Here we go again … it’s payback time for Sen. Lisa Murkowski. We all knew this was coming when Byron Mallot and Sen. Albert Kookesh appeared at the announcement ceremony for the Senator’s unconventional write-in campaign. Endorsements from across the aisle by these two men who have traditionally supported Democrats foretold of the next round of legislation that was sure to follow.
This latest reincarnation of Sealaska’s land legislation is now titled “The Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act” — a desperate attempt to market a hugely unpopular piece of legislation that has ignited opposition across the region, and is poised to set neighbor against neighbor.
There is an old saying about putting lipstick on a pig … well that seems appropriate for the newest version of an idea that has been rejected over and over since its initial introduction as Senate Bill 1466. The original bill eventually went on to become the 2004 Alaska Land Transfer Acceleration Act, however the out-of-withdrawal area land selections were dropped because of local opposition that still persists today.
Unfortunately it’s never over; the stage had now been set for the swift finalization of Sealaska’s land selections, which were reintroduced in 2007. These versions were also overwhelmingly rejected, but that was not the end of this unprecedented idea.
Two years later, the Sealaska legislation emerged again with new bill numbers. A few tweaks here and a couple of changes there. Each version has attempted to move the devastating impact of Sealaska’s economic endeavors from one neighbor to the other, with the last bills failing in committee at the end of 2010.
One of the main reasons cited for this legislation is the lack of opportunity for Sealaska to make their selections during the development of ANCSA. That justification appears to have been addressed in 1975, when Sealaska President John Borbridge testified before Congress of the desire to have their entitlement taken from inside the ten village corporation 16(a) withdrawal areas. He said they were desirous of those lands for the timber values. Congress granted the amendment, and Sealaska made their land selections.
The latest version includes the politically catchy title of “jobs protection act”. Whose jobs are being protected? The current economic development selections are now situated almost entirely inside the Thorne Bay Ranger District. Where was Sealaska’s consideration for local jobs when they cut to the bone around Hoonah and Kake, where unemployment is now rampant?
Estimates from the Forest Service are staff reductions of over 20 year round jobs if current legislation passes. Such a large loss of employment in a city the size of Thorne Bay will undoubtedly cause a ripple effect that will negatively impact every community residing within the district. How can this be remotely fair for the struggling economy of Southeast Alaska?
One of the biggest casualties will be Southeast Island School District, currently supporting over 40 full-time positions; as well as numerous aides and maintenance workers spread across the region in eight community schools. The economy of the entire area will be impacted heavily by such an extensive loss of employment opportunities that support many families and businesses. A domino effect of collapse will surely follow.
Sealaska does not need this legislation to complete their entitlement. Their withdrawal area selections have been on file with the Bureau of Land Management for nearly three years. But somehow they have been allowed to request a postponement in conveyance of the lawful selections they submitted as a requirement of the dead- line established by the 2004 ALTAA.
According to the language of this law; those final selections once submitted cannot be rescinded, revoked, or modified. The law speaks for itself, the picture is clear; it’s time for Sealaska to do the right thing, finalize their entitlement and move on, letting the rest of Southeast Alaska get on with their lives.
• Poelstra is a resident of Edna Bay on Kosciusko Island.