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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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"The pigs are at the trough. Every anti-environmental bill and rider is in play in the House right now," says Bill Snape, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity.

"The question is how much of it will the Senate pass."  

Snape's group and others have been stretched thin this spring fighting a raft of lands and energy bills.  

"It's an equal opportunity offender, from our perspective, in the expanse of what they're trying to propose," the NRDC's Bobby McEnaney said of the lands bill in an article published last week in the E&E Daily.   

Myla Poelstra, who operates a store and post office in tiny Edna Bay, says she fears her village, comprised of a few dozen families, will be wiped out if Sealaska starts clearcutting the surrounding forest.  

"Our subsistence-based community will not be able to survive if these bills are passed," Poelstra emailed, sending along a link to the video "Hoonah's Legacy," and a note saying "you'll understand why" after watching the video that chronicles what happened in Hoonah, a city 30 miles west of Juneau, after Sealaska logged nearby forest.  

For more than a century, activists nationwide have mounted impassioned campaigns, to preserve breathtaking and uniquely biodiverse Tongas old-growth stands, which include trees that have been standing half a millennia. Despite -- or perhaps because of those efforts -- just 2 percent or less of Tongass' old-growth trees remain, according to ecologists.  

This year, however, the battle to save those remaining trees and the thriving ecosystem they anchor has received little attention outside Alaska. Poelstra says she fears the Tongass has been relegated to bargaining chip status in Washington's culture of backroom dealings.  

"Isn't that the way things are done in Washington, DC? It's just tit for tat," says Poelstra. "Anybody who's seen it knows it's a very bad bill and the only way they are going to get it through [Congress] is by piling it into an omnibus bill and bargaining."  

She is not the only Alaskan who sees politicians and interest groups using the Tongass as good leverage -- a "give" that they could trade for a "get" on other legislation. "Unfortunately, the Tongass may be a throwaway," says Becky Knight, an environmentalist on the board of the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community who says rumors of backroom deals leave her feeling "pretty used."  

Sealaska Dissents

Not all Sealaska shareholders support the bill.  

"Sealaska's management presents itself on the Hill as traditional Native people wrapped in regalia, but they're millionaires that have entrenched themselves at the board level using discretionary voting and a general parental attitude toward shareholders," said Dominic Salvato, a Sealaska shareholder who backed a resolution this spring that would impose term limits on Sealaska's board of directors, half of whom have held their posts for more than a dozen years.  

"Sealaska shareholders don't need this bill, it is strictly a long term and at-risk bonus plan for Sealaska executives. We shareholders need ANCSA election reform," Salvato elaborated in an email. "We've known for a long time about the bill being bundled and passed with other bills. It's no secret that the passing of this bill will open the door to every tribe in the United States to renegotiate their land allotments."

Christine MacDonald is an environmental journalist and the author of "Green Inc., An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad" (The Lyons Press).

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