A bill transferring about 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska has passed Congress.
The measure is attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, which is on its way to the President’s desk after a Senate vote.
The legislation completes the Southeast regional Native corporation’s land selections, promised by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Sealaska could have chosen other lands earlier. But this bill gives it access to more valuable timber stands, economic development locations and heritage sites.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who authored the measure, says it will help more than Sealaska.
“You also have the aspect of the economic benefit that is conveyed when these lands, that were in federal hands, are now transferred for an opportunity for increased recreation, tourism and also for economic interests such as timber harvests,” she says.
Critics have called the bill a giveaway that will damage fish and wildlife habitat. It’s been strongly opposed by environmentalists, sportsmen’s groups and communities near potential logging sites.
“Sealaska Inc. and Southeast Alaska’s other ANCSA corporations have already picked over those areas, taking the best timbered areas,” says the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community in a statement posted online. “Now, Sealaska wants to cast off the rest, for more of the best elsewhere.”
The corporation has come close to shutting down its timber division in recent years, as it’s run through forests on earlier land selections.
“This is a monumental step to achieve our strategic plan of growth and profitability while maintaining important cultural priorities,” said Sealaska President and CEO Anthony Mallott, ina press release.
Murkowski, interviewed after the vote, says she hopes the bill will help turn around the industry.
“I hope it’s not too little too late. It has been a long, long time in coming. If you haven’t had an opportunity to visit with anyone in Southeast lately, it’s pretty skimpy down there,” she says.
Rep. Don Young sponsored the bill’s original version. Sen. Mark Begich co-sponsored Murkowski’s legislation.