(Find links to earlier reports at the bottom of this story.)

The Native future sites represent a different economic opportunity for a corporation that’s made its money on timber, construction rock, plastics manufacturing and wood products.

Sealaska executive vice president Rick Harris says the idea came from the Tongass Futures Roundtable, an ongoing discussion group involving stakeholders in the management of the Tongass National Forest.

“We sat right there at the futures round table and said we need to find new sustainable economic opportunities in the region and from that we said OK we’re prepared to commit 5000 acres to do that,” he says. “I mean we’re stepping away from a certain economic base in timber, to 5000 acres, which may never generate a penny of revenue but we said we’re prepared and committed to try something different. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Earlier versions of the legislation proposed transfer of as many as 46 selections of Tongass National Forest land for futures sites. Opposition to some sites led Senator Lisa Murkowski to propose whittling that number down to 31.

The selections are scattered around the region and range from four acres to over one thousand acres. The proposed legislation prohibits mining or timber harvest on these selections. Many of the areas could host new eco-tourism businesses. Harris says the corporation does not have any specific plans drawn up.

“There are some sites where we think we can do some things that are valuable for the economy of the region by developing some renewable energy sites. Many of the sites are identified as cultural, or possibly cultural and eco-tourism sites,” he says. “Again our goal is not to necessarily make money off them but to do some things that celebrate the Native history, cultural heritage and actually try to attract a different kind of visitor.”

Sealaska officials say they are not interested in building large expensive new lodges or tour facilities. Instead, they envision smaller ship-based tourism excursions to the different locations. And Harris says the futures sites could be used to change the visitor industry in Southeast.

“And you know what we see is when the last cruise ship leaves town, everything shuts down,” he says. “And we believe we can extend those visitor seasons and to bring in a different kind of visitor, people that are very much interested in cultural, history and are very much interested in experiencing what it may have been like to be a Native living in this place pre-contact because the irony is we can actually go to some of those sites and envision exactly what that’s like.”

The corporation is looking at five of the futures sites for possible energy development. Two of those are in the Inian Pass area, near Icy Strait and Cross Sound. A 2006 report done for the Alaska Energy Authority concluded this area has untapped potential for utility-scale tidal power plants, and it has drawn interest from other potential developers.

The corporation is also interested in a possible new hydro power plant at Josephine Lake in the mountains on southern Prince of Wales Island. And two sites with existing hot springs could be developed for geothermal energy. They are at Pegmatite Mountain, east of Pelican and a site called Spring Creek hot springs, at Lake Shelokum north of Ketchikan.

Many of the futures sites are already used by Southeast residents, businesses and visitors. As an example, the Spring Creek hot springs on the mainland’s Cleveland Peninsula has a rough trail leading visitors to the site and a forest service shelter on a nearby lake. Ketchikan borough resident Mike Sallee says he’s apprehensive about that site being privatized.

“There’s a forest service buoy down at the salt water that people can tie up to and numerous people do,” he says. “That’s one of the stops that it seems like a lot of the small privateurs, kayakers and sailors and people in the small touring operation come up in the summer and they stop by that place, because its free, they can hike up to it. It’s a great hike.”

Sealaska officials say existing uses of the Tongass lands are recognized in the legislation and public access would not be blocked.

Other opposition has come from guiding businesses that take clients to proposed futures sites. Scott Newman, a Petersburg resident who has a business guiding bear hunters, testified about a version of the bill before the House Natural Resources committee last spring. He says he does not want to see the land privatized.

“It’s the delegation’s intent to privatize as much of southeast Alaska as possible to encourage economic growth,” he says. “But I think this form to try and spur some economic growth is not necessarily going to be good for the communities. Because it’s not going to the people that live in the communities year-round, it’s going to a private corporation.”

Newman has met with Sealaska representatives and discussed his concerns. Some of the sites in the Petersburg area were dropped and other proposed language could allow permitted bear guides to continue to use the lands. Sealaska officials also say residents who traditionally hunt, fish or gather subsistence foods on the sites will continue to have that access.

Another concern comes from commercial fishing groups worried about competition for the fishing resource from visitors brought to the various futures sites.

Meanwhile the region’s largest environmental group wonders about the lack of specific plans for the land. Bob Claus, a community organizer for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council on Prince of Wales Island, says the idea behind the future sites seems like a good one, but has not been though out enough.

“There’s no specifics about the sites,” he says. “When pressed, there’s no plan for each one of the places. They don’t even know exactly what they’re going to do with them. That’s not something you want to put into federal legislation until people have thought about and worked on it for a lot longer than they have so far.”

Claus says he’d like to see a Congressional field hearing in Southeast Alaska, giving residents in the region the chance to testify on the legislation.

Others see the benefit of the corporation looking for other opportunities in Southeast Alaska beyond timber harvesting. In the Kake area, one proposed site is Turnabout Island in Frederick Sound, just north of Kake. Mike Jackson, a Kake resident and Sealaska shareholder, says it’s not a bad idea to have some kind of eco-tourism venture there.

“Frederick Sound has around about 350 whales that return every year within this area. It goes all the out here from Kake all the way toward Petersburg. There’s a lot of humpback whales that come back every year,” he says.

Another proposed future site is in Whitestone Harbor near Hoonah. It’s a former logging camp that the corporation may look at for transportation infrastructure improvements, or even a future connection to the Southeast electrical grid.

Some of the most controversial futures selections were left off the list in the changes proposed last summer by Senator Murkowski, but could be back in play if the original bill is re-introduced in 2011. If the list gets reduced further, corporation officials say they might ask to restore some sites from that original list, as well.

Hear all the reports in the Sealaska land bill series:

Part 1: The Sealaska bill debate: Select land inside or outside the box?

Part 2: Sealaska bill's impact on SE timber industry

Part 3: Critics target Sealaska bill's environmental impacts

Part 4: Sealaska futures sites promise new opportunities,

Part 5: Sacred sites included in Sealaska legislation

Part 6: Sealaska bill faces challenges in Congress

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