Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski introduces new version of Sealaska land-transfer bill allowing aboriginal land selections from 79,000 acres on Prince of Wales and Koscuisko islands

WASHINGTON, D.C. , April 6, 2011 (press release) – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has introduced legislation that would allow Southeast Alaska’s Sealaska Native Regional Corp. to complete the land selection promised to its shareholders nearly 40 years ago under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

The Sealaska bill, originally introduced in 2007 and again in 2009, has undergone major revisions over the past year to reflect public comments gathered at town-hall meetings in Southeast communities, and from hundreds of e-mails and letters sent to Murkowski’s office. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

The measure introduced Tuesday seeks to complete the aboriginal land selections by Southeast Alaska Natives, while also protecting the rights of other Alaskans who have grown to depend on Southeast lands for their livelihoods. The Sealaska bill is intended to reduce environmental impacts to Southeast Alaska and does not provide additional acreage beyond initial obligation of ANCSA.

“This legislation is important not only to keep the legal promise the federal government made in ANCSA, but also to ensure the survival of the remaining timber operations in Southeast,” Murkowski said. “Without access to private timber, the remaining mills will disappear and an important part of the region’s economy will be forever lost.”

Under the bill, Sealaska would select from among 79,000 acres on Prince of Wales and Koscuisko islands to complete its land entitlement. While a large portion of Sealaska’s land selections will be designated for timber harvesting, some 4,000 acres will be set aside for tourism and other non-timber economic development. Another 3,600 acres of Sealaska’s selection will be preserved as sacred, cultural, historic and educational sites.

“I appreciate all the constructive comments that have been submitted concerning the bill,” Murkowski said. “We took great care to fulfill the promises made to Sealaska shareholders, while at the same time protecting the concerns of all Southeast residents who utilize the Tongass for everything from subsistence to fisheries to recreation.”

The bill allows Sealaska to select about 7 percent of the second-growth timber in the Tongass, or about 39,000 fewer acres of old-growth timber than it otherwise could have selected under ANCSA.

“I knew that reaching a consensus on this bill would be difficult since every acre in the Tongass is subject to competing demands,” Murkowski said. “Despite these challenges, these revisions address the vast majority of the concerns expressed by Prince of Wales Island and other Southeast communities.”

The bill will be referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which Murkowski is the ranking member, where it will be subject to a formal review process.

Background

Congress approved ANCSA nearly four decades ago to settle the aboriginal land claims of Alaska Natives. Under a complicated land conveyance formula, Sealaska was entitled to about 375,000 acres of the 16.9-million acre Tongass National Forest to help improve the livelihoods of their 20,000 shareholders. That promise has never been fulfilled.

In contrast to every other Native corporation, Sealaska’s original selection areas were limited because much of Southeast Alaska was under contract to the pulp mills and unavailable when ANCSA passed. While there are 327,000 acres in those original areas still available for selection, 44 percent of that are water and much of the rest is in village watersheds.

Of the 112,000 acres of old-growth timber still available within those areas, 61,000 of those acres are in old-growth reserve areas – areas considered unacceptable for development on environmental grounds – and much of the land is located in the 277,000 acres currently designated as “roadless” areas by the U.S. Forest Service.

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