WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today welcomed Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approval of legislation to complete the aboriginal land claims of the Sealaska Native Regional Corp.
The Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act (S. 340) was approved Tuesday by the energy panel by unanimous voice vote.
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The measure provides Sealaska Corp., the Alaska Native regional corp. for Southeast Alaska, with 70,075 acres to finalize transfer of land owed to the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).
“It has taken six years, but today we’ve taken a major step toward fulfilling the promise made to Southeast’s 20,000 Alaska Natives more than four decades ago,” Murkowski said. “This has been a difficult process because every acre of the Tongass is precious to someone, but we have worked tirelessly with all of the stakeholders to address their concerns. I truly believe that all of that work has resulted in the best bill possible. It will help the region’s timber industry grow, while at the same time protect more than 150,000 acres for fisheries and habitat.”
Under ANCSA, which extinguished aboriginal land claims in Alaska, Sealaska was entitled to an estimated 375,000 acres of the 16.9-million acre Tongass National Forest to help improve the livelihoods of its shareholders. The government never made good on its promise.
Sealaska is currently owed some 85,000 acres, but under the compromise worked out in Murkowski’s bill it will accept about 15,000 acres less in exchange for 68,400 acres for timber harvesting, 1,099 acres for renewable energy resource and recreational tourism projects, and 490 acres of Native cemetery and historic sites.
The measure also places 152,000 acres of old-growth timber in new conservation areas to protect salmon and wildlife habitat.
The legislation steers Sealaska’s timber harvesting activities toward second-growth timber and areas that already contain roads and other infrastructure to minimize impact on old-growth timber.
“We took great care to fulfill the promises made to Sealaska shareholders, while at the same time addressing the concerns of all Southeast residents who utilize the Tongass for everything from subsistence to fisheries to recreation,” Murkowski said. “The bill ensures public access and protects key salmon streams. It also creates new habitat conservation areas, including six areas sought for protection by Trout Unlimited.”
The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), has undergone more than 225 changes since first being proposed by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) in 2007.
“I realize this bill won’t make everyone happy, but we’ve made literally hundreds of changes over the past four years in an effort to meet every possible concern,” Murkowski said. “My goal was to fulfill the promises made to the shareholders of Sealaska by the federal government back in 1971, to support what’s left of Southeast’s timber industry, and to recognize that there are areas here that deserve additional protection. I believe this bill accomplishes all three.”
The bill now heads to the Senate floor for consideration.
Video of the full hearing can be viewed at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee website. Murkowski is the ranking Republican on the panel.