My turn: Sealaska bill will divide us

Posted: Tuesday, June 08, 2010

As I was growing up in the Tongass, the timber industry was booming. It seemed like there was an endless supply of trees and money where we lived on Prince of Wales Island - as well as elsewhere, and people were happy.

I remember loggers from the community coming to Hollis School's bake sales and spending $150 on Cathy's pineapple upside down cake. I also have heard stories from my former Fo'c'sel bar tender friends about sweeping up hundred dollar bills from below the bar stools. They would fall out of the stuffed Bailey's Wild Ass jeans pockets of the loggers, who were too lit and care-free to notice.

Being a logger's daughter in the 1980s on POW (as we call Prince of Wales Island) was great. Hollis was a fun community, and those were good times. My step-mom always says, "Southeast Alaska is a very small town."

The tight-knit community feeling is a unique aspect to life in the largest National Forest in America. Tensions have been growing, however, since the end of the logging boom. And they're getting worse because of SB 881 and HR 2099.

This legislation will give the Sealaska Corporation the right to take some of the most valuable forest lands from the Tongass. The bills do that by changing land selection rules that were set long ago, in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

This act gave Native-owned corporations, including Sealaska, the right to select acreage from the Tongass National Forest for private ownership. Sealaska has already received 80 percent. Sealaska then proceeded to clear-cut those lands at an unsustainable rate.

Sealaska has identified the remaining 20 percent of land it would take if it has to follow existing rules set by the 1971 land settlement act.

For the remainder of their selections, however, Sealaska does not want to stick to the existing rules. It wants to "cherry-pick" more valuable old-growth forest land and recreation sites from locations throughout the Tongass. Their attempt to do this, with help from political leaders who are supposed to represent all of us, is causing more unnecessary conflict.

Southeast is moving on from the "good ol' days" of the timber boom. Being such a resilient community, the residents have been able to see the forest as useful in different ways. Restoration projects, fishing and hunting guiding opportunities, small timber operations, mom and pop saw mills and eco-tours are bringing in a sustainable income.

Intact forests also support abundant fish and wildlife, which in turn sustain unique and amazing recreation opportunities for locals and visitors, and also support traditional ways of life that are so important to local communities. Allowing Sealaska to clear-cut and nail up "Private Property" signs throughout our most valuable forests would be a tragedy.

This harmful legislation has come during a time of collaboration in Southeast Alaska, and is threatening years of work among diverse stakeholders to agree on a new vision for managing the Tongass, one that doesn't rely on logging irreplaceable old-growth forest.

With groups such as the Tongass Futures Roundtable and watershed councils scattered around Southeast, many communities were beginning to feel empowered by the opportunity for a say in the future of their forest. This collaborative process includes members from Native Alaskan communities and Sealaska.

Sealaska's legislation throws this collaborative process, and all the progress that has been made, right out the window. Instead, we are seeing closed-door meetings between Sealaska, conservation organizations and other groups.

Southeast Alaska has been going through a turbulent transition these last couple of decades. Unable to rely primarily on timber extraction money, communities and their people have had to re-invent themselves and their livelihoods. This is OK, as life is dynamic and gives us multiple chances to change course to a more positive direction.

I have faith that Southeast residents value old-growth and healthy second-growth forests for the subsistence, recreation and business opportunities, and will not allow this legislation to pass. If it does, it will only be the beginning of a long, painful and divisive process for Southeast Alaska.

• Sarah Red-Laird graduated this spring with a degree from the University of Montana's College of Forestry and Conservation in Resource Conservation. She's a former resident of Hollis, Ketchikan, and Skagway. Her father is a former logger who now runs a guiding business based in the Tongass National Forest.

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