There is hope legislation sponsored by the Alaska Congressional delegation aimed at settling land conveyances with Sealaska Corp. might finally get a vote.
In February, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich sponsored the “Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act.” The bill would allow Sealaska to select roughly 70,000 acres of land under provisions in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA.
“I think there’s a decent chance that (the bill) will get taken up on the floor and pass,” said Robert Dillon, a Murkowski spokesman.
Dillon works on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Murkowski serves as the ranking Republican.
Different versions of similar legislation have circulated around Congress for more than six years. Last year, the House passed a land transfer bill that died in the Senate.
The Sealaska land bills as they have come to be known would provide the Southeast Native corporation with enough timber land to sustain its logging business for the foreseeable future, Sealaska Director Byron Mallott said.
Mallott testified in support of Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young’s House version of a Sealaska land bill at a May 16 meeting of the House Indian and Alaska Native Affairs Subcommittee.
While the bills would not allow Sealaska’s timber business to return to its former self, Mallott said either bill would “keep it economical to continue.”
Young also sponsored a 3,300-acre land transfer bill meant to sustain Sealaska’s timber business in the interim if a 70,000-acre bill isn’t passed this year.
It seems to be understood by members of the delegation that if a Sealaska land bill is to pass it will be the Senate version, which is currently in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Dillon said a change in the committee could go a long way in moving the bill forward.
“The new chair of the (Energy and Natural Resources) committee is Ron Wyden of Oregon who’s big on forestry issues and is real big on making sure the Forest Service holds regular and sustainable timber sales so that local communities can continue to have an economy,” Dillon said.
In a written statement, Young spokesman Michael Anderson said Young’s bill does not contain any conservation set-aside areas and though the bills convey roughly the same acreage, it includes a few more small parcels of land.
Mallott said Sealaska supports both bills and is backed by the other Native corporations in their efforts, but just needs one to pass.
If neither bill is signed by the president soon, Mallott said Sealaska would have to “mothball” its timber business for lack of available harvest land.
“It would be a huge setback to our marketing because you have to maintain a place in the market and if you lose it, it’s going to be filled by someone else,” he said.
Sealaska officials have estimated it spends roughly $60 million on its logging operations in the region each year to support 200 to 400 jobs.
When the Senate bill was first introduced, Begich said in a statement that sustaining the timber industry in a region with rural pockets of 15 percent unemployment was critical to the area’s economy.
Typically, land transfers are done administratively and not through Congress. This land transfer has been made more challenging than others to Native corporations because the requested land falls outside of territory originally designated by ANCSA and in the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest federal forest.
Trout Unlimited, a national nonprofit that supports fisheries conservation, has expressed concern over the impact logging in the Tongass might have on native salmon and trout populations.
In February, Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris said more than 26,000 acres of land on the north side of Prince of Wales Island that had been an issue of contention with environmental groups had been removed from the Senate version.
One of the issues resolved with the Forest Service, who manages the Tongass, was allowing for a movement towards a second-growth harvest strategy to leave more old-growth timber intact, Dillon said. He noted that reaching an agreement with the Forest Service means the bill will likely be signed by the president if Congress passes it.
“It’s been nine years for us since first calling the issue to the attention of Congress,” Mallott said. “They are very different bills than the first bills that we introduced.”
Dillon said that Murkowski has made “hundreds of changes” to the bill since it was first introduced years ago.
Mallott said selections outside of the original ANCSA areas were chosen with public interest in mind.
“We find that within the village areas with watersheds that shouldn’t be logged. There are stands of remaining old growth (timber) that shouldn’t be harvested. There are significant road less areas that shouldn’t be roaded,” Mallott said. “We believe they belong in public ownership. Old growth timber is hugely more valuable as a standing public asset now than it was in 1971.”
Dillon said he expects the bill to be moved out of committee later in the summer. From there it would move to the floor of the Senate for debate.
He added, “The challenge will be the floor — getting floor time.”
If the bill can make it out of the Senate, he said there is no indication it won’t pass the House.
Young has said repeatedly that a Sealaska land bill is of utmost importance to Southeast, so passing the Senate version with his support in the Republican-controlled House should not be an issue.