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ANCHORAGE - The proposed payoff of a decades-old debt by the federal government to a private Alaska Native corporation has prompted growing criticism that it's nothing more than a modern land grab.
Critics question why Sealaska Corp. and its more than 20,000 tribal member shareholders would be allowed to cherry-pick some of the loveliest and most valuable lands in the Tongass National Forest in the southeast part of the state.
Sealaska said the transfer of up to 85,000 acres of federal land is an unpaid debt and long overdue - and could create new economic opportunities in an area of Alaska where the timber industry is dying.
"I believe this will have a positive economic impact throughout the region," said Sealaska President and CEO Chris McNeil Jr.
The company would like to diversify its businesses, which now is mostly in timber, into cultural and environmental tourism and perhaps renewable energy projects such as tidal, geothermal, biofuels and wood pellets, he said.
Jim Gould, mayor of Thorne Bay, a town of about 400 people on Prince of Wales Island, countered that if Sealaska gets what it wants, the town's dependable supply of timber and the jobs that go along with it will be gone.
"I think they will harvest when the market is high and it will be short-term boom and bust with most of the timber going to exports," Gould said.
All three members of Alaska's congressional delegation sponsored a bill that would approve the transfer.
It would be the first time that one of 13 Native regional corporations formed nearly 40 years ago has been allowed to pick land outside the original boundaries of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Under the act that compensated Alaska Natives for the taking of their lands, the regional corporations were allowed to select from 44 million acres and were paid more than $962 million.
Sealaska was entitled to up to 375,000 acres but received only 290,000. Much of the land it was entitled to was tied up in long-term timber contracts. Some of the parcels now available for choosing are mostly under water and include municipal watersheds and land used for subsistence hunting and fishing.
Those lands should stay in the public domain and shouldn't be part of the deal, McNeil said.
In addition, the Native corporation is giving up its rights to hundreds of thousands of acres of old-growth forest in the Tongass, - at nearly 17 million acres, the nation's largest national forest - to be able to make selections outside the 1971 settlement act boundaries.
The bulk of the acreage Sealaska wants in southeast Alaska is for timber harvesting. Sealaska also wants 3,600 acres containing more than 200 sacred sites and 5,000 acres containing 46 sites for new business ventures such as ecotourism.
"We think this is a fair alternative," said McNeil, adding that the corporation's plans could help lower the high cost of living in southeast Alaska, while at the same time creating jobs.
"We think our land bill is an idea not just about the past but looking at the future of the region," he said.
Sealaska is not getting more than its fair share, said Alaska Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
"The bill doesn't give Sealaska one single acre more than it was entitled to receive back in 1971," said Murkowski, who expects congressional movement on the bill this month or next.
No one is suggesting that Sealaska be denied the acres it's entitled to, said Tenakee Springs Mayor Don Pegues. The problem is some of the parcels Sealaska wants, like Crab Bay, for example, where locals go to hunt and fish.
"We are not opposed to Sealaska obtaining its lands, but we are not too ... interested in having them pick this piece of land," Pegues said.
Folks in the town of fewer than 100 people don't mind visitors, but a large tourist lodge, for example, would be too much, he said.
"We like them individually and not in large groups," Pegues said.