My Turn: Where is Tongass justice?

Posted: Wednesday, March 26, 2003

I am Ya-Yan-No-Goo, Wanda Hit of the Chookaneidi Clan, descended from the people of Glacier Bay. This land has sustained our people since time immemorial. I am not a child and have walked this land for half a century. I learned the ways of living with the land from my uncle, the way the Tlingit people do. I worked for years cutting down the forest, believing it promised a sustainable economic future. I now know otherwise.

I am a Huna Totem shareholder. I am a Sealaska shareholder. I am a veteran of the United States of America. I know the forest and I know my trees - at least the ones that are left.

The federal court in Juneau recently convicted me for cutting down a "green" tree while I was hunting with my friend who needed it for firewood to heat his home. He cannot walk because of a logging-related accident. His wheelchair does not allow him to cut his own and he is my friend. I did this as a subsistence right. The forest still sustains us.

When I was issued the citation 30 days after the activity, the Forest Service officer writing the ticket said it would be wiped off the books if I paid the fine within 30 days. At the time I did not understand why he would imply that it would be good to have my actions swept under the carpet or wiped from my record. I had not done anything to be ashamed of. I thought this was exercising my right to subsist. I know my trees and the forest still sustains me. Now, I think I'm beginning to understand.

I pleaded guilty, even though I know my trees. No one in his or her right mind would cut down a "green" tree for firewood - too wet, too much work. I took a cross section of the tree to court with me and requested a Forest Service biologist that could determine whether the tree was dead or alive. I was told they were all in school. The judge determined that I did not need an attorney and the hearing proceeded.

The judge asked me for a definition of a "green" tree. The judge does not know his trees. After consulting a book in chambers closed, the court was reconvened. The judge told me that I had "jumped the gun by a year," at which time the tree would have been "officially" dead.

I was fined $200 and told that I would be used as an example to others who fell "green" trees.

Now I hear that Sealaska wants to do a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service in an effort to target the remaining biggest and best trees located around Chicken Creek and elsewhere in the American people's old growth forest reserves. Sealaska knows its trees. The clear-cuts around Hoonah are testament to that. And I suppose Sealaska will continue to send this unprocessed forest, these value un-added green trees to the Asian market where they will be turned into high value products to be sold for someone else's profit.

In addition, the U.S. Forest Service recently determined that no additional protection for the forest is needed and road building may commence in spite of the overwhelming cry of the people who continue to rely on the forest green.

All this while our new state leader seeks to undermine a system of environmental checks and balances by shredding the Division of Habitat Protection through the teeth of the Department of Natural Resources.

I ask you, "Who are the criminals? Where is the humanity? Where is the justice in the Tongass?" In the dominant society I am known as Frank Lee. But, I am Ya-Yan-No-Goo. Who are you?

Frank Lee is of the Chookaneidi Clan and lives in Hoonah.

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