I find the need to correct some misimpressions that might have been formed after a June 2 opinion piece concerning the proposed Senate version of a Sealaska lands bill.
Concerning environmental lawsuits, I introduced the Senate bill to avoid some of the very concerns expressed in the op-ed. Currently, if Sealaska is forced to select its final acreage guaranteed to the corporation by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, it will be taking 63,484 acres of wildlife habitat that currently is classified as old-growth preserve areas by the U.S. Forest Service. Under the proposed Senate bill the Native corporation will take just 17,875 acres of old-growth preserve timber — less than three-tenths as much — I believe this will substantially lessen, not increase, the danger of a successful environmental group lawsuit over threats to wildlife habitat.
Concerning access, the current Senate bill clearly contains provisions, the same Section 17(b) and 14(g) easement provisions contained in the original lands settlement act, which requires full public access, both over and across all lands conveyed by the bill, including the three traditional and customary trade and migration routes and so-called “future” sites. And the bill contains an added provision to guarantee access across the trade routes so no lands can be blocked access. The future sites were created so that Sealaska can diversify out of old-growth logging activities in the Tongass and have less impact on wildlife and fisheries.
The bill actually conveys fewer separate parcels than if Sealaska had to stay within its existing withdrawals (53 compared to 42 of those sites). The bill also clearly requires Sealaska to allow hunters, fishermen and subsistence users open access to all of their potential 70,000 plus acres of commercial timber lands — except during active logging operations — a benefit that outdoorsmen do not enjoy on the other 44 million acres of Native corporation private lands in the rest of Alaska or would not enjoy should Sealaska stay inside its current selection areas. The bill protects wildlife and tour guides access to their existing areas for up to two decades based on current Forest Service rules.
And concerning precedents, the Sealaska bill will not set a precedent for any other Native corporation to “reopen” the 40-year-old lands act. All 11 of the other in-state Native corporations have already received the vast majority of their lands. Only Sealaska has been forced to wait for the distribution of reserve pool lands for a large percentage of its ultimate land selections under ANCSA’s aboriginal land claims settlement.
I have tried mightily to make sure that the Sealaska bill will allow the corporation’s shareholders to receive lands that have fewer environmental impacts than if they proceed to make selections from the 112,000 acres of old-growth timber within their original selection “boxes.” I already have made more than 150 changes to the bill to meet Southeasterners concerns, and I’m open to further improvements and clarifications to prevent unintended consequences. I will again review the bill’s access provisions, but I feel many of the concerns raised in the op-ed have already been addressed in the changes we have made to the bill.
• Murkowski is a U.S. Senator.