Long-awaited Sealaska land transfer is complete

Photo/Michael Penn/Juneau Empire

JUNEAU — It took 43 years, two months and 17 days since the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, but Sealaska Corp. 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.

Such land transfers to Alaska Native corporations are required by ANCSA.

In total, Sealaska now holds 360,000 acres in Southeast Alaska.

All of the selections were formerly Tongass National Forest parcels. At more than 17 million acres, the Tongass is roughly the size of West Virginia and is the largest federal forest in the country.

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.

Legislation involving public lands is always difficult to get agreement on, Araujo said in an interview. Further, she noted the Sealaska lands bill came up during a period when it is hard to move anything through Congress.

To get it to move, a virtual consensus had to be reached.

Araujo, an Alaska Native, said Sealaska came to learn how many groups from a myriad of backgrounds are concerned about the Tongass as much as the Native people are. She described the process as a continuous education to inform people that Sealaska was merely asking for it was owed.

“At times it was frustrating when people were looking at this as a corporate giveaway or a land grab,” she said. “We were constantly reiterating the fact that this is an existing entitlement.”

Easing those concerns meant concessions. That included the 150,000 acres of wilderness now permanently protected. About 26,000 acres of selections on northern Prince of Wales Island that were part of previous failed conveyance bills were omitted from the one that passed.

Historical logging work on the island has developed a network of roads and there was an uneasiness about a private company benefitting from infrastructure installed at the Forest Service’s expense, Araujo said.

In the end, Sealaska relinquished selection rights to 327,000 acres as part of the transfer.

“(The Tongass) is similar to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a prized jewel to so many people,” she said. “Of course, we live here and have lived here for thousands of years so we can appreciate the importance of the beauty and the bounty of this place.”

Mark Kaelke, the Southeast Alaska project director for Trout Unlimited, an active conservation organization on Tongass issues, wrote a piece on the group’s website titled, “Controversial Sealaska bill contains a few Tongass gems,” shortly after Congress agreed to the terms of the omnibus lands bill.

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.

Araujo said what happens to the small selections chosen for economic development near small Southeast towns would largely be up to what the people nearby want. Some were chosen for energy — hydropower — potential, but none will be logged or mined.

 “There may be some communities that say, ‘We don’t want any development; we just like the fact that we have Native ownership near our community,’” Araujo said. “That’s fine too.”

A timber future

Not only does the deed transfer 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.

He sees timber harvest once again being the most significant business Sealaska has in Southeast.

Sealaska’s timber operations hinged on getting the new forest land, and soon.

“The consideration of what would have happened without the lands bill — it wasn’t even worth thinking about,” Mallott said.

The corporation began scaling back its annual harvest of Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock and cedar in 2006 to “bridge” its remaining timber resource until the lands bill passed.

About a quarter of the 290,000 acres Sealaska owned prior to March 6 has been clear-cut at some point in the past. Now it’s being managed through calculated thinning to maximize its second-growth potential.

Araujo said more than half of the newly acquired timber land is old growth and about a third is young timber. The remainder is non-harvest areas.

Exactly what sustainable harvest can come from the total Sealaska forest still needs to be narrowed, but Mallott said it would almost certainly be no more than 50 million board feet per year.

The larger Southeast industry has collapsed for a number of secondary reasons that all lead back to one: timber supply.

Industry outside of Sealaska — reliant on Tongass timber sales — has succumbed to a shift in management practices by the Forest Service and a back-and-forth fight over the Roadless Rule.

For more than two decades prior to enactment of the Roadless Rule in 2001, which restricts additional road development on nearly 60 million acres of national forest nationwide, the annual Tongass timber harvest averaged about 270 million board feet.

That harvest has fallen to less than 100 million board feet per year since. In fiscal year 2012, it was 20.8 million board feet, according to a Forest Service report.

The Forest Service under President George W. Bush exempted the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, but that exemption has since been overturned by a federal court and awaits a ruling from the entire 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Alaska Forest Association Executive Director Owen Graham said the industry needs access to about 300 million board feet annually to be competitive on the global market.

At the same time the Forest Service has shifted to management emphasizing young, or second growth, harvest. That has left some mills unprepared to handle the smaller timber. Graham said he supports the young-growth initiative, but it needs to be phased in over a longer period.

“We need more acres and we need more time to let the trees mature,” he said.

Peak production days meant Sealaska employed about 600 people for its timber-associated operations, Araujo said. That number had fallen by about half when the lands bill was introduced in early 2013, according to company leadership at the time. At times Sealaska has bid on Forest Service sales to keep up its supply up.

Overall, the timber workforce was 4,000 to 5,000 strong during the industry’s heydays of the 1980s, Graham said.

Today, about 300 people in Southeast Alaska make a living through timber harvest, according to the state Labor Department. There is one medium-sized mill, Viking Lumber in Craig, and numerous small, one- to five-person mills.

Sealaska exports nearly all of the logs it harvests, with the small exceptions of “micro-sales” to small mills on Prince of Wales and in Hoonah. That keeps some value-added processing jobs out of Alaska. Mallott said the company is using the resource addition as an opportunity to study the economics of its entire timber business.

“We’d love to figure out the domestic manufacturing feasibility gap,” he said. “What is it in the model that allows us to get a much better price exporting than within the domestic market?”

Mallott sees Southeast timber more conservatively than Graham; he said the land conveyance could lead to a flat bottom for the industry, rather than a significant rebound or further fall. However, he and Araujo both noted that Sealaska will be working with anyone willing to provide stable, if modest, timber work.

“I can’t even emphasize enough how important (the land transfer) is to allow us to have a sustainable program and timber industry in concert with the Forest Service,” Araujo said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
11/19/2016 - 5:57pm

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