Sealaska bill for Tongass land being revised in Congress

OBJECTIONS: Native firm has picked areas outside boundaries.

June 15, 2010 

JUNEAU -- A controversial lands bill sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski and being considered in Congress is being revised.

The bill could place thousands of acres in the Tongass National Forest into the hands of the Sealaska Corp. Between 80,000 and 85,000 acres are at stake.

The lands are owed to the private Alaska Native corporation under the terms of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Sealaska is seeking to pick lands outside the agreement's original boundaries, and therefore needs congressional approval.

Recommendations from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee staff would move timber harvests away from the northern Prince of Wales Island communities of Point Baker, Port Protection and Thorne Bay. Instead, areas on Tuxekan Island, Polk Inlet and northern Kuiu Island would be harvested.

At issue also have been the Native corporation's selection of so-called "futures" sites -- those chosen for their business potential, apart from logging. Under the recommendations, there would be 19 fewer sites.

Lindsey Ketchel, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said the revisions don't do enough to protect subsistence resources or develop business opportunities in rural communities.

For example, Sealaska's practice of exporting logs in the round to Asia does not support the new Tongass management vision recently announced by the U.S. Forest Service, she said. If those trees were provided to local mills, it would ensure the mills would continue to operate, she said.

A group called the Territorial Sportsmen also remains concerned about the bill. Its president, Wayne Regelin, fears the measure would set a precedent for additional Native corporations to demand small, economically valuable lands.

He also said the measure does not guarantee public access to land that will become private property under the act and could lead to more petitions for endangered species listings.

Murkowski is expected to release a final version of the bill this week, but the measure's future is uncertain. Any bill passed by the Senate would likely be part of a larger lands omnibus bill. It is unclear whether an omnibus bill will materialize this year.

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