape Fox bill and two other bills left in limbo will remain in committee, said Chuck Kleeschulte, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who is trying to push the Cape Fox bill and another controversial piece of Native land legislation onto the Senate floor.
Three other Murkowski natural resource bills affecting Southeast Alaska already have been approved by the Senate.
The stated intent of the Cape Fox bill is to resolve the Saxman-based Cape Fox Corp. and Juneau-based Sealaska Corp.'s remaining Native land claims. The bill's most controversial provision would exchange Tongass National Forest land in Berners Bay - adjacent to the proposed Kensington gold mine - with land owned by the Cape Fox Corp. near Ketchikan.
Approximately 70 percent of the Cape Fox land offered in the exchange has been clearcut and the U.S. Forest Service would end up paying tens of thousands of dollars to repair roads and manage the second-growth forest, Democrats said Tuesday, quoting a Forest Service 2003 fact sheet.
Democrats had serious qualms about the bill, said Bill Wicker, a spokesman for the committee's Democratic minority.
"They (Republicans) were one vote short of rolling us, and now they are blaming us," said Scott Miller, a staffer for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.
The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council applauded the Democrats' action on Wednesday, saying large numbers of Juneau residents showed up at a public meeting in March to oppose the project.
But Bruce Borup, chief executive officer of Cape Fox Corp. said, "I'm grateful for all the work that Sen. Murkowski has done. I know it's not over. I am sure there will be a (follow-up meeting) next week. I'm sorry that the Democrats resorted to this kind of behavior."
He noted that viewshed-protection amendments, logging bans and public access provisions were already agreed upon for the Berners Bay land. The proposal would allow the Cape Fox to lease the land to developers of the Kensington Mine, he said.
The Republican majority was unable to vote on the Cape Fox bill and two other bills after the Democrats walked out because they lost a quorum.
The 23 committee members include 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats. At least 12 members must be present for a vote to occur.
Colorado Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell was absent because he was in Colorado attending a campaign event for President Bush.
After voting unanimously in favor of 21 bills, the Democrats left the room, leaving the Cape Fox bill and two other bills in limbo.
Murkowski accused the Democrats of election-season partisanship. Democrats said they are angry that she hasn't negotiated on the Cape Fox bill's controversial provisions.
In a prepared statement, Murkowski said she was "appalled" by the Democrats' statements that she wouldn't negotiate. She said she revised the bill to address concerns and held public meetings in Anchorage and Juneau.
But Wicker said Democrats want more modifications, such as:
Allowing the U.S. Forest Service to select which land it will offer to Cape Fox Corp.
Enabling the Saxman-based corporation to select lands closer to its village, which is 250 miles from Berners Bay.
"If the Democrats had amendments, they didn't offer them," Kleeschulte responded. "I don't know the exact details of what they are proposing."
The two other bills left in limbo on Tuesday morning include abandoned mine legislation in the West and the Murkowski-sponsored Alaska Native Land Claims Acceleration Act, which would expedite the transfer of 89 million acres of federal land to Alaska and Native tribes.
Environmentalists are worried that the latter bill could result in the transfer of sensitive lands and mineral rights in national parks, refuges and forests to private ownership.
Democrats said they didn't get final wording on that bill until 12 hours before the committee meeting on Wednesday.
Wicker said Murkowski's claim of partisanship is unfounded. He pointed out that committee Democrats approved three of Murkowski's other proposed land bills for Alaska.
On Wednesday, the full Senate approved the three bills. They included:
The Native Land Allotment Subdivision Bill, which allows Native landowners to subdivide their land holdings like other private property owners.
Legislation to extend the license of the proposed Reynolds Creek hydroelectric project on Prince of Wales Island, giving Haida Corp. up to six additional years to begin construction of a 20-foot-long, 6-foot-high dam.
Legislation allowing the city of Craig to acquire the site of the former Wards Cove Packing Co.'s fish processing plant in exchange for returning recreational property and a trail leading to Mount Sunnahae to the U.S. Forest Service.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.