My Turn: Berners Bay is too precious a resource to be given away

Posted: Thursday, September 18, 2003

Here's a simple math question that I'd like to ask: Does 12,000 equal 3,000? The answer is easy, of course. Why, then, is Sen. Lisa Murkowski pushing the Cape Fox Land Entitlement Adjustment Act in Congress? This bill would give as much as 12,000 acres of public land near Berners Bay to private corporations.

In exchange, the public would get about 3,000 acres near Ketchikan.

Of course, no issue is that simple. Some land trades unequal in acreage are balanced in other respects - in historical or financial value, for example. But in the case of the Berners Bay land exchange, this equality just doesn't exist. The 3,000 acres the public would get out of Sen. Murkowski's bill have mostly been clear-cut.

Berners Bay, on the other hand, has incredible recreational, cultural and ecological value. The bay and its surrounding lands are a popular recreation area used by many people in Juneau and elsewhere. The Forest Service cabin is one of the most popular sites on the Tongass National Forest, where users enjoy a spectacular view of Lion's Head Mountain and the bay. People use the bay for kayaking, boating, commercial and sport fishing and hunting. The land has great cultural and spiritual significance to the Auk Kwaan, the original inhabitants of Juneau. Their ancestral lands around Berners Bay contain village sites, burial grounds and ancient petroglyphs.

Berners Bay is a tremendously productive area in terms of its salmon and crab fisheries and wildlife resources. I have spent considerable time there camping and kayaking on my personal time. Each year a small but extremely nutritious fish, the eulachon (hooligan), swims up the bay's tributaries to spawn, providing a key food source to roughly 40,000 gulls, 600 bald eagles, 1,000 sea lions, and hundreds of seals. These fish are also a valuable resource for subsistence users.

Berners Bay is clearly a precious public resource. The private corporations Sen. Murkowski wants to give it to would have the right to log, mine, develop and deny public access to it. Why does the senator think this bill is such a great idea?

There is no satisfactory answer to this question, but the primary justification offered by those behind the bill is that putting Berners Bay in private hands will likely facilitate the development of the old Kensington gold mine. If the Berners Bay land included in the bill is privatized, the corporation that wants to operate the mine, Coeur Alaska, will not be subject to Forest Service oversight that could mitigate the potentially disastrous environmental impact of the mine.

As yet, Coeur Alaska has not been able to reopen the mine due to the low price of gold in the world market. Its cost-cutting ideas to make the venture profitable already spell trouble for Berners Bay. For one, it would like to dump mine tailings in Slate Lake, which flows into the bay. Never mind that this mine tailings dump would ruin the area's scenic beauty and could poison the bay for many years to come.

The land giveaway bill would jeopardize this ecologically significant area. Leaving all national forest lands surrounding Berners Bay in public ownership is essential to protecting the highly valuable fisheries and wildlife habitat.

In truth, there is no other land in the Tongass National Forest equal in value - cultural, ecological, or recreational - to the public land that this legislation would trade away. Berners Bay and its surrounding National Forest lands should be protected for future generations rather than developed for private interests.

Sen. Murkowski has agreed to come to Juneau to gauge community response to the bill. The town meeting, which will be held at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday at the ANB Hall, is your best opportunity to let the senator know how you stand on this issue.

• John Hudson is a fish biologist from Juneau and a member of Friends of Berners Bay.

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