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Southeast land deal threatens old-growth trees, Audubon says

Mary Pemberton
J. Schoen / AP Photo

More than 12,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest's oldest and largest trees are being targeted for logging under a bill that would place wide swaths of forest lands in private hands, an Audubon report says.

"These are the ancient giant tree stands," said Audubon Alaska policy director Eric Myers. "These are effectively the redwoods of the Tongass."

Audubon Alaska used U.S. Forest Service data to look at the potential impact of a bill pending in Congress that would allow Sealaska Corp. to pick choice lands in the nation's largest national forest for logging and other uses to benefit its 20,000 shareholders.

Sealaska is one of 13 Native regional corporations established under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which compensated Alaska Natives for the loss of lands they historically used or occupied. The Native corporations were provided with $962.5 million and given the right to select 44 million acres.

Sealaska is still owed tens of thousands of acres. The bill pending in Congress would convey that remaining acreage. It is currently stalled in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

No one argues that Sealaska is entitled to the acreage. The dispute is over a feature of the bill allowing Sealaska to pick outside designated areas, normally referred to as "boxes."

The Audubon report says the bill sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would give the Native corporation "unprecedented ability" to pick and choose tracts of public lands throughout the 16.8 million-acre temperate rain forest in Southeast Alaska.

It says Sealaska is after a substantial portion of the Tongass' largest, oldest and best trees. After more than a hundred years of logging, the tree stands are "exceedingly rare," composing just half of 1 percent of the Tongass, the report says.

Under the House bill, Sealaska would get 319 stands or 12,141 acres of the Tongass' biggest trees, Audubon says. The Senate bill identifies 276 stands or 13,550 acres.

That equates to a loss of nearly 14 percent to more than 16 percent of the forest's biggest trees remaining on 81,770 acres, Audubon says.

Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris denied that the bill would authorize a return to Tongass highgrading. He also questioned some of the report's figures and findings, while pointing out that Sealaska's selections are in areas designated for commercial harvest.

Sealaska has worked hard with various Tongass stakeholders in the selection process, Harris said.

"We are perplexed when we get those conclusions," he said, of the report.

Harris said the corporation is seeking about 72,000 acres. Of those, about 28,000 acres are in old-growth areas of the Tongass and the remaining acres are either a mixture of old-growth and second-growth, or entirely second-growth in areas previously logged.

If forced to pick inside the boxes, all of Sealaska's selections could be made in old-growth areas, Harris said. But, he said, the corporation is seeking to pick outside the boxes to stay away from environmentally important and sensitive areas.

Associated Press