Empire editorial: Berners Bay land swap

Posted: Sunday, September 19, 2004

is poor value for Southeast

Democrats temporarily halted a controversial Cape Fox land swap this week by walking out of a U.S. Senate committee meeting. But their stall tactics aren't going to work for long. That's why it's up to the people of Juneau to make sure this federal legislation dies.

On behalf of Native corporations and mine developer Coeur Alaska, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been pushing for this land exchange. If Congress approves it, Cape Fox Corp., based in Saxman, would hand off about 1,700 acres of its property near Ketchikan in exchange for 2,600 acres of the Tongass National Forest. The bill would allow Sealaska Corp., Southeast Alaska's regional Native corporation, to select about 10,000 acres of surface and subsurface land at Berners Bay in exchange for about 5,000 subsurface acres near Ketchikan.

The Berners Bay property is close to the Kensington gold mine, about 45 miles north of Juneau. Coeur officials want the swap because it would pave the way for the company to lease the land from Cape Fox and Sealaska for mining operations. Putting that land into the hands of Native corporations means Coeur will no longer have to face the massive review process that goes into any kind of industrial activity on federal property. Mining activities on the corporate land would still be subject to federal and state environmental rules, but the overall permitting process would be faster.

The math in this proposal just doesn't make sense. About 70 percent of the Cape Fox land that is to be traded has been clearcut. There's no way that 1,700 acres of land that has been mostly logged can be fair compensation for 2,600 acres of virtually untouched property at Berners Bay, one of the wilderness gems of this region.

Some proponents of this bill claim the land trade is going to right some of the wrongs from the settlement of Native land claims. Cape Fox is said to have gotten a raw deal because by the time Alaska Natives were given the chance to select property for their corporation, much of the nearby traditional lands were no longer available. It's true that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 gave Natives title to but a fragment of the lands they once possessed, and the land selection process was riddled with problems.

But this argument implies that the 1,700 acres that Cape Fox wants to trade were worth nothing. Clearly that's not the case, since the corporation was able to log most of this land.

The Cape Fox swap perverts what the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act is all about. Corporations were set up as stewards of that land, to protect it for future generations and to reap what they could from it for the benefit of their shareholders - just as Cape Fox did when it logged its acreage. The land was not to be treated like a used car that a corporation could trade in after it had put so many miles on it.

The Kensington Mine can open even without this swap. While nixing the swap might make it a little harder for Coeur to do business, it isn't going to hurt the overall venture.

What the swap will do is add tens of thousands of dollars to the U.S. Forest Service's costs. If it takes over the clearcut land, it will have to repair roads there, thin trees and do the other work needed to maintain a second-growth forest. In this age of an astronomical federal deficit, the Forest Service doesn't need to be spending its money as the cleanup squad for corporations.

Southeast residents need to let Sen. Murkowski know that this land swap does not benefit the region. And they need to urge other senators and representatives to kill this legislation should it move out of committee. The land swap bill still has quite a large chance for survival unless Alaskans take action now.

Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved.  | Contact Us