Bering River Coal Field rights retired

Pact will protect Bering River and Carbon Mountain watersheds from coal mining

In a groundbreaking decision announced on Jan. 25, a large portion of coal rights for the Bering River Coal Field, 55 miles southeast of Cordova, are being sold and retired.

The agreement sealing the fate of the bituminous coal field, some 25 miles north of Katalla, in the Carbon Mountains region, was reached by Chugach Alaska Corp., New Forests, The Nature Conservancy, and the Native Conservancy Land Trust.

New Forests, founded in 2005, is a sustainable real assets investment manager offering leading-edge strategies in forestry, timber processing, land management and conservation.

The Native Conservancy Land Trust was formed in 2003, to focus primarily on protecting the Copper River Delta from development threats and to be a trust for holding conservation or cultural easements on any Bering Field Coal patents in the event a conservation deal could be had.

The deal includes a provision for development of a forest carbon offset project by New Forests on Chugach timberlands, creating carbon credits to be traded on the California carbon market, per a press release issued by the organizations.

The Bering River Coal Field lies on the eastern edge of Alaska’s Copper River Delta – the largest contiguous wetlands and rainforests on the Pacific Coast of North America, and one of the world’s most productive wild salmon fisheries.

“This is a precedent-setting carbon conservation accomplishment that is monumental for numerous reasons,” said Dune Lankard, one of the founders of the Native Conservancy Land Trust and the founder of the Eyak Preservation Council. “Preserving the Bering River and Carbon Mountain watersheds not only addresses climate change in a real way, but also protects the ancestral homelands of the Chugach shareholders and maintains our vibrant subsistence and commercial fishing way of life,” Lankard said in an interview with The Cordova Times on Jan. 24.

“I am proud of Chugach Alaska Corp. for doing their part as Alaska Native Claim Settlement Act stewards in protecting the Copper River Delta. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the Chugach National Forest is still 98 percent roadless, and wild. The EPC and many, many Cordova residents, and fishermen, have worked tirelessly to keep it this way,” Lankard said.

This aerial photograph taken in October, 2013, shows Kushtaka Mountain and Kushtaka Lake. The Bering River is above Kushtaka Lake, in the Bering River Coal Fields area.
Photo courtesy David Little / Eyak Preservation Council

The Copper River Delta ecosystem has been designated as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site of Hemispheric Importance, and Cordova’s annual Shorebird Festival is a world-class ecotourism destination.

Many Cordova residents fish commercially and for subsistence in the Copper River Delta, harvest wild berries and plants, and hunt for subsistence needs.

“As most kids growing up in fishing families, we start fishing when we are really young,” said Lankard. “A major part of our education was the Copper River Delta and Prince William Sound, where we learned how to fish and how to survive out on the water.  I learned to gillnet, seine and tender for salmon and herring, longline for halibut, and crabbed with my father Glen Lankard, along with my brothers and sisters. I wouldn’t trade anything for this rich, wild fishing experience and fishing way of life.”

Area residents have been concerned for years that development of the coal fields would adversely impact fishing habitat.

“Those of us who live here know that the Copper River Delta fishery is one of Alaska’s premier remaining and thriving gillnet fisheries. Protecting and limiting access to sensitive salmon spawning habitat is what will keep this place wild, and our sustainable fishing and renewable economy intact,” Lankard said.

“Along with thousands of people in the fishing industry who depend on this pristine region for its renewable resources, many of our 2,500 Chugach Alaska shareholders still subsist and fish here. This is one of the last places on planet Earth where we still have a chance to get it right.”

“This comprehensive conservation effort addresses climate change, protects world-class wild salmon and bird habitat, and a subsistence and commercial fishing way of life that is comparable to none,” he said. “An entire watershed is valued as priceless and now is forever protected from unwarranted development, keeping fossil fuels in the ground, eliminating carbon emissions in a region where we can still drink from our rivers, have clean air to breathe, and where we still have some of the tallest coastal glacier capped mountains in the world.”

New Forests, via their carbon development program Forest Carbon Partners, purchased 62,000 acres of coal rights from Chugach Alaska Corp. The sale was completed Dec. 19, for an undisclosed amount.

New Forests will retire those rights by transferring them to The Nature Conservancy, and the local Native Conservancy land trust, while generating revenue through the California cap-and-trade carbon market, the news release stated.

The sale and long-term protection of the area will allow the land to be managed for both environmental and financial benefits, providing an investment model that shows how conservation finance can create new opportunities for landowners, investors and non-profit partners seeking to balance long-term land stewardship and development.

“As a community-owned organization, Chugach’s mission is to provide meaningful opportunities and benefits to our Alaska Native shareholders and descendants today and for generations to come,” said Josie Hickel, senior vice president of Energy and Resources for Chugach. “A coal sale and carbon offset project is a unique opportunity to deliver long-term, sustainable economic and financial value for our shareholders and region,” she said.

New Forests currently manages more than 1.8 million acres of timberland internationally and is one of the largest developers of carbon offset projects for California’s cap-and-trade system.

“This novel investment structure will enable Chugach to manage the Bering River Coal Field and regional timberlands in a manner that delivers long-term financial security for the Chugach shareholder community as well as significant climate benefits,” said Brian Shillinglaw, director of New Forests’ United States investment programs. “Our partnership demonstrates that the combination of creative private investment and a price on carbon pollution can deliver positive financial, environmental and social returns while supporting long-term sustainable resource management.”

Back in 1983, in accordance with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Chugach Alaska Corp. was conveyed 73,000 acres of land and mineral rights comprising a large portion of the Bering River Coal Field .

The corporation owns both the surface and sub-surface rights to the property, and the agreement represents a critical step towards achieving the objectives laid out in Chugach’s 100-Year Plan.

“It is precedent setting, that a Native-owned and Native-run land trust, the Native Conservancy, was chosen to hold the conservation easement. This means that the indigenous people of the region are once again the stewards of their ancestral lands, after 100 years,” Lankard said.

“This conservation deal should inspire other Native peoples in Alaska to protect their ancestral lands that provide for their people in the way of jobs, subsistence and continued cultural traditions like fishing, smoking salmon, and everything salmon,” he said.

As part of the agreement with New Forests, Chugach will actively manage and maintain the land to retain high carbon stocks in the forests, in exchange for the opportunity to sell carbon credits to businesses regulated under California’s greenhouse gas pollution reduction program. The coal rights were transferred in fee to The Nature Conservancy, with a restrictive covenant against development held by the Native Conservancy Land Trust.

“The Nature Conservancy is pleased to be making history in Alaska with this innovative approach to conservation,” said Rand Hagenstein, state director for The Nature Conservancy. “We thank our partners for their deep commitment to Alaska and its future generations. This agreement promises a secure future for the forests and salmon streams of the Copper River Delta region and combats climate change – all while supporting the distinctive mission of an Alaska Native corporation.”

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Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson is a staff writer and photographer for The Cordova Times. She has been writing in one form or another for 30-plus years and has had a longstanding relationship with The Cordova Times starting in 1989. She’s been an Alaskan since 1976 and first moved to Cordova in 1978. She’s lived in various West Texas towns; in Denver, Colorado; in McGrath, Cordova, Galena, Kodiak, Wasilla, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska and in Bangalore, India. She has two children and three grandchildren. She can be reached at cgibbens-stimson@thecordovatimes.com or follow her on Instagram @alaskatoindia.