GENERATIONS FROM now, people discussing the tragic legacy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill won't be talking about lasting effects on populations of fish, birds or wildlife. The resiliency of Mother Nature will assure no measurable long-term impacts on the environment.

But there will remain one shameful blight on Prince William Sound -- the massive transfer of land ownership that occurred when agents of government used oil company settlement money to purchase vast tracts of Native-owned real estate.

The story a few decades from now will be similar to the one history tells about the early settlers who used $24 worth of blankets and trinkets to buy Manhattan from the Brooklyn Indians. The price was considerably cheaper than the hundreds of millions spent to acquire land in Prince William Sound. But in both instances, Indians came out on the losing end of the deal.

In 1991, the state of Alaska, the federal government and the Exxon Corp. agreed to a $900 million civil restitution settlement for damages caused by the spill. The joint federal-state Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees Council was established to manage the money being paid in annual installments over a 10-year period.

Over the years, the trustees have authorized spending for a wide range of projects related to the spill recovery. From mopping up oil to disseminating public information, from legal fees to scientific research, and from archeological digs to a Sea Life Center in Seward, numerous endeavors have been financed. But the one spending category that has surpassed all others is "habitat protection," the purchase of private lands owned by Native corporations.

The trustees earmarked about 40 percent of the total fund to buy almost 700,000 acres. Land deals completed so far have made some lawyers and lobbyists very rich and provided certain Native groups with a short-term financial windfall.

But generations from now, when that windfall is long spent, young Natives will wonder what happened to their endowment of land acquired in the hard-fought Alaska Native lands settlement effort. What happened to the promise of self determination, which ownership of the land was to provide?

Now the trustees want congressional permission to invest remaining settlement money to provide an ongoing revenue source after Exxon 's debt is paid off. Sen. Frank Murkowski says an investment fund is fine -- provided none of its earnings is used to acquire more land . The trustees are balking at that stipulation.

Perhaps this is a good time to disband the trustees and put the University of Alaska in charge of administering the investment fund to advance marine science in Alaska's waters.

That would provide greater lasting benefits than the purchase of more land .


Be informed! Don't allow yourself to be snowed by CARA.

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