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My Turn: Support passage of Sealaska lands bill

Posted: March 21, 2013 - 12:08am

Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich have introduced S. 340 in the U.S. Senate to finalize Sealaska’s land selections from within the Tongass National Forest as intended by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Representative Don Young has introduced similar legislation in the U.S. House. We are seeking broad public support for these bills as the most balanced economic, cultural and environmental solution to resolving a 42-year-old congressional promise to Southeast Natives and the public.

There was robust public dialogue related to the different land legislation versions proposed in the last Congress. While no land bills advanced in the last Congress, Alaska’s delegation was highly engaged in developing modifications and solutions in response to the ideas and concerns posed by the public and numerous interest groups. The result is highly evolved new legislation that includes more than 100 significant revisions.

Some public debate continues around the merits of the former legislation, initiated primarily by a small group that seeks to incite fear or even anger about any land settlement for Alaska Natives. Arguments that put Natives back in their box and restrict land selections to the 1975 or 2008 models are irresponsible and are by no means comprehensive, balanced solutions. Please excuse the metaphor—by thinking outside the box, this new legislation addresses the economic, cultural and environmental priorities of responsible stakeholders today.

Sealaska was the only regional ANCSA institution that was restricted to highly limited withdrawal boxes due to the then-existing long-term timber contracts. This imperfect approach that was developed in the 70s included as options high value public lands such as community watersheds and valuable recreation and subsistence areas such as the Situk River corridor, a river with exceptional fishing and wildlife values. While these sensitive areas were all available for selection by Sealaska, they are better suited for public ownership.

The current bills under consideration allow Congress to fulfill promises made to Alaska Natives and the public while resolving the discrepancy between 1970s priorities and the real issues of today. In addition to eliminating Sealaska’s selection rights to high value public and environmentally sensitive areas like intact old growth reserves and roadless areas, the Senate bill includes more than 150,000 acres of newly designated conservation lands, an area of land that is two times the number of acres that Sealaska is receiving. These new conservation lands will be added to the 87% of the Tongass already in conservation designations.

Once the bill is passed, Sealaska will continue to contribute to the region’s delicate economy through the most responsible management of timberlands, many of which are second growth areas. We will regain ownership of some of the most sacred places and are working toward co-management of these sites with the relevant tribes to honor their sacred association. Unprecedented access is guaranteed for the public to Sealaska land selections for the purposes of recreation, subsistence gathering and education.

Alaska Native people value balance and this fact remains as true today as it was in the 1970s and ten thousand years ago. We want nothing more than to continue to thrive in our homelands and we remain committed to strengthening our culture, communities and the environment. This land legislation honors the intent of ANCSA, our Native values and the best interest of the public. Please support its passage and help strengthen the Tongass for us all.

• Antioquia is Tlingit Nation-Eagle Tribe, Tsaagweidí (Killerwhale) clan and a tribal member shareholder of Sealaska and Goldbelt, Inc.

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