Southeast communities have much to lose from Sealaska's land bill

Posted: Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Recent events in Craig have made the Sealaska Corps. lands bill a front-page story, prompting Sen. Lisa Murkowski to announce she will hold, "a field hearing on Prince of Wales Island."

For the residents of Point Baker and Port Protection who will be surrounded by Sealaska land if this bill passes, it has been front-page news for more than a year. We have sent letters, petitions and have given personal testimony to all of our representatives, opposing this bill. Right from the beginning, we have asked for public hearings in affected communities.

We think that the whole process of how this public lands bill has proceeded is wrong; when we called for public meetings, we got a visit from Sealaska executives and board members. They tried to convince us that they would be good neighbors. We gave them a whole list of reasons why we could not accept being surrounded by private land.

Sealaska made a few minor and meaningless revisions to the bill and then reported back to our senators that they were working with the local communities to resolve issues. Is this the right approach - letting the corporation that stands to benefit from legislation hold the meetings to hear public testimony, and then report back to state representatives?

We are grateful to the Craig City Council for asking a U.S. senator to come to the island to hear our concerns. This request, coming from the islands largest community, got Murkowski's attention, but it is two of the smallest communities on the island that would be most directly affected, and that is why the residents of Point Baker and Port Protection have invited Murkowski to visit our communities.

When Murkowski visits Craig, she will see what Sealaska land looks like now that every available acre has been clearcut in the past 25 years. She will hear how the local economy has boomed and then gone bust as a result of Sealaska's round log export. When she visits Point Baker and Port Protection, she will see multiple use land management and a sustainable economy. She will be asked, "Are we to compensate Sealaska for the short-sighted unsustainable exploitation of their lands?"

Is it justified to rewrite the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which was ratified in 1971, so that Sealaska can trade land that is already available to them for land that has been improved at taxpayer expense with roads, bridges, a log transfer facility and thousands of acres of tree thinning? Do you want public land that has been used by people from all communities on the island as well as residents of Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan for all kinds of public uses to be turned over to private ownership?

When Murkowski visits Point Baker, Port Protection or any community on Prince of Wales Island she will see an existing forest economy. She will see people catching salmon commercially or for subsistence, hunting for deer to feed families and cutting firewood to heat homes. She will see people getting a free-use permit to harvest trees and having the lumber milled locally or purchasing lumber from one of the many small mill operators on the island to build a home. She will see an artist or artisan creating works inspired by their surroundings. She will see residents taking visitors out fishing or sightseeing, or working on a stream or wildlife restoration project. These activities are all part of our forest economy.

This economy has sustained the rural communities of the Tongass for generations, and could continue to do so for many more. But all of these forest-dependent activities are threatened if we allow some of the most valuable public forest land left on the island to be cut and shipped overseas.

Supporters of the Sealaska land bill say that the timber industry is dying and that Sealaska must have this land in order for it to survive. When Murkowski visits Prince of Wales, she will see that there is a viable alternative to failed timber management practices of the past. Let's work together to promote an existing way of life and encourage the growth of a more sustainable forest economy.

• Don Hernandez is a resident of Point Baker.

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