Areas in red show proposed land selections on Mitkof and Kupreanof islands near Petersburg. (From U.S. Forest Service maps presented to the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee)

Petersburg’s borough assembly later this winter may continue its discussion of legislation to transfer national forest land to five new Native corporations. The assembly this month heard from supporters and opponents of the bill.

The legislation introduced this fall by Alaska’s congressional delegation would grant over 23,000 acres each to five new urban corporations in Petersburg, Wrangell, Haines, Tenakee and Ketchikan. It’s been introduced before but the latest version includes specific land selections that are prompting some opposition. Near Petersburg there are parcels identified from the Tongass National Forest on Mitkof and Kupreanof islands along with Thomas Bay on the mainland. Some of those selections also include roads, forest service cabins and other public infrastructure.

Local resident David Beebe opposed the measure and questioned the cost of the transfer.

“Given the amount of public infrastructure certainly measured in the tens of millions of dollars in these land selections, it would be good to know what the tax payer has forfeited to these five brand new Native corporations should this bill pass,” Beebe told the assembly.

Opponents also are concerned with losing access to national forest land and the potential for logging those parcels.

Alaska’s senators and congressman say the bill will fix the omission of the five sometimes called “landless” communities from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The landmark 1971 law awarded nearly one billion dollars and 44 million acres to Alaska Natives and called for formation of village and regional corporations.

Also calling into the meeting this month was anthropologist Chuck Smythe, one of the principle investigators for a 1994 report by the Institute of Social and Economic Research.

That report looked at whether Congress had inadvertently denied the benefit. Natives from the five communities were enrolled as at-large shareholders of the regional Native corporation Sealaska but were not allowed to form village or urban corporations with their own land.

“To be considered eligible for ANCSA benefits Native villages had to have at least 25 Natives in residence, not be of modern and urban in character and have a majority Native population,” Smythe explained.

Natives from Southeast villages were also treated differently than those in other regions because of prior cash settlements in court cases over aboriginal land claims. At the same time a court had determined that earlier settlement did not extinguish all aboriginal claims in the region.

In addition, Smythe explained the 1971 law did include a special provision to allow four other communities that were not small rural Native villages, Juneau, Sitka, Kodiak and Kenai, to gain eligibility for urban corporations.

“This provision was introduced by Senator (Ted) Stevens in the final bill during its consideration by the conference committee,” Smythe said. “No one objected to the four communities gaining eligibility at the last minute but as stated in the report, the sense of the conference committee was that no more communities would be accepted for urban corporation status.”

Smythe now works for the Sealaska Heritage Institute, the cultural non-profit founded in 1980 by the regional Native corporation. In an email this month he writes that the intent of the report was not to make findings or conclusions but to be used by Congress to inform its decisions.

Over two decades later, the report he worked on is cited by both supporters and opponents of this legislation.

The report says “The omission of the study communities is not clearly explained in any provision of ANCSA or in the accompanying conference report.”

Representatives from three of the five Tenakee, Ketchikan and Haines, appealed their eligibility status but were denied. The appeal board ruled the law had “created an exclusive list of eligible villages in Southeast Alaska which cannot be added to…”

Petersburg’s Native population in the 1970 census was determined to be 12 percent of the community’s population, or 242 out of an overall population of 2,042 although the report notes that Native population was likely underreported.

Some of those supporters have attended several Petersburg assembly meetings over the past year to answer questions about the proposed bill. Cecilia Tavoliero, president of the Southeast Alaska Landless Corporation told the assembly of the Petersburg residents who have worked on the land selections for this area.

“Many of the folks you remember, Dick Kito, Victor Guthrie, Mike Lopez, Gert Lyons, Amy Hallingstad, there are a number of folks that have been involved with this all throughout the years,” Tavoliero said.

Tavoliero and others would be shareholders of a new Petersburg urban corporation that would use the land for economic development and other uses. They say the 1971 land settlement and a cash payment in 1968 were not a good deal and they’re asking for a tiny fraction of the land that was once theirs. They also say the corporations will look for other ways to make money off the land than logging, like carbon credits or tourism.

“We did not select these parcels because of timber development. We selected many of these parcels because they were the only lands available for selection at that time,” said another supporter of the effort Nicole Hallingstad, granddaughter of Petersburg civil rights leader Amy Hallingstad.

Hallingstad said continuing public access is ensured in the legislation unlike those originally granted in the 1971 law.

“This particular Alaska Natives Without Land bill preserves public access to all of the lands proposed to be conveyed to the new urban corporations. It guarantees in perpetuity that the land shall remain open and available to subsistence uses, non-commercial recreation hunting and fishing and other non-commercial recreational uses by the public.”

Public access on the land is in the bill with allowances for “reasonable restrictions.” Those include minimizing conflicts between recreational and commercial uses or public safety. The legislation would phase out U.S. Forest Service outfitting and guide use of the lands.

To answer those and other concerns, Alaska Natives Without Land also drafted a November letter to the Petersburg assembly.

The representatives agreed that a separate work session would be a good idea. Assembly member Jeff Meucci, who asked to have  the topic on the assembly’s agenda this month, asked to continue the discussion.

“I guess my original intent here was to, if this legislation was moving forward in a faster pace than everybody was comfortable for, at least have a conversation about it,” Meucci said. “It seems like we’re going to have an opportunity hopefully in the month of January or so, to have a wide ranging conversation to answer these questions and have more dialogue.”

The legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate and would have to be reintroduced next year if not passed by the end of this year.