COLUMN ONE : Laws Clash in Kodiak Wilderness : The giant brown bears are entitled to a refuge. Aleuts say they’re due a better living. Commercial development looms, and both stand to lose.
Survey stakes, alien and ugly, mark the ground.
Here in the green, rain-drenched Alaska wild, the stakes stand as symbols of a sad and diminished future virtually no one wants--the woebegone legacy of two federal laws that once held bright promise for America.
One law was 50 years old in August. It promised perpetual sanctuary for the giant brown bears of Kodiak Island within a 1.9-million-acre Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. The other law is 20 years old this fall. It promised prosperity and independence for the indigenous natives of Alaska, including the Aleuts of Kodiak. Their roots reach 8,000 years deep on the island and their villages mark the boundaries of the refuge. This law promised them deed to 330,000 acres more of the refuge proper.
This year, the bears and the Aleuts both stand to lose in the collision of these two laws.
The wooden survey markers, wrapped with red-orange engineer’s tape, proscribe sites along a wilderness lake where the Aleuts say they intend to erect--reluctantly, unhappily but determinedly--three tourist cabins, and thereby trigger a long-brewing crisis over the future of the bear refuge, which amounts to the entire southern two-thirds of Kodiak Island.
Unless stopped, the cabins would be the opening for wholesale commercial development of what is arguably America’s preeminent wildlife refuge. Here exists the densest concentration of giant brown bears in the world. In fact, the bears are so closely associated with the island and refuge that they are universally known as Kodiak bears--dark coated coastal grizzlies, or brown bears, grown to jumbo size on the plentiful salmon of the island.
Ironically, Aleut leaders are proceeding with the three cabins in the high and risky hope that they will not have to follow through with development.
In fact, the Aleuts and the champions of the bears want the same thing--preservation of the refuge as a wilderness home for bears.
But the Aleuts want something more. They want financial security, perhaps even financial riches, in exchange for their claims on the heartlands of the refuge. They want Congress to buy back 317,000 acres of their alloted lands and keep the refuge intact. Cost: maybe $1,000 an acre or $317 million. Who knows? Who can value such lands as these? Maybe less, maybe more.
Without a government buyout, the native leaders say they will have to put the refuge on the auction bloc.
Doomsayers envision the salmon rivers and coastal bays of the refuge dotted with foreign-owned luxury resorts, fish canneries, pricey condos, lodges for the well-to-do and miles of trespassing signs. Again, who knows? Whoever developed a bear refuge before?
Under terms of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Aleuts, Eskimos and Indians of Alaska were given nearly $1 billion in cash and the rights to incrementally claim title to 44 million acres of the state. The settlement legislation was shaped in the name of generosity and enlightenment, designed to avoid the dehumanizing stagnation and dependency of the Indian reservation system that has proved so troublesome in the lower 48 states.
Cash grants and land entitlements were supposed to transform the native villages of Alaska into Wall Street-style corporations. Hunters and fishermen were to become capitalists and land holders. The 850 to 1,000 Aleuts of Kodiak Island became shareholders in what today are three corporations, the chief assets of which are land. The law specifically seeks for the natives to become corporately self-sufficient using their holdings.
Some native corporations, notably those with a share of oil lands, have prospered into huge businesses in the last 20 years. Others have struggled, and ended up doing things like clear-cutting their timber resources to pay corporate “dividends.”
For the Aleuts of Kodiak, their misfortune was to live amid one of the most beautiful and abundant bear habitats in the world--on land as green and steep as anything in Hawaii, a land too rugged and dangerous for even experienced hikers, wind-swept and hostile, the perfect sanctuary for nearly 3,000 of the largest brown bears in the world. This is a land of pointy-topped mountains and scooped valleys. Finger-shaped glacial lakes ringed with grasses seven feet tall feed into rivers that pulse with the passing of thousands of salmon an hour.
“There is no way to make productive use of the lands and generate sufficient revenues for these people to become self-sufficient and still be consistent with the goals of the refuge,” explains James K. Wilkens, an Anchorage lawyer who represents native interests.
For years, village leaders have avoided a showdown. They quietly sought congressional approval for a cash buy-out or land swap for other property more compatible with development.
But Congress and the American conservation movement were preoccupied with the fight over the future of another Alaska wildlife refuge. Should the Arctic refuge in the northern part of the state be opened to oil exploration? Quiet Kodiak raised hardly any concern.
Now the villagers have grown restless. Many of the 147 members of the Akhiok-Kaguyak Village Corp. live in the sorry mire of poverty. There is welfare and seasonal fishery jobs but none of the prosperity or financial independence the Native Claims Settlement Act promised. Village leaders describe a life of bitterness in Akhiok, at the southern end of the island, where Aleuts young and old have come to suspect that they are not doing as well as the bears.
What has the Native Claims Settlement Act settled for us? they ask.
Other villagers, such as the 350 in Old Harbor on the east coast of the island, live in relative prosperity, having been luckier, or wiser, in making the leap into the hurly-burly of capitalism 20 years ago. Their homes are large and attractive, their fishing and other businesses seemingly prosperous.
But whether they speak from impoverishment or comfort, the Aleuts agree that they are weary of quietly waiting for Congress to decide their future and the future of the refuge. If America wants Alaska natives to be businessmen, that’s what they’ll get, they vowed.
