Tongass Reports - August Updates from America's Rainforest

As members of the Alaska Congressional Delegation introduce legislation in Washington DC that may affect the Tongass National Forest, you count on us to keep you informed.

Our Alaska Senators introduced several new bills this summer, but some will ring awfully familiar to many long time SEACC supporters, like the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Improvement Act of 2017 or the ANCSA Unrecognized Community Landless Natives Authorization Act of 2017. SEACC is keeping a sharp eye on these bills, and will alert you if they start moving. Together, by letting our elected officials hear our voices, we can help assure that decisions made far away in Washington D.C. are the best possible for Southeast’s land, water, and people.

On June 29, 2017, Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan reintroduced the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Improvement Act of 2017 in two versions. The first version combines all 14 titles into a single bill (S. 1481). To maximize their ability to address disagreements that might arise and prevent quick passage of the entire legislative package, the Senators introduced each of the titles as individual bills as well, with one exception -- Senator Sullivan introduced the Alaska Native Veterans Land Allotment Equity Act (S. 785) on March 30, 2017.

A hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining in July took the first look at fifteen bills introduced and referred to the committee this year. Two of the bills relating to Southeast Alaska were on that hearing agenda: the Alaska Native Veterans Land Allotment Equity Act (S.785); and a second bill, (S. 1149), dealing with management of Kake Tribal Corporation’s private lands. 

S. 1149 repeals an existing prohibition on the export of timber logged from land Kake Tribal Corporation received from the State of Alaska near the community of Kake, on North Kupreanof Island. Kake Tribal received this land in exchange for putting land conveyed to it under the original Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in the Gunnuk Creek watershed, Kake’s primary source of drinking water, into a conservation easement. At the time, then-Senator Frank Murkowski inserted the export restriction “to maintain a timber processing industry in Southeast Alaska.” While we continue to insist that all logs cut from Tongass National Forest lands should support manufacturing jobs here at home, not overseas, we did not object to lifting this export ban because it treated Kake Tribal differently from other Native Corporations.

S. 785, which would reopen the opportunity for certain Alaska Native Veterans to apply for allotments under the 1906 Alaska Native Allotment Act, raised many red flags. In testimony submitted to the Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining, SEACC questioned the change in approach proposed for correcting the missed opportunity that certain Alaska Native Veterans experienced while serving in the Vietnam War. In 1999 and 2000, Congress addressed this issue by adopting bipartisan solutions which precluded selection of all National Forest lands. The new bill undermines those solutions by drastically expanding lands eligible for selection and making all Tongass lands, other than National Monuments, available for selection.  The new bill not only makes it possible to select lands within designated Tongass Wilderness, it lacks ironclad protections for the nearly 900,000 acres of Tongass Legislated LUD II roadless wildlands unanimously designated for perpetual protection by the U.S. Senate in the 1990 Tongass Timber Reform Act and 2014 Sealaska Lands Bill.

The ANCSA Improvement Act of 2017 contains several other provisions of interest to SEACC members. So far the Senators have taken no action to move these bills forward; we are keeping a close eye on any new developments that arise. 

  • S. 1483, the Shee Atika Land Exchange Settlement Act, implements an agreement between the Forest Service and Shee Atika Corporation for the surface estate at Shee Atika’s Cube Cove property; lands adjacent to Lake Kathleen, Peanut Lake, and Lake Florence.  As Congress makes money available, the Forest Service will purchase segments of the Cube Cove property and return them to the Admiralty Island National Monument/Wilderness. The approved agreement appraised the value of the surface estate for Cube Cove at $18.3 million dollars. There are unquestionable benefits from returning these lands to Admiralty Island National Monument and letting the devastation heal. We hope the Cube Cove example helps educate Congress about the follies of imposing a for-profit development mandate on lands of historical, cultural, and traditional value to Native communities.   
  • S.1484, the ANCSA Admiralty Island Land Exchange Finalization Act of 2017 authorizes the US Forest Service to obtain the remainder of Sealaska's subsurface estate at Cube Cove (17,745 acres) in exchange for the surface and subsurface estate to about 8,872 acres and the surface estate to another 5,145 acres of Tongass lands on Prince of Wales Island. The lands Sealaska will obtain on Prince of Wales Island will consolidate existing Sealaska entitlements there. Most importantly, S.1484 guarantees that the Forest Service consolidates all the private property at Cube Cove into federal ownership.     
  • S.1485, the ANCSA Cook Inlet Region Land Conveyance Finalization Act of 2017, allows Cook Inlet Region, Inc., the regional Native corporation for the Anchorage area, to select up to 43,000 acres of land from anywhere in Alaska, including federal lands located outside the boundaries of National Monuments, National Parks, or land designated as Wilderness by Congress. Like the “Landless” bill below (S.1491) and the Alaska Native Veterans Allotment Act (S.785), this bill lacks ironclad protections for the nearly 900,000 acres of Tongass Legislated LUD II roadless wildlands. In 1990, and again in 2014, the U.S. Senate unanimously designated these Tongass wildlands for perpetual protection in the 1990 Tongass Timber Reform Act and 2014 Sealaska Lands Bill.
  • S.1491, the ANCSA Unrecognized Community Landless Natives Authorization Act of 2017 remains unchanged from previous years, despite repeated and extensive public opposition to the bill as written, as well as a critical legal & policy review by a well-respected tribal advocate. This bill would create five new urban Native Corporations for the communities of Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Tenakee, and Haines, and grants over 115,000 acres (108 square miles) of Tongass National Forest lands to the corporations. The act requires the economic development and incentivizes logging of these lands no matter how important they are for customary, traditional, or historical uses and in so doing constrains the types of opportunities and forms of rural development that could otherwise be made available in these communities to help advance well-being and provide jobs, where desired.

SEACC acknowledges the desire for recognition that motivates support for the Unrecognized Community Landless Natives Authorization Act on the part of many Southeast Alaskans. However, we cannot support it in its current form for several reasons: in addition to our concerns regarding the constraints on exploring alternatives to logging for rural development, it importantly lacks ironclad protections for the nearly 900,000 acres of Tongass Legislated LUD II roadless wildlands. When and if this bill moves forward, we believe Southeast Alaskans deserve public hearings in the affected communities and the state capital, and we will urge Senator Murkowski to do so.

As we consider the next steps for bills like the Landless Natives Authorization Act, the “Landless” bill to some and the “New Urban Corporation” bill to others, too often we simply put on our blinders and stick to our original positions on these issues, even as the political, cultural, and social context that informs these conversations has shifted in the years since they were first introduced. Let’s instead use the opportunity of these bills to consider new alternatives, and to explore opportunities that conserve the land and ensure Southeast Alaska’s Native communities receive the recognition and support they need and desire.

At this time of increasing political uncertainty and rapid climatic change, we should pause and explore innovative options now available for rural development, without necessitating or requiring more logging. Such options include the transfer of lands into trust instead of to for-profit corporations, co-management options like the Guardians Indigenous Ranger program in Canada, the creation of Indigenous Protected Areas as conservation areas where subsistence and guiding rights are retained by Native peoples, or participation in the developing carbon market by “banking” the tremendous carbon value of undisturbed old-growth forest, among others.

As we look ahead to a busy fall and an uncertain political future nationwide we will keep our members appraised of the progression of these bills, while also working to develop some of these new alternatives to old problems that the passage of time and new thinking have opened up, all while continuing to do what SEACC has always done best – protect the land and waters of Southeast Alaska for future generations to experience and enjoy. 

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