Born Free, Sold Dear

America's premier bear refuge is up for bids because native Alaskans have run out of money

Chugging past the glacial peaks, buzzing the rich green meadows below, our Cessna 206 five-seater approaches Karluk Lake. Alders and cottonwoods blanket the perimeter, except for gravel patches at water's edge. Everywhere, the sockeye are jumping. Here in the heart of Alaska's Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, a canoe provides the only evidence of civilization. "The visibility is holding," says Tony Chatto, our biologist-pilot with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We'll set down on the lake. It's a good day to find some bears."

While Chatto remains with the floatplane at shoreside, we walk toward O'Malley Creek, which flows into Karluk. Jay Bellinger leads. A gentle, burly man of the Alaskan wild, Bellinger has been manager of the bear refuge, the largest in the world, for seven years. He speaks softly and carries a .458 Winchester just in case. The bears can't be far away. Beside us, there are moist 14-inch footprints that seem like craters. Both sides of the stream are littered with salmon leftovers; bears apparently don't like liver any more than people do. We follow a few turns in the creek--a few steps behind Bellinger, thank you--until we are spotted. Twenty yards ahead, in the tall brush, there is a rustle, then a flurry.

The bear is a mere 800 pounds, but Bellinger has not expected such a close introduction. He cocks his rifle and cheeks his aim. Then he tells the bear, "We're turning around." And, we do. In five long minutes, we're back at the lake and watch as the bear emerges from the creek bed-with two cubs bobbing in her wake. They ignore us, content to continue fishing. "Never forget whose land this really is," says Bellinger. "This is the land of the bears."

It has been since the Pleistocene, but it may not be forever. The 1.9 million-acre bear refuge, home of the largest land carnivores on earth, faces development that would destroy it. And since environmental groups have concentrated so hard on keeping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge closed to oil exploration, Kodiak's plight has received little notice. Because of an unusual congressional action 20 years ago, native groups own most of the prime habitat within the Kodiak refuge. Now they say they must exploit it--or become destitute. Even though native leaders know the risks to the bears, as well as the possibility of government lawsuits, they continue to discuss such projects as commercial canneries, logging mills, airstrips, fishing camps and hunting lodges (for the six-month season). Choice parcels would be sold to the highest bidder, which probably means the Japanese, who already do extensive business in Alaska. It is a sad paradox: for a people who spiritually understand the worth of wilderness, the very means of economic self-sufficiency imperil it. "We have no money," says Ralph Eluska, president of Akhiok-Kaguyak Inc., a native corporation that owns 138,000 acres of the refuge. "What choice do we have?"

Even the federal government, which so far has refused to buy back the land, has long recognized the glory of Kodiak. On storm-swept Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, the refuge was set aside 50 years ago by President Franklin Roosevelt. Today 2,500 to 3,000 bears roam the preserve, an incredible density of one per square mile; biologists say they make up 10 percent of the entire brown-bear population of the state. In the refuge there are also 200 pairs of bald eagles, 200,000 waterfowl and 2 million winter sea birds. Kodiaks can weigh up to 1,600 pounds and stand 12 feet tall, dwarfing their inland cousins, the grizzlies, There's no secret to what makes these giants grow. Glaciers pulverize rock, nutrients wash down to the sea, plankton bloom, salmon thrive. The result: fat bears, which fill themselves to the gills.

But even with 800 miles of serpentine coastline, in such forsaken places as Deadman Bay and Dog Salmon Flats, minimal development in the refuge is a threat. Humans frighten bears and displace them onto unfamiliar land, forcing territorial fights among animals. More human visitors also leads to more bears being shot in the name of self-defense; that's already happened in recent years. "People and bears can't share the same space," Bellinger says. "The bear always loses."

Like other wilderness disputes in Alaska, the Kodiak question arises from contradictory federal policies. In 1971, under pressure to open the 49th state to oil drilling, Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Resolving all ancestral Indian and Eskimo claims, ANCSA was the most radical native treaty in U.S. history. Rather than establishing reservations, the legislation gave the natives $967 million in cash and 44 million acres to be selected later from village sites. Regional and village corporations were created to manage the wealth on behalf of individual natives. Some built booming empires. Others squandered their money, leaving land as the only community asset. That, for example, is the predicament of corporations on Kodiak.

Since two thirds of the island consists of the bear refuge, the corporations have no choice but to select land within it. Yet Congress sought in Section 22(g) of ANCSA to protect refuge "in-holdings" (and other similar property in the state) by limiting natives to hunting and fishing. Said Rep. Sam Steiger of Arizona: "Here we come again, speaking to the Alaskan native with a forked tongue." But the native corporations read the law differently. Notwithstanding 22(g), they maintain that the overriding purpose of ANCSA still gives them full use of the land.

Optimists argued that because ANCSA prohibited natives from selling any land until 1991--later amended to 1988--Congress would eventually reclaim the best in-holdings. It almost happened. Several years ago, the U.S. Interior Department proposed that Kodiak natives swap their refuge land for oil and gas royalties in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the North Slope. The natives found themselves in an odd alliance with oil companies, even accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for lobbying and other efforts to get ANWR developed. But that deal sank after the Exxon Valdez oil spill ended the political chances of opening the Arctic, a vast sanctuary for caribou herds; ANWR is again before Congress now. Any chance of the federal government actually paying cash for the Kodiak refuge, valued by the natives at about $190 million, seems remote. Last year in Congress, the final budget conference committee eliminated $1 million in preliminary acquisition funds.

That leaves the 4,000 Kodiak natives with no alternative than to invade the wilderness. In villages like Akhiok and Old Harbor, the land is not unappreciated-far from it--but the people want to live better. Poverty is the only economic concept most have ever known. Unemployment runs to 40 percent in the winter. An eight-ounce can of condensed milk costs $2, heating oil for a small house as much as $360 a month. In contrast to their magnificent settings, the towns themselves are emaciated shells. The roads are muddy, the runway an adventure. Scattered around graceful, onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches are small, simple HUD homes. TV is the chief luxury.

Ralph Eluska knows that he and the other native leaders have an image problem. The bears of Kodiak are a powerful and sentimental symbol of the wild, and the specter of them being overrun by condos is haunting. "We don't want to ruin this land, we don't want court battles," Eluska says. "We just want what's been promised to us. We want to survive."