The following My Turn was published in the Juneau Empire (2.26.15) by Sealaska board chair Joe Nelson and Sealaska President and CEO Anthony Mallott.
In the final days of 2014, Congress passed legislation that moved the U.S. government closer to fulfilling its promise to return Native lands to Sealaska shareholders.
This lands bill provides a comprehensive and visionary solution to many of the issues currently facing Southeast Alaska. The land transfer authorized by this bill preserves more old-growth trees and roadless areas, sets aside 150,067 acres for conservation (twice the acreage received by Sealaska), transfers cultural properties into Native ownership, maintains timber related jobs and helps foster sustainable economies.
Sealaska defines sustainability as a balance between three components:
• Protection of our culture, tradition and historic sites
• Stewardship of the environment and our natural resources
• Creation of jobs and a sustainable regional economy
Sealaska’s Native lands are collectively owned by all of our shareholders and are managed according to our Native values. We are committed to reviewing our 40-year operating history in the Tongass National Forest, building on our strengths and finding areas for improvement. Through this process, the income gained from our natural resources will continue to provide shareholders with cultural, language and education benefits, as well as dividends far into the future.
Our connection to the land is the basis of our cultural identity. Because of our relatively small landholding (less than 2 percent of our aboriginal homelands), we will continue to seek out collaborative relationships with other major land owners in Southeast to help guide sustainable land management practices. We believe that these sustainable practices must include paradigm shifts that have not been achieved in our first 40 years through new opportunities, e.g., carbon sequestration, wetland mitigation and local commercial harvest of Native foods.
In communities like Kake and Hoonah, you will find local residents harvesting blueberries from Sealaska’s forest lands. This new economy provides much needed jobs and a high quality product used throughout Alaska.
In Hoonah, Sealaska is leading a land management partnership that includes Huna Totem Corporation, Hoonah Indian Association, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the State of Alaska. This concept of co-management between tribes, Alaska Native corporations and government agencies is new to our region and we are excited to see it happening and hope to extend this model to other communities.
Sealaska manages its land for multiple uses, based on the best research. Our science-based approach was recently illustrated with the publication of a 20-year research study that showed what we have always known; the streams within our harvested land are intact and thriving. It is our responsibility to assure that our land use practices do not cause long-term harm to the natural habitat, especially salmon habitat. Together with our partners (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, State of Alaska and TNC) we will remove a 100-year-old dam this summer so that salmon have access to miles of new freshwater habitat.
The days of ‘big timber’ generated a number of stereotypes about the industry. Some are valid; many others are not. Today’s timber industry is much smaller and very different from the territorial, federal and state harvests of the 1960s and 1970s. At Sealaska we are proud of our efforts and leadership in land stewardship. We invite conversation with anybody interested in learning more about the sustainable timber industry model.
The passage of the Sealaska legislation was proof of our ability to balance interests, create compromise and address community concerns. We are committed to continuing this work with our neighbors in the Tongass.
Even though we only own less than 2 percent of the Tongass, together with all Native organizations in Southeast, we care for all of it. We feel a great responsibility to provide leadership in Southeast Alaska based on our knowledge and values that have arisen from our 10,000-year history in the region.
We intend to carry this responsibility beyond the passage of the recent lands bill. We continue to support the five Southeast communities that were unjustly excluded from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), as well as a solution for Alaska Native veteran’s allotments.
As a landholder for Southeast Alaska’s original people, Sealaska has a huge responsibility first and foremost to take care of our shareholders. As a major landholder in Southeast, Sealaska embraces its place as a steward, as an economic engine and as a good neighbor. In our estimation, the future is bright for all of us who are fortunate enough to call the Tongass National Forest home.