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Senate Subcommittee Advances Sealaska Lands Bill



April 26, 2013
Friday PM

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), testified Thursday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Public Lands Subcommittee in support of legislation to complete the aboriginal land claims promised to shareholders of the Sealaska Native Regional Corp. more than 40 years ago under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

The Energy Public Lands Subcommittee hearing held in Washington, D.C. Thursday advanced the Sealaska Lands Bill and it is now eligible for markup by the full U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, of which Murkowski is the Ranking Member. If advanced, it would then go next to the full Senate.

S. 340 is the product of collaborative work of a varied group of stakeholders interested in the Tongass National Forest. According to Murkowski, more than 175 amendments have been made since the last Congress to address myriad concerns, and the result is a bill that has gained support from a diverse array of conservation, business, tribal and local community interests. 

“The primary purpose of the Sealaska legislation is simple: it settles the outstanding aboriginal land claims under the ANCSA,” Murkowski said. “We have made more than 175 changes to the bill over the last two years to address the majority of the concerns raised by local communities and interested stakeholders. I think these changes have vastly improved the bill from the 2008 original. I know this latest version won’t make everyone happy, but it is a fair, equitable and workable solution to the complicated land patterns in Alaska’s Panhandle.”

The revised Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act (S.340) establishes where and how Sealaska may select 70,075 acres of land owed to it under ANCSA. S. 340 was introduced by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and co-sponsored by Senator Mark Begich (D-AK).

The bill steers Sealaska’s timber harvesting activities toward second-growth timber, areas where roads and other infrastructure already exists, to minimize any potential impact on old-growth timber in the Tongass.

Under the proposal, Sealaska would receive about 68,400 acres of land for timber development, and an additional 1,099 acres for other economic development projects, such as hydroelectric generation and marine hydrokinetic activity, and tourism near the communities of Yakutat, Kake and Hydaburg.

The bill also places 152,000 acres into conservation areas to further protect old-growth timber and important aquatic resources.

“This legislation will finally deliver on the promise the federal government made to Southeast Alaska Natives in 1971. At the same time, it ensures continued public access to the lands Sealaska selects,” Murkowski said.

James M. Peña, associate deputy chief of the National Forest System of the U.S. Forest Service, said this bill does not set a precedent for other Native corporations in Alaska due to the unique circumstances. in his testimony he said, “We believe the circumstances around this bill are unique, and no such precedent would be created." As Pena said this, a satisfied Murkowski nodded in agreement.

James M. Peña said in his testimony, “The Department of Agriculture supports the objectives of finalizing Sealaska’s remaining ANCSA entitlement, and completing conveyance of it. Over the last two years, the Forest Service has worked diligently with USDA, the Department of the Interior, Sealaska, the Alaska delegation, members and staff of the Committee and others to develop a solution that works for everyone. S. 340 represents a major step forward in that effort. We have come a long way toward developing a solution that works for all parties.”

Ms. Jamie Connell, acting deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), provided testimony supporting the goal of S. 340 to complete Sealaska’s ANCSA entitlement as soon as possible. The BLM defers to the U.S. Forest Service to represent the administration’s position on this bill, according to Connell. In response to questioning by Murkowski on previous concerns about precedent, endangered species and other issues, she stated, “Working closely with the Forest Service, and on behalf of the Fish and Wildlife Service, we appreciate the hard work and the significant improvements that have been made in this bill.”

“The Sealaska bill is very important to me,” said Murkowski. “A good faith effort was made by everyone, from Sealaska, to the communities, to the fishermen, to the sportsmen, to the recreationalists, to the folks in the agencies, and I really appreciate the efforts that have been made.” 

This version of the bill removes some 26,000 acres of land selections on northern Prince of Wales Island. Language has also been added to create buffers along key fisheries and anchorage areas for fishermen. The bill also addresses the U.S. Forest Service’s request to retain lands deemed important for its transition to second-growth timber in the Tongass.

Sealaska leadership was present at Thursday's hearing, which included Sealaska Board Chair Albert Kookesh, Board Vice Chair Dr. Rosita Worl, and President & CEO Chris E. McNeil Jr. 

“The current bill provides a substantially improved conservation benefit than if Sealaska selected from inside original selection areas,” said Sealaska Board Chair Albert Kookesh. “We are pleased by the administration’s testimony supporting the goals of this bill.”

Video of the full hearing 02/25/13:
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Public Lands Subcommittee

Following the Energy Public Lands Subcommittee hearing, Sealaska said in a press release that is hopeful that S. 340 will be reported out of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources quickly and be considered by the full United States Senate.

In a letter to SitNews, Davey Lubin, owner of a wildlife tour and wilderness sea taxi service out of Sitka, said, "Anyone with even the slightest environmental standards would be horrified at the final consequences of S.340. The fact that the US Forest Service is entertaining more than a cursory look at this highly destructive bill, calls into question the agency’s judgment. This is especially true since, to begin with, there is absolutely no need for this bill; anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or ill-informed."

Rebecca Knight of Peterburg wrote in a letter to SitNews, "Most Southeast Alaskans are united in opposition to S. 340 (formerly S. 881 & S. 730), the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act. These are real folks whose lives will be directly impacted including sport, commercial and subsistence fishermen as well as hunters, recreationists and the hundreds of residents of nine communities that will suffer the direct hit of this horrible, forest high-grading bill."

Knight wrote on April 18, 2013, "An investigation should be immediately launched regarding Congress’ lack of accountability and the unprecedented access this corporation has been granted to our legislators."

Nine communities in southeast Alaska said they oppose a bill by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to allow an Alaska Native-owned corporation to acquire some 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest, arguing the bill could threaten their livelihoods. A February 2013 letter from the nine communities to the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Energy Committee, Ron Wyden, asked him to kill "special interest legislation" for Sealaska Corporation. The nine communities opposed to the revised Sealaska Lands Bill include Thorne Bay, Cape Pole, Hollis, Naukati, Whale Pass, Kupreanof, Port Protection, Edna Bay and Point Baker.

Calling the bill introduced by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski “unfair and morally repugnant,” the towns pointed out that the bill would “create a new injustice against us” in the name of righting a wrong against them that was settled in 1971 when ANCSA passed.

In February 2013, Trout Unlimited, the nation’s oldest and largest coldwater fisheries conservation organization, announced that it does not support newly introduced legislation that would carve some 70,000 acres from the Tongass National Forest and transfer it to the Juneau-based Sealaska Corporation. Trout Unlimited said in a news release it never requested inclusion of 94,000 acres of conservation lands in the bill, as was stated by Sealaska.

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council said it is time to resolve the Sealaska Lands issue. In a March 2013 post on the SEACC website by Bob Clause, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Forest Program Director, stated, "Given the considerable changes offered to address the concerns of various communities and interests, in our judgment Senator Murkowski has offered a responsible approach to resolving this long-running legislative controversy."


Sources of News: 

Office of U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski

Sealaska Corporation

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council

Trout Unlimited


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