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Defense bill includes Sealaska land-transfer provisions

JUNEAU — A proposal intended to make final the land claims of an Alaska Native regional corporation in Southeast has been added to a federal defense authorization bill.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Wednesday announced agreement by members of the House and Senate to tack on a package of lands bills — including the transfer of land to Sealaska Corp. — to the defense bill. But some Senate Republicans were critical of the add-on, which also includes designation of 245,000 acres of new wilderness areas and new park units.

The package should come up for a vote before Congress breaks for Christmas, Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said. It includes provisions that would provide Sealaska with just over 70,000 acres owed to Southeast tribes under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

According to a release from Murkowski's energy committee staff, Sealaska is owed 85,000 acres in the Tongass National Forest. But as part of a compromise Murkowski worked out, it will accept less in exchange for more than 68,000 acres available for logging, as well as land for renewable energy and tourism projects and cemetery and historic sites.

The measure also includes about 150,000 acres of old-growth timber in new conservation areas.

"We took great care to fulfill the promises made to Sealaska shareholders while at the same time addressing the concerns of all Southeast residents who utilize the Tongass for everything from subsistence to fisheries and recreation," Murkowski said in the release.

Sen. Mark Begich said that while the overall bill isn't perfect, "we have been able to move forward on development interests that advance Alaska's economy."

Other Alaska provisions in the lands package include allowing Anchorage to sell the Egan Convention Center property and two other downtown parcels for redevelopment, according to the release.

Jaeleen Araujo, Sealaska's vice president and general counsel, said the corporation "can now only wait in anticipation, along with the rest of the public, for further developments" as the bill moves through the process.

"Sealaska is thankful for everyone who provided input into the bill and we remain hopeful that this long journey may finally come to an end," she said in a statement.

Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, had a mixed reaction.

"It is never a good day when we lose thousands of acres of valuable Tongass old-growth," she said in a statement. However, she said her group also was heartened by the inclusion of acreage for conservation.

Malena Marvin, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said in a statement that her group hopes to continue talks with Sealaska about banking some of the lands as carbon trusts.