My turn: Sealaska land bill denies years of public investment

Posted: Monday, March 01, 2010

The opening paragraph of Chris McNeil's Feb. 18 My Turn column clearly sets the tone for the attitude of Sealaska Corp. and Alaska's congressional delegation toward the rest of us who do not stand to benefit from the Sealaska land bill, S. 881: "The Tongass National Forest is a Native Place." Clearly this implies that those of us who are non-Natives do not belong here, should not have a say, and our opinions are dismissible.

As far as this land bill "enable(ing) the government to complete the contract that it made with Sealaska and other Alaska Natives when it enacted ANCSA in 1971," one of the biggest issues is that the public lands they are now trying to take were not a part of the "contract." These are public lands that we as individuals, communities and taxpayers have a right to. The federal government poured years and money into building roads and managing these lands, and we and built our very livelihoods around them. These value-added, roaded, multiple-use, highly used public areas are now the very areas Sealaska wants to grab.

The worn-out line of "The Sealaska land legislation not giving Sealaska any more land than it was entitled to under ANCSA" defies logic as well. On whose spreadsheet do "pristine unroaded lands" have the same value to the public as roaded public lands on which we drive, hunt, fish, recreate, cut firewood, support small logging sales and access our communities? It sounds very noble to "preserve over 270,000 acres of inventoried roadless and over 112,000 acres of productive old-growth stands," but Sealaska knows and we know that means nothing when it's time to put food on our tables.

As a private corporation, Sealaska has much fewer restrictions than the federal government on how it manages its lands; it can export logs in the round, and no expensive lawsuits or requisite public accountability and NEPA process. If they can't make money - or as high a profit as they'd like - on their unroaded lands, then it's egregious to expect anyone else to, and it's callously unconscionable to instead take away the very land base which communities need to eke out a living in these tough economic times.

Do not be fooled. The "jobs" Sealaska creates are for Sealaska's beneficiaries and come at the expense of the communities and public at large. How often have we seen notices for employment opportunities with Native entities, with the qualifier, "Native Preference Applies?"

The truth is, there is hardly enough to go around now. Individuals and communities on Prince of Wales and Kosiousko Islands are barely hanging on, and looking for creative ways to diversify out of old-growth-centric industry to rebuild flagging economies.

The glory days of big timber profits are gone. The glory days of big corporation dividend checks are gone, too. Instead, there is a delicate, and hopefully recovering, balance of communities involving small mills, wood products, commercial fishing, some tourism, some civic employment, public land management, and subsistence and cottage industries for which public land and multiple-use management are critical components of survival.

In order for everyone to survive, everyone is now trying to make do with less than we may have enjoyed in the past. More of our critical public lands for Sealaska means less for communities and families who are right now only hanging on by their fingernails. You can't rob from Peter to pay Paul, without Peter starving to death. And that is a fact to which Sealaska and, inexplicably, our own elected officials are apparently turning a deaf ear.

As for Sealaska's leadership making "nearly 200 visits to communities across the region" to try to sell the idea of the land grab, why are we then hearing more and more opposition to this bill? I believe they only visited Point Baker and Port Protection once. By the public and municipal comments I have seen, this has not been a well-received proposal. Whatever major compromises Sealaska claims to have incorporated don't seem to have won the approval of the affected communities or individuals. The same roaded public land base they've had in their gunsights has changed little if at all.

That is the core issue. How is it that a proposal of such magnitude, basically a land disposal of some 85,000 acres of the most used and valued public land base, is not the subject of widely publicized public hearings in every affected community, public scoping and input, and extensive environmental and economic analysis? It would appear that the proponents would prefer quite the opposite, but now at last the cat is well out of the bag and the outcry is growing.

I own property in Point Baker. My father has lived there for 50 years. It is one of the communities, along with Port Protection and Edna Bay, to be the most immediately devastated by this land bill. If this bill passes, I probably will forego planning to ever build on my property. The only road that approaches Point Baker/Port Protection would become private road. Surrounding these tiny communities with private Native corporation land will soon squeeze them out of existence. I don't know which communities Sealaska's goals are in alignment with, but it certainly is none of those three.

For McNeil to imply that Sealaska's surveys show buy-in from the public merely highlights the fact they have not, are not, and don't intend to address the concerns of these communities. These are our concerns: Do not take away the public roads and public land our communities need to survive. How many times will this have to be repeated before Sealaska hears us? Or before our elected representatives listen to us?

McNeil sounds like he expects critics of Sealaska's land bill to provide alternatives for their corporation's economic sustainability. Well, we all want economic sustainability. There is no miracle cure. No one has ever guaranteed my economic sustainability. We all have equal opportunity to work hard and succeed.

I grew up financially poor but determined to work hard, and that I have done. As to the question about how many more people will lose their jobs, well, if Sealaska's bill passes, it will surely be a lot. And when McNeil talks about "job prospects for our youth," does he just mean Native youth? What about my child? I do know he doesn't get Native preference for jobs. I know he isn't allowed to hunt or fish on corporation land. I guess they weren't talking about my child. At least on public land, all Alaskans can hunt and fish: Native and non-Native equally.

McNeil insults the communities and individuals who have serious issues and concerns about this land bill by accusing us of "misrepresenting the legislation" into "sound bites." Like many of the "critics," I have lived in Southeast a long time - 35 years. I have hiked, hunted and fished on public lands, and I have driven up and down the length of Prince of Wales many times. The north end of the island is in particular a public treasure.

We all love these lands and we are fighting for our livelihoods as well as the continued full use of our public lands. No one is out to deny the legitimate settlement of the ANCSA issue. While this should have been done 40 years ago, it was not, but waiting for huge public investments such as roads in order to gain value-added benefits at the public's expense is just plain wrong. Sealaska needs to settle ANCSA based on the land selection areas authorized by the original Act and let us all get on with building an economically strong Southeast Alaska together. Our accessible public lands are public lands, to benefit all of us, not just a select private group.

Anyone concerned about stopping this Sealaska land bill once and for all needs to contact Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and Sen. Mark Begich, as well as local elected officials, to voice their concerns.

• Sandy Powers lives in Ketchikan. Powers is a 35-year resident of Southeast Alaska and a Prince of Wales Island property owner.

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