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Business, bird-watchers team up to save the eagle

Americans have long cherished the bald eagle as the emblem of the United States - a creature whose piercing eyes and soaring flight symbolize the spirit of freedom.

Now Alaska, the only state where the eagle is neither an endangered nor a threatened species, has moved to ensure that the majestic bird will always have a safe habitat.

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As the nation this month observed the 200th anniversary of the bald eagle as the national emblem, Gov. Jay S. Hammond signed a law establishing the 49,000 -acre Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve along the Chilkat River in southeastern Alaska.

The signing ceremony, at the town of Haines in the Alaskan panhandle, marked the success of democracy at work - agreement among competing commercial and conservation interests, including the timber industry and the National Audubon Society, on a plan for protecting the prime eagle habitat while permitting tree cutting on adjacent land.

Alaska is home to some 30,000 bald eagles - more than ten times as many as are found in the rest of the US (Hawaii, the 50th state, has never been an eagle habitat). Although the number of eagles in the ''lower 48'' has doubled since use of DDT was banned in 1972, survival is still threatened in most states.

Alaskans call an 18-mile stretch of the Chilkat River, between Haines and Klukwan, the ''bald eagle capital of the world. As many as 3,500 eagles gather to feed there - from as far away as Puget Sound in Washington State.

Although a 4,800-acre area along the river had long been off-limits to woodcutters, controversy continued over the harvesting of spruce trees in the Chilkat Valley. In 1980 Governor Hammond declared a moratorium on timber cutting in the valley. State, federal, and local governments sponsored a study on how to protect the eagle habitat while permitting use of nearby timber resources.

The result was a new preserve that includes the river and fringe timber on both sides, beginning north of Haines and extending almost to the British Columbia border. The law also places 250,000 acres around the Chilkat Preserve in the Haines State Forest Resource Management Area.

Besides commercial timber harvesting in the area outside the preserve, the law permits recreational fishing, hunting, and trapping, as well as such ''subsistence'' activities by the native population as berry-picking and cutting of firewood for personal use.

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David Cline, National Audubon Society director in Alaska, called the Chilkat plan ''an unprecedented consensus agreement on resource conservation'' and ''a model for resolving land and resource conflicts in other places.''

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