ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Calista and three Native village corporations will receive $39.4 million for land valued by the government at less than $5 million.
In exchange for the payout, the Native corporations will relinquish land rights involving 218,683 acres in and around Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Western Alaska. Much of the property is wetlands, used by migratory birds, with little known mineral value and few roads, said Jeb Stuart, a realty specialist with the federal government.
Besides Calista, the Kuskokwim Corp., Nunapiglluraq Corp. and NIMA Corp. will share the $39.4 million.
Critics have said the land deal, which was years in the making and made official last week, amounts to a government giveaway. But Alaska Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who steered the legislation through Congress, has said the deal is meant ''to provide Calista with a means of economic self-sufficiency.''
The government will pay the $39.4 million in installments over six years. The corporations can use it to purchase surplus federal property or Treasury notes.
Calista has had a long history of business failures. Only once since Congress created Calista 30 years ago has the Anchorage-based corporation paid dividends to its mostly Yup'ik Eskimo shareholders, company officials said.
When it asked Congress to consider a land exchange back in 1988, Calista was nearly bankrupt. The Native corporation hopes that with its $27 million share, the company can turn things around.
''It's a big boost for us. It increases our assets to $60 million,'' said Dixie Retherford, Calista's chief financial officer.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., described the deal in 1998 as a ''gift to Alaska Native corporations, thinly disguised as a land acquisition of dubious merit, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayers.''
The land trade took a decade to complete because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Calista couldn't agree on a price. Calista valued the land at $49 million, Stuart said, about 10 times higher than the government appraisal.
But Congress, at Young's urging, broke the impasse with a 1998 law directing the Interior Department to finalize the deal. In the end, the amount paid to Calista was not based on appraised property values, the legislation states. Congress set the price.
For the $39.4 million, the government doesn't get outright title to all the land, including surface and subsurface rights. Control of much of the land remains with the three village corporations.
The government gets title to the surface and what's below on only 30,000 acres. The village corporations get to retain surface rights on the majority of the land: 162,000 acres. Some of the rest goes into a no-development conservation easement. And Calista gave up 10,000 acres it was entitled to outside the refuge.
June McAtee, Calista's vice president of lands and natural resources, said even at $39.4 million, the land price is ''grossly undervalued.'' She said the government appraisal failed to take into account the public interest value of the land.
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