It's time to resolve the Sealaska Lands issue
I’m sure there will be a wide variety of opinions on Senator Murkowski’s new Sealaska Lands Bill. We respect this diversity of opinion. It’s important to remember that under existing law Sealaska is entitled to almost 70,000 more acres from the Tongass. There will be negative impacts on old growth forests as a result of this bill. There will also be disproportionate impacts on certain communities and individuals over others. However, these things would also be true if selections occurred within the current ANSCA boxes. The question we had to ask ourselves was whether at this point a different outcome was reasonably possible.
Given the considerable changes offered to address the concerns of various communities and interests, in our judgment Senator Murkowski has offered a responsible approach to resolving this long-running legislative controversy. We outline the bill in detail and provide maps at seacc.org/sealaska. Here, I’d like to provide additional detail on the process that went into this decision and the various reasons behind it.
First, we were under no pressure from anyone to make this decision. It was made free of influence or pressure from any congressional office, foundation, or other entity. There was no deal, no secret negotiations or agreements, and no connection to any previous actions taken by SEACC or other groups.
The first version of the Sealaska Lands Bill was introduced in 2007 and has been introduced in every subsequent Congress. SEACC has consistently and unequivocally opposed these bills for various legal, environmental and social reasons. We submitted written testimony on each version, and testified in person at three of the five committee hearings on the bills. The last time I testified was in May 2011 when the bill was in front of the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, where Chairman Don Young attacked SEACC and me. You can see the video here as well our supplemental response to Chairman Young’s unfounded charges.
In 2011, SEACC agreed to participate in a series of meetings between Sealaska, Senator Murkowski’s office, and other entities interested in resolving these land claims. No agreement was ever reached by this group. Some of the requests we made are included in the bill, though, again, no agreement between the groups, or any subset of the groups, was ever reached.
By 2012, Sen. Murkowski introduced a new version of her bill that dropped some, but not all, of the most controversial timber lands that SEACC had been concerned about. We still opposed the bill, but our primary focus shifted to the 30 small “futures sites” that were still included—areas that had unfair impacts on communities, hunters and fishermen, and others. We were also concerned about cultural sites, public access, inadequate salmon stream protections, and other issues.
After Sen. Murkowski submitted her new bill on February 14th, 2013, I and other SEACC staff carefully reviewed it. Despite misgivings about the amount of conservation lands, timber parcels such as Calder and Keete, the small parcel at Turn Point near Craig, and other concerns, we decided to recommend that our Board support this version of the bill, and they agreed.
We did so because we felt Senator Murkowski had offered a responsible response to the issues raised; judged that we were probably at that point where this complex legislation was unlikely to be improved; and hoped that it could help all of us move forward together to bring about a better, brighter and more balanced future for the Tongass National Forest, our communities, and our citizens.
Please see our webpage on the Sealaska Lands Bill for more information.