Proposed land selections on Kupreanof Island near Petersburg are shown in red. Twelvemile Creek is also the site of a proposed new boat ramp for the state’s Kake Access Project. (U.S. Forest Service map from the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee)

Petersburg’s borough assembly Wednesday voted to send a letter asking for more time to review proposed legislation that would grant land to Alaska Natives in five Southeast communities.  Elected officials and community members have questions and concerns about the Tongass National Forest land and improvements would be turned over to new urban corporations.

Petersburg’s letter asks the congressional delegation to hold off on seeking passage of the Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities Recognition and Compensation Act until people in Petersburg can learn more about it and have concerns addressed. The legislation is part of a larger bill introduced in the House and Senate this month to revisit the landmark 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

This bill would create five new Native urban corporations in Petersburg, Haines, Wrangell, Ketchikan and Tenakee. Natives in those communities say they were excluded from the 1971 law and not granted land or allowed to form ANSCA corporations. The proposed bill would transfer 23,040 acres of Tongass National Forest land to each.

Cecilia Tavoliero is president of the Southeast Alaska Landless Corporation, a non-profit formed to see the legislation passed. She explained to the assembly by phone how a new corporation would use that land.

“We’ve got ecotourism, communities that are looking at that, carbon credits,” Tavoliero said. “In order to take advantage of carbon credits you have to have the timber to do the carbon credits. We understand the process and Sealaska is helping other urban and village corporations gain access to that benefit as well.”

The regional Native corporation Sealaska has pledged half a million dollars to lobby for the change to the landmark 1971 law to address the five “landless” communities as they’re sometimes called. Sealaska would also be granted the subsurface rights for the land transferred.

Supporters of the effort say the new corporations would look for other economic development on the lands other than logging and say public access for hunting and fishing would continue.

Tavoliero told the assembly the bill is not being fast-tracked, pointing out she and others have come before the assembly multiple times this year to talk about the effort. And this is the fifth time this legislation’s been introduced. This version is different in that it has specific land selections identified.

Another supporter of the bill Todd Antioquia asked the assembly to support the legislation and recognize the urgency of passing it.

“You know 49 years has been far too long and literally with every passing day this inequity mounts and there are 200 communities that have been able to benefit from their ANCSA corporations and ANCSA lands in their areas, where Petersburg has not and being able to have economic development, to have social and cultural programs that benefit the entire community,” Antioquia said.

Assembly members questioned the representatives on who made the land selections and whether there was any public process for the choices. They answered that local shareholders of the proposed corporation made those selections. For Petersburg, a new Native corporation would have an estimated 624 shareholders, with 115 living in Juneau, 113 in Petersburg, with others in Anchorage and other U.S. states. The five proposed new urban corporations would encompass a total of 4,400 shareholders.

Public comment at the meeting was opposed to the legislation or included concerns about specific parcels of public land that would be transferred to a private corporation. Many continued to ask about access to the land for hunting and fishing.

Local resident Becky Knight said the five communities were not left out of the 1971 law inadvertently but did not qualify. She told the assembly that commercial use of the land would impact public use.

“This legislation cherry picks the remaining prime forest land as well as other important areas for development and would displace existing uses,” Knight said.

The bill as drafted would require the lands to remain open to subsistence hunting and fishing but would also allow a new urban corporation to restrict access in certain cases.

Assembly member Taylor Norheim is a member of the Petersburg Indian Association and would qualify as a shareholder of a new Native corporation under this legislation. He took issue with comments by the public and referenced a recent political stance by the assembly on the Kake Access Road.

“How about your neighbors here? Your neighbors here, not one town over, have been trying to get this for 49 years and you are so quick to jump from being an ally to the tribe to demonizing them as privileged people,” Norheim said. “You don’t want to even want to give them their own land back because it’s valuable to you.”

The selections near Petersburg include some of the lands and around Portage Bay and the state’s controversial 40 million dollar Kake Access Road Project. Along with lands, the legislation would also transfer some roads, U.S. Forest Service recreational cabins and logging infrastructure to a new corporation.

That’s a stumbling block for mayor Mark Jensen who notes the selected lands throughout the region have been improved with public dollars since 1971.

“As far as corporations, they probably have a board of directors, they make the decisions what they want to do with the land for development,” Jensen said. “In Petersburg specific, they will not only get two and a half million dollars with their 23,000 acres to start up their corporation, they will get infrastructure in Portage Bay worth millions of dollars. I’m talking about (the) administration site, West Point Cabin and the cabin up by Stop Island.”

The assembly had postponed a vote on the letter from their Monday meeting. But they wanted to make a decision on it in time to send in input for a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in the nation’s capital.

The vote was 4-2 in favor of sending the letter with Norheim and assembly member Chelsea Tremblay voting no. It voices concern that the bill has been introduced in the waning days of this Congress and asks the delegation to wait until next year.

(Editor’s note: this story has been updated to show assembly member Taylor Norheim would qualify as a shareholder of a new Native corporation.)