U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today introduced a revised Sealaska land settlement proposal that is part of her Southeast Alaska initiative to aid the regional economy.
Southeast Alaska has been hard hit by the downturn in timber-related jobs. Last month, Murkowski introduced the first of two bills designed to stimulate the Southeast Alaska economy - the Southeast Alaska Timber Industry Retooling and Restructuring Act to help firms retool to maintain jobs in the region, and the Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities Recognition and Compensation Act to set up urban corporations for Natives in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Tenakee and Haines.
Joined by U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Murkowski today introduced legislation that would enable Sealaska Corporation, the regional Alaska Native Corporation for Southeast Alaska, to satisfy its remaining land entitlement under terms of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives today.
The bill was first introduced by Young in 2007. Last year, Murkowski introduced a Senate version. The new bills represent changes made to reflect public comments and concerns with the previous bills. The Senate legislation was referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Murkowski is the ranking Republican member.
Estimates place Sealaska's remaining land entitlement at 65,000 acres to 85,000 acres. Murkowski's bill would permit Sealaska Corporation to select new acreage on and around Prince of Wales Island for timber development from a pool of about 78,000 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 about 327,000 acres of land selections in roadless and more environmentally sensitive areas of the Tongass National Forest.
"This bill represents a number of changes from the legislation introduced last September in an effort to further reduce the timber acreages and to meet local concerns with how selections might affect small communities. Prince of Wales Island communities, for example, were deeply concerned that they would lose access for hunting, fishing and gathering on lands that are currently part of the Tongass National Forest, but would be transferred to Sealaska," said Murkowski. "This 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."
"Sealaska has been waiting far too long to complete its land entitlement from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act," said Sen. Begich. "We need to move this legislation forward to finish the ANCSA entitlements but also to allow Sealaska and its shareholders to develop a sustainable economic future."
The legislation would reduce the economic development timber land selection pool to about 78,000 acres from 80,000 acres proposed last year. That would protect additional boat anchorages by preventing the harvest of timber in Shipley Bay on north Prince of Wales Island and at Cape Pole on southwest Kosciusko Island. It would eliminate Native Future Site selections at Lacy Cove on the northern tip of Chichagof Island near Elfin Cove.
The new bill would provide full public access across linear, sacred sites and provide historic trail conveyances near Yakutat and Kake. It would address the concerns of the Huna Indian Association by clarifying cooperative agreements for management of sacred sites in Glacier Bay. And it would eliminate language opposed by the U.S. Forest Service regarding funding of district ranger offices.
The bill, in general, 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.
Sealaska has 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 24 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 promised 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.
As part of her Southeast economic initiative, Murkowski also plans to introduce legislation in the near future that would increase federal funding for new ferries and terminals.