Months of outcry over the Sealaska Lands Bill could result in significant changes to proposed timber harvest areas in the controversial lands legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, according to sources who met with her staff recently.
But some critics said the draft changes to the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization Act do not go far enough to address a multitude of concerns introduced by the bill.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee staff recommendations don't do enough to protect subsistence resources or develop business opportunities in rural communities, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Executive Director Lindsey Ketchel said.
Sealaska's practice of exporting logs in the round to Asia does not support the new Tongass management vision recently announced by the U.S. Forest Service, she said.
"Wouldn't it be amazing if they would provide those trees to the local mills, that would then ensure these mills are in operation," she said.
The draft changes would move timber harvests away from the northern Prince of Wales Island communities of Point Baker, Port Protection and Thorne Bay in favor of harvesting on Tuxekan Island, Polk Inlet and northern Kuiu Island.
Nearly all of Tuxekan Island would be harvested and several old-growth preserves would be affected.
The bill has been controversial among residents of northern POW communities who say their way of life would be destroyed by timber activities.
Other critics say the corporation is "cherry picking" lands throughout the region, but Sealaska executives in public meetings have said they need the lands to maintain formerly profitable timber operations and to continue services such as cultural programs for their shareholders.
The lands are owed to the regional Native corporation under the terms of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Sealaska needs a Congressional decision for the current selections because it wants to choose from outside the original boundaries of the agreement. Executives say the original boundaries were not assigned thoughtfully or fairly and do not meet the company's needs.
The lands bill, S. 881 sponsored by Murkowski, would transfer between 80,000 and 85,000 acres of public land mainly held by the U.S. Forest Service.
In addition to logging, Sealaska would set about 10 percent aside for cultural preservation and "futures" sites, intended to diversify into businesses other than timber or mining into areas such as tourism and alternative energy development.
The staff recommendations - widely dispersed among interested groups in the past few weeks although they are not official - remove 19 of the futures sites but leave 4,000 acres for renewable energy projects such as two tidal energy sites in Icy Straight and two budding geothermal sites.
Despite the reduction in futures sites, the Territorial Sportsmen are concerned the bill would set a precedent for additional Native corporations to demand small, economically valuable lands, President Wayne Regelin said.
Regelin's organization held the only public meeting in Juneau to debate the bill's details. After meeting with Murkowski's staff, the group still has many concerns.
The bill does not guarantee public access to land that will become private property under the act; it could to lead to petitions to list the archipelago wolf or goshawk as endangered species; and its wording opens the door to create "Indian Country" in Alaska, Regelin said.
The group has suggested changes to the bill's wording to address some of these concerns.
Murkowski has not approved the changes but is expected to release a final version this week. Her staff drafted the changes based on input gathered at town meetings, in letters and comments, and a six-week-long mediation effort led by Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, among many other meetings.
The changes could be released this week. Several people closely following the process said Monday they remain concerned about the bill's details but declined to comment specifically until after Murkowski releases it.
Markup on the bill is expected sometime in June, and any lands bill passed by the Senate would likely be part of a larger lands omnibus bill. It is unclear whether an omnibus bill will materialize this year.
Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.