Sealaska land bill is fair

Posted: Thursday, March 11, 2010

While I was living in Craig in the 1940s and 1950s, the east coast of Prince of Wales Island was pristine country with strong and vibrant Native communities.

Aside from the community of Kasaan and a few homesteads, the entire area was unsettled. Then, in 1954 the Ketchikan Pulp Mill was awarded a 50-year contract for up to 8.25 billion board feet of timber to service the mill from a million acres of Tongass forest lands.

Non-Natives then began to systematically "cherry pick" some of the most pristine locations in Southeast Alaska. First in Hollis, then on to Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove; and eventually to Edna Bay, Port Alice and Naukati on the west side of Prince of Wales. The logging camps eventually became settlements, and the once public lands became private lands not available for public uses.

As we discuss the legislation to return some historically Native lands on Prince of Wales to Sealaska Corp., we have to remember that of all the timber cut in Southeast Alaska since statehood in 1959, more than 88 percent was harvested by non-Native logging operations. Hundreds of miles of roads were built on northern Prince of Wales, at taxpayer expense, to gain access to the billions of board feet of timber going to non-Native timber operations.

Even today, non-Native logging continues near Naukati, Hollis and 12-Mile Arm without objection from those who claim to be worried about the environment or subsistence. Yet, without question, Sealaska's relatively modest timber operations draw the most criticism from within the dominant society.

Those who oppose Sealaska's efforts to create Native Futures sites in S. 881 and suggest Sealaska is "cherry picking" fail to acknowledge a very basic fact: Our governments have already allowed many non-Natives to place the most valuable locations in our region into private ownership.

These private areas include the south shore of Sarkar River and Marble Island; lodges have been built at: north Heceta Island (Sea Otter Sound Lodge), Kasaan Bay (Karta Lodge), Whale Pass Lodge, Waterfall Lodge, and El Capitan Lodge, to name a few. There also are private settlements in Sunshine Cove, Kasaan Island, Tolstoi and Skowl Arm. Without objection from those who oppose S. 881, many of the most historic and important sites in southeast Alaska are in non-Native, private ownership.

When the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was implemented in Southeast Alaska recognized village corporations were to select land from within the township in which that village is located. Sealaska was to select their lands from adjoining township to the village township. It has been suggested that this is a hard and fast rule and if S. 881 is adopted the intent of ANCSA would be violated.

It is important to remember that the village corporations of Klukwan, Angoon and Saxman, as well as the urban corporations of Juneau and Sitka selected lands outside of their township because of other land management considerations.

Critics of S. 881 falsely suggest that Sealaska's commercial land selections would disrupt the Tongass Land Use Management Plan (TLMP) by re-designating non-commercial lands as commercial. This is absolutely untrue, and an unfair characterization of the issues at hand. If Sealaska was not successful in getting these lands for commercial use, they would be available to others for commercial use.

I have been involved in land management issues in the Tongass since the early years of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. While it is frustrating when there are automatic negative responses to our legislation without careful consideration of its positive aspects, I am grateful that our Congressional delegation has had the courage to sponsor this very important legislation to enhance fairness in ANCSA. I thank those of you who are not of Native descent who have come forth with reasonable suggestions that have strengthened this proposed legislation.

• Edward K. Thomas born and raised in Craig. He was raised in a subsistence lifestyle and was a commercial fisherman for more than 30 years. He served as president of Tlingit Haida Central Council for more than 20 years and has been a Sealaska Corp. board member since 1993.

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