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Sen. Murkowski Introduces Revised Sealaska Lands Bill

WASHINGTON, D.C. - 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.

A fact sheet on the bill follows.

Sealaska Lands Bill Information Sheet

Background:

·         In 1971, Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) that provided Alaska Natives with 44 million areas of land and $966 million to settle aboriginal land claims.

·         Sealaska is the largest shareholder, but received the smaller initial allocation of land (~292,000 acres) due to preexisting land commitments.

·         Under Section 14(h), Sealaska has the right to select between 64,000 and 85,000 additional acres in the region, once the final audit of other land selections is finished.

·         Sealaska was originally limited to selecting land from 10 areas in Southeast, but due to limitations on the land, there is only limited economically and environmentally acceptable land.

·         To alleviate this problem, the Alaska Congressional Delegation proposed the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization Act in 2007.

·         This bill has since gone through a number of changes, incorporating public comments received on the proposed sites.

Changes from the most recent web posted draft:

Timber Lands:

  • Imposes a 100-foot cut buffer, similar to federal Forest Service requirements, on state Class 1A riparian areas (anadromous water bodies including streams with average gradients less than eight percent, wetlands, lakes, and estuaries). The provision would be in effect for five years to give the State of Alaska time to evaluate whether any changes are needed to its State Forest Practices Act to protect fisheries from timber harvest effects.
  • Removes 745 acres from potential timber selections at Karheen Lakes on western Tuxekan Island to protect fishery habitat.
  • Removes acreage near the Halibut Harbor anchorage, on the west side of Cape Pole and north of Cape Pole heading toward Point Ruin, to prevent timber blown down by wind that could make anchorages and thus trolling more dangerous for fishermen in bad weather.
Future Sites:

  • Two changes in future sites.
    1. Due to the volume of citizen concerns in Ketchikan, the Dog Cove Future Site, near Naha, was removed .().The removed site contained 30 acres on the northwest side of the cove.
    2. Residents of Tenakee and others expressed concerned regarding the 40-acre Pegmatite Mountain geothermal site. This site is considered the best geothermal site in Southeast Alaska. The bill allows Sealaska to select the site, but it bars its development for 15 years. This time is to provide sufficient time to determine if small hydroelectric projects can be built to supply renewable power to Hoonah, Pelican and Tenakee. If such projects are built, there would be no need for geothermal development at the site, about 25 miles northwest of Tenakee.
Sacred Sites:

  • Includes language guaranteeing that sacred, cultural and historic sites can only be used for education and traditional purposes.
Other Issues:

  • Clarifies management of conservation areas.
  • Guarantees access to trails covered by easements under Section 17(b) of the Claims Settlement Act.
  • Adds renewable energy to the specific uses for some future sites.
  • Makes it more apparent that third-party rights and other limitations are protected.

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