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State buys land near Fairbanks for Alaska's 3rd veterans cemetery

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- A nine-year effort to build a veterans cemetery near Fairbanks moved closer to completion Thursday as the state purchased a 320-acre hillside overlooking the Goldstream Valley just outside of Fox for $2 million.

With the land deal wrapped up, the Department of Veterans Affairs is expected to approve the allocation of up to $9 million in federal funds this year for construction of the cemetery, said McHugh Pierre, deputy commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs for Alaska.

The state bought the south-facing property from John and Ramona Reeves, who at one time considered building a snowboarding and ski area on the site. The site, just west of where the buried trans-Alaska pipeline passes through Fox, is partially cleared and has good access, Pierre said. Construction is expected to take place next summer, with the first burials in the fall of 2015, he said.

Pierre said that one of the major elements of the construction expense is that a crypt system is to be installed, so caskets will be placed in a concrete-lined framework buried on the property. The idea is to prevent tombstones and graves from shifting with temperature changes, he said, and to hold down maintenance costs.

Soil tests confirmed the property will pass muster. A site a mile or so away that had been considered was ruled out a couple of years ago because ice-rich permafrost was discovered on the property.

The Legislature appropriated $2 million for the project in the capital budget a year ago. Fairbanks Rep. David Guttenberg was the major legislative advocate of the cemetery project, starting with a bill he introduced in 2005. He continued to push until a similar measure won approval in 2009.

Alaska has veterans cemeteries in Sitka and Anchorage. A press release from Guttenberg said the Fairbanks cemetery will permit veterans, including Alaska Territorial Guard members, to be buried with their rightful honors and allow Interior families easier access to memorials.

In 2005, VA officials put the construction costs between $3 million and $4 million and later revised that to $6.5 million. They produced the $9 million estimate after more recent surveys, basing the higher figure in part on the concrete foundation into which caskets will be placed, Pierre said.

In 2010, the Legislature appropriated $1 million for the project, followed by an appropriation of $2 million in 2013 for a land purchase because the department found no suitable state land within 15 miles of Fairbanks. The Fox site is about 11 miles north of Fairbanks off the Steese Highway.