Prepare to buy back the refuge, America, the Aleut leaders are saying, or prepare to lose it.
“It’s fair to say we have some very poor choices. It’s a miserable choice to have to develop. If the people had their way, they wouldn’t do it. But they want what all other Americans have,” says Ralph Eluska, president of the Akhiok-Kaguyak Corp.
As seen from the bears’ side, the pressures on their domain today are similar to those of a half-century ago. Back then, cattle ranchers and developers, using a machine gun mounted on an airplane, set out to exterminate the bears to make way for progress. Hunters and conservationists prevailed upon President Franklin D. Roosevelt to intervene and set aside most of Kodiak Island as a wildlife refuge.
Hunting is permitted today, but it is among the most tightly supervised anywhere. Fewer than 150 bears are shot annually. The guiding purpose of the refuge is to perpetuate the bears in their wild state forever.
Here are streams where more than a million salmon come to spawn, where bears feed and feast like few animals in the world. Food is so abundant during the spawning months that some of the 1,200-pound bears develop a taste for just the skin of salmon while others prefer the roe or brains. Some splash through water to pounce on the darting salmon like a fat man would flounce on a goldfish; others wait for the fish to spawn and die and become easy pickings.
During four days recently, 27 bears could be sighted from a single remote campsite. A sow supervised her two cubs as they practiced the finer points of fishing the lakeside shallows. One hundred yards away, a strapping youngster, perhaps 600 pounds of him, galloped through a salmon-choked stream with the unbounded animal joy that a pet dog might display in a river of Milk Bones. Sometimes almost shoulder to shoulder, bears swim and fish and nap and fish some more.
And what the bears could not eat, bald eagles landed and finished. An otter showed her two pups how to catch trout. Foxes patrolled for ptarmigan to feed growing kits.
“If development is allowed, there won’t be bears as we know them today,” said Jay Bellinger, who for seven years has managed the refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He is a biologist and a manager, not a poet. It is not easy for him to express his emotions, except to say: “If it comes to that, I’ll leave. I don’t want to see it change. Someone else can take over. They won’t know what it was like here. . . .”
But, really, are 330,000 acres of native claims enough to jeopardize the integrity of a 1.9-million-acre preserve?
At a map, Bellinger overlays the native claims. Businessmen that they are supposed to be, the Aleuts chose their allotments skillfully. They laid title to the salmon streams and the coastal bays, including the entire Karluk River drainage, famous worldwide to salmon fishermen. Here the bear population is two per square mile, the greatest concentration of wild bears on Earth.
The refuge is left with deed to just pieces of streams here and there and vast tracts of high, steep country.
“In some areas, they now have all the prime bear habitat. We have the mountain tops, the denning areas, but nothing else . . . ,” he says. “What good is owning the bedroom when someone else owns the kitchen and dining room?”
Bellinger, naturally, is a champion of federal reacquisition of refuge lands. The idea is a win-win situation for Kodiak, both sides agree.
But on this path to a showdown, it is possible--perhaps even inevitable--that there will be some losers along the way.
An obscure and untested Catch-22 provision of federal law declares that Alaska natives can develop their lands within a wildlife refuge only to an extent compatible with the goals of a wildlife refuge. Depending on how this is interpreted, it could mean little or no development at all.
Very much on the minds of the principals is whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will invoke this controversial provision of law this fall or next spring and try to stop development of the three Aleut cabins. Or will environmentalist members of Congress insist that it be invoked? Or does large-scale development commence?
Bellinger has passed the ticklish question on to his superiors, who have issued an ambiguous statement promising to be “reasonable” in the application of regulations.
Village leaders say that they will fight in court any “forked-tongue deal” that ends up prohibiting free use of lands granted them under the Native Claims Settlement Act. What kind of a settlement would that be? they ask.
“They told us (with that law) to go out and take care of ourselves using the corporate model. Not only did we not know what a corporation was, we did not know what a shareholder was. And then they give us an asset with a covenant on it,” complained Akhiok-Kaguyak president Eluska.
Meanwhile, Alaska conservationists express new urgency about the Aleut development threats. David R. Cline of the National Audubon Society said he is exploring the use of private contributions to begin land purchases.
“The trouble is, the natives are becoming pretty sharp realty agents. They negotiate a price for land and then they add on for a ‘public interest value.’ They’d break the federal treasury if we started buying land at those prices,” he says.
Small parcels of private holdings on the periphery of the refuge have sold for $3,000 and more an acre. But even if the native holdings were valued at only one-third that amount, the total package would be enough to provide every Aleut shareholder on the island about $350,000, a sum sure to raise resistance in Congress.
Other conservationists, such as Jack Hession of the Sierra Club in Anchorage, believe that there must be some creative way to meet native demands short of direct appropriation. Maybe land swaps for abandoned military bases or perhaps granting the Aleuts rights to share in the revenues of offshore oil leasing.
“The national conservation movement needs to come to the rescue of the refuge,” he says.
Aleut leaders have not set a price on their lands, insisting that they will deal only when someone brings them an offer. But they note that the price is not likely to diminish for a place such as this.
“More and more people are coming into the world. But we’re not making any more land,” says Eluska.