The federal and state governments plan to begin next summer trying to restore Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez oil spill with measures like planting beach grass and buying timber rights to prevent logging.
State spill bureaucrats want to spend $43 million on the project next year, to be reimbursed later if the state and federal governments prevail in their lawsuits against Exxon. Of that, $40 million would go toward buying timber rights on land with oiled shores that otherwise is due to be logged.
Gov.-elect Wally Hickel could ignore the funding request. But he said in an interview Thursday that he has a special soft spot for the Sound and that he favors buying timber rights there to stop clear-cutting that would harm it. He also said he would even like to make the entire Sound into a "world-class water recreation area."
"I have had a boat down there for 30 years," Hickel said. "I know the Sound. . . . There is no place on earth like Prince William Sound Europe, Asia, Russia, South America no place."
He said the cases against Exxon should be settled out of court, and when they are, the state should control the money, using some of it to set up the recreation area.
And how much would he settle for?
"I haven't come down on a figure, but just use the figure of a billion dollars," he said.
Hickel is the new wild card in almost two years of Byzantine infighting between lawyers, environmentalists, and state and federal oil spill officials over how to measure the damage, set the blame and pay for the recovery of the Exxon's 11 million-gallon oil spill of March 24, 1989.
By next March, the two governments will have spent more than $100 million on studies and legal fees without having restored anything.
The main issue in the struggle is how much Exxon must pay and what must be done to make Prince William Sound the way it was before the spill even though most environmentalists say fixing nature is impossible. Under federal law, a crowd of state and federal bureaucrats are responsible for determining the damage and the method of repair.
The two governments have never agreed on how to do that. Their mutual suspicion has been so great that they are duplicating some of their studies at a cost of millions of dollars a year, keeping the results secret from each other and from everyone else.
Some environmentalists are worried about the restoration work starting next summer. They say the program is the product of political machinations in Washington, D.C., intended to quickly complete a token restoration before President George Bush runs for re-election in 1992.
Wally Hickel has unexpectedly become their champion.
"I don't know where it comes from, but he seems to have a real soft spot for Prince William Sound," said Cordova environmentalist Rick Steiner. "I'm optimistic about Hickel in one sense. He thinks big, he likes to do things in a big way, and a lot of this is sitting there waiting for him."
Besides, Hickel is known for his willingness to tangle with the federal government, and Steiner and other environmentalists see the federal government as their enemy in forcing Exxon to pay big for restoration.
When federal officials first advanced their plan, they specifically excluded the concept of buying trees, according to a September draft of the Federal Register notice they published last week. The acquisition option is the most expensive of the restoration ideas, but also the most popular among environmentalists, Sound user groups and state officials who privately say it would be the most meaningful way to spend Exxon's money.
Biologists justify the idea by saying land that is scheduled to be logged next summer is important habitat for eagles, salmon, rare marbled murrelets that were hit hard by the spill, and other animals that use both the sea and the woods. Opponents say it would cost jobs for loggers and sawmill workers.
Direct restoration trying to fix nature would cost only $3 million under the state's plan. It calls for $1.1 million to rehabilitate oiled salmon streams, $109,000 to clean up recreation sites, $1.6 million to protect and excavate threatened archaeological sites and $268,000 to plant beach grass to stop erosion.
Federal officials have mentioned no source of funding for their part of the work.
Macon Cowles, a Denver lawyer who is lead attorney for environmentalists in the cases against Exxon, said he suspects a political motivation for the early restoration plan because it is being written before scientists finish their work to measure the spill's damage. Besides, a few million dollars is peanuts as far as he is concerned he expects Exxon's total bill to be in the tens of billions.
Restoration planner Stan Senner, who works for the state, said planners have most of the scientific information they need for tentative plans on what to do next summer.
The public doesn't.
The planners will seek public comment on the restoration plan after it is released next month, but spill damage information has been kept secret. Government lawyers say it would hurt their cases against Exxon to reveal what the scientists have learned about the spill.
Two months ago, federal officials said they would place all their spill science in a downtown Anchorage public repository; this week, none was there yet, and the library didn't even have the Federal Register public notice of next year's planned restoration work.
But Brian Ross, who is planning restoration for of the Environmental Protection Agency, said work next summer would be aimed only at taking opportunities that would later be lost stopping beach erosion, saving endangered archaeological sites, and buying trees, for example. And the work would focus only on areas where damage is obvious, he said.
"What we will be proposing in '91 will not be everything we plan to do eventually," Ross said.
Daily News reporter George Frost contributed to this story.
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