Focus Turning To Senate’s Sealaska Bill

Sealaska land-selection legislation is poised to pass the U.S. House. But the bill most likely to get through Congress appears to be in the Senate.

The House version, introduced by Alaska Congressman Don Young, is among 14 measures merged into a larger bill this week. What’s called the Conservation and Economic Growth Act is scheduled for floor action next week.

Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris says the Southeast regional Native corporation appreciates the support.

“It is a bipartisan bill and the leadership of the House has said they want to move it. And so, of course we’re not going to stand in the way of that,” Harris says.

Young’s version has undergone some changes. But Senator Lisa Murkowski’s legislation has had more revisions.

Harris says Murkowski’s version is more likely to succeed in both chambers of Congress, as well as be acceptable to the president.

“At this point in time, it’s going to take the support of all three to move that bill. So we believe probably the Senate bill will still be the operative bill for engaging and addressing the Sealaska land issue,” he says.

Both versions would allow the corporation to select federal land outside boundaries set in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Corporate officials say that will keep its logging operations going, protect traditional sites, and allow for new businesses. Opponents say it’s a giveaway of some of the region’s most valuable lands that would hurt fisheries and subsistence.

The Alaska Wilderness League is one of the bills’ critics. Executive Director Cindy Shogan says the House version would do more damage than the Senate’s.

“Both of the senators from Alaska have been meeting a fair amount with their constituents and talking about their concerns and their bill, on the Senate side, has been modified to reflect some of those conversations,” she says.

Her group also opposes the omnibus measure before the House.

That would also facilitate construction of a Utah hydroproject, step up efforts to stop sea lions from eating Columbia River salmon, and ease restrictions on livestock grazing permits.

“There’s also some other pretty awful bills and they put it into one giant package. And I think they just want to be able to go back July 4th and say to their constituents, ‘Look at all these bills we passed. The Senate’s not doing anything,’ ” she says.

Young and his spokesman could not be reached for immediate comment.

Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon says the senator is still negotiating with the Forest Service, the Democratic Senate majority and Sealaska.

He says all of the acreage on northern Prince of Wales has been dropped from the measure. Other changes reduce selections on Koscuisko and Kui islands.

Dillon says Murkowski is optimistic an agreement can be reached this summer, allowing the bill to pass out of committee.

“Passage out of the full Senate is complicated by the fact that it’s an election year and nothing of any consequence is moving,” he says.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.