Salisbury Sound, north of Sitka, can be a tumultuous place. Pacific Ocean waters and winds meet Inside Passage currents here to kick up powerful waves that dash against the rocky shores.
But on this day, only gentle swells rock the boat. Binoculars-clad visitors admire the spruce-hemlock forests reflected in a protected inlet’s surface. They photograph the rugged, mist-shrouded mountains, and scan the kelp beds for otters.
But the landscape, like these waters, can kick up a storm.
Seventy-six acres near this sound, and another 85,000 or so elsewhere in Southeast, are being claimed by the Panhandle’s regional Native corporation. It’s part of a controversial economic-development plan proposed by Sealaska, whose 20,000 shareholders descended from the land’s first residents.
“The region needs help. And we believe that our land entitlement legislation is a significant part of that,” says Chris McNeil, president and CEO of Sealaska, which has already selected close to 300,000 acres in the region. More than two-thirds of that was forested, and most has been logged, selectively or through clear cuts. (Read more about existing land use.)
But the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which created this and a dozen other regional corporations, promised more.
Sealaska could – right now — claim the remaining land it’s owed from within box-shaped boundaries surrounding shareholders’ home communities.
But Senator Lisa Murkowski staffer Kevin Sweeney told those at a meeting in Sitka last year that there are reasons to look elsewhere.
“Sealaska was a little different than the rest of the regional corporations in that they were limited to select lands around 10 villages in Southeast. And the problem that Sealaska sees is that while there are still 327,000 acres still available in those boxes, 44 percent of that is actually saltwater,” he says.
Corporation officials say most of that inside-the-box acreage should be kept public, as part of the Tongass. That would protect roadless areas, watersheds and land used for subsistence hunting and fishing.
“We have 70,000 acres of selection rights in the Yakutat area, much of it along the Situk River corridor,” says Rick Harris, Sealaska’s executive vice president.
He says land along the salmon-producing river is not a good place for economic development – the purpose of most selections. And neither are many other locations within the claims-act’s boundaries.
“We have selection rights in the city of Craig’s municipal watershed. We already own several municipal watersheds or portions of them. And we really don’t think the community would like us to own more land in their municipal watershed,” he says.
But opponents say the land Sealaska wants to claim has many of the same reasons to be protected.
“I think it’s very important that people understand that if they did significant clear-cutting in some of those key locations, it’s going to potentially affect Native villages’ quality of their drinking water. It’s could affect their ability to hunt and fish,” says Lindsey Ketchell of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
She says she’s not against Sealaska claiming land outside the boxes. SEACC and other environmental groups — as well as government, fishing and other representatives — negotiated withdrawals with corporate officials last year. While they reached no formal agreement, the talks did contribute to amendments proposed last summer. (Review the proposed amendments.)
But SEACC and other environmental groups continue to oppose most of Sealaska’s proposed selections. (Read more about SEACC's concerns.)
“What we’ve been challenged by is that when Sealaska has selected areas outside the box, they’ve gone after old growth reserves, they’ve gone after old forest research farms, where there are some of the biggest and best trees out there. And I think that they’ve got to lower their sights,” she says
Most of the land in question – about 80,000 acres – is on or near Prince of Wales Island. Sealaska wants it for logging, spread out over several decades. (Look at maps of some of the proposed selections.)
Much of the rest is in small parcels throughout the region called “futures sites,” where development, possibly tourism or energy production, might take place. What remains is “sacred sites,” those of historic or cultural value, including old village or fish camp locations, plus some migration routes.
Sealaska CEO Chris McNeil says the timber and futures sites are part of a regional development plan. He says it’s especially needed as the corporation runs out of mature trees before new growth is ready to harvest.
“What we’re trying to achieve for our tribal member shareholders is development of a sustainable economies in the region,” he says. (Read more about Sealaska's legislative plans.)
The lands-selection plan has been before Congress since 2007 when Don Young introduced a version in the U.S. House. Lisa Murkowski, with support from Mark Begich, introduced versions in the Senate.
But the bills are not Sealaska’s first attempt to take ownership of Tongass forests outside the claims act boundaries.
Efforts started in the late 1990s.The corporation first tried negotiating directly with the Forest Service. Then it proposed putting most Southeast timber lands under the control of a Native-managed trust. Neither plan went anywhere.
“The delay this far has been primarily the result of Sealaska holding out for a better deal,” says Prince of Wales Island forester Robert Sheets.
He says the corporation wants to select the most valuable land it can. Speaking at a Craig meeting last year, he said Sealaska’s economic problems are Sealaska’s fault.
“This is unfortunate for the timber industry, but is not a result of a deficiency in ANCSA. It is the result of Sealaska’s poor harvest schedule. And it should not be the responsibility of the taxpayer to bail them out,” he says.
Sarah Dybdahl works for the corporation’s cultural arm, the Sealaska Heritage Institute. She’s originally from Prince of Wales Island and spoke at the Craig meeting.
“We have a right. Out of the Tongass, we are only asking for 3 percent. We are asking for a sliver,” she says. “Where can we go? When can Natives have prime land without it being objected. I have a really tough time when people come in here and talk when they own big fishing lodges and they own million-dollar homes and our people are living in HUD houses. We have a right and it’s about time that it’s settled.”
Jeff Sbonek has spent three decades in Port Protection, on northwest Prince of Wales. He says the corporation wants islanders – and others near the lands – to give up their lives in exchange for profits.
“This is not a non-Native versus Native issue. This is an issue of the public against corporate greed,” he says. “Sealaska was a principal participant in the establishment and delineation of the boundaries of the lands from which to select. Now, 39 years later after they have nearly exhausted their timber reserves, they want to change the rules and cherry pick the very best remaining old-growth forest reserves left in all of the Tongass National Forest.” (Hear a report on opposition from POW villages.)
But some see the legislation righting wrongs created when Sealaska was limited to boundaries set by the settlement act.
Dale Williams is a member of Sitka’s tribal council, and spoke at a community meeting on the bill.
“Back in 1970 I was working in Juneau and I noticed a map with shaded areas and they were talking about ANCSA back then and the shaded areas included all glaciers and icefields and it included also mountaintops. These were hardly cherry-picking. We weren’t being offered the best land,” he says.
Sealaska officials hoped for action on the bill by now. And Congressman Young, and Senator Murkowski, both plan to reintroduce the legislation this year.
Sealaska’s Rick Harris says the corporation is patient.
“We’re not going to abandon the effort for a final, fair and just settlement for Sealaska and its shareholders. And we’re not going to abandon making the right decisions in terms of the selections that we make,” he says.
Opponents, including environmental groups, say they’re also prepared for the long haul. They include SEACC’s Lindsey Ketchell.
“What we really need to do is start all over, bring in scientists and biologists, look at the TLMP plan, look at the transition plan, and really identify parcels that will work for all the folks who need to survive on that island, Prince of Wales,” she says.
More community meetings, and more controversy, are expected to follow this year. And the fall elections’ changes could alter the bill’s political dynamic in Washington, D.C.
Hear all the reports in the Sealaska land bill series:
Part 5: Sacred sites included in Sealaska legislation
Part 6: Sealaska bill faces challenges in Congress
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