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My Turn: Sealaska's perpetual battle for its land entitlements

Posted: November 1, 2011 - 12:00am

I’ve got to admit that I’m somewhat befuddled by the dustup over our Congressional delegation’s attempts to bring closure to the four decades long struggle that Sealaska has been engaged in to finalize the land selections awarded to the corporation under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA).

The basic policy of ANSCA, as stated in the Act, seems to pretty clear to me, as the purposes section of the law states: “The settlement shall be accomplished rapidly, with certainty, and in conformity with the real economic and social needs of Natives, without litigation, with maximum participation by Natives in decisions affecting their rights and property….”

My guess is that if you asked a Sealaska shareholder if this Congressional promise embodied in ANSCA has been fully realized, the answer would be a resounding “no!”

I suspect what makes this unfulfilled promise even more disturbing is that Sealaska — in my view—got short-sheeted in ANSCA in its original land selection base due to existing federal commitments in 1971 such as the pulp mills’ long-term timber contracts.

So from the get-go, Sealaska was seriously hamstrung in what lands it could select in Southeast and in the total acreage available for the corporation’s selection base.

To show how out of kilter the ANSCA treatment of Sealaska is, a review of the existing land base in the Tongass National Forest may be instructive.

The Tongass is roughly 16.8 million acres in size. About 5.7 million acres are designated as federal wilderness. Another 9.5 million acres are protected by the U.S. Forest Service’s plan for managing the Tongass.

Finally, according to Forest Service data, the amount of the Tongass available for what it terms “potential development” is 655,000 acres. If you believe that much “development” will ever occur on these lands, I’ve got a bridge to nowhere that I’d like to sell you.

The simple fact is that the Tongass is, in effect, one big national preserve with minimal amounts of private lands.

Sealaska has roughly 85,000 additional acres left to select (which is less that one-half of percent to the Tongass land area), but has been hemmed in by ANSCA’s requirement that the corporation select its entitlement from 10 specific areas in Southeast.

Our Congressional delegation’s legislation to amend ANSCA would give Sealaska the legal right to select a limited amount of land from outside of the 1aw’s specific selection boundaries.

Frankly, I hope the legislation passes, for several reasons.

First, ANSCA has been amended at least 18 times since it was originally passed in 1971, so amending the Act to accommodate Sealaska’s request for new selection rights sets no new precedent.

Concern has been expressed that amending Sealaska’s entitlement will somehow open up ANCSA to a clamor from other Native regional corporations to modify their original entitlements.

The Forest Service has trotted out this specious argument as one reason why Sealaska’s proposal should not pass Congress. Good grief, the agency already controls a vast swath of the Tongass, how much is enough?

Also, as anyone who has lived in Southeast knows, privately-owned land in the Tongass is a rarity. I can understand those who value public lands that are basically closed to development in the Tongass, but my question to them is the same question as I would ask the Forest Service in its efforts to beat back the Sealaska initiative: How much is enough?

To me at least, the pivotal question is fair treatment of Southeast’s first Alaskans, Sealaska and its shareholders.

Finally, I believe that it’s time to bring this long-standing injustice to an end.

To be candid, I’d much rather have the relatively small amount of the Tongass involved in the Sealaska legislative initiative in the hands of the Alaskans who originally inhabited Southeast than in some D.C.-based bureaucracy that is largely tone deaf when it comes to responding the concerns of Alaskans.

Isn’t it time to bring fairness and closure to this issue? I believe that it is.

• Reinwand was Gov. Jay Hammond’s top aide during his second term and served in the same position for then-Sen. Frank Murkowski in the senator’s Washington, D.C., office. Reinwand also served as the first Deputy Comissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. He has no business or personal ties to Sealaska.

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