WASHINGTON - Sen. Ted Stevens is in the middle of a dispute about what should be done with the Point Retreat Lighthouse, which for nearly a century has been a navigational beacon for travelers of Southeast Alaska's inland passage.
Stevens, an Alaska Republican, tried to convey the Coast Guard property to a non-profit preservationist group run by David Benton, former deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. When the Clinton administration threatened to veto a Coast Guard authorization bill over the directive, Stevens backed off, but the issue is far from resolved.
The dispute is over development on one of the most protected islands in the Alaska panhandle. The million-acre Admiralty Island National Monument takes up most of the long, narrow island, and the other forest lands are off-limits to logging and are managed mostly for recreational use.
The northernmost Mansfield Peninsula, covered by old hemlock trees, is the largest tract of the island that the U.S. Forest Service doesn't already own.
Conservationists worry that if all the lighthouse property ends up with Benton's group, the Alaska Lighthouse Association, development will follow.
"Congress should extend to as much of the Mansfield Peninsula as possible the same national monument status that now applies to most of the rest of Admiralty Island," said Bruce Baker, president of Friends of Admiralty Island.
The Forest Service has been negotiating with the Coast Guard to have all but 10 acres of the lighthouse property deeded over to it for inclusion in the Tongass National Forest.
But Stevens is adamant that all 1,505 acres should go to the Alaska Lighthouse Association, which has leased the site since 1997.
"There's no reason that it shouldn't be a tourist attraction," Stevens said of the property. "But the Forest Service doesn't want any tourists in that area."
Benton, who complains that the Forest Service didn't talk to his group about taking most of the acreage, said the property will be better cared for in the hands of local residents than "federal bureaucrats."
The 100-member volunteer lighthouse group has dedicated summer weekends to maintenance at Point Retreat, he said. And in 1998, Congress authorized turning title over to the group, although it initially got "bogged down," he said.
Preservation of old lighthouses has been a popular theme in Congress since the Coast Guard began converting them into unmanned automatic light stations. Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee, pushed through legislation to transfer title of nearly a dozen such beacons, including the one at Point Retreat, to nonprofit corporations that will preserve them.
The Point Retreat complex consists of the concrete lighthouse, a keeper's quarters, a boathouse and a dock, Benton said. The Coast Guard converted the lighthouse in 1974 and pulled out nearly everything that could be salvaged, including the old lighthouse top.
Benton said it will cost as much as $1 million to restore the lighthouse. The association is raising money now and will be aided by a $300,000 grant that Stevens tucked into a recent spending bill for the Interior Department.
Benton said he would like to build a small maritime museum on the property, and he wants to convert the keeper's quarters into a small bed-and-breakfast. There would be no construction of major new buildings, he said.
"Our whole focus is protecting and taking care of the light station," Benton said. "There would be public education stuff on the role of lighthouses, lifesaving services of the Coast Guard and the opening up of the North -- all that kind of stuff."
But concerns about hunting lodges and flightseeing tours are unduly alarmist, because the terms of the lease and the proposed conveyance would bar such activities, Benton said. "We can't build a theme park out there. And we don't want to do it."
Empire staff writer Bill McAllister contributed to this article.