About 100 people turned out to hear a Sealaska presentation and to participate in open discussion Monday on the regional Native corporation's controversial lands bill in Congress.
The event was the first opportunity for Juneau residents to speak and ask questions in an open public forum on the legislation, which would transfer 75,000 to 85,000 acres of public land to Sealaska. The company seeks to complete land selections promised under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
The event was sponsored by Territorial Sportsmen, which invited three speakers who outlined concerns about the bill. Sealaska also gave a presentation.
Critics say the bill threatens public access for subsistence activities and tourism, would negatively impact wildlife habitat and does not provide enough information about some of the lands Sealaska wants to choose.
Territorial Sportsmen Board Member Ron Somerville brought up a concern that Sealaska might be trying to establish Indian Country or trust lands through the legislation. Sealaska corporate executives said that was not their aim.
Comments from the public were strictly divided, with speakers either in full support of the land transfers, or not in support of the entire bill. Several not in favor spoke against the company's past clear-cutting practices.
"It's like living off your principle instead of your interest, before long you will have nothing left," said Richard Gard, who spoke of land ethics after reciting a quote by Aldo Leopold.
Sitka resident Paulette Moreno spoke next, defending Southeast Native Alaskan's treatment of the land.
"We are good stewards of the lands for time immemorial and we will continue to be," she said.
Sealaska Vice President and General Counsel Jaeleen Araujo said Senate Bill 881 could be marked up by Memorial Day. She urged attendees to get their comments and concerns to the company soon.
The company has tried to address specific issues with many groups, holding more than 200 meetings in the region on the bill. One is taking place this week in Juneau with environmental organizations. It is a closed meeting.