Point Baker, left, and Port Protection, right, are on the northwest coast of Prince of Wales Island. Residents oppose Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s Sealaska lands-selection bill. Photo by Joe Viechnicki/KFSK

A major Southeast Alaska environmental organization has endorsed the latest Sealaska land-selection legislation. But a group of communities on or near Prince of Wales Island continues to strongly oppose the measure.

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council opposed the Sealaska bill from the start.

It negotiated with the regional Native corporation, but actively lobbied against the measure in Southeast and Washington, D.C., as well as online.

Now, it’s endorsed revised legislation proposed by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski.

“This wasn’t an easy decision,” says Buck Lindekugel, a SEACC attorney who’s been active in timber issues.

(Read SEACC’s explanation of its decision.)

“We tried to be realistic about our chances of stopping the bill or the opportunities available to continue to try to influence decision-makers as the bill moves forward,” he says.

Murkowski’s bill would transfer about 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska ownership.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act required the corporation to choose property from within boxes surrounding communities with large numbers of shareholders.

Murkowski’s bill allows selections from other parts of the Tongass.

A map showing selections on Kosciusko Island. Courtesy U.S. Forest Service via www.murkowski.senate.gov.

“We’ve also got to remember that Sealaska has received 290,000 acres already around the villages. And those lands have been heavily hammered,” he says.

SEACC wants further changes to the bill, such as dropping added acreage at Calder, on northwest Prince of Wales Island.

But Lindekugel says the new measure removes some very sensitive watersheds.

“It drops nearly 30,000 acres of incredibly productive lands on north Prince of Wales from selection. And it dropped another 4,000 acres of high-value karst lands on Kosciusko Island,” he says.

While SEACC changed its stand, others did not.

Nine Tongass communities near the proposed selections are actively opposing Murkowski’s new bill. (Read a letter critiquing the bill.)

“Greetings from your neighbors on north Prince of Wales Island. We, the residents of Point Baker and Port Protection, are asking you to join our voices in opposition to the latest Sealaska lands bill,” says one of the  residents of the towns’ residents on a radio commentary. (Hear or read  the full commentary.)

Point Baker’s Andrea Hernandez says the people in the recording speak as a group and didn’t want to put names to specific statements. She did provide a list of those who spoke.

The commentary points to Sealaska’s agreement to a Native claims settlement act amendment limiting selections to areas around Native villages. And they say they’ve built their lives and communities around the guarantee that they’ll be able to hunt, fish and log on nearby Tongass lands.

“Now the corporation wants to exchange the land from their designated areas to areas around our towns. How fair is this?”

They particularly oppose a provision transferring additional land from part of the northwest coast.

“Calder Creek is a highly productive salmon stream. And some of the highest volume of old-growth left on the north end of Prince of Wales Island is on Calder Bay. Sealaska will most assuredly clear-cut every last bit of it, leaving the entire watershed bare, with inadequate protection to the streams,” another voice on the commentary says.

Thorne Bay, Hollis, Naukati, Whale Pass, Kupreanof, Edna Bay and Cape Pole are the other communities in the group of nine.

Sealaska says the legislation has undergone many changes since it was first proposed in 2007. (Hear or read an earlier report on the bill.)

“We can prove that we’ve listened to people and that we’ve been able to go in and make changes that try to remove the rough edges off this bill,” says Vice President Rick Harris.

He says the latest version reflects most critics’ concerns: “Nobody’s going to be happy with every aspect of it. But if you go compare what we could select inside the boxes versus this selection we think we end up with a much better result.” (Link to Sealaska’s statement on the new bill.)

“We see it as a bill that would just make a lot of rich people within Sealaska richer,” says Dominic Salvato, a shareholder living in Anchorage. He runs Sealaska Shareholders Underground, a Facebook page with 800 “likes” that’s critical of the corporation.

He says past practice shows the corporation is not environmentally responsible.

“It’s a man-made tsunami that went through Kake and went through Hoonah, and it’s just promising to be more of the same. It’s got to stop somewhere. The Tongass has given enough,” he says.

Salvato says shareholders will not get much of a benefit from land selections or timber operations.

“They’re looking at the land like, ‘How can we convert it to cash?’ They don’t look at it for its beauty and scenery. They’re looking at it for how they can convert it to long-term … bonuses for executives,” he says.

Other Native activists support the bill.

Richard Peterson is president of the tribal government of Kasaan, a Haida village on Prince of Wales Island.

“Sealaska has so far been good stewards and they’ve been coming and meeting with our community and working with us and engaging us in that process. So it’s a deal that needs to be closed,” Peterson says.

Murkowski’s land selection bill has not yet been heard by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where she’s the ranking Republican member.

Spokesman Robert Dillon says this is about as good as it’s going to get.

“We believe that we’ve addressed the majority of their legitimate concerns and we would hope that would take a hard look at that. Because the land selections have got to be finalized one way or another. And as SEACC pointed out, this bill is better than letting them select out of their original boxes,” he says.

The Alaska Forest Association, an industry group, supports the bill, though it says the measure has undergone too many changes.

The U.S. Forest Service has not taken a formal position. The agency was critical of earlier bills.

A similar measure with fewer compromises was introduced in the House by Representative Don Young. While his measure passed the House last year, most involved say the Senate bill is the most likely to get attention.