Timber industry dies without land deal, Sealaska tells panel

Erika Bolstad

WASHINGTON -- What little remains of Southeast Alaska's timber industry won't survive if the Sealaska Native corporation can't finalize a land deal allowing it access to the timber it wants in the Tongass National Forest, the company warned a Senate committee Wednesday.

Yet the Obama administration remains opposed to the land deal, saying it interferes with long-term U.S. Forest Service plans for the Tongass, the temperate rain forest that covers much of Southeast Alaska.

Sealaska has sought for decades to assume ownership of all the acreage it was granted under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the landmark legislation that settled aboriginal land claims by the state's Native people. Sealaska is the regional corporation for Southeast Alaska. Congress must approve the Native corporation's proposal to choose land outside the original and amended "boxes" it picked in the early 1970s.

Without an infusion of loggable land, the timber industry could disappear, said Byron Mallott, a Sealaska board member. He made the case to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the company should be able to pick new acreage outside the original land grants, of which it never took ownership.

"What we seek today is lands that are in recognition of a current reality, to be responsive not only to our own needs but to the needs of this country," he said.

The Forest Service remains concerned that the land the corporation wants conflicts with government plans to transition away from logging in old growth and roadless areas, said Harris Sherman, undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They'd like to see a diversified, vibrant economy for the region that includes not only logging but healthy fishing, tourism and recreation opportunities.

"There remain a number of very important issues where we need to find a common solution," Sherman said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who sponsored the legislation, warned Wednesday, though, that it was time to stop talking about the legislation and begin acting on it.

"We cannot keep just talking this to death, because 40 years have passed," Murkowski said. "The time for talking was this past year. Let's make this happen, but let's not allow this to drag out."

Others continue to have concerns about the legislation. Nine Southeast Alaska communities were represented at the hearing by Myla Poelstra of Edna Bay. She said they worry about the transfer of so much national forest land to a private corporation. They fear Sealaska's logging practices could result in a boom-and-bust timber economy, Poelstra said. "Do not let our towns become ghost towns," she said. "Tear up this bill."

The legislation also is opposed by environmental groups, including the Audubon Society, which warned Wednesday that the 17 million-acre forest is widely recognized as the "crown jewel" of the national forest system.

Because development came relatively late to Southeast Alaska, portions of the forest are little changed from centuries ago. The forest, with 11,000 miles of shoreline, is home to bears, salmon and the largest known concentration of bald eagles.

Murkowski said that based on community comments and discussions with the government and Sealaska, her staff had made more than 150 changes to the proposed land deal since 2008.

A House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, has a hearing this afternoon in the House Natural Resources subcommittee, which he chairs.