By Ed Schoenfeld
Sealaska’s controversial land-selection bill could undergo major changes soon. Amendments circulating among interest groups suggest shifts in selected timberlands and future economic-development sites. But nothing’s finalized.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski is expected to revise her Sealaska lands bill within a few weeks. And groups involved in the legislation have gotten advanced notice of some of the changes under consideration.
Proposed amendments include a shuffle in some of the Tongass National Forest land Sealaska could select for logging.
“The economic development lands or the timber lands are still pretty much the areas that we defined in the original legislation,” said Rick Harris, the Southeast regional Native corporation’s executive vice president. “However, they’ve been adjusted or moved around in a way to avoid or minimize conflicts.”
Northern Prince of Wales Island selections would be cut, to address some objections from Point Baker, Port Protection and Edna Bay. The change would also leave Tongass timber that the region’s mills hope to harvest and process.
Replacement timberlands would be added on Tuxekan and Kuiu Islands, west and north of Prince of Wales. Other additions would be made elsewhere on Prince of Wales.
Amendments would also create Fishery Conservation Areas within the Tongass, where commercial logging would be prohibited.
“So we’re taking them out of our selection pool to put them in a different status because we were told they were very important to certain fisheries users,” said Jaeleen Kookesh Araujo, Sealaska’s general counsel.
Sealaska says the idea came from Murkowski’s office.
The proposed amendments also remove about 20 Native Futures Sites to answer objections mostly from nearby communities. Around 30 would remain. The sites are small areas set aside for ecotourism, energy development and other enterprises.
Other changes would address access issues and eliminate sacred site selections within Glacier Bay.
Congressional staffers would not discuss specific amendments since Murkowski has not approved them. The bill is in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Sealaska CEO Chris McNeil said many changes are still being discussed.
“I think the intent of the parties is to diminish the amount of conflict related to the selections. And I’ll be very surprised if once the committee publishes something that there will be more conflict rather than less conflict,” he said.
Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Executive Director Lindsey Ketchel disagreed.
“The bill doesn’t go far enough in addressing community concerns about subsistence resources and existing rural businesses,” she said. “In general, we feel that the bill is still missing opportunities to move the region forward or on a common vision for vibrant communities and a sustainable forest industry.”
She said the proposed habitat protections do not go far enough. That includes the Fishery Conservation Areas, which SEACC considers to be a token offering.
“The fishing industry really depends on healthy forests and streams and this bill doesn’t go far enough to protect already stressed fish and wildlife from additional logging by Sealaska on the Tongass.”
Sealaska could select its remaining Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act acreage without the bill. But it would be restricted to land the corporation says should be protected, such as subsistence hunting areas and community watersheds. Legislation is needed to allow selections outside those areas.
The bill is not expected to move on its own. Backers and opponents say it will most likely be added to a larger piece of land-related legislation.