My turn: Our forest home

Posted: Tuesday, April 29, 2008

It is with great reluctance that I am writing in response to Joe Kahklen's April 17 My Turn, "SEACC: Enough is Enough."

In his My Turn, Kahklen, who is president of the board of Goldbelt Corp., charges the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council with many offenses against Goldbelt. I disagree with most of his points. But because there has been so much heat generated between our two organizations, it benefits no one, not Goldbelt, not SEACC, nor our shared community to create more. So, with one exception, I suggest to Kahklen that we respectfully agree to disagree in our differing understandings of our shared history.

That one exception is important. In his My Turn, Kahklen states that SEACC "enlisted local Native opposition" to Goldbelt's land selections on Admiralty Island.

In my years of living and working in Southeast Alaska, I have grown to know and respect the leadership of Alaska's Native elders as well as their commitment to their traditional lands, to their customary and traditional uses of those lands, and to their people and communities. In regard to Goldbelt's land selections on Admiralty, Angoon's elders were in absolute control of their own destiny. It was they who decided it was in the best interest of their community to protect their hunting and gathering grounds. It was they who provided the leadership to contact the U.S. Congress and bring senators and representatives to Angoon to hear their stories and to introduce them to their island. It was they who requested Congress to direct the Forest Service to identify areas off Admiralty Island from which Goldbelt could make its land selections. As an incentive for the Native corporations to select these off Admiralty lands, the Forest Service offered lands that had higher timber values than the original Admiralty selections.

I regret that Goldbelt was caught between Coeur d'Alene and SEACC in the negotiations surrounding the Kensington Mine. I also regret that the final outcome was not fashioned with Goldbelt at the table.

The Kensington Mine is important to Goldbelt; work at the mine will soon be starting up again, probably by the end of the year. We believe that our work to improve the mine has been worth the effort: The new design will provide more jobs and, I am confident, it will better protect both water quality and the resources of Berners Bay than the earlier design would have. Generations from now, when the mine is long gone, the bay will still be with us - alive and flush with life.

Over the years, SEACC has worked side by side with many tribes and villages to protect our forest home. Just this past week, for example, our partnership with the Organized Village of Kake scored a victory that protects its traditional hunting and gathering grounds on Kuiu Island. Last year, we were honored to work with the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, the Alaska Native Brotherhood and many tribes to successfully stop aerial pesticide spraying that threatened to spread toxins in local waters, salmonberry grounds and wild fish.

We will face many challenges in the years ahead: producing affordable and renewable energy, creating good jobs, building healthy communities, protecting the forest, keeping our waters clean, maintaining our Alaska way of life. Only by working together as neighbors will we overcome them.

We have learned much through our work with Alaska Natives - not the least of which is their tremendous reverence for the forest and the sea: our home. Gunalchéesh.

• Russell Heath is the executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. He lives in Juneau.

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