Taking a strong stance to defend a bill that would transfer about 80,000 acres of public lands in Southeast Alaska to a Native corporation, Sealaska executives said Tuesday they are frustrated by the public's failure to recognize the land is an entitlement guaranteed by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Draft revisions to S. 881, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, circulated among groups in Alaska over the past several weeks, and sparked critics to say the changes don't go far enough to protect the Tongass' resources.
Sealaska feels the public should recognize the lands as owed to the corporation, Vice President Rick Harris said.
"The board of directors is very concerned and frustrated at the amount of time spent on this, and the failure to recognize that this is an entitlement and something that's owed to them," he said.
Sealaska was the only Native Alaskan corporation to be limited under the Act regarding the areas in which they could choose lands. The Act established the corporations, gave them one-ninth of the state's lands and $962 million to settle their claims so the pipeline could be built.
Sealaska has yet to complete its selections.
The opinion that Sealaska should stick to boundaries originally established by the Act is unfair, Harris said, when others took lands from Native Alaskans in the first place. He called criticisms that they are "cherry picking" the best lands insulting.
"The cherry picking occurred over 100 years ago, when all the Native people were moved, taken from the places where they had their traditional summer homes and camps because they were perceived to be in the way of commerce," Harris said.
Sealaska plans to log most of the land and will ship logs out in the round, a plan that concerns conservation groups.
Vice President and General Counsel Jaeleen Araujo said the company disagrees with the conservation community's opinions about domestic timber manufacturing.
Araujo, Harris and other Sealaska executives met with several conservation groups in private for several weeks this spring to try to find common ground on changes to the bill. The meetings were unsuccessful.
"To require us not to be able to get market value for our logs is unfair to our shareholders and others that rely on us for (Native corporation) contributions," Araujo said.
Harris added that the company would likely have to subsidize a local mill for domestic production.
"If we were obligated to run all of our logs through domestic mills, we'd likely be subsidizing the mill. Is that fair?" he said.
Sealaska executives said they spoke with Murkowski's staff and discussed possible concessions in the bill but would not comment on them specifically until Murkowski releases them.
Robert Dillon, spokesman for the Republican senator, said changes are still in the works.
"We don't have any specifics to release right now because the senator is still reviewing them," he said. "We continue to talk with stakeholders and try to resolve as many of the outstanding issues as possible."
Harris also said critics have repeatedly raised unrealistic fears over what outcomes the bill could bring, including public access and whether the bill would open the door to creating "Indian Country."
"What you keep hearing basically is a long litany of what ifs," Harris said, adding that the bill " unequivocally" guarantees public access for subsistence and recreational purposes.
Araujo called some of the concerns raised "red herrings" to try to kill the bill.
"If you know about Indian laws and their applications to Native corporations, it's clear that we are not creating Indian country," she said. "It's broader than our bill, it's people's ongoing fear that tribes will have some kind of sovereignty in Alaska."
Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.