Small communities prepare for big windfall

Posted: Monday, July 22, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Elfin Cove is so small that the community council makes sure to hold meetings in the summer, when it can easily muster a quorum of seven.

The little fishing village, with a winter population of about 30 people, will soon get a big windfall -- $577,000 in federal funds -- to spend as it likes.

Elfin Cove, 70 miles west of Juneau on Chichagof Island, is one of seven Southeast communities that will share about $3 million in compensation for the phaseout of commercial fishing in Glacier Bay.

''That's a goodly wad -- half a million bucks is nothing to sneeze at,'' said Jim Wild, chairman of the Elfin Cove Community Council. ''That'll go a long ways toward something.''

Also receiving compensation from the National Park Service are Gustavus, Haines, Hoonah, Pelican, Petersburg and Sitka.

Congress voted in 1998 to close some fisheries and some areas of the bay to commercial fishing, and allow three fisheries to continue for a final generation of qualifying participants. After those fishermen retire, the bay, which is the centerpiece of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, no longer will support commercial fisheries.

Congress authorized $23 million in compensation to fishermen, deckhands, processors, cannery workers, other businesses, and the communities themselves.

The community compensation includes funds to make up for lost fish taxes in municipalities, which receive a share of a state tax on fish harvests. The compensation also is intended to account for the economic impacts the communities face from losing a source of jobs, local spending and sales taxes.

''I really believe it's (the closure) made a big change in the community in a lot of respects. Just the whole idea of a historic fishing community -- it's basically gone,'' said Judith Challoner-Wood, a member of a compensation task force created by the Gustavus Community Association.

Gustavus, seven miles from the bay, is home to Glacier Bay National Park's offices. But the bay also supplied about 20 percent of the local commercial fleet's catch, and about 45 percent of the locally processed fish, according to park service figures.

Two processors folded and some fishermen have moved away or now compete against other locals in the tourism industry, Challoner-Wood said. The school, which once had 82 students, now has half that number.

''It's a whole psychology of losing key people who were part of the community,'' she said. And ''it's kind of like our economic underpinnings have gotten shaky.''

The park service this spring announced preliminary figures for payouts to the successful applicants. But no compensation has been paid yet because the agency is considering appeals by applicants who got nothing or less than they felt entitled to.

The park service will hold hearings for appellants between mid-August and the end of September, and decide the appeals soon after that, said Ralph Tingey, the agency's associate regional director.

Meanwhile, some of the communities due to get compensation have started to talk about how to spend the money, and others are holding off until they have it in hand.

''Until we have the money, it's not worth discussing,'' said Johanna Dybdahl, a member of the Hoonah City Council. Hoonah is expected to get about $920,000, according to preliminary estimates.

Gustavus, with about 430 residents, will get about $963,000. The Gustavus Community Association is accustomed to overseeing government-like activities with state assistance of less than $20,000 a year, supplemented by occasional state grants to repair or build projects, said Greg Streveler, the association's new chairman.

''Compared to anything we've ever gotten before, it's monstrous,'' he said.

The community decided last month to invest the money conservatively for a year while it figures out how to spend it, said Challoner-Wood, who is on the compensation task force.

So far, ideas include spending only the interest each year on community functions such as the library or the clinic, buying shares in the federally managed halibut and black cod fisheries and leasing them to local fishermen, and building a teen center and a swimming pool, Streveler said.

The community likely will vote in a referendum on how to spend the money, Challoner-Wood said.

''It's really a unique opportunity for the community to rise to the occasion and come together in a new way to decide what to do with it,'' she said. ''I'm hoping there's not going to be trouble. Whenever there's a bunch of money thrown around, it gets people going and it can be contentious.''

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