Governor vetoes Afognak land purchase

Posted: Friday, June 13, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Gov. Frank Murkowski vetoed a proposed land purchase on northern Afognak Island near Kodiak on Thursday, drawing ire from Native corporations, conservationists, tourism boosters and local politicians.

Murkowski vetoed the proposed purchase from the 2004 operating and capital budget.

The Exxon Valdez Trustee Council wanted to spend $10.4 million to buy 18,000 coastal acres and timber rights to another 2,000 acres from Afognak Joint Venture, a consortium of Native corporations that logs the island's old-growth trees.

Murkowski's budget director, Cheryl Frasca, said the governor vetoed the deal for philosophical reasons.

''He doesn't think it's appropriate to be using federal money to buy back ANCSA land,'' Frasca said, referring to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which created Native corporations and settled land claims.

The land and coastline involved in the proposed sale, near Perenosa Bay, provide critical habitat for species injured by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, including salmon, eagles, harbor seals, marbled murrelets and otters, said Molly McCammon, the council's outgoing executive director.

The council, with Exxon money earmarked for habitat restoration, committed $10.4 million for the purchase in November in the waning days of the Knowles administration. The Fish and Wildlife Service offered another $2 million, and a private foundation would have kicked in another $2.5 million, said Tim Richardson, executive director of the Kodiak Brown Bear Trust.

Richardson's group, with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the American Land Conservancy, was raising additional funds to match the council's contribution.

The Legislature had approved the purchase and the veto surprised many close to the deal.

''I guess it leaves me with my mouth hanging open,'' said Martha Rudolph, president of Anton Larsen Inc., a Kodiak-based Native village corporation with aboriginal ties to Afognak.

Rudolph's corporation owns some of the land involved.

''To my way of thinking, it's a low blow to Alaska Natives. It's a low blow to the local economy as well,'' Rudolph said of the veto.

The Kodiak Island Borough, the visitor's bureau and the Republican state senator and representative for the area supported the land purchase. Many people saw it as an opportunity to promote elk hunting, lodges, fishing and wildlife conservation, said Richardson and Pat Carlson, borough manager.

''I'm a little surprised the governor chose to veto it, because it's of no cost to the state. It was supported by the community, by the borough Assembly. They supported it entirely and completely,'' said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

The governor has publicly criticized the Exxon Valdez Trustee Council for taking private land and locking it up for conservation purposes. The governor's chief of staff, Jim Clark, repeated that view in several conversations about the Afognak proposal, Stevens said.

In a letter to the trustee council, several Native corporation executives, including Rudolph, had said the time to sell the land was ripe because timber prices are depressed and shareholders could use the Exxon money.

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