Congress Considers Sealaska Bill: An Alaska Big-Tree Old Growth Transfer to Private Corporation

Increasingly rare volume class 7 old growth on the Tongass National Forest. Note that cedar species can be 1,000+ years old. Photo by Alaska Audubon.
Increasingly rare volume class 7 old growth on the Tongass National Forest. Note that cedar species can be 1,000+ years old. Photo by Alaska Audubon.

The following introduction was written by Greg Petrich with the Alaska Chapter, North American Bear Foundation.  After the intro is a guest column written by Don Cornelius and Jack Gustafson.  Mr. Cornelius and Mr. Gustafson are former Area Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Habitat Division; with a combined experience of over 32 years reviewing Tongass National Forest, and private Native corporation logging issues. – mk


Senate bill S.340 (currently pending in Senate Natural Resources Committee) would transfer premium cherry picked Tongass National Forest lands to the private for-profit Sealaska Native corporation – violating a previous settled contract with the US government to select final land claims inside non-controversial agreed upon boundaries.  A product of political influence it has become one of the most controversial issues ever to hit Southeast Alaska.

Two of the regions most respected and well known habitat professionals:  Don Cornelius, and Jack Gustafson examine this bill’s potential impact on a globally rare and threatened resource – the tiny fraction of the land that holds the massive “giant trees” of the Tongass.   – Greg Petrich, Alaska Chapter, North American Bear Foundation.

Congress Considers S.340.  An Alaska Big-Tree Old Growth Transfer to Private Corporation
By Don Cornelius and Jack Gustafson

Legislation sponsored by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) would transfer approximately 70,000 acres of public land in scattered locations across Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to the Sealaska Corporation, primarily for extensive industrial scale clearcut logging other commercial development.

The bottom line on S.340 is:
A) It is completely unnecessary; and
B) It is a very poor environmental trade off of lands and resources, and not in the public interest.
C) It sets a precedent, and an inequity, in the transfer of lands outside the public review process, potentially opening new claims by Native corporations across the state.

The proposed legislation (S. 340) would enable the Sealaska Corporation, to reopen and rewrite basic terms of Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971) in order to make alternative land selections in the Tongass, including some of the region’s most valuable large-tree old growth. Under current law, the Sealaska Corporation has already made its final land selections but is now seeking legislation to renege on their original ‘requested’ deal to obtain more commercially valuable Tongass public lands.

Sealaska’s controversial proposal has attracted opposition from small towns scattered throughout the southeast Alaska panhandle region as well as a diverse assortment of sportsmen and conservation groups concerned about habitat impacts. Several of the publicly owned areas now being sought for logging by the Sealaska Corporation have exceptional ecological value identified as conservation priorities through a comprehensive Tongass-wide habitat assessment process by The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Alaska.

A letter jointly submitted about the bill from The Wildlife Society, The Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Wildlife Forever,  Safari Club International and more than a dozen other sports groups describes the legislation as “fundamentally flawed” and asks that the bill not advance further.  Trout Unlimited also opposes the legislation for not adequately protecting high-value salmon producing watersheds that would be transferred out of the national forest to be logged by Sealaska.

The Tongass National Forest contains a significant portion of the earth’s last remaining significantly-sized tracts of this forest type. Large-tree old growth stands have always been scarce as well as long-targeted by loggers since the first days of commercial logging.  Today, they constitute a very small fraction of the overall landscape. Size class 6 and 7 combined represent 3.4% of the land area. Size class 7 alone, which include stands with up to 200,000 board feet per acre (think of trees 10-12+ feet in girth and worth a quarter million dollars per acre) today occur on just half a percent of the land base.

Past Tongass operations have been exceedingly hard on these unique and rare large-tree stands. These very special stands are far more than just visually impressive, evolved over a millennium, they constitute the richest and most valuable wildlife habitat on the Tongass.

The public lands that would be transferred to Sealaska under S. 340 include some of the region’s most biologically productive areas. The bill would enable the corporation to “high-grade” ― i.e., disproportionately target and clearcut extremely rare, big-tree old growth. Recent analysis of S. 340 shows that Sealaska is selecting large-tree old growth stands (combined volume class 6/7) at 10 times the rate they occur naturally in the Tongass (30% vs 3.4%).  [1]  Even the young-growth (previously logged) forest that Sealaska is also selecting targets the most productive lands.

The Sealaska legislation would high-grade increasingly rare, large-tree old growth and amplify this long-recognized problem. Congress explicitly identified the high-grading concern in 1990 as part of the Tongass Timber Reform Act (TTRA) and enacted an explicit ban on the practice.  [2]  An independent scientific peer review of Tongass forest management practices in 1997 further highlighted the interconnected problems of high-grading, forest fragmentation, and loss of habitat connectivity.  [3]  In its most recent testimony to Congress on S. 340 the Department of the Interior testified that if the Sealaska legislation is enacted as proposed the United States Fish and Wildlife Service may have to review its previous findings not to list the Queen Charlotte goshawk and the Alexander Archipelago wolf under the Endangered Species Act.

