My Turn: Opponents of land swap forget Southeast history

Posted: Monday, September 29, 2003

I must admit, the flap over the proposed land exchange embodied in U.S. Senate legislation involving the U.S. Forest Service, Cape Fox Native Corp. and Sealaska has me somewhat perplexed. If the issue were simply exchanging logged-over land for high-value recreational and wildlife lands, I'd probably line up with those opposed to the legislation.

However, there is a substantial amount of history that is being overlooked by those who are against the land exchange. In addition, at least for me, there is a fundamental issue of fair treatment for our first Alaskans, the Native people of Southeast.

For those of you who have not followed the controversy, in its simplest terms, the proposed legislation (S. 1354) proposes to exchange about 3,000 acres of surface property owned by Cape Fox and subsurface rights owned by Sealaska for equal value property in the Berners Bay area.

The proposed land exchange could have several synergistic economic benefits for Juneau and the Native corporations. The land exchange should give a boost to the Kensington mine, which Coeur Alaska has diligently labored for years to bring online.

In addition, Juneau's own Goldbelt Inc., the local Native urban corporation, could also benefit through the development of its landholdings at Echo Cove and Berners Bay. One plan under discussion, if the Kensington mine actually opens, would be for Goldbelt to build housing and transportation facilities on a portion of the 2,700 acres the Native corporation owns at the Echo Cove/Cascade Point area for the miners and managers who would be employed at the Kensington mine.

It appears to me that the proposed mine project, the movement of some acreage at Berners Bay from the Forest Service to Cape Fox and Sealaska, and the mine's potential ancillary developments proposed by Goldbelt, are the focus of those who opposed to the land exchange.

Overlooked by those who are opposing the land exchange are the raw deal that Cape Fox got in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and the pro-environment attitude that Goldbelt's leadership demonstrated in the mid-1970s by not selecting lands granted under ANCSA on Admiralty Island.

Cape Fox's case is simple and straightforward: The Native corporation got short-sheeted in ANCSA and never had a shot at selecting high economic value lands. Goldbelt, which had the right to select about 20,000 acres of land in the Tongass National Forest, first selected that acreage on Admiralty Island.

Goldbelt's selection on Admiralty Island (along with another Native urban corporation's decision to make its ANCSA land selection on Admiralty) led to what became know as the "off Admiralty" movement. Environmentalists and others interested in protecting Admiralty from any development pushed hard to encourage the Native corporations to make selections in areas outside of Admiralty Island.

The net result of the "off Admiralty" movement, and Goldbelt's willingness to accommodate those concerned about protecting Admiralty Island, was the selection of alternate acreage at Echo Cove, Hobart Bay and West Douglas Island. Since the Admiralty/Echo Cove land exchange took place in 1979, Goldbelt has patiently been developing plans for responsible development of that property. Now those plans face a dim future if opponents of the land trade are successful.

If S. 1354 is not approved by Congress, or if a separate land trade agreement cannot ultimately be reached between the Forest Service and the Native corporations, its my view that a grave injustice will have been dealt to our Southeast Native friends and neighbors.

Isn't it about time that fair treatment and responsible economic development be given a seat and an equal voice at the governmental policy table on a wide spectrum of land issues? Is it too much to ask that finally Southeast Natives should be given the rights granted to them under ANSCA to develop lands which Congress granted to them specifically for that purpose?

And finally, shouldn't our Southeast Natives have an equally strong voice as recreational kayakers and birdwatchers regarding public policy decisions which could drastically affect the land which they own? I don't know about you, but those who oppose the S. 1354 land exchange proposal have lost me on this one.

• Jerry Reinwand was Gov. Jay Hammond's top aide during his second term and served in the same position for then-Sen. Frank Murkowski in the Senator's Washington, D.C., office. He is now a lobbyist and he and his family have business interests in Juneau.

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