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Thorne Bay opposes Sealaska bill

Prince of Wales residents worry they'll lose timber, tax base, road access

Posted: Thursday, June 18, 2009

The city of Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island really does not want Sealaska to get a prime chunk of its island for logging.

Juneau Empire
Juneau Empire

At its Tuesday meeting, the seven members of the Thorne Bay City Council in a resolution unanimously opposed a federal bill called the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization Act, which aims to settle Sealaska's decades-old land claims.

Congress created the Alaska Native corporations and gave them seed land and money in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. But Sealaska never chose all the land it was due, partly because much of it was under saltwater. The corporation is still owed up to 85,000 acres, or 133 square miles.

Sealaska wants to trade some of the original land selection areas, near village sites, for swaths of Tongass National Forest land it can log on the north end of Prince of Wales and on nearby Tuxekan and Kosciusko islands. It also wants a smattering of dozens of other sites in Southeast for economic development and traditional use.

Few deny that Sealaska deserves some land. But the areas it wants are contentious. The 50 residents of Edna Bay on Kosciusko Island last year wrote more than 1,100 letters of opposition to Congress.

In 550-person Thorne Bay, people expect the U.S. Forest Service, one of the area's largest employers, is going to have a lot less to do if Prince of Wales loses federal forest. That will hurt the town's tax base and send more people away.

And some of them wanted to use that timber, Hartlett said.

"We feel it's going to hurt the small loggers on the island, in the long term," he said.

The Forest Service maintains logging roads on Prince of Wales - Thorne Bay was a lumber camp in the early 1960s, and at one point the largest such community in the world, according to Hartlett. The roads are part of why Sealaska wants the land; it will be cheaper to log that way.

But people from Hydaburg, Craig, Kake, Thorne Bay, Edna Bay, Port Protection and other communities use them to get to subsistence hunting and fishing areas. Small loggers use them to get to their timber. In many of these wild areas, old logging roads are the only roads.

People worry Sealaska won't maintain the roads, or that Sealaska won't let them use the roads.

Sealaska compromised and will allow public access over any land it gets, with exceptions, like for public safety during active logging.

But Thorne Bay and other Prince of Wales residents aren't taking Sealaska at its word.

"Any attorney worth his salt could shut it down for one of the reasons," said Craig Mayor Dennis Watson.

Rick Harris, Sealaska vice president, said he considered Thorne Bay's resolution to be "useful" constructive criticism, though he had yet to see it. The bill in Congress isn't in its final form, he said.

"What we need now to do is understand what their concern is," Harris said. "If there's some weakness in the legislation, we want to fix it."

Congress has not held hearings on either the House or Senate versions of the bill. They would pave the way for any changes to be made. Harris hopes for a hearing before August.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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