The Sealaska Lands Bills have been before Congress for many years. But we have yet to hear the full truth.
Nobody knows the dollar value of the earmark that is HR 1408 and S 730.
Amazingly, in the nine years Sealaska Corporation has sought its land grab from Congress, nobody has ever conducted an on the ground, acre by acre market appraisal for the exceptional and rare timberlands Sealaska now seeks, for the actual value of the standing trees, or even, for that matter, a careful inventory of the infrastructure that taxpayers financed.
As far as we can determine, no news outlet has inquired in detail into the scope and value of public assets Sealaska Corporation wants.
The best timberland in Alaska deserves a hard look at its value to taxpayers.
Our Estimate Earmark Size
So we decided to investigate ourselves to find out how huge an earmark is in the bills. What we discovered should spur a public inquiry into the what has been until now, essentially, a request by one corporation to Congress for a blank check.
Five billion dollars, plus or minus about a half billion, is our estimation of what this land giveaway is worth.
We do not claim this is the final word on value. Indeed, an on-ground definitive appraisal should be conducted which will evaluate all the assets across the 159 square miles sought in HR 1408. [i]
Congress needs to go back to square one by requiring a full on-ground appraisal of all the standing timber, land, and infrastructure up for grabs in the bills. The burden for providing a true value should not be on the towns that will have the forest around them mowed down.
ANCSA was equitable, Sealaska Bills are Unjust Enrichment
Five billion dollars (more or less) for Sealaska Corp. is over five times the nearly one billion dollars that Sealaska Corp. and the other eleven Native Corporations in Alaska divided in ANCSA (1971), the final settlement with Congress that extinguished all land claims in Alaska.
Or so we thought until Sealaska began to push for yet another bite at the apple.
The land Sealaska now seeks is only a percentage of the compensation that they have already received in land and money. The land now sought is the very best timberland in Alaska near communities that built businesses not knowing a train wreck like this bill lay down the line.
That’s not fair. That’s not equitable. The inequalities of this bill fall upon those least able to bear them in our towns-- the yeoman fishermen, stout hearted loggers, and small business owners whose livelihoods will suffer from the boom and bust Sealaska logging practices, some of the worst in the nation.
Sealaska has argued that the first two final settlements of its lands claims in 1968 and 1971 were inequitable, claiming the 1968 Court of Claims award of $7,500,000 was too little and that the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was too small when it gave SE Alaska Natives only about 1,025 square miles of land plus a share in the roughly 960 million dollar settlement. The total land share for Sealaska Corp., if 730 passes, would be 588 square miles, about nine square miles more than the entitlement in ANCSA.
Sealaska Bill Should Die in Committee
If Congress is going to vote on whether the Sealaska Bills are needed at all— and our view is they are not required, because the first two settlements were equitable and fair —then before the Senate Energy Committee marks up S. 730, a dollar amount must be provided through an on the ground appraisal of all assets.
The sheer scope of Sealaska Corp.’s earmark -- 132 to 158 square miles of the most valuable timber lands in Alaska -- also requires a fair and objective on-ground appraisal be made.
More importantly, Congress cannot fairly consider the equitable argument Sealaska Corp. makes without first examining the true dollar value of what it wants to obtain for free from the United States.
Just as no bank lends before an appraisal is conducted on a home, Congress should also require an accurate valuation of assets before it gives them away to one corporation.
Congress should put an end to the unending “finalization” of the Alaska Natives Lands Settlement, which has been ongoing for over 40 years, including a recent “finalization” in 2008, when Sealaska made their final selections.
But if Congress does consider this bill, it should require Sealaska to pay for an accurate on-ground, comprehensive appraisal of the raw land, timber, and public assets to which it wants title. This appraisal should be contracted by the USFS to a third party without an interest or relationship to the parties. And like a homeowner seeking a new bank loan, Sealaska should pay for the appraisal.
If Sealaska Corp takes one little step now, it can soon have title to their land, avoiding the expense and time of appraising 158 sq miles of land.
All Sealaska has to do to get the land still coming to them under ANCSA is ask BLM to remove the freeze that Sealaska itself placed on the transfer of title in 2008.
