Around the World April 14, 2002

PHOTO/Lisa Seifert/For the Journal

FCC to return millions to Native partnerships

FAIRBANKS -- Alaska Native partnerships that bid on wireless telephone frequencies last year will get 85 percent of their multimillion dollar investments back while the U.S. Supreme Court considers a dispute over the auction.

The Federal Communications Commission last month decided to keep some of the down payments while the court case plays out.

Alaska Native Wireless, with major financial backing from AT&T, put down about $555 million in January 2001 to back up its $2.8 billion in successful bids on the right to use certain wireless frequencies. It will get $472 million back from the FCC.

Doyon Ltd., Sealaska Corp. and managing partner Arctic Slope Regional Corp. put $260 million into Alaska Native Wireless.

The frequencies were previously held by NextWave and another, much smaller company, Urbancomm. Those companies couldn’t pay the FCC and went bankrupt. The FCC held a second auction, but NextWave challenged its right to do so. The Supreme Court took the case last month.

The FCC refund should help Alaska Native Wireless develop phone service in the cities where it has won undisputed licenses, Conrad Bagne, chief operating officer of Arctic Slope Regional Corp., told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner April 3.

Bagne said the company received those licenses April 2. The licenses grant the right to use frequencies in Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan, along with 13 other mostly smaller communities, primarily in Western states.

Judge orders state to study effect of mine

FAIRBANKS -- A Fairbanks Superior Court judge has ordered the Department of Natural Resources to study what effect the True North gold mine may be having on neighboring tourism businesses.

The decision by Judge Charles Pengilly stems from an appeal by Neighborhood Mine Watch of the gold mine’s state permits.

Mara Bacsujlaky, executive director of Neighborhood Mine Watch, calls the decision a clear victory.

The ruling does not shut down the mine, located 30 miles north of Fairbanks, said Bob Loeffler, director of the Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Mining, Land and Water.

Last March, Fairbanks Gold Mining finished construction of the True North project, which included building a 10-mile ore haul road between True North and Fairbanks Gold’s mill at the company’s Fort Knox mine. Sixty-ton trucks haul ore to the Fort Knox mill 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

That has been the heart of the problem, said Bacsujlaky and mine neighbors.

Cost of repairing line climbs to $20 million

FAIRBANKS -- The cost of repairing the trans-Alaska pipeline and cleaning up a 286,000 gallon oil spill caused by a bullet hole has climbed to $20 million, according to the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.

The company has nearly finished cleaning up the oil spilled north of Fairbanks last October after a Livengood man allegedly shot a hole in the pipeline with a high-caliber rifle.

All that remains is less than 1,000 gallons trapped in the gravel pad of the pipeline’s access road, said Kalu Kalu, Alyeska project manager.

"We’re pumping it into barrels," he said.

About $6 million of the $20 million cleanup bill was for labor costs and another $6 million will go toward the treatment and recovery of crude collected from the contaminated soil, Kalu said. The rest went toward equipment and remote camp costs.

About 176,000 gallons have been recovered and re-injected back into the pipeline, Kalu said.

BP plans to limit tour access to Prudhoe Bay

FAIRBANKS -- BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. plans to suspend commercial tour access through the Prudhoe Bay oil field to the Arctic Ocean this summer, citing security concerns.

But the state owns the land and the lease says the Department of Natural Resources has to sign off on access limitations, said Mike Abbott, Gov. Tony Knowles’ legislative director.

State officials will go along if the restriction is warranted, Abbott said, but they want to discuss the matter with BP first. "If there is a legitimate security concern ... we want to know about it," Abbott said.

Tour companies such as Fairbanks-based Northern Alaska Tour Co. say losing access to the Arctic Ocean will hurt their business.

The rugged Dalton Highway is open to the general public as far north as Deadhorse. Half a dozen tour companies have agreements with BP to cross the Prudhoe Bay oil field to the Arctic Ocean.

Tourism survey shows improvent in bookings

ANCHORAGE -- A new survey indicates the tourism season ahead may not be as bleak as was anticipated last fall.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association released a late-March survey of its members April 8, showing an overall 13 percent drop in tourism bookings compared with a year ago.

While that decline would be significant, especially for small businesses, the drop is not as sharp as the travel group had projected.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the association forecast a catastrophic 60 percent decline in visitors unless it received $12.5 million in state funds for an emergency marketing campaign. Travel analysts tied the anticipated drop-off to concern about flying and uncertainty about the economy.

The early estimates turned out to be overstated.

Surveys in December and February showed 23 percent and 24 percent declines respectively. The latest results from 256 respondents point to some recovery.

The hardest-hit sectors, according to the latest survey, include hotels, wilderness lodges, cabins and air taxis. Hotels reported bookings down by 28 percent.

Some segments of the industry have not only weathered the crisis but are doing better than last year. Day cruises and charters reported a 3 percent increase in bookings for the coming season. Recreational vehicle rentals jumped 12 percent. Companies that provide tours and activities in multiple locations in Alaska reported a 23 percent climb in reservations, according to the survey.

-- Compiled from business wire services.

04/14/2002 - 8:00pm