Sealaska Bill Privatizes 70,000 Acres of the Tongass

Terrible news for the Tongass this week: Around 70,000 acres of the Tongass are being turned over to Sealaska for development.

As Davey Lubin told the Sitka Sentinel this week, “I’m highly disappointed that our treasured, priceless public lands have been privatized. It’s a huge loss for the whole nation … What Theodore Roosevelt established as a national legacy, Lisa Murkowski has squandered.”

This week’s developments show that not even our National Forests are protected from corporate control. Congress and the American public need to give this issue more scrutiny. Read the article below to hear SCS Executive Director Andrew Thoms’s take on the Sealaska Lands Bill. The article below was printed in the Sitka Sentinel on Monday, December 15.


 

By SHANNON HAUGLAND, Sentinel Staff Writer

A bill transferring 70,000 acres of land from the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska Corp. passed Congress on Friday.

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Rodman Bay (Photo provided by Sitka Conservation Society)

“It has taken seven years, but I’m proud to say that we finally completed the land conveyance for Southeast Alaska’s nearly 20,000 Native shareholders, and at the same time ensured that the region’s remaining timber mills have timber,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a news release, following the vote on Friday.

The Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act was included in the bipartisan package of lands bills approved Friday as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. It provides Sealaska with 70,075 acres to finalize the transfer of land owed to the Native shareholders under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

“Some 43 years after passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the federal government will finally finish paying the debt we owe Natives for the settlement of their aboriginal land claims,” Murkowski said in the announcement.

The land transfer includes more than 68,000 acres available for logging, including land in Rodman Bay and Sinitsin Cove near Sitka, as well as 1,009 acres for renewable energy resources and recreational tourism, and 490 acres of Native cemetery and historic sites.

The legislation also includes about 152,067 acres of old-growth timber in new conservation areas to protect salmon and wildlife habitat, Murkowski said. The bill goes next to the president for his signature.

Representatives of Sealaska Corp. were unavailable for comment.

Sitka Tribe of Alaska Tribal Council Chairman Michael Baines said he was pleased by the news, which he ran across this weekend on Facebook.

“I’m 100 percent pleased, the council is pleased,” he said. He noted that the STA Tribal Council passed a resolution last week in support of the compromise legislation proposed by Murkowski.

Baines said he believes the legislation will be beneficial to tribal citizens.

“I hope it will mean an improved economic development for the corporation which will mean more dividends for the tribal citizens,” he said. “I hope it will mean jobs in Sitka but as far as I know there hasn’t been any jobs from the regional corporation.”

Asked whether he believes the land will be developed and logged any differently than in the past, Baines said, “I hope they’ve learned their lesson. They’ve done that before – and it’s taken decades to bring back more trees that they can log.”

Sitka Conservation Society Andrew Thoms said he was disappointed by the news.

“Anytime that public lands are given to a private corporation, it’s a loss for everyone,” he said. “It’s going to mean 70,000 acres of some of the best timber land in the Tongass put into Sealaska hands, and the old-growth stands they’ve been given are some of the best remaining stands of cedar left on the Tongass. The burden is on Sealaska now to do what’s best for the shareholders in the region.”

He called old-growth cedar a “cultural treasure of the peoples of the Pacific Northwest.”

“As Sealaska now owns those best stands of cedar, are they going to continue to foster that connection, or will it be exported to Asian markets?” Thoms said. “It’s about more than just (habitat). The cedar trees in those stands are thousands of years old, and they won’t grow back in our lifetime.”

He cited Rodman Bay, on the north end of Baranof Island (30 miles north of Sitka), and Sinitsin Cove on North Kruzof (25 miles northeast of Sitka) as two areas closest to Sitka that are identified as “economic development” lands in the transfer.

Clarice Johnson, a Sealaska shareholder, said she was opposed to the lands transfer as proposed. (Johnson works at the nonprofit SCS but specified that she was speaking only as a shareholder.)

“I think there are a number of shareholders who are supportive of receiving our full land selection but not the way it was put in the rider, and they don’t think it will be much benefit to the average shareholder,” she said. “Possibly because Sealaska has lost so much money, they’ll probably cut the land quickly; and a large portion of any natural resource development in regional corporation land will be shared with other regional corporations.”

She noted that this provision – calling for regional corporations to share profits – has made it possible for Sealaska to pay out dividends, since the local regional corporation has not been profitable in recent years. She added that she believes the main beneficiaries of the land transfer and development of the lands will end up being the corporation’s board and staff through salaries and other compensation.

Johnson said she believes one of many results of the transfer will be the inadequate protection of karsts in Southeast.

“There is no protection compared to the U.S. Forest Service,” she said.

Johnson said that although only two “economic development” land selections are near Sitka there are others she believes are designated as “historic sites” including Kalinin Bay. She said the 15-acre site is the fifth largest historic site in the land selection.

Johnson said she’s concerned about what may happen at this location. “They can’t log, and they can’t mine there, but they can develop it,” she said.

Davey Lubin, who has traveled to Washington, D.C., five times in the last six years to testify against the Sealaska lands bill, said he was “highly disappointed” with the news.

“I’m highly disappointed that our treasured, priceless public lands have been privatized,” he said. “It’s a huge loss for the whole nation … What Theodore Roosevelt established as a national legacy, Lisa Murkowski has squandered.”

The Sealaska lands bill is separate from legislation to transfer 11 acres near Redoubt Lake to Sealaska, which is now in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management, Baines said.


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