By Libby Casey
Local outcry against the land swap has been intensifying in recent weeks and now includes southeast residents venturing to the nation’s capital to weigh in.
Johnnie Laird is a hunting and fishing guide around Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island. He took a rare trip to Washington, D-C recently – and even donned a tie to visit Congressional offices.
This is the first tie in a long time. How long? 35 years. My son got married a few years back, I wore a tux then but it had a clip on tie. This is the first tie I’ve tied – this is an important occasion.
The “important occasion” is lobbying on behalf of the Tongass National Forest – and against the Sealaska bill. Laird’s trip was paid for by the environmental group the Alaska Wilderness League, which helped him and a handful of other Alaskans approach members of Congress with their concerns. They learned “lobbying 101,” says Laird, who shared a message that he’s fears Sealaska’s land selections will hurt his way of life.
One of them directly affects my business in a negative way. It removes a pretty sizeable chunk of one particular area I guide in, removes it from the public domain, and puts it into private property. This corporation, Sealaska Corporation, has a history of no trespass lands, besides the fact that it’s slated for clear cut logging, all of it.
Going to DC is also an experience for Petersburg guide Scott Newman, on his second trip ever to the capital. He’s also worried about losing access to forests and wildlife. That, Newman says, could destroy his business and lifestyle.
Problem is we feel like Sealaska and the Alaska delegation has tried to steamroll us and slip this through without public process. And I think it’s only fair to the people in the region, the way the economy is, and with the businesses are in place, to sit down at table, come to some kind of compromise, some type of consensus, that will affect the least amount of people as possible. And still providing for the future of Sealaska.
Sealaska C-E-O Chris McNeil says concerns from locals about losing access are overblown.
So can they fish, can they hunt, can they walk on the lands?
And are there restrictions on that?
The way we’ve offered this, it would be a continuing right. There are statements that have been made we think are patently false. You know that where Sealaska is an adjacent land holder that it’s a detriment to the community. The data doesn’t support that at all. As a matter of fact there’s economic data that shows we’re a source of jobs.
McNeil says Sealaska is entitled to Tongass lands – both morally and legally, and has waited long enough.
This is our cultural homeland. The whole region is, all 20-some million acres of this. It’s not simply that there’s the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, there’s a real important history behind this that supports our presence here since time immemorial. And we believe this is just one way to find and develop a future for our own people but to be able to work in a collaborate way with the citizens of Southeastern Alaska.
The guides who visited Washington say they want Sealaska to get what is owed to it under ANCSA – they just don’t like the fact that the corporation has made new selections, which they call cherry-picking some of the best areas.
Wilderness guide, Davey Luben of Sitka, says he expects a lot of people to come out to the listening sessions hosted by Senator Murkowski’s staffers in southeast. But he wants more.
There’s already a foul being called. Because we’d really like to have other members than Senator Murkowski’s office, perhaps other members of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. That would be preferable, to get the real story, to see the real southeast Alaska, to meet the people and talk to folks like ourselves, who love the place.
Sealaska’s Chris McNeil says he expects corporation shareholders to attend the upcoming listening sessions to weigh in, too.
A U-S House Committee is planning a hearing this month on the bill… and Senator Murkowski’s office says they hope to mark it up later this spring, AFTER they review all the comments collected back home in Alaska.