Editor's note: An incomplete version of this article appeared in Thursday's Empire.
ANCHORAGE - A lands bill that would allow a private Native corporation to pick select lands in the largest national forest is not dead despite the election loss of its main advocate.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's defeat in the Republican primary to tea party favorite Joe Miller could lead to major changes in the bill, including removal of the most contentious aspect that has given rise to criticism that Sealaska Corp. is conducting a land grab in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska.
Murkowski's defeat does not mean the bill is dead, said Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon.
"I don't think it necessarily lives or dies on Senator Murkowski's signature," he said.
Miller finds the notion that Sealaska could go outside designated selection areas under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act unacceptable because it places the desires of the private corporation over the interests of others, said Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto.
Miller wants to keep the land selections inside designated ANCSA areas, and said all interested parties need to come together to work out a better way of settling the land claims.
Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, who won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, said if he ends up replacing Murkowski, he will work to improve the bill.
"I think in general putting Native lands in Native hands is the right thing to do," he said.
ANCSA compensated Alaska Native people for the taking of their lands. Some of those land claims are still pending, including Sealaska's. The corporation is entitled to 85,000 acres and now wants to select outside designated areas. It is that aspect of the proposed bill that requires congressional approval.
Myla Poelstra, postmistress of Edna Bay and a strong opponent of the bill, said Wednesday that residents are tired of struggling with Sealaska over their land selections. They thought the issue of selection was settled in the 1970s with passage of the act, she said.
"To do this now against the wishes of all of their neighbors, how can it not be a land grab?" she asked. "Sealaska is taking what was never intended to be theirs."
Rick Harris, executive vice president of Sealaska Corp., said selecting lands outside ANCSA boundaries would help keep intact the Tongass' roadless areas of old-growth trees. Selections also would not include areas valued by communities and conservation areas, including high-value fisheries and community watersheds, he said.
The bill as written continues to have support from longtime Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who is sponsoring similar legislation in the House. Young spokeswoman Meredith Kenny said Young "will continue to work on his end to see it through."
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, is a co-sponsor of the Senate bill and will keep pursuing its passage, said spokeswoman Julie Hasquet.
"He does believe we have to resolve these issues," she said.
Harris said the bill has good bipartisan support.
"We are continuing to advocate for the bill with virtually everybody," he said.
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