Debate over Point Retreat

Should a historical preservation group or the federal government control the land around the Admiralty Island lighthouse?

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2001

A symbol of Alaska's maritime heritage, the Point Retreat lighthouse near Juneau has been a beacon to travelers for nearly a century. Today, it is at the center of a dispute that squares a historic restoration project against federal land management.

Lighthouses and their properties vary around SE

While the use and size of land connected with U.S. lighthouses varies, observers say the Point Retreat lighthouse reserve near Juneau is larger than most.

Years ago, lighthouses established by the federal government were assigned a reservation. In some cases an entire island was set aside as a lighthouse reserve. In other cases, part of the island became the reserve, said Dave Snyder, a historian with the U.S. Lighthouse Society, a nonprofit historical and educational organization based in San Francisco.

U.S. Lighthouse Society President Wayne Wheeler was a navigator on the Coast Guard cutter Sweetbrier in Alaska in the 1960s. Among other duties, the crew dropped off food, mail and movies at Southeast lighthouses, including Point Retreat, every two weeks.

At 1,500 acres, Point Retreat's land base is unusual, he said.

"There's no reason for them to have that kind of acreage. If you look at other light stations around the country, there's just not that kind of acreage," Wheeler said.

The society's Washington chapter runs a lighthouse at New Dungeness on the Olympic Peninsula that includes about 20 acres. The light station at Point Bonita, Calif., was about 180 acres, he said.

Lighthouses closer to railroads or more populated areas might have included less land, while those further away, such as those in Alaska, might have included more land so the keeper would be self-sufficient, Snyder said.

As an example, a lighthouse keeper might fell trees for firewood or to build a fence. Some keepers were involved in minor commercial activities such as fishing or crabbing, Snyder said.

"In lighthouse days, there would have been minimal management," he said.

Light stations in the early 19th century also used the land to plant crops, grow vegetables and keep cows, chickens and pigs, Wheeler added.

In Alaska, the Coast Guard leased the 216-acre Cape Decision lighthouse reserve to Cape Decision Lighthouse Society in 1997, according to society President Karen Johnson of Sitka. Along with the lighthouse and other buildings, the reserve includes a 0.7-mile spur trail that provides access to the site, she said.

Part of a 4.5-mile Port McArthur historic trail also is on the reserve. The lighthouse group has collaborated with the Forest Service on trail construction, Johnson said.

As with the land around the Point Retreat lighthouse reserve, the land adjacent to Cape Decision on southern Kuiu Island is managed for semi-remote recreation by the Forest Service. The designation provides a predominantly natural setting for semi-primitive recreation with some rustic recreation and tourism facilities allowed, according to the agency.

The Cape St. Elias lighthouse is on Kayak Island between Cordova and Yakutat. The island is 22 miles long by 2 miles wide, and the Cape St. Elias Lightkeepers' Association lease with the Coast Guard includes about 500 acres, President Toni Bocci said.

"It's sheer rock that goes up 1,500 feet that you can't do anything with. The lighthouse is on the tip," she said.

The association's main focus is restoring the lighthouse building, a task made more difficult because of the site's location, Bocci said.

"Ours is more remote than some of the other ones," she said. "You have to charter a plane, land on the beach and hike two miles, carrying everything on your back."

Closer to Juneau, the Sentinel Island Lighthouse, which can be seen from Amalga Harbor, is on six forested acres.

The Five Finger Light sits on a "three-acre rock" 64 miles south of Juneau, according to Valerie O'Hare of the Juneau Lighthouse Association. What a land transfer at Point Retreat could mean to other Alaska lighthouses will depend on what happens next, she said.

"What's going to affect us is what they do after," she said. "With that being said, we hope that whatever they do is not only done in the best interest of Point Retreat, but done within the best interest of the entire lighthouse program in Alaska."

At the tip of the Mansfield Peninsula on Admiralty Island, Point Retreat is about 17 miles northwest of downtown Juneau. The picturesque light station has been nominated to the National Register for Historic Places. The lush forest surrounding it provides habitat for bears and eagles, and recreation for people.


For the past few summers, dozens of volunteers have been working to rehabilitate the buildings at Point Retreat. The nonprofit Alaska Lighthouse Association, which has a lease for Point Retreat, plans to open a bed-and-breakfast, a small maritime museum and a natural history interpretive center, according to association President Dave Benton.

