WASHINGTON -- For decades, conservationists, the U.S. Forest Service, tribes, Native corporations and the people who live in the Tongass National Forest have warred over how to manage the vast temperate rain forest covering most of Southeast Alaska.
The fight resurfaces in Washington this week, as the Sealaska Native Corp. makes a case to a Senate committee that it should be able to pick as much as 85,000 acres outside of its original land grants in the forest.
The company's picks are controversial, in part because they include valuable old growth timber that many would like to see off-limits to logging. Some local groups, including the Craig Tribal Association, also have concerns about how Sealaska plans to address important cultural locations in the acres the company wants, including places that are part of their ancestral history.
But Sealaska argues it has sought for decades to assume ownership of all the acreage it was granted under 1971's Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the landmark legislation that settled aboriginal land claims by the state's Native people.
The company has turned its attention to Congress, which must approve the Native corporation's proposal to choose land outside of the original and amended "boxes" they picked in the early 1970s.
It's not Sealaska's first stab at passing the legislation, which will get a hearing Wednesday in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But they've come closer this time around than with their previous efforts, in part by pitching the legislation as a job creation bill.
Sealaska's aim is not only to maintain timber-related jobs, but to spur the economy in other ways, said Rick Harris, the company's executive vice president. They're also committed to tapping alternative energy sources and expanding the tourism season in Southeast Alaska, Harris said. The bill allows Sealaska to select roughly 79,000 acres on Prince of Wales and Koscuisko islands. Most of the land is for timber harvesting; another 4,000 acres will be set aside for tourism and other non-timber economic development. An additional 3,600 acres of land will be preserved as sacred, cultural, historic or educational sites.
"We're very open to trying to explore with the communities and the tribes what we can do," Harris said. "Let's step back, let's look at our assets and our resources and let's make sure that we understand what people would like to see and how we can induce people to come. Either for research or education or for a cultural experience."
LOBBYING, CAMPAIGN CASH
Since the beginning of 2010 alone, the Native corporation has spent nearly $200,000 lobbying Congress to pass its legislation. The corporation also donated $100,000 to Alaskans Standing Together, the effort that helped fund Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski's successful write-in re-election campaign in Alaska last fall.
The legislation even figured into the Senate campaign after Murkowski's opponent in the Republican primary, Joe Miller, weighed in to say that Murkowski lacked transparency in drafting the bill and favored some constituent groups at the expense of others. Miller, who beat Murkowski in the primary but lost in the general election, was the biggest critic during the election of the senator's ties to Sealaska and other Native corporations that contributed to Alaskans Standing Together.
Miller weighed in recently when the senator introduced a new version of the bill. This time, though, he criticized Rep. Don Young's version of the bill, prompting speculation that Miller might take on the 20-term congressman next year.
Jaeleen Araujo, vice president and general counsel of Sealaska, said the company sees its Washington lobbying as outreach that allows them to counter the message of those opposing their proposal.
"It's only fair that we participate in D.C. in this political process, just like all the other conservation groups have," Araujo said. "If only those groups are using their dollars to get their story out, then that would hardly provide a fair opportunity to Sealaska and our shareholders."
The U.S. Forest Service has made no secret of its concerns about the legislation. Discussions about the Tongass, home to one of the longest running environmental fights in the country, are so sensitive many are handled directly by Jay Jensen, the deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"We very much support Sealaska fulfilling its lands entitlement," Jensen said. "We want to do what we can to get that to happen. It's been a good, long conversation, not just with this administration, but multiple administrations, trying to figure that out. It's multi-year."
But the government maintains its position that Sealaska should make its selection from the original areas the company got to pick from. Anything else interferes with the Forest Service's transition plan for the forest, which calls for maintaining existing old growth and roadless areas and looking for other areas of economic development beyond timber.
"What would that mean to the communities themselves, their economic livelihoods?" Jensen said. "What would that mean to local milling infrastructure of the timber mills that are actually up there? A lot of the materials that Sealaska takes from its land, they actually export."
The company's choice of land outside its original selections "cascades to a whole other set of questions about how that intersects with old growth management and roadless management and the Tongass land management plan," Jensen said. "It gets very complicated very fast."
THE FOREST AND JOBS
Those who make their living off the land, including by giving guided tours of the forest and waters surrounding it, say they're concerned about access to lands once owned by the public.
They also say that while the process has involved numerous public meetings, they have concerns about how open it's been. Some community meetings have taken place in tribal buildings or at Sealaska, said Davey Lubin, who operates a wildlife tour company in Sitka Sound. That's made some people uncomfortable about voicing their objections to the land bill, he said.
"I spoke my piece, and I was soundly admonished as being disrespectful to the tribe, to the culture," Lubin said. "I don't mean anybody any harm. I'm just speaking for the fact that these are public lands, and I believe they need to stay public."
Although Sealaska calls it a job creation bill, most of the jobs in the past have been in booms and busts related to logging, said Joe Mehrkens, a former economist for the Forest Service from Southeast Alaska who has worked for conservation groups.
"If they let them out of their selection areas and into these new areas, they're taking, No. 1, some better old growth than what they've got left," Mehrkens said. "They've got a bunch of roads and infrastructure that taxpayers have paid for. And, they're taking the forest service plan for a transition into a second growth -- and some of the best second growth -- and that would go to Sealaska. That totally disrupts the Forest Service plan."
Murkowski's office says the legislation has undergone major revisions over the past year that reflect public comments from town hall meetings across the region as well as hundreds of emails and letters sent to her office. It's co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. Young has reintroduced an older version of the bill that doesn't include some of the recent compromises in the new bill.
Murkowski said the bill not only keeps the legal promise the federal government made to Alaska Natives in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, but ensures "the survival of the remaining timber operations in Southeast."
"Without access to private timber, the remaining mills will disappear and an important part of the region's economy will be forever lost," Murkowski said earlier this year when she introduced a new version.
The corporation's Harris takes a similar view, that without the legislation, the "opportunity to sustain those jobs is impaired."
"It sustains the existing jobs -- that's the reason we call it a jobs bill," he said. "We're able to maintain significant number of jobs that we create through our logging operations."
But the bill remains controversial in Southeast Alaska, where communities are often divided about the proposal. Last year, the state legislature's Ethics Committee found probable cause that Sen. Albert Kookesh broke state ethics law by implying he would deny state funding to the city of Craig if the City Council there opposed the bill. Kookesh works for Sealaska.
For some, it's the company's logging practices that remain most troubling. Sealaska defends them, saying they follow state and federal guidelines, and have a vested interest in being good stewards of the land.
"Everything was pristine when I was a kid," said Mike Douville, an Alaska Native who's also a city councilman in Craig and a Sealaska shareholder. "I've seen all the change. We've got to protect what we have left."
He says there's room for logging "in small amounts," but too much has been clear cut. Over the years, he's earned about $200 to $300 in dividends annually from Sealaska. It hasn't been worth it, he said.
"I would never trade the destruction of the land we've seen on Prince of Wales Island for that money," he said. "Never. Sealaska land is virtually one continuous clear cut."