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My Turn: Five Sealaska myths

Posted: April 25, 2011 - 8:29pm

Sealaska Corp. is once again lobbying hard for a land exchange, in part on claims they were treated unfairly under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). While there may be some truth in these claims, it is certainly not the whole truth.

Myth: Sealaska did not receive the total anticipated amount of profitable timber under ANCSA. The initial timber inventories indicated there was 4 to 7.8 billion board feet of commercial timber available under ANCSA. So far the combined Sealaska and village corporation harvest is about 7.7 billion board feet and there are at least 65,000 acres yet to be harvested. Simply stated, the combined Native harvests will exceed the high end of the ANCSA estimates — the timber was there, it was cut and it was primarily exported as logs.

Myth: Sealaska was unduly constrained by the two 50-year timber sale contracts on the Tongass National Forest. True, each long-term contract set-aside large forest tracts for the exclusive use of two pulp companies. However, it is erroneous to assume that Sealaska was left to select marginal timber. When you compare Sealaska’s timber base to that of the Tongass or state forest lands, Sealaska Corp. selected some of the best timber lands in Southeast Alaska. Commercial timber lands are divided into four classes and ranked from high to low productivity. Sealaska’s timber base has higher proportions of the top two classes.

Myth: Sealaska Corp. asserts that ANCSA forced them to unfairly select lands inside the withdrawal areas set aside for 10 village corporations. To the contrary, it was Sealaska Corp. who returned to Congress to specifically request a ANCSA amendment to allow them to complete their land selections inside the village corporation withdrawal areas. Sealaska’s testimony cited the endorsement of the state of Alaska, the Federal-State Land Use Planning Commission, the Alaska Federation of Natives and even the acceptance of the Sierra Club. Congress quickly amended ANCSA to accommodate Sealaska Corp. in 1976.

Myth: Sealaska’s exchange is in response to justice delayed. Sealaska Corp. often stresses the 40-year delay in finalizing their entitlement under ANCSA. There are certainly elements of truth in the Sealaska Corp. argument, but again it is not the whole story. Under the Alaska Lands Acceleration Act of 2004 there are no reasons why Sealaska Corp. cannot rightfully finish their 65,000-85,000 acre entitlement — in short order — and without further legislation.

Myth: Sealaska’s exchange is a value-for-value trade. Simply stated, Sealaska Corp. wants to exchange lower quality uncut old-growth for much higher quality old-growth on Prince of Wales Island. Sealaska claims the proposed exchange is a value-for-value trade — especially in terms of wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, there are no publicly available timber appraisals available to evaluate the proposed timber trade. However, there are two proxies for value-to-value comparisons. Based on the presence of big trees, Sealaska is getting a ten-fold increase in big tree values. Likewise, using comparative wildlife habitat measures, Sealaska will log habitat that is 3.5 times more valuable than what they are returning to the public. Granted these proxies may be somewhat subjective, but even if they off by 200 percent, Sealaska Corp. still gains much higher timber values and the public is left with lower-quality habitat.

The real issue is that Sealaska quickly liquidated their old-growth and now is looking for a second bite of the apple. Sealaska Corp. is simply angling for a windfall benefit and a benefit that may never trickle down to shareholders. Past Sealaska/village corporation logging has certainly left villages like Kake and Hoonah high and dry. Moreover, there is absolutely no justification for this windfall to Sealaska Corp. when it comes at the expense of small communities, sportsmen, tourism operators and commercial fishers.

The answer to Sen. Lisa Murkowski is simply no. Sealaska needs to finish their existing land selections under the existing ANCSA framework and not under new legislation using a misnomer of an unjust ANCSA process.

• Mehrkens is a retired forest economist and a former alternate member of the Tongass Futures Roundtable.

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