Congress Looking At Sealaska Lands Bill

The latest Sealaska land conveyance bill had its first public showing in Congress on Thursday.

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The public lands panel of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee heard from two federal agencies about transferring 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to the Sealaska Corporation.

While the bill’s supporters are optimistic it will pass, there are still a couple of major hurdles.

Every regional corporation formed by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act is entitled to land. Sealaska is the lone corporation yet to finalize its land transfer.

The corporation is entitled to about seventy thousand more acres.  Problem is, it’s been difficult finding agreement on where the remaining land should come from.

“Nearly every acre, I would venture that every acre of the 16.9 million acre Tongass, is precious to someone,” Senator Lisa Murkowski said.

She says there have been more than 175 revisions to the land transfer bill since it was first introduced more than five years ago. The bill would amendment ANCSA.

Murkowski, who spent part of her childhood in Ketchikan, calls this version the most fair to all involved.

Not everyone will be satisfied. Some environmental groups worry this legislation would set a precedent that would allow other Native corporations to choose new land.

Sealaska selected its acreage, but it wants to pick different sites with more valuable timber prospects. Officials also say they dropped some selections because they were too environmentally sensitive.

Jim Pena is the associate deputy chief of the National Forest System.

“We believe the circumstances around this bill are unique, and no such precedent would be created,” Pena said.

And as Pena said this, a satisfied Murkowski nodded in agreement.

“We went around and contacted all the Native corporation heads, gained assurance that they understood the unique situation that Sealaska faces, and that they do not consider this some kind of precedent,” Murkowski said.

So that issue should be cut and dry. But it’s not.

Sitting at the table next Pena was Jamie Connell, from the Bureau of Land Management. Both the BLM and Forest Service have stake in the Tongass.

“We can’t give an absolute on some of the issues that were brought up; an absolute that another corporation wouldn’t come in and ask for similar treatment,” Connell said.

Even though Connell hedges, BLM is closer to certainty than it’s been before.

There’s still one major issue though. What kind of trees Sealaska will be able to cut.

The Forest Service worries that the land conveyance will affect the transition from old-growth harvest to new growth.

Murkowski styles the transition as a lifeline to the struggling timber industry.

“These existing timber businesses need some time. They need sufficient timber. And they need economic certainty in order to survive and to have any chance of this transition succeeding,” Murkowski said.

She says she’s willing to compromise on the issue. The Forest Service says the transition is a 10-15 year process. But most new growth is far more decades away from being ready to harvest.

Some conservationists welcomed the changes to this version, such as Joe Mehrkens.

“There are improvements,” Mehrkens said. “The first versions were absolute wish lists for Sealaska.”

Mehrkens, a retired Forest Service employee, sits on the board of the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community.

He says this plan saves prime land on Prince of Wales Island, but it’s still too degrading to the environment to support.

Chris McNeil is the president of Sealaska. He says the company met with every interested stakeholder.

Nine small communities on or near Prince of Wales Island oppose the transfer. McNeil dismisses them saying most of Southeast supports the transfer.

“Naturally you can’t have 100 percent of the constituency in favor of it. They’ve taken a position. But we’ve worked all the parties nonetheless,” he said.

McNeil says he’s optimistic this version can pass because it’s been tweaked to try and meet everyone’s needs.

The previous version stalled in the Senate last year. A similar measure passed the House, but went no further.

There is one indication a public lands bill could move this Congress: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid testified before the committee. He needs Senate action on a Nevada lands bill.

And Reid controls the legislative calendar of the chamber.

pgranitz (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  202.488.1961 | About Peter

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