By Libby Casey
The Obama Administration weighed in yesterday on the controversial Sealaska lands bill, signaling that the White House does not support it.
The legislation would allow Sealaska Native Corporation to swap some of its previously selected Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act lands for about 85-thousand acres of the Tongass National Forest.
But at a Congressional hearing in Washington, the U-S Department of Agriculture’s Deputy Undersecretary for Forestry, Jay Jensen, said while the Department wants to see Sealaska get its lands due under ANCSA, U-S-D-A has concerns about this plan.
The bill would likely disrupt the delicate balance being struck around sustainable economic diversification and job stabilization on the forest. The lands being sought by Sealaska are some of the same lands that are essential to this balance. Further noting that the lands do have significant taxpayer investments in roads and pre commercial thinning that need to be accounted for as well.
The Bureau of Land Management weighed in on what it sees as problems. Marcilynn Burke, B-L-M’s Deputy Director, says it could set a precedent for other regional corporations to swap lands.
We are concerned that this could lead or provide an impetus for other corporations to attempt to reopen their land claims in this final stage in the land transfer program. If this occurs it will prolong the process of completing ANCSA entitlements.
Burke says B-L-M is also concerned with deadlines in the bill, which she says would favor Sealaska and put it before other Corporations’ land conveyances.
Congressman Don Young sponsored the House bill, and sits on the Natural Resources Committee that hosted the hearing. He sarcastically told Burke that the process of getting Sealaska its lands is “really moving fast” and has taken 39 years, and questioned her concerns:
Have you or anyone else at BLM actually talked with other regional corporations on whether they would be OK with Sealaska being first?
I am not aware of any conversations with other corporations.
So you took this upon yourself for the department to say they would object to it.
I believe what the statement says is that placing a deadline for the conveyances to Sealaska necessarily would place that work ahead of other work the Department is currently engaged in.
No no you said regional corporations would be placed at the head of the line
That’s right that’s what you said. Are you aware there’s a resolution signed by the Alaska Regional Corporation presidents and CEOs that fully supports this legislation?
I have not reviewed that material, I was told yesterday by representatives of Sealaska that such a resolution does exist.
Young also mocked environmental groups’ concerns about the land swap.
Among those testifying for the land exchange was Sealaska board member Byron Mallott. He says the Tongass National Forest is home to the First People – the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.
The only people in the U-S who still live on their homelands, and have never ever been defeated, made a treaty, people who value their presence and relationship and collaboration, and citizens of country, but who still live in fear that their way of life is slowly being eroded away. Mr. Chair that is the fear of the way of life I live with every single day of my life
But commercial fisherman Don Hernandez said he’s also worried about losing his way of life. He’s from Point Baker, and says the community opposes the bill and fears the Tongass will change forever if it passes.
The loss of any say of how to use is the focus of opposition to this bill. Recent scientific assessments show old growth forests that Sealaska is seeking for economic development is some of the most biologically important forest in Southeast Alaska. What makes these areas so productive also makes them vulnerable to damage from intensive clear cut logging.
Sealaska and those opposed to the land swap dispute how extensive logging will be if the plan goes through. The Natural Resources Committee did not “mark up” the bill or vote on it, which would have to happen before it could reach the full U-S House.