Petersburg Assembly takes up discussion about Southeast Alaska’s landless Native communities

Ohmer Creek south of Petersburg on Mitkof Island shows signs of low water in July. The creek usually brings in a variety of salmon to spawn. (Photo by Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

The Petersburg Borough Assembly may take a position on proposed legislation that would transfer national forest land to five new Native corporations sometime next year. That’s after hearing again from supporters and opponents of the bill.

The legislation, introduced by Alaska’s congressional delegation this fall, would grant over 23,000 acres each to five new urban Native corporations, in Petersburg, Wrangell, Haines, Tenakee and Ketchikan.

Alaska’s senators and congressman say the bill will fix the omission of those communities from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The landmark 1971 law awarded nearly one billion dollars and 44 million acres to Alaska Natives and called for formation of village and regional corporations.

The legislation has been introduced before, but the latest version includes specific land selections. Near Petersburg, it identifies parcels from the Tongass National Forest on Mitkof and Kupreanof islands, along with Thomas Bay on the mainland. Some of those selections also include roads, forest service cabins and other public infrastructure.

Some opponents are concerned about losing access to national forest land and the potential for logging those parcels. And Petersburg resident David Beebe, who opposes the measure, questioned the cost of the transfer.

“Given the amount of public infrastructure certainly measured in the tens of millions of dollars in these land selections, it would be good to know what the taxpayer has forfeited to these five brand new Native corporations should this bill pass,” Beebe told the assembly.

Supporters of the legislation also weighed in.

Cecilia Tavoliero is president of the Southeast Alaska Landless Corporation, which sent the assembly a letter about the legislation. She and others would be shareholders of a new Petersburg urban corporation that would use the land for economic development and other uses. They say the 1971 land settlement and a cash payment in 1968 were not a good deal, and they’re asking for a tiny fraction of the land that was once theirs.

They also say the corporations will look for other ways to make money off the land other than logging, like carbon credits or tourism.

Nicole Hallingstad, granddaughter of Petersburg civil rights leader Amy Hallingstad, said the parcels in the legislation weren’t chosen with logging in mind.

“We did not select these parcels because of timber development,” she said. “We selected many of these parcels because they were the only lands available for selection at that time.”

Hallingstad also said the legislation ensures ongoing public access, unlike the 1971 law.

“This particular Alaska Natives Without Land bill preserves public access to all of the lands proposed to be conveyed to the new urban corporations,” she said. “It guarantees in perpetuity that the land shall remain open and available to subsistence uses, non-commercial recreation hunting and fishing and other non-commercial recreational uses by the public.”

The bill does have allowances for “reasonable restrictions.” Those include public safety and minimizing conflicts between recreational and commercial uses. The legislation would phase out U.S. Forest Service outfitting and guide use of the lands.

Also calling into the meeting this month was anthropologist Chuck Smythe, one of the authors of a 1994 report that looked at whether Congress had inadvertently denied the five communities eligibility to form village or urban corporations with their own land. Instead, members of the five communities were enrolled as at-large shareholders of the regional Native corporation Sealaska.

Areas in red show proposed land selections on Mitkof and Kupreanof islands near Petersburg. (From U.S. Forest Service maps presented to the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee)

The report, which is cited by both supporters and opponents of the current legislation, found nothing in ANCSA or its supporting documents that clearly explained why the communities were left out.

But Smythe, who now works for the Sealaska Heritage Institute, said Alaska Natives from Southeast villages may have been treated differently because of prior cash settlements in court cases over Native land claims. At the same time, though, a court had determined that earlier settlement did not extinguish all aboriginal claims in the region.

Smythe also said the 1971 law included a special provision to allows four other communities that were not small rural Native villages — Juneau, Sitka, Kodiak and Kenai — to gain eligibility for urban corporations.

“This provision was introduced by Senator [Ted] Stevens in the final bill during its consideration by the conference committee,” Smythe said. “No one objected to the four communities gaining eligibility at the last minute, but as stated in the report, the sense of the conference committee was that no more communities would be accepted for urban corporation status.”

Representatives from three of the five communities left out — Tenakee, Ketchikan and Haines — appealed their eligibility status but were denied. An appeal board ruled the law had “created an exclusive list of eligible villages in Southeast Alaska which cannot be added to.”

Assembly member Jeff Meucci, who asked to have the topic on the assembly’s agenda this month, asked to continue the discussion on the new legislation.

“I guess my original intent here was to — if this legislation was moving forward in a faster pace than everybody was comfortable for —  at least have a conversation about it,” Meucci said. “It seems like we’re going to have an opportunity hopefully in the month of January or so, to have a wide ranging conversation to answer these questions and have more dialogue.”

The legislation has been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate, but it will have to be reintroduced if it’s not passed by the end of this year.

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