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Micmacs acquire 600 acres of trust land on former air force base

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine – The Interior Department has taken more than 600 acres of land into trust for the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians.

The property at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine will be used for economic development, a tribal spokesman said.

The property includes a “tank farm” of five fuel storage tanks with a total capacity of 13 million gallons, a coal-handling station, including a conveyor system and underground storage bunker which was formerly used to provide energy to a coal-fired energy plant off tribal land, several large buildings, and woodlands containing a mixture of soft and hardwood trees on 619 acres.

The acquisition was completed at the beginning of May, although efforts to acquire the land have been ongoing for almost 15 years, said Micmac Housing Director Richard Dyer.

“In what is seen by tribal members as a historical event. … the Department of the Interior received land into trust on behalf the Aroostook Band of Micmacs,” Dyer wrote in an e-mail May 7.

“This small Northern Maine tribe of approximately 1,100 members has been fighting an uphill battle since 1995 when the former Loring Air Force Base closed under a Base Realignment and Closure Act. The tribe has gone through five or six BIA directors and run through almost every office in Washington, D.C. to try to convince the powers that be to speed up the land into trust process, which was seen by the tribe as an easy enough government-to-government transfer from the Department of Defense to the Department of the Interior, but it was stretched out to 14 years, and many thousands of scarce tribal dollars were spent to pay for legal fees, travel and accommodations.

“The place was considered a Superfund site, but to everyone’s satisfaction the cleanup has been completed and given a thumbs up. I also tend to believe that there were interests behind the scenes that were allied against the tribe in its efforts to become more economically self-sufficient, but I can’t prove that.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the 9,000-acre Loring Air Force Base operated as an active military installation under the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War from 1952 on. Loring’s Nuclear Weapons Storage Area was the first U.S. site specifically constructed for the storage, assembly and testing of atomic weapons.

The base was a Superfund cleanup site during the first half of the 1990s and continues to require five-year reviews “because the implemented remedies have resulted in hazardous substances remaining onsite at concentrations that do not allow for unlimited use and unrestricted exposure and the remedial actions at some sites will require more than five years to complete,” according to the 2005 five- year review. While certain areas on the site continued to contain higher than desired levels of contaminants, “remedies at all sites were found to be functioning as intended by the decision documents.” Remedial work at the site continues, and the next five year review will happen in 2010.

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Loring appears to have generated strong emotional ties in some people who worked there and has created Web sites dedicated to preserving its memories, including www.all-hazards.com/loring and www.loringairforcebase.com, the site of the Loring Air Force Base Association.

The new land presents a wide range of economic development opportunities for the Micmacs, whose members live within Aroostook County in northeastern Maine – a remote and poor area.

Dyer said the tribe will pursue environmentally friendly projects.

“They (the tanks) were primarily used to store Jet-A fuel, but they may be fitted for virtually any product from biodiesel to wood pellets,” Dyer said.

“The tribe is considering reusing the tanks for alternative ‘green’ fuels, using coal for a purpose that I can’t disclose yet, and some of the former buildings as either manufacturing plants for solar components, or wind turbine blades, a fish farm raising salmon and/or trout.”

The tank farm and coal yard comprise only about 100 acres of the property. The remaining 519 acres are comprised of the mixed soft and hardwood trees, a stream and some wetlands, Dyer said. Much of the land is flat and a portion lies near the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge.

“The tribe has also been reintroducing approximately 7,000 ash trees on the wooded portion, which the tribal basket makers use to produce their fine basketry,” Dyer said. The tribe hopes to attract business partners or investors.

“Because of the unique trust status there are certain tax benefits to be realized, especially if a product is being produced on tribal trust land. There has been discussion of the creation of a free trade zone or free enterprise zone, as well as a Section 17 status which exempts the tribe in areas of taxes, tariffs and duties. Similar to an LLC but for Indian tribes,” Dyer said.

He extended the tribe’s “sincere gratitude” to Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and her regional representative Sharon Campbell; Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Rep. Mike Michaud and congressional staff member Barbara Hayslett.

“We believe that their continued prodding and support helped speed this process along when we had just about given up hope.”