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By RICHARD PETERSON
The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska’s (Tlingit & Haida) Constitution declares as our peoples’ inherent right that we, “Protect, preserve and enhance Tlingit ‘Haa Aani’ and Haida ‘═itl' tlagßay’, our way of life, its ecosystems and resources, including the right to clean water and access to native foods and traditional practices through our inherent rights to traditional and customary hunting, fishing and gathering.”
Tlingit & Haida works constructively with all elected officials of any political party without partisanship. We aim to be collaborative partners, working together in the best interest of Alaska — our homelands. Yet today we are challenged by our disagreement with Alaska elected officials who support the proposed full exemption of the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule. Any elected official in Alaska who supports a full exemption is disregarding their constituents, undermining the public process, and ignoring sovereign tribal governments.
The tribal governments of Southeast Alaska know our traditional territory; we have lived, depended on, and stewarded these lands and waters since time immemorial. We know that full exemption for development would forever harm our homelands.
The Tongass National Forest is the United States’ largest national forest and the largest remaining temperate rainforest on earth. Some see it as a salmon forest, a timber forest, a vast wilderness to visit and explore. Indigenous people see it differently. The Tongass is the traditional homelands of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people, a lineage that stretches so deep in time, we call it immemorial. Our origin stories are derived from these lands. Our ancestors are buried here. Our songs and dances are created here. Our languages have always been spoken here.
Who are we? Our people are professional athletes, entrepreneurs, artists, Hollywood actors, CEOs running corporations that have brought millions of dollars to our region, fashion designers, teachers, culture bearers, doting aunties, fishermen and sovereign tribal governments. We are diverse peoples, but if there is one thread that unites the indigenous people of Southeast Alaska, it’s our relationship and connection to the sacred lands we know today as the Tongass. Our health and wellbeing, identity and worldview are intricately woven into the fabric of this land.
Six federally recognized tribal governments stepped forward to engage on the Roadless Rule proposals with the State of Alaska and consult with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); however, we were treated as “cooperating agencies” and not as sovereign tribal governments exercising our inherent rights. Despite inappropriate treatment, we agreed to participate in order to be “at the table” instead of “on the menu.” In addition to answering our communities’ needs, and despite significant impacts of government shutdowns and reduced program funding from our federal trustee, these tribes satisfied arbitrary and expedited deadlines to meaningfully engage with state and federal representatives. However, our pleas for respect and for justice have been ignored.
Each of our tribes have different needs and priorities. Some sought expanded protections to heal local lands after devastating logging practices, others sought strategic adjustments to the Roadless Rule that would permit controls of local development, but not one tribal government advocated for a full exemption of the Roadless Rule.
The entire process has repeatedly disrespected and ignored sovereign tribal nations and their citizens. For example, the USDA compensated the Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry lobbying group, with $200,000 for their time and expertise in engaging in the Roadless process. The State of Alaska received $2 million, yet our tribes received no compensation despite our traditional indigenous knowledge of the lands and waters and the representation of the communities imbedded within the Tongass.
Our tribal governments have been repeatedly denied opportunities to engage directly with USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who will determine our homelands’ fate, but he has invited representatives of other governments, environmental organizations and the timber industry to meet with key USDA officials in Washington, D.C. We have repeatedly requested government-to-government consultation without success.
Southeast Alaska tribes believe the requisite environmental process has been arbitrarily and capriciously rushed to decision despite the magnitude of potential adverse impacts that lifting these protections could impose upon our homelands.
The concerns of tribes are shared by others. During the public scoping period, the vast majority of written comments and public testimony, according to the U.S. Forest Service’s administrative record, favored no change to the Roadless Rule.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Gov. Michael Dunleavy support a full exemption. We believe they’re obligated to respect the views of the first people of these lands and have a responsibility to develop compromises responsive to our needs. To do less is to undermine tribal governments.
We respect our elected officials and have successfully collaborated with them on numerous and often contentious matters, but we cannot compromise our homelands. As the original stewards of Southeast Alaska, we know that a blanket removal of Roadless Rule protections for our remaining old growth is not a viable solution. It must be replaced with the opportunity for tribal governments to meaningfully engage with state and federal government officials in the management of the lands we depend on.
We acknowledge that compromise is necessary and our desired outcomes are not unreasonable; however, no outcome is credible unless tribal governments are respected as full partners in the decision-making process.
Richard Chalyee ╔esh Peterson is president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.