By Ken Smith
The state Department of Natural Resources has submitted a proposal to continue the closure of Glacier and Winner Creek areas to any mineral mining.
A 10-year order of closure expires April 2012. DNR now seeks public comments before the commissioner signs off on the proposal.
“We want to get the word out to the public, and we want public feedback,” said Adam Smith, the leasing manager for the state Department of Natural Resources, Division of Mining and Water, Southcentral region land office.
“We’re not proposing a term,” he said. “Basically right now it does not look like we have the authority to do permanent closures because through another process the area can be open to mineral entry. So areas can be closed and open, there’s nothing in our statute that says they can be permanent. We are aware of the interests of making permanent closures, but that’s something we are sorting out in this administrative process.”
One person who is seeking a permanent closure is Alyeska Resort owner John Byrne. The resort leases its land from the state—a 55-year lease that began in 1993 and expires in 2048.
“Some people have suggested tying it to a lease term,” said Smith, “but we do not propose that in our decision, but if we do receive comments like that we will consider it.”
Alyeska Resort owner John Byrne said the expiration of the mining closure was brought to his attention around Thanksgiving when he received a letter from Smith and Rick Thompson, the Regional Land Manager of the Alaska Division of Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land and Water Soutcentral Region.
Byrne said he was caught off guard by the closure expiration and was unaware of the temporary mining closure when he bought the resort in December of 2006. He later had a video meeting with Smith and Thompson to discuss the importance of the closure.
Byrne expressed the importance of a permanent closure in the meeting, especially since he just completed a 20-year master development plan for the resort. The plan includes expanding the ski area into the Glacier-Winner Creek area.
“We understood that the land under Alyeska was closed to mining permanently,” Byrne said, “and honestly there were so many things to understand that I left it at that and moved on. I really appreciate the DNR making me aware of the expiration of the mining order. I think they came to take my pulse on how important I thought it was. If there is no community reaction and it was only Alyeska, I’ve got to tell you, the mining interests likely would prevail. There is a strong mining lobby in Alaska and you’re fighting that, and it’s almost like a union, it is a lobbying effort on behalf of numerous mining companies, and it’s always a little unclear of who they’re representing and who the mining company is…I think they would just assume the order would expire without recognition… What’s happening now is the mining association is petitioning DNR not to renew the mining closure.”
Smith said the Alaska mining Association is typically opposed to mineral closures. In the last closure, the AMA was opposed to a permanent closure, he said, which led DNR to only temporary close the area to mining. The first temporary closure of the Glacier-Winner Creek area was in 1992.
The goal of DNR, said Smith, is to obtain the majority of the Glacier-Winner Creek land for recreational development. The state has acquired about half of the 11,218 acres of the Glacier-Winner Creek area in a federal land grant and is working to acquire the remaining acreage. The Municipality of Anchorage owns another 1,000 acres in the area.
“The state has declared the Glacier-Winner Creek area as a high priority area for future development of recreational opportunities, said Smith.
Smith said the state is supportive and enthusiastic of Alyeska Resort’s development plans to expand the ski area. He said proposed recreational development of the Glacier-Winner Creek area is detailed in the Turnagain Arm Management Plan that was finalized by the state back in 1994.
In that plan the state proposes setting aside the Glacier-Winner Creek land for future recreation development, which is referred to as “surface development.”
The Bureau of Land Management conducted a mineral study of the Glacier-Winner Creek area in 2000, Smith said, and there was no significant mineral deposits found in the area.
The primary mineral of interest in the Glacier-Winner Creek area is gold and there are currently mineral mining operations for gold in the Crow Creek area, north of Girdwood.
However, when it comes to the long-term plans for development in Girdwood and the surrounding lands, the purveying sentiment seems to be for more recreation, especially for the biggest private investor in the valley—Alyeska Resort.
“If the possibility is even there that some day there is a gold mine or a silver mine next to us then there’s the impact on the resort and the resort experience,” Byrne said. “But to me, it’s even more important of the impact on the community. I just don’t see anyway that a mining operation could be anything but detrimental to the quality of life in Girdwood, the quality of life for residence and visitors alike. And I just think that’s the fundamental issue. There’s all this momentum in Alaska to diversify the Alaska economy away from the exploitation of natural resources. The other category is tourism and there are only so many really good tourism sites in Alaska and this happens to be one of them.”
Currently there exist federal mineral claims in the Glacier-Winner Creek area, and Byrne said he understands that mining companies have a legal right to those claims. However, with no significant finding of minerals in the area, the question remains whether mining for gold or silver in the Glacier-Winner Creek area is a profitable venture.
In the meantime, the Department of Natural Resources is soliciting public input. Smith said citizens may email him directly or mail comments to the Department of Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land and Water Southcentral Region, 550 West 7th Avenue, Suite 900c, Anchorage, AK 99501-3577. Public comments must be received by 5 p.m. on Feb. 21, 2011.
The DNR placed a public notice stating its position to continue a closure of mining in the Glacier-Winner Creek area in this issue of the Turnagain Times. In it, the DNR stated “that subsurface activities (mineral entry) would be incompatible with the significant surface uses associated with the development of recreational infrastructure.”
A map of the affected lands can be found on the DNR website listed in the public notice. The map is also included with the article on the Turnagain Times website.
Smith said a final decision may come by the end of March, but that’s not a hard deadline since the closure expiration date is more than a year away.