‘Landless’ tribes stake out selections in the Tongass

Aerial view of an estuary on Prince of Wales Island in the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska. Photo credit: © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Southeast Alaska tribal communities who were excluded from forming village corporations in the 1970s continue to push for a land settlement. Residents and descendants of natives in Wrangell, Petersburg, Tenakee Springs, Ketchikan and Haines call themselves landless tribes. The effort, backed by Sealaska regional native corporation, has released a series of maps with acreage it’d like sliced out of Tongass National Forest. 

A multi-million dollar federal settlement to Tlingit and Haida tribal members over traditional lands lost was one of the largest payouts at the time. The year was 1968 and the case had been going on for decades. The $7.5 million was divided among tens of thousands of tribal members living in Wrangell, Haines, Skagway, Petersburg, Douglas, Juneau and Sitka.

But then came the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act or ANCSA just a few years later. Through this federal legislation, a dozen Southeast communities were able to form village corporations and receive land. But not those compensated through the 1968 case decision.

It wasn’t completely clear cut. A separate provision allowed the more urban communities  of Juneau and Sitka to form village corporations. Today there’s Goldbelt and Shee Atika which are thriving.

To the Southeast tribal members excluded by ANSCA, it wasn’t a fair deal.

“There is more of the recognition of the disparity that exists between the haves and the have-nots,” said Leo Barlow.

He is originally from Wrangell and a representative of the Southeast Alaska Landless Corporation, a nonprofit incorporated 13 years ago in Juneau. He’s also a former CEO of Sealaska, the regional native corporation that’s bankrolling the effort through a half-million dollar grant.

“We recognize that every year that passes without settlement that other land uses are found for the Tongass,” he said. “We are not going to be stepped on any further in terms of losing the land base that we once enjoyed.”

There have been efforts to get Congress to address this before. But those bills have been contentious because they’d be slicing up Tongass National Forest.But now, Barlow says the Trump administration seems receptive to the idea.

And his group has maps: 115,000 acres they’d like to divide among the five landless tribal communities. It would in effect, convert these tracts from public Tongass forestland to private lands that would be owned by Alaska Native shareholders.

These parcels were selected for their cultural significance, road or marine access, and natural beauty or food supply. This translates to opportunities for ecotourism, hydro projects, cultural plots and timber harvest.

Wrangell’s city council endorsed the concept in 2016. It hasn’t weighed on the specific maps. Other communities are more skeptical.

Tenakee Springs Mayor Dan Kennedy says he supports indigenous land rights but is wary of the structure of a village corporation.

“It’s just the idea of forming a corporation and monetizing that that would be a far cry from any traditional use,” he said.

Tenakee Springs has the fewest Alaska Native populations of the five. It’s also the smallest community by far, with under 150 residents. The mayor says Tenakee’s citizens aren’t enthusiastic about a village corporation developing the area.

They assured us they weren’t planning any large scale logging, they were looking more towards tourism. But for some people here that’s just about as bad,” Kennedy said.

Environmentalists are also finding themselves walking the fine line between righting historic wrongs and ecological conservation.

“If you look throughout the forest you would recognize that many of these places are some of the best and most valuable parts of the Tongass,” said Austin Williams of Trout Unlimited, a national conservation group with a chapter in Anchorage.

“When we take public lands and hand them over to private corporations, what we’ve seen in the past is the lands often get clear-cut, they get exploited for their natural resources, they’re closed for public access,” Williams said.

Still, the group has support from some of the folks who would potentially be affected. 

John Yeager lives in Wrangell and sits on a federal subsistence board for Southeast Alaska. The group oversees hunting and fishing rights on federal lands. He says he believes the landless group when they say they’ll be good stewards of the land.

“I would suspect that there wouldn’t be any issues because of their forethought and thinking of subsistence issues in the first place,” Yeager said.

The regional Native corporation Sealaska, which is largely behind the landless group, has done its fair share of clear cuts in the region. But it also began reserving some of its forestland for the carbon credit market. 

One can’t know what the future would hold for lands ceded to future village corporations. 

It would be up to the board of directors elected by its shareholders. And again all of this would require an act of Congress.

All land maps are available below:

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