The University of Alaska is looking to gain title to thousands of acres of land in the Upper Chilkat Valley as part of its ongoing land grant initiative, raising questions and concerns among some locals.
“We’re always open to hearing discussion, but at first look here, it is another transfer of public lands into private hands,” said Kim Strong, the president of the Klukwan village council. “With BLM we have more input to what they’re doing than the university.”
As a “land grant” institution, the University of Alaska system was given a 500,000-acre entitlement when it was founded in 1917 as the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. The university has only received about 150,000 acres of that land, and in 2022 federal legislation laid the groundwork for the remaining land to be conveyed.
The land is used to earn money to pay for university programs.
The university recently published maps showing land it wants to transferred from the Bureau of Land Management. They include 4,406 acres in the rugged Upper Chilkat Valley as well as two smaller parcels of about 30 acres each along the Haines Highway near the Klehini River.
The university already owns parcels around the valley, which can be used for industrial development like timber, carbon credit sales, and mining.
The university hasn’t said what it would use the lands for, and Kirsten Henning, a spokesperson for the UA Land Grant Initiative, referred CVN to its website, which states the university “is committed to listening to all who have an interest in our final Land Grant initiative and potential selections.”
But some — including leaders of the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan — say they are opposed to any selections because of a perception that university leaders aren’t interested in local concerns.
Strong referred to an episode in 2017 when the university was seeking to log a portion of Mud Bay Road.
“They did a community input — they listened but they were going to do what they wanted, it seemed like,” said Strong.
The university ultimately decided not to log the land for economic reasons.
The university said officials would be visiting the Chilkat Valley in early March, with exact timing yet to be determined.
Assembly members were hesitant to weigh in on the matter without more information. Natalie Dawson said she had traveled in the areas of the Upper Chilkat Valley, which she described as “one of the wildest chunks of land” in the region, hard to access and filled with signs of wildlife like wolves, bears and other animals.
“It’s a super cool gorge with old animal trails. You get into the Upper Chilkat and drop into a beautiful sandy beach looking up at the headwall of all these glaciers,” she said.
Dawson said putting the land in private hands didn’t necessarily mean that it wouldn’t be allowed to be used by recreators, just that it would not have the guaranteed public access of BLM lands. For example, hunting access is restricted on most UA land grant selections.
Dawson said because of the remoteness and vegetation of the land, she wasn’t particularly concerned about the potential for timber or mining. Instead, her concerns were that it could be developed for luxury tourism, like helicopter-in backcountry lodges.
Dawson said her goal at the moment is to make sure the public is aware of the land selections and is involved in any public discussion about their future. The state is preparing to release a public notice about the selections which will begin the public comment period.
“I worry that with the state of Alaska — the community sometimes doesn’t see the public notices on really big things,” she said.
More information available at UA’s Land Grant website