Sealaska Corp. executives stood firmly behind their lands bill moving through Congress, telling a roomful of conservationists during a heated exchange Thursday the land is owed to them.
"It is our bill, it is about our rights," said former Sealaska CEO Byron Mallott during the morning session of the two-day Tongass Futures Roundtable meeting in Juneau.
Byron said the legislation is "about who we are as a Native people" and not a "typical" lands legislation package.
Pleas by conservation groups and other roundtable members to shelve Senate Bill 881 or stall it to find a common solution to land entitlements the company seeks were flatly turned down.
"We feel we have no option but to continue to pursue it as vigorously as we are able, and we will continue to do so," Mallott said.
The bill attempts to allow the regional Native corporation to complete its lands selection process granted under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
The Act set aside 375,000 acres for Alaska Natives in Southeast but Sealaska is still owed about 85,000 acres.
Since U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced the bill nearly three years ago, corporate executives held hundreds of regional meetings and altered the bill 10 times to compromise with residents who don't want the company to own certain public lands.
Most of the opposition comes from Prince of Wales Island, where residents say plans to harvest timber would destroy their subsistence lifestyle.
The company can't move its land picks far enough away from the communities to satisfy those residents, Sealaska Vice President and General Counsel Jaeleen Araujo said.
"We've heard a lot of, 'We support you ... but don't come here,'" Araujo said. "Nobody's providing us with alternatives."
Critics of the bill say the company cherry-picked the best lands, rather than choosing from the original boundaries of the Act.
Araujo said Tuesday the company would cut down less old growth and create fewer roads under the bill than if it chose from the original boundaries.
Thorne Bay resident Karen Petersen suggested the corporation withdraw the bill, choose from the original boundaries and trade with the Forest Service to acquire land the company wants to harvest.
Sealaska Vice President Rick Harris pounded on the table when answering that the company tried to do a land exchange through the tenure of five forest supervisors with no success.
Community resolutions against the bill - the most recent in Petersburg - have been frustrating and surprising for company executives who rushed to meetings to defend the legislation, Harris said.
"All of a sudden a resolution comes flying out of nowhere, there's no attempt for entering into an honest dialogue," Harris said. "... then they say you don't talk to us. I just don't understand that."
ANCSA compensated Alaska Natives for the taking of their lands, allowing the regional corporations to select from 44 million acres and paying them more than $962 million.
Sealaska was entitled to up to 375,000 acres but received 290,000 acres.
The Tongass Futures Roundtable is a three-year-old attempt to get people with different interests to talk about ways to end disagreements and lawsuits over the forest's resources. It has 35 members.
Sealaska's lands bill goes to the heart of decades of fighting because it attempts to designate land for intensive timber harvest.
The bill includes about 85,000 acres, the majority of which would be logged.
Members of The Wilderness Society, Audubon Alaska and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council asked Sealaska executives to work on a compromise that would provide assurance non-corporate-owned lands in the region would be protected.
"How do we work together to push something forward that meets conservation needs?" Alaska Wilderness League Program Director Laurie Cooper said.
Araujo said there's no more time.
"If we don't get more land selections that include marketable timber, our timber operation will be gone," she said.
Originally from Angoon, Araujo attended law school on a scholarship, worked as an intern at Sealaska, and spent a decade in Washington, D.C., before returning to the region to work for her Native corporation.
She has personally worked on the bill for 10 years.
"Why do we have to have the crap land?" she responded after three successive requests for compromise. "My people need to survive here. We're going to have a land base of about 360,000 acres in a 17-million-acre forest. There has to be room for some development so our people can live here."
The bill is one contested land use scenario proposed on the Tongass. Roundtable members on Tuesday briefly discussed two additional Congressional bills, several pieces of state legislation making their way through the Capitol, and a list of lawsuits that have to do with land use in the nation's largest forest.
Meetings continue today at the Temple Sukkat Shalom from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or email@example.com.