The Alaska Land Transfer Acceleration Act (2004) required Sealaska select all remaining lands to which it was entitled by June 10th, 2008. The corporation selected those lands four year ago on the deadline, but then Sealaska Corp. froze the transfer of title hoping Congress would give them the very best timberlands in the Tongass National Forest.
If Sealaska removes the freeze or BLM stops recognizing it, BLM, without passage of these bills, will begin to transfer title to Sealaska Corp.
Make no mistake.
Without knowing the dollar value of the assets in these two bills, Congress -- if it passes these bills -- would write Sealaska a blank check for the best timberlands in Alaska. That’s like a blind man selling his elephant without knowing the enormity of the animal’s size from trunk to tail.
In our view, BLM should finalize transfers of title of the lands Sealaska nominated in 2008 which will settle, to the great relief of all Alaskans, Sealaska’s claims now and for all time. Congress let the previous version of Sealaska Corp.’s bill--S. 881-- die in 2010. A decisive defeat in Congress this year would spur Sealaska to lift the freeze.
[i] Our estimate is based on the latest available published market data. For the volume per acre estimations, we tapped into the observation of a professional in the industry who made a living estimating timber volume and who looked at one of the selections on the ground. We extrapolated the timber volume per acre observed on the ground in one selection to the other selections. While this methodology may over or underestimate volume per acre, the alternative methods rely on averages derived from the subjective interpretation of photos forest wide that are not applicable to the best timberlands in Alaska in these bills. Moreover, other observers confirm the volumes per acre we estimated do exist in the high volume Class 7 stands. There are 307 miles of roads in HR 1408 designated areas.
There she was again stuck in a conundrum of her own making, the Sealaska Lands Bill. It is March 5, 2012 at the U.S. Senate Natural Resources Committee Hearing on the budget for the US Forest Service.
As we watch Murkowski question the USFS Chief, Mr. Tidwell, we realize she is blaming him for the failure of McKie Campbell, her staff member, to reach an accord with the Forest Service in negotiations over Senate Bill 730.
The truth is Murkowski and Sealaska now bear all the blame for trying to reopen the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, ANCSA. Brokered in 1971, that 40 year old settlement of claims for all Alaska Natives should not be broken, especially since leadership at Sealaska Corporation supported the finality of ANCSA:
“I… make a point: a deal is a deal” proclaimed The President of Sealaska in 1999.
“The law was debated over many years, reviewed in hearings in the cold light of day, and enacted by Congress with its full faith and credit. Years later, we as Alaska Natives should not expect this settlement transaction to be picked apart and disintegrate before our eyes.” - Robert Loescher speaking in Juneau, Alaska February 16, 1999 to the Alaska Federation of Natives Summit.
At the 2012 hearing, 13 years after Loescher spoke, Murkowski sounds frustrated. She is trying to get Congress to renege on its final settlement of land claims in order to heap advantages onto Sealaska board members who contributed most heavily to her reelection when they raised nearly two million dollars. This quid pro quo has been called corrupt and worse.
Nearly a decade has passed since she began trying to break the deal Congress made with Sealaska, but she has yet to deliver a law that benefits this one corporation. You can hear her desperation as she fumbles for words. No doubt Sealaska is baffled by why the bill remains stuck in committee garnering few co sponsors. Doesn’t money matter -- the millions Sealaska spent for ten years on campaign contributions, lobbyists, luxury DC hotels, and first class air fares for a bevy of their Board?
S 730 is still frozen in committee for good reasons.
First, it is payback to Sealaska for political support and therefore stinks of corruption. We believe there are Senators who are standing up for the principle that it is not right to break 40 year old contracts with the American Public, just because one corporation feels it is aggrieved.
Second, numerous substantive objections have been raised. A few of the most significant we list here:
• S 730 leaps beyond a central principle of ANCSA. Land selections are to be made in contiguous parcels. S 730 disperses the selections over several hundreds of miles.
• S 730 cherry picks the best timber still standing in the Tongass, almost certainly triggering the Endangered Species Act which will throw loggers on the National Forest out of work.
• S 730 breaks the covenants imposed by ANCSA.
• S 730 blocks access of hunters and fishermen to public lands through the creation of new land uses.
• S 730 opens a can of worms by reopening the window for application on historic sites that has been closed for 34 years.
