Old gold slows borough land selection

A red marker shows William Henry Bay. (Google Maps)

When it became a borough, Haines got to select land from the state. After waiting six years, it’s gotten a preliminary decision on its choices. Haines has decided to appeal the ruling that would deny them an old gold mine.

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The Haines Borough is appealing the state’s preliminary decision to refuse them a piece of land with hidden value.

“William Henry Bay is a piece of ground that was the site of an operating, functional gold mine,” Borough Manager Debra Schnabel said.

Haines’ administration is requesting the Bay as part of their municipal land selection. When a borough forms, they’re entitled to get a certain amount of land from the state. In 2011, Haines chose nine parcels based on their long-term economic potential.

The borough identified 2621.55 acres they’d like, in the Katzehin flats — where the state has long considered building a ferry terminal if the Juneau Access Road is completed — Chilkoot Inlet, Excursion Inlet and William Henry Bay.

In October, the state issued a preliminary decision: they approved conveying 80 percent of Haines’ selections. They postponed decisions on three parcels, because they were mislabeled —  they’re federal lands which the state has asked for, but not received, and can’t pass on to the Borough.

The state denied two parcels: one contains a Native allotment claim still being processed. The other? William Henry Bay.

State geologists sampled the Bay in 2011, after Haines selected it. They confirmed the presence of gold, as well as rare earth metals such as uranium.

Even if the Bay was conveyed to Haines, the state would still control those minerals.

“The state holds mineral rights to all minerals in the state,” Schnabel said. “Even if the Borough owned the land sitting on top of the mineral deposit, the state still has the economic benefit of the royalty.”

The state says their interest in keeping the land outweighs the borough’s interest in receiving it. Ben White is the Southeast Regional Land manager in Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources.

“If a commercial mining operation wanted to come into the area, we’d be able to provide them easements for access, land use authorizations. They’d be working with one entity as opposed to having to work with both the state and the borough,” White said.

In an appeal letter to the state, the Borough disagrees. Since the state keeps the mineral rights no matter what, they argue that denying Haines the land means the Borough will lose more than the state would gain.

“By owning the land, we would have the ability to have tax revenue for the plant or the operation or the settlement or the improvements that are brought in to develop that resource,” Schnabel said.

The Borough also expressed frustration with the length of time it’s taken the State to issue a preliminary decision. Statute says the state should respond to land selections within nine months. Haines Borough has been waiting for six years.

Lee Cole is a resource manager who worked on Haines’ case. Even though work started in 2012, it was delayed because the Department was downsized.

“Between probably 2012 and 2014, there just wasn’t staff here,” Cole said. “I think that’s why I was hired, to work on some of these issues.”

By 2017, the initial work was out of date, and had to be repeated.

Ben White says the Department hopes to reach a final decision within the next few months. They’re currently reviewing comments on the preliminary plan.

If the state chooses not to convey William Henry Bay, Haines will get to keep selecting lands until they receive their full acreage. Schnabel says she hopes to meet with Department officials before anything is finalized.

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