Redoubt Falls is the link between the Pacific Ocean and Redoubt Lake, and every year, Sitkans fish for the sockeye salmon returning there to spawn. The falls also are home to a Forest Service fish weir, where workers keep track of the number of salmon climbing into the lake.
Sealaska Corporation has selected 11 acres around the falls. The regional Native corporation is entitled to select land under the terms of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and it made this selection in 1975. But the issue came back into public view recently with news that federal survey crews will visit the site this summer to move the conveyance of the land forward.
“This is a huge deal,” said Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society, which objects to the land being privatized. “Redoubt Lake is one of the most important resources on the Tongass for Sitkans. This is where families go to catch their sockeye and fill their freezer, and to take such a critical place and move it from public ownership to private ownership sets a huge precedent and would be terrible for the community.”
Sealaska vice president and general counsel Jaeleen Araujo says Sealaska was created by Congress to manage lands for Alaska Natives.
“There’s a lot of preconceived notions about what would happen and there’s also just an assumption of the worst,” Araujo said. “I really think people should talk to us and should understand that the BLM process really does protect pre-existing uses and rights, and also that we don’t have control of the waterways, even if we get the land conveyed to us.”
The 11 acres Sealaska has selected are around the falls that connect Redoubt Lake to Redoubt Bay. Araujo says the land was a seasonal village site for the Kiks.adi clan of Tlingits. The site also has Russian history.
As for subsistence fishing, Araujo says Sealaska can only select land, not waterways, and that people who fish there will still have access. Thoms, with the Conservation Society, points out that dip-netters stand on the land, or at least tie up their boats, to catch sockeye.
Still, Araujo says Sealaska has selected other sites already and maintained public access to them.
“We generally take it on a case-by-case basis, and because of the important use as a subsistence area, we of course recognize the importance of subsistence uses both for our shareholders and for those who live in those communities,” she said.
But beyond access concerns, the Conservation Society’s Thoms says he also has environmental concerns.
“If you control Redoubt Falls, and you own that, you pretty much own the whole watershed, because that’s the core point for fish passage and for fishing,” Thoms said.
The Forest Service has maintained a fish weir at that site continuously since 1982. Forest Service spokesman Ray Massey says his agency opposes the selection, and has registered its objections with the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. The bureau is responsible for federal land transfers.
Federal land selections can move very slowly. Gerald Ford was president when Sealaska made this selection, and the Forest Service submitted its comments six years ago. The BLM’s deputy state director for lands in Anchorage says it’s not known why the process has taken so long.
But if the land transfer moves forward, Massey says the Forest Service would at least like to continue its operations at Redoubt.
“We would like easements over there for the public to use it, we would like easements for our people to go over and continue the weir and easements for the weir itself,” he said. “So that’s the latest we’re on record with BLM as far as what our likes and dislikes are.”
Federal land surveys are set to take place this spring and at some point – although it’s not clear when yet – the BLM says members of the public will have a chance to submit written comments on the project.
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