College, Native Corp. Battle Over Land Claim

Sitka’s Sheldon Jackson College shuttered its doors about five years ago. But its board of trustees continues to operate, managing old debts and property that hasn’t yet been sold or given away.

That includes Redoubt Falls, about a 15-minute skiff ride south of the Baranof Island community. The falls and parts of a same-named lake and bay make up the trustees’ 160-acre claim. Redoubt is a much-used sport and subsistence fishing area.

“Our goal is to continue to continue to make available to the general public the access to the subsistence sockeye fishery that is so important to the community,” says Trustees Board Vice Chairwoman Heather McCarty, speaking at an August press conference.

She says the board still has a few hundred thousand dollars of debt to pay off. But …

“We will not be using ownership of Redoubt to develop or change in any way the current use of the property,” she says.

Sheldon Jackson trustees filed a claim earlier this year with the federal Bureau of Land Management, which decides ownership.

The trustees do not have the actual title or deed documenting Redoubt’s sale from before the United States bought Alaska from Russia. But they recently filed detailed legal paperwork tracing ownership through 1981, when the property was deeded to the college.

That claim is countered by Sealaska. The Southeast regional Native corporation filed for title to an approximately 10-acre site around Redoubt Falls in the mid-1970s. It’s the last of about 95 cultural and historic sites the corporation requested as part of its Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act land selections.

Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris says the trustees’ claims are for long-gone buildings, not land. (Read Sealaska’s statement on the issue.)

“Plus, it ignores the historic Tlingit use before Russian occupancy, during Russian occupancy and then even after Russian occupancy,” he says.

Harris says Sealaska can prove Redoubt is a Native cultural and historic site eligible for selection under the settlement act. He says the Bureau of Land Management was close to conveying the land when Sheldon Jackson filed its claim.

College trustees attorney Cabot Christianson says the board decided to speed legal action after Sealaska’s claim started getting some action.

“We became concerned that the fisheries protection was not going to be sufficient to protect the fisheries program that’s been ongoing there for the last 30 years. We also became concerned that the public access rights were not being protected,” he says.

Sheldon Jackson says it’s seeking a partner to share management of the Redoubt area, and eventually take it over.

Sealaska says it would do a better job working with local officials to maintain access.

Harris says the corporation has been negotiating a management-and-use agreement with Sitka’s municipal and tribal governments. He says talks also included the Forest Service, which takes measures to boost sockeye production in the lake.

“The Sitka tribe was very clear in its expectation that this site would be one that all of the community would be able to use for subsistence purposes and that the fisheries enhancement projects that are currently on the site or ongoing,” he says.

Critics have worried Sealaska might lose Redoubt, as well as other lands, if it failed and went bankrupt.

Harris says the corporation is financially secure. And fishermen should worry more about a possible Sheldon Jackson takeover.

“They’re an organization that is, I will say,

a defunct institution and it has creditors. We don’t understand what their relationship is. And if Sheldon Jackson actually receives title, I’m not certain how they could guarantee that the property will not be transferred to another entity,” he says.

Sealaska’s claim is much smaller than the college’s. Harris says the corporation has no position on the Sheldon Jackson claim outside Sealaska’s borders.

It’s unclear how long federal officials will take to sort through the claims. In the meantime, Redoubt will continue to be managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Read some of the college’s recent claim documents:

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Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska - Juneau
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.