JUNEAU, Alaska -- A bill moving through the Alaska Legislature would eliminate wilderness restrictions in a portion of a state park in the Bristol Bay region so a utility can study a hydroelectric project on a lake where such development now is banned.
Senate Bill 32, sponsored by Sen. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican, directs the state Parks division to throw out part of a 10-year-old management plan approved by local residents that declares Chikuminuk Lake and its surroundings in Wood-Tikchik State Park a wilderness.
State park officials, in observance of the management plan, refused to allow Nuvista Light & Electric Cooperative to fly helicopters into the area and conduct drilling and seismic work under a $10 million legislative grant approved in 2011. McGuire's bill would reverse that ruling.
The park, the size of Delaware and the largest state park in the United States, was created by the Legislature in 1978. The state selected the lands in the 1960s to prevent the U.S. government from creating a national park there, according to an official history.
"We feel a little betrayed," said Tim Troll, director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, which has been buying up private inholdings in the park, including a 160-acre Native allotment on Chikuminuk -- the only private parcel there. "We thought that if it was in a state park, and it had a management council, that it was protected forever. And now it seems that maybe that's not the case. It's the message that we're worried about, and whether any state park now in Alaska is permanent."
Pro-development legislators and the Parnell administration have been fighting the federal government over what they consider to be anti-growth policies on federal land and water. They say the state can do better.
But Senate Bill 32 targets an area of a state park where rules now require park managers to promote and perpetuate "the wilderness character of the land and its specific values of solitude, physical and mental challenge, scientific study, inspiration and primitive recreational opportunities."
Andrew Guy, a supporter of McGuire's bill and president of Calista Corp., the Native corporation for the neighboring Bethel region, said cheap power was critical for rural Alaska.
"We need to get affordable energy out there so that our businesses can start being competitive, and once they start doing that, they can grow and add jobs," Guy said. "It is something that the Legislature needs to take a close look at if they want to have a healthy economy out in rural Alaska."
Guy described Nuvista as an independent co-op that is housed in Calista's Anchorage offices and shares board members with the regional Native corporation.
If its project proves feasible, Nuvista would build a 128-foot dam where Chikuminuk Lake empties into the Allen River -- the site of the private land now owned by Troll's group -- and a 120-mile power line to Bethel, largely through the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Nuvista said the project would produce enough power for Bethel and 13 surrounding communities, replacing expensive diesel-powered generators.
"I can't understand why anybody would think they can do a hydro project in a wilderness area in one of the best state parks in all of the 50 states -- it just boggles my mind," said Jim Stratton, former state parks director and now an advocate in Anchorage for national parks. "If it wasn't a state park, the feds would've made it a national park."
In 2011, the Legislature appropriated $10 million to study the feasibility of a hydro project on Chikuminuk. But when Nuvista sought a permit to conduct its studies, the officials would only allow activities consistent with wilderness, said Ben Ellis, the state parks director. That allowed for animal and fish population studies and stream gaging, but not drilling, seismic tests and helicopter landings.
Ellis said the first protection for the area was established in 1903, during the administration of Teddy Roosevelt, when the federal government set it aside as a fishery reserve. (About 20 percent of Bristol Bay's salmon are believed to originate in the park, the state says.)
The Legislature, in creating Wood-Tikchik State Park in 1978, said it was primarily seeking "to protect the area's fish and wildlife breeding and support systems and to preserve the continued use of the area for subsistence and recreational activities. The state park is also created to protect the area's recreational and scenic resources."
Two lakes were identified in the legislation for which hydroelectric sites would be compatible: Lake Elva and Grant Lake. The law created a seven-member management council with representatives from four local village and city councils, the Bristol Bay Native Association, and two state agencies. It charged them with creating a plan for the park.
The current plan, approved in 2002, includes Chikuminuk Lake in the wilderness portion of the park where all motorized activity is banned except for float planes.
Guy, the Calista head, said Chikuminuk Lake was picked for a hydro project because it has no salmon population -- a large waterfall on the Allen River prevents salmon from migrating there. But opponents of the project said the dam would cause a disruption of water flow into rich salmon streams.
McGuire's original bill had only three key words: it added "or Chikuminuk Lake" to the other two lakes where hydro projects were permitted.
McGuire didn't return messages left at her Juneau office and on her cell phone. In her three-paragraph sponsor statement, she said the park "may house a clean, cost effective solution to the rising cost of energy in the Calista region." Her bill, she said, would allow that determination to be made.
At a hearing at the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee last week, some supporters from Bethel-area villages testified that affordable power was desperately needed while some opponents from Bristol Bay described the area as like "no place on Earth."
At the end of the hearing, the committee amended the bill to allow Nuvista to conduct full feasibility studies -- including mechanized geologic work -- but not a hydro project itself. The committee passed the bill on to the Finance Committee, with Resources Chairman Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna and two others, Sens. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage and Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, recommending passage. Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, gave no recommendation.
Micciche said he struggled with the issue, but in the end decided that the feasibility study was a "low-impact exercise to determine if this project can be a reality or not."
Giessel said that if the project was feasible, "and we have the option to safely create more jobs and economic opportunities for folks that want to live in rural Alaska, then we need to look at that."
Ellis, the state's park director, said the Legislature has the final word.
"If the Legislature tells me to manage the park differently, I salute and execute their wishes. Then the management plan or regulations would need to be modified to fit within a new direction," he said.
Paul Liedberg, a Dillingham resident who recently retired as manager of the neighboring Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, said the $10 million feasibility grant in itself was an issue because it involved development work in wilderness.
"Does designation of these areas endure over time, from one period to the next, when we have different individuals or different Legislatures in charge?" Liedberg said. Moving the hydro project forward "does call that into question," he said.