By ZACHARY HALASCHAK
Daily News Staff Writer
On Wednesday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, gave testimony on a bill that, in part, would create an “urban corporation” for the Native community in Ketchikan, as well as grant that newly formed corporation 23,040 acres of federal land.
The proposed legislation, U.S. Senate Bill 1481 — also called the “Alaska Native Claims Improvement Act of 2017” — looks to mitigate issues with the original Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that was passed almost a half century ago.
Although the bill implements a number of tweaks and revisions to the original ANCSA, there are two main components of the legislation that directly affect residents of Southeast Alaska.
The first major component involves the formation of Native corporations in five Southeast Alaska communities — Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Tenakee and Haines.
According to Murkowski, these five communities were never granted village or urban corporations (and the land that goes with that designation), even though they seemingly qualified under ANSCSA.
During a Wednesday morning hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining, Murkowski offered a brief history of ANCSA and explained why she thinks those five communities are entitled to the original benefits of the ANCSA-created corporations.
“The ANCSA-derived land and money was distributed through 13 regional corporations and 220 village and urban corporations,” Murkowski said. “And while many of the promises under ANCSA have been met, there are a number of issues that have arisen that have prevented its intent from being realized.”
Murkowski said that given the parameters of the original 1971 act, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Tenakee and Haines should all be granted urban corporations.
“For example, the act specifically established village corporations for any town that had 25 Native residents in 1970 and that met other criteria,” Murkowski explained. “But for some unexplained reasons — we still don’t exactly know why — five towns in Southeast Alaska … were not allowed to form village or urban corporations.
“And while the history is complex, there’s no question that all five of these communities met the historic criteria as Native communities,” Murkowski added, noting that her bill would remedy the issue.
According to the text of the bill, which is co-sponsored by fellow Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, upon incorporation, each of the five new corporations each would receive pursuant to this act, “one township of land (23,040 acres).”
Furthermore, the bill goes on to define how the land would be allocated.
According to the bill’s text, the revised act: “Shall give preference to land with commercial purposes; may include subsistence and cultural sites, aquaculture sites, hydroelectric sites, tideland, surplus federal property, and eco-tourism sites; and shall not include land within a conservation system unit.”
If the bill passes, the urban corporations would be formed independently in each of the five communities, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t already nonprofit groups out there advocating for these corporations.
The Landless Natives of Ketchikan is a nonprofit group advocating for the formation of a corporation in Ketchikan under ANCSA. James Llanos Sr., the treasurer of the group, sat down with the Daily News on Thursday and explained how Alaska Natives in Ketchikan and the four other communities have been “fighting the good fight.”
He said that in addition to the Landless Natives of Ketchikan, there is also another entity that represents all five of the landless communities, called the Southeast Alaska Landless Coalition. According to Llanos, two members from each of the five communities compose the organization, with the ultimate goal of getting the land they are entitled to under the original ANCSA.
Llanos also said that his group has already worked on identifying potential land, should Murkowski’s legislation get signed into law.
“We over-selected,” Llanos noted. “Now we’re down to 23,000 acres, I identified maybe, 120,000 acres originally.”
Llanos explained that if the bill passes, they would have to select from that land and negotiate with the Interior Department over which parcels would be granted.
But the formation of the five corporations is not the only major change included in the legislation.
Another component of Murkowski’s bill looks give land to Alaska Natives who fought in the Vietnam War, but did not receive land allotments after the passage of a 1998 act that was supposed to do so.
“The 1998 act was supposed to ensure Alaska Native Vietnam vets who were disadvantaged because they were not present in the state, to claim their allotment of land,” Murkowski said. “But unfortunately, that act — the 1998 act — left out the vast majority of Alaska Native vets that it was intended to help, effectively excluding all 300 Native veterans who lived in Southeast Alaska, and only including veterans who served during a certain three-year window instead of any time during the conflict.”
Murkowski said that because of that “three-year window” requirement, thousands of Alaska Natives did not get the land they were entitled.
“In total about 2,400 Alaska Natives who served during the Vietnam War were unable to qualify for their land,” Murkowski explained. “So, my bill will solve that inequity by allowing those veterans to gain their rightful land, while also protecting all federal lands.”
According to the text of the legislation, those veterans who qualify could receive up to a 160-acre land allotment.
The text of the bill provides that the land allotted for the qualifying Native veterans must be: “Vacant; and owned by the United States; selected by, or conveyed to, the State of Alaska, if the State voluntarily relinquishes or conveys to the United States the land for the allotment; or selected by, or conveyed to, a Native Corporation, if the Native Corporation voluntarily relinquishes or conveys to the United States the land for the allotment.”
According to Nicole Daigle, communications director for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, in addition to creating the five new corporations and allotting land to qualifying veterans, if passed, the legislation also would:
• “Ensure the Shee Atika Corporation can maximize shareholder compensation for land sales it has already initiated with the federal government.”
• “Create a mechanism for Sealaska to exchange its subsurface estate at Cube Cove, located within the Admiralty Island National Monument, to the U.S. Forest Service in exchange for other lands.”
• “Increase the amount that Alaska Natives can earn in dividends from regional, village and urban corporations that is exempt from income limitations for federal ‘needs based’ programs. This would be the first such increase in nearly 30 years and is necessary to account for inflation.”
• “Make a technical change to allow corporations to simplify their bookkeeping by converting fractional shares of ANCSA stock to full shares, which is important when computing dividends for shareholders.”
Although this legislation is “a long time coming,” according to Murkowski, some groups have already begun moves to publically oppose the bill, particularly regarding the issue of land designation.
The Center for Biological Diversity issued a press release Tuesday before Wednesday’s subcommittee meeting. In it, Randi Spivak, the center’s public lands program director, decried a number of bills being discussed, including Murkowski’s, calling them “shameless giveaways to private companies that want to make a buck off pristine public lands.”
The same press release goes on to say that Murkowski’s specific bill “would give away more than 175,000 acres of public lands in Alaska to private corporations.” The release did not mention that those private corporations would be comprised of Alaska Natives.
In addition, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council issued an action alert urging voters to call the offices of Murkowski and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and express discontent with the legislation.
“Our biggest concern with this current version of the bill is the threat it poses to lands previously designated by Congress for permanent protection in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990, and the Sealaska Land Entitlement Finalization Act of 2014,” the action item reads.
Joseph Reeves, president of Landless Natives of Ketchikan, told the Daily News on Thursday that the environmental groups opposing this legislation don’t understand that the Native community is willing to work with them. He said that no one from those groups has reached out to his organization since the bill was discussed in the Senate Wednesday.
“We’re not trying to shut out anybody. We’ve bent over backwards trying to work with them,” Reeves explained. “… What we get with this legislation is just a sliver of what is available out there, and it’s just a pittance of what used to be available just a few short years ago.
“We have never been antagonistic with them and we’re trying to work with them and make them assurances and you know, we’re not going to be building walls this,” he added.
Although these proposed alterations to the ANCSA are, according to Murkowski, “long overdue,” the bill itself is still in the early stages of a long path to passage. Wednesday’s hearing was the first time the legislation was discussed since originally being introduced to the Senate in June of last year.
And to Murkowski and many Alaska Natives, this bill remains important. As the 115th U.S. Congress pushes ahead, more and more will likely be heard about ANCSA and the senator’s mission to build off of it.
“It would help our community tremendously, and enjoin a resurgence of cultural awareness amongst our Native community,” Reeves said. “… I feel bad for the countless people who attempted to do this way back in the ‘70s and since have gone — but we have their children — and their children will enjoy this.”