Sealaska has moved one step closer to owning the land surrounding Sitka’s Reboubt Falls — thirty-nine years after the initial claim was filed.

A ruling this month dismissed a claim to the same land filed by the trustees of the now-defunct Sheldon Jackson College. If it stands, the ruling will remove a major obstacle from the decades-long effort to gain Native ownership of the site.

Redoubt is home to the area’s largest subsistence sockeye fishery, and many Sitkans want assurances that if the Southeast regional Native corporation does gain ownership of the land, it will continue to maintain public access.

While the ruling clears the way for Sealaska’s claim to move forward, it doesn’t necessarily mean the corporation will be taking ownership of the land any time soon.

Jaeleen Araujo is Vice President and General Counsel for Sealaska.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to think that this is a done deal,” she says. “We are very pleased with the decision, because it potentially clears the way for the process to move forward. But we’re certainly not celebrating yet until we actually have a deed in our files.”

Sealaska originally filed for the land back in 1975, as part of its entitlement under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. ANCSA allows regional Native corporations to apply for ownership of historic or cemetery sites. The eleven acres at Redoubt Lake are the site of a fishing village historically used by Sitka’s Tlingit Kiks.adi Clan.

The claim moved through the federal bureaucracy at a snail’s pace until 2011, when the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees ANCSA claims,  finally began surveying the site. Soon after, the trustees of the Sheldon Jackson College filed a claim for 160 acres at Redoubt, including the land claimed by Sealaska.

“What we’re trying to do is protect that area so that it always has public access, especially to the fishery,” says Sheldon Jackson trustee Rob Allen.

Redoubt is a popular dipnetting site, and an important source of subsistence salmon for Sitkans, both Native and not.  The U.S. Forest Service runs a fertilization program at the lake, and maintains a weir there. Some residents are worried that Sealaska ownership might limit access to the fishery, or end the Forest Service program.

While Sheldon Jackson College closed in 2007, the board of trustees remains, tasked with handling the school’s remaining property. In 2012, the trustees filed a “color of title” claim to the land at Redoubt.

On July 8, the BLM issued its ruling rejecting that claim.

The Sheldon Jackson trustees have a thirty-day window in which to appeal the decision. Allen says the board hasn’t decided yet whether it will appeal. He says the trustees don’t object to Sealaska owning the land.  They just want to see a more concrete guarantee that public access will be preserved.

“We’re not necessarily that concerned with owning the property,” Allen says. “What we’re concerned about is that subsistence fishery is very important to the community. You know, we asked Sealaska if they would consider doing some meaningful legal language, that it will always be open for anyone to use, for public access. And we just have not been able to reach an agreement with them on that.”

“We don’t expect to see any change,” Araujo says.

She says Sealaska has no plans to limit public access to Redoubt.

“In our discussion with the community of Sitka and in particular with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, this site is currently used predominantly for the subsistence fishing resources in that area, and so we don’t have any intention of stopping that use,” she says. “For us subsistence use and access to subsistence resources is very important.”

In 2013, Sealaska signed an agreement with the Sitka Tribe: if Sealaska does get the land, the Tribe would manage the site. In the agreement, both parties stress their commitment to maintaining access to the subsistence fishery and continuing the Forest Service weir and fertilization program — to the extent that they are able under the ANCSA guidelines.

The core issue, Araujo says, is that the regional Native corporations are now the only means through which Alaska’s Native communities can get collective ownership of important sites.

“Our tribes, unfortunately, do not have a land entitlement, they don’t have a right to select lands currently, around our communities,” Araujo says. “So if there will be any Native ownership at all, around our communities, of economic or culturally significant sites, it’s all through our regional corporations.”

Despite the agreement with the Sitka Tribe, however, Sealaska ownership of the site would still be private, corporate ownership of what is now public, Forest Service land.

But that’s the process established by ANCSA. And in the case of Redoubt Lake, that process will continue to grind on. A spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management said she could not estimate when final ownership of the site might be decided.