New bill would resolve Sealaska land issue

Stakeholders say legislation endangers Tongass Futures compromise

Posted: Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It's widely acknowledged that Sealaska Corp. is owed some land.

"It's time that we resolve the entitlement issue to Sealaska," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who introduced the Senate version of a new bill that settles its four-decade-long land entitlement.

Last year's bill has been tweaked to answer concerns. But it is still contentious, and many complain Sealaska has been neither collaborative nor transparent.

The 50-person town of Edna Bay sent about 1,100 letters to members of Congress last year and got no responses. Sealaska Corp. had its eye on a chunk of the island on which they live, hunt, fish and gather food.

"The scale of logging that's going to happen, it's going to leave Edna Bay with nothing," said Edna Bay Homeowners' Association President Heather Richter, pointing out a swath of proposed Sealaska selection ringing the nearby mountain. "That is just going to devastate Mount Frances. I can't even imagine that, and I am not against logging, not at all."

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 created the Alaska Native urban, village and regional corporations and promised to divvy up 44 million acres among them.

But Sealaska never claimed all the land in Southeast it was due - partly, it says, because much of the land it could choose from was under saltwater. The corporation is still owed up to 85,000 acres, or about 133 square miles.

The bill doesn't designate the land, but creates a new pool from which Sealaska will select it.

Shareholder Michael Beasley, in Douglas, said it is about time.

"Sealaska's really having to tiptoe around the checkerboard, aren't they?" said Beasley. "I think they should be bolder. But more power to them. It's been 35 years, and full conveyance has not been met."

The bill is contentious because the Tongass Futures Roundtable, a group of Tongass conservationists, fishermen, outdoorsmen, sawmill operators and other stakeholders - many of whom used to meet only about timber lawsuits - have been slowly hashing out a big compromise of a land management plan for the Tongass over the last year.

It includes turning over parts of the Tongass to a private trust for logging, conserving high-value watersheds, and marking out lands for Sealaska, among other parts, and it is all negotiable. It would require Congressional approval.

Sealaska has been a major voice in these talks. At the same time, it has been pursuing its own ANCSA land entitlement for more than a decade, Sealaska vice president Rick Harris said.

But Tongass Futures movers say that for Sealaska to select its lands unilaterally endangers that big compromise. The bill is "counterproductive," said Steve Kline of the Alaska Wilderness League in a statement.

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council spokesman Mark Gnadt said his group has encouraged senators to slow down on the legislation.

"It takes off basically some of the best lands, that everybody wants, and puts them in private control," Gnadt said. "It shrinks the solution space. And it gives Sealaska no incentive to stay at the table and be part of the solution."

The bill is framed as part of the solution for Southeast's ailing economy.

Sealaska, Murkowski noted in a statement, was responsible for 580 jobs and $22 million in payroll in Southeast in 2007.

But in Hydaburg, city administrator and Sealaska shareholder Adrian LeCornu was pessimistic. About 30 to 40 people are on the rotating longshoremen list, and a few are loggers benefiting from Sealaska's log ships, but there is no industry to speak of.

"On the whole, the promise of ANCSA didn't sprinkle the fairy dust on our community," he said. "Sometimes maybe I get too negative, but it's pretty tough to be supportive when we're not geting anything out of this, when we're struggling for existence."

Harris says Sealaska will keep cutting 35-45 million board feet a year, less than in past years, and plans to build ecotourism and cultural tourism in Alaska to help towns like Hydaburg.

To do that, the company is giving up some promising timber and choosing Native Futures sites instead. He says the region will need more than timber to get healthy.

"Timber is a finite form of revenue. We know what it is, we know what the numbers will be, and we've got to create new economies. If we don't do it, then all the people that live in rural Alaska will live in urban Alaska," Harris said.

The bill is open to adjustment, according to Murkowski and Sealaska.

"We keep telling people: we cannot address your concerns until you tell us about them," said Jaeleen Araujo, Sealaska vice president and general counsel.

Maps are available online at the Sitka Conservation Society.

Sealaska says it had more than 150 meetings with stakeholders in the last year, from which many of the latest changes came.

But several Prince of Wales residents said they did not know what to expect from the new bill. Many expected to get their information at the next Tongass Futures Roundtable meeting, in Coffman Cove this month. Sealaska did not ask them for input before introducing the bill, they said.

"Not that I'm aware of, no," said LeCornu in Hydaburg. "As far as I know, it was never a public process."

"We could use a more lively exchange between the communities and the leadership of Sealaska," he said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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