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Congress passes Coast Guard bill transferring federal lands to Alaska Natives

WASHINGTON -- The federal government will officially hand over two tracts of land in Alaska for Native use thanks to a bill passed by the U.S. House late Monday.

The House passed a Coast Guard authorization bill, sending legislation for a presidential signature that includes several key provisions for the 49th state.

One provision, sought for years by Alaska Rep. Don Young, hands over 2,500 acres of federal land in Point Spencer to the Bering Straits Native Corporation and the state. The U.S. Coast Guard would retain some foothold in the area, northwest of Nome, though its facility there was decommissioned in 2010. The area is home to a natural deep water port, and the state and Native corporation are considering bringing in private investment for a sea port there.

A second "land conveyance" will transfer ownership of the Tok Area Counseling Center to the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which already operates the region's only behavioral health center on the site, 3.25 acres of unused former Coast Guard housing facilities.

The bill includes small steps aimed in the direction of acquiring a new icebreaker -- a provision that would enable the Coast Guard to pay for an icebreaker in multiple payments, rather than requiring all the funding up front. And it requires the Coast Guard to do a $4 million study on the feasibility of refurbishing the non-functional Polar Sea icebreaker.

"I'm not terribly excited about the icebreaker provision," Young said Tuesday, noting the limitations to repairing the Polar Star. "I've never been a big supporter of repairing that ship. It's extremely expensive and you've still got an old ship."

But Young added that he is hopeful that President Barack Obama's promises for icebreaker funding would play out in the near future.

Young also secured language in the bill to change the classification program for building new fishing vessels, aimed at clearing up confusion over new rules and limiting related costs.

Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan also sponsored several of the provisions on the Senate side.

The Senate passed the bill in December. Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.