Scientists blast Tongass deal in House omnibus package
Published: Monday, June 18, 2012
Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
A group of more than 300 scientists has warned that a proposal to transfer old-growth stands in the Tongass National Forest to a native-owned corporation would allow harmful clear-cutting and could damage the southeast Alaskan economy.
The letter released Friday, signed by noted biologists E.O. Wilson and Tom Lovejoy, comes days before the bill is debated in the House as part of a larger lands package that would lift environmental laws along the border, restore motorized access to a protected beach and fast-track environmental reviews, among other measures (E&E Daily, June 18).
The scientists join a large contingent of environmental groups, sportsmen and local tour operators who have warned the bill by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) would allow unsustainable logging, could limit land access and would create a troubling precedent for settling native land claims.
The letter, coordinated by the Ashland, Ore.-based Geos Institute with support from the Pew Environment Group, argues that H.R. 1408 would allow Sealaska Corp. to disproportionately harvest rare, old-growth trees in the Tongass.
"The vast majority of these lands would be subjected to clearcut logging, including some of the most biologically rich, large-tree old-growth rainforest remaining on the Tongass," the scientists wrote.
Introduced for the first time nearly five years ago, Young's bill would allow Sealaska to acquire tens of thousands of acres outside the lands it was entitled to select under a 41-year-old settlement. In addition, the bill would allow the corporation to select dozens of smaller parcels suitable for renewable energy or tourism development.
Proponents of the bill say much of Sealaska's remaining land entitlement under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act consists of old-growth roadless areas or municipal watersheds that are inappropriate for logging. Much of the lands is also under salt water.
In their letter, the scientists note the Tongass contains a globally significant portion of the world's remaining temperate rainforests, which contain some of the most carbon-dense stands.
The letter cites a report by Audubon Alaska in February that found Young's bill would cede up to 17 percent of the last remaining "very large old-growth" trees in the Tongass, allowing Sealaska to log up to 12 times as much old growth as what current law would allow (Greenwire, Feb. 23).
They also warn that development of the "futures sites" in the bill — some of which are located at the heads of bays or mouths of salmon streams — would harm commercial and sport fishing, recreation and subsistence hunting important to local communities.
Rick Harris, Sealaska's executive vice president, in a statement Friday said the corporation's currently available land selections contain world-class salmon habitat, municipal watersheds and high-value old-growth forests that are inappropriate for timber development. The withdrawal areas agreed to in the 1970s do not allow it to "advance the social cultural and economic wellbeing of our shareholders," as required by the law that created Sealaska and a dozen other native-owned corporations, he said.
Luke Miller, a spokesman for Young, said Alaska's Forest Resources and Practices Act, which would govern Sealaska's logging, requires "best practices management and careful regulation" to protect fish and wildlife values. Added Harris, "The record setting salmon runs in Southeast Alaska prove it."
Sealaska has so far received 290,000 acres of its Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act entitlement but is entitled to receive 63,600 additional acres, according to the Bureau of Land Management. The tribe recently asked that its final selections be put on hold in order to pursue a legislative alternative.
Debate over Young's bill in the House comes as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) continues to negotiate companion legislation in the Senate with Democrats, the Forest Service, Sealaska, and environmental groups including the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
"All eyes are on the Senate side," said Eric Myers, director of policy for Audubon Alaska, who authored the report on Sealaska's land selection.
A spokesman for Murkowski last week said the senator is optimistic that her bill could pass the Energy and Natural Resources Committee by early summer. Tentative agreements on land selections have been reached to alleviate concerns from local residents, sportsmen and environmentalists, said spokesman Robert Dillon (E&E Daily, June 12).
Murkowski's bill, while opposed by environmental groups in its current form, is considered more palatable to critics because it includes stronger conservation provisions.
If Young's bill passes, it will likely be considered in the Senate separate from the House's public lands omnibus, which contains other measures that stand little chance of passage in the upper chamber.
"We also ask the Obama administration and those in the Senate, now attempting to come up with a solution to the corporation's outstanding land claims, to reject the House bill, and look for ways to address those claims while protecting the ancient forests," said Pew's Jane Danowitz.
If passed, Murkowski's bill would likely join other conservation measures in a separate public lands omnibus, pending agreements with Democrats and environmentalists. But passage of a public lands omnibus appears unlikely in the 112th Congress, and will almost certainly not happen before the election.