But the work has been complicated by a proposal before Congress to convey the lighthouse station and the surrounding 1,500 acres of land to the group. Conservationists, hunting groups, Angoon residents and others have criticized the proposal, calling it a giveaway of public land.

The language transferring the Point Retreat light station and "all property under lease as of June 1, 2000," to the Alaska Lighthouse Association was included as an amendment to a Department of Transportation appropriations bill in August. Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, sponsored the amendment. The bill still needs to go through a conference committee of House and Senate members, a process delayed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Our association believes very strongly that we should protect the historical context that the lighthouse and the lighthouse reservation was originally put together around, that President McKinley established long ago," Benton said.

Stevens said In early September the language conveying the land to the Alaska Lighthouse Association follows the concepts outlined in existing legislation to transfer lighthouses to nonprofit and community groups. The preservation of maritime history will be the only use allowed on the property, he said.

"It is designed to turn over to a nonprofit corporation the amount of land the Coast Guard has had to operate the Point Retreat station." he said. "It was never Forest Service land; this has been under the Coast Guard since the early 1900s."

Stevens, who has objected to U.S. Forest Service management and timber policy in the past, said the amendment is not a giveaway of public land.

"The Forest Service has 17 million acres in Southeast. They don't need this 1,500 acres. There is no truth to the fact that any person or private individual is going to get any benefit from this," he said.

Objections to the transfer have come from several directions. Matthew Davidson, a grassroots organizer with the Juneau-based Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, has been in Washington, D.C., this month lobbying against the Point Retreat land transfer. His organization is amenable to giving the Alaska Lighthouse Association 10 acres at Point Retreat, as earlier suggested by the Coast Guard and the Forest Service, but not 1,500, he said.

"There's no reason why this land should go into private ownership," he said.

The group estimates the property at Point Retreat is worth $4 million. SEACC was joined by the Wilderness Society, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, the National Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife and other groups in a letter that said the conveyance would "set a new and alarming precedent as a giveaway of public land to private interests."

The push to add the Mansfield Peninsula to the Admiralty Island National Monument also is an element of the debate, Davidson said. Transferring the lighthouse reserve to the Alaska Lighthouse Association would be a barrier to a future wilderness designation on the entire peninsula, he said.

The Alaska Rainforest Conservation Act, introduced by Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut last month and backed by SEACC, would add the Mansfield Peninsula to the Admiralty Island National Monument.

Bruce Baker, a board member with SEACC and Friends of Admiralty Island, said the Mansfield Peninsula provides habitat for bears and eagles and a backdrop for sport fishing and deer hunting.

Baker said there's no question the Point Retreat lighthouse is a historical landmark, but there's strong interest in keeping the property around it federal land, preferably as part of the Tongass National Forest.

"It's public land, owned by the Coast Guard, managed by the Forest Service as if it was national forest land," he said. "It's serving the public need and there's widespread support for continuing that."

SEACC also has voiced concerns about the Alaska Lighthouse Association's ties to Stevens' office.

"Very likely, the reason why this rider is in (the bill) is because of personal relationships between the Alaska Lighthouse Association and Stevens' staff," Davidson of SEACC said.

Stevens has been a longtime advocate for Alaska fisheries. Benton, president of the lighthouse association, is a former deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the chairman of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a government and industry group that manages fisheries in U.S. waters off Alaska's coast.

Stevens said Benton is a professional acquaintance, not a close associate.

"It's unfair to him and me to say it's a gift to a friend," he said.

The history of Point Retreat light station dates to 1901 when President McKinley issued an executive order establishing a 1,505-acre lighthouse reserve at the north end of Admiralty Island. The station was first lit in 1904.

In 1956, the Coast Guard entered into a memorandum of understanding by which the Forest Service managed 1,495 acres at Point Retreat. The memorandum was renewed in 1972.

As with other Alaska lighthouses, Point Retreat was automated in 1973. In the late 1990s, the Coast Guard began leasing lighthouses in Alaska and around the country to nonprofit and community groups as a way to cut costs and promote historic preservation.

It was the summer of 2000 when the debate began over the federal land at Point Retreat.

