My Turn: A promise that must be kept

Posted: Monday, January 31, 2011

Sealaska is seeking congressional help in obtaining that last 85,000 acres promised to it in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

The legislation, which amends ANSCA, will be reintroduced to Congress this year. It honors a promise to restore just four-tenths of 1 percent of Southeast Alaska’s 23 million acres to Sealaska and its tribal member shareholders. The return of this land has far reaching significance to the economy of Southeast Alaska and the development of sustainable businesses for the future.

Last week the public radio stations of Southeast Alaska broadcast a series about what it termed Sealaska’s controversial lands legislation. It failed to say that opinion polls show that the majority in Southeast Alaska support the legislation. So do Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Mark Begich and Rep. Don Young.

Alaska’s congressional delegation has heard the concerns of people throughout Southeast Alaska in an unprecedented public process. Sealaska itself held more than 200 community stakeholder meetings that helped to shape the legislation.

Of the lands Sealaska is seeking, nearly half have already been logged or already have logging roads. This is unlike the land originally identified in ANCSA, which includes important watersheds for local communities.

Still some argue that Sealaska should select land inside the box prescribed by ANCSA. But for most of us, environmental values have changed since 1971. Hardly anyone thinks now that logging should happen within the Tongass’ high conservation areas. But that is where most of Sealaska’s remaining entitlements are.

Sealaska’s timber operation is an important economic engine in Southeast Alaska’s economy, providing more than 400 jobs that would be lost by 2013 if the legislation fails. Sealaska’s impact on the regional economy extends beyond jobs; it has also provided wood to small mill operators and to other businesses through its micro sale program.

Beyond Southeast, the continued viability of this timber harvest matters statewide. It also matters to over 80,000 Alaska Native tribal shareholders, for whom Sealaska’s timber earnings are a leading source of shared revenue.

Other lands identified in the legislation will be designated for the future. Sealaska will use these lands for future diversification into cultural tourism and green energy.

The public radio series did give us some hopeful insights. No one doubted the ancestral importance of the forest to Sealaska’s tribal member shareholders who call it Haa Aanż. No one has objected to the protection of sacred sites. This respect has not always been accorded to the Native peoples of Southeast Alaska.

So what values does this legislation hold for residents of Southeast Alaska?

• Over 270,000 acres of designated roadless areas and 112,000 acres of productive old growth set aside for Sealaska selection will be released back as public lands.

• It reduces Sealaska’s harvest of old growth timber by over 41,000 acres, and creates 150,000 acres of newly-designated conservation areas.

• When managed with the rest of Sealaska’s lands, it will provide a sustainable forest with fish and wildlife habitat and timber operations that will annually generate 40 million to 50 million board feet.

• It protects 400 jobs and creates new employment in Southeast Alaska, which has higher unemployment than the rest of the state.

A larger conversation still has to happen about the future uses of the entire Tongass National Forest, which touches everyone in Southeast. But right now, as Murkowski has said, the U.S. needs to fulfill its 1971 promise to Sealaska.

Supporting Sealaska’s land legislation is a good idea for anyone who is concerned about the economy and the environment in Southeast Alaska. Sealaska is proud to provide jobs and support businesses throughout the region, and with the lands promised it can be an economic engine for generations to come. This legislation is good for Southeast’s economy, and it is good for the country to keep its promises.

• McNeil is the president and CEO of Sealaska Corporation.

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