KCAW Radio (Sitka): Sealaska lands bill changes made public

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski released changes to her Sealaska lands-selection legislation Thursday (July 1st).

They shift some timber harvest areas away from northern Prince of Wales Island. And they remove 17 of 46 Native Futures Sites, which are slated for ecotourism, transportation and energy development.

The revised bill is based on amendments that have been circulating among interest groups for weeks. But officials say more changes may be on the way.

Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon says the measure was released in response to charges that the bill was being revised in secret.

"I think Senator Murkowski felt that even though it is not done and the bill isn’t approved she hasn’t signed off on it, but if people feel they’re not having enough buy in then let’s put this out now and let people comment while we do," he said.

The measure still turns up to 85,000 acres of Tongass National Forest land over to Sealaska, the regional Native corporation for Southeast. It would complete selections promised by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Sealaska needs Congressional approval to select land outside ANCSA boundaries. It says most of that land is not appropriate for logging or other development, since it involves valuable wildlife habitat or community watersheds.

Sealaska General Counsel Jaeleen Kookesh Araujo says the changes weaken the bill.

"We believe it still meets the goals that we set out in seeking this legislation. But there are still a few provisions that have been taken out that are disappointing for us. But we still believe that there’s still a package here that is worthwhile to pursue and that will still meet the economic and cultural needs of our corporation and the economic needs of our region," she said.

The corporation hopes to restore some futures sites and cultural locations removed during the legislative process.

The changes also set aside 150,000 acres as conservation areas to offset logging impacts on Prince of Wales.

The Alaska Wilderness League’s Laurie Cooper says that’s not enough.

"Certainly we recognize that there have been some additions for conservation. But in an island like Prince of Wales where the impacts have already been so high there is a much higher level of scrutiny of what more intensive logging would mean in a more focused area, which is what Sealaska is proposing," she said.

The revision removes timberlands that area mills say they need to continue operations. And it moves some logging areas to remote islands west and north of Prince of Wales.

It also guarantees fishermen and hikers access across futures and sacred sites. And it removes Sealaska’s ability to win grants from two federal programs some say could impact the definition of “Indian Country” in Alaska.

It’s not clear when the bill will next be heard. It’s in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Murkowski is the ranking Republican.

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Source: By Ed Schoenfeld. Broadcast July 02, 2010