Sealaska Lands Exchange Hearings Start Today
May 25, 2011
Congress approved Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) nearly four decades ago to settle the aboriginal land claims of Alaska Natives. Under a complicated land conveyance formula, Sealaska was entitled to roughly 375,000 acres of the 16.9-million acre Tongass National Forest to help improve the livelihoods of their 20,000 shareholders. That promise has never been fulfilled.
In contrast to every other Alaska Native corporation, Sealaska’s original selection areas were limited because much of Southeast Alaska was under contract to the pulp mills and unavailable when ANCSA passed. While there are 327,000 acres in those original areas still available for selection, 44 percent of that are water and much of the rest is in village watersheds.
Of the 112,000 acres of old-growth timber still available within those areas, 61,000 of those acres are in old-growth reserve areas – areas considered unacceptable for development on environmental grounds – and much of the land is located in the 277,000 acres currently designated as “roadless” areas by the U.S. Forest Service.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) commented in favor of legislation that would allow Southeast Alaska’s Sealaska Native Regional Corp. to complete the land selection promised to its shareholders nearly 40 years ago under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).
In a prepared statement Murkowski said, “This legislation is important not only to keep the legal promise the federal government made in ANCSA, but also to ensure the survival of the remaining timber operations in Southeast Alaska,” Murkowski said. “Without access to private timber, the remaining mills will disappear and an important part of the region’s economy will be forever lost.”
The Sealaska bill would complete the aboriginal land selections by Southeast Alaska Natives, while also protecting the rights of other Alaskans who depend on Southeast lands for their livelihoods said Murkowski.
Under the bill, Sealaska would select from among 80,000 acres on Prince of Wales and Koscuisko islands to complete its land entitlement. While a large portion of Sealaska’s land selections will be designated for timber harvesting, some 4,000 acres will be set aside for tourism and other non-timber economic development. Another 3,600 acres of Sealaska’s selection will be preserved as sacred, cultural, historic and educational sites.
“I know some will argue that Sealaska should accept the lands they effectively were forced to originally take. The problem is if they did, they likely would be barred from utilizing many of those lands on environmental grounds,” Murkowski said. “Notably, they likely wouldn’t be allowed to develop lands along the Situk River – the nation’s foremost steelhead fishery – and in the municipal watershed at Craig, the two most valuable pieces of land inside their selection areas. This bill simply seeks to pick other places for Sealaska to take their remaining lands than what was required under the 1971 act.”
The intent of the bill is to steer Sealaska into timber harvests in areas with roads and existing timber infrastructure, and into areas containing second-growth timber so they can reduce their reliance on old-growth. That is clearly everyone’s current concept for a restructured timber industry in Southeast said Murkowksi.
The bill, originally introduced in 2007 and again in 2009, has undergone major revisions over the past year to reflect hundreds of public comments.
“We took great care to fulfill the promises made to Sealaska shareholders, while at the same time protecting the concerns of all Southeast residents who utilize the Tongass for everything from subsistence to fisheries to recreation,” Murkowski said.
In a prepared statement Cindy Shogan, Executive Director, Alaska Wilderness League said, “The Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska is a world-class natural treasure and belongs to all Americans. The Sealaska bill, S. 730 and H.R. 1408, threatens high-value old-growth and vital watersheds in our Tongass National Forest." Shogan said, "The controversial bill has pitted neighbor against neighbor in the small towns of southeast Alaska and continues to be a single-stakeholder solution – benefitting only the Sealaska Corporation."
Shogan said, "There is no question that finalizing Sealaska’s claims needs to be a high priority, but they must be balanced with conservation for the Tongass, as well as meet the needs of the local communities whose livelihoods depend upon the forest." She said, "The Tongass National Forest, otherwise known as the nation’s ‘crown jewel’ of the US Forest System, contains over 5,500 salmon-filled streams and rivers and all five species of Pacific salmon – it is truly a “salmon forest,” and a powerful economic engine."
"Any legislation for the Tongass must recognize the economic value of conservation and restoration, and ensure that high-value watersheds, old-growth forest, salmon habitat, and the forest-dependent jobs of southeast Alaskans are protected," said Shogan.
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