Proposed land swap is still work in progress

Officials with Chugach Alaska Corp. say efforts to conduct a land exchange with the federal government is an ongoing process, with no specific development plans at this time, as they are unsure what exchange options may be made available by the federal government.

“Land exchanges generally take several years to complete and there is a specific process that must be followed,” said Josie Hickel, executive vice president of ANCSA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) and community affairs.  Chugach Alaska is looking forward to working with federal agencies involved to achieve a fair and reasonable exchange, she said.

The potential exchange would involve approximately 229,000 acres of the corporation’s subsurface estate. Any development related to land exchanges would prioritize shareholder hire, she said.

The required Chugach Region Land Study, in which the federal Bureau of Land Management is the lead agency, is near completion, but has not yet been submitted to Congress.

Such land swaps are a complex process outlined in a section of the Dingell Act. The legislation, enacted into law on March 12, 2019, includes a section on the Chugach region land study, requiring that within 18 months of enactment of the Dingell Act that the land study be conducted, and that recommendations be made on options for land exchanges.

“Chugach has been trying to get a fair and just settlement for decades,” Hickel said. “Many of the traditional lands in the Chugach region were unavailable for selection due to the presence of the Chugach National Forest (nearly six million acres) and the Kenai Fjords National Park (about two million acres),” she said.  Then the Exxon Valdez oil spill exacerbated the problem as a result of the habitat protection program purchases of surface estate from village corporations where Chugach held subsurface estate.

Chugach Alaska has had discussions with the BLM and U.S. Forest Service regarding potential lands of interest and those discussions are ongoing, she said. Both federal agencies have declined to comment on related discussions or studies.

To date no work has been undertaken to determine the value of Chugach lands or federal lands for potential exchange, according to Hickel.

Information regarding the land swap effort has been provided to shareholders in newsletters, at regional and annual meetings and through a flyer detailing the lengthy history of efforts to do a land exchange, she said. According to information provided in the flyer, despite Chugach holding the dominant subsurface estate, a direct conflict exists between Chugach’s responsibility to its Native shareholders for economic development and self-sufficiency of ANCSA land, and the EVOS agenda of conservation. In addition, the flyer notes, “the majority of Chugach’s economically viable lands are adjacent to or surrounded by the national forest lands, resulting in no practical means of access to Chugach’s inholdings except across federal lands.”