Because Sealaska has already made its final Settlement Act land selections under existing law and has officially filed those selections with the federal Bureau of Land Management, no further action is required by Congress for the corporation to receive its full entitlement.

S. 340 is currently pending in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).  We would encourage you to contact the Full Committee and ask for no further action on this bill.

Mr. Cornelius and Mr. Gustafson are former Area Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Habitat Division; with a combined experience of over 32 years reviewing Tongass National Forest, and private Native corporation logging issues.


[1] Kirchoff, S. 340 Tongass National Forest Comparison, February 2013 (Click Here )
[2] H.R. 987: Tongass Timber Reform Act, Section 301(c)(2)
[3] Powell, et al., “Joint Statement of Members of the Peer Review Committee Concerning the Inadequacy of Conservation Measures for Vertebrate Species in the Tongass National Forest Land Management Plan of Record,” (September 1997).

See also: 300 Scientists letter critical of Sealaska’s highgrading large tree forest

10 thoughts on “Congress Considers Sealaska Bill: An Alaska Big-Tree Old Growth Transfer to Private Corporation”

  1. This is very controversial legislation that USDA administrators negotiated behind closed doors with Sealaska and Senator Murkowski. After years, the Sealaska bill finally got traction through the privately funded Tongass Futures Roundtable. The Roundtable was a self-selected group of stakeholders who were to carve up the Tongass National Forest to their liking and implement their zoning via legislation.
    The biggest problem was that this collaborative group ran a pseudo public participation process that was an illusion for the public agencies to conveniently hide behind. Being a former Regional Economist with the Alaska Region I was appalled that the Forest Service would partner up this way. Despite my history of criticizing the agency one of the best strengths is running a proactive and fair public involvement process.
    Nonetheless, the Roundtable still has a life of its own (what money can buy) and I was not surprised that the USDA head-shed simply interjected themselves into the closed door negotiations — so much for their commitment to transparency and open public participation. Their next fantasy is an accelerated transition to 2nd growth – a region-wide integrated industry no less. Never say it cannot get worse.
    I want to thank The Boat Company for giving me the opportunity to represent them at Tongass Futures Roundtable. The Boat Company has decades of conservation efforts in Southeast Alaska and the landscape would be vastly different without them. It is never over even when you are retired.

  2. The recent approval of S.340 by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council which would sacrifice the most valuable and most rare trees occupying “half a percent of the land base” for gaining protections elsewhere, was explained this way:

    ” in our judgment Senator Murkowski has offered a responsible approach to resolving this long-running legislative controversy.”(

    That “responsible approach” is to abandon the principles of conservation in order to trade something (in the spirit of collaboration), for something else — (in Latin, “quid pro quo” or QPQ.)

    The Quid: Sacrificing upon the altar of privatization, 70,000 of the highest value acres of the public’s Tongass, (as if the watersheds were the “stakeholder’s” personal chattel.)

    The Quo:,152,000 acres of LUDII level protections elsewhere. No, not even “Big W” Wilderness, but lesser protections which still allow mining and hydropower and other common threats to salmon producing watersheds. Behold, the heart and soul of collaboration and the “win-win” principles of free market environmentalism (FME).

    The USFS, the National Forest Foundation, and SEACC staff have all been paid to attend the services of the Tongass Futures Roundtable to practice the liturgy (“a communal response to the sacred through activity reflecting praise, thanksgiving, supplication, or repentance.”) In this case, SEACC’s praise for collaboration, thanksgiving for an agency “transition” and repentance for having once defended environmental laws in court instead of practicing good faith corporate collaborations at TFR.

    So it comes as no surprise S.340 accomplishes the first three of the TFR Charter’s Goals:

    1) “A stabilized land base;”
    2) ANCSA entitlements and other potential draws from Tongass National Forest;
    3) Watersheds and other areas of the Tongass that should be conserved;”

    What does come as a surprise, is that SEACC states, “There was no deal, no secret negotiations or agreements, and no connection to any previous actions taken by SEACC or other groups.” (As if the Sealaska legislation first appeared as S.340, just last February.)

    Perhaps the most disappointing part is that SEACC pretends S.340 is necessary to fulfill Sealaska’s final entitlements claiming:

    ” It’s important to remember that under existing law Sealaska is entitled to almost 70,000 more acres from the Tongass.”

    In fact, as Don Cornelius and Jack Gustafson — as have hundreds of others pointed out — S.340 is totally unnecessary for Sealaska’s final land entitlements. Don and Jack note, “no further action is required by Congress for the corporation to receive its full entitlement.”

    Condemning high value, exceedingly rare sacrificial watersheds as a trade for protections elsewhere is not so much a quid pro quo as it is an unnecessary and unprecedented land grab achieved through years of paid participation in TFR plenary negotiations which are prohibited from being recorded by the press or the public and including at least one secret meeting which was categorically closed to both the press and the public.

    The Sealaska legislation has been a long, strange, 6 year process taking us to this strange new era of collaboration on the Tongass.

