My turn: Sealaska should receive promised acres

Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The recent Associated Press article about Sealaska's efforts to achieve final land entitlement under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act is misleading.

The story implies that through federal legislation, Sealaska will receive more land than it is allowed under ANCSA and fails to consider the environmental benefits from passage of this legislative amendment.

Under the proposed amendment to ANCSA, Sealaska would receive only the acres that we are entitled to receive as promised by ANCSA - not a single acre more. Further, the legislation provides greater protection of old growth timber and a net increase in federally designated roadless areas, which has been a national priority for many conservation organizations.

While ANCSA promised Sealaska up to 375,000 acres of our ancestral homelands - a small fraction of the areas historically occupied by our tribal ancestors - we own just 290,000 of those promised acres, by far the smallest share of any Alaska Native Regional Corporation.

No other ANCSA Regional Corporation was as restricted in where their land selections could come from, which is a result of the strong control the now-defunct pulp mills once had on the Tongass.

Sealaska is currently required to select its remaining lands from federally designated "withdrawal" areas.

The proposed legislation would authorize the selection of our remaining ANCSA land entitlement from lands currently outside of the designated withdrawal areas, within Southeast Alaska and from lands generally set aside for commercial timber harvest. There would be a substantial net gain of roadless acreage in the Tongass National Forest, a public benefit.

In our Native language we call the proposed legislation Haa Aaní, simply "Our Land." The official name of the amendment is HR 3560, the "Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization Act."

Under the amendment, Sealaska would select 3,600 acres for traditional Native sacred cultural and historic sites. An additional 5,000 acres of the entitlement would be for 47 sites that could be developed for light-footprint ecotourism projects. Combined, these sites would be off-limits to commercial timber harvest or mineral development.

The remaining acres would come from nine parcels of largely roaded, second-growth forest lands currently managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Sealaska has been working with Southeast stakeholders over the last decade to create this proposal. It is a manifestation of our commitment to sustaining our Native culture and economies, something we call Haa Shagóon - Our Past, Our Present, Our Future. It is our never-ending work to balance our heritage and culture; our natural resources and environment; and our economy and jobs.

It is our goal to meet the needs of local citizens, Sealaska tribal member shareholders and all Alaska Natives. Sealaska has conducted nearly 150 meetings with stakeholders of every persuasion and actively participates in the Tongass Futures Roundtable, a diverse group of people who reside in or treasure the values of Southeast Alaska. It is this critical process that has informed the legislation and we will continue this effort - Haa Aaní is still a work in progress.

The benefits of the proposed amendments are significant. Sealaska is currently one of the southeast region's largest private employers. The amendment will enable Sealaska to continue to be a significant provider of jobs that positively impact many of the Southeast Alaska communities. The benefits reach beyond just Southeast Alaska.

The ANCSA Section 7(i) revenue sharing provisions with the other ANCSA regional corporations ultimately benefit more than 80,000 tribal member shareholders.

With Haa Aaní, the federal government will fulfill its promise to Sealaska. At the same time, Sealaska will focus on its goals of perpetuating Native culture, serving the economic and social needs of its tribal member shareholders, and securing ownership of lands of great cultural and historic significance to the Native people of Southeast Alaska.

• Chris E. McNeil Jr. is president and CEO of Sealaska Corp.



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