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Sealaska bill sparks debate
Merle Hawkins, left, was one of the many speakers to comment Saturday at the Ketchikan Gateway Borough assembly chambers on a proposed Senate bill to allow Sealaska Corp. to finalize its land claims outside of the original selection. Hawkins spoke in favor of the bill. Sitting at the table are Chuck Kleeschulte, Senate Energy and Resources Committee staff member, and Bob Weinstein, southern Southeast Alaska field representative for Senator Mark Begich.
Staff photo by Hall Anderson


Daily News Staff Writer

Diverse opinions were shared at a town hall meeting in Ketchikan Saturday about a proposed Senate bill that would allow Sealaska Corp. to finalize its lands claims outside of the original selection area.

A bill introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2009 would allow Sealaska to select about 79,000 acres of land on Prince of Wales Island for timber development; 5,000 acres of land elsewhere in Alaska to be designated as Native Future sites and 3,600 acres of sacred sites for cultural and historic preservation.

There were three-and-a-half hours of testimony Saturday from a variety of individuals expressing diverging opinions on how Sealaska should receive its land entitlements.

Joseph Reeves, president of Ketchikan Landless Natives, said he was in full support of the bill because it would fulfill the promise made under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

He said Sealaska had been stymied in completing its land selections by special hunting and fishing groups, as well as conservation groups that have opposed the land bill.

"When you consider all the Alaska acreage taken by national parks, national wilderness area, the state of Alaska, local cities and boroughs, Alaska Mental Health Trust lands, the university and privately-owned land, there isn't much unallocated federal land left to choose from the original boundaries of ANCSA," Reeves said. "Sealaska Corp. must look for land that will provide a sustainable economy for its membership and they sure don't feel like they are cherry picking. Their efforts are better described as scavenging."

Eric Muench said he opposed the Senate bill because of the lack of public involvement, and losing public access to the lands.

"This needs a full Congressional field hearing," he said.

He said he opposed the sacred and Native future sites because the bill doesn't define the designation, instead leaving that to Sealaska shareholders.

"All those sites, wherever they may be thought to be, are open to everyone now," Muench said.

Chuck Kleeschulte, Senate Energy and Resources Committee staff member, told the audience in a packed Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly chambers that town meetings were set up because it was difficult to schedule senators to come to Alaska on short notice.

He also said that Alaskans dislike formal Congressional field hearings, and prefer to have everyone's opinion heard. The comments were taped and transcripts would be provided to members of the Senate Energy and Resources Committee.

Ketchikan was the last stop in a series of town hall meetings this past week, with others held on Prince of Wales Island, Sitka and Petersburg.

Hearings in Port Protection, Edna Bay and Point Baker were canceled because of weather. Those communities have opposed the bill and the Port Protection Community Association has released a resolution, asking that the proposed bill die in committee.

Barbara Morgan addressed issues concerning Edna Bay. She said her concern was that logging would close the road, splitting the town in half and cutting off access to a spring. Another concern was that Sealaska would be able to choose water rights in addition to land.

"Actually, the only population of people who live in Edna Bay are fishermen. If Sealaska is allowed to choose water rights as well as land rights, they can put circles around all of the best fishing areas, which puts that economic base out of commission," Morgan said.

Kleeschulte informed Morgan that Sealaska was not allowed to select water rights and were limited to selecting land rights.

Ray Roberts talked of the importance of the land to his heritage. He said the federal government relocated tribal villages into Ketchikan, Saxman, Hydaburg, Craig and Klawock to send children to school.

"They made us abandon places that we learned to make a living and provide for ourselves," Roberts said. "We're people that harvest what has been put on this earth. We go in season to harvest all the foods that we need to provide for us. We use the timber to build shelters for ourselves and build our canoes. We utilize all of our resources that were put on this land."

Joe Williams said Alaska Natives are fighting for what little land is left.

"Who got it first? The state of Alaska got the land first. Who got it second? The Alaska Mental Health Trust got their lands," he said. "Where were you when they selected their lands? Where were you when the land was selected for cutting all the timber for Ketchikan Pulp Co. Did we have a say as Native people? No. Did anyone ask our leadership as a Native people? No. Did we object? We didn't know enough to object. Now, here we are fighting over pittance of land that was given, that was promised."

Wayne Weihing said the land belonged to all the citizens of the United States.

"That's why it's called a national forest," Weihing said. "It's a national forest because it belongs to everyone. When you privatize something, it takes away, not only from the people in Alaska but for everyone. It's going to put a devastating effect on what we're used to."

Joe Johnston said his problem with the bill was that it was drafted without a say from the local governments.

"This bill does not let locals say, 'Wait a minute, we have a use,'" Johnston said. "I look at this and right there where I go crabbing in Bostwick is a spot. Right where I go to the Naha is a spot. I guess Clover Bay is off the list, but right where I go fishing and hanging around in Clover Bay is a spot. It looks like just darn near every spot that is worth a damn is on the list."

Kurt Morin said he wasn't opposed to the Sealaska bill, except where it identified Coho Cove as a possible selection site.

He said Coho Cove was a concern because that is where the first geoduck farm had been started. He said the first harvest was expected in April, with plans to harvest between 20,000 to 30,000 pounds.

"Any activity besides sight-seeing would destroy the farms," Morin said.

Ed Toribio, wilderness guide, said he was concerned with the selected areas in Misty Fiords National Monument.

"I'm not opposed to Sealaska receiving their 64,000 or 85,000 acres of timber land, and I believe that they should receive it," he said. "I'm sort of the opinion that they should stay within the original ANCSA boxes."

Victoria McDonald said Sealaska had a poor track record in responsible logging.

She said many had witnessed Sealaska's "destructive logging practices. Trees are cut to the creek banks, altering or destroying salmon habitat. No seed trees were left for future germination. The land is denuded. This logging is in direct contradiction to traditional harvesting."

Sandy Powers said Sealaska needed to consider the needs of communities, such as those on northern Prince of Wales Island, in addition to their profit margin.

Powers asked that the bill be abandoned and that Sealaska choose land from the original withdrawal area.

Mike Sallee said he wasn't opposed to Alaska Natives getting their land entitlements.

"But, Sealaska is, No. 1, a corporation with corporate bottom line trumping all other considerations and, No. 2, Sealaska is a timber-centric corporation," Sallee said. "Sealaska's logging practices have not been sustainable and their practice of round-log export is an unconscionable waste of future job opportunities."

Alaska Forest Association Executive Director Owen Graham said he supported the bill, and said Sealaska has been a responsible logging operator.

"They'll be a good neighbor to whatever areas or whatever communities are in the areas they're operating and I urge you to get this legislation passed as soon as possible," Graham said.

Jackie DuRette said she supported the bill and did not see a reason for the delay.

"Anytime we can get land in Alaska, particularly in Southeast Alaska, into private hands, we're going to be better for it," she said. "It's not working the way it is now. The federal government is the king of the land and the king of the land is keeping most of us who are non-government workers underneath their thumb. We absolutely must have more lands in private use."

Dennis Neill said Sealaska should select from the areas that were originally set out in ANCSA. However, he suggested that if Sealaska were granted the ability to select land outside of the original selection area, that an advisory committee be established to make sure the land was used responsibly.

"Give us our land, we've waited for over 40 years," Merle Hawkins said.

A Senate committee meeting was held in October to consider the bill, and a House Natural Resources Committee meeting on the issue is scheduled for Wednesday.

Wednesday's meeting will be broadcast live via Web cam starting at 10 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time.