ANCHORAGE - A U.S. House committee has approved a bill for a complicated land trade proposal that opponents fear will spoil the aesthetic and recreational value of Berners Bay, north of Juneau.
Others support it in part because it would allow land near the Kensington gold mine to be developed to support the mining operation.
The House Resources Committee approved the bill Wednesday.
The committee chairman, Richard Pombo, R-Calif., briefly described the trade:
Cape Fox Corp., the Native corporation for the village of Saxman, would get land near the Kensington gold mine, which it could develop to support the mine.
Sealaska, the Southeast regional corporation, would get the subsurface rights.
The corporations would give other lands and mineral rights to the Tongass National Forest.
The exchange would make up for a special restriction in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that limited the lands Cape Fox could select, Pombo said.
The bill would also resolve "split estates" - where the regional Native corporation holds subsurface rights to land owned by the Forest Service, he said.
Pombo told the Anchorage Daily News that environmentalists who believe they can stop the gold mine by blocking the trade are "misguided."
"All indications are this project is going to proceed regardless of this land exchange," he said. "Moreover, I see nothing wrong with an environmentally responsible mining operation which has strong local support in Southeast Alaska."
Hundreds of Alaskans recently attended a Juneau hearing to ask U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, to withdraw her support for the swap. Opponents contend the trade would allow the corporations to log the land and spoil the views of Berners Bay, a favorite spot at the end of the road for kayaking, boating and sportfishing.
Although the bill says the exchanged properties "shall be of equal value," opponents contend the Forest Service would give up high-value forest for acres that already have been logged.
At the committee meeting Wednesday, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said that he'd seen pictures of the lands proposed for exchange and that it didn't seem like a fair trade to him.
Noting that the bill's sponsor, Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, was not present for the discussion, Rahall said he would not delay the bill's passage from the committee but would argue against it if it is brought to the House floor.
The bill passed by voice vote. A similar bill, sponsored by Sen. Murkowski, is pending in the Senate.