ANCHORAGE- An invitation-only meeting is planned between conservation groups and an Alaska Native corporation to discuss a lands bill seeking to privatize tens of thousands of acres of public land in the Tongass National Forest.
Groups involved won't offer details, but e-mails provided to The Associated Press indicate the meeting will be held Monday in Juneau.
Even Mayor Bruce Botelho, the person designated by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council to discuss the meeting, is mum about when, where and who will be attending.
"It is not an open meeting. I don't feel at liberty to say," he said.
Botelho said the idea of a meeting between Sealaska and conservation groups came up at February's meeting of the Tongass Futures Roundtable, a group that meets regularly to discuss public policy affecting the forest. As private entities, they have every right to meet and talk behind closed doors, he said.
"This is a matter of great sensitivity and I think it needs to be approached that way," Botelho said.
What role the conservation groups would play in the land swap was not immediately clear, but for decades they have fought over management of the Tongass, the nation's largest forest, with 17 million acres in Southeast Alaska.
Myla Poelstra, the postmaster and owner of the Sunrise Lodge & General Store in Edna Bay, said the secrecy of the meeting galls her. She also leads the Sealaska Response Committee to keep the community informed about Sealaska's land plans.
Edna Bay is on Kosciusko Island and one of several communities that would be most affected by the bill in Congress allowing Sealaska Corp. to pick up to 85,000 acres of public lands.
"Why all the secrecy?" asked Poelstra. "Why not let the truth stand on its own and see what it is?"
Sealaska, which has more than 20,000 shareholders, is attempting to finalize its land allocations under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The act compensated Natives for the taking of their lands after statehood in 1959.
While no one objects to Sealaska getting the remainder of its allocation, the problem for many communities is that under the bill being sponsored by Alaska's congressional delegation, the Native corporation would be allowed to pick land outside ANCSA boundaries. The land it wants is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Edna Bay, and the communities of Point Baker and Port Protection on the very northern end of Prince of Wales Island, are opposed to Sealaska's plans. The Native corporation, which has a history of clear-cutting old-growth forests, has selected lands around these communities for timber harvesting.
Poelstra said she objects to conservation groups acting in secret as power brokers to negotiate terms of a bill that would place tens of thousands of acres of public lands into private ownership.
"At no point has anybody tried to contact us," she said. "Sealaska has shown us nothing but disdain."
Botelho sees it differently.
"I think Sealaska has made clear its willingness to talk to any stakeholder. In fact, Sealaska has been reaching across the board," he said, adding that any changes to the bill would occur in Congress - openly.
Sealaska officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Poelstra said making matters worse is an alternative proposal by two Craig residents.
Michael Kamnich, who came up with the alternate proposal with Mike Douville, said it will likely be used as a framework for discussion at the Monday meeting.
His proposal would keep the lands on northern Prince of Wales Island public. It would reduce the lands on Kosciusko Island and establish a public lands border on two sides of Edna Bay. The proposal steers Sealaska toward the southeastern end of Prince of Wales Island, and the community of Hollis.
Kamnich, a field representative for The Nature Conservancy, said he does not plan to attend the meeting. He said he does not represent the conservation group in the matter.
"Our effort was simply to try and address Sealaska's interests and do so in a less controversial way," Kamnich said.
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