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Private Sealaska meetings on land bill yield nothing

Posted: Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Environmental groups failed to gain any footing with the regional Native corporation during six weeks of private meetings about a bill that would privatize thousands of acres of Tongass forest.

The group ended their meetings without coming to any agreements, according to a letter sent to Alaska's U.S. senators on Friday.

"The gaps were big that we were trying to bridge, and while I think everybody came to the table with good-faith efforts to try and get it done, it was just too stark of differences at this point," Alaska Wilderness League Rainforest Program Director Laurie Cooper said.

The invitation-only meetings were attended by heads of several environmental organizations and Sealaska corporate executives.

Republican Lisa Murkowski has sponsored the bill, S. 881, as a ranking member of the U.S. Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Talk of the bill being marked up or attached to an omnibus lands bill has circulated for months.

Sealaska is trying to complete its lands selections granted by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The proposed legislation is controversial because the corporation wants to choose from outside the original boundaries of the act.

Sealaska plans to conduct timber harvesting on a majority of about 85,000 acres to be transferred, and will 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.

Cooper said her organization wanted to balance other forest uses with Sealaska's proposal, by possibly setting aside some lands for conservation purposes.

"Our effort was to see whether or not you could find that sweet spot and unfortunately we didn't get there," she said.

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Executive Director Lindsey Ketchel said significant differences remained.

"Our main concerns were that some of the timber enterprise locations were still going to be very problematic for the communities," she said.

The proposal is controversial in several small Prince of Wales towns that would be directly impacted by planned timber harvests.

Sealaska executives could not be reached for comment Tuesday. They have held hundreds of meetings to write the legislation and have said they addressed many concerns with changes to the bill's language.

Some residents were upset the meetings, which were held in Juneau starting in March, were not open to everyone.

Juneau mayor Bruce Botelho said the discussions were so sensitive they warranted privacy. The mayor also attracted criticism for being involved since he is a public official. He is also considered a skilled facilitator.

Environmental groups and Botelho's letter indicated a willingness to meet again after Murkowski's staff releases a new version of the bill.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.



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