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Why Some of Our Last Remaining Old-Growth Forests May Be Privatized for a Political Favor

The House will take up an omnibus bill that critics have denounced as a sweeping effort to roll back environmental laws and privatize public lands.

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Sealaska, which has 21,000 shareholders who are at least one-quarter Alaska native, is one of a dozen native corporations receiving land and cash payments under the Alaska Native Claims Settle Act of 1971. The law was intended to redress long-standing native land claims in Alaska and stimulate economic development.  

Sealaska's portion included $200 million and more than 350,000 acres in land entitlements, most of which the company has already taken possession. It's due another 65,000 to 85,000 acres though the Alaska Wilderness League's Andi Burgess says the House bill would remove more land, about 100,000 acres, from public use while Sealaska makes its final selection, a process that could drag on for years.  

In the decades since the federal law was passed, Sealaska has grown into a diversified company with manufacturing activities in Mexico and additional operations in government contracting and financial, environmental and logical services. The company reported $6.8 million in net income on $260 million in total revenue in 2011, according to its annual report available on its Web site.  

In 2008, Sealaska made its final land selections under the law but asked the U.S. Department of the Interior to hold off on conveyance while it pursued new federal legislation that would allow it to select land from outside of the areas agreed on in the original 1970s agreement.  

In testimony before Congress last spring on the Senate version of the bill, Byron Mallott, a Sealaska board member, began his remarks by saying he and his fellow Sealaska shareholders consider the legislation "a bill that we refer to as Haa Aaní in Tlingit, which roughly translates into 'our land' or 'our place.' Haa Aaní is the Tlingit way of referring to our ancestral and traditional homeland and the foundation of our history and culture." 


Mallott went on to detail, at length, native land claims that have never been redressed; how native Alaskans, whose people had lived for in the region for 10,000 years, were pushed off their lands repeatedly by goldminers, animal trappers and timber barons and other Americans during much of the last three hundred years, right up through the first decades of the last century.

That ancestral connection doesn't preclude clearcutting, however. Mallott also testified that the company has clearcut a little less than half of the timberland it has acquired to date, felling 81,000 acres and converting them into "even aged" forests, also know as tree farms.  

The Murkowski Connection
While it's moving first in the House, the legislation is widely seen as a political favor from Murkowski, the ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. After losing to Tea Party candidate Joe Miller in the GOP primary in 2010, Murkowski mounted and won a write-in campaign in the fall general election. The Alaskans Standing Together PAC, a political action committee formed by Sealaska and other native corporations, raised $1.9 million. Mallott served as her campaign co-chair.   

The following year, Murkowski thanked Alaska Natives for delivering the historic win.  

"Without a doubt in my mind it was the strength and it was the unity of the Alaskan Native community from southeast, to southwest, up to the north," Murkowski reportedly said in a speech before the Alaska Federation of Natives convention last year. "It was that strength and unity that caused us to make history, and I will never, never forget what you have done."  

The Omnibus Approach
Heading to a House vote along with the Sealaska measure are 14 other pieces of legislation that have been rolled up into one omnibus public lands bill. Among the other measures is one that would suspend environmental laws along U.S. borders and another that would double the length of cattle grazing leases on some public lands.  

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