Hours of lands bill meetings yield no agreements

Posted: Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Sealaska executives and environmental group leaders had a series of meetings in Juneau in recent weeks, equaling six full days together, but did not come to any agreements over the Sealaska Lands Bill, meeting facilitator and Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho said.

The Alaska Native corporation and environmental groups started the meetings after a February gathering of the Tongass Futures Roundtable in Juneau. The roundtable was formed to discuss public policy on the Tongass National Forest but is not hosting the recent meetings, which were invitation-only.

Those involved said they would continue discussions after a break.

"I see this as a continuation of us trying to work through some of the differences in the region in a collaborative format," Alaska Wilderness League Rainforest Program Director Laurie Cooper said.

The roundtable had been set up for that purpose but its 35 members have been unable to forge a comprehensive plan. Some of its members worked in a sub-group, called the Hemlock Society, last year to try to "zone" the forest but discussions fell apart.

Sealaska Vice President Rick Harris said discussions with environmental groups so far have been primarily focused on small segments of the forest, rather than forest management philosophy discussions that occurred among the Hemlock Society members.

"They're much larger than the transactions we're currently talking about," Harris said.

The Native corporation is trying to complete its land selection process granted by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act but has drawn criticism for its selection of lands outside the act's original boundaries. It plans to conduct timber harvesting on a majority of the acreage and set aside about 10 percent for cultural sites and "futures" sites, which are for undefined economic development projects such as alternative energy and eco-tourism.

The focus on economic stability does not sit well with environmental groups, Cooper said.

"I don't think any particular group's interests are going to get resolved in a vacuum," Cooper said.

The groups have no time frame to complete their meetings but Sealaska executives have said the bill could be marked up this month.

"We recognize the time window is relatively short, so we need to do our work in a diligent manner," Harris said.

As private entities, the groups are not required to meet in public. No one spoke in specifics about what has been discussed.

Botelho would not say who has attended but environmental groups also include Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and the Alaska Conservation Foundation.

Some Prince of Wales Island residents who would be directly impacted by the bill were upset they were not invited, but Botelho said they were putting "too great a stock" in the meetings' potential impact on the legislation.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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