Battle for land: Native vet fights for family site

Proposed amendment could let Angoon man claim disputed allotment

Posted: Monday, June 17, 2002

Michael Nelson can remember his ancestors who lived on land that is now part of the Tongass National Forest.

His grandfather, John Nelson, and his uncle, Newton Nelson, had camps on the north arm of Hood Bay, four miles south of Angoon, almost a century ago. Nelson's uncle, Killisnoo Sam, occupied land in Tyee on the southern tip of Admiralty Island from the early 1800s until his death in 1910.

Nelson and his family have been working to get the land back, and may succeed if an amendment to the Alaska Native Settlement Act is adopted.

But opposition from a government agency may prevent the amendment, in its present form, from passing in Congress.

Nelson's two parcels of 80 acres each have been in dispute since the Native Allotment Act was passed in 1906, but the plots are now part of the Tongass National Forest, making them unavailable for claims.

House Resolution 3148, a proposed amendment to the Alaska Native Settlement Claims Act, may allow Nelson to get his land.

Nelson, who missed his chance to make a claim because he was serving in Vietnam and not present in Alaska when the 1906 act was repealed, became eligible to make his claim under the Alaska Native Veteran Allotment Act of 1998. The amendment to ANSCA opened a window for those Native veterans who were out of the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"My dad had campsites from Tyee all the way up to Hood Bay, and my grandfather's claim was closed out in 1923," Nelson said. "My older brother and I have been trying to get my grandfather's land (by making adjacent claims). My other claim is located next to my dad's in Tyee."

Claims on both parcels of land are pending and may be rejected under the confines of current laws.

Alaska Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young introduced HR 3148 in 2001. It was referred to the House Committee on Resources last October and committee hearings were held June 5.

Amy Inaba, spokeswoman for Young, said a committee member requested a full meeting of the panel for markup of the amendment. The date is not set, Inaba said, but after the amendment is marked up, it will head to the House floor.

The section of the measure that would aid Nelson and others like him allows allotments to be selected from vacant federal lands, which would include national forests and wildlife refuges.

The resolution met opposition at the committee hearings from Paul Hoffman, deputy assistant secretary for the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Division of the Department of the Interior.

"The new bill, HR 3148, while it aims at fairness, raises a number of serious new policy, management and technical concerns, and it would give rise to new issues of fairness with respect to other Alaska Natives and other Vietnam veterans," Hoffman said in his testimony June 5. "Therefore, the administration is opposed to HR 3148."

Hoffman expressed department concerns that the amendment, if passed, would repeal a law that protects lands such as parks, refuges, wilderness, trade and manufacturing sites, lands containing buildings, cemetery sites and defense properties, making them available for claims.

"We believe that the bill will cause far more problems than it will solve and will not be a service to the community of Alaska Natives or Alaska Native veterans," Hoffman said.

Ray Massey of the U.S. Forest Service public affairs office in Juneau said the agency has not yet developed a position on the issue.

"If it goes to law, then you have to implement the law," Massey said. "I know the Forest Service has tried to consolidate small land holdings within the boundaries of the Tongass to make land management easier."

Massey said managing land in the Tongass may become a lot harder for the Forest Service if the bill passes.

But, if approved, the amendment may be the final step in the Nelson family's 96-year struggle to claim its land.

Currently, allotments can be selected only from lands that are vacant, unappropriated and unreserved. Nelson said his family occupied the disputed land before it was designated as part of a national forest, but both land parcels in his claim now are in the Tongass.

In his testimony at the June 5 U.S. House hearing, Nelson Angapak Sr., executive vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said the largest concentrations of Alaska Native veterans reside in regions of Alaska with national forests, so many veterans are barred from claiming their allotments.

"In Southeast Alaska, virtually all, if not all of the Native allotment applications of Alaska Native veterans will be denied by Bureau of Land Management because of the existence of the Tongass National Forest," Angapak said.

"The existence of the Tongass and Chugach National Forests in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska respectively leads to automatic rejection of ... applications of the Alaska Native veterans of these regions because of the national forest exclusion."

Carol Yeatman, an attorney in the Native allotment program at Alaska Legal Service Corp. in Anchorage, said adoption of HR 3148 would help Nelson's case.

"There's probably a number of veterans in Southeast Alaska who were shut out," Yeatman said. "In the (proposed) amendment, any land that is vacant and federally owned would be available. Then veterans would have an equal chance to get an allotment."

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