POW residents get second chance to speak on lands bill

Murkowski sets up meetings this month to address growing criticism

Posted: Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Residents in small communities on northern Prince of Wales Island get a second chance Wednesday to voice their opinions on the Sealaska Lands Bill.

A large number of residents in the three communities - Point Baker, Port Protection and Edna Bay - oppose the bill making its way through Congress.

The bill would transfer about 85,000 acres of federal public land into private ownership under Sealaska Corp., the regional Native corporation. It is sponsored by all three members of Alaska's delegation.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, set meetings up this month to address growing criticism in the southern parts of the region over the bill, which residents said would ruin their subsistence lifestyles since Sealaska plans to intensively log about 90 percent of the land.

Residents in Point Baker, Port Protection and Edna Bay missed a chance to speak when bad weather kept Congressional staff away earlier this month.

Meetings in Craig, Thorne Bay, Coffman Cove, Petersburg and Sitka were held and the staff is "doing everything we can" to resolve issues raised, Spokesman Robert Dillon said Monday.

Sealaska Vice President and General Counsel Jaeleen Araujo said the company also is making changes based on input.

"Our delegation wants us to make changes and we're doing that," she said.

The three communities with meetings Wednesday would likely be the most impacted by Sealaska's planned timber harvests, and residents have said the company has not assuaged their concerns.

"I think their mind is made up, they're going for what they're going for," said Port Protection resident Judy Magnuson.

Sealaska's land picks come within a quarter mile of the town and surround it on all sides, Magnuson said, but residents oppose the bill for many broad reasons.

The bill would remove federal protections for subsistence rules and timber harvest management, since the land under private ownership would be managed under state rules, she said.

"It's public lands being given to a private corporation and it's just wrong," she said.

Senate Bill 881 is in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Murkowski is a ranking member. Critics fear the bill could soon be marked up and attached to a package of land bills.

Murkowski said she would ensure community members are allowed to voice their concerns before the bill moves from the committee.

Dillon on Monday said after Wednesday's meetings the staff would take another look at the bill but some issues remain "stickier" than others.

Sealaska Vice President Rick Harris said any further changes would be small.

"It's tying up the loose ends," Harris said. "We're not dealing with broad concepts any longer but specific issues that are much easier to address."

Sealaska is owed land under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which attempted to settle land claims among the state's Native populations by granting land, giving nearly $1 billion in cash and establishing regional corporations to manage the assets. It never completed its selections.

Sealaska can pick lands within the boundaries of the 1971 act but for several reasons wants Congress to allow it to choose different lands.

Harris said the original act unfairly defined selection areas.

Araujo said the corporation chose outside original boundaries to avoid cutting old growth trees, although its planned harvests under the bill would still include harvesting old growth.

The bill as written would save about 30,000 acres of old growth, she said during recent testimony to the U.S. House Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Wednesday's meetings are at 10 a.m. in Edna Bay and 1 p.m. in Port Protection, which would include comments by nearby Point Baker residents.

A plan to hold additional meetings on the bill through the Tongass Futures Roundtable - a forum set up to get conflicting forest user groups to agree on management - has not materialized.

At an emotional Roundtable meeting in Juneau last month, conservationists tried to get Sealaska executives to plan their land selections collaboratively.

Sealaska executives said then, and again last week, that they would continue to meet on the bill. As of Monday no further meetings had been set.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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