Controversial Sealaska bill contains a few Tongass gems

(Photo by Jeff Nichols)

By Mark Kaelke

I am undoubtedly the least tech-savvy employee in the Trout Unlimited (TU) Alaska program but I try to make up for this deficiency by hoarding almost every piece of electronic information I have ever received or created.  Although admittedly a misguided substitute for real computer skills, my electronic hoarding paid off recently when I was able to find a document I wrote in October of 2007 that detailed TU’s initial concerns about a new bill to settle outstanding land claims from Sealaska, a Juneau-based regional Native corporation.

Reading the contents of that seven-year-old document and the latest incarnation of the bill, made public this week, gave me a great deal of perspective on how the Sealaska legislation has changed over time and addressed many of my initial concerns.

(Photo by Mark Kaelke)

TU never contested that Sealaska had the right to select some 70,000 acres of additional federal land from the Tongass National Forest under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. But we had concerns about which lands Sealaska would select, how they would be used, and what level of public access would remain after conveyance. The original legislation contained some troubling elements. Among them:  selection of lands within congressionally-designated wilderness, curtailment of outfitter and guide use, and denial of public access.

The latest Sealaska bill, attached to Defense Department legislation, doesn’t include wilderness selections, guarantees a 10-year permit for outfitters and guides, and provides easements for public access.  That said, the bill is hardly innocuous. Sealaska will undoubtedly clear-cut log a large portion of the 70,000 acres, buffers around many salmon streams will be reduced from 100 to 66 feet and the Tongass National Forest will shrink in size.

(Photo by Ashley Hegewald)

As a conservationist, those are difficult realities for me to accept.  However, the latest bill offers some salve through a provision creating 152,000 acres of new conservation land on the Tongass.  The Forest Service will manage these conservation areas as LUD11, or Land Use Designation Two. Congress developed the LUDII designation in the early 1990s to protect lands with high fish and wildlife values from many types of development.  The Tongass’ original 12 LUDII areas will expand by 8 through the Sealaska legislation.   For TU, those 8 new conservation areas are a sweet gain. They include all, or at least a portion, of six of our Tongass 77 high-value fish watersheds and cover roughly 100,000 acres of the 1.9 million acres in that proposal.    

(Photo by Ashley Hegewald)

Some folks may discount the conservation gain here, it being a mere 100,000 acres, but I’m going a different route.  Upon passage I’ll be glad the slate is finally cleared between Sealaska and the federal government, that the congressionally protected area of the Tongass has grown by 100,000 acres and that I can finally start deleting some seven-year-old documents.  

Mark Kaelke is Southeast Alaska project director for Trout Unlimited. He’s a 26-year resident of Juneau in the Tongass National Forest where he previously owned and operated two sport fishing businesses.



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