Sen. Murkowski introduces Sealaska land bill

Contact - Michael Brumas at 202.224.9301 or Anne Johnson at 202.224.8069

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today introduced S. 3651, legislation that would enable Sealaska Corporation, the regional Alaska Native Corporation for Southeast Alaska, to satisfy its remaining land entitlement under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Estimates place Sealaska’s remaining land entitlement at 65,000 to 85,000 acres. Murkowski introduced the bill, which was referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to stimulate public comment. With Congress wrapping up its business for the year, it will be early 2009 before the Senate would address the issue.

Murkowski’s bill, which is co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, would permit Sealaska Corporation to select new acreage on and around Prince of Wales Island for timber development from a pool of 80,000 acres, up to 5,000 acres of lands, called “Native Futures” sites, elsewhere in Southeast Alaska for non-timber economic development, and up to 3,600 acres for cultural and historic preservation. In return, Sealaska would be required to relinquish land selections in roadless and more environmentally sensitive areas of the Tongass National Forest.

In prepared remarks for the Congressional Record, Murkowski noted that the Tlingit and Haida people of Southeast Alaska were among the first of Alaska’s Native peoples to pursue the settlement of their aboriginal land claims. They organized the Alaska Native Brotherhood and subsequently the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes to litigate the federal government’s taking of Native lands to create the Tongass National Forest and the Glacier Bay National Monument, which is today called Glacier Bay National Park.

In 1968, the Tlingit and Haida peoples received a settlement of $7.5 million from the US Court of Claims, which the Native people have long regarded as inadequate compensation for the loss of their lands and resources. When the Tlingit and Haida people pursued this pioneering litigation they could not have foreseen that they would be disadvantaged in obtaining the return of their lands when ANCSA was enacted. ANCSA imposed more severe restrictions on the selection of lands by Sealaska than it did on other regional Alaska Native Corporations in other parts of the state. In November 2007, U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, introduced H.R. 3560 to correct this injustice.

Murkowski’s bill differs significantly from the original H.R. 3560. The changes were made in response to comments received from the Southeast Alaska community by Alaska Congressional Delegation staff and by Sealaska in dozens of community meetings. Young had already agreed to make such changes as consistent with his own communication with constituents in the Southeast.

“Prince of Wales Island communities were deeply concerned that they would lose access for hunting, fishing and gathering on lands that are presently part of the Tongass National Forest but would be transferred to Sealaska,” said Murkowski. “The bill provides that conveyances of timberlands on Prince of Wales Island would be subject to the ‘right of noncommercial public access for subsistence uses and recreational access’ while protecting Sealaska from lawsuits.”

“I am proud to join Senator Murkowski in sponsoring this important legislation for Southeast Alaska and Alaska Natives,” said Senator Stevens. “The bill would allow Sealaska to continue its significant contributions to the economy of the area and efforts to help keep the timber industry – which continues to be hard hit by federal timber policy and constant litigation over timber sales in the Tongass – alive. The bill would benefit Alaska Natives statewide through 7(i) revenue sharing principles as well as allow Sealaska to finally complete its land entitlement promised by ANCSA”.

The language would allow Sealaska to regulate access for public safety, cultural or scientific purposes, environmental protection and uses incompatible with natural resource development. The bill also would exclude major roads on Prince of Wales Island from the lands that would be conveyed to Sealaska.

The bill would prohibit the Forest Service from closing, consolidating or reducing staffing levels in any Ranger District of the Tongass National Forest for a period of 10 years due to the legislation.

Sealaska has also excluded certain lands around Sitka from the pool of lands it can select for “Native Futures” sites, in response to concerns expressed by the City and Borough of Sitka. Changes have also been made to the boundaries of some of the proposed land conveyances on Prince of Wales Island to accommodate local concerns.

New investment from Sealaska on lands made available through the legislation is hoped to provide a boost to the sagging Southeast Alaska economy. Murkowski noted that Prince of Wales Island suffers from unemployment rates in the range of 20 percent.

A June 2008 study by the McDowell Group, an economic consulting firm, noted that Sealaska was responsible for 580 jobs and approximately $22 million of payroll in Southeast Alaska during 2007. In 2007 Sealaska spent $41 million in support of its corporate and timber-related operations in Southeast Alaska, benefiting approximately 350 businesses and organizations in 19 Southeast Alaska communities.

Before introducing the legislation, Murkowski requested assurances from Sealaska that the benefits of the legislation would flow to the overall Southeast Alaska economy. In response, Sealaska Corporation Chairman Albert Kookesh and CEO Chris McNeil submitted a letter in which Sealaska promises to maintain its commitment to create jobs for residents of Southeast Alaska, sell timber at fair market value to local mills and local producers of wood products, collaborate with others to preserve the viability of the Southeast Alaska timber industry and work with Southeast Alaska communities and organizations on energy issues facing the region.

Murkowski seeks public comment on the legislation which will be posted on her website, www.murkowski.senate.gov. Alaskans can submit their comments on the legislation through the website or by calling Senator Murkowski’s office toll free at (877) 829-6030.

Sealaska Bill S. 3651 is available for download here.  Maps A B C D E ( 1 2 3 4 )