Story last updated at 5/28/2014 - 2:08 pm
On Jan. 22, 2004, Greg Clark left his home in Cape Pole with a puppy and an 8-year-old black Lab named Brick in tow.
It wasn't by choice.
Clark was out of heating oil, and the weather was abysmal. Temperatures had been below freezing for more than a week, and no one nearby had any oil to spare - no one in Cape Pole, and no one in nearby Edna Bay.
"It was January, it was very, very cold, and he felt he had no choice," said Myla Poelstra, postmaster of Edna Bay and Clark's neighbor. "There was no fuel in town. Everybody was down to the bottom when that happened."
Clark climbed into his 32-foot fishing boat, the Katrina, and began to sail the 50 miles from his Kosciusko Island home to Craig, the largest town on Prince of Wales Island. He'd use the opportunity to give a puppy to a friend in Craig.
Bad weather or not, Clark had a problem and was determined to fix it himself. He was that type of person. He came to Alaska in 1984 from Idaho and needed a job. He found it.
He built his own shellfish farm and became one of the first people to raise abalone in captivity. He grew kelp and was convinced it could be made into vitamins and dog treats. He needed a home, so he built it, milling the wood himself.
Friends called him "the self-made professor" for his love of reading and intelligence.
"He was the epitome of a remote southeast Alaska personality," Poelstra said. "Very independent, very multitalented. He was a good neighbor."
Clark raised dogs and gave them to friends. He served in the Cape Pole community organization and volunteered for a group trying to preserve the Cape Decision Lighthouse.
He was used to fixing problems himself, but on that cold day, he ran into a problem he couldn't fix - and it killed him.
Just after noon, as the Katrina tried to make headway against 25-foot waves, the boat's engine quit. Clark radioed that he was going below decks to fix the problem, likely fuel contaminated by water. A minute after that, he radioed that he was abandoning ship.
"It was a great loss when we lost Greg Clark," Poelstra said.
Ten years after Greg Clark's death, people who knew him well are determined to fix the problem that killed him. They intend to build a bulk fuel depot to solve shortages and fuel contamination - but first, they need to organize. This month, the state's Local Boundary Commission ruled that Edna Bay may become Alaska's newest city.
Some time this year or next, the city of Edna Bay will build a fuel depot. Residents will no longer have to sail through deadly waters to get fuel. The depot will fix a lot of problems - but Alaska's newest city faces many more. Roads need to be repaired, bridges rebuilt - and then there's the timber.
City of spruce
In 1904, a U.S. government survey crew mapping Kosciusko Island, west of Prince of Wales Island, found an ideal harbor at the southeast end of the island. E.F. Dickins, commanding the steamer Gedney on behalf of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, wrote in his log that Edna Bay was "named by our party, has no local name."
Dickins' group may have given Edna Bay its name, but the loggers were the ones who put it on the map. In 1931, the U.S. Forest Service - which owns most of the island - estimated the island had 130 million board feet of old-growth timber. That proved to be a gross underestimate. The first U.S. Forest Service timber sale, in 1938, included almost 23 million board feet.
World War II arrived, and the need for lightweight spruce to build aircraft brought hundreds of loggers to Kosciusko Island. Kosciusko timber was used in Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose and hundreds of other, unnamed aircraft. Edna Bay didn't appear in the U.S. Census until 1950, but historical accounts show the community existed as far back as the 1940s, when mail was delivered by Coast Guard cutter.
After the war, the logging industry exploded. Wood was needed to build homes across the country, and Kosciusko Island was the perfect place to get it.
Kosciusko is flat by Southeast standards and is made of soft limestone that drains easily. With fewer streams to cross, roads were easy to build and quickly spiderwebbed across the island.
"If you were a logger back in about 1940, you'd probably pick the best ground you could. Well, that's Kosciusko," said Ron Wolfe, natural resources director for Sealaska, the Alaska Native corporation for Southeast Alaska.
In the 1970s, Kosciusko logging declined. The Forest Service restricted its sales, and the loggers went elsewhere. Small sales continued, but nowhere near the scale of the 1950s. Edna Bay declined.
In 1983, as part of a statewide campaign, the state of Alaska began land sales in Edna Bay. The sales worked, and Edna Bay grew again. The state built a school and small floating dock, and residents organized a nonprofit association to deal with community needs. There weren't many.
Roads, bridges and government
The state intended Edna Bay to be a waterfront community: Residents would access their homes by skiff from shore. Instead, as the community grew, the nonprofit association built the six-mile Edna Bay Community Road, which runs in a semicircle around the northern end of the bay. At one end of the road is the harbor. At the other end is the school.
The road crosses two creeks - Thayer and Charlie - on log bridges built in the late 1980s or early 1990s. When they began showing their age, the simple reaction was to replace them. Edna Bay residents turned to the state and promptly ran into a problem.
