University land proposal nixed over possible sale to federal government

Posted: Sunday, February 18, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Legislative efforts to give the University of Alaska a package of land that it could use to produce revenue have stumbled over a parcel near Healy.

State agencies, the governor's office and university officials tried to draw up an acceptable alternative to the university land grant bill approved by the Legislature last year but vetoed by Gov. Tony Knowles.

The biggest sticking point for the 260,000-acre alternative proposal, state and university officials said, was a plan to sell 90,000 acres to the National Park Service.

That did not sit well with Interior legislators who maintain that there are enough federal lands in Alaska.

''I have no interest in selling land to the National Park Service,'' said Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, whose district includes the university.

The Legislature is moving forward with a lawsuit seeking to overturn the governor's veto of last year's bill to grant the university an unspecified 250,000 acres for development.

The lawsuit focuses on whether 40 or 45 votes were needed to override the veto. Lawmakers voted 41-19 to override the governor's action, but the Knowles administration asserts 45 votes were needed because the bill constitutes an ''appropriation.''

Legislators won a skirmish in the suit Friday when an attorney for the Knowles administration argued in Juneau Superior Court that the Legislature's lawsuit should be delayed for two months because of the attempt to create a compromise lands package for the university.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins ruled that such an uncertain possibility was no reason to delay the lawsuit.

University officials said Friday were not optimistic that a compromise lands bill will be coming this session.

UA Vice President Wendy Redman said the university and state agencies had, at the invitation of Knowles, put together a lands package they thought would work.

''We went to talk to the Fairbanks delegation,'' Redman said. ''There were some selections, particularly the Stampede Pass selection, that they were extremely negative about.''

The proposal called for giving up 90,000 state acres in the Stampede area near Denali National Park and Preserve. The university wanted to sell the land, located north of the park and west of Healy, to the National Park Service to expand the park.

Wilken said there were problems beyond the idea of expanding federal holdings, including concern about maintaining the state's northern access to the park, Wilken said.

Wilken also said that U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, was not confident he could secure federal money to buy the parcel.

The university believed it could receive up to $90 million for the property, Redman said. But the money would have gone into a trust account likely earning only $2 million annually, Redman said.

''When the Fairbanks delegation reacted so negatively it wasn't worth it to us,'' Redman said. ''We were not going to go forth with a package that didn't have the support of the Legislature.''

There are efforts to find land to replace the Stampede area parcel, Redman said. She believes, however, that the Legislature will not be open to discussing a new university lands package until the lawsuit over Knowles' veto is settled.

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