House passes bill granting thousands of acres of National Forest to Sealaska

The U.S. House passed a bill on June 19, ceding tens of thousands of acres of the Tongass National Forest to the Sealaska Native Corporation. However, the vote is just one step the bill needs to clear Congress.

This is the furthest along the legislative process the Sealaska bill has made it. It passed the Republican controlled House with 232 votes including 16 Democrats.

The bill would transfer control of tens of thousands of acres of the Tongass from the U.S. Forest Service to the Sealaska Corporation, the final Regional Native Corporation to settle its land claims. The land is outside the plots originally agreed to in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act 40 years ago.

Some of the land will be used for logging, with some future sites left open to other possible ventures. Those future sites have Andi Burgess worried. She’s with the Alaska Wilderness League.

“There’s no prohibition on what can be done at these sites,” Burgess said.

Those sections of land could be parceled off as heritage sites or be designated for money-making projects, like ecotourism. While Burgess’s fears may be stoked by the bill’s passage in the House, it still has some way to go before it becomes law.

The bill needs to clear the Senate, and if its current pace there is any indication, that probably won’t come quickly. Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced her version into committee last year, but has yet to receive a markup – let alone a vote.

Aides to Murkowski say it’s possible the House vote will speed along the process, at least out of committee, but the full Senate is another story.

Murkowski’s plan is more scaled back than the House version.

“To have limited impact into those old-growth areas, to have limited impact in those watershed areas. That’s why we’ve gone through the negotiated process,” Murkowski said.

She’s says that process has taken years –years of negotiations with Sealaska, the U.S. Forest Service and Southeast residents. And those negotiations could make for a more pleasing bill for both parties in the Senate.

And While Young’s bill did earn some Democratic votes – it lost more Republicans, a sign it could be hard to move his version down the line.

Senator Murkowski says the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Jeff Bingaman, hasn’t committed to another hearing on the bill, but she’s trying.

“We keep sitting down,” Murkowski said. “And I suppose the fact that we’re still talking about it is good.”