Anchorage Daily News - December 18, 2000
NATIVE LANDS AT RISK
COALITION ATTEMPTS TO SAVE ALLOTMENTS
By Elizabeth Manning, Daily News Reporter
"Own a lot in Alaska's great wilderness," touts an Internet advertisement for the Nushagak Shores Subdivision, located along a premier fishing river that empties into Bristol Bay. "Where big game animals are your next door neighbors . . . where the fishing never stops . . . where only fish experience traffic jams."
Sound nice? Not to a group of Alaska Natives and conservationists.
When Burt Bomhoff, an engineer and Iditarod musher, bought the 80-acre riverfront Native allotment several years ago and subdivided it into single-acre ranchettes, concern spread.
What would happen if more Native allotments were sold and subdivided? Could this remote region of spectacular lakes and salmon streams become the next haven for fishing cabins and vacation homes? How would that affect subsistence fishermen and hunters or existing lodges?
The specter of similar land sales prompted conservationists, Native leaders and land managers to form a new group, the Southwest Alaska Conservation Coalition.
It wants to slow the proliferation of lodges and vacation cabins, the kind of growth that Brad Meiklejohn of the Conservation Fund calls the "Kenai effect." To do that, the group helps Native landowners find conservation buyers.
Under a 1906 federal homestead act, Natives were allowed to select up to 160 acres. Most chose land on the basis of subsistence, along rivers and lakes across the state, locations also coveted by prospective lodge and cabin-site developers.
Tim Troll, chief executive officer of Choggiung Ltd., the Native corporation for Dillingham and two surrounding villages, said regional Native leaders prefer that Alaska Natives not sell their lands. Each sale erodes the indigenous land base and the power to control what happens there. But if people do choose to sell, they want them to know about conservation options that favor subsistence.
When conservation groups or land trusts buy land, they often transfer it to state or federal conservation agencies. But sometimes they own and manage it themselves. The landowner may keep the parcel while the group or land trust purchases development rights in an arrangement called a conservation easement.
The new coalition was formed with help from conservation groups, such as Meiklejohn's and the Nature Conservancy. The conservancy has recently stepped up efforts to inform Natives about conservation options.
Paul Jackson, the conservancy's Southwest Alaska program manager, said it's tricky to advertise without appearing as if the group is trying to grab Native land.
"We're not out there trying to dipnet Native allotments to build our own empire," he said. "But often these places are very important fish and wildlife habitat. It's going to continue to be a problem because communities are going to continue to need cash."
The conservancy also helped Choggiung start a local land trust, the Nushagak-Mulchatna/Wood-Tikchik Land Trust, which Troll helps run. The group hopes to attract donations and grants to buy or preserve Native allotments or other key lands that national conservation groups may not be interested in.
Jackson, Meiklejohn and other people said more allotments are coming up for sale all the time. The conservancy alone has received about 100 calls from owners of Native allotments in the past five years.
Bomhoff, of Chugiak, said he has held off on selling lots from his Nushagak River subdivision in hopes that a conservation group or Native corporation will buy him out. He said he learned about local concerns only after buying the property.
"If anyone has any great concern, I'm willing to sell it back to them," he said.
According to the Bureau of Land Management, more than 9,000 allotments have been approved and transferred to Alaska Natives, totaling 858,000 acres. Nearly 4,000 allotments totaling 335,000 acres are still being reviewed by the BLM.
Peter and Darlene Lind, who owned a 160-acre allotment along the shore of Chignik Lake on the Alaska Peninsula, recently sold their land to the conservancy, which will manage it with the Village of Chignik Lake. Darlene said they always planned to sell the land when they retired. "The only thing we have are our lands," she said.
The Linds now live in Homer but were concerned about how the sale might affect villagers around Chignik Lake. That pleased Virginia Aleck, an elder in Chignik Lake Village.
"We're afraid of growth because it would squeeze out the animals that live around us," Aleck said. "I want my grandchildren to have a subsistence way of living."
The conservation groups won't be able to buy all the Native lands for sale, Meiklejohn said. But they may be able to save some crucial fish or wildlife habitat, particularly key parcels inside state or national parks or refuges.
The Conservation Fund recently bought a 160-acre allotment in Southwestern Alaska, along the Agulukpak River inside Wood Tikchik State Park. It's a key parcel, Meiklejohn said, because it's a popular fishing area on a river connecting two lakes, Beverly and Nerka.
"People were worried about another lodge going in there," Meiklejohn said, noting that some of the money to pay for the land came from other area lodge owners who wanted to keep the place wild and keep out competition.
"Our concern is that as these parcels get bought up, chunked up and turned into lodge sites, you start to have a significant impact on these parks and refuges," he said.
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