Correction to story
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's bid to provide Berners Bay land to Native corporations by way of a controversial land swap appears to have failed twice in two years.
"The bill is dead," said Murkowski's spokesman, Chuck Kleeschulte, on Monday, hours before Congress adjourned.
Juneau environmentalists opposed to the bill reserved their optimism because Congress will return for a short session after the Nov. 2 election. "We'll keep a close eye on it every day," said Kat Hall, a Southeast Alaska Conservation Council grassroots organizer.
Officials with the two Native corporations benefiting from the proposed land exchange said they had not received notice of the bill's failure but they are disappointed.
Murkowski's bill would have given Saxman-based Cape Fox Corp. 2,600 acres and Juneau-based Sealaska Corp. surface or subsurface rights to about 10,000 acres in the Tongass National Forest in Berners Bay, 45 miles northwest of downtown Juneau.
The bill was a proposed remedy for Cape Fox Corp.'s last remaining land claim under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The village corporation was prevented from selecting land within six miles of Ketchikan to protect the city's watershed. Because of the restriction, Cape Fox was faced with selecting a remote, mountainous parcel that was of no known economic value, according to the bill.
One major controversy about the bill is that Cape Fox has clear-cut 70 percent of the land it's offering in exchange for the Berners Bay land. In contrast, opponents said Berners Bay has inestimable value because of its pristine wilderness and recreation opportunities.
The lands offered to the corporations were in proximity to the proposed Kensington Gold Mine on the west side of Berners Bay.
Cape Fox hoped to receive up to $1.5 million over 15 years by leasing rights to Berners Bay land to Coeur Alaska, the mine developer. The bill would allow Cape Fox to select land including the access road leading from Slate Creek Cove to the mine site and a series of sub-alpine lakes, including Lower Slate Lake, where Coeur Alaska plans to dispose of mine tailings.
"I'm confident we'll be able to work something out with the senator," said Cape Fox CEO Bruce Borup.
Sealaska Executive Vice President Richard Harris said his main interests at Berners Bay were obtaining a historic Native site at Slate Creek Cove and pursuing commercial opportunities at staked mine claims near the proposed Kensington mine.
"We thought this was a good place to do it," Harris said. "It's going to have a mine so it made a lot of sense," he said.
Murkowski, who introduced a similar bill in 2003, has not decided yet whether she would introduce the bill again in 2005 or find another way to resolve the Native land claims, Kleeschulte said. "She's keeping all options open," he said.
Murkowski is defending her seat in a close race with former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat who voiced his opposition to the land exchange for the first time last week in Ketchikan.
The bill originally foundered when two Democrats walked out of a Senate Energy committee hearing on Sept. 15, causing the committee to lose a quorum before the land trade bill was discussed.
During a Juneau visit on Monday, Knowles said the Berners Bay "swap is flawed, divisive and a failure." He noted that the senator's father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, also tried to pass a Berners Bay land exchange while he was in Congress. "It was good riddance then and it's good riddance now."
Knowles said land and transportation projects in the bay should be subject to a land-management plan.
Sen. Murkowski hosted a public hearing on the land exchange in Juneau in the spring, where hundreds of residents showed up, many in protest.
"We would hope in the future that she would talk to the people whom the bill is going to impact before she introduces it," said Russell Heath, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
"Obviously, there are people in Juneau who have not warmed to the bill," Kleeschulte said. He said the senator would look at all those concerns again but he did not know what alternatives are available.
"Wherever you go to find land, there will be complaints from some group," Kleeschulte said.
Harris, of Sealaska, said his corporation continues to be interested in the Berners Bay property. "Land is the absolute underpinning of our corporation ... The problem still exists. We have to find a solution."
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at Elizabeth.Bluemink@juneauempire.com.
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