Community “Listening Sessions” Next Week in Southeast — Sealaska Lands

By Libby Casey

Democratic Senator Mark Begich says he supports next week’s listening sessions in southeast communities to get input on the Sealaska lands bill, while Congressman Don Young says it’s time to move forward. 

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski is sending two staff members to Prince of Wales Island and other communities next week to hear from locals about the controversial bill.  All three members of Alaska’s delegation are sponsoring the legislation, which would give the Alaska Native Corporation Sealaska about 85-thousand acres of the Tongass National forest in exchange for lands previously selected.

The swap is part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA, but critics are calling it a land-grab.

Congressman Young says while the listening sessions are fine, he won’t be involved – and he’s ready to move ahead with the bill.  Young says the vetting has gone on long enough.

This bill has been around for a long time, this has been going round and around and around, fine.  I’m gonna support my bill, and that’s the way it’s gonna be.

Senator Begich’s office says he’s open to all opinions.  He calls the listening sessions a “good, wise move” and says he’ll pay attention to the results.  He agrees with Murkowski’s approach rather than holding formal Senate hearings.

You know if they’re doing the listening sessions, to me that’s even better.  The hearings, what happens is you get 3-4 minutes, that’s it.  You never have engagement back and forth.  I think the listening process will create some back and forth and discussion, rather than just “thank you for your testimony, now get off the stage.”

As the Senate Energy Committee’s top Republican, Murkowski COULD call for formal field hearings, but says instead the listening sessions will be more effective.

It would not be I think the full opportunity to let our offices know and understand what the concerns are from the people.  As important as field hearing is, process is not as conducive for full-on input as an opportunity to send someone out to every one of these communities, and spend a few hours in each town until people are done talking.

Murkowski says even though her support of the bill hasn’t wavered, she sees the need for more public input.

Heard very clearly from people they were concerned because didn’t feel had been included in this process, and they’re right.  You know when you have the feedback in only Craig, that’s good for residents of Craig, but it doesn’t help the others in Edna Bay or Point Baker.

Murkowski says opinions of the bill have been complicated because of ethics charges against Senator Albert Kookesh, who’s also Sealaska’s board chairman.  A state legislative ethics committee said this week Kookesh went too far when he implied Craig residents should support the bill in exchange for his influence in the legislature.

It has been an unfortunate detour of the guts of the issue.

Local outcry against the land swap has been intensifying in recent weeks.

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