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Sealaska Native corporation's land transfer near Redoubt Lake to go forward this summer

Posted: April 25, 2011 - 9:23pm

SITKA — A land conveyance that would transfer control of public land near Redoubt Lake to the Sealaska Corporation is scheduled to take a step forward this summer.

Survey crews with the Bureau of Land Management are scheduled to visit the Redoubt area this summer with an eye toward creating a formal plat that would pave the way for 11 acres to be transferred to Sealaska, said Tom Jennings, a spokesman for BLM’s Alaska office in Anchorage.

The prospect of transferring Redoubt Falls, where dozens of Sitkans fish for sockeye each summer, to private hands has raised strong concerns among some locals.

“This is an absolute tragedy that this is happening,” said Andrew Thoms, director of the Sitka Conservation Society. “It’s absolutely unethical that that land could be transferred from public hands to a private corporation.”

Once the land at Redoubt is surveyed it could take 12 to 14 months to create the official plat, Jennings said.

He said the fact that the process, which began in 1975, had advanced this far indicates BLM considers the land conveyance valid.

“It’s made it through a lot of hurdles,” Jennings said. “It’s not a final approval, but it hasn’t met any reason for rejection at this point.”

In 2005, the Forest Service objected to the transfer and argued that the preponderance of archaeological evidence “seems to indicate that it is a Russian-American historical site, rather than a Native historical site.”

Sealaska, however, said the area had been an important seasonal village site for local Tlingits long before Russians arrived here, and that the “rigorous” BLM process had shown that the land there has historical value to Natives.

The Forest Service spends about $110,000 a year to fertilize Redoubt Lake and man a fish weir, which has operated consistently since 1982. Last year, 175 Sitkans took out subsistence permits from the Department of Fish and Game to dip net at Redoubt, a short skiff ride from Sitka.

The state controls the waters near Redoubt, and manages the fishery using Forest Service data, but local dip netters generally tie up their skiffs and fish from what would likely be Sealaska land under the proposed conveyance.

Sealaska initially requested 11 acres near Redoubt in 1975, under a provision of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which allows the Department of Interior to convey “cemetery sites” and “historical places” to the regional corporations created by ANSCA.

Jaleen Araujo, Sealaska’s general counsel, said the corporation has similar sites previously conveyed by BLM all across Southeast, and that such activities as subsistence fishing have not been restricted.

She said historical sites are “essentially held to be in their natural state unless we need to do something to protect a significant item.”

She said access to the Redoubt fishery could be considered during the final stages of the BLM conveyance process.

Carol Goularte, Sitka’s district ranger, said it was her understanding that the federal government would retain control over the fish weir and nearby cabin after the land conveyance to Sealaska and that the Forest Service would continue managing sockeye at Redoubt Lake.

She said the Forest Service hopes to work with Sealaska as well as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game so that fishing at Redoubt can continue.

Ray Massey, a Forest Service spokesman in Juneau, said the agency continues to oppose the land conveyance. He pointed to a federal archaeological study from the 1990s that found evidence of European settlement at Redoubt Lake.

Once the formal plat is filed, BLM will send out letters seeking comment to other federal agencies, Jennings said.

Prior to final approval, the land conveyance will be published in the federal register, providing an opportunity for public comment.

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