JUNEAU (AP) U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in town for a panel discussion on Southeast Alaska economic issues was met by a throng of environmentalists who pressed her to hold local hearings on a land swap bill before Congress.
About 30 protesters holding signs and chanting slogans against a deal affecting popular Berner's Bay pressed Murkowski to hear their concerns.
Murkowski is sponsoring a bill to allow the Interior Department to trade land near Berner's Bay to Sealaska Native Corp. and Cape Fox Native Corp. in return for less than 9,000 acres and subsurface rights elsewhere in Southeast Alaska.
She held a field hearing on that bill and two more sweeping land bills a day earlier in Anchorage.
Environmentalists opposed to the Berner's Bay legislation called on Murkowski to hold similar public hearings in Juneau.
''I don't see that there's any reason we can't,'' Murkowski told a protester at Centennial Hall. ''I am here to listen.''
The exchange came just before a Panhandle economic forum Murkowski conducted at the meeting hall. As she was entering the forum, environmentalists stopped her to ask for public hearings.
They were angered by Murkowski's decision to hold formal field hearings in Anchorage on three land bills affecting Alaska. Murkowski said Senate protocol allowed her to have only one such hearing. Anchorage was chosen since most of the comments centered on a bill that would resolve statehood land claims, she said.
Murkowski had not considered a separate hearing on the Berner's Bay bill until confronted by environmentalists on Thursday, she said.
Berner's Bay, about 40 miles north of Juneau, is heavily used by hunters, hikers, fishermen and kayakers. It's also next to the proposed Kensington gold mine that the Native corporations hope to service after Coeur Alaska, the developer, gets the needed permits.
Sealaska is the Southeast Alaska regional Native corporation. Cape Fox is a village Native corporation in Saxman.
Environmentalists opposed to the land swap say it is a boondoggle that trades pristine federal wilderness for thousands of acres of less valuable land that is remote or clear-cut by logging.
Despite assurances from the Native corporations that there are no plans to harvest timber at Berner's Bay, environmentalists fear what will happen when the land is gone from federal control.
''It's out of the public's hands. There's nothing keeping them from putting up private property signs and fences and there's nothing to keep them from changing their minds (about logging),'' said Emily Ferry, spokeswoman for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
Rick Harris, Sealaska's vice president of natural resources, said the corporations will benefit by the economic offshoot of the mine.
''The quality of the timber at that site is extremely marginal,'' said Harris.
And while the Native corporations are getting more land in the trade, the value of the land involved in the exchange is equal, Harris said.
Environmentalists said they were satisfied that Murkowski heard their concerns about airing the deal in a local meeting.
''I've never dealt with politicians before (but) I found her very open to doing something in Juneau so that we can express our concerns,'' said John Hudson of Friends of Berner's Bay. ''I hope she can come through with it in a timely fashion.''
The bill is pending in the Senate while Congress is on a break. Similar legislation has been approved in the Senate before but died in the House.
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