If you want to see first-hand the effect of Sealaska’s past logging practices, head to Hoonah. Heavy logging by the Native Corporation in the 1980s and ‘90s removed large stands of timber surrounding the Tlingit village of about 800 people on Chichagof Island.
Today, Sealaska is attempting to re-establish some of those forests through its silviculture program. As Sealaska Forest Manager Brian Kleinhenz steers a pickup truck down a Forest Service road near Hoonah, he points out spruce trees planted about seven years ago in an area once clear cut.
“The first couple years they take a little while to get going, because they kind of need to establish a root system. But now they’re really cranking along and we’re going to have some beautiful spruce forests here in Hoonah,” he says.
At Sealaska headquarters in Juneau, Executive Vice President Rick Harris defends the corporation’s environmental record.
“We’re the only people that plant trees in Southeast Alaska, including the Forest Service.”
He points to the fact that logging on private land in Alaska is regulated under the state Forest Practices Act.
“I could bring you downstairs and probably show you a stack of research and field study investigations that’s probably about six feet tall, all of which is monitoring the effectiveness of that act to ensure that fish habitat and water quality is protected,” he says.
Buck Lindekugle, grassroots attorney for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, has heard Sealaska’s arguments before, and isn’t buying them.
“There are different standards that protect fish and wildlife on all these lands. The least protective are on private lands, the most protective on National Forest lands,” he says.
Lindekugle says the silviculture – essentially tree farming – being practiced by Sealaska is the science of cutting trees to the bone.
“They may be really good at it, whatever that means. But for our purposes, if you can’t support the way of life that has supported this region for years – and that’s dependent on healthy fish and wildlife populations – then whatever your practices are, are the wrong practices,” he says.
And the Alaska Forest Practices Act that Harris says protects streams and wildlife habitat? Lindekugle says it’s not as effective as Sealaska says it is. For one thing it includes a 66 foot variable buffer between logging activity and salmon streams, compared to a 100 foot minimum barrier on National Forest lands.
“Which means that they can cut the biggest old growth that’s along the stream, and that close the science says you’re going to have long term impacts, adverse impacts to salmon habitat,” he says.
Then there’s the proximity of the lands Sealaska wants to select to areas that have been heavily logged in the past. Logging in the Tongass National Forest is managed under a Forest Service land management plan. Conservationists argue that removing large sections of the forest will impact the plan’s overall effectiveness.
Eric Myers is policy director for Audubon Alaska.
“On Prince of Wales Island in particular, it’s important to understand that that particular island ecosystem has experienced so much logging that any incremental logging is getting to the point where it’s a serious concern to the ecological integrity of the region,” he says.
Audobon, in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy, published a report last March comparing the ecological value of the lands Sealaska wants to select to the Tongass National Forest as a whole; in other words, the importance of those lands for things like old growth and fish and wildlife habitat. According to the report, the lands Sealaska has identified for selection have an ecological value 10 times the Tongass-wide average. Meyers says that includes a significant amount of karst forest.
“Karst is a specific feature of limestone geology characterized by caves and subsurface drainage systems that provide for well-drained soils and very large trees. But these same thin soils are very sensitive to erosion. So there’s a variety of concerns about the ecological impacts that would be associated with large-scale intensive logging,” he says.
Sealaska’s Harris says the Audubon report is narrowly focused and doesn’t take into account other factors the corporation considered in trying to choose land outside the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act boundaries.
“For example, we have selection rights in municipal watersheds. And I think that any community would prefer that a municipal watershed remain in public ownership. The Audubon report did not consider that at all,” he says.
Sealaska officials met privately last year with members of the conservation community to see if they could reach a compromise. Even though they couldn’t strike a deal, Harris says the talks resulted in some proposed changes to the legislation.
Meyers and Lindekugle say they’d like Sealaska to get its land entitlement – but not in the way laid out in current legislation. Meyers notes that the ANCSA boundaries were set with the cooperation of Sealaska and environmentalists. And he says that’s all the groups are asking for today.
“The concern is primarily that the Sealaska proposal, in whatever form it might advance, be balanced with other kinds of considerations, including conservation designations to ensure that the integrity, the ecological integrity of the forest is maintained,” he says.
For now, it seems the only thing everyone agrees upon is that there’s a lot more work to do. That could come after a new round of town meetings and bill rewrites expected this year.
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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