Juneau boundary expansion could threaten subsistence living in Angoon

The small village of Angoon is the home to about 400 people. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins – KTOO)

The City and Borough of Juneau is looking to expand its boundaries on Admiralty Island. That island is home to Angoon, a community of about 500 people, some of whom fear a nearby land annexation would threaten their subsistence lifestyle.

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A meeting between Angoon and the City and Borough of Juneau was supposed to take place this week, but was canceled at the last minute. KCAW’s Emily Russell traveled to Angoon and has the story.

Albert Howard grew up in Angoon. He’s served two terms as mayor, is now a member of the Regional School Board and serves as vice president of the local tribe.

“I pretty much lived here my whole life. I know one end of the island to the other because I’ve hunted it with my dad and now I’m hunting it with my son.” [00:09]

Sometimes they don’t see much on those hunting trips, so Howard says he talks to his son about the land and their rights to it. In the late 1970s Admiralty Island became a National Monument, in part because of its cultural significance.  It’s been inhabited by Tlingit people for over 10,000 years.

“Anything that happens on Admiralty Island is for the protection of the indigenous people of the Island,” Howard said. “It’s in [National] Monument language and it’s stated that way. You can find it online.  It doesn’t say anything about the City and Borough of Juneau. That’s pretty clear in the language.”

Howard and others in Angoon are worried specifically about a place called Pack Creek. It’s on eastern Admiralty about halfway between Angoon and Juneau. Pack Creek is a popular bear-viewing place for tourists and hunting spot for locals.

Howard worries if that part of Admiralty Island is annexed, it’s resources could be auctioned off.

“This island belonged to the elders,” Howard said. “The elders decided to keep it the way it is and Pack Creek wouldn’t be what is it if our elders decided to let everybody log it.”

“If land was annexed into the Juneau borough, that does not change land ownership,” Rorie Watt, Juneau’s city manager, said. “So, with the example of Pack Creek, that would be in the Admiralty Island National Monument, managed by the Forest Service. So even if we annexed that, it would not become City of Juneau land. It would still be Forest Service [land] under that management style.”

And that Forest Service land in the Pack Creek area is protected from development since it’s inside a national monument.

So why would Juneau want to annex the land if it can’t be logged or mined or commercially developed?

“There’s a lot of reasons,” Watt said. “If you look at the state and the constitution, the idea behind it is sooner or later the entire state ends up in a borough.”

So, basically incorporating it before anyone else does. Alaska’s constitution says the state must be divided into boroughs, either organized or unorganized. A study completed in the 1990s laid out possible borough models.

Right now most of Admiralty Island is considered an unorganized borough and remote residents like it that way. Property owners in Funter Bay on the north end of the island wrote to the Juneau Assembly is February. They don’t want to pay additional taxes or adhere to zoning regulations.

Watt said there’s no way of knowing how– much in property taxes this would bring Juneau, since those properties have never been assessed. He said there are benefits to being part of the borough. Watt says zoning makes sure the land is managed responsibly.

“What we would say to Angoon or anybody else who had property in the areas that we’re looking at is that we think there is an economic nexus or cultural nexus or recreation nexus between the areas we propose to annex,” Watt said.

 And Juneau representatives wanted to say that in person this week. Watt and other city officials had planned a trip to Angoon, but the mayor of Angoon, Harriet Silva who declined to comment for this story, cancelled the visit.

Watt said it’s still early on in the process. He hopes to reschedule a visit to Angoon and expects to host public meetings in Juneau in the coming months.

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Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.