Resource Development Council

Congress to look at Sealaska lands bill

Sealaska Corporation is expecting a hearing in the U.S. House in March on federal legislation which would convey to the Southeast Alaska Native corporation land it is owed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which passed Congress in 1971. A mark-up is also expected on the bill in the Senate.

ANCSA established Sealaska and 12 other Native corporations as a result of the largest aboriginal land settlement in history. It promised to return productive acres of land to the corporations for the benefit of the Native people of their regions. However, land in Southeast Alaska has not been fully conveyed to Sealaska and the legislation would transfer the remaining acres.

Under ANCSA, Sealaska was eligible for up to 375,000 acres. Yet to date only 290,000 acres have been conveyed, leaving approximately 85,000 acres remaining.

“This legislation is the culmination of years of outreach,” said Chris McNeil, President of Sealaska Corporation. He noted over 200 stakeholder meetings have been held around Southeast Alaska on the bill and to better understand the values and priorities of residents in the region. The CEOs of the regional Alaska Native corporations and the Alaska Federation of Natives strongly endorsed the bill.

Legislation was first introduced by the Alaska congressional delegation in 2008 to satisfy Sealaska’s remaining land entitlements. Revised legislation was introduced by Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich last year to reflect public comments and concerns with the previous bill. Congressman Don Young introduced companion legislation in the House.

“The bill represents a number of changes from the original legislation and to meet local concerns with how selections might affect small communities,” said Murkowski.

“Sealaska has been waiting far too long to complete its land entitlement from ANCSA,” said Begich. “We need to move this legislation forward to finish the ANCSA entitlements but also to allow Sealaska and its shareholders to develop a sustainable economic future.”

The revised bill would permit Sealaska to select new acreage on and around Prince of Wales Island for timber harvesting from a pool of about 78,000 acres, up to 5,000 acres of lands elsewhere in Southeast Alaska for non-timber economic development, and up to 3,600 acres for cultural and historic preservation.

In return, Sealaska would provide policy makers with the option to preserve 270,000 acres of roadless lands and over 112,000 acres of productive old growth timber that are presently available for selection.

“Under current law, much of the land available for selection is in inventoried roadless areas, intact watersheds, municipal watersheds, and high value fish and wildlife habitat important for subsistence resources and to commercial fisheries,” McNeil said. “Sealaska agrees with many members of the conservation community that these lands are better suited for public ownership. This legislation will allow Sealaska to select land from outside the original withdrawal areas.”

Not only does Sealaska see the benefits of the bill, but so does other entities in the region, said McNeil. He noted more than 70 percent of the acres identified in the bill are in roaded areas. He said the bill provides for protection of old growth forest and unprecedented access for subsistence and recreational activities on economic development lands.

“I want to be clear that the legislation is fulfilling Sealaska’s final entitlement of 85,000 acres – no more land than is originally owed to us under ANCSA,” McNeil added.

New investment from Sealaska on lands made available through the legislation is hoped to provide a boost to the sagging Southeast Alaska economy. Prince of Wales Island suffers from unemployment rates of 24 percent and the state predicts the region’s population will decline by 30 percent in rural areas and 25 percent in urban centers by 2030.

Before introducing the legislation, Murkowski requested assurances from Sealaska that the benefits of the legislation would flow to the overall Southeast Alaska economy. In response, Sealaska promised to maintain its commitment to create jobs for residents of Southeast Alaska, maintain its commitment to local mills and local producers of wood products through micro sale programs, collaborate with others to preserve the viability of the Southeast Alaska timber industry and work with local communities on energy issues.

A study conducted by the McDowell Group indicated that Sealaska is responsible for 580 jobs and approximately $22 million of payroll in Southeast Alaska. In 2009, Sealaska spent more than $41 million in support of its corporate and timber-related operations, benefiting approximately 350 businesses and organizations in 19 Southeast Alaska communities.

“Sealaska’s land legislation is one of the most important economic stimulus measures available to Southeast Alaska, and with support, it can be passed in Congress,” McNeil said. He noted a recent survey of residents in the area revealed that communities’ beliefs and priorities are aligned with the benefits of the legislation.

Of 600 residents surveyed, 79 percent supported growing and diversifying the regional and local economy while protecting the environment. Seventy percent supported using reasonable and responsible practices which allow current natural resource-based business like logging and milling to provide jobs and economic stability for communities.

Asked to rate their priorities, 62 percent of Southeast Alaska residents said creating jobs and improving the economy is their highest priority. Fifty-six percent rated protection of streams and rivers as their highest priority and 49 percent said protection of the environment was the most important priority.

“These goals are not mutually exclusive,” said RDC Executive Director Jason Brune. “The Forest Practices Act ensures protection of the environment while affording opportunities for sustainable development.”

Of those responding to the survey, 43 percent lived in Juneau, Alaska’s capital, 12 percent were from the fishing port of Sitka and 10 percent resided in Ketchikan.

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