A bill transferring 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska Corp. has passed Congress.
The measure is attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, which is on its way to the President’s desk after a Senate vote Friday.
The legislation completes the Southeast regional Native corporation’s land selections, promised by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Sealaska could have chosen other lands earlier. But this bill gives it access to more valuable timber stands, economic development locations and heritage sites.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who authored the measure, says it will help more than Sealaska.
“You also have the aspect of the economic benefit that is conveyed when these lands, that were in federal hands, are now transferred for an opportunity for increased recreation, tourism and also for economic interests such as timber harvests,” she said.
Critics have called the bill a give-away that will damage fish and wildlife habitat. It’s been strongly opposed by environmentalists, sportsmen’s groups and communities near potential logging sites.
The corporation has come close to shutting down its timber division in recent years, as it has run through forests on earlier land selections.
Murkowski, interviewed in an elevator after the vote, says she hopes the bill will help turn around the industry.
“I hope it’s not too little too late,” she said. “It has been a long, long time in coming. If you haven’t had an opportunity to visit with anyone in Southeast lately, it’s pretty skimpy down there.”
Rep. Don Young sponsored the bill’s original version. Senator Mark Begich co-sponsored Murkowski’s legislation.