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ALASKA NATIVE CORPORATIONS: Land Use Strategies

Protecting assets, maximizing returns

When it comes to management of lands and natural resources, Alaska Native Corporations face a sometimes uneasy balance of protecting cultural assets while still answering a duty to maximize returns for shareholders and to ensure the ongoing health of the corporation itself.

On the ground, several Alaska Native Corporations are doing just that, using newfangled technology and innovative practices to create corporate opportunity while caring for their ancestral land and resource heritage.

Whether it be transitioning land resources from historic extraction to tourism-focused industry, researching forestry management techniques to ensure healthier and more lucrative long-term harvest results, or even planning for the peripheral impacts of nearby resource development, Alaska Native Corporations are using industry best-practice tools to manage assets across the state.

 

Into The Woods

In the state’s southern panhandle, Sealaska Corp. is employing some progressive techniques not only to ensure the future of its sustainable forest harvest, but also to acknowledge the cultural importance of several tree species in the art, ceremony and subsistence of its members.

“Our silviculture that we do is, in fact, a cornerstone to the forest management efforts that will last through rotation,” says Ron Wolfe, Natural Resources manager for Sealaska Corp., which oversees 290,000 acres of ancestral lands across the length of the state’s Panhandle among its other diverse corporate portfolio holdings.

For the lay person, a rotation is the lifespan between seedling and maturation when the tree crop is next ready for harvest. Traditionally, that may range between 70 to 100 years. In Southeast, says Wolfe, it may occur at 60 years, given the region’s favorable environment for forest growth. The primary take-away point is that decisions made now in forest management will determine the results for generations into the future.

The corporation’s interest in hand-planting is one tangible silviculture practice that takes into consideration a very specific ancestral touchstone. As the U.S. Forest Service defines it, silviculture is the practice of approaching forest management from a holistic standpoint, taking into consideration various factors to control the health, quality, growth, and composition of forest lands to meet a diverse set of values established by landowners and society. In essence, at the micro level, it involves acknowledging cultural, socioeconomic, environmental and other values of the landowner—in this case, Sealaska shareholders—and managing the forest to honor and best maximize those priorities.

Wolfe describes how hand planting, as a silviculture method being used by Sealaska, allows the corporation to adjust the composition of those tree species that grow in areas recently harvested. The corporation has hand-planted more than 1.6 million seedlings on 8,300 acres, with plans to expand that method of practice into the future as it learns more about its long-term results. To that end, Wolfe says that Sealaska has joined with the U.S. Forest Service in a reforestation study to best learn where to plant red and yellow cedar—tree species that have specific cultural significance to corporation shareholders. “If we get the hang of this and know where we want to do it,” he says, “we would hand plant the first growing season after harvest.”

Red and yellow cedar have long been used by Southeast Alaska Native populations for canoe building, construction of longhouses and the like. Through silviculture practices like hand-planting and thinning, forest managers are able to adjust forest composition to ensure long-term sustainability of important regional species.

For example, says Wolfe, the natural regrowth composition of a particular plot may be 10 percent cedar, 30 percent spruce and 60 percent hemlock. “By hand planting, we have opportunity to determine if we want to change that percentage of cedar to a major number,” he says.

As the trees mature, managers can then tell their thinning crews to favor keeping cedar seedlings as a priority so as to further adjust the percentage share of long-term cedar growth. During thinning, if the forest worker spots a healthy crop tree and it is cedar, they will keep it. Using such methods over time, forest stands are managed to ensure a crop composition that honors regional cultural priorities while providing an economic return for the corporation.

“Same thing with Sitka spruce,” Wolfe says. Forest managers will look to the ongoing results from the hand-planting of cedar to see if it is a method to consider with other species.

As a side benefit, many of the corporation’s forestry silviculture contractors are shareholder owned and largely try to hire locally. “We can’t do it at 100 percent, but we are getting there,” Wolfe says.

 

Cut Now, Grow Later

Other silviculture practices include pre-commercial thinning, or PCT. The concept is long established in many agriculture scenes. The general idea is to carefully thin the crop to ensure a healthy, sustainable result that complements, and is complemented by, the surrounding environment.

