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.
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.
"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."
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."
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