"Until we started actively pursuing the outgranting of lighthouses it really wasn't an issue," said Rick Nygren of the Coast Guard real property branch in Alameda, Calif.

After discussions with the Forest Service and the federal Bureau of Land Management, the Coast Guard sent a letter to the Alaska Lighthouse Association in July 2000 stating, "It appears that 10 acres is sufficient for the light station parcel, and this is what we plan to convey to the Alaska Lighthouse Association."

According to a reply from the lighthouse association, no one at the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management or the Coast Guard had mentioned the change in size or discussed the matter before. Ten acres wouldn't address the association's needs and would not protect the historic character of the site, Benton wrote.

"Important elements laid out in our 1997 proposal and our approved five-year plan include improved public access to the light station by developing a seasonal dock, and enhanced public education through a system of interpretive trails," he wrote. "These important elements of our program will be severely impacted by this proposal."

How much and what type of management the Forest Service has exercised over the land also is a matter of contention.

Under the agreement between the Coast Guard and Forest Service, the property fell within the management of the Juneau Ranger District, according to the Forest Service. The 54,737-acre Mansfield Peninsula is managed for semi-remote recreation and is an inventoried roadless area in the Tongass, according to Juneau District Ranger Pete Griffin.

Benton said the Forest Service hasn't contacted the Alaska Lighthouse Association about management issues on the property.

"The Coast Guard, when we got the lease, informed us that our responsibilities were to the Coast Guard," he said.

The Forest Service cannot offer an opinion on the amendment because the Bush administration has not articulated a position about it, agency spokesman Dennis Neill said.

In the past, the agency has recommended a transfer of 10 acres, he said.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Lighthouse Association has been exploring the possibility of a conservation easement to assure that traditional recreational activities such as hunting will continue at Point Retreat. The association has had informal discussions with the Southeast Alaska Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy, Benton said.

"We're waiting for the conveyance to go forward," he said. "Until that happens, there's not a lot we can do."

Patricia Harris, president of the Southeast Alaska Land Trust's board of directors, said the organization would be interested in further exploring the possibility. Before a conveyance could occur, the trust would need to see if the property meets its criteria.

"It's something the trust would definitely favor," she said.

A conservation easement allows a landowner to restrict future development of the property into perpetuity.

"It is up to the landowner and the land trust to work out what's best for the public interest," Harris said.

The Alaska Lighthouse Association's 30-year lease with the Coast Guard for the light station and about 1,500 acres of land was signed in 1997. The association must have written permission before beginning any construction, maintenance or preservation effort on the property, according to the lease.

"When we got our lease, we had to put together a plan for maintaining it as a center for maritime history and we fully expect we'd be required to continue to do that," Benton said.

In addition, Point Retreat must comply with standards for historic preservation set up by the state historic preservation office and the National Park Service, Benton said.

But SEACC's Davidson questions why the lighthouse association needs title to the land when its lease already provides access to the full 1,500 acres. A conservation easement isn't the best solution, he said.

"If that's what they intend to do, why would we want to take this land out of public ownership and give it to a private organization so they can sell a conservation easement?" he asked. "A conservation easement is a pretty vague thing."

Mal Linthwaite, president of the board of directors for Territorial Sportsmen in Juneau, said his group worries that once the lighthouse association receives title, it can control use.

Although Linthwaite has concerns about an conservation easement with the Nature Conservancy, an easement or language in the conveyance that would allow hunting, fishing and trapping would help, he said.

"We just want to make sure the traditional use of the land is maintained. It's an awful lot of land," he said. "The way it stands right now ... once they receive title they can do whatever they want in controlling the use."

The Alaska Lighthouse Association believes historic preservation requirements outlined in existing law would continue to apply under the conveyance, but the group wouldn't object if a clarification was included in the new legislation, Benton said.

Congress on Wednesday sent the first of 13 spending bills to President Bush and approved a resolution to keep the government running through Oct. 31. The conferees who will work on the transportation appropriations bill have not been named.

Meanwhile, volunteers at Point Retreat this summer continued to rehabilitate the keeper's quarters and helped install water, sewer and other utilities, Benton said.

"People have really come out to help, even with the bad weather," he said. "It's really exciting to be involved in something where local people take pride in doing something for their community and are proud of it."

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