  3. David,

    Thanks for the comment. Appropriately concise for my attention span and comprehension (and vocabulary), you’ve got me intrigued…I’ll read more. As a leader / participant / student (and skeptic) of “collaboration”, it’s instructional to see examples of things gone (apparently)wrong. Always good to compare efforts and understand what the “quid” and “quo” might look like.

  4. I’ll cut to the chase.
    Sealaska’s President and CEO Chris McNeil’s salary between 2008 and 2012 is one million six hundred and fifty thousand dollars(1.65 million dollars). Mr. McNeil grossed with at risk and long term at risk bonuses for those years, three million one hundred and fifty thousand one hundred and forty four dollars (3.15 million dollars). He will be paid in long term at risk bonuses for 2011 and 2012 again in 2013, and again for 2012 and 2013 in 2014 and so on.
    Sealaska’s Operations paid shareholders 85 cents per day in dividends over the same time period.
    The Sealaska bill is to serve only one purpose. Meet Sealaska’s executive’s 655 thousand dollar per month payroll for the top 50 Sealaska boardmembers and managers.
    Shareholders (with as many as 70% living below the poverty line) will remain without burial assistance, while 50 Sealaska executives accumulate a total of almost 45 million dollars in compensation in the past 6 years.
    Forty years in business, four billion plus in gross revenue and Sealaska shareholders families still have to seek burial assistance for shareholders from charities.
    The management of Sealaska cannot continue as it has because it has used it’s share of the Tongass to enrich a handful of elite native leaders. Our share of the Tongass has been used up, now this greed based Corporation wants your share too.

  5. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowsi’s S,340 would transfer some of the highest quality remaining old-growth wildlife habitat on the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska Corporation for clearcut logging. The bill is not necessary to fulfill Sealaska’s land selection entitlement under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). It is a poor conservation tradeoff, and it is certainly NOT in the public interest.

    I’m a retired Deputy Director of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game’s Habitat Division and have been involved in southeast Alaska forest management issues for 40 years. I’ve seen first-hand that Sealaska’s wildlife habitat protection is woefully inadequate, to put it kindly.

    The provisions in S.340 come nowhere close to requiring the level of fish and wildlife habitat protection that is required by federal laws and regulations which apply to national forest land. S.340 should not be passed by Congress.

  6. I want to speak about who owes what to who.
    The people of the United States don’t owe the native people of Alaska anything. True Sealaska the Corporation wants another 70 thousand acres it feels it is owed.
    The ingratitude expressed in it’s demands does not reflect the sacrifice of the American people in providing free medical and dental services for our people, The Tlingit-Haida and Tsimshian . Something the American people do not provide for themselves.
    The American people have saved the lives of hundreds of thousand of Alaska Native people over the decades.This fact must not be forgotten nor under appreciated.
    We as Alaskans can’t blame the management of Sealaska for maintaining it’s posture regarding the Sealaska bill. The fact that it’s management, in a desperate move to survive, in the face of wholesale clearcutting, can’t rely on land selected inside the boxes.
    In spite of almost forty years of propaganda assuring Sealaska shareholders it harvested at sustainable rates, Sealaska didn’t. It brokered logs in the round as fast and as much as it could and passed the profits on to Sealaska executive in the form of at risk and long term at risk bonuses.
    Sealaska’s hierarchy are very rich, Sealaska’s shareholders remain very poor. In a white world it’s called playing the game with shareholder chjp’s and the only people getting rich are the players. Sealaska shareholders have run out of chips. The land we selected can’t be converted to ready cash, and the land that was rich has been cashed in.
    Now the Selaska Corporation wants a large percentage of the remaining old growth to convert to ready cash for the same purpose. Regardless of what happens, Sealaska shareholders will remain poor. With the passing of the Sealaska bill, we just won’t be alone.
    Sealaska’s management has sunk to the lowest level in it’s history, and has resorted to it’s old profit making strategy of driving wedges between the races, and pocketing the profit produced in the confusion.

    • Thank you and well said. Words fail me for this whole situation that involves my home.We are such a small voice for such a big transaction.You are right in all you say, the rich wants to get richer and the shareholders and the families who live in the selected areas lose…big time.

  7. This land belongs to all of us now, Native and non native . It is still native land in the same sense that it always was, Sealaska land is not open for any use to it’s shareholders This legislation gives it to a private corporation to benefit a select group , ( mostly executives and board members), destroying a healthy habitat that provides for us all and turning it in to a few more years of profit . Not all SE natives are Sealaska shareholders.

    In 2010, towns and communities all over SE Alaska called for official hearings to be held here. We never got them. Senator Murkowski came up with her , so called, “town hall style ” meetings. Which were nothing more than Sealaska PR meetings. the real purpose of these meetings was to stop the spreading alarm in SE and make people think they were being listened to. a few minor changes were made, but the impact remains the same. Time was made for more lobbying money to be spread around and deals to be made.
    We should get our official hearings in the field, but we won’t .
    Sealaska’s own lawyer stated twice …once before Congress and in Wrangell , that this legislation would set a precedent for future legislation, are we to be assured by Murkowskis non binding talks with leaders that this will not happen?


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