Anchorage Daily News: Federal plan would grant Southeast Alaska Native communities land settlements in Tongass National Forest

WASHINGTON — More than 50 years after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed Congress, a federal proposal seeks to resolve claims with so-called “landless” Alaska Natives from five Southeast Alaska communities that were left out of the landmark law.

Supporters say concerns about logging and public access to the lands have stalled progress on the legislation, but they are hopeful the political atmosphere has changed enough that the policy has a chance of moving forward.

When ANSCA was signed into law in 1971, Haines, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Tenakee Springs and Wrangell were not among 200 communities where Alaska Natives were able to form village and urban corporations. About 4,700 shareholders of Sealaska, Southeast Alaska’s regional corporation, have no urban corporation.

For decades, Alaska lawmakers have sponsored legislation to create five new urban corporations. The congressional delegation introduced the latest iteration this summer, which would confer about 23,040 acres of federal lands in Tongass National Forest to each of the five new corporations. Detailed maps outline the proposed land selections.

“People like my father have passed away waiting and hoping that this would happen someday, and we really don’t want to see another 50 years go by,” said Richard Rinehart, a landless advocate from Wrangell who is affiliated with the nonprofit Southeast Alaska Landless Corp. and serves on the Sealaska board of directors.

The effort has support from the Alaska Federation of Natives, and Sealaska pledged $500,000 to the Alaska Natives Without Land campaign in 2019.

The reason for the communities’ omission in ANCSA is contested. At a Senate mark-up last year, Murkowski said, “It is a matter of historical debate in terms of whether it was literally accidental or perhaps a purposeful omission there.”

Jaeleen Kookesh, Sealaska vice president for policy and legal affairs, has been advocating to address the landless claims for 25 years. A shareholder of Juneau’s village corporation Kootznoowoo, Inc., Kookesh said she is one of the “lucky ones” in Southeast that had a village corporation.

“They don’t have opportunities to own land in their community for economic development or just cultural purposes,” she said. “So it’s really something that they’ve missed out on over these 52 years.”

She said past efforts have been hamstrung by worries that the new corporations will use the newly conferred Tongass lands for logging.

Timber development is on the table, and each new corporation would have the right to determine how to use the lands. But the timber industry in the Tongass has been in decline. Kookesh said she has heard talk of using the lands for carbon credit projects, tourism and cultural preservation.

Conservation groups in past years have opposed the landless policy to conserve the Tongass. Some — though not all — have since dropped objections. Last year, the Sierra Club announced an “actively neutral” stance, and the Wilderness Society took “a neutral position.”

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council has also pivoted on the bill. In 2015, an attorney for the group testified before a House subcommittee to oppose the policy. Last year though, the group submitted testimony that signaled more openness to the bill.

Kookesh hopes the political will around returning land to Indigenous communities has grown enough to push the landless policy forward now.

“I actually feel better about it this year than any other time. There’s just a very strong sentiment in Congress and just across the country about getting land back to Native people,” Kookesh said. “And so that sentiment is very helpful.”

Other resistance to the bill has persisted. In May 2022, the Petersburg Borough Assembly voted 4-3 to send a letter in opposition. The statement outlines concerns including about conveying federally-sponsored infrastructure like roads to a private corporation.

“The proposed land selections in the Petersburg area are well-used by all residents, and there continues to be concerns regarding the future use of these valuable properties,” the letter said.

The bill protects access to the land through roadways, trails and forest roads for recreational and subsistence purposes, though it says the new urban corporations could impose “reasonable restrictions,” including ensuring public safety and minimizing conflicts between recreational and commercial uses.

David Kensinger, a Petersburg Assembly member who opposed the bill last year, said his chief concern is that the land selections are spread out rather than in a contiguous block, which he said could complicate forest management.

“If I had to have a compromise position that I can live with, I would be somewhat OK with it if instead of just taking piecemeal parcels here and there, they just took one large chunk,” he said.

Randy Williams, who is president of Natives Without Land Ketchikan and a part of the Southeast Alaska Landless Corporation, said picking from available lands while considering community input has been challenging.

“Everybody has a piece of the pie. And we’re coming in late, basically picking up the crumbs of that pie and that’s sort of our lands selection,” Williams said. “So yes, it is a checkerboard process for us. But it’s one that we try to be cognizant of the community and community needs.”

Rebecca Knight, a 48-year Petersburg resident, is also a vocal opponent. She has raised several concerns about the policy, and said her “overriding concern” is for the environment.

“The basis for my opposition is multifold but the bottom line is we cannot be affording to cut any more of our precious old growth,” she said.

In Congress, few lawmakers outside of the Alaska delegation have supported the bill. In the House of Representatives, Republican Minnesota Rep. Pete Stauber co-sponsored the bill with Alaska Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, citing in part upholding the late Republican Rep. Don Young’s legacy.

But Rinehart, the landless advocate from Wrangell, said finding other co-sponsors has been difficult. During a July trip to Washington, D.C. Rinehart and other supporters met with lawmakers and staff. While Rinehart said the conversations were “more open and trying to be understanding,” no one committed to joining the legislation.

During the Senate mark-up last year Murkowski withdrew the bill from a committee vote, signaling it did not have enough support to advance. She and fellow Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan have continued to push for the legislation.

Lands-related policies can often take years to enact, and Williams of Ketchikan is optimistic though that this Congress the bill will cross the finish line.

“I think there’s more of an appetite to move this bill forward than I think we’ve seen in the past,” he said.


By:  Riley Rogerson
Source: Anchorage Daily News