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Sealaska lands bill makes sudden move in Congress

Supporters, critics predict bigger battle ahead in US Senate

Posted: July 13, 2011 - 9:31pm

A U.S. House of Representatives committee Wednesday passed the Sealaska lands bill, marking the most progress the Juneau-based regional Native corporation has made since it began its effort 10 years ago.

The successful vote to move the bill out of the House Resources Committee thrilled Sealaska Corp. and disappointed environmental opponents, but may only be a prelude to bigger battles ahead.

“This is the furthest along this has gotten,” said Jaeleen Arajuo, Sealaska’s vice president and general counsel.

She described herself as “very excited” about Wednesday’s action following working for seven years to advance the lands legislation as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and serving for the least three years as Sealaska’s top in-house counsel.

The bill passed through the markup process in the House Natural Resources Committee by a 34-10 vote.

Sealaska CEO Chris McNeil called the action “a huge milestone for our 20,000 tribal member shareholders” in a statement released by the corporation.

HR 1408 is titled “Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act” and was sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

Young, in a committee statement, and McNeil, in a press release, both said the bill would “finalize” the remaining land entitlement the corporation is due under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

What the bill would actually do, however, is to allow Sealaska to select different land than where it is currently allowed to select under ANSCA. The preferred lands may be more valuable to the company, especially when they contain timber that can be profitably logged or sited with economic development value.

That’s got environmental and other groups disappointed at the Resources Committee’s action, but saying they’ll continue to battle the bill, especially in the Senate.

“We’ve always felt that the Senate is going to be the key arena moving forward,” said Lindsey Ketchel, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

She attributed the bill’s passage Wednesday in the committee to the recent Republican control of the House, as well as some lawmakers’ unfamiliarity with the legislation. Those representatives might have otherwise sided with the environmental community on the bill, she said.

“There were a number of new Democrats assigned to this committee, and with very short notice for the markup I don’t think everyone on the committee was given a full understanding of a very complex piece of legislation,” she said.

In the current Congress the Sealaska bill was first introduced in April, moved quickly through a subcommittee, and then was given only three days notice before Wednesday’s action, she said.

Araujo said the lands legislation has been extensively discussed over the years.

And Young said the bill has had several changes made to it in recognition of community concerns on Prince of Wales Island and elsewhere.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who joined with Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, to co-sponsor similar legislation in the Senate, said the bill would allow Sealaska to chose 79,000 acres of land, mostly on Prince of Wales and Koscuisko islands. That would be mostly for timber harvesting but would also include several thousand acres for economic development and for sacred, cultural, historic and educational sites.

In exchange, said McNeil, other environmentally sensitive areas would remain in federal control where they could be better protected. And the bill will not provide Sealaska with any additional acreage beyond that to which it is currently entitled, he said.

Araujo said she hoped the bill would move quickly in the House, possibly before the August recess, and that it might pass as stand-along legislation or be included in an omnibus lands bill with other bills also awaiting action.

SEACC’s Ketchel predicted that would happen.

“I would anticipate you are going to continue to see quick movement on the House side,” she said.

Ketchel said she expected the bill would receive more scrutiny in the Senate, despite the Senate’s being controlled by Democrats and Democrat Begich being a co-sponsor.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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