The Tongass National Forest is a Native place. Southeast Alaska Natives gave up claims to more than 17 million acres of land for approximately 375,000 acres.
From less than one half of one percent of all lands conveyed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), Sealaska Corp. has shared more than $300 million dollars with other Alaska Natives under Section 7(i) revenue sharing. The Sealaska land legislation, S. 881 and H.R. 2099, currently before U.S. Congress, enables the government to complete the contract that it made with Sealaska and other Alaska Natives when it enacted ANCSA in 1971.
A core promise of ANCSA was to create healthy and sustainable economies for Alaska Natives. This amendment to ANCSA is necessary because the implementation of the Act has been frustrated by the federal bureaucratic indifference to speed of governmental conveyance process; and because there have been dramatic changes in the social, economic and environmental objectives relating to the management of the Tongass National Forest.
The Sealaska land legislation will not give Sealaska any more land than it was entitled to under ANCSA. The purpose of the legislation is to specify where Sealaska will make its final ANCSA land selections.
First, this is environmentally responsible legislation that will give policy makers the option to preserve more than 270,000 acres of inventoried roadless and more than 112,000 acres of productive old growth stands that are presently available for selection. Under this legislation, Sealaska will select significant acres of previously harvested lands, reducing the amount of roadless and old-growth forest that will otherwise be harvested.
Second, it offers new strategies for economic diversification and will help create new ways to use and manage forest lands while creating jobs.
Third, the legislation will allow Alaska Natives to once again own sacred sites of our ancestors to sustain a culture that enriches all of Southeast Alaska.
Forth, the legislation is the single most important economic stimulus package that Congress can provide to Southeast Alaska. With the passage of this legislation, Sealaska will be able to sustain the 210 direct and indirect jobs created on Prince of Wales Island and more than 363 jobs throughout Southeast Alaska.
Any legislation considered 40 years after the original act should change to accommodate current concerns. ANCSA is itself an ongoing experiment in federal Native American law.
Sealaska's leadership have made nearly 200 visits to communities across the region to discuss the legislation and seek solutions to their concerns. As a result, major compromises are being incorporated into the legislation.
Sealaska undertook public opinion surveys to augment the input we have been receiving in our public meetings and to ensure that our legislative goals are in alignment with community expectations. These surveys show that the Sealaska land legislation, although not perfect, is in alignment with community goals, such as providing jobs, diversifying the economy, allowing Natives to own their sacred sites and providing a balance between resource development and land protection.
Critics of Sealaska legislation fail to provide alternatives for economic sustainability and also fail to address several important questions: How many more people will lose their jobs, and will we have any hope of offering job prospects to our youth so that they can remain in our communities? Prince of Wales Island school enrollment is falling, and the population of the island's larger communities has fallen by 8 percent to 21 percent since 2000. Many communities face losing state school funding due to falling student enrollment. If we are to sustain our communities, enactment of the Sealaska land legislation and the jobs that it will sustain are important to that effort.
The current advertising campaign ignores the history of Southeast Alaska and why Sealaska, with more than 21 percent of all Alaska Native tribal member shareholders receiving less than 1 percent of the land made available under ANCSA.
The critics of the Sealaska legislation efforts are focused on misrepresenting the legislation by breaking up complex economic, environmental and cultural issues into sound bites. These efforts are a disservice to the myriad of groups, communities, legislators and Alaska citizens who have worked on this final piece of critical legislation. Forty years of waiting for closure to the land selections should be respected. It is time to work together to ensure a vibrant future for Southeast Alaska.
Chris E. McNeil Jr. is the president and CEO of Sealaska Corp.