For 18.5 years I worked as a biologist with the Habitat Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in the panhandle of Alaska, which encompasses our nation's largest national forest, the Tongass. A remote and rare coastal temperate rain forest, the Tongass offers one of the few opportunities left in the United States to conserve the species and integrity of a landscape at an ecosystem scale. But within a few months the Tongass, as we now know it, may no longer exist.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress may soon take action on a controversial piece of legislation that would transfer public lands rich in wildlife to the Sealaska Regional Corporation, which has already unsustainably clear-cut an abundance of some of the most valuable and biologically productive lands in Southeast Alaska.
My primary duties as an area biologist included monitoring the impact of logging on fish and wildlife. I regularly worked in the field with Sealaska, which has holdings of approximately 453 square miles and is the largest private landholder in Southeast Alaska. While I gained extensive first-hand knowledge regarding the resource issues and concerns on both private and public lands throughout Southeast Alaska, I was shocked and dismayed at the corporate land management practices I witnessed. Like another Gulf oil spill, this can and should be prevented from happening again.
Under Sen. Lisa Murkowski's S. 881 proposal, however, the Sealaska Corporation would receive about 125 square miles of high-value land in small parcels that would allow them to select the best estuaries, bays, stream mouths and stands of large old-growth trees for intensive clear-cut logging and other developmental purposes.
It may also privatize, at taxpayers' expense but without any public review or informed discourse, access to extremely valuable tidal electrical generation sites.
Sealaska does not need this legislation to finalize its land entitlements. It has already made other far less damaging governmental land selections that will take effect if S. 881 fails to pass.
The lands that will be conveyed to Sealaska if S. 881 fails to pass are within boundaries requested in 1975 by then Sealaska President John Borbridge. S. 881 allows the Sealaska Corporation to relinquish previous land selections and cherry-pick some of the best and most productive lands within the Tongass National Forest, usurping a wildlife conservation plan painstakingly designed to protect the survival of all wildlife species, including a unique subspecies of wolf and rare subspecies of goshawk. Consequently, we may soon see the Tongass managed through the Endangered Species Act, rather than a more well-thought-out plan.
Unquestionably, this legislation would result in significant undesirable and permanent biological, economic and social consequences. It upsets important comprehensive forest management planning efforts, previously established Native land settlement legislation, and a more balanced approach to maintaining wildlife populations.
This single-sided legislation only serves the interest of one group: the Sealaska Corporation. It would also affect small communities and subsistence users that depend on the forest for their livelihoods. Local residents are moving away from logging giant old trees and toward tourism and sustainable forestry, but both economic drivers will be severely impacted with continued clear-cutting and round-log exports to Asia if S. 881 passes.
Some of the lands to be transferred, such as the Lake Shlokeum hot springs near Bailey Bay north of Ketchikan, are extraordinary public treasures. The legislation would come at the expense of the people of Southeast Alaska, and of all Americans who own these valuable public lands.
Sen. Murkowski's techniques may allow Sealaska's bill to slip quietly through the Energy Committee later this month, and eventually into an omnibus lands bill, but that is not what good government is supposed to be about. It is time to end this environmentally destructive and financially costly taxpayer-funded bailout of yet another outdated corporate business plan.
Jack Gustafson formerly resided in southern Southeast Alaska, where he worked as a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
By JACK GUSTAFSON