Sealaska Counters Institute’s Claims Regarding Land Legislation
Sealaska President and CEO Chris E. McNeil Jr. recently sent the Geos Institute a letter expressing serious concerns regarding statements recently launched by Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at the Geos Institute. The letter solicits signatures from scientists to oppose finalizing Sealaska’s ANCSA land settlement. The arguments of the letter are overtly biased, misleading, rely upon flawed scientific data and are inconsistent with the Geos Institute’s position on the conservation of roadless areas.
The full letter reads:
June 20, 2012
Mr. Ken Crocker President, Board of Directors Geos Institute 84 Fourth Street Ashland, OR 97520
Dear Mr. Crocker,
We are writing to express our serious concerns regarding the open letter recently launched by Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at the Geos Institute, and, according to Geos Institute, funded by Pew Charitable Trust’s Heritage Forest Campaign. The letter is soliciting signatures from scientists in opposition to finalization of our Native land entitlement. The arguments of the letter are overtly biased, misleading, rely upon flawed scientific data and are inconsistent with the Geos Institute’s position on the conservation of roadless areas.
The Geos Institute’s letter fails to acknowledge the obligations of Sealaska as an Alaska Native Corporation, created by the U.S. Congress, and owned by more than 21,000 tribal member shareholders. Sealaska is one of 12 Regional Native Corporations established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 with the purpose of protecting and promoting the economic well-being and cultural vitality of Alaska Natives.
Congress in 1971 determined that the Alaska Native people were entitled to select, and receive conveyance of, some of the lands that were purposely taken from Alaska’s Native people over the past century for the benefit of the federal government and recent settlers to Alaska. This taking occurred without consideration for Native rights, over Native peoples’ objections, and almost always, in contravention of promises made to Native people.
Under ANCSA, as amended in 1976, Sealaska was directed by Congress to select land from within specific areas (Native land selection “withdrawal boxes”) drawn around some Native villages in Southeast Alaska. The impetus for the selection restrictions in Southeast Alaska came from the then powerful timber lobby, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, which worked for decades to oppose the return of any land to Southeast Alaska’s Native people. It appears that the Geos Institute, and by extension, the Pew Charitable Trust, are taking up this cause.
Your letter attacks a proposed amendment to ANCSA that attempts to resolve, in part, an inequity by allowing Sealaska to select land in Southeast Alaska outside of the withdrawal boxes. The legislation provides for a superior environmental and economic outcome for Southeast Alaska than would occur if Sealaska’s remaining selections were made from within the boxes.
We have worked hard to build responsible and balanced legislation that meets community and conservation goals, and overcomes the historically insensitive treatment of Sealaska tribal member shareholders. Your letter and late entry into this legislative effort can only be viewed as just another attempt by well-funded, outside interests to deny us, as Alaska Native people, the right to a fraction of the land that was once all ours. Your letter, and your failure even to reach out to Sealaska regarding your concerns, perpetuates the shameful disregard of Native rights in our traditional areas.
The Geos Institute’s letter unfairly mischaracterizes the intent of our legislation by claiming that it is a “proposal to acquire almost 65,000 acres of public land in the Tongass National Forest.” This statement suggests that we are seeking something that we have no right to receive. The United States has an obligation to fulfill Sealaska’s existing entitlement through the conveyance of public land as part of the aboriginal land claim settlement embodied in ANCSA. The sole question we are trying to resolve is where that land will be selected.
The lands being debated in Congress represent less than half of one percent of our traditional homeland. Collectively, we Tlingits, Haidas and Tsimshians of Southeast Alaska will receive just three percent of our ancestral lands!
Responding to your letter’s concerns, we note:
When President Theodore Roosevelt established the Tongass National Forest as “the nation’s preeminent national forest in 1907,” it was a taking of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian homelands. That’s a nice way of saying that it was a massive theft of tribal lands. After the creation of the Tongass, the U.S. Forest Service opposed the recognition of traditional Indian use and aboriginal title in the Tongass National Forest. As late as 1954, the Forest Service formally recommended that all Indian claims to the Tongass be extinguished because of continuing uncertainty affecting the timber industry in Southeast Alaska. We encourage you to view the attached paper that further details this history, authored by Walter R. Echo-Hawk, longtime attorney and Supreme Court Justice of the Pawnee Nation.
As guaranteed under ANCSA, the United States has a legal and moral obligation to fulfill its promise to meet the real economic and social needs of Alaska Native people. ANCSA grants Sealaska an unfettered legal right to select its remaining entitlement from public lands designated as “withdrawal boxes” within the Tongass National Forest. Lands that Sealaska has prioritized for selection under existing law, within those existing withdrawal boxes, are almost entirely comprised of inventoried roadless areas, old growth stands, intact and municipal watersheds, locations with exceptional fisheries values and important Native and rural resident subsistence gathering areas.
