Sealaska bill advances to House

The Sealaska building in Juneau.
The Sealaska building in Juneau. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

The Sealaska Corporation is trying to renegotiate its land settlement under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.  The company hopes to select nearly 70,000 acres and revive the all-but-shuttered logging industry in the Tongass National Forest.

Congressman Don Young’s bill would let the company do just that.

“If we don’t pass this bill, they will select lands with old grown timber and harvest the old growth timber,” he said at a committee markup Wednesday afternoon.

Sealaska has been trying to select new acres for decades. If it does not, it still has the rights to land around a number of Southeast Native villages.

The Alaska Congressional delegation has repeatedly introduced the land transfer legislation but failed to pass it out of Congress.

At the House hearing, no members showed any opposition to the bill when it was introduced, so passage was a foregone conclusion. Young nodded and winked at the few Democrats who voted in favor.

As the reading clerk read the tally, Sealaska CEO Chris McNeil, who was flanked by two lobbyists in the back row, grinned.

Afterword, he said he’s happy with the movement of the bill and he predicts will pass this Congress.

“We’re expecting a markup in the Senate, possibly next week,” he said. “If it’s reported out, they’ll both be postured in a more favorable plan than it has been in the past.”

McNeil said this go-around, the corporation has the calendar on its side because it’s still relatively early in the Congressional term.

Not everyone is excited by the movement. Some, like Myla Poelstra, say Congress settled the issue back in 1976, and now Sealaska is trying to pick and choose prime logging lands.

Poelstra, who lives in Edna Bay on Kosciusko Island, said the community has about 65 year round residents. And in the village are two small scale commercial saw mills that rely on small timber sales and restoration contracts from the Forest Service.

“Sealaska is taking those same lands. It’s economic dislocation in order to give Sealaska better timber,” she said in a Wednesday phone interview.

Poelstra said the most recent legislation would allow Sealaska to take over land two miles outside of town. Poelstra runs the Post Office and general store in town and worries Edna Bay would be decimated if this land transfer goes through. Businesses, she said, need to see economic viability to operate in such a small, remote community.

“Once the numbers drop below thresholds that are practical for maintaining a business – and that’s for phones, internet – those services no longer exist,” she said. She predicted the school would likely close, too.

Poelstra, like everyone else, is left waiting.

The Senate version is slightly different from Young’s bill, but it’s expected the differences can be tweaked. There’s no indication either version will make it to the floor anytime soon.