Several hundred Juneau residents gathered Saturday morning at a town meeting on a federal bill that would facilitate a controversial land transfer involving Berners Bay.
The land exchange is the subject of a federal bill sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski that would allow the U.S. Department of the Interior to trade an undetermined amount of federal land near Berners Bay to Sealaska Corp. and Cape Fox Native Corp. in exchange for about 3,000 acres of corporation land near Ketchikan.
Sealaska is the Southeast Alaska regional Native corporation and Cape Fox is a village Native corporation in Saxman.
Representatives from Cape Fox, Sealaska, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and Friends of Berners Bay presented testimony before the floor was opened to members of the audience, of whom more than 50 spoke.
"Berners Bay occupies a special place in the hearts of the people of Juneau," said Dana Owen of Friends of Berners Bay. "It is a gem in our backyard."
Those opposing the land trade worry that the Native corporations would restrict access to Berners Bay, which is a popular recreation spot for Juneau residents. Opponents also expressed concern that the Native corporations would log the land and destroy the area's pristine beauty.
"The land the Native corporations would receive is a main element of the view from the entire shoreline of the bay as well as from Point Bridget," said Juneau resident Skip Gray.
Kat Hall of SEACC said the trade would affect area residents the most.
"It is only the people of Juneau who will lose," she said.
Supporters of the trade stressed the importance of diversifying Juneau's economy and the benefits of developing the Kensington gold mine. Kensington developer Coeur Alaska has mining claims on the land in question, though officials have said the mine can be developed whether or not the trade goes forward.
Sealaska executive vice president Rick Harris said the corporation has no land in or around Juneau, which is where about one-third of its shareholders reside. He also stressed the benefits of the trade to Natives.
"It's one more opportunity to further develop and make them part of the commerce and land ownership in our community," he said.
Harris said Sealaska has no plans to log the Berners Bay land.
The land trade would allow Sealaska to trade in rights to 8,200 acres of subsurface land it received under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act for a parcel of land in Berners Bay not to exceed 9,329 acres, Harris said. Under the bill, a federal appraiser would determine the value of the 8,200 acres, which are in an area of Prince of Wales Island that has a high concentration of minerals, he said. Under the bill, that land would then be traded for an equally valuable parcel of land in Berners Bay.
According to the bill, Cape Fox would receive about 2,700 acres of federal land in Berners Bay in exchange for a parcel of land near Ketchikan not exceeding 2,900 acres.
Cape Fox CEO Bruce Borup said his corporation was given short shrift in ANCSA because greater restrictions were placed on its land selection than were placed on other village corporations. Among other things, he said, Cape Fox was forced to select marginal land that had been logged. Borup said the village has suffered economically.
"The village of Saxman has 431 residents and the unemployment rate is over 25 percent," he said.
The bill is not moving quickly. No congressional hearings are scheduled, and Murkowski said it's unlikely the bill will get a hearing before Congress goes on break later this fall.
Murkowski said she held the meeting in response to concerns by residents that their voices be heard on the topic. She said she believes that development and environmental issues can coexist peacefully.
"The two don't need to be mutually exclusive," she said.