Congress probes land deal in Alaska's Tongass forest

McClatchy NewspapersMay 23, 2011 

WASHINGTON — For decades, conservationists, the U.S. Forest Service, tribes, Native corporations and the people who live in the Tongass National Forest have warred over how to manage the vast temperate rain forest that covers most of southeast Alaska.

The fight resurfaces in Washington this week, as the Native corporation Sealaska makes a case to a Senate committee that it should be able to pick new acreage outside of the original land grants it never took ownership of.

The company's choices are controversial, in part because they include valuable old-growth timber that many would like to see off limits to logging. Some local groups also have concerns about how Sealaska plans to address important cultural locations in the acres it wants, including places that are part of their ancestral history.

The 17 million-acre Tongass is the nation's largest national forest. Because development came relatively late to southeast Alaska, portions of the forest are little different from how they were centuries ago. The forest, with 11,000 miles of shoreline, is home to bears, salmon and the largest known concentration of bald eagles.

Sealaska argues that it's sought for decades to assume ownership of all the acreage it was granted under 1971's Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the landmark legislation that settled aboriginal land claims by the state's Native people.

The company has turned its attention to Congress, which must approve the Native corporation's proposal to choose land outside the original and amended "boxes" it picked in the early 1970s.

It's not Sealaska's first stab at passing the legislation, which will get a hearing Wednesday in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But it's come closer this time around than it did in previous efforts, in part by pitching the legislation as a job creation bill.

Sealaska's aim is not only to maintain timber-related jobs but also to spur the economy in other ways, said Rick Harris, the company's executive vice president. The corporation's also committed to tapping alternative energy sources and expanding the tourism season in southeast Alaska, Harris said. The bill allows Sealaska to select roughly 79,000 acres on Prince of Wales and Kosciusko islands. Most of the land is for timber harvesting; another 4,000 acres will be set aside for tourism and other non-timber economic development. An additional 3,600 acres will be preserved as sacred, cultural, historic or educational sites.

"We're very open to trying to explore with the communities and the tribes what we can do," Harris said. "Let's step back, let's look at our assets and our resources and let's make sure that we understand what people would like to see and how we can induce people to come. Either for research or education or for a cultural experience."

The U.S. Forest Service has made no secret of its concerns about the legislation. Discussions about the Tongass, home to one of the longest-running environmental fights in the country, are so sensitive that many are handled directly by Jay Jensen, the deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"We very much support Sealaska fulfilling its lands entitlement," Jensen said. "We want to do what we can to get that to happen. It's been a good, long conversation, not just with this administration, but multiple administrations, trying to figure that out. It's multiyear."

But the government maintains its position that Sealaska should make its selection from the original areas the corporation got to pick from. Anything else interferes with the Forest Service's transition plan for the forest, which calls for maintaining existing old growth and roadless areas and looking for other areas of economic development beyond timber.

Since the beginning of 2010 alone, the Native corporation has spent nearly $200,000 lobbying Congress to pass its legislation. It also donated $100,000 to Alaskans Standing Together, the effort that helped fund Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski's successful write-in re-election campaign in Alaska last fall.

The legislation even figured into the Senate campaign after Murkowski's opponent in the Republican primary, Joe Miller, weighed in to say that Murkowski lacked transparency in drafting the bill and favored some constituent groups at the expense of others. Miller, who beat Murkowski in the primary but lost in the general election, was the biggest critic during the campaign of the senator's ties to Sealaska and other Native corporations that contributed to Alaskans Standing Together.

Miller weighed in recently when the senator introduced a new version of the bill. This time, though, he criticized Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young's version of the bill, prompting speculation that Miller might take on the 20-term Republican congressman next year.

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