ANCHORAGE - U.S. Rep. Don Young defended a bill Wednesday to give Sealaska Corp. its remaining lands under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Young, a Republican, faced opposition from two federal agencies and others. He said 39 years is long enough for the southeast Alaska Native regional corporation to wait for lands awarded under the act, which was intended to compensate Alaska Natives for the loss of lands historically used or occupied.
"I think everyone should be ashamed of the bureaucracy. This is their land," Young said in the hearing before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee in Washington, D.C.
The bill has been criticized by conservation groups and some local communities as an unfair land grab by Sealaska because it would allow the Native corporation to choose choice lands outside the established boundaries.
Sealaska has said the transfer of up to 85,000 acres of federal land is an unpaid debt and long overdue, which will create new economic opportunities apart from timber harvesting.
The corporation, which has more than 20,000 shareholders, wants to diversify its businesses into boutique tourism and renewable energy projects.
Byron Mallott, on Sealaska's board of directors, told the committee that the Native corporation has worked closely with federal agencies in the past, and perhaps the private sector is best for moving management of the Tongass forward.
Mallot said in a statement after the hearing that, "It was clear that the committee members were confused by opposition to our bill and were sympathetic to the real environmental and historical issues at play."
But Don Hernandez, a commercial fishermen from Point Baker, said if Sealaska gets the land around his town, he expects the Native corporation to aggressively go after the old-growth timber and turn the land into a "managed tree plantation."
"The ability of the forest to provide for future uses would be in serious doubt," Hernandez said.
The bill likely would disrupt a "delicate balance" as the Tongass moves from old-growth timber harvesting and toward biofuels and second-growth cutting, said Jay Jensen, a deputy undersecretary with the Department of Agriculture.
"The department views this proposed legislation in the broader context of the suite of economic challenges facing southeast Alaska, challenges not just to the Sealaska Corp. but to the 32 communities in that region," he said.
Work needs to be done on the bill to reduce user conflicts, Jensen said.
It is that aspect of the bill that perhaps is most disturbing, said Gwen Dobbs, spokeswoman for the Alaska Wilderness League, who attended the hearing.
"What is objectionable is that it is causing conflict within the communities. We feel it is geared toward a single interest - Sealaska," she said.
Young said passage of the bill is "crucially important to the state of Alaska."
Marcilynn Burke, the Bureau of Land Management's deputy director for programs and policy, said the agency is concerned about the bill because it allows Sealaska to choose lands outside the original withdrawal areas and "also creates new and unique categories of selection that are not available to other corporations."
Burke said that could encourage other Native corporations to try and reopen their land claims.
"If this occurs it will prolong the process of completing ANCSA entitlements," she said.
Young reminded her that Sealaska is entitled to the land and has waited a long time.
"It has been 39 years for the young lady giving testimony," Young said.