‘Landless’ legislation clears U.S. Senate committee for the first time

Thomas Bay and Frederick Sound
Thomas Bay and Frederick Sound near Petersburg, one of the five “landless” communities. (Cindi Lagoudakis)

“Landless” legislation passed a new milestone on Thursday, after winning approval of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The bill still has a long way to go to become law. But if it does, it would return land to the original occupants of five Alaska Native communities in Southeast Alaska. Those communities were left out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who sponsored the bill, said in a statement that the omission was “hampering their ability to support development and opportunity while protecting their traditional ways of life. Alaskans have been trying to right this wrong for 51 years.”

ANCSA put millions of acres of land in the control of more than 200 newly formed local and regional Alaska Native corporations.

Cecilia Tavoliero is the Landless delegate for Petersburg and Chair of the Southeast Alaska Landless Corporation board. She was in the room when the bill passed through committee.

“Everybody was elated. We were so happy,” she said. “But we understand there’s a lot more work to do.”

There has never been a clear explanation as to why Petersburg, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Haines, and Tenakee Springs were not included in ANCSA.

Sen. Dan Sullivan cosponsored the bill. Rep. Mary Peltola has introduced similar legislation in the House. Alaska’s congressional delegation has been bringing similar bills before both chambers for roughly two decades.

Opponents have voiced concerns that the new corporations would log their land, clearcutting swaths of what had been the Tongass National Forest.

But supporters say the timber industry has changed in recent years. Nicole Hallingstad sits on the board of Alaska Native corporation Sealaska and is a Petersburg representative of landless communities. She said Native corporations are moving toward more sustainable business ventures.

“The industry in the Tongass is no longer focused on huge harvest of timber,” she said. “And we’ve had such long, engaging conversations with the conservation community, that many of the largest conservation societies in the nation are moving either to neutral or to support our legislation.”

The Wilderness Society recently reversed years of opposition to voice their support for the legislation.

Some are also concerned about public access. But Hallingstad said that public input has helped the landless delegation refine the bill.

“We’ve got such strong language, ensuring public access, in perpetuity, for recreation activities, your favorite hunting spot where you like to pick berries, that will still be available,” she said.

Public access was not guaranteed by ANCSA.

If the House bill passes committee, the two versions would be combined in markup talks between the House and Senate. The combined bill would proceed to the House floor for a vote.

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