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Viewpoints: Letters / Opinions

Sealaska Lands Bill

by Joe Mehrkens


May 04, 2013
Saturday AM

Senator Murkowski recently defends her Tongass giveaway in the Sealaska lands bill (s.340) on the basis that Sealaska Corp was treated unfairly under ANCSA.  More importantly, she claims that S. 340 does not set a precedent for another round of Native entitlements -- when it actually does.  As a result, Senator Murkowski created a windfall gain for Sealaska under ANCSA which could only be accomplished by avoiding value-for-value appraisals.  Simply stated, S.340 is not an exchange but a raid on the public’s Tongass NF. If enacted, S.340 will reward Sealaska’s Boardroom, at a huge loss to the rest of us, and create a major precedent for further ANCSA land selections.

Sealaska got Congress to amend ANCSA in 1975 to change and consolidate their entitlements to enable large-scale logging.  Then they proceeded for decades to accelerate their logging and high-grade their timber lands.   Now Senator Murkowski would have you believe that S.340 simply remedies inequities suffered by Sealaska under ANCSA.  To the contrary, Sealaska gained title to higher than average timberlands -- despite the “onerous imposition” of the two, 50-year timber-sale contracts.  In fact, Sealaska has enjoyed a higher percentage of the two best Tongass timber types and also a greater share of operable timberlands.  Simply stated, Sealaska’s treatment under ANCSA was fair and equitable.

Senator Murkowski claims that there has been an inordinately long delay in finalizing Sealaska’s entitlements.  This is true, but it is not the whole story. She conveniently fails to acknowledge that Sealaska could have finalized their entitlement years ago.  In fact, they could consummate their ANCSA selections today as these final selections are on file with the BLM and are pending administrative action. 

Sealaska alone choose to prolong their 40 year journey in the ANCSA wilderness  because they knew they could manipulate additional benefits that were never envisioned under the Act.  What additional benefits?  Better timber, a greater total acreage, and the hugely precedent setting lock on future energy and tourism development (Sealaska’s futures sites).  Moreover, Senator Murkowski has been sympathetic for a long time to Sealaska, especially after their help in her 2010 write-in campaign.  The most important point here is that S.340 is not required to fulfill our promises to Sealaska under ANCSA and will in fact create a precedent for additional entitlements.

Sealaska’s big ask would not be possible if value-for-value appraisals were employed.  Using  value-for-value trades, the lesser values that Sealaska want to trade back inside the original ANCSA box could have been offset by a reduction in the total acres they could select outside-the-box.  However, Senator Murkowski (and the USDA-Forest Service) rejected this notion of fairness.  In fact, S.340 actually increases the total entitlement acres to Sealaska (another precedent).

The most likely reason that value-for-value appraisals were avoided at all costs is the precedent for additional entitlements under ANCSA.  In the case for Sealaska’s it is their futures sites.  Future sites are strategically located parcels that essentially put a lock on future energy and tourism development.  Sealaska’s initial futures sites were primarily located outside the box and were an unprecedented new benefit under ANCSA.  No doubt, futures sites within the box are a legitimate entitlement under ANCSA.  However, S.340 still includes futures sites outside the box (now described as “outside the box, but near the box”).  Any way you cut it this is a big precedent and the most troubling provision in S.340.  To mitigate this consequence, Senator Murkowski’s has canvassed other Native entities in order to solicit their intent not to follow in Sealaska’s footsteps.  But Senator Murkowski, an attorney, knows this is hardly any guarantee.  Moreover, the Forest Service’s opinion that no anticipated precedents are expected does not square with their previous testimony, as well as, the Dept. of Interior’s most recent testimony:  "We note that if S. 340 is enacted other corporations might seek similar legislation for the substitution of new lands. "

S.340 will mean sacrificing mandatory 100’ stream buffers (already in-place), allowing Sealaska style clearcuts in some of the best wild areas left on the Tongass (Keete Inlet, Calder, McKenzie), the loss of public access to fish and wildlife, and the loss of prime habitat in old-growth reserves for round log exports.

Senator Murkowski states her bill cannot make everybody happy.  Indeed, she is making a very few people happy at the expense of many others – and she is unleashing unknown tradeoffs with her new ANCSA precedent.   So call the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at (202) 224-4971 and state your support or opposition to S.340.  (Remember to explicitly state that you want your position to be part of the S. 340 legislative record.)

Joe Mehrkens
Retired forest economist
jrmehrkens [at]
Juneau, Alaska

About: GSACC Founder and retired forest economist...

Received May 03, 2013 - Published May 04, 2013 - Updated by author 04/08/13


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