Republican U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan introduced a bill Monday that would allow the Alaska Native communities in Haines, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and Tenakee to form urban corporations and receive land under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
The bill would wrest Tongass National Forest land out of federal control and into the hands of newly formed Native corporations so it can be logged, mined, or developed economically.
This is essentially the same bill in that has been introduced in some form for 20 years, but Democrats typically won’t go along with it, since it would remove land from federal control.
ANCSA, signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1971, settled Alaska Native aboriginal claims with the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history, creating Native corporations to begin driving economic growth for Alaska’s indigenous people.
The five Southeast communities included in this bill were not included in ANCSA, which divided 44 million acres of land among more than 200 regional, village, and urban corporations to resolve land claims throughout Alaska. ANCSA was an essential step to being able to get the Trans Alaska Pipeline System completed, and the focus then was not on Southeast Alaska. ANCSA was prompted by the discovery of North America’s largest oil field in Prudhoe Bay in 1967, and geopolitical forces, led by an oil embargo from OPEC, that led to an oil shortage in the early 1970s. In order to get the oil out of Alaska and establish energy security, the pipeline had to go through what had been unresolved tribal territory.
ANCSA, passed by Congress with the help of U.S. Senators Ted Stevens and Mike Gravel and Congressman Nick Begich, declared “This act shall be regarded as an extinguishment of all previous aboriginal title.”
In exchange for some land, the Native corporations received $900 million and other lands.
Today those corporations are some of Alaska’s biggest economic engines and contribute wealth to Natives and non-Natives alike.
But there was part of the state that didn’t get included. The new legislation, the “Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities Recognition and Compensation Act,” aims to rectify that left-out portion of Alaska by amending ANCSA to provide each of the communities the opportunities it granted to other Native communities 50 years ago: the right to form an Alaska Native Urban Corporation and receive 23,040 acres, or one township, of federal land.
“The culture and heritage of Alaska Native peoples is intricately tied to the land on which they live. The unique regions they have inhabited for centuries are directly connected to their identity,” said Senator Murkowski. “Unfortunately, five communities were not afforded the same benefits under ANCSA – access to land – that were granted to others throughout Southeast. It is past time the federal government make good on its promises to each of the communities that were left out of this significant agreement. I’m proud to work with Senator Sullivan, Congressman Young, and local stakeholders to correct this decades-long wrongdoing and provide equity to these landless communities.”
“For years, Alaska Native residents in five southeast communities have been denied the land and opportunities afforded by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, a historic injustice that Congress has a duty to rectify. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the passage of ANCSA, I am hopeful my colleagues will recognize the federal laws and circumstances that uniquely impact Alaska and join Senator Murkowski and me in quickly advancing our legislation for the benefit of our constituents,” Sullivan said.
U.S. Congressman Don Young previously introduced similar legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The long-shot legislation is the result of extensive and ongoing outreach to people in Southeast Alaska. It identifies specific parcels of land to be conveyed to what would become new urban corporations in an area of the state that has been nearly locked down by the federal government to any economy other than fishing and tourism. The legislation also includes provisions to protect existing rights-of-way and many existing uses of those lands and to ensure that reasonable public access can continue.
In November 2020, Senators Murkowski and Sullivan and Congressman Young introduced their original landless legislation, upon which today’s newly introduced bill was built.
Following introduction, during an Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining (PLFM) legislative hearing, Senator Murkowski raised her bill, S. 4889, the ANCSA Fulfillment Act, a package which aimed to resolve a number of outstanding issues related to the landmark 1971 law, including authorizing the five landless communities in southeast Alaska to form urban corporations and receive lands. Senator Sullivan was a cosponsor of S. 4889.