By almost every conservation measure, the lands that Sealaska would receive under the pending legislation yield a superior conservation outcome than if Sealaska were to select from inside the original withdrawal boxes. Sealaska, when engaging in this legislative effort, has supported many of the stated goals of national and local conservation organizations, including advocating for a selection pattern that substantially reduces selections from “inventoried roadless” areas. The legislation also results in fewer acres of old growth timber being selected. Interestingly, the Geos Institute’s website advocates for “full protection under the landmark Roadless Area Conservation Rule (2001).” Why would you oppose legislation that will result in more roadless areas protected by the Forest Service than would be the case without the legislation?
The Forest Service’s Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP) includes a comprehensive conservation strategy. Frequently unrecognized is that the Forest Service’s conservation strategy incorporates lands that are currently available for selection by Sealaska from inside the withdrawal boxes. Thus, regardless of whether Sealaska selects from inside or outside the boxes, its selections will affect the TLMP conservation strategy. However, analysis comparing Sealaska’s prioritized selections from inside the boxes to lands designated in the current Senate bill show that the pending legislation provides an equal or better TLMP conservation strategy outcome than if Sealaska selected exclusively from inside the boxes.
The Senate legislation also furthers conservation goals by setting aside more than 150,000 additional acres of new conservation lands designed primarily to protect high-value fisheries resources and important subsistence use areas.
In stating that “the proposed Sealaska Corporation selections would disproportionately remove the largest and most carbon-rich volume classes,” the letter sources a recent Audubon Alaska report that relies on spatial mapping of Volume Class 7 stands, a practice that was determined by the U.S. District Court of Alaska in 1994 to be “arbitrary and capricious.” In fact, the Forest Service (the defendant) was ordered to devise a more accurate means of determining proportionality. That methodology has been replaced by an improved and more reliable practice that has been verified in the field. Ironically the authors of the Audubon report cite the scientific paper on this modern methodology, but fail to use it. Your reference to the most carbon-rich volume classes also fails to recognize that modern science today reveals that carbon stored in the subterranean soils, muskegs, bogs and hydrography in Southeast Alaska is far more significant in terms of carbon sequestration than the above-ground forest.
Sealaska is a major private employer in the rural communities of Southeast Alaska. Sealaska’s presence makes an important contribution to the regional economy by providing sustainable, durable jobs. Every rural community in Southeast Alaska is struggling to survive. The communities have lost population in the last decade and forecasts are for this trend to continue. The legislation directly supports the economy of Southeast Alaska and particularly rural communities. Finalization of the Native land conveyances provides economic stimulus for Native and non-Native communities alike. Native ownership of lands will provide opportunities for our tribal member shareholders in tourism, renewable energy, and timber and natural resource management and development.
The lands identified for selection in our congressional delegation’s proposal to right a historic wrong do not represent Sealaska’s ideal selections, but are instead the product of intense collaboration over the past eight years among the delegation, the U.S. Forest Service, the State of Alaska, local communities, tribes, industry representatives, the fishing community, conservation groups and other Tongass stakeholders.
Sealaska is not surprised by the insensitivity of the Geos Institute’s letter to the economic plight and historical treatment of Native people. Environmental organizations have frequently chosen to react to conservation issues without understanding the consequences of their actions to people who live in and depend on the forest for their livelihoods and quality of life. The Tongass National Forest has always had Native people residing in it and using its resources. The fact that the Geos Institute bases its proposed letter on “limited ecological measures,” ignores the TLMP conservation strategy, and fails to acknowledge that a selective and narrow metric is being used to oppose this legislation, is socially irresponsible and scientifically questionable.
The Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement and Jobs Finalization Act is about the equitable fulfillment of the promise of Native self-determination and the fair treatment of Southeast Alaska’s Native community. It would return a small portion of our ancestral lands promised 40 years ago under ANCSA to the more than 21,000 Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribal member shareholders who make up Sealaska. The legislation serves the economic and social needs of our communities while offering greater conservation protections for ecologically valuable lands within the Tongass National Forest.
As members of your organization seek additional signers to its open letter, we hope that they will offer a complete and balanced view of the many policy issues at hand. Members of the Geos Institute have not offered to communicate with Sealaska. However, we would welcome an opportunity to work with your organization directly, as we have done with so many groups, to discuss the concerns that the Geos Institute has about our land claims. We hope that conversation might occur before the misguided arguments of your open letter do our community real harm.
SEALASKA CORPORATION Chris E. McNeil Jr. President and CEO