Who are the resort managers of Mother Earth?

Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Who will provide the grand design?

What is yours and what is mine?

'Cause there is no more new frontier

We have got to make it here"

- From the song "The Last Resort," by The Eagles

Like most contentious issues, the Sealaska lands bill has its share of tired hyperbole. From the threat of clear-cutting old-growth forests come dire warnings that wildlife and salmon will perish. On the other side is a desperate plea to save hundreds of jobs in Southeast Alaska. These aren't new, but the deeper dispute that's rooted in land ownership forms a compelling narrative of cultural role reversals.

The communities of Edna Bay, Point Baker and Port Protection are among the most adamantly opposed to the proposed legislation. The largest tracts that Sealaska wants surround their communities. They aren't true virgin forests. The land is an intricate web of old-growth forests, second generation trees, muskeg, streams and mountain ridges. The landscape is cut by ribbons of logging roads built by a combination of taxpayer subsidy and pulp mill credits against the purchase price of the timber hauled across them.

Community residents fear if the land becomes private they'll lose their access for subsistence hunting and fishing, personal use timber, firewood, berry picking and even water. And none of that will be possible if the remaining old-growth forests are destroyed.

The legislation has a provision that would create the only private land in all of Alaska where public access is protected for noncommercial use such as subsistence and recreation. But Sealaska would also have the right to regulate access to protect public safety. According to their website, this applies to "commercial timber harvest operations and other such situations where general public use is not safe."

Language like "other such situations" stretches across the chasm of ambiguity. As the land owners, Sealaska would be able to interpret it as they choose. It amplifies the question as to whether they can be trusted to harvest the trees in a manner sensitive to the communities' subsistence needs.

"What befalls the Earth befalls all the sons of the Earth," Chief Seattle said 150 years ago. "This we know. The Earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the Earth." He was speaking on behalf of other Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest before the emerald forests of Puget Sound were mowed down to build a crowded concrete jungle.

A century later the mills and loggers arrived in Southeast Alaska. For many, including the residents of Edna Bay, it was the timber industry that created the opportunities that led us here. And for every one of us who own a home, the land we occupy may not have been available if the Statehood Act hadn't granted the new government first dibs at selecting lands that Native Alaskans once freely roamed.

One irony here is that Sealaska leaders who helped craft this legislation have embraced the grand design of the American way of life. But it wasn't the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that introduced the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian to the concept of private land ownership. They witnessed it being grabbed by outsiders who never consulted them about the impacts of land use decisions on their subsistence rights. And they watched as the forests fell for the sake of jobs and corporate profits.

Is there room for Sealaska now on Prince of Wales and Kosciusko Islands? Maybe the question that should be posed is whether or not they should be trusted to manage the land better than the Forest Service did in years past.

We don't need to agree with Sealaska's vision to show them the respect they deserve. They are led by intelligent people who have worked hard to navigate between conflicting worldviews. They shouldn't be judged on the logging practices by those who came before them. After all, that's the same courtesy being given to the Forest Service managers by anyone calling for the land to remain part of the Tongass National Forest.

Sealaska's final land selection shouldn't be constrained to the boundaries defined by ANCSA. But the bill does need more work. The residents of Edna Bay, Port Protection and Point Baker deserve to have their subsistence rights honored. More than anyone, Sealaska's leadership should be sensitive to the difficulties these hardy citizens have elected to endure.

The ability to refine the legislation requires mutual respect and genuine listening. It won't happen if both sides continue to exaggerate the consequences of not getting their way. The doom and gloom forecasts of the past never played out because, in the end, none of us know the grand design. We're all just visitors sharing time and space on this resort we call Earth.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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