Land trusts gain traction in Alaska

Some Alaskans confront trusts for tying up private land

Posted: Monday, November 27, 2006

STERLING - Conservation land trusts that protect the land indefinitely while keeping it in private hands are becoming more common in Alaska.

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Calvin and Martha Jane Fair are among the growing number of Alaskans who are protecting their unspoiled lands through conservation easements.

The Fairs began homesteading on the Kenai River, one of the world's great salmon streams, in the 1960s.

"It was just a village when we moved here," said Calvin Fair, who for a time was the Kenai Peninsula's only dentist.

Now there are many more housing subdivisions and the river is crowded with fishermen.

"We came to an area hoping it would regress rather than progress," he said.

The Fairs completed the legal work on their conservation easement in about two years. They paid a fee that the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust uses to inspect the 46 waterfront acres each year and make sure the terms are enforced. The land remains a forest, and is open to fishing.

In return, the property may be taxed at a lower rate when it passes to the Fairs' children.

Fair said he couldn't have stood to think that the entire north bank of the Kenai might someday be developed.

"You look up and down the river - everywhere you look, it's developed," he said. "Right out to the river. I didn't want to see that happen."

The Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, the state's oldest, said about a dozen Kenai Peninsula landowners have granted conservation easements on their land.

Newer trusts in Anchorage, Dillingham, Fairbanks and Juneau are also working on easements with landowners.

Some Alaskans who believe private land is in too-short supply occasionally confront the trusts about locking up land, said Barbara Seaman, executive director of the Homer-based Kachemak trust.

But, she said, "if the purpose is for public benefit, to me it doesn't seem like locking it up."

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assemblywoman Grace Merkes said the land trusts may be appropriate, up to a point.

"There really isn't a lot of private land available," Merkes said. "But I have to say that the private land that is available is pretty densely populated in certain areas. Maybe (preserving) a homestead here and there wouldn't hurt, but I wouldn't like to see a lot of it."

Increased use on or near sites have changed attitudes statewide, according to The Nature Conservancy, a nationwide group that has fostered the growth of local trusts here.

This year the group commissioned a poll in which 68 percent of Alaska respondents said they strongly or somewhat supported voluntary land conservation agreements. A quarter of respondents opposed the idea.

The Nature Conservancy has partnered with the local trusts on some projects, such as protecting land at the mouth of the Anchor River, a salmon and steelhead stream north of Homer.

The Kenai River is so polluted from outboard motor fuel on some days of the July king salmon season that it risks being classified as "impaired" by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation under the federal Clean Water Act.

"All these things are reasons you build on when it comes time to do something to protect the river," Calvin said.

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