The federal government already owns 248 million acres of Alaska -- more than the entire eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida, home to one-third of the entire population of the United States.

Through the use of the $900 million Exxon Valdez civil settlement, the federal government is acquiring even more of Alaska -- possibly as much as 750,000 acres more, according to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. This land in many cases may end up under the control of federal agencies. The additional land is equal to three-fourths of the size of the state of Rhode Island. Here's why this is reason for concern:

The Trustee Council -- made up of three federal and three state agency representatives -- already has spent a large part of the money received from Exxon on land acquisitions and on easements that limit the use of land which it has not purchased outright. To date, the council has completed the acquisition of some 424,000 acres, in a combination of large and small parcels, many of which were purchased from Native corporations. In many cases, these land acquisitions merely add to the land already controlled by the Trustees' own agencies.

Examples include 23,800 acres of inholdings added to Kachemak Bay State Park; 41,549 acres near Seal Bay; and 26,665 acres on Shuyak Island. In addition, the council has agreed to, but not yet completed, the purchase of another 55,357 acres, including more than 7,000 acres previously logged, from Eyak Corp. It is also negotiating for another 46,300 acres on Afognak Island, and 57,082 acres owned by Koniag Corp. These lands presumably would be added to the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.

Generally, all these lands will be added to the 20 protected state and federal lands in the spill-affected area, including the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, Katmai National Park and Preserve, the Chugach National Forest, and the Copper River Delta Critical Habitat Area.

Land acquisition is expected to account for more than 40 percent ($386 million) of the $900 million settlement. Another $213 million has been used for direct payments to state and federal agencies for spill expenses, and to Exxon to reimburse it for cleanup activities after January 1992. The council's list of approved projects will take another $311 million, including a staggering $31 million for public relations and administration.

Who would have expected public relations to soak up such a large part of a settlement intended to remedy the environmental impacts of the spill?

Essentially, the only money not already spoken for is the 12 percent of Exxon payments the council is tucking away in a "restoration reserve." By the year 2002, this account (counting interest) may reach nearly $150 million -- but it also will be the only money left. After inflation-proofing, interest on the restoration reserve could provide about $2.1 million annually for long-term research and economic reconstruction projects -- or it could vanish in more land acquisitions.

Recently, the Trustee Council requested that Congress allow it to broaden its investment options. The trustees say the public is being short-changed because the settlement requires the council to place all the incoming money ( Exxon is paying the $900 million over 10 years) in a court-administered account with lower yields (5 percent) and higher administrative costs (10 percent) than the trustees could earn simply by investing in safe U.S. government securities.

I agreed this should be changed, and earlier this year prepared an amendment that would allow -- but not require -- the council to invest the money outside the court system. The council would decide how much, if any, it would put in new investments under my plan.

I also specified that, rather than putting all the new money into still more land acquisition, new earnings should be used for long-term activities such as marine research and economic restoration projects for local communities and the fishing industry. Without something like this, there is no guarantee that the remaining money would go to these purposes instead of to more land acquisitions, or to payments for activities of the Trustees' own agencies.

My amendment also asked the Trustee Council to bring Congress its thoughts on forming an independent board to administer the funds (in place of the Trustees) after the last Exxon payment is received. Personally, I'd like to see it recommend an independent, scientifically oriented group to guide a long-term research program -- a board that would call for proposals, arrange for scientific peer review, publish findings, and so forth, without the appearance of a conflict of interest that exists when the trustees are funding projects in which their agencies are involved.

Unfortunately, the Trustee Council, led by the Department of the Interior, chose to oppose the amendment in a last-minute lobbying campaign against its own request -- perhaps because my version meant the Trustees would have to relinquish some of the control they now enjoy. So it didn't become law this year.

But I don't intend to drop the issue. In fact, I plan to pursue it with separate legislation -- legislation I have already introduced. I still think Alaska could and should benefit from the additional dollars that better investments would earn, and I still think marine research and economic restoration should get more attention than the Trustees have given them so far.

If it were your money, what would you do? And, by the way, it is your money.

Frank Murkowski represents the state of Alaska in the U.S. Senate.

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

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