Update: The bill passed 31-8 and is headed to the Senate.
The Alaska House of Representatives is expected to vote today on a bill to protect the Unangax̂ cemetery at Funter Bay. The bill would add about 251 acres of state land, including the cemetery, to Funter Bay State Marine Park.
The cemetery holds more than 30 graves of people from St. Paul and St. George who died at Funter Bay during World War II after the U.S. military forced them from their homes and held them for much of the war at the remote spot on Admiralty Island.
Last year, the bill looked to be on its way to passing when the COVID-19 pandemic cut the session short. This year, a group of Republican representatives complained during floor debate that the bill transfers too much land to the park.
Republican Rep. Kevin McCabe, Big Lake, said he supports the intent of the bill, but he proposed an amendment that would transfer 90 acres to the park instead of 251.
Without the amendment, McCabe said, the state would be transferring additional acres, “including an island that’s offshore and not even part of this cemetery — that is unneeded transfer of Alaska’s wealth into a state park.”
Republican Rep. Dave Eastman (Wasilla) said the bill could stand in the way of future resource extraction.
“We are going in the wrong direction for a mere 30 interned individuals in the cemetery,” Eastman said. “We don’t know what technologies and future mineral discoveries might happen involving this area.”
Most of the people who died at Funter Bay were elders or very young children who were left to survive without clean water or basic medical care in the remains of an old cannery, more than a thousand miles from their homes.
The movement to protect the cemetery was motivated in part by what happened at another internment site, on Killisnoo Island, near Angoon. It’s on private land, and the owner has blocked access. The Funter Bay families want to make sure they can care for the graves — and that the site will serve as a memorial of the Internment.
Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, Sitka, is one of the bill’s sponsors. He said he had not heard any opposition to the bill from local residents or mining interests.
“I understand the concerns being highlighted by previous members,” he said. “But I think it may be more ideological and is not corroborated by any on the ground or local concern or hesitation about this proposal.”
Juneau Democratic Rep. Sarah Hannan, who is also sponsoring the bill, said the Department of Natural Resources had found the land has no commercial value. DNR recommended transferring the entire 251-acre tract because it would streamline management. Instead of two state divisions having separate management responsibilities in Funter Bay, the parks division could manage it alone.
McCabe’s amendment failed, 21-19, and the bill advanced without objection. If it passes the House, it goes next to the Senate.