Long-awaited Sealaska land transfer is now complete
JUNEAU — It took 43 years, two months and 17 days since the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, but Sealaska Inc. is finally whole.
The Southeast Alaska Native regional corporation officially took title of 70,075 acres of formerly federal land March 6 during a ceremony at the company’s headquarters in Juneau.
Sealaska President and CEO Anthony Mallott said the land transfer provides a time to reflect on Alaska Native history and will be a major benefit to Sealaska, its shareholders and the entirety of Southeast Alaska for years to come.
“This is a great way to frame how we expect to manage our land for the next 100 years,” Mallott said.
More than 68,400 acres of the land — once Tongass National Forest — will be managed primarily for timber harvest and was selected with that purpose in mind, Sealaska leaders said.
The remaining roughly 1,500 acres scattered in smaller parcels throughout Southeast were chosen for historical and cultural significance and economic development potential.
Mallott and others from Sealaska repeatedly thanked the members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, including former Sen. Mark Begich, for their years of work to get the land transfer legislation passed.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski was the lead sponsor of the latest iteration of the Sealaska lands legislation.
The land was owed to the Alaska Native corporation under ANCSA. Sealaska relinquished selection rights to another 327,000 acres as part of the transfer.
In total, Sealaska now holds 360,000 acres in Southeast Alaska.
Sealaska director and former board chair Albert Kookesh said the land conveyance was the result of more than 300 meetings held across the region by the corporation to reach myriad of compromises with concerned parties.
“We were directed by Sen. Murkowski, who was the primary sponsor, to get rid of as much of the opposition as we could,” Kookesh said.
Included in the legislation was a provision to “lock up” 150,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest from development.
Kookesh said Sealaska spent nearly $10 million over the years to get what it was rightfully owed.
“We’d spend another $10 million if we had to,” he said.
The Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act was rolled into an omnibus lands package, which was part of the 2015 Defense Reauthorization Act signed by President Obama Dec. 19.
Sealaska Vice President and General Counsel Jaeleen Araujo worked on the land transfer for more than 10 years.
“This kind of event is a reward for a long road,” she said at the signing ceremony.
Not only does the land end Sealaska’s claims under ANCSA, it should help float the region’s drowning timber industry. Mallott said in an interview that the land would be the key to keeping Sealaska’s timber harvest sustainable at between 30 million and 50 million board feet per year from its lands.
Bureau of Land Management Alaska Director Bud Cribley signed the conveyance paperwork for the federal government. He said he was honored to represent everyone in the government that worked on the settlement.
Cribley said a provision in ANCSA allows for an interim land conveyance such as the one given to Sealaska. However, it required the transfer be signed within 60 days of enactment of the legislation, which left a lot of work for a short amount of time, he said.
“Trying to accurately describe 70,000 acres in Southeast Alaska was nothing less than a challenge,” Cribley said.
Over the next several years Sealaska and BLM will finish surveying and patenting the land. Sealaska will also have to apply for easements cemetery sites it wishes to designate in the coming years, according to BLM.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].