A panel of citizens who advise the Parnell administration on federal issues has come out against federal legislation that would convey lands to the Sealaska Corporation. A three-page letter was sent to the bill’s sponsor, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, earlier this month.
The group that wrote the letter is called the Citizens’ Advisory Commission on Federal Areas falls under the state’s Department of Natural Resources. It has a dozen members, and they’re appointed by the governor, and both chambers of the Alaska Legislature.
The letter expresses a number of concerns about companion bills – one in the U.S. House and one in the U.S. Senate – that would convey thousands of acres to Sealaska.
The regional Native corporation is entitled to selections under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, but the bills in Congress now offer up lands that are outside the original boundaries set in the 1971 legislation. The measures have brought adamant support and opposition, and have prompted heated debate across Southeast Alaska.
The letter from the citizens’ commission, dated Nov. 4, says the group was frustrated by the lack of information on the bill. It says there wasn’t enough publicly available data to assess conflicting claims about whether Sealaska could get enough timber from within the original ANCSA boundaries. It says much of the land identified for selection comes from areas the Forest Service is planning to use for projects in the next 5 years. The commission says the bill as-is would hinder the Forest Service’s ability to supply timber to existing local mills.
The commission also strongly opposes the conservation areas established by the Senate bill, which would put more than 150,000 acres into permanent conservation.
“Because that is just not supposed to be happening,” said State Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, who chairs the commission that wrote the letter. “The federal government is not supposed to further restrict the use of our lands. The acreage that’s in the wilderness designation already in the Tongass, with this, would go up over 40 percent.”
The commission argues that adding additional acreage would further impact the timber industry.
A prominent Southeast environmental group also has problems with the conservation areas, but for very different reasons.
“They don’t go far enough,” said Lindsey Ketchel, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, or SEACC.
“We understand that there’s already been a fair amount of wilderness designation that’s occurred in Alaska and a lot of that wilderness in Southeast is really rock and ice,” she said. “And for us, we really believe that if you want to have a vital fishing industry, you want to have wild salmon runs, you want to have vibrant deer to be able to hunt and fish, you have to have habitat protection balanced with economic development. And those two need to be balanced to ensure both can thrive.”
Beyond that disagreement, Ketchel says SEACC agrees with most of the letter, especially concerns about access to the land.
Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris responded to the citizens’ commission in a written statement, saying “it’s alarming and unbecoming of a professional organization to make ‘assumptions’ without looking at the facts and conferring with Sealaska.”
He says Sealaska could indeed select land from within the ANCSA boundaries, but that those existing areas include sensitive areas, such as Craig’s municipal watershed and high subsistence areas.
He says “Sealaska can only surmise that the (commission) supports logging in the Craig municipal watershed or high fisheries habitat such as the Situk River, Eek Inlet and Yakutat forelands.”
He also claims that the commission reached erroneous conclusions regarding the bill’s impact on endangered species and the commercial guiding industry.
“This is not against Sealaska,” said Keller, chairman of the commission. “For sure, it isn’t.”
Keller says the group supports the conveyance of land to Sealaska, but believes it can be done without this particular legislation. And he noted that he has two friends on the Sealaska board of directors.
“I’m not kicking them in the shins or anybody else. They’re friends. They really are,” Keller said. “We want what’s fair. Getting this land and getting it resolved for Sealaska, it’s long overdue.”
The letter from the citizens’ commission represents a new voice in the chorus of opinions about the Sealaska bill, but it raises points that have long been debated regarding the legislation.
“But all of the things they bring up are part of the negotiations that the bill is currently undergoing,” said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Murkowski. He says the letter has some valid points, including concerns that the Sealaska selections would “decrease the effectiveness of the conservation strategy” in the Tongass, and therefore require two additional species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, or ESA.
“We’re just as concerned about exposing Southeast to ESA lawsuits from outside environmental groups for the wolf and other animals as well,” Dillon said. “We believe some of the issues we’ve been working on with the Forest Service and others will address that issue.”
As for the bill itself, he says negotiations are continuing at the staff level, and that the text is always changing.
“The maps, the land selection areas, are part of a back-and-forth negotiation, so it may be this many acreage on this island one day, and that may get cut in half or changed every day. So right now, we’re just in the process of negotiating,” he said. “And as soon we have something that the Forest Service and the Democrats will agree to in principle, we’ll remake the maps and put it back out there.”
Dillon says lands bills often get grouped together and passed as a package, but that it’s too early to tell what will happen to the Sealaska measure.