SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


The Sealaska Lands Bill, S.881: A Problem with a Solution
By Steve Lewis


April 07, 2010

The Problem

Senator Murkowski's Sealaska Lands Bill, S.881, presents a problem to residents of SE Alaska. Few would suggest that Sealaska should not receive the lands due it under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), but there are many who feel that the current bill will cause serious damage to karstlands and the underlying caves, create permanent rifts among Southeast Alaskans, and provide Sealaska with more than it was due under ANCSA.

Sealaska Corporation was entitled to roughly 354,389 acres within limited "boxes" under ANCSA. They have already received 290,767 acres, or more than 82% of their entitlement. BLM estimates the balance due at between 68,000 and 79,000 acres. ANCSA entitles them to this acreage, and they should have it.

Here's the problem. Sealaska now wants to select 80,000 acres throughout all of SE Alaska. S.881 includes hundreds of miles of taxpayer-funded roads, high-volume old-growth karstlands and many "enterprise sites" that are low-acreage, but high-value properties. It's a bit like they ate all the filling from a pie and want to trade the stale crust for more filling.

Much of northern Prince of Wales and Kosciusko islands, and Tuxekan Island would be privatized under S.881. 53% of S.881 lands are on karst, lands which require special management to protect the caves below as well as the forest above. Thin soils and erosion that works just as if soil were on a colander, require special management. In many cases, good stewardship requires not harvesting.

The US Forest Service has developed guidelines that help protect karstlands from poor management practices. Karst guidelines are not included in state forestry practices regulations, and would not be enforced on private land. Over 50% of forested karstlands in the Tongass have already been logged. Severe damage is evident on lands harvested before implementation of guidelines to protect karst. Forest regeneration is frequently poor on lands like those S.881 would convey to Sealaska. Siltation is evident within the underground streams that pass through caves and reemerge as local water sources and salmon habitat.

These endangered karstlands are also breadbaskets for the communities of Edna Bay, Naukati, Port Protection, and Point Baker. While Sealaska claims that folks would be allowed to hunt on their lands, in reality these lands would be private and subject to state hunting regulations, not Federal subsistence regulations. Sealaska would have no ability to allow subsistence harvest. Furthermore, past and current logging practices suggest that there will be virtually no deer until massive clearcuts have had many, many years to regenerate into something other than dense second-growth. This may never occur, since Sealaska's stated goal is to resume logging as soon as second-growth is commercially viable.

Sealaska also wants to select small parcels of land throughout Southeast Alaska as "Enterprise Sites". It is unclear exactly what Sealaska plans, but many would likely be bases for tourist development. Others may be energy related, hydro, or geothermal. Such development will be controversial. Many of these "Enterprise Sites" are in areas heavily used by local communities for subsistence, or by local guides in their business activities. These businesses don't (and shouldn't) have the ability to privatize their favorite spots in the Tongass. Why should Sealaska Corporation?

S.881 is overly generous to Sealaska Corporation. The ANCSA acreage they have already selected was highly productive forestland, now mostly clearcuts. The remaining timber within the original entitlement are more average, but that is to be expected after the best was already chosen and developed.

The Solution

This is not a problem without a solution. Here is what I suggest.

If Sealaska is to be allowed out of the "box", Congress must ensure that they are getting equivalent value to that provided under the ANCSA legislation. Acres in S.881 are much more valuable than those left within it. This is acceptable only if the number of acres outside the 'box" is reduced commensurate with their higher value. Valuation should incorporate timber, roads, as well less tangible aspects like the biological productivity of the forest and fisheries that would be affected.

S.881 economic development lands contain almost ten times the large-tree forest, and more than thirty times the karsted forest on the land-base proposed for selection now, as as that found in the ANCSA box. I would guess legislation would be more than fair to Sealaska if acreages were reduced by more than 50%, but an unbiased appraisal is needed to assure any legislation is fair to Sealaska and the American public.

Smaller acreages would allow karstlands to be better protected in the final legislation. Even better, Sealaska could choose from areas that are less sensitive, but with valuable timber. High vulnerability areas, known caves, and Geological Special Areas should be removed from the selection pool. Sealaska Corporation would need to think about the cash value of each Enterprise Site because their value would be so large relative to their acreage. You might contemplate what xx acres at Crab Bay, or xx acres at the Portage would be worth.

Reevaluation will take time---in the interim, Sealaska could select more land from within the ANCSA box. Such selections don't require special legislation and could be accomplished rapidly.

Sealaska should receive the value due to it under ANCSA. The current legislation fails to do this. Instead, it privatizes large areas of high value karst forest, places important to local communities, and computes value based only on acres, not real worth of the land. It will privatize and damage caves and old-growth forest on northern Prince of Wales and Kosciusko islands.

I urge folks to write or call Senators Murkowski and Begich and let them know how you feel about S.881, the Sealaska Lands Bill. They need to do a better job with this legislation. A copy toSenator Jeff Bingaman the Chair of the Committee responsible for writing up this bill would be useful too.

Thank you!!

Steve Lewis
Tenakee Springs, AK

About: Steve Lewis is Director of the Tongass Cave Project and Conservation Chair of the Glacier Grotto of the National Speleological Society.

Received April 06, 2010 - Published April 05, 2010

Contact Information for Senators

Senator Lisa Murkowski
709 Hart Senate Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Senator Mark Begich
144 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
phone. (202) 224-3004
toll free. (877) 501 - 6275 (Anchorage Office)
fax. (202) 224-2354

Senator Jeff Bingaman (Chairman Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee)
703 Hart Senate Office Bldg.
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
(202) 224-5521
Fax: (202)224-1792

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