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Legislation Finalizing Sealaska Land Claims Advances in U.S. Senate


June 19, 2013

(SitNews) - The Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act (S. 340) was approved Tuesday by the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee by unanimous voice vote. The bill now heads to the Senate floor for consideration.

The measure provides Sealaska Corp., the Alaska Native regional corp. for Southeast Alaska, with 70,075 acres to finalize transfer of land owed to the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

“It has taken six years, but today we’ve taken a major step toward fulfilling the promise made to Southeast’s 20,000 Alaska Natives more than four decades ago,” U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said. “This has been a difficult process because every acre of the Tongass is precious to someone, but we have worked tirelessly with all of the stakeholders to address their concerns. I truly believe that all of that work has resulted in the best bill possible. It will help the region’s timber industry grow, while at the same time protect more than 150,000 acres for fisheries and habitat.”

Under ANCSA, which extinguished aboriginal land claims in Alaska, Sealaska was entitled to an estimated 375,000 acres of the 16.9-million acre Tongass National Forest to help improve the livelihoods of its shareholders. The government never made good on its promise.

Sealaska is currently owed some 85,000 acres, but under the compromise worked out in Murkowski’s bill it will accept about 15,000 acres less in exchange for 68,400 acres for timber harvesting, 1,099 acres for renewable energy resource and recreational tourism projects, and 490 acres of Native cemetery and historic sites.

The measure also places 152,000 acres of old-growth timber in new conservation areas to protect salmon and wildlife habitat.

The legislation steers Sealaska’s timber harvesting activities toward second-growth timber and areas that already contain roads and other infrastructure to minimize impact on old-growth timber.

“We took great care to fulfill the promises made to Sealaska shareholders, while at the same time addressing the concerns of all Southeast residents who utilize the Tongass for everything from subsistence to fisheries to recreation,” Murkowski said. “The bill ensures public access and protects key salmon streams. It also creates new habitat conservation areas, including six areas sought for protection by Trout Unlimited.”

“I realize this bill won’t make everyone happy, but we’ve made literally hundreds of changes over the past four years in an effort to meet every possible concern,” Murkowski said. “My goal was to fulfill the promises made to the shareholders of Sealaska by the federal government back in 1971, to support what’s left of Southeast’s timber industry, and to recognize that there are areas here that deserve additional protection. I believe this bill accomplishes all three.”

The bill, co-sponsored by U.S.Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), has undergone more than 225 changes since first being proposed by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) in 2007. 

“Collaboration is the defining characteristic of this legislation,” said Chris E. McNeil Jr., Sealaska’s president and CEO. “The discussion and negotiation over this bill exemplifies Wooch.Yax. The Senate vote today shows not only the respectful consideration of balanced interests in the Southeast Alaska region, but the strong bipartisan support that is only possible through the Senate Energy Committee’s culture of collaboration and hard work.”

In a prepared statement, Begich said, “This important step brings us closer to finalizing the transfer of land owed to the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples in southeast Alaska.  As a co-sponsor, I am pleased that I could bring bipartisan support to this bill so that it is now ready for final passage in the Senate.  I applaud Senator Murkowski and her staff as well as the U.S. Forest Service for coming to the table, listening to what Alaskans had to say, and finally reaching a compromise on this long-disputed issue.  In addition to boosting the Southeast economy and creating new jobs, this legislation will finalize the transfer of the land promised to Alaska Natives more than 40 years ago.”

“This legislation is about what is fair and just for Southeast Alaska’s Native peoples,” said Sealaska Board Chair Albert Kookesh. “Forty-two years ago a promise was made to return a portion of Haa Aaní, our land; now that promise is closer than ever to being fulfilled.”

Through an executive order in 1907, the taking of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian lands without negotiation created the 16.8-million-acre Tongass National Forest. Southeast Alaska Natives have been locked in a struggle for the return of a fraction of those lands ever since. Passage of the legislation would finalize the land claim adopted by Congress in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) was pleased the 42-year-old issue was moving on and commended Murkowski and the administration for the work put forth in authoring the bill. “Senator Murkowski and staff worked so cooperatively with our side,” he said. “You don’t get these kinds of bi-partisan measures unless people are willing to work together.”

Sealaska stated in a news release they hope that S. 340 will move to the full Senate for consideration with other public land and energy bills in the near future.

However, the National Audubon Society and Audubon Alaska say this bill is ecologically harmful and unnecessary and that the Sealaska Bill targets the biggest & the rarest Tongass trees.

“The corporation should absolutely receive its final entitlement lands, which they could do today without any new legislation,” said Brian Moore, Legislative Director for the National Audubon Society. “This costly legislation is unnecessary and should be rejected. The so-called ‘conservation’ measures in the proposed S. 340 bill actually allow for far more intensive old-growth logging than the existing law.”

A report written by Audubon Alaska that focuses on the ecological or conservation tradeoffs of the proposed legislation reveals that under the proposed bill S. 340:

  • Sealaska Corporation’s timber selections would be strongly skewed towards ecologically rare and economically valuable large-tree old growth stands—a practice called “high-grading” that was recognized as harmful and banned by Congress under the 1990 Tongass Timber Reform Act.  
  • After accounting for the “conservation land” additions, S. 340 would still result in a net loss of productive old growth, large-tree old-growth, and biological hotspots (i.e., core areas of ecological value). 
  • The old-growth stands with the largest and rarest trees make up just 3% of the Tongass as a whole. By contrast, they make up 7% in Sealaska’s land selections under ANCSA, but are ten times greater (30%) in the proposed new selections under S. 340.


Edited by Mary Kauffman, SitNews


On the Web:

Audubon Alaska’s full report “The Costs of Senate Bill 340: A report to Congress"

Sources of News: 

Office of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski

Office of U.S. Sen. Mark Begich


Audubon Alaska

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