Wildlife haven pits governor against the rest

Murkowski says agencies are driven by a desire to enlarge an 'empire of public land'

Posted: Tuesday, October 14, 2003

PERENOSA BAY, Alaska - If sea mammals, birds of prey and giant bears went to a shared heaven, it might look like Perenosa Bay.

This place is a storm-sheltered, plankton-rich, fish-packed playpen for whales, harbor seals, sea lions and sea otters. On shore, scores of bald eagles perch like Christmas ornaments in forests of 400-year-old Sitka spruce. Eagles are fat this time of year, after a long season of gorging on spawning salmon. So are the kodiak bears that have left thousands of calling cards on riverbanks: gnawed salmon, the bears being too full to eat all they can easily catch.

There is a fully funded plan - hugely popular here - to protect this bay, which is located on the north shore of Afognak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. It would buy 18,000 coastal acres and timber rights to an additional 2,000 acres for the state - with $10.4 million of the $1 billion that Exxon Corp. paid as reparations for the oil spill that occurred 14 years ago in nearby Prince William Sound. The Exxon money would be matched by donations from hunting and land conservation groups in the Lower 48, a federal grant and a gift from Paul G. Allen, a high-tech billionaire in Seattle.

The plan has almost universal local support, including native groups that own the land and would retain access for subsistence hunting and fishing. Business leaders who want to expand high-end tourism here support it, as do politicians who want to be reelected. Also on board is a sprawling bipartisan cast of current and former state and federal leaders, plus the dominant newspaper in Alaska and conservation groups in the Lower 48. The Republican-controlled Alaskan legislature and a state-federal council that controls the Exxon money have approved the plan.

One well-placed Alaskan, however, seems to have killed it, at least for the time being.

Gov. Frank H. Murkowski vetoed the deal this summer. None of the money for it would have come out of the state budget, but Murkowski did it as a matter of principle, he said in a phone interview.

A Republican and a former U.S. senator, Murkowski said it is inappropriate for oil-spill money to be used to buy land from natives, even if they want to sell. The governor would prefer that the money be spent on scientific research into the long-term effects of the oil spill.

"People are obviously willing to sell," he said. "But these funds are for a different purpose, and I am the only governor who has stood up and said so.

"I am indignant that so much of this money has been spent with so little to show for it, other than a transfer of private land to government agencies," Murkowski said.

The governor said that those agencies, especially the Interior Department under President Bill Clinton, neglected their responsibilities to protect the heritage of Alaska's natives. He said their agendas were - and are - driven by a desire to enlarge and enhance an empire of public land.

"The federal government owns this state for all practical purposes," Murkowski said. A longtime opponent of public ownership of Alaska's land, he believes land kept in private hands would create more jobs and higher tax revenues for the state.

Most of the $1 billion from Exxon has been used to buy large parcels of native-owned land for habitat preservation. In most cases, the purchases have locked up land where wildlife habitat was harmed by the oil spill, preventing timber logging or other development.

Most of the deals, however, have guaranteed natives permanent access for subsistence hunting and fishing. They have also put more than $300 million into the coffers of native corporations. Nearly all the money, with one notable exception in the past year, has been saved in trusts or invested in native-owned businesses.

As for economic growth, there appears to be a bipartisan local consensus that the best way to make money off land around Perenosa Bay is for the state to buy it and it be opened up for high-priced tourism.

"I don't want to get into a fight with the governor because all of us lose when that happens," said state Sen. Gary Stevens, a Republican who represents the area. "But this deal is a no-brainer."

In the Lower 48, backers of the land deal are not the environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, that often clash with Republican leaders in Washington or Anchorage.

Local supporters of the deal intentionally sought money from organizations, such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the American Land Conservancy, that would be less of a red flag to conservative Republicans in Alaska.

The Montana-based Elk Foundation is committed to land conservation, in part so that the elk on it can be hunted. The group does not oppose logging or mining as a matter of policy.

"There are places to log and places not to log," said Grant Parker, senior vice president and general counsel of the Elk Foundation. "Afognak is a perfect example of a place not to log.

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