Congressman will Push Original Sealaska Bill

Don Young says he’ll re-introduce his own Sealaska land-selections bill next year – a version without changes proposed by Lisa Murkowski.

By Ed Schoenfeld
KRBD Radio
October 21, 2010

Don Young says he’ll re-introduce his own Sealaska land-selections bill next year – a version without changes proposed by Lisa Murkowski.

Murkowski, meanwhile, says she’ll make further adjustments and hold another round of regional meetings on the measure. What happens depends on the results of November’s elections, which could bring in candidates who want to gut or kill the bill.

Alaska Congressman introduced the original Sealaska lands bill in 2007. He won a committee hearing last March. There, he defended its plan to transfer about 80,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest land for timber, tourism and cultural development.

Young, in a recent Washington, D.C., interview, said he will do it again.

“I am going to introduce my original bill. I’m not going to negotiate with myself and we’ll go from there and we’ll see who wins this battle,” he said.

That battle, for at least for the last year, has been led by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. She’s held constituent meetings in Southeast and her staff’s drafted amendments making significant changes.

But Young, during a recent Sitka interview, said he doesn’t really care.

“I don’t worry about what the Senate does, even though she’s my senator. I try to encourage people not to negotiate from a position of weakness, and we’ll see what happens,” he said.

Alaska Senator Mark Begich is a cosponsor of Murkowski’s bill and the only Congressional delegation member not facing re-election.

“Going back to the original bill means all we’re going to do is to get into more flights. I don’t think that’s healthy,” he said.

In a Sitka interview, he said he wants substantial changes, reflecting new Tongass management directions and other concerns. But he does not want to go back to Young’s original measure.

“I think there’s been a lot of work and compromise to this extent. There’s still more work to do. I think the bill that Lisa has modified as well as we have given input on, if you’re going to start somewhere, think that’s the base bill we start with,” he said.

And that’s just what Murkowski, in a Juneau interview, said she wants to do. She, like Young and Begich, said the current versions will not move this year.

“My commitment is to continue to work to bring equity to Sealaska and its shareholders in terms of its land conveyances. That’s a commitment I made some time ago and I intend to honor that commitment,” she said.

Her staff continues to come up with changes. Robert Dillon is Republican spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is handling the bill.

“There’s been language worked out on an amendment with the bear guides down there, to allow access to futures sites. But it’s pending review by the Democratic staff of the Energy Committee and since Congress is in recess it’s my understanding they haven’t looked at it yet,” he said.

They’re planning a new series of public meetings in Southeast next year, if Murkowski returns to the Senate.

Sealaska officials say they’re open to a new round of meetings and talks. Vice President Rick Harris says Murkowski’s amended version is the place to start.

“We believe that the bill we’re working on has made a lot of compromises and made a lot of adjustments. We think it’s a pretty good bill but we’re always interested in additional language or additional adjustments that may work for everybody,” he said.

Sealaska has the right to select the rest of its land now. But it’s restricted to box-shaped boundaries surrounding shareholders’ home communities.

The legislation would trade that acreage for land farther afield, including prime timber stands and ecotourism sites. Opponents call it a huge giveaway that will hurt fish, wildlife and residents of small communities.

Fairbank’s Joe Miller, who beat Murkowski in the Republican primary, has opposed the measure. He’s also been highly critical of Sealaska and other Native corporations, accusing officials of profiting on the backs of shareholders.

During a recent Petersburg interview, Miller said he wants Sealaska to get the rest of its land. But he criticized the bill’s selections and said they could harm other Alaskans.

“We want all federal lands transferred out. But there is a dependency for access in many areas that private corporations have depended on, that guides have depended on, that fishermen and women have depended on, that we want to make sure we don’t upset in the process,” he said.

The Democrat in the Senate race, Sitka’s Scott McAdams, also opposes the latest versions of the Murkowski and Young Sealaska bills.

McAdams wants sacred sites turned over to clans, not corporations. And he wants a bill providing for landless residents of five communities left out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

“I would expand the conversation to more than two people at Sealaska and my resource aide. I think that bringing the tribes into the room, bringing the clans into the room, along with even our village corporations along with the regionals, and other stakeholders is the way you craft good policy,” he said.

The Democrat in the U.S. House race is also critical of the bill. Anchorage’s Harry Crawford, who is trying to unseat Young, says the concept is right.

“But as this has unfolded it seem as though they have not brought all the parties to the table. There’s a lot of dissention and opposition to the bill. I think we’re going to need to take a step back and find a way to find agreement between the parties,” he said.

Sealaska officials said they support landless communities, Native veterans and other concerns tied up in the Tongass transfers. But Harris, the corporation’s executive vice president, says they should be handled separately.

“I think it’s important there be a strategy to be able to address all the outstanding land issues. Whether they can be done in a single bill I think we’ll find creates a lot of complexity and makes it very difficult,” he said.

Murkowski and Young will reintroduce their bills only if they’re re-elected.

Other Congressional elections are also a factor. If Young wins and Republicans take over the U.S. House, he’ll have a better chance of advancing the legislation.

APRN’s Libby Casey, KTOO’s Rosemarie Alexander and KFSK’s Matt Miller contributed to this report.