Several hundred attend land swap discussion

Fairbanks Alaska (AP) 2-08

Several hundred people attended a discussion on a proposed land swap between Alaska’s largest private landowner and the federal government, with most opposing the swap.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering trading several thousands acres of land in the Yukon Flats with Doyon Ltd. Under the proposed swap, the Native corporation would exchange lands important to wildlife habitat for lands thought to be rich in oil and gas.

Doyon executives believe drilling in the area could jump-start the economy in the Yukon Flats, where unemployment is more than 80 percent in some areas.

Former Doyon President Orie Williams and the late Rev. David Salmon, first traditional chief of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, are among some of the leaders to have publicly supported the plan.

Critics said the money wasn’t worth losing land which many people still rely upon.

“They say you’re poor, don’t you need money?” asked Alexander Edward, a member of the tribal council for the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government. “No one is saying we need money. I got salmon. I got moose meat. What do I need money for?”

The meeting late February at Noel Wien Library was one of 11 similar meetings being held during a two-week period around the state to get input on the proposal. Fish and Wildlife officials said they received a similar reception at previous meetings in Fort Yukon and Stevens Village.

Several people took issue with the first draft of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s environmental impact study on the land swap. The 400-page document was issued during January. Tribal and local leaders have 60 days to respond.

Rob Rosenfeld, director of the Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council, pointed out that English is a second language for many elders. He said it was unfair to give them such a document without a translation.

He also criticized Fish and Wildlife officials for not meeting with each of the more than 60 tribes in the Yukon Flats individually, as the service’s own policies state they must work separately with Native American governments.

The agency hopes to have a final decision by the end of the year.

Rosenfeld asked if they were trying to pass the plan while a Republican administration friendly to the idea of trading refuge land was in office.

“They’re trying to get a slam dunk during the current administration,” he said. “Let’s call it what it is.”

A final appraisal of how much land would be involved in the swap is expected in late spring, while the final environmental impact study is to be released in August.