Portage Bay on Kupreanof Island near Petersburg (Elizabeth Jenkins/KFSK)

Petersburg’s borough assembly Wednesday heard testimony both for and against proposed legislation to transfer land from the Tongass National Forest to five new urban Native corporations. Alaska Natives from five Southeast Alaska communities are seeking that compensation not granted in a land claims bill 50 years ago and are seeking support from the municipal government in their effort.

The legislation has been introduced in past sessions of Congress and is expected to be reintroduced again later this year. It proposes to grant 23,040 acres each to new urban Native corporations in Petersburg, Wrangell, Haines, Tenakee and Ketchikan, a total of just over 115-thousand acres of land that’s currently part of the Tongass National Forest.

The campaign backing the bill is called Alaska Natives Without Land and the five communities are sometimes called landless. They were not granted the right to form village or urban corporations in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

The five communities did not meet criteria for village corporations under that law. But that law also allowed corporations to form in four communities that didn’t meet those qualifications.

Nicole Hallingstad is granddaughter of Petersburg Native civil rights leader Amy Hallingstad. She’s also on the board of the regional corporation Sealaska, which backs the legislation.

“The corporation’s owners would be the shareholders of Sealaska who enrolled in 1971 through the community of Petersburg and there were originally 428 Petersburg shareholders,” Hallingstad explained. “So this new corporation would be an independent, autonomous, for-profit company, governed by a board of directors who are shareholders and elected by the corporation’s shareholders. And it is this board that would set the vision and hire management to execute towards their vision.”

Hallingstad and others highlighted the jobs that a new corporation would create and economic boost to the community. She noted the request is for the return of a small fraction of the land once the realm of the indigenous people of the region. She asked the Petersburg assembly for its support.

“This legislation will eventually pass and the record will be captured for history,” she said. “So where will the Petersburg assembly stand on this issue? My hope is that Petersburg will stand for development, for opportunity and for justice.”

Petersburg’s assembly hasn’t taken a stance on the proposal but it did approve a letter to Senator Lisa Murkowski last November asking for more time to understand the impacts. That letter also questioned whether the public would continue to have access to the lands. Past versions of the bill have specified that access continues for non-commercial hunting and fishing and other recreational use. However restrictions would be allowed for protecting cultural resources, environmental protections or minimizing conflict between recreational and commercial uses.

That’s a repeated point of concern for people opposed to the privatization of this national forest land. Here’s Petersburg resident Becky Knight.

“Please explain how that terminology is not subject to interpretation by current and future beneficiaries of this legislation,” Knight asked. “In this case verbal assurances are not consistent with the language which clearly could be interpreted to prohibit access.”

Knight called for field hearings on the bill after the pandemic so Southeast Alaskans could weigh in to the Congressional delegation before the legislation advances. Opponents of the bill question the value of roads and existing logging infrastructure that would be transferred. The version considered last year also would have transferred two U.S. Forest Service recreation cabins in Portage Bay near Petersburg. But supporters say the intent is to leave those out from a new version of the bill.

The campaign to pass the bill says the lands would be used for economic development that would benefit shareholders, from tourism to carbon credits. They say the logging done on Native corporation land elsewhere in Southeast would not be repeated.

Local resident Will Ware addressed two narratives he’s heard from opponents.

“This is not a logging bill,” Ware said. “This community of eligible Tlingits have no interest in logging nor is there a market to do so. Some have asked why not put it in this bill. Because it would make this a logging bill and indeed open up Pandora’s box even more so than it already is. Public access is the law of the land for this specific legislation. No one will be denied access to these lands. Reasonable restrictions are just that, for reasonable reasons, i.e. construction, emergencies or dangers to life.”

The proposed land selections were made by Natives from the five communities who have been seeking this compensation for decades.

Petersburg’s assembly is also taking comment by email and the past legislation and maps have been posted on the borough’s website.

Here’s the full testimony by teleconference on Wednesday, March 10, 2021: