Petersburg’s borough assembly on Monday voted to send a letter opposing a bill that would create five new urban Native corporations in Southeast Alaska and transfer land from the Tongass National Forest to those corporations. Some on the assembly thought there should be more chance for public comment.
Alaska’s congressional delegation has repeatedly introduced legislation that would change the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. It would provide new urban corporations in Petersburg, Wrangell, Tenakee, Haines and Ketchikan each with just over 23,000 acres of national forest land.
Petersburg’s vice mayor Jeigh Stanton Gregor proposed a letter opposing the bill.
“I have a real heartache with taking for any reason lots and lots of public land and giving it to private business with the sole goal of for-profit use,” Stanton Gregor said. “That’s the goal of that land if this goes through will be to maximize profit that’s what that does.”
The five communities did not meet certain requirements for corporation status under the landmark 1971 law. However, other places that also did not meet those requirements were allowed to form corporations and granted land.
Supporters say the legislation would return a tiny fraction of aboriginal territory taken from Alaska Natives. Future shareholders say the new corporations would spur economic development with possibilities for tourism and carbon credits or other uses like food or cultural activities. The sub-surface or mining rights would go to Sealaska, the regional Native corporation. Natives in the five communities have identified the parcels they’d select.
Petersburg assembly member Dave Kensinger said he’s against the legislation because of those selections.
“I’d have a lot easier time supporting this if it was one block of land but it makes your head crazy if you look at all the selections they’ve made,” Kensinger said.
He also thought those land choices could impact the U.S. Forest Service’s ability to offer timber sales in the area. Other opponents have been concerned about the potential for logging on the land or loss of access. There’s language in the bill that would allow public access but also allow a corporation to restrict access in certain situations.
Mayor Mark Jensen requested the assembly take a position on the bill and thought it could have a hearing in a Senate committee. Two years ago, local elected officials asked for more time to learn about impacts. Since then supporters and opponents from Petersburg and elsewhere testified at multiple assembly meetings. The assembly also drafted a long list of questions about the bill’s impacts. Supporters of the legislation provided detailed answers.
Assembly member Jeff Meucci wasn’t ready to take a position and said he still had unanswered questions.
“It’s a real emotional issue in Petersburg and I get that and I want to make sure before I vote one way or the other that I’ve had the opportunity to listen to the folks in town and some of the folks who are involved with it who don’t live in Petersburg but just hear what they have to say and see what we can do,” Meucci said.
The vote was 4-3 to send a letter opposing the bill. Bob Lynn joined mayor Jensen, Stanton Gregor and Kensinger voting “yes” to send that statement of opposition.
Meanwhile, landless communities last month advocated for action at Tlingit and Haida’s Tribal Assembly.