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ANCHORAGE - Dozens of U.S. House members signed a letter opposing a bill that would allow a private Alaska Native corporation to select choice lands in the nation's largest national forest for its own use.
The letter was spearheaded by Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, and is signed by 58 members of Congress. It urges the Committee on Natural Resources not to include H.R. 2099, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, into a large public lands package but consider it separately.
Opponents have said the bill's best chance of passing is if it is attached to an omnibus bill.
The letter says, "The Tongass National Forest is truly a gem of our nation's public lands system." It goes on to say the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization Act would severely threaten the economic and ecological well-being of the Tongass.
"If H.R. 2099 were included in an omnibus lands bill, Congress would be giving the green light to the industrial clear-cutting of the best remaining old growth in the United States," the letter says. "We believe it has no place in a legislative package meant to protect our nation's natural heritage."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is sponsoring a similar bill, S.881, in the Senate that has been getting most of the attention. That bill is undergoing revision.
The letter to the chairman and the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, dated July 26, was distributed Tuesday to the media by the Alaska Wilderness League in Washington, D.C.
Rick Harris, executive vice president of Sealaska Corp., said the House members are being exposed to a "disinformation campaign" about the bill. One way or another, the land selections will come from the Tongass, something he doubts the letter signers understand.
"They don't recognize it is a Native right we are talking about," Harris said Wednesday.
Young did not return a call for comment. However, a July 16 letter from Young posted on Sealaska's website and addressed to "Dear Colleague" says, "The letter that you have been asked to sign embodies the act of holding Native people and their Native land entitlement hostage to the agenda of national conservation groups."
The bill would allow Sealaska Corp. to pick lands outside designated areas - a feature that has led to charges that the Native corporation is "cherry-picking" lands in the Tongass National Forest.
Sealaska objects to the depiction. It says it is entitled to 85,000 acres under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and wants to finally receive what is due.
The bill "simply moves Sealaska selection from one part of the Tongass forest to another," Sealaska says.
Harris said Sealaska would like to go outside ANCSA boundaries in order to keep intact the Tongass' unroaded areas of old-growth trees, and steer clear of areas valued by communities and the conservation community.
"We started this process with very much the intent of trying to avoid environmental conflict," he said.