My Turn: Congress should seek more balance in Alaska land bills

Posted: Monday, August 31, 2009

Sen. Lisa Murkowski recently visited Prince of Wales Island and Ketchikan and discussed Senate Bill 881 and House Resolution 2099, legislation that she, Sen. Mark Begich, and Rep. Don Young introduced in April.

Murkowski mentioned the need for changes to these bills based on input she had received from local residents, especially those from Port Protection, Point Baker and Edna Bay. I agree that these bills need major revision.

Sealaska Corp. has chosen not to complete its land entitlement under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act even though Sealaska has had the legal authority and ability to select lands within the ANCSA-designated entitlement areas for nearly 40 years. Instead, Sealaska now wants Congress to change the rules because they would like to pick some of the most biologically productive and popular lands in the Tongass.

These bills would finalize Sealaska's outstanding land entitlements, which the Bureau of Land Management currently estimates to be between 68,000 and 79,000 acres. While I support Sealaska receiving its remaining land entitlement, I cannot support efforts that threaten the future of communities or the integrity of the forest.

Both H.R. 2099 and S. 881 select sites in 46 popular bays, coves and anchorages scattered across the Tongass, including Young Bay on Admiralty Island, Port Houghton, Tracy Arm, Clover Bay and Waterfall Bay on Dall Island. While the legislation specifically prohibits logging and mineral development at these "Native Futures" sites, the bills do not clearly define the scope and type of use allowed, nor how existing users could be impacted. Many of the sites are ideal for commercial tourism development and are currently supporting locally owned ecotourism and sport fishing small businesses.

The bills should be changed to eliminate the sites that compete or interfere with established local businesses, and should clearly define the allowable uses for each of the identified "Native Futures" sites.

These bills also select several areas on or near Prince of Wales Island for intensive logging, including North Prince of Wales, West Kosciusko Island, Mabel Bay, and Kassa and Keete Inlets near Hydaburg. The National Forest Service currently manages these public lands for multiple uses including recreation and subsistence.

Sealaska's logging practices of the past have included some of the most egregious examples of environmentally damaging logging on the West Coast. Currently the corporation is required to follow only state regulations under the Forest Resources Practices Act, written and administered by industry-friendly agencies.

In addition, Sealaska profits from round log export, removing timber from Southeast Alaska without adding value and local jobs by processing or milling into consumer products.

The bills should be changed to require Sealaska to manage any lands selected outside the original ANSCA boundaries under stricter federal forest practices guidelines, and should ban round log export.

Some of the areas Sealaska wants to select are known karst and cave lands. Karst lands not only provide spectacular visitor attractions such as the El Cap Cave, but contain as yet largely unexplored archeological resources.

Karst lands are a vital part of the landscape that provide drinking water for communities and some of the most biologically productive salmon, wildlife and timber habitat in Southeast Alaska. They have been identified as sensitive areas protected under the Federal Cave Resource Protection Act.

The bills should be changed to exclude inventoried karst and cave landscapes from all the selection areas. Provisions should be made to protect unidentified karst.

The bills have language allowing Sealaska to restrict access for "public safety, cultural or scientific purposes, environmental protection, and uses incompatible with natural resource development."

The bills should be changed to prohibit Sealaska from restricting public access for the arbitrary and undefined reasons listed above.

I appreciate Murkowski's willingness to change the bills to address Prince of Wales' residents concerns as well as the desires of Sealaska Corp. As a small business owner and charter operator who uses some of these areas, I hope to see a balanced approach that addresses the needs of all forest users in upcoming revisions to both bills.

• Mike McKimens owns and operates a small business out of Craig providing marine transportation, exploration, whale watching and sport fishing services.

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