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Grazing leases renewal in limbo

Fine print threatens peninsula ranchers

Posted: Tuesday, January 16, 2001

For decades, a handful of families have ranched in the rolling backcountry of the Kenai Peninsula. However, they worry that 2001 may see the end of that tradition.

A series of grazing leases the state set up in the early 1970s will expire this July, and their renewal is in limbo. Ranchers and others trying to cultivate the peninsula's small agricultural sector fear that technicalities could jeopardize lease renewals -- and the cattle business here.

The fate of the leases will be in the hands of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

Leo Rollins of Homer is one whose lease will expire this year. He said he was upset after visiting the Borough Building in November.

"I was in there and tried to renew it, and they wouldn't renew it for me," he said. "I couldn't get any satisfaction."

Rollins moved to the peninsula in 1951 and 25 years ago took over the lease on 2,560 acres near Ninilchik Dome. He and friends run 20 horses there in the summer. In the other months, snowmachiners and hunters use the property, he said.

The borough inherited 10 grazing leases from the state in land selections but cannot renew them as currently written because their terms conflict with borough ordinances. Thursday, borough officials sent letters out to those affected with a notice pro-rating the final lease payment and advising them the renewal process is under review.

Seven leases, held by Rollins and five others, will expire July 11. Most of the about 14,000 acres involved are on the south peninsula between the Caribou Hills and the head of Kachemak Bay.

"They are in a quandary," said Richard Atuk, the borough's land management agent.

"These are old leases. The problem we are having is there is a way to renew that is not well written."

The lessees pay annual fees ranging from about $40 to $665 for grazing rights. Other uses, including putting structures on the property, generally are restricted, although some lease documents are ambiguous. The original lease terms were 27.5 years, Atuk said.

Of the other three leases, two are 55-year leases set to expire in 2017. The other was renewed already under problematic circumstances.

"I do not have the paperwork of exactly how that was extended," Atuk said. "There are probably some legal questions on it."

The original leases were issued by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

The state still has some leased land on the peninsula, and several of those leases are expiring in 2001, too. Their future also is under review, said Steve Trickett, natural resource officer with the state Division of Agriculture.

To continue leasing out grazing land, the borough would have to classify the property for agricultural use, terminate the original leases and come up with its own lease plan.

"We are just starting to look at what the options might be," said Bob Bright, borough planning director. "We're nowhere near having any recommendations yet."

Classifying the land has to go through the area planning commission (Kachemak Bay in this case) and then to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission. That commission will forward recommendations to the assembly, which will decide the classification by vote.

Meanwhile, Bright, borough surveyor Max Best and assembly member Milli Martin will research options for borough leasing. Issues include the differences between grazing and agricultural leases, what activities will be permitted, how much should be charged and potential other uses for that property.

Martin said she favors a solution to allow serious ranchers to continue operating.

"Personally, I would like to see those leases extended," she said.

But she acknowledged that the old leases are obsolete, and major changes are inevitable.

"They can't be the same as they were under the state," she said.

Bright and Best said they plan to bring a report on options to the borough assembly this spring. However, because of the work involved and the meeting schedules of the commissions, the process will take months. The borough is unlikely to take up the matter before May or June.

If the assembly votes in favor of future leases, the ranchers may have to pay more than in years past. But because the property has been appraised and rates have been adjusted every five years, the increases should be reasonable, Bright and Best said.

However, if the assembly votes against future leases, the ranchers will have to make other plans for their livestock.

Bright said he would advise for a transition period if that were to happen.

"I can't see us recommending that they be removed July 1," he said. "I think we'd want to work with them. It's just too early to see how it would all shake out."

The borough did not deal with the matter earlier because the employees are too busy to work ahead on projects, he said.

The time line and uncertainty are frustrating the farmers.

Rollins said he is waiting to hear more from the borough. He worries about potential rate increases or use restrictions. If he cannot lease the land, he said he would like a chance to buy it.

"I just don't know," he said. "I was in there ready and willing and with the money to renew.

"I hope it can get straightened out. I'd hate to see it go out of the family."

On Dec. 21, Martin and Atuk met in Homer with representatives of the Farm Bureau and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to discuss the future of the leased lands.

Al Poindexter, a consultant with the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District, was at the meeting and said it resolved nothing.

"We don't understand why (ranchers) can't continue using (the land) if (the borough doesn't) have any plans," he said.

"The legal department is saying 'no,' and we don't know why."

Atuk said the matter needs a lot more work and is shaping up as a headache for the borough staff.

"It's pretty complex. That's why I don't have a one-line answer for a lot of things," he said.

"We are caught in the middle. ... We are not done with it by any means."



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