Controversial Tongass land-swap bill up for review

Posted: May 15, 2013

Written by

Phil Taylor, E&E Daily
Tongass NF

A controversial bill to allow an Alaska Native corporation to acquire roughly 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest primarily for logging goes before a House Natural Resources panel Thursday.

H.R. 740 by Indian and Alaska Native Affairs Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) would allow Sealaska Corp. to select timberlands from outside the original "boxes" it was entitled to under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

It would also allow the corporation to select other small parcels for energy development, tourism and cultural preservation.

Young said the bill has been revised and redrafted to address the concerns of the Obama administration and regional groups, though the bill is still strongly opposed by many southeast Alaska residents, sportsmen, conservation groups and fishermen.

The bill would allow Sealaska to avoid selecting many old-growth trees and roadless lands in its current ANCSA boxes, Young said.

"This legislation will ensure that Sealaska Corp. can continue to meet the cultural, social and economic needs of its shareholders," Young said in a statement when introducing the bill in February. "From a jobs aspect, allowing Sealaska to select its remaining entitlement lands from outside the existing, very limited land pool would help all of the residents of rural and Alaska Native communities in the region."

Critics say the bill would allow the Juneau-based corporation to log a disproportionate number of very large old-growth trees and sets a bad precedent by reopening a decades-old settlement.

A companion bill, S. 340, by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), was discussed last month before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. A Forest Service official said the Obama administration generally supports the measure but would like to see language added to protect its ability to transition the 17-million-acre forest to second-growth logging (E&E Daily, April 26).

While Murkowski's bill is also opposed by environmental groups and some local constituents, it picked up the surprise support of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council -- a longtime opponent of the bill -- and other critics have acknowledged significant improvements.

Young's bill, which passed the House last year as part of a large public lands package that stalled in the Senate, is similar to Murkowski's bill but contains key differences.

Young's bill lacks the 152,000 acres of conservation set-asides in Murkowski's bill, contains nine additional "future sites," and doesn't contain 100-foot stream buffers for logging, deferring instead to Alaska forest laws, a spokesman said.

While Young's bill is expected to again pass the committee and House, negotiations to complete Sealaska's land entitlement have primarily revolved around Murkowski's bill. If Murkowski can garner bipartisan support to pass S. 340, most expect the House would adopt it.

While few conservation groups will support either bill, some have indicated they may drop their opposition to Murkowski's bill if it is backed by the Forest Service and is paired with other wilderness and parks bills.

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