An Alaska Native corporation will receive tens of thousands of acres of federally owned land - including prime timberlands and sacred tribal sites - under legislation being advanced by U.S. Rep. Don Young.
Sealaska Corp., which represents 17,000 shareholders across southeast Alaska and beyond, claims it was shorted of land given to the other 11 Alaska-based regional Native corporations under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The 13th - called the 13th Regional Corp. and based in Seattle - did not receive any land.
Under Young's bill, the corporation will pick and choose about 125 square miles from public lands across the region, bypassing a pool of land already set aside for the purpose - some of which is marine waters.
The land deal has upset some southeast Alaska Natives, communities and sawmill operators, and corporate officers with Sealaska are busy - holding more than 150 meetings across the region so far - trying to smooth the way for its passage.
Hoonah tribal members worry about Sealaska's interest in a dozen cultural sites in Glacier Bay National Park, which is the ancestral home of the Hoonah people. In Sitka, residents were alarmed to see several sites selected for small enterprise development where locals like to hunt and recreate. Sawmill operators near Thorne Bay fear the transfer of what are now federal timberlands will put a squeeze on the amount of logs available for local mills.
Some of the dozens of small selections were just puzzling.
Hoonah Indian Association Executive Director Johanna Dybdahl wonders why Sealaska would want a few remote acres at Neka Bay, some 20 miles across Port Fredrick from the village of Hoonah.
"It was probably a potato garden once, a family potato garden. I'm just not sure what their criteria is," Dybdahl said.
Thirty-seven years ago, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act awarded Alaska Natives nearly $1 billion and 44 million acres of land and created 13 Native corporations to manage the funds and land for their shareholders.
The Juneau-based regional corporation came up short in the deal, in part because southeast Alaska tribes had earlier received a cash payment for lands previously taken to create the Tongass National Forest and Glacier Bay National Park.
Most parties agree with Sealaska that the money did not adequately compensate its shareholders for the subsequent shortfall in lands and resources.
But claiming the rest of their federally owned lands has become a problem. Sealaska said the lands still available under the settlement are not economic - 44 percent is even under water.
Young said his bill will resolve the issue by allowing the company to choose lands outside the boundaries established in the 1971 settlement.
"This is an attempt to solve a problem and keep everybody happy in the sense that they need a future in their land selections," the Republican said.
Rosita Worl, chairwoman of the Sealaska lands committee, said the corporation is working to address concerns while developing a plan that not only benefits its shareholders but protects Native cultural values and contributes to sustainable economies in the region.
"We wanted to look at how do we sustain ourselves for the next 10,000 years like our ancestors did," said Worl. "We were thinking on a broad scale when we started to look at our lands."
The legislation sets up three categories of conveyances including up to 5.6 square miles of sacred and cultural sites - in Glacier Bay they range from five to 13 acres - and up to 7.8 square miles of "Native enterprise sites" that could be developed for recreation and tourism. The rest would be broader swaths of resource development lands, such as Prince of Wales Island timberlands.
Once the lands are transferred to Sealaska, the bill would allow the original available pool of land to revert to U.S. Forest Service management.
Federal land managers have concerns about the proposed changes to public lands.
"I think our biggest concern is the implication of removing sites from a national park. That's kind of major," said Glacier Bay Superintendent Cherry Payne.
Payne also pointed to the Department of Interior's written testimony at a November bill hearing in the House Resources Committee, which warned against setting "undesirable precedents" and said the time and cost of processing the transfer of many small parcels would be significant.
Worl said Sealaska no longer wants to claim ownership of the park sites but instead wants to forge a cooperative management plan with the park service for both protection of sacred sites and possible tourism development on the other cultural and archaeological sites.
The vast majority of the selections are in the Tongass National Forest. Tongass Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole said the land acquisition could help insure that Sealaska remains an economic force in the region, although he can't take a stand on the legislation.
"It's not my call. The Bush Administration will decide if it's signed into law or not," said Cole.
The forest service clearly is concerned, however. An analysis in a recent Tongass environmental study said the bill's sweeping changes in land use designations could result in a net loss of conservation areas, old growth reserves and the amount of timber available for sale, and it almost certainly would trigger another prolonged management plan revision.
The analysis also said the lands that would revert to the forest service don't have roads and would be expensive to log. That, combined with other impacts on logging, could slash the federal timber supply for local mills. Sealaska sells its logs to Asian markets, which is more profitable than the local market.
Sealaska has held several well-attended meetings with Prince of Wales mill operators, which participants have described as tense.
Karen Petersen, co-chairwoman of a task force representing more than dozen mill owners, said they agree Sealaska is due its land selections, but not at the expense of the local timber industry.
Mill operators want to be assured an adequate timber supply, but Native corporation officials were not encouraging, she said.
"The bottom line is we didn't get a clear answer from them. They weren't helpful," Petersen said.
Other meetings have gone better for Sealaska. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska wrote the city a letter of support for the legislation after meeting with corporate officials.
Tribal council member Mike Miller said Sealaska was able to soothe concerns by assuring the tribe that Sitka cultural areas were off limits to logging and mining and that tribal members would be involved in any tourism development on the lands.
"The biggest concern was just involvement of the local tribe in developing policy for use of the lands. Inherently there's already a big level of involvement because most of the tribal members are Sealaska shareholders as well," said Miller.
The Hoonah Indian Association board of directors hasn't met with Sealaska yet but Dybdahl is hoping they, too, can come to terms on co-managing Glacier Bay lands that are of special importance to the tribe.
Even though many Hoonah tribal members are also Sealaska shareholders, hard feelings linger over Sealaska's extensive clear cutting of forests on corporate lands surrounding the village. Dybdahl said it didn't help for the board to first learn about the legislation from the park service.
"Our board was stunned when we first heard about it this spring. We live in these villages, this is our home and it's difficult when we can't have a say when things are done in our back yard," Dybdahl said.
Worl said more meetings are planned, including with the Hoonah tribe. In the meantime, she said Sealaska is working closely with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to draft what they hope is a final version of the bill while gathering bipartisan support in Congress for its passage this session.
Murkowski did not respond to requests for an interview, and her office would only say that they are taking a "good look" at companion legislation.
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