Locking up and cutting off access to heavily used public lands in Alaska? It may not sound very Republican, but that's exactly what Lisa Murkowski is trying to do with her Berners Bay land swap.
Murkowski's bill, the Cape Fox Land Exchange, would give two private corporations close to 12,000 acres of public wild lands in Juneau's backyard. In return, we citizens would get about 3,000 acres of largely logged and roaded land near Ketchikan. A handout to corporate special interests, the bill is one that Murkowski inherited from her father, who attempted to pass it out of Congress two years ago.
This trade is a raw deal for the public. Berners Bay is not just any piece of Alaska's uniformly spectacular landscape. It is a wildlife mecca (among other things, it's the only place in the Lynn Canal area where herring still spawn in large numbers) located just past the end of the road in Juneau, 40 miles from downtown. The bay is one of Juneau's most popular recreation areas - a prime wild area that is accessible to even weekend warriors. Cape Fox's logged lands, on the other hand, are nearly worthless.
When you really delve into the issue, it's even worse. With this land swap, we lose more than ownership of valuable Alaska public land that is a haven for moose, bears, humpback whales, sea lions, and five species of salmon. The public also loses everything that comes with ownership. Access will be first to go. As a hunter and outdoorsman, I know the frustration of coming up against "No Trespassing" and "Private Property" signs on land that once was free and open to us all. Sen. Murkowski's proposed amendments to stay out of some of the bay's viewshed and allow some public access are merely cosmetic measures that fails to solve the bill's central problem: privatizing public land for nothing more than personal political gain.
It should be no surprise that hundreds of Juneau residents - ultra-conservative, ultra-liberal, and every shade in between - have asked Sen. Murkowski to drop this raid on the public's purse. The Juneau Empire recently published an excellent editorial opposing the implementing legislation. I would hope that the senator would take that article to heart and kill this poorly conceived idea. As an individual that supports both the Kensington Mine project and the highway link to Skagway I see no justification for such special-interest land swap legislation. Sen. Murkowski is ignoring her constituents and pushing special interests. Now it looks like she may attempt to attach the land exchange to a huge, must-pass spending bill in Congress - no doubt in an effort to show Alaskans that she can get things done even in an election year.
Sen. Murkowski should know better. Locking us out of our public land is not the way to support Alaskans. We have made a long-term investment in places like Berners Bay: Instead of cashing in these prime public lands for quick profit, we have nurtured them so that hunters, fishermen and boaters will collect dividends from them long into the future.
I'm a card-carrying Republican and have been for decades, but for Sen. Murkowski to pay off her father's political debts at the public's expense and think that her constituents won't notice or care is foolhardy. I have no doubt that passing the Cape Fox Land Exchange will cost her votes this fall, and not just in Southeast Alaska. Come on senator, let's get back to legislation that benefits all Alaskans and drop this self-interest effort.
Carl Rosier is a retired commissioner of Fish and Game.
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