Groups battle for control over Point Retreat Lighthouse

Posted: Tuesday, November 28, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sen. Ted Stevens is in the middle of a dispute about what should be done with the Point Retreat Lighthouse, which for nearly a century has been a navigational beacon for travelers of Southeast Alaska's inland passage.

Stevens tried to convey the Coast Guard property to a nonprofit preservationist group run by David Benton, former deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. When the Clinton administration threatened to veto a Coast Guard authorization bill over the directive, Stevens backed off, but the issue is far from resolved.

The dispute is over development on one of the most protected islands in the Alaska panhandle. The million-acre Admiralty Island National Monument takes up most of the long, narrow island, and the other forest lands are off-limits to logging and are managed strictly for recreational use.

The northernmost Mansfield Peninsula, covered by old hemlock trees, is the largest tract of the island that the Forest Service doesn't already own.

Conservationists worry that if all the lighthouse property ends up with Benton's group, the Alaska Lighthouse Association, development will follow.

''Congress should extend to as much of the Mansfield Peninsula as possible the same national monument status that now applies to most of the rest of Admiralty Island,'' said Bruce Baker, president of Friends of Admiralty Island.

The Forest Service has been negotiating with the Coast Guard for more than four decades to have all but 10 acres of the lighthouse property deeded over to it for inclusion in the Tongass National Forest.

But Stevens is adamant that all 1,505 acres should go to the Alaska Lighthouse Association.

''There's no reason that it shouldn't be a tourist attraction,'' Stevens said of the property. ''But the Forest Service doesn't want any tourists in that area.''

Preservation of old lighthouses has been a popular theme in Congress since the Coast Guard began converting them into unmanned automatic light stations. Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee, pushed through legislation to transfer title of nearly a dozen such beacons, including the one at Point Retreat, to nonprofit corporations that will preserve them.

The Point Retreat complex consists of the concrete lighthouse, a keeper's quarters, a boathouse and a dock, Benton said. The Coast Guard converted the lighthouse in 1974 and nearly everything that could be salvaged, including the old lighthouse top, was pulled out.

Benton figures it will cost as much as $1 million to restore the lighthouse. His 100-member association is raising money now and will be aided by a $300,000 grant that Stevens tucked into a recent spending bill for the Interior Department.

Benton said he would like to build a small maritime museum on the property and he wants to convert the keeper's quarters into a small bed-and-breakfast.

''Our whole focus is protecting and taking care of the light station,'' Benton said. ''There would be public education stuff on the role of lighthouses, lifesaving services of the Coast Guard and the opening up of the North -- all that kind of stuff.''

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