Omnibus lands bill could include Sealaska measure

It looks like the Sealaska land-selection legislation will become part of a larger bill that could be easier to pass. At least that’s the case in the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, opponents continue lobbying against the measure.

There are a couple of ways to get a bill through Congress.

One is to push the measure through on its merits or its sponsor’s connections – or both. Another is to combine it with similar legislation.

That’s what Senator Lisa Murkowski is trying to do with the Sealaska legislation.

“Historically what the energy committee has done is taken a whole package of lands bill, roll them into what is called an omnibus public lands bill, and then advance them to the floor that way,” she says.

The Alaska Republican is working on such a bill with Natural Resources and Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman. Murkowski says the New Mexico Democrat expressed some concerns she’s trying to address.

She says the timber acreage to be selected is pretty much set. Sections addressing cultural and economic-development areas are more flexible.

“Still some questions remaining on the sacred sites and some of the futures sites. But I would suggest that after years of input from Alaskans and those that have an interest we have gotten to a point where we’ve got a final bill that we can put before the committee,” Murkowski says.

“The idea of the Sealaska land bill being part of an omnibus bill in the Senate has really always been our expectation,” says Rick Harris, executive vice president of Sealaska.

He says bill changes mostly have to do with the futures sites, which could be used for ecotourism or energy development.

“I think they just want to confirm that we’ve done as good a job as we can in the selections to avoid conflict, but to still craft a suitable solution,” he says.

But there’s still plenty of conflict.

“I think it’s a bad idea,” says Davey Lubin, who runs a sea-taxi and ecotourism business in Sitka. He’s opposed to the omnibus approach, or any version of the bill so far.

“There’s some sense that some of the senators from certain states who stand to gain small wilderness areas are willing to throw the Tongass under the bus,” he says.

Lubin traveled to Washington, D.C., last month to lobby against the legislation. He’s concerned about impacts on wildlife, tourism, subsistence, and the overall future of the Tongass National Forest, where the land would be selected.

He says he tells people in Washington that the legislation is a corporate land grab.

“I was giving them a frontline view of what the sentiment here is about privatizing some of the most significant, important, beautiful gems of the Tongass. Most of the time the response was ‘Wow, we didn’t realize that this was anything other than a Native rights bill,” he says.

He’s not alone. Some environmental, tribal and outdoors groups, plus small Southeast communities, have also come out against the measure.

One of the latest to join is the Alaska Outdoor Council. The Fairbanks-based group includes seven Southeast affiliates and is the official state association of the National Rifle Association.

“We’re still battling here in the Interior to try to keep the easements across corporation lands to public lands behind them. And we have not been that successful at keeping that access,” says Rod Arno, the council’s executive director.

He’s among those worried that hunters, hikers and fishermen will be limited by the corporation’s new land ownership.

“The main concern is having more federal Alaska lands legislation when there should be adequate lands in the original withdrawals from ANCSA to meet the needs of the Sealaska Corporation,” he says.

Sealaska could select land now from areas of the Tongass near Southeast communities. Officials say much of that acreage should be protected as fish and wildlife habitat, or community watersheds.

Instead, the corporation wants Congress’ permission to select other lands in the region, much of it valuable timber property. Officials say they will maintain access and be environmentally sensitive.

Murkowski points to support from timber industry, economic development and Native groups, and businesses. She says she hopes the omnibus bill, cosponsored by Alaska Democrat Mark Begich, will move soon.

Meanwhile, Alaska Republican Representative Don Young’s version has cleared its only committee. It could head directly to the House floor, or, like the Senate, also be wrapped into an omnibus lands measure.

Earlier reports:
Both sides prepare for Sealaska bill’s next stop
Murkowski, Young post new Sealaska bills
Sealaska lands bill passes House committee