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New Sealaska land bills introduced in Congress

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Alaska’s congressional delegation today introduced new Sealaska land-selection bills.

Senator Lisa Murkowski authored her chamber’s version, which is co-sponsored by Senator Mark Begich. Congressman Don Young released the House version.

Both would turn about 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest over to Sealaska, the regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska.

Murkowski’s version includes numerous changes meant to reduce opposition from environmental groups, tourism businesses and small communities.

She says it would still complete a promise made 40 years ago by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski

“In terms of what we set out to do, which is to provide completion to Sealaska in terms of allowing them to select their lands that were committed, this will help finalize that selection and really work to balance the interests of all of those in the region,” she says.

Both bills transfer about 68,000 acres to Sealaska for timber harvest and development. They remove about 26,000 controversial acres on or near northern Prince of Wales Island and replace them with other parcels.

Sealaska Vice President and General Counsel Jaeleen Araujo says the new acreage is near some previously-logged areas.

“There was some infrastructure already in place on north Prince of Wales, so we had to find other alternatives that would have proximity to infrastructure that would be helpful in timber development,” Araujo says.

She says Sealaska supports the new measures.

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, an umbrella environmental group, has been one of the groups critical of the legislation.

SEACC Attorney Buck Lindekugel says he hasn’t seen Young’s bill and is still looking through Murkowski’s measure. But he sees some significant improvements.

“Senator Murkowski has shown some solid leadership and tried to address some thorny issues that were raised by Southeast Alaskans. There is a lot of bittersweet stuff here, particularly with some of the timber lands. Nobody’s going to be happy with all of them. But both Sealaska and Senator Murkowski helped avoid some real controversial places,” Lindekugel says.

He says his group will run the measures by its membership before taking a formal position.

Congressman Don Young

The Alaska Forest Association backs the measures.

Executive Director Owen Graham says Murkowski’s version makes too many concessions. But he says they’re needed to keep the logging industry alive.

“We’re holding our nose on the conservation areas. We don’t think there’s anything special about them. They’re certainly not needed because there are other protections for the land. But we’re willing to accept those conservation areas in order to get this bill done quickly,” Graham says.

Both bills also cut the number of small parcels set aside for tourism, energy or other economic development. They also reduce the acreage to be selected as sacred or cultural sites.

Murkowski’s version increases the required stream-buffer zone from 66 to 100 feet to protect three salmon spawning areas. It also balances Sealaska’s timber selections with 150,000 acres of conservation areas.

Don Young spokesman Michael Anderson says that’s where his version differs.

“The House bill doesn’t contain any conservation set-asides. Though the two bills convey the same overall acreage to Sealaska, the House bill includes a few more small parcels. The House bill does not include any buffer requirements beyond what is required in the Alaska Forest Practices Act,” Anderson says.

Similar legislation was introduced in previous Congresses.

Sealaska Plaza in Juneau, headquarters of the Southeast regional Native corporation.

Young’s version passed out of the House as part of a larger lands package last year. Murkowski’s bill did not make it to the Senate floor.

She says it will have a better chance this year. That’s because Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, took over chairmanship of the chamber’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“He has pointed out to me numerous times that he’s very pleased with the fact that we have engaged in this level of sit-down and dialog with everyone from the administration to the energy committee staff, to those within all aspects of industry, whether they’re fishermen, environmental groups, tourism. I think he’s impressed by the process that he’s seen,” Murkowski says.

She says Wyden has agreed to move several land bills out of the Natural Resources Committee. Sealaska would not be part of the first package, which will only include measure that already cleared the committee. But she says it could be in a later version.

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