Sealaska land bill awaits congressional votes


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The Sealaska land selection legislation was inching towards votes in the House and Senate, but now must wait for congressional action on pressing budget and health care issues.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich introduced the 2013 version of the Sealaska land bill, as it has come to be known, in February. If passed, the bill would transfer about 70,000 acres of federal land to the Southeast Native corporation under provisions of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Rep. Don Young also introduced mirroring legislation in the House.

The land selections made by Sealaska are primarily tracts of timberland intended to support the corporation’s logging industry. When they were introduced, Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris said the company and its subsidiaries spend nearly $60 million per year on timber operations that support up to 400 jobs.

The selections include approximately 18,000 acres in the Tongass National Forest’s roadless areas.

Murkowski said in an August release that the bill had made significant progress after it passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“It has taken six years, but we have taken the first major step to finally complete the Native land conveyance for Southeast Alaska’s 20,000 Native (Sealaska) shareholders,” Murkowski said. “Some 42 years after the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, there is now a good chance that the federal government will finish paying the debt we owe Natives after they settled their aboriginal land claims.”

Murkowski is the ranking Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Alaska’s congressional delegation has introduced various forms of the land bill in both houses since 2007.

Young’s House version of the bill passed the House Natural Resources Committee in June. The House passed a Sealaska land bill last year that died in the Senate.

Republican Energy Committee spokesman Robert Dillon said in May that he was optimistic the bill would make it to the Senate floor — its next step — for the first time this year. In an October email to the Journal, Dillon wrote that moving it forward might be a challenge now considering the issues facing Congress.

“I don’t have an estimate on when the Sealaska bill might be brought up, but we continue to look for opportunities,” Dillon wrote.

More than 100 changes have been made to the bill from its 2012 version, Harris said, including withdrawing 26,000 acres of selected tracts on Prince of Wales Island noted as areas of concern by fisheries and environmental conservation groups. Additional changes have been made to the bill since its introduction that increase easement rights on proposed Sealaska tracts for hunting and fishing.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

 

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