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Southcentral Alaska village corporations accept 230,000 acre transfer

Jill Burke
Friday's resolution is the final act in a dispute that stretches back to the 1970s, when CIRI first contested the land awards it had been given.
Stephen Nowers photo

More than four decades after the nation's largest land claims settlement -- a unique 1971 agreement that paved the way for the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline -- Alaska Native villages in the Cook Inlet Region have finally gained ownership over acreage they were due.

Under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Alaska Native villages were awarded cash and land, to be administered to both village corporations and regional corporations. Because of a complicated patchwork of existing land use by state and federal governments, some corporations weren't able to immediately acquire their full entitlement, as happened with several of the seven villages within the Cook Inlet Region.

On Friday, years of protracted disagreements, negotiations and squabbles came to an end when CIRI, the regional corporation for the area, deeded 230,000 acres to its village corporations with unresolved land acquisitions.

"The villages have closed out a long and tortured and contentious process. It took 40 years for them to get their full allocation of surface lands under ANSCA,” said Ethan Schutt, Senior Vice President for Land and Energy Development for CIRI.

It's a final resolution to disputes that stretch back to the 1970s, when CIRI first contested the land awards it had been given. Without nearby land immediately available to allocate, other parcels were set aside for CIRI and its members, land the corporations dubbed “mountains and glaciers” and viewed as less valuable than other acreage that might afford better development potential. Ultimately, it fought, and won, the right to more valuable land under a complex land exchange with the federal and state governments.

One example was its acquisition of Fire Island, a surplus parcel from the military that CIRI was able to obtain, and which now is the site for a commercial wind farm.

Subsequent delays in conveying parcels to individual village corporations came when the corporations themselves disputed the fairness of the allocation process.

Friday's deed transfer by CIRI of 230,000 acres to its member corporations closes out the village-level land entitlements, offering resolution to an obligation incurred more than 40 years ago.

“This is a historic day for the villages in the CIRI region,” Sophie Minich, president and CEO of CIRI, said in a prepared statement. “It has not been easy getting to this point, but working together, we finally did it.

“It’s huge. I think everyone is just thrilled,” said Greg Encelewski, president and CEO of Ninilchik Native Association, Inc, in the same press release. “I was involved in the original land selections for Ninilchik and I never dreamed that 35 to 40 years later I would be coming back still selecting lands. There is a big sense of relief to finally get this done.”

Under ANSCA, land awards were intended to help facilitate economic development for the villages, a mandate CIRI believes was realized in Friday's transfer. Land selections were concentrated in thee main areas – Iniskin Peninsula, Tuxedni Bay and the Talkeetna mountains. Each is viewed as having economic potential by offering prospects involving the large Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric project, the Pebble Mine, and oil and gas development.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com