My turn: Bill would ensure healthy industry

Posted: Friday, June 18, 2010

Sealaska Corporation is an Alaska Native institution with a broad mission and moral imperatives, including commitments to Native language preservation, the education of our youth, land stewardship and the sustainability of our Native communities. We serve over 20,000 tribal member shareholders, most of whom live in Southeast Alaska.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was an attempt to return some lands to Native Alaska people. Unfortunately, there were significant inequities in the legislation that, 40 years later, the Native people of Southeast Alaska are trying to remedy. Today we are seeking a remaining entitlement of approximately 85,000 acres. This is less than one-half of 1 percent of our original home lands, the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest.

The legislation we seek allows Sealaska to make land selections outside of the ANCSA selection boxes, but does not give Sealaska any more land than it is entitled to under ANCSA. It also enables us to avoid selections from within the ANCSA boxes that include municipal watersheds and nationally ranked fisheries areas such as the Situk River.

In hundreds of meetings over the last several years, Sealaska and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski have met with many affected groups and individuals to craft a solution we could all live with. While a grand solution was not realized, the discussions have guided the formulation of amendments and adjustments to land selections that mitigate many of the concerns we have heard. During this process we have made significant - often painful - concessions in a good-faith effort to work with all stakeholders. However, it appears that no level of concessions, short of the bill's failure, will satisfy critics of the legislation despite the attainment of some of their goals.

Ironically, critics simply want Sealaska to stay inside the original "boxes," an option that disregards the history of Sealaska's land entitlement, the dire economic conditions of Southeast's rural communities and the conservation value of preserving some of the roadless, old-growth timber lands current law allows us to take.

In fact, many of the concepts in the legislation were derived from the Tongass Futures Roundtable where the members - including the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council - agreed to build a strategy for the future that ensures the economic and environmental stability of the region. Ostensibly, that was the original purpose of ANCSA - to provide sustainable economies, based on our lands, for all Southeast Alaska Natives.

Our critics have tried to marginalize Sealaska's contribution to the Southeast economy. Sealaska contributes more than 400 jobs annually in the region; injects over $40 million annually through payroll and spending at Southeast businesses; and injects an additional $7 million-plus annually through dividends to shareholders that are also largely spent in the region.

Sealaska's ongoing contribution to the Southeast economy is at stake. Also at stake are Sealaska's efforts to create new sustainable village economies.

Sealaska's legislation, working in concert with the U.S. Forest Service, will be a positive initiative to advance our mutual goals to move into second growth, stewardship and restoration.

Sealaska is a leader in new young-growth forest stewardship practices, and is already developing new markets for second growth spruce and hemlock. Sealaska's experience and expertise, coupled with the Forest Service's new plan, is essential to help facilitate a region-wide, organized transition from old growth to a second-growth program. This legislation ensures that Sealaska will play an active role in this transition.

Critics challenge Sealaska's practice of round log export. Sealaska sells logs to the local mills and also runs a successful micro-sale timber program. Many argue that domestic processing creates more jobs. The reality, however, is that Sealaska's logging and processing creates the same number of jobs as domestic manufacturing. Domestic manufacturing simply removes jobs from our tribal member shareholders in rural communities, where ships are loaded, to more urban areas for processing. This transfer of jobs will negatively impact our rural villages.

Sealaska and the Alaska Delegation are working hard to ensure a sustainable economy in the region, including a sustainable timber industry, while also meeting the needs of other interests in Southeast. Our land bill seeks to take an important step toward these mutual goals.

• Chris E. McNeil, Jr., is President and CEO for Sealaska.

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