Op-Ed: Southeast’s Economy and Promises

Once upon a time, the Southeast timber industry was one of the largest economic drivers in Alaska. In 1990, timber jobs hit an all time employment high. Now the timber industry consists of a few remnants, scratching desperately to hang on. Southeast has one of the highest rates of unemployment in Alaska, and it's the only region in the state where the population is declining and the average age is increasing.

One of the leading reasons economic development is so challenging in Southeast is the lack of private land. Public lands make up roughly 99 percent of Southeast, and use of those lands is increasingly being restricted. Fulfilling the promise made to the shareholders of Sealaska Corp. in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act would increase the amount of land in private hands and would bring renewed economic development to the region. This shared belief is why Congressman Young, Sen. Begich and I introduced legislation to help Sealaska gain title to the remaining 60,000 acres its shareholders were promised.

Providing Sealaska with the land it was promised nearly four decades ago would give a badly needed boost to Southeast's struggling timber industry. Even when the biggest landowner in Southeast - the U.S. Forest Service - calls for economic development on public lands, every effort is challenged in the courts. Every Forest Service timber sale attempted since the 2008 Amended Tongass Land Management Plan has been enjoined, and the outlook for future planned sales is equally grim.

Times have changed and no one expects the timber industry to revert to the scale or practices it held 20 years ago. Tourism, fishing, trade, mining, and government make up vital sectors of the Southeast economy, and we need to encourage and protect all sectors. But Sealaska has taken a number of steps to ensure the integrity of the forest, including moving from a harvest model patterned on old-growth forests to one that utilizes smaller-diameter timber.

Sealaska has also agreed to provide access for hunting and all recreation activities and to all roads across their new lands. It has agreed to restrictions on how the cultural and sacred sites can be used, while relinquishing all selection rights in its original areas. All of their proposed selections are already scheduled for harvesting under Forest Service approved plans.

It's unfortunate that Sealaska is still waiting to receive the lands promised decades ago. For a government that has on too many occasions broken its promises, it is long past time that we honor this one.

During Sealaska's initial land selection the corporation was required to select from small areas surrounding 10 predominantly Native villages. Yet Sealaska was at a great disadvantage because 44 percent of the potential selection area wasn't even land, but water. In addition, much of the land was tied up in long-term timber contracts with the region's then booming pulp mills and wasn't available for selection. Most of the initial selection areas are now predominantly designated as roadless areas. I have met almost no one who disagrees with the simple principle that Sealaska's shareholders deserve their lands. Despite this, it has become increasingly difficult to reach a consensus on exactly from which lands Sealaska should be allowed to select their remaining acreage.

We have already heard many good suggestions and some valid criticisms regarding the drafting of legislation to complete Sealaska's lands selection. This week, members of my staff and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a series of public meetings throughout southern Southeast where they will talk to and videotape testimony from residents. After the meetings, we will revise the bill to address as many of the concerns raised as possible. There seem to be straight-forward fixes to many of the concerns already raised regarding access for hunting, fishing, roads, and utility corridors.

There is even room for debate over whether more lands in the Tongass should be protected. But there is no justifiable reason to delay yet again the fulfillment of a promise to Alaska's Natives - a promise whose fulfillment has become not only about aboriginal rights, but about the economic survival of a region.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is Alaska's senior senator and the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Source: Originally published in the Ketchikan Daily News on March 12, 2010