The truth is, no Sealaska bill really exists right now, because no member of Congress has introduced it yet this year. They will – but first Senator Lisa Murkowski wants to hear more from Southeast Alaska, where the bill is controversial. Her spokesman on the Energy Committee is Robert Dillon:
“Senator Murkowski’s made a commitment to hold listening sessions with the affected communities in southeast Alaska before moving the bill forward again, so I think there will be an attempt to work out all of the kinks before reintroduction,” he says.
Last summer Murkowski revised the bill after hearing concerns from residents, environmentalists, and land-users such as guides, who don’t like the power it gives Sealaska to select lands, different from the ones they now have access to. Murkowski’s revisions reduced the acres of old growth timber Sealaska would get. It also gave the corporation fewer “futures sites,” which are plots where development like tourism or renewable energy production could take place.
“Staff I think made a Herculean effort to get out to communities during the winter, talk to as many people as possible, and listen to the concerns of constituents and local residents, and do everything they could to make changes and reach compromises in the bill to find acreage that was not objectionable,” he says.
“You’re never going to make everyone happy, but I think a lot of effort was extended, and continues to be extended to find the best compromise possible.”
Sealaska approves of the changes, but environmentalists still have problems, such as Brian McNitt in Sitka, with the Alaska Conservation Foundation.
“It certainly had improvements, but there were some major problems with the bill. They never really addressed the issues of the future sights that were near many of the communities that had real concerns about those,” he says. “And also the logging areas they’d like to log, primarily on Prince of Wales Island are in some of the most valuable fish and wildlife habitat left on Princes of Wales that still have old growth. So we still have a lot of concerns about those.”
Democratic Senator Mark Begich has been getting an earful about the bill from Alaskans. He’s watching to see what Senator Murkowski crafts, and doing his own listening in Southeast.
“The Sealaska bill as modified by Senator Murkowski with still more tweaks is my bet… that I’ll look at that, I’ll more than likely be co-sponsor as I was last 2 years, but we also have to be realistic, the larger picture of the Tongass,” he says.
Despite the massaging done – and still being done – to the Senate version, Congressman Don Young plans to reintroduce in the House the original version, the one that’s caused the most controversy.
“The reason behind that, the original bill was thought out. I don’t like to negotiate from a position half way there, and from that position again getting negotiated into a position of really not obtaining the goal. And I still say that Sealaska has an entitlement to that land,” he says.
Sealaska vice president Rick Harris says the Murkowski compromise version has a better chance of gaining traction.
“Congressman Young has some strong opinions, we’ll talk to him about what we think the strengths and weaknesses of Murkowski bill will be. We will encourage him where we have gone through and worked out compromises or solutions to recognize those, but ultimately it’s the congressman’s choice. As to what he’s going to do and what that bill will look like,” he says.
Congressman Young says as the head of a new subcommittee on Alaska Native and Native American Issues, he’ll be able to move the bill through the Natural Resources Committee.
But a group of House members is against the bill, and 58 of them signed on to a letter last year stating their opposition. Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva is leading the effort. He says it’s important for the government to fulfill its trust obligations to tribes – but not at the cost of national forests.
“What Don Young wants is to go into the heart of old growth, pristine wilderness forest area. And I think that opens up many other threats to the forest. So that was our opposition,” he says.
Grijalva says the bill can probably pass the House, now that it’s in Republican hands. He does NOT expect it to become law, but he IS bracing for a drawn-out battle.
“And that’s going to be the fight. I think it’ll probably get out of the House, given the makeup and demeanor, and the tone of this new majority. It’ll have very tough row in the senate, getting through there… and then I think interesting amount of pressure on the White House as to… the worst case scenario was to get through both chambers. Then it would be upon our president and that White House to veto that kind of legislation,” he says.
Senator Begich says he doubts that Young’s unaltered bill can become law, because it won’t have the support of enough Democrats or the President.
“I don’t think the original can pass through both parties and survive a Presidential review. So we have to be reasonable about this. The Tongass is much bigger issue than just Sealaska,” he says.
“We’ve got landless communities, we’ve got veterans, we’ve got mental health lands trust, my hope is we have longer, more comprehensive resolution to this. Otherwise we’re going to be battling Tongass issues for 20 years. And who will make those decisions? Not congress, courts. That’s the last thing we want from Alaska perspective, we want our judges making decisions about Alaska land use. That would be the worst thing we can do.”
Murkowski’s website says she too wants to consider the bigger-picture of the Tongass… but after the Sealaska bill, which she says will set the stage for future Panhandle legislation.
As far as whether a Sealaska bill could be included in a larger lands package, advocates say it’s too early to tell… but that partnering pairing up bills can help a local issue gain momentum. Opponents say they’ll watch out to see that isn’t done.
Staffers say a bill is like a whale… traveling out of sight under water, quietly moving along until finally it breaches the surface. Until the Sealaska bill does, it’s a matter of waiting… and lobbying Congress to influence what will be in it.
Hear all the reports in the Sealaska land bill series: