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One thing is clear: Change is coming to the Tongass National Forest. Whether this change builds local, value-added jobs in the woods or continues the misguided practices of the past is currently hanging in the balance. The choice couldn't be much clearer.
As reported in the Juneau Empire on June 15, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is preparing a new version of Senate Bill 881, a bill addressing Sealaska Corporation's remaining land selections. Sealaska is owed land, and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, of which I am the executive director, is working to find a solution that completes these entitlements. However, we oppose this bill.
Under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, Sealaska could currently select these remaining land entitlements within specific withdraw areas without any new legislation. SEACC has been willing to consider allowing Sealaska to select outside these original boundaries if we could also meet the long-term interests of all Southeast Alaskans and affected communities. If Sealaska wants to select these more valuable lands, including lands with existing taxpayer-funded roads and infrastructure, they must do so in a way that recognizes existing uses by struggling communities and maintains healthy fish and wildlife populations. The bill's emphasis on timber profits through export doesn't meet this standard.
A number of towns in Southeast have passed resolutions against the Sealaska Bill, in part because it would give Sealaska ownership of parcels of land where development would conflict with existing subsistence activities and rural businesses such as fishing lodges and guided bear hunting. The state of Alaska has expressed similar concerns. In addition, this bill allows clear-cut logging for export on sensitive landscapes, reduces salmon stream buffer protections, and privatizes and develops some of the most widely used coves and anchorages in the Tongass.
Sen. Murkowski's modified Sealaska bill addresses a few community concerns, but only a few. Unfortunately, the changes merely shift logging impacts from one community to another - an attempt to dodge opposition rather than create consensus. The bill falls far short of its potential to complete Sealaska's remaining land entitlement in a positive way.
Luckily, there is another, less-divisive vision for the future of the Tongass.
The U.S. Forest Service recently outlined a plan to keep current timber businesses on the Tongass viable while moving to a forest industry based on second growth, stewardship and restoration. Old-growth logging cannot continue indefinitely on the Tongass, and limited federal resources can have a much greater impact assisting local businesses than planning giant timber sales for export. This plan is a bold first step toward that future.
The Forest Service's new vision for the Tongass will be a boon for small businesses, and these businesses need all the help they can get. Unfortunately, Sen. Murkowski's Sealaska bill would throw a wrench in this process, benefiting one large corporation at the expense of hard-working Southeast Alaskans struggling to make existing businesses profitable and keep wild food on the table. It is simply not possible to cut all the timber needed to support local mills, allow Sealaska to export all of their timber in the round, and maintain the healthy fish and wildlife populations that we depend on for our unique Southeast Alaska way of life. It only makes sense to find creative solutions that would send Sealaska's trees to local mills on a scale that protects fish and wildlife.
SEACC strongly opposes Senate Bill 881 in its current form. We sat down in earnest to work with Sealaska Corp. and others to craft a solution that addressed Sealaska's interests without sacrificing community well-being or limiting the potential for a transition to a sustainable forest industry in Southeast. These talks failed.
Sen. Murkowski's modified bill falls flat for the same reason: It completes Sealaska's entitlements, but it addresses Sealaska's objectives outside the context of meeting the long-term interests of all Southeast Alaskans. It's time to stop this bill and find a better way.
Lindsey Ketchel is Executive Director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.