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Public Process Helped to Guide Sealaska Land Legislation

The Sealaska land legislation is an amendment to a forty year old act of Congress, but a lengthy public outreach process involving more than 225 meetings with local Southeast Alaska communities, stakeholders and organizations has set the stage for this legislation in 2011.

For the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples whose land was taken by the stroke of President Teddy Roosevelt’s pen in 1906, there was no advance warning, or consultation. Sealaska, in recovering the last ancestral lands that it was promised under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) wasn’t about to make the same mistake by plowing forward without public input.

The public discussion has improved the legislation that now awaits re-introduction to Congress. For example, the legislation will provide unprecedented public access to the 85,000 acres expected to be restored to Sealaska. Access will be maintained on trails and roads to and through the land for subsistence and recreational uses.

In meetings both public and private, Sealaska heard that the people who have made their homes in Southeast Alaska connect with the land, and want to have recreational opportunities on it.

Out of respect for that desire, Sealaska worked with Alaska’s senators Murkowski and Begich and changed or dropped numerous Native future sites—land designated for non-timber economic development uses in the future—from every community affected. Finally, Sealaska’s timber operations, which include older young growth, will speed its transition to second growth forestry, and high conservation areas, such as the Situk River corridor, will remain in the Tongass National Forest because of what we have learned inside and outside our communities.

Sealaska is proud to count numerous Southeast organizations, as strong supporters of Sealaska’s efforts to protect high-value conservation areas of the Tongass National Forest, and to create and protect much needed jobs in a region with extremely high unemployment. These supporters share concerns with Sealaska that failure to pass this legislation will result in the loss of 400 jobs and potentially threaten high-value conservation areas important to local communities.

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Settling aboriginal land claims has never been easy. For Alaska Natives, claims often mean giving up more ancestral land than they keep. But the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribal member shareholders of Sealaska made a deal in 1971 that led to the formation of Sealaska Corporation and receipt of lands to fulfill the promise of ANCSA to create sustainable economies. To keep these jobs, and provide for the future economic benefit of both its tribal member shareholders and the other Southeast residents, Sealaska has focused its land requests on land suitable for a sustainable timber operation and other land suitable for economic development.

Of course, this legislation is not just about economics. Sealaska is using some of its land entitlement to secure Native ownership of our important sacred and cultural properties.

We have kept an open door of communication because, while the passage of ANCSA guaranteed this last four tenths of one percent of the Tongass Region to Sealaska four decades ago, the ideas about how we, as a country, manage our lands and forests has changed in the last 40 years. Now we focus our timber harvest on sustainability, and multiple uses that include the protection of watersheds that provide drinking water to local communities. Now we, Sealaska, and Alaska’s congressional delegation hold conversations with stakeholders because we know that it is possible to balance the needs of many for the benefit of all. And we hold council also because it is our way as Alaska Natives.

This is the spirit of the legislation that senators Murkowski and Begich, and Representative Don Young, advanced in the last Congress. The legislation that we look to our congressional delegation to take forward in 2011 was shaped by the people who participated in every one of the 225 meetings we held in Southeast Alaska.

Our Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian ancestors taught us that we would have to pull together to survive in our unique region of the world, and it is in this spirit of pulling together that we sought the advice and input of Southeast businesses and residents. We will continue the conversation as our land legislation moves forward because, in Southeast Alaska, our economic future is entwined with that of our neighbors.

Jaeleen Araujo is Sealaska’s vice president and general counsel, a board member for the Alaska Native Heritage Center, and a member of Alaska Bar Association and D.C. Bar Association. She is Athabascan and Tlingit, Raven, Dog Salmon (L’eeneidí).