U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has committed to hearing more from Southeast Alaska residents about Sealaska lands legislation under consideration by Congress.
Murkowski said her senior staff would hold a series of meetings in the region on Senate Bill 881, starting in early March.
Describing the meetings as "listening sessions," she said the staff would "sit down with the people, listen to their concerns raised and put maps on the table so we really understand the proposal."
"My intention is to have a level of openness and transparency, that people have a chance to be heard," she said.
The commitment to regional meetings is an answer to a flood of criticism about the process and charges of ethics violations for statements made by state Sen. Albert Kookesh while meeting with the Craig City Council.
Council members said they felt threatened when Kookesh, who was acting on behalf of Sealaska as one of its executives, asked for their support on the bill while reminding them that as their state senator, he controlled funding streams to the small Prince of Wales Island community.
Murkowski said Kookesh's comments "tainted" the conversation and distracted from the bill's goal. She said she remains committed to the bill and helping Sealaska complete its land selections granted under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
The Act set aside 375,000 acres for Alaskan Natives in Southeast but Sealaska, the regional Native corporation, is still owed about 85,000 acres.
"Never once have I heard someone say Sealaska doesn't deserve to have their land conveyances," Murkowski said.
The senator was in Juneau Thursday to make her annual address to the Alaska Legislature.
During the speech, she talked about the state of the timber industry as a source of deep frustration.
"In 1972, the Southeast timber industry was one of the largest economic drivers in the state, and in 1990, just 20 years ago, timber jobs hit an all-time employment high," she said. "Now there are but a few small mills left, scratching desperately to hang on."
She said in an interview later with the Empire the bill provides an opportunity to support what's left of the industry.
Hearing of the meetings Thursday, Sealaska Corporate Communications Director Todd Antioquia said the company would participate.
Sealaska has held several hundred meetings in the region to discuss the land legislation's details.
"We've always found we'll gain support after clearing up misconceptions about the bill," Antioquia said.
The bill's critics are worried Sealaska's planned timber harvests on north Prince of Wales Island would destroy their subsistence lifestyle.
The bill is in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Murkowski is a ranking member. Wide concern it would move as early as next month added to the growing chorus of calls for regional meetings.
Details about regional meetings such as a schedule or list of communities have yet to be decided.
Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.