Resource Development Council

Sealaska land bill faces new assaults from opponents

Sealaska Corporation, its tribal member shareholders, and Southeast Alaska communities are facing a full assault from national environmental groups and their allies in Congress on legislation critical to its future.

The latest barrage came in a letter signed by 58 members of the U.S. House, who claim the bill would threaten the economic and ecological well-being of the Tongass National Forest.

Some groups have launched a disinformation campaign to defeat S. 881 and a similar bill in the House sponsored by Congressman Don Young. Both bills would convey to Sealaska land it is due under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

ANCSA established Sealaska and other Alaska Native corporations as a result of the largest aboriginal land settlement in history. It promised to return productive acres of land to Sealaska, but the corporation has not received its full conveyance. S. 881, sponsored by Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, would convey 85,000 acres to complete the entitlement.

Opponents erroneously claim the Tongass will cease to exist as currently known if S.881 passes. They also falsely claim Sealaska has clear-cut over 320,000 acres and that S. 881 would allow the corporation to cherry-pick the best timber.

Sealaska counters that such claims are removed from reality. It says the recent letter signed by dozens of members of Congress is misleading and ill-informed. Sealaska says the bill would maintain vital jobs in the region, create sustainable economies, and keep more old growth and roadless areas in public ownership.

“How could Sealaska clear-cut 320,000 acres when it owns only 290,000 acres?” asked Rick Harris, Executive Vice President of Sealaska. Harris noted the corporation favors helicopter partial-cutting, which comprises 57 percent of its harvested acres.

Harris also disputed the claim that S. 881 would allow Sealaska to log the best timber. He emphasized that over 70 percent of the big-tree, old-growth forest of the Tongass is already protected in reserves. “To claim that Sealaska would select the best trees in the forest is false because the best timber is permanently protected and will never be available for harvest,” Harris said.

Moreover, Harris insisted that the remaining conveyances, which amount to less than one percent of the Tongass, would not change the current character of the forest, where 94% of the old-growth will remain off limits.

Harris said S. 881 is about doing what is right. “It’s a conservation, jobs, and economic stimulus bill with statewide benefits,” he said. “It does not give Sealaska a single acre more than it is due.”

Harris said all selections would come from the Tongass, whether or not S. 881 passes.

The difference is that S. 881 would allow Sealaska to move its currently authorized land selections from predominately roadless inventoried areas covered in old-growth timber to lands that are mostly roaded with significant acres of second growth forest. Approximately 37,000 fewer acres of old growth would be harvested from the Tongass under S. 881.

If the bill fails to pass, Harris said Sealaska would be forced to choose from areas presently available for selection, which ironically include intact watersheds and oldgrowth reserves. The outcome would mean higher levels of logging, road construction and development activities in roadless areas, including high-value watersheds used for community drinking water, sport and commercial fishing, and conservation purposes.

The land within the current authorized selection areas includes the majority of the Situk River watershed near Yakutat, highly prized for its steelhead fishing.

Harris said Sealaska prefers to avoid the public outcry that would occur from development activities in these remote, high-valued areas. He said it has been the corporation’s intention from the beginning of this multi-year process to avoid conflict and do what is right for the environment and the residents of Southeast Alaska.

Harris noted the alternative selection pool in S. 881 is a product of compromise arising from thousands of hours in meetings with local communities, conservation groups, and other parties. Following congressional hearings and meetings, he said significant revisions were made to S. 881 to address local concerns and needs. Almost half of the economic lands identified in the original bill have been removed while conservation areas well in excess to the land Sealaska would receive have been added.

Yet despite these concessions, environmentalists appear in no mood for compromise. “Conservationists cannot one day profess to protect undisturbed forests and the next day abandon the very opportunity to protect roadless areas and old-growth timber afforded by S. 881,” Harris said. “We must surmise that their opposition is really about something else.”

Harris said it is important to remember that the Tongass is mandated by law to be managed for multiple use, as opposed to a national park where most development activities, including logging, are banned.

New investment on lands made available through the legislation would provide a major boost to the Southeast Alaska economy and help sustain the region’s small forest products industry. Through revenuesharing provisions of ANCSA, all Alaska Native corporations statewide would benefit from activity on Sealaska lands.

S. 881 is supported by the State of Alaska, the Alaska Federation of Natives, all Alaska Native regional corporations, the majority of Southeast Alaska residents, the National Congress of American Indians, and the Alaska congressional delegation.

A study conducted by the McDowell Group indicated Sealaska is responsible for 580 jobs and approximately $22 million of payroll in Southeast Alaska. In 2009, the company 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.

The revised bill would also permit Sealaska to select up to 5,000 acres of lands for economic development and 3,600 acres for cultural and historic preservation. “S. 881 is fundamentally about the equitable settlement of this nation’s commitment to the Alaska Native people of Southeast Alaska,” Harris said. “This compromise bill is a win-win for the economy, local communities, and the environment.”

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