Dilemma for a Wildlife Refuge
To survive economically, native corporations consider development of the Kodiak bear's wilderness paradise
OLD HARBOR, ALASKA — IT is ironic that on its 50th anniversary, the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, which has known only wilderness since the ice ages, is threatened with development and subdivision by the native Americans who call the refuge home.Located on storm-tossed Kodiak Island in the western Gulf of Alaska, the Kodiak refuge is a virtually unadulterated wilderness paradise and home to the largest land predator in the world, the Kodiak bear. Between 2,500 and 3,000 bears roam the refuge - at a density of one per square mile - accounting for nearly 10 percent of Alaska's brown bear population. Kodiak bears can weigh upward of 1,500 pounds and stand 12 feet tall. Their size, health, and density are a tribute to the rich table set with a constant feast of salmon and wild berries. In addition to bears and salmon, the Kodiak refuge protects populations of bald eagle that seem as plentiful as crows, seals, waterfowl, fox, and deer. The refuge has been a marvelous success story of wildlife preservation since it became protected 50 years ago by a sweep of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's pen. But because of congressional action 20 years ago, resulting in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA), native corporations own a large portion of the prime habitat within the refuge (see related story, left). Strapped for cash, these corporations now find themselves in the unenviable position of finding that they have to develop the best bear habitat in the world to fulfill the economic self-sufficiency mandate of ANCSA. "We don't want to develop the lands. We don't want to sell the lands to anyone but the government," says Emil Christiansen, president of the Old Harbor Native Corporation. "But we may have no choice - we have to survive." While the Aleutian natives can earn good money working on fishing boats and in canneries for approximately three months out of each year, the other nine months leave them eking out a meager living on public assistance and food stamps. In Old Harbor, a town where condensed milk costs $2, a burger $5, and children play in the dirt in the middle of the town's only main street, the natives cannot understand why they were given 322,000 acres of land (approximately one-sixth of the wildlife refuge's 1,865,000 acres) and then told they couldn't use it to make money. "There was a time when living off the land and from money we earned from fishing was enough, but times have changed. We must have money to survive and this land is our only asset," Mr. Christiansen says. In a letter to the 90-member Congressional Sportsmans Caucus earlier this year, Congressman Charles Wilson (D) of Texas wrote, "Congress passed the ANCSA, which inadvertently raised the possibility of native villages within the refuge having to commercially develop prime bear habitat in order to fulfill the economic self-sufficiency mandate of ANCSA." "Such development would mean the loss of one of the world's most spectacular wilderness regions," Representive Wilson added. Former Congressman Sam Steiger of Arizona, who vehemently opposed passage of ANCSA at the time, says that Congress just wanted to put the entire native issue behind it quickly and failed to fully comprehend the consequences of the native corporations actually having to derive economic subsistence from the land they were given. "Quite candidly, at the time we made the commitment to buy back refuge lands from the natives under section 22(g), we knew full well that we would not be able to live up to it," Mr. Steiger says. "It was so glaringly obvious to many that this [ANCSA] wasn't going to fly." Section 22(g) is a one-sentence provision in the native claims act that speaks directly to native corporation refuge in-holdings and requires corporations to first offer land to the government. But even if the government cannot or will not purchase the land, corporate refuge lands "remain subject to the laws and regulations governing use and development" of that refuge. Apparently, if the native corporations cannot sell the land to the government, they cannot develop it either, since development is inconsistent with the wildlife refuge's intended purpose of managing for optimum bear populations. Christiansen disagrees. "How can the government require us to select lands within a refuge, require us to use those lands for economic self-sufficiency, and then tell us we cannot use the land for commercial purposes while at the same time refusing to buy it back?" WILSON also contends that it is indefensible to "grant Kodiak natives their aboriginal homelands to provide for the economic future of their people and at the same time restrict how they use the lands because it is a bear refuge." There is no denying, however, that if the natives begin to develop their land, the Kodiak bear will suffer irreversible impact. As people and bears begin to compete for the same feeding areas, conflicts will arise, and the bears will be threatened and possibly eliminated. "Right now, the refuge owns the best of the bear denning areas, but the natives control the dinner table," says Jay Bellinger, refuge manager for the Kodiak refuge. "If native lands get developed - we are looking at canneries, hunting lodges, tourist facilities - we can say goodbye to the Kodiak bear within much of the refuge." Finding some way to return the lands to refuge control rather than selling them to outside parties would be in the best interests of the natives and the bear, according to Mr. Bellinger. "The natives have subsistence rights within the refuge that they would most likely lose should the land get sold to private developers. It is within my power to manage the refuge for the maximum benefit of both natives and bear, but I can't do a thing about private property," Bellinger adds. Christiansen doesn't dispute this. "It is clear to us that if anyone other than the government buys our land, we may no longer have subsistence rights to that land - we may lose our rights to hunt and fish them for food as we have for years," he says. "The bear will suffer, we will suffer, but we must have money to maintain an acceptable standard of living for our people." There are a few glimmers of hope for reaching a solution that benefits everyone - the natives, the bears, and the American public. Congress is talking. While an outright buyback at the $190 million asking price of the natives appears to be out of the question, there is the potential for working out a land swap. One possible scenario is a land swap involving a potential surplus of prime real estate made available through recent military-base closings in the area. If push comes to shove though, Christiansen is quick to comment that although developing the refuge is the least desirable solution to the natives, they will develop the land if they have to. Unless the federal government and the native corporations can agree on a compromise soon, however, the quest for a better life will mean an end to a wilderness refuge that protects both the natives and the Kodiak bear.