ANCHORAGE -- The Chugach Alaska Native corporation has been granted a controversial right-of-way easement for a road through the Chugach National Forest to provide access to timber on 73,000 acres the corporation owns.
The easement agreement was signed Monday by leaders of Chugach Alaska Corp. and the U.S. Forest Service. It will allow the corporation to build a road to Carbon Mountain, about 60 miles east of Cordova.
The road could be used by the public for access to the national forest lands, but not for crossing onto Chugach Alaska property. That was one of the contentious issues in the long-running negotiations over the road easement, according to Doug Stockdale of the Forest Service in Anchorage.
While some environmental organizations have called the road a threat to the pristine environment of the Copper River Delta, Chugach Alaska says the road won't damage the forest habitat. Forest Service officials say the road design has been approved and the road construction will be watched closely.
''We will continue to monitor actions that occur,'' said Stockdale. ''We have very stringent road and bridge-building stipulations, and we have the authority to make sure resources are protected.''
''We've been very responsible about this,'' said Sheri Buretta, chairwoman of the Chugach Alaska board. ''There are so many environmental agencies and so many regulations. We're going to do things responsibly. We've got to maintain our reputation and our business.''
Buretta expressed some frustration with the opposition from environmental groups.
''We're being good citizens and good neighbors, and all we get from these guys are threats and pressure,'' Buretta said.
The National Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups are asking Chugach Alaska to consider selling a conservation easement for its Carbon Mountain property, presumably to the federal government.
''We do realize Chugach Alaska has a right to access their property. We're hoping they'll consider other options besides a road and clear-cut logging,'' said Scott Anaya of the wildlife group's Alaska office. Anaya said conservation organizations have offered to provide seed money and lobby Congress to provide the tens of millions of dollars that presumably would be needed to purchase conservation easements from the Native corporation.
Chugach Alaska land isn't for sale, as a matter of policy, said Buretta.
''What we choose to do with our private land is up to us. I understand the desire to give us suggestions, but they come to us in the form of ultimatums, even threats,'' she said.
Chugach Alaska could start cutting across the national forest at any time, and already has built a couple miles of road across Eyak Native corporation land from the Copper River Highway. But bulldozers may not roll immediately on what Buretta estimates will be a $6 million to $8 million road.
''Currently, global markets are depressed on forest products,'' Buretta said. ''We've been here for tens of thousands of years, and we'll be here a lot longer.''
Chugach Alaska Corp. received the Carbon Mountain property under terms of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
The corporation had some financial setbacks and went into bankruptcy in 1991.
While Chugach Alaska is still recovering, ''the corporation is in excellent financial health,'' Buretta said. ''We credit a lot of that to being able to harvest some of our resources. That has helped us in getting some of the government contracts we've obtained.''
Roughly 400 to 500 shareholders live in the Cordova area, Buretta said, and logging could provide some jobs for them. Chugach Alaska has a total of about 2,000 shareholders.
The road to Carbon Mountain would cross 27 miles of Chugach National Forest land, Buretta said, plus three miles across the Eyak property and 19 miles more on Chugach Alaska land.
The road would cross 28 streams in the national forest that contain salmon and other fish populations, 20 more that hold resident fish but no salmon, and 146 streams that don't have fish populations, Stockdale of the Forest Service said.
Environmental groups are worried that those streams will be damaged by the road, said Anaya of the wildlife federation.
''This is an area where glacial outbursts and sediment loads will cause problems,'' he said.
Chugach Alaska has roughly 8,000 acres of harvestable timber on the Carbon Mountain property. There are also coal reserves and possible oil and gas deposits. The spot is near Katalla, site of Alaska's first commercial oil development.
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