Exxon settlement trustees buy Alaska forest
BY YERETH ROSEN
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A panel of federal and state officials Tuesday bought 41,750 acres on northern Afognak Island in Alaska's Kodiak Archipelago to protect the area from logging and help its ecosystem recover from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The $70.5 million Afognak deal was the most expensive land acquisition made by the Exxon Valdez Trustee Council. The six-member panel administers the $900 million that Exxon has pledged to pay over a decade to settle federal and state government civil claims filed against the corporation for the 1989 oil spill.
``This area has extraordinary old-growth forests,'' said Deborah Williams, special assistant to U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and a trustee council member. ``Old-growth forests are terribly important for so many of the injured species, particularly marbled murrelets.''
The parcel is also important for salmon, seals, sea otters, a variety of seabirds, archaeological resources and recreation, officials said.
The trustee council has purchased several other large parcels of coastal land to protect them from development, but the most expensive previous acquisition was for $46 million, also for acreage in the Kodiak area.
Trustee council biologists and economic experts had ranked the Afognak parcel as holding the highest ecological and market value of all land tracts being considered for purchase.
The land's seller was Afognak Joint Venture, a partnership of several corporations owned by area Alaska Natives.
Afognak Joint Venture has campaigned since before the oil spill to sell the land for preservation. The company was planning to log the area if the land were not sold.
``That would have been clearcut,'' Williams said. ``So we truly protected that forest and those threes that would have been lost but for the Exxon Valdez trustee process.''
Of the Afognak parcel, 5,520 acres will be folded into the federally owned Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge and 36,230 acres will be added to Alaska's Afognak Island State Park, the trustee council said.
In addition to the Afognak purchase, the trustee council paid $450,000 to acquire a 76-acre parcel along the Kenai River, a world-famous site for salmon.
Both purchases were endorsed by the trustees earlier this year, but the deals required approval from Alaska because the settlement funds would flow through the state budget.
Gov. Tony Knowles announced his approval Tuesday, allowing the purchases to be completed.
In a news release, the Democratic governor likened the preservation of the coastal parcels to the Alaska Permanent Fund, a trust account created with saved oil revenues.
``These natural treasures constitute Alaska's other permanent fund,'' Knowles said. ``Protection of these rich habitat areas benefit all Alaskans by helping maintain strong fish and wildlife populations while at the same time supporting recreational uses and traditional subsistence activities.''
Including completed purchases, pending purchases and the Afognak and Kenai River deals, the trustee council plans to buy or acquire protective easements for about 650,000 coastline acres.
The 11 million-gallon Exxon Valdez oil spill was the worst tanker disaster in U.S. waters.