Sen. Lisa Murkowski has proposed legislation, which Sen. Mark Begich also might sponsor, that springs from a legitimate cause: The finalization of Sealaska's land entitlements under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. But the bill contains elements that could counter a long history of negotiations between the U.S. Forest Service and the conservation community of Southeast Alaska.
These negotiations have created a network of environmentally sound land designations, legal and administrative, that protect special places, buffer spawning streams, safeguard community subsistence resources, protect wildlife and habitat, preserve old-growth stands of the rainforest, and otherwise balance and conserve the lifeblood and sustaining health of the beautiful, complex and productive blending of land and sea that we call the Alexander Archipelago.
The potentially troubling elements of the bill come under the headings of "Economic Development" and "Alaska Native Futures." These geographic sites - numerous and sprinkled across the Tongass National Forest map - identify places that Sealaska has evaluated as useful for various types of economic and enterprise activities. The problem is, many or most of these sites have already been designated for conservation and protection by previous legislation, and also by the decades of cooperation and negotiation in the shaping of forest management plans, which fully engaged the Forest Service and the conservation community.
That's a lot of interlocking history and issues that, in many cases, were finally resolved by litigation. In other words, Southeast Alaska is not a clean slate that can be cherry-picked at will. Local people will fight for their hard-won subsistence, hunting and fishing zones and resource protections. This bill, with these disturbing elements, has the capacity to arouse great opposition in local communities, regional organizations and national conservation groups. Because it would undo a montage of mutually supporting agreements and accommodations that has worked reasonably well for the wildlife and the people who dwell in the forest.
William E. Brown