Sealaska Corporation would get land within the Tongass National Forest in a bill that’s moving quickly in the final days of Congress. The long-awaited Sealaska bill is one piece of a Public Lands package that’s been added to a must-pass defense bill.
It would turn over about 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska, the regional Native corporation of Southeast Alaska, mostly for logging and development.
Sealaska has been pressing Congress for such a bill for years, to complete its land selections under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Jaeleen Araujo, Sealaska general counsel, is pleased but cautious.
“Well, we haven’t had activity on our bill since they both passed through the committees of the House and the Senate,” she said. “They’ve been waiting for well over a year, probably a year and a half, since we’ve had any action on them. So for us we’re just happy to have some movement.”
Nationally, the bill moves 110,000 acres out of federal control, enables a controversial copper mine in Arizona and expands a BLM program to streamline drilling permits. Outside of Alaska, it also establishes more than 200,000 acres of wilderness and designates new national parks.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski says it’s the culmination of weeks of negotiations. Leaders of both parties, in the House and Senate, have approved the deal. If it passes, it will be the most extensive public lands legislation to become law in years.
Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon says the package has widespread support in Congress because it includes a variety of measures that appeal to different lawmakers.
“It’s a large, comprehensive package. But it really strikes a good balance between conservation — there’s wilderness bills in here, there’s new parks — and economic opportunity and development,” he said.
The collection of land bills came together just this week, but Dillon says all of the elements have been thoroughly discussed in public.
“Sealaska especially. Sealaska had seven years of public process,” he said.
The land conveyance, he said, will serve as a bridge as the industry lessens its reliance on old-growth harvest.
“The Sealaska bill will help keep the timber industry alive while the Forest Service moves over to a second-growth strategy. It will give the timber mills in Alaska enough timber for the future to get through,” he said.
Among its other Alaska provisions, the bill would sell an old DEW Line radar station within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to Olgoonik, the village corporation of Wainwright. It also clears federal interests in three municipal lots in downtown Anchorage. In Nome, it turns over an Air Force tank farm at the port to the city government. In the defense portion of the bill, lawmakers affirmed the process the Air Force used when it selected Eielson Air Force Base to house the first F-35A squadrons, indicating Congress won’t block the decision. It also authorizes $40 million to improve and expand the missile defense system at Fort Greely and blocks a potentially competing missile site on the East Coast.
The Sealaska transfer is one of the high-profile items in the land bill, and it divides environmental groups. While the bill conveys 70,000 acres on Prince of Wales and other islands, it also conserves more than 150,000 acres in eight areas of the Tongass for salmon habitat and wildlife. The Alaska Wilderness League sees that as significant. But Athan Manuel, who has been fighting the Sealaska bill on behalf of the Sierra Club, says it’s little consolation.
“Even though the bill did get a little bit better, the fact that it privatizes part of the Tongass National Forest is a deal-breaker for the Sierra Club,” he said.
Manuel, though, says he sees no opportunity to stop the bill now.
“This is a very historic win for Sen. Murkowski, a very audacious win for her. The fact that Sealaska is going to be able to operate outside the boundaries of ANCSA is a pretty good plume in their hat,” he said.
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act promised acreage to Alaska Native corporations, and Sen. Murkowski says her bill fulfills that commitment to the shareholders of Sealaska. In what could be taken as a sign of its balance, the bill is opposed by both the Sierra Club and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which complains it would lock up federal land in Western states. The House is expected to pass the bill tomorrow and then it moves to the Senate. Republican Sens. Tom Coburn and Ted Cruz have already objected to the public land bills hitching a ride on the defense bill.
“A bill that defines the needs of our nation’s defense is hardly the proper place to trample on private property rights,” Coburn wrote in a letter to Republican leaders.
Joe Viechnicki, of member station KFSK, contributed to this story from Petersburg.