Why Some of Our Last Remaining Old-Growth Forests May Be Privatized for a Political Favor
Photo Credit: Lee Prince/ Shutterstock.com
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While world leaders converge on Rio de Janeiro this week to discuss what can be done to rein in climate change, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has other plans: It will take up an omnibus bill that bundles together more than a dozen proposals that critics have denounced as a sweeping effort to roll back environmental laws and privatize public lands.
The bill that could go to a vote as early as Tuesday includes one measure that would privatize some of the last remaining old-growth trees inside Alaska's Tongass National Forest, a rugged wilderness often called the "crown jewel of the U.S. public lands system." The legislation would convey tens of thousands of acres of Tongass forestland to Sealaska Corp., a native corporation that helped bankroll Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski's 2010 write-in reelection victory.
Sealaska, a diversified conglomerate with native Alaskan shareholders, says the land includes sites with cultural and sacred value. But the company's critics, including some of its own shareholders, say it's a land grab worth billions of dollars in timber sales. Logging those lands, they warn, could jeopardize ecosystems inside one of the world's last remaining temperate rainforests and destabilize the local economy in a region that spawns the vast majority of the world's commercial salmon catch each year.
Sealaska, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying fees in support of the legislation in recent years, has the backing of Alaska's entire congressional delegation. Alaska Rep. Don Young introduced the measure being considered this week, while the Senate version of the bill, co-sponsored by Murkowski and Mark Begich, a Democrat, has been the subject of furious behind-the-scenes negotiations with lawmakers, the Obama administration, environmental groups and other special interests. While a new version of the Senate bill has yet to be made public, Murkowski has said she hopes to hold a Senate markup later this summer.
Sealaska didn't respond to emails requesting comment but the corporation's executive vice president, Rick Harris, told Reuters that Sealaska would relinquish rights to other ecologically valuable old-growth areas inside the Tongass, in exchange for the lands. According to Reuters, Harris said the deal fit with Sealaska's mission to redress long-standing wrongs against native people in the area.
Environmentalists, Alaska's fishing industry and other local residents fighting the bill say Sealaska has targeted the highest quality timberlands, old growth stands and recreational areas throughout the 1.7 million acre forest that sprawls across Alaska's panhandle.
"They are cherrypicking prime sites at the mouths of salmon streams" and other places used today for commercial, sport and subsistence fishing and hunting, says Anne Merwin of the Wilderness Society.
An open letter, signed by 300 scientists including noted biologists E.O. Wilson and Stuart L. Pimm, echoed those concerns. The letter references a February report by Audubon Alaska that found the House bill would hand over about 17 percent of the Tongass' last remaining ancient trees in the Tongass and enable Sealaska to increase logging of the very largest of them by up to 12-fold, compared to the current U.S. Forest Service logging rules. In the letter, spearheaded by the Ashland, Oregon-based Geos Institute with support from the Pew Environment Group, they warned that some of "the most biologically rich, large-tree old-growth rainforest" was at stake -- along with its ability to store carbon dioxide and mitigate global warming.
In a twist of irony that illustrates the highly politicized nature of the bill, the "open" letter from the scientists was the subject of a testy January exchange between Sealaska and Alaska Audubon -- a full six months before it was finally released to the public.