Sealaska Lands Bill Could Survive Murkowski Loss

By Ed Schoenfeld

Lisa Murkowski’s defeat could impact the chances of Sealaska’s lands legislation passing. The Republican U.S. Senator was the bill’s main backer in Congress. And primary winner Joe Miller has spoken against it.
But the other two members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation say they’ll keep the measure in play.
Congressman Don Young introduced the first Sealaska bill in 2007.
But Lisa Murkowski’s office has been doing most of the recent heavy lifting. That’s in part because she’s the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which handles such legislation.

In an internet interview earlier this year, Murkowski took the lead in defending the bill against critics.

“There’s been some concern somehow or other, Sealaska is getting something extra, something that they’re not entitled to. And what I think is important to appreciate is the history, and the fact that Sealaska remains incomplete in terms of their conveyances under ANCSA,” she says.

Murkowski’s narrow primary defeat still leaves her the power to push the measure through in her final months.

But Robert Dillon, her Natural Resources Committee spokesman, says that is not in the works.

“I’m not aware of any plans to move the bill in the immediate future. There’s certainly no plans to rush the bill through until it’s finished and ready to go. And at that point it would be made public, again, with any changes,” he says.

Murkowski will serve until early January. But Dillon says scheduled recesses leave only about five weeks for Congressional action.

Don Young continues to sponsor a version of the measure. Spokeswoman Meredith Kenny says he is committed to seeing the bill through.

He serves on the House Natural Resources Committee, a key panel for the bill. But he no longer holds the leadership post he once had.

The third member of Alaska’s Congressional delegation, Senator Mark Begich, is also a sponsor of Murkowski’s legislation.

“His goal is to get the bill passed through Congress,” says Begich spokeswoman Julie Hasquet.

She says he believes in the bill, which would allow Sealaska to select approximately 80,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest. That would be outside boundaries set in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

“He continues to support the bill and whether it’s while Senator Murkowski is still in office or after she leaves office, if it hasn’t passed by then, Senator Begich will continue to work to get this bill passed,” she says.

The chief contenders for Murkowski’s Senate seat are less positive about the bill.

“It would just create a high degree of economic impact in a way that would hurt Alaskans,” says Republican candidate Joe Miller.

He slammed the legislation as a back-door deal during the primary. His campaign press staffers have not returned calls about the legislation since the August vote.

But in pre-election interviews, he criticized more than the process.

“The concern I have is that when you select outside boundaries it creates all sorts of uncertainty for private enterprise, other users, other stakeholders, that have come to depend on land that no one ever thought would be selected because it wasn’t within ANCSA boundaries. And so I think as a general concern, that is going to create, if you we go that route with this bill, uncertainty throughout the state, she says.

The Democrat in the race is less negative, but far from enthusiastic.

Senate candidate Scott McAdams has sat through meetings on the bill as Sitka’s mayor. But he would not say whether he’d sign on as a cosponsor.

“I think that the Sealaska land bill is a work in progress. I think as a general rule putting Native lands back into Native hands is the right thing to do,” he says.

Sealaska officials were not available for interviews in time for this report. But spokesman Todd Antioquia sent an e-mail saying, quote,

“We are not prepared to speculate and we will continue to evaluate all our options. We have legislation … with bipartisan support and we will continue working towards passage.”

Meanwhile, some bill opponents say it’s one of the reasons Murkowski lost to Miller.

Point Baker resident Don Hernandez, who has campaigned against the measure, says it cost the incumbent votes.

“On Prince of Wales Island I’m sure that there were a good number of people that voted against her specifically because of this bill. There may have even been a few people switching parties so they could vote for Joe Miller. It wouldn’t surprise me,” he says.

An analysis by Native law attorney Donald Craig Mitchell, published in the Huffington Post, also suggested the bill could be a factor.

Despite the opposition, the incumbent pulled in about 57 percent of Southeast Alaska’s GOP primary vote. That’s a stronger return than most other parts of the state.

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