"As it turns out, no one owns the road," said Lee Grief, a retired timber worker turned pastor who presented Edna Bay's case to the state this month. "An unincorporated association as we are ... we're not a legal entity. We can't deal with these agencies."
Unincorporated towns like Edna Bay have certain powers under the law. They're not supposed to be building roads.
That didn't mean anything in Edna Bay, which maintained the six-mile road with volunteer labor and borrowed equipment. It wasn't an issue until the bridges - tightly regulated because they cross salmon streams - needed replacement.
The community started negotiating with the state and the Forest Service, which controls much of what happens on Kosciusko Island. "It's not that it's impossible to do it, it's just that it's way more difficult," said Heather Richter, president of Edna Bay's community association.
With negotiations slow even by government standards, other problems arose. The community dock, part-owned by the state and part by the community, needed maintenance. Again, the state was reluctant or unable to help a community that wasn't run on official lines.
"I understand your concerns about the condition of the float, but I am not aware of any discretionary funds the department has for making an immediate repair or replacement of the float," wrote state ports and harbors engineer Michael Lukshin in 2008.
After Greg Clark died, Edna Bay organized regular fuel shipments using a fuel truck that rode in a landing craft. That worked well until 2008, when the Coast Guard discovered the system and shut it down.
"It's been one thing after another," Richter said.
That year, 2008, was a turning point. With so many problems, Edna Bay needed to organize in a way it hadn't before. "I would encourage the Edna Bay community to consider incorporation under the state's Constitution as a second class city, or higher," Lukshin wrote, "to be in a better position to receive federal and state aid."
Under state law, a municipality must meet six main standards before trying to become a city, a process formally called incorporation: It must provide services; have a stable population to support government; and establish a city government. It also must prove that the area isn't suited to annexation by another city; the area isn't already in a city or borough that provides services; and the area can financially support becoming a city.
If a location meets those standards, the process is as simple as the details are complicated. The city files a petition to the state's Local Boundary Commission, which normally mediates disputes between cities or boroughs. Anyone against the petition can file a "Respondent's Brief." If someone steps up against the proposal (and someone always has, in the history of the state), the two parties meet for a courtroom-style argument in front of the commission.
The commission then judges whether the petition is valid. If so, it sends the decision off to the state Division of Elections, and people in the area get to vote on the idea.
There was a flood of incorporation petitions in the two decades following Alaska statehood, but there haven't been many since. Post-2000, there have been exactly four: Adak in 2001, Talkeetna in 2002, Gustavus in 2004 and Naukati in 2006. Adak and Gustavus voted in favor of incorporation, Naukati and Talkeetna against.
For Edna Bay, the process began in 2009.
"We had our first meeting with the Department of Commerce staff then," said Myla Poelstra, a member of the community council and the town's postmistress. "They flew down in February 2009, discussed the pros and cons, met with the community. We were at that point in time running into the issues that we're still dealing with now. That's what really led us down this road."
For four years, Edna Bay residents debated whether or not to incorporate. The council kept working on its problems and continued to encounter hurdles imposed by the state. The Forest Service donated fuel tanks for a depot - but the state wouldn't give the community land to store the tanks. "We went through a tremendous amount of difficulties trying to obtain site control," Poelstra said.
With the state balking, Edna Bay residents signed a petition demanding incorporation and filed it in March 2013.
Eight months after the petition was filed, Edna Bay learned that someone had filed a Respondent's Brief against its incorporation drive. It wasn't anyone who lived in Edna Bay or even owned land there - it was Sealaska Corp., the regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska.
Residents were stunned. Why would this enormous corporation care about their town? At least a few people thought they had the answer.
"The only thing that comes to mind is that it's political payback," Poelstra said.
In 2003, Sealaska began lobbying the U.S. Congress to settle final claims from the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. That act, passed in order to build the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, created the modern system of Native corporations stretching across the state. Sealaska, as the corporation for Southeast Alaska, was allowed to take over federal land near several predominantly Native villages. "That system worked pretty darn good, but the problem is the government underestimated pretty significantly what Sealaska's share should be," said Wolfe of Sealaska.
According to Sealaska's figures, the federal government owes Sealaska about 65,000 acres of land. The corporation would like to select land away from the original selection, in parts of the Tongass National Forest prohibited by the original ANCSA guidelines, but it is being opposed by environmental organizations and communities that stand against the company's logging practices.
Logging is one of the cornerstones of Sealaska's business, and many of its modern land selections include thick stands of towering old-growth timber.
In 2003, Sealaska's selections included thousands of acres on Kosciusko Island. Edna Bay's prized swimming hole was among them, as were miles of Forest Service roads used by hunters and local timber cutters.
