By Ed Schoenfeld
The Sealaska lands-selection bill has become an issue in U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski’s re-election campaign. Primary opponent Joe Miller is attacking the Republican incumbent, saying her bill was crafted in secret and does not respond to regional concerns.
Miller, a Fairbanks attorney, admits he doesn’t have much experience with Southeast Alaska. But he says he’s heard a lot from the region’s residents since he began his campaign to replace Murkowski.
He says he’s gotten e-mails and calls from dozens of people concerned about the incumbent’s Sealaska lands-selection bill. He’s concluded its development has not been open and transparent.
“I think that if you’re a congressman or a congresswoman and you have a bill that’s proposed, I think that you shouldn’t be giving it selectively to one or two groups and asking those groups to keep it to themselves or not fully disseminating it to other groups. I think it’s critical that all constituents have access so that they’re part of that process,” he said.
He’s called for Murkowski to withdraw the bill for further review and discussion.
The legislation would allow Sealaska to select land guaranteed by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act outside current legal boundaries. The regional Native corporation wants tens of thousands of acres of valuable Prince of Wales Island timberland. The bill also includes sites for energy, ecotourism and transportation development.
Congressional and campaign staffers say the public has had plenty of opportunities to review the measure and offer input. Robert Dillon is Murkowski’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee spokesman.
“To suggest that the process hasn’t been open and transparent couldn’t be further from the truth. Senator Murkowski’s staff and the energy committee have held meetings in every affected community and taken testimony from thousands of Alaskans. Changes have been made because of that testimony and changes continue to be made based on that testimony to try to find a bill that strikes the proper balance,” he said.
Hundreds of Southeast residents spoke for and against the measure during Congressional hearings held earlier this year. And proposed changes quietly circulated among interest groups were made public this month.
Miller says some residents are telling him their concerns were ignored.
“Yeh, we had meetings. Yeh, we actually got to say something. But was anything we said actually considered? Did we actually see a consequence? Or was there any evidence that what we actually did had any impact on the ultimate outcome? That’s why they’re saying, and why I’ve got concern in part about the process, it doesn’t appear that that’s had an impact,” he said.
Murkowski staffers say the proposed changes, which have yet to be finalized, show that the office has been listening.
Sealaska CEO Chris McNeil says the corporation has agreed to numerous public requests to change the bill. He points to amendments shifting timberland selections and removing about a third of the future-development sites.
“There has been a desire for us, for Sealaska to move some of its original selections into yet other areas. And our board has considered these changes and has been responsive to them so that the new maps, which have been published, represent a significant change,” he said.
Those changes have not satisfied critics, including a group of small communities on or near Prince of Wales Island. Environmental groups, including the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, also continue to oppose the bill’s focus on large-scale logging.
Miller says he’s not allying himself with environmentalists, and wants to see federal land opened to development. But he shares concerns from a hunting and fishing group that the bill could lead to stronger federal protections for wildlife, which could limit development.
Dillon, of Murkowski’s office, says the measure will not be finalized before the end of July. It’s not expected to pass on its own, but could be added to a larger lands bill.