By Rick Harris
April 08, 2011
A bit of history is helpful to understand the debate around the bill, which has centered on the management of “public” lands in our region. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was enacted in 1971 to return a small portion of Southeast Alaska—just 3.0%—to the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples who owned and occupied these lands until they were abruptly taken away by the U.S. government in 1907.
Sealaska is working to complete the U.S. government’s promise to Alaska Natives, which is to convey the remaining 85,000 acres, just 0.4% of ancestral lands promised to tribal member shareholders. Some people suggest that Sealaska should select our final acres from the parcels we were originally promised under ANCSA. But our region’s landscape has changed in the past four decades. As a responsible steward of the Tongass, Sealaska is seeking land from less environmentally sensitive areas.
Together with Alaska’s congressional delegation, Sealaska has hosted more than 225 meetings with community members, organizations, government agencies and stakeholders to gather feedback on the legislation. We have fostered an inclusive process, not a divisive one, as some claim in their recent My Turns and letters.
These meetings have been productive. Senator Lisa Murkowski has revised her bill to reflect community feedback. As a result, support for the land legislation is broad and growing every day. A non-partisan survey of Southeast Alaska residents in December found that support for Sealaska’s land legislation significantly outweighs opposition to the bill, 46% to 29%. Additionally, more than 60 businesses, Native organizations and municipalities have endorsed the legislation.
Opponents of the legislation have failed to mention Sealaska’s positive land stewardship practices. Since 1992, we have invested $17.6 million in the stewardship of our lands, including pre-commercial thinning of 41,204 acres of young growth, replanting the Tongass with 1.6 million seedlings, restoring miles of stream bank riparian habitat that was logged before modern forest practices were in place and before conveyance to Sealaska. Sealaska is leading a state-of-the-art research and monitoring program with the University of Washington and Oregon State University on fisheries, forestry and wildlife habitat management.
ANCSA intended for Native corporations to use land conveyed to them to further Native self-determination, to instill pride in Native people by promoting their culture, and to give Native people new opportunities and access to resources that were originally theirs.
Timber revenues fund the Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), which provides cultural, educational and language programs. In the last eight years SHI distributed more than $4.3 million in scholarships to tribal member shareholders and shareholder descendants. Sealaska’s timber operation is also an important economic engine for all of Southeast Alaska—more than 400 jobs will be lost if the legislation fails.
This legislation is about social justice, responsible land management and economic development. Sealaska’s land bill will help our tribal member shareholders—and all our Southeast neighbors—create a sustainable future.
About: Rick Harris is the executive vice president of Sealaska.
Received April 06, 2011 - Published April 08, 2011
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