My turn: Tribe didn't expect to be sole litigant in timber case

Posted: Friday, June 17, 2005

In Ms. Elizabeth Bluemink's Sunday article she mentions that I felt some deep ambiguity about the lawsuit the tribe has pending against the U.S. Forest Service on the Yakutat Timber Salvage II Sale. The ambiguity is that the tribe never anticipated to be the sole plaintiff in this case.

The Yakutat Salmon Board (YSB) initiated an appeal to the Forest Service after the sale was let. Prior to this, the tribe had asked the Forest Service to conduct a full blown Environmental Impact Statement, instead of relying on an Environmental Analysis. We agreed to sign along with the YSB on the appeal.

I was distraught because I learned, after the fact, that the local Assembly would not put its blessing on the appeal, but more so because the YSB did not ask the Assembly's blessing until after the signing and the appeal was filed.

Furthermore, I was distraught with myself because I should have checked with the city first. The YSB is only an advisory panel to the Assembly.

Eleven years ago, when I became the president of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe (YTT), any time the Forest Service was mentioned the Yakutat people would blow their lids through the ceiling.

Respect for this federal agency had dwindled to minus zero because of the ways tribal members had been previously treated. Tribal council members realized that we needed to start mending old wounds because we foresaw that the Forest Service was going to make a significant impact in the future of this community. I began to meet regularly with the district ranger to craft ways in which we could work together on common interests. Thus came the adoption and signing of a Memorandum of Understanding.

From this came, along with other things, a laborious draft of a Situk Management Plan, which also involved the participation of the City and Borough of Yakutat. The tribe was able to sign off on a conditional-use permit with the Forest Service to manage nearly 50 commercial fishers' campsites along the banks of the Situk River.

The Forest Service had upped its fee from $100 to $350 a season. When the tribe took over, the fee went down to $150. The tribe also participated on comments on designated routes for ATV use and access-road initiatives on the Yakutat Forelands. We wanted to be sure that the forelands were protected.

This summer, we are doing a joint project to reconstruct a canoe trail that was used by our people before modern-day transportation came into being. The tribe is also planning to construct a multi-purpose facility of which the Forest Service will be one of the major lessees.

In March, the YTT Council passed a motion to join the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) in a lawsuit to stop the logging in Yakutat. It was SEACC that was going to be the initial instigator of the injunction. I met with a representative of the council and an attorney from Earthjustice in Juneau.

At that time, SEACC officials were unsure of whether they were going to move ahead with the lawsuit because a proposal had not been submitted to its board for approval; additionally they were not sure if they could prevail in the case. Furthermore, they mentioned that their funding was tight. We discussed the council motion and I told them that the tribe does not have a budget to instigate a lawsuit.

In May, an attorney from Earthjustice called me and told me that SEACC decided that it would go with the lawsuit. It had found the funds for it and also thought that the move would have more of an impact if the tribe became the sole plaintiff.

Yes, we have come a long way with the Forest Service since I came on board with the tribe. I felt, and I still feel, that a lawsuit was not necessary and that the tribe, the City and Borough of Yakutat and the Forest Service can develop a long-range timber management plan for this area that should satisfy everyone. To make this a reality is my goal as long as I am on this council.

• Bertrand J. Adams Sr. is the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe president.

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