On Thursday, April 25 the Public Lands Subcommittee will be holding a hearing on the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act, that will return some 70,075 acres to Alaska Native ownership.
The bill, also known as S. 340, was introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and has been the focus of multiple congressional hearings and hundreds of amendments to address a variety of concerns presented by Sealaska Corporation stakeholders a press release from the corporation said.
Sealaska is an Alaska Native institution that represents the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people and is owned by more than 21,000 tribal member shareholders. The corporation aims to build strong communities through a rich cultural heritage, Native enterprise and traditional values, while strengthening the people and their homelands.
The United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on Thursday will again focus on a bill that could protect lands near the Tongass forest while also restoring some of the lands to Alaska Native ownership. The stakeholder meetings managed to balance a fine line between protecting areas of conservation while providing resources for economic development.
“This legislation is unique by blending conservation and protection of publically important places, while providing resources for sustainable jobs in economically deprived rural communities,” said Bill Thomas, Sealaska director, commercial fisherman and former Alaska State Representative.
“It has taken years of negotiating with stakeholders and listening to public concerns to reach this point, but I believe the revisions have resulted in a stronger bill,” Murkowski said on February 14 when she reintroduced the legislation. “This legislation will finally deliver on the promise the federal government made to Southeast Alaska Natives in 1971. At the same time, it ensures continued public access to the lands Sealaska selects. That is unprecedented.”
According to the Sealaska website, S.340 secures 150,000 acres of newly designated conservation lands, which adds to the 87 percent of the Tongass forest already protected. At the same time the bill will remove more than 118,000 acres of old growth and 255,000 acres of inventoried roadless from potential selection of development.
Sealaska’s website also states that the 70,075 acres to be restored were originally promised in 1971 as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).
Support for the bill has come from a variety of areas including tribal and local community interest groups, conservationists, and businesses.
“[S. 340] finds a sustainable balance among a variety of competing interests.” Bruce Botelho, former mayor of the City and Borough of Juneau, Alaska stated, “Senator Murkowski, the conservation and business stakeholders of Southeast Alaska and Sealaska deserve a great deal of credit for working together to find the solution embodied in S. 340.”
This legislation allows Sealaska to select the lands from areas that provide economic opportunities and without unnecessarily disrupting the Wildlife Conservation Strategy under the Tongass Land Management Plan according to Rick Harris, executive vice president of Sealaska.
As good as the bill sounds there is still opposition. The Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community, a regional grassroots conservation organization dedicated to the protection of healthy, fully functioning forests, lands and waters of Southeast Alaska states that there are “9 directly impacted rural communities, large portions of the environmental community, recreational sportsmen, rural subsistence users, and some 800 dissident Sealaska Corporation shareholders” who oppose the bill according to a statement on its website.
“S. 340 sets a bad precedent, will perpetuate bad public policy, and was contrived by an elite of self-selected players, under a self-serving, exclusive, non-transparent process,” the GSACC statement said. “Clearly, S. 340 will further degrade important habitat that fuels so much of our region’s socioeconomic well-being. These large tradeoffs are unnecessary especially when the ANCSA promises to Sealaska Corporation can be readily met and finalized with no controversy.”
A letter that was sent to the Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack by the Western Governors’ Association addressed concerns with environmental stresses that are affecting the health and vitality of the ecosystems in the West. One example the letter gave was overgrowth.
According to Sealaska President and CEO Chris E. McNeil Jr., none of these conditions exist on Sealaska lands. “Sealaska has a proven track record of forest stewardship, and all of our forest and stand management practices are current with over $25 million invested in forest management. We are driven to provide for the health of our forests based on our Native values and the best science and we are proud of this performance,” he said.