Revisions to the Sealaska Lands Bill released by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski Thursday afternoon failed to soften opposition from conservation groups and disappointed Sealaska executives, who said they would lose economic opportunities with the concessions.
Murkowski officially released changes to Senate Bill 881 after several versions had been discussed and widely distributed among interested parties in Southeast Alaska. Staff for the Alaska Republican, who is a ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has met with dozens of people trying to find areas of compromise on the controversial legislation that would privatize about 85,000 acres under Sealaska, the regional Native corporation.
Murkowski's changes drop lands around small communities on northern Prince of Wales Island, where residents said planned logging activity would destroy their subsistence lifestyles. The new proposal also removes 17 of 46 "futures" sites, which Sealaska would use for economic development other than logging or timber. It also sets aside 150,000 acres for conservation to offset impacts of timber development.
The revisions did not sway strong opposition from the conservation community.
"Overall, the proposal still seems to be a solution for one stakeholder rather than the region at large," Alaska Wilderness League Rainforest Program Director Laurie Cooper said.
Alaska Wilderness League released a joint opposition statement Thursday with Audubon Alaska, The Wilderness Society and Sitka Conservation Society, which said Murkowski failed to address basic problems with the bill.
"The revisions have shuffled some things around but fundamentally the proposal remains the same," Audubon Alaska Policy Director Eric Myers said.
Murkowski described her changes as a major rewrite.
But negative impacts of the land transfers would only be shifted from one area to another, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Executive Director Lindsey Ketchel said, which dodges opposition rather than creating consensus.
Conservation groups continue to oppose the "futures" sites, despite the removal of 17. The sites make up less than 10 percent of the total acreage and could be developed for ecotourism or alternative energy purposes.
"The bill would give away the hot springs near Lake Shlokeum/Bailey Bay area north of Ketchikan and a site near Upper Tenakee Inlet. These areas are widely used by people in Ketchikan and Tenakee," Ketchel said.
Additional "futures" sites listed in the bill are available at www.juneauempire.com.
Conservation groups continue to complain that Murkowski's bill focuses on Sealaska's interests at the expense of conservation. The groups have failed to find a compromise to manage timber in the Tongass National Forest - even after four years of meeting with timber interests on the Tongass Futures Roundtable set up for that purpose.
Trout Unlimited Alaska Director Tim Bristol said Murkowski's bill "takes the cheap and easy route."
"The reason this thing is moving is because (Murkowski) sees an opportunity to attach the Sealaska Lands Bill to an omnibus land package that, in most cases, the Democrats would oppose," he said.
Murkowski acknowledged competing timber interests in the region but in a statement said the bill addresses the "vast majority" of concerns expressed by residents.
"The revised bill probably won't make everyone totally happy, but it attempts to resolve most of the main complaints," she said.
Sealaska executives expressed concerns about the revisions.
The removal of the "futures" sites limits the company's vision for working with small communities to develop the sites, Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris said.
"Some opportunities are being lost by the changes that are being made," Harris said, adding that he believed the legislation would still stabilize the economy and create jobs in the region's small communities and provide the company a mix of timber to transition to new-growth harvests.
Sealaska Vice President and General Counsel Jaeleen Araujo expressed disappointment in the removal of Glacier Bay sites. She was also disappointed that provisions to help the corporation get grants under certain acts were removed. Critics said the provisions could open the door to Native corporations claiming Indian Country in Alaska.
With the bill, Sealaska is trying to complete land entitlements granted by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Critics say the bill allows the corporation to privatize some of the best lands in the Tongass by choosing from outside the original boundaries of the act. Harris and other company executives have said the original boundaries established by the act were unfair.
Murkowski's staff have said she would like the bill considered by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July.
The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Begich, an Alaska democrat.
Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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