• S 730 gives away public infrastructure we estimate at over 100 million dollars.
There are several ways this bill can emerge from committee. The Administration is going to have to want something very badly from Murkowski to back off its objections to the bill, the opponents are going to have to cave in, or Murkowski’s aides are going to have to continue to make, what we have heard, are threats against national organizations which oppose the bill to the effect that their legislative agendas are dependent on their not opposing the bill.
If the Pew Charitable Trusts wants to push its 3.7 million acre omnibus wilderness bill through Congress very badly, it is conceivable the Obama Administration might give Murkowski S 730 in return. The Pew has billions in the bank. The bills it supports are in the states of some of the members of the Committee of Natural Resources. So there is the potential for a deal to be reached. But for the moment, at least, opposition to S 730 is on principles, not pay offs, and only one national organization that has opposed, to our knowledge, has backed off.
At the March, 2012 hearing, Murkowski claimed the USFS' objections have “hung up” transfer of cemetery and historical sites to Sealaska -- that it is the Forest Service that is limiting what Sealaska can select. This is not true in many respects.
The BLM, not the USFS, has authority under ANCSA to approve selections. For Sealaska, BLM conveyed most of the land Sealaska wanted to preserve as graves and historic sites. Sealaska, like every other regional corporation, had to apply for their graves and historical sites by a deadline imposed by Congress: December 31, 1976.
Apparently McKie Campbell, Murkowski’s staff member, has not shown her the section of ANCSA that closed selection of these sites 36 years ago after giving all 12 regional corporations five years to chose them. 43 C.F.R. § 2653.5
Under ANCSA, Sealaska filed for 94 sites. The BIA reviewed and BLM conveyed about 90 percent of these sites to Sealaska Corporation, [seven were closed without a conveyance, and five site applications are still being adjudicated (in process) by BLM].
At the hearing Murkowski did not tell the USFS Chief that her bill aims to reopen the 1976 ANCSA deadline to convey graves or historical sites. Nor did she explain why, if the historical sites (now called sacred sites in the bill) were really so significant back then, Sealaska did not request transfer of all of them back in 1976. The obvious answer is that they were happy to let the Forest Service protect them. Otherwise, they would have selected more back in 1976. Murkowski’s claim at the hearing that the USFS severely is restricting selections, in light of this history, is hogwash.
Nor did Murkowski tell the Chief that her bill would allow for the commercial use of sacred sites, thus doing an end run around 43 C.F.R 2653.5 (a) in which regional corporations agreed to covenants on the historic sites maintaining them “solely as historic places”.
The truth is Murkowski wants to violate a central policy of the Forest Service to not create new in-holdings. Murkowski did not discuss three particular in-holdings that she wants to splatter over hundreds of miles. The objections Harris Sherman raised in his testimony (page 5) to these in-holdings are sound.
The first new in-holding is the “Trade Route.” It is clear that one of these in Yakutat would block access of hunters and fishermen to world class resources, since it stretches in a thin line for tens of miles along the shore of the ocean. There are several others which were not contemplated in ANCSA.
The second is “Energy Sites.” One of these off Icy Straits would give Sealaska access to one of the world’s largest tidal energy sources, of tremendous value. These energy sites were not contemplated in ANCSA either.
The third is the "Future Sites" which grab land for lodges in undeveloped bays and were not bargained for in ANCSA. These new in-holdings - taken together with the high grading of the best timber in S 730 - amounts to unjust enrichment outside the four corners ANCSA which was passed only after being exposed to the "cold light of day."
There are simple and compelling reasons for Congress to finally drop S 730 into the dust bin of bad bills never passed.
It is corrupt. It denies access to public land long used by hunters and fishermen. It violates public policy against upsetting the finality of ANCSA forty years after the fact by taking a disproportionate amount of the largest old growth trees remaining. It hurts businesses and jobs throughout Southeast Alaska from bear guides to bird watchers, from timber cruiser to hook tender, from long liner to troller, from lodge owner to boat renter. And it bestows on one of 12 native corporations advantages which are sure to be demanded by the others.
We hope Sealaska and Murkowski now get the message. We are never going to compromise on this terrible piece of legislation.