Other Southeast communities faced similar circumstances and lobbied hard to kill the Sealaska bill. They did so, but Sealaska kept working, holding more than 225 meetings to come up with a revised proposal. Edna Bay got back its swimming hole, but the headwaters of the watershed that supply the town's drinking water are within the proposed selection.
Poelstra organized a letter-writing campaign that generated more than 1,100 messages from Southeast residents to Congress. Others in Edna Bay spread their message far and wide, and Poelstra herself traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify against the bill - the first time she had ever been east of Montana.
Politically, it would be easy for Sealaska to walk away from Kosciusko Island. Congress is not expected to pass the land transfer bill before the fall elections, and if the bill isn't introduced at the next Congress, it will die quietly. Financially, however, Kosciusko makes perfect sense. Elsewhere in Southeast Alaska, logging is tied to the construction of roads, sometimes as much as $500,000 per mile. Roads allow access to timber away from shore, but roadbuilding in the Tongass National Forest is a thorny issue.
On Kosciusko, the road network is in good repair, requiring only brush-cutting to become passable to log trucks. Atop that, the forest has regrown since large-scale cutting began in the 1930s. "At this point in the Tongass, that combination is unique: having a lot of younger old-growth timber ... and having a road system in place that would be pretty cheap to get back functioning," said Mike Sheets of the U.S. Forest Service in Craig.
Wolfe said that having timber on Kosciusko would "fill the pipeline" for Sealaska. By the time Kosciusko is logged, other stands of timber in Southeast will have regrown enough to be cut. Kosciusko could fill a missing link on a sustainable cycle that supports Southeast Alaska Natives.
Wolfe said he understands why Edna Bay residents might think Sealaska's opposition is political payback. "Frankly, I could see why they would say that," he said. "That's not the case."
The problem for Sealaska, he said, is that part of Sealaska's Kosciusko Island selection would fall within the city limits of Edna Bay, and the company is concerned that if Edna Bay runs into financial problems, Sealaska could have a big target on its back.
"We're on the verge ... there is the possibility that we're going to become the largest landowner within this private city," Sealaska attorney Jonathan Tillinghast told the boundary commission this month.
If Edna Bay runs into financial trouble, he said, it would be like owning a business in bankrupt Detroit - not ideal. "Frankly, we don't want to feel that bad either," he said.
Sealaska's arguments aren't defensive speculation.
In a brief filed with the boundary commission, Grief wrote, "The commission should consider as a condition of approval of the petition that Edna Bay enact a 10 percent tax on the exvessel value of all timber harvested within the boundaries delineated in the petition."
The commission did not take that suggestion, but nor did it accept the arguments put forward by Tillinghast. Earlier this month, it voted 4-0 to accept Edna Bay's petition.
"We basically rolled our best arguments ... they basically listened to us and made a different decision," Wolfe said. "Sealaska looks forward to working with Edna Bay in the same way that we have with so many other communities in Southeast Alaska. It's not as though we had something personally against Edna Bay."
To the polls
Edna Bay still faces problems. Its incorporation petition has been accepted, but Edna Bay will not become a city until voters say so. Some time this fall, every landowner in Edna Bay will receive a mailed ballot from the state Division of Elections, and they'll be asked to give the final word on incorporation.
Sealaska says it won't try to steer the vote or appeal the boundary commission decision - "We're not going to get in the middle of their business; that vote needs to run their own course," said Wolfe - but incorporation elections are no sure thing.
Gustavus, as community-minded a place as any in Southeast, needed three tries to approve an incorporation election. Griff fears that people opposed to incorporation - whether through tea party-esque antigovernment thought or simple fear of change - will get absentee landowners to change their voter registration simply to foil incorporation.
Gail Fenumiai, director of the Division of Elections, said the state doesn't have a way to stop that practice. Anyone registered to vote in Edna Bay 30 days before the division sends out its notice that an election will take place can vote.
"We're after self-government; we don't want to be a ward of the state or Sealaska for that matter, either," Grief told the boundary commission.
Whether that question will resound with Edna Bay's handful of registered voters is an open question. Grief himself thinks it's a 50-50 proposition. Edna Bay's future - its roads, its bridges, its fuel and its timber - will be decided by a handful of people.
"We're an isolated community and we have to function under circumstances that are unique to that situation," Poelstra said. "Our ability to be legally recognized by state and federal agencies ... as a lawful entity is really the reason for this. It isn't any more complicated than that."
Greg Clark was never seen after Jan. 22, 2004, but the ending was different for his eight-year-old Lab, Brick. On Feb. 19, two fishermen near Heceta Island thought they saw a wolf on the shore. As they drew closer, they recognized the animal.
Brick swam to the boat and was taken aboard, skinny but alive. He was taken in by one of Clark's friends and lived several years longer before dying of old age.