ANCHORAGE - Sealaska Corp. is seeking title to the remaining forest it's owed under the decades-old Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
The Juneau-based regional corporation is working with the federal Bureau of Land Management to figure out exactly how much land it's entitled to.
Sealaska, the largest timber company in Alaska, owns 290,000 acres. While Sealaska executives project the firm has rights to some 65,000 acres more, BLM officials estimate the figure at 35,000 to 45,000, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
The bureau gets to decide the final number but agency officials have been meeting with Sealaska executives to negotiate a figure, said Linda Resseduie, BLM coordinator for ANCSA land conveyances.
Recently, Sealaska executives put a large and complicated deal before the U.S. Forest Service to trade some of Sealaska's existing tracts, as well as land to which it has rights, for publicly owned parcels in the Tongass National Forest.
In most cases Sealaska would be giving up swaths of old-growth trees in exchange for old-growth stands elsewhere within the Tongass, said Rick Harris, senior vice president.
The regional corporation with 16,000 shareholders has said it's willing to return to the Forest Service places with high recreation, subsistence and wildlife values, such as a tract on the Cleveland Peninsula near Ketchikan.
As with most matters involving the Tongass, Sealaska's proposal is drawing scrutiny from environmental and tribal groups as well as residents living near some of the parcels the Native corporation is eyeing. One of the areas on Sealaska's wish list is a 30,000-acre tract called Chicken Creek, a pristine watershed a few miles from the predominantly Tlingit village of Hoonah.
Sealaska and another Native corporation, Huna Totem, have extensively clear-cut the forest around Hoonah and paid dividends to shareholders with logging profits. The Forest Service has also put up large nearby tracts for cutting.
Wanda Culp, a Sealaska shareholder who lives in Hoonah and Juneau, is a member of the Hoonah Indian Association's customary and traditional use committee. A longtime critic of Native corporation logging, Culp opposes Sealaska's getting any more land around Hoonah.
"It literally makes me angry," she said. "We fought real hard to protect that area."
Culp was referring to a lawsuit in the late 1980s brought by Hoonah resident Ernestine Hanlon and others against the Forest Service. Hanlon successfully argued that Forest Service timber sales around Hoonah were hurting the tribe's subsistence resources, and that before agency officials offered more they must consider how logging affects hunting and gathering. The Forest Service decided in 1997 to make Chicken Creek an old-growth reserve, which bars logging.
Forest Service officials are working on a feasibility report due out next month.
In the meantime, environmental groups in Southeast are taking a wait-and-see approach to the proposed land exchange.
"Any time you lose that amount of land, especially given Sealaska's (clear-cutting) track record, there's cause for concern. But there are opportunities for conservation and the reality is that Congress did give them selection rights," said Buck Lindekugel, an attorney with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
Sealaska has staunchly defended its logging practices, saying that it follows state law and shareholders receive jobs and other financial benefits from the cutting.