My Turn: Land trade is a bad deal

Posted: Friday, October 03, 2003

Misconceptions about the Berners Bay land exchange are cropping up in Juneau like devil's club. Jerry Reinwand's recent column about the land swap is the latest example.

Reinwand says that even though it's a bum deal for the public, the land swap should go through because it rights wrongs done to Southeast Alaska Native village corporations. Given our government's history with Alaska's Native peoples, such assertions always deserve serious consideration. Regarding this proposed exchange, Reinwand's argument rings hollow.

Senator Murkowski's land trade would give roughly 12,000 acres of public land in Berners Bay to Sealaska and Cape Fox corporations. In exchange, the Forest Service would get about 3,000 acres of mostly-logged Cape Fox land near Ketchikan and certain subsurface lands there and on Prince of Wales Island that belong to Sealaska.

This trade would allow a Native corporation from over 200 miles away with no ties to the land - Cape Fox - to acquire ancestral lands of the Auk Kwaan - the original settlers of the Juneau area - whose ties to the land go back thousands of years. Some of the worst abuses of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act have occurred under this kind of scenario. Think about how Klukwan Corporation, from the Haines area, selected and clearcut Long Island in the southern Tongass - lands to which they had no traditional connection - nearly wiping out important customary and traditional lands of the Prince of Wales Haida people. Now, Klukwan proposes to spray those subsistence lands with dangerous herbicides to improve the re-growth of "their" timber. The appropriation and destruction by a Native corporation of the traditional lands of another Native group cannot be what Congress intended when it passed ANCSA.

Reinwand argues that Cape Fox should be able to trade clearcuts for pristine public lands because the corporation was "short-sheeted" in ANCSA. At best, this claim is completely overblown, and at worst it's just not true. Cape Fox shareholders did much better than other ANCSA corporation shareholders because as a Southeast corporation they got to select high-value timberlands (a resource missing elsewhere in Alaska). Additionally, Cape Fox has fewer shareholders than all but one other village corporation, so its shareholders each took home a bigger chunk of any dividends.

Berners Bay is enormously important public land. Yet the public interest is nowhere considered in this trade proposal. Allowing the trade of private stumps for public trees to go through would set a dangerous precedent by essentially telling other Native corporations that they can now reopen ANCSA and trade in used-up land for new land. You can't take a car back to the dealership 15 years after you buy it, tell the salesman you've put a lot of miles on it but don't like the color, and ask to trade it straight up for a new one. Why should Native corporations be able to make these kinds of deals with Alaska's land?

Reinwand also says that Goldbelt, Juneau's local Native corporation, deserves the land trade because the corporation did a great service to the environment when it decided not to select lands on Admiralty Island. We're all thankful that most of Admiralty is still wild and intact today, but Goldbelt was well-compensated under ANCSA and this land trade has little to do with that corporation. Some of Goldbelt's development plans for its land in Berners Bay depend on the Kensington mine. However, Coeur Alaska, the company that wants to reopen the mine, has already said that it can do so with or without the land exchange. Keeping Berners Bay in public hands will not prevent Goldbelt from developing its land responsibly.

What the trade could do is make it a lot easier for Coeur Alaska to mine irresponsibly, by dumping toxic mine tailings into a pristine mountain lake. Slate Lake, the proposed site for this dump, drains into Berners Bay, one of the richest marine environments in Southeast Alaska.

If there's one thing the Berners Bay land trade is NOT about, it's Native land rights. It's not about the public interest, either. This is a land grab, pure and simple.

• Buck Lindekugel is the conservation director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

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