“We entered into a long-term study with Oregon State University to measure the effects of thinning...on tree form,” says Wolfe. “What we find is that, if we take these steps early in the forest...we set the forest on a growth trend that is very favorable...there is a tremendous amount of deer understory that blossoms and grows and flourishes.”

By conducting pre-commercial thinning at tree age 15—earlier than the traditional 30-year practice—forest managers believe that they are able to prolong that benefit longer into the stand. “The innovative part of that prescription is that we are achieving multiple-use benefits by this cornerstone practice...wildlife and forest growth,” Wolfe says.

Even with early pre-commercial thinning, the crop trees will eventually see their crowns begin to connect in the forest canopy, diminishing the sunlight that flows to the forest floor, Wolfe says. “So what can we do to extend (the benefits started with the pre-commercial thinning) is to work with basal pruning—to remove the branches from the lower portion of the tree.”

The practice involves removing all lower tree branches up to 13 to 17 feet, while leaving 60 percent of the tree crown. The pruning lends itself to straighter crop trees that have greater value, he says, cultivating a sunnier forest floor so as to maintain healthy undergrowth and wildlife habitat. One aspect of this forestry practice is to improve winter range for the islands’ deer population. To keep on track, the corporation builds a 5-year pruning plan for its even-aged forestlands. The OSU 12-year research study of pre-commercial thinning described earlier was set up to also be paired with a pruning study in the future.

Wolfe says it’s important for shareholders and the public to see the tangible forest-health results of such innovative practices. Ultimately, the corporation hopes to offer interpretive signing and a network of trails for self-guided tours that help relate some of Sealaska’s silviculture methods for visitors. For now, however, visitors can walk trails in the Big Salt forest area near Klawock on Prince of Wales Island to view the results of pruning and PCT, he says.

 

On The Beach

Far from the rainforest of Southeast Alaska, the stewards of Tyonek Native Corp. are similarly focused on managing that entity’s some 200,000 acres of land, located primarily on the west side of Cook Inlet. But where Sealaska’s Ron Wolfe is concerned with timber harvest and related island-based natural resources, Tyonek Chief Executive Officer Bart Garber and his team are challenged with managing a landscape of heavy mineral and urban development nearby juxtaposed with the traditional ancestral lifestyle of The Beach People. While the ecosystem may be different, the same pressure to balance cultural values and corporate stewardship applies.

“We constantly balance those things,” says Garber, adding that land managers are, at once, considering how any decision will affect the fish, the tribe, and, at the same time, how it may create a job to help stabilize the local economy. “Culture doesn’t last if you don’t have a job.”

While the village of Tyonek is one of the “most traditional villages in the basin,” according to Garber, it is also very close to the state’s primary urban zone. That consideration, along with several high-profile natural resource projects on the horizon—the PacRim Coal Co. shore-side coal mine north of Tyonek, and oil and gas exploration in Cook Inlet, among others—requires the corporation’s land managers to walk a metaphorical tightrope, balancing corporate duty and cultural stewardship. In the foreground always looms the benefit of cultivating a stable local economy for the village.

From a conversation with Garber, the importance of communication is apparent—communication from the village level to and from the corporation, and between Tyonek and its other regional counterparts.

“We have a very, very strong tribal community. We know who our clans are, we know who our families are,” says Garber. “Our interests as a group are very similar.”

The ongoing land reconveyance effort and related selection process to complete the corporation’s land entitlement of an additional 75,000 acres is the largest issue concerning land management, he says. “We’ve been waiting 30 years for that land.”

Corporations like Tyonek are utilizing industry best-practices and tools, like complex GIS (geographical information system) mapping, for example, to best manage lands for development and sustainability. These businesses are also increasingly working together to consider creative solutions, he says: potentially unitizing land selections, for example.

At the end of the day, however, while resource management strategies may occur using new technology and approaches, the priority remains at the micro level. “Our main concern right now is to make sure the village has what it needs,” Garber says. “That will be the start for a larger plan for all of our lands.”

 

Nicole A. Bonham Colby writes from Ketchikan.

 

This article is a web exclusive to the December 2012 edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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