Steven A. Ellis
Deputy Director, Operations
Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior
Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee
Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, & Mining
S. 872, Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities
Recognition and Compensation Act
October 8, 2015
Thank you for the opportunity to provide the views of the Department of the Interior on S. 872, the Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities Recognition and Compensation Act. S. 872 would amend the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) to authorize the five Southeast Alaska Native communities of Haines, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Tenakee, and Wrangell to organize as urban corporations, entitling each to receive land in southeastern Alaska.
The Department supports the goals of fulfilling ANCSA entitlements as soon as possible so that Alaska Native corporations may each have the full economic benefits of completed land entitlements. In recent years, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has maintained an accelerated pace in fulfilling entitlements pursuant to the ANCSA. To date, the BLM has fulfilled 96 percent of ANCSA and 95 percent of State of Alaska entitlements by interim conveyance, tentative approval, or patent. The BLM is committed to improving the Alaska land transfer process wherever opportunities exist. For example, the BLM has identified outdated and unnecessarily costly procedures required by a 42-year-old Memorandum of Understanding with the State of Alaska and has developed a significantly faster, more accurate, and more cost effective method for land conveyances to the State. Using this modern approach will amount to large savings for the Federal government and fulfill the promise of the Alaska Statehood Act within the next fifteen years, a fraction of the time that would be required under the existing agreement between the state and the BLM. We have engaged the state regarding this significant opportunity and the need to revisit the 1973 MOU.
ANCSA effected a final settlement of the aboriginal claims of Native Americans in Alaska through payment of $962.5 million and conveyances of more than 44 million acres of Federal land. Although it was impossible for Congress to have effected total parity among all villages in the state, there was a distinction made in ANCSA between the villages in the southeast and those located elsewhere. Prior to the passage of ANCSA, Natives in the southeast received payments from the United States pursuant to court cases in the 1950s and late 1960s, for the taking of their aboriginal lands. Because Natives in the Sealaska region benefitted from an additional cash settlement under ANCSA, the eligible communities received less acreage than their counterparts elsewhere in Alaska. Congress specifically named the villages in the southeast that were to be recognized in ANCSA; these five communities were not among those named. Despite this, the five communities applied to receive benefits under ANCSA and were determined to be ineligible. Three of the five appealed their status and were denied.
Notwithstanding the ineligibility of some communities for corporate status under ANCSA, all Natives potentially receive benefits from the ANCSA settlement. Alaska Natives in these five communities are enrolled as at-large shareholders in the Sealaska Corporation. The enrolled members of the five communities comprise more than 20 percent of the enrolled membership of the Sealaska Corporation, and as such, have received benefits from the original ANCSA settlement.
S. 872 would amend ANCSA to authorize the five Southeast Alaska Native communities of Haines, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Tenakee, and Wrangell to organize as urban corporations, entitling each, upon incorporation, to receive one township of land (23,040 acres) from local areas of historical, cultural, traditional and economic importance. The bill provides that establishment of these new urban corporations does not affect any entitlement to land of any Native Corporation established before this act being proposed.
Recognition of these five communities as provided in the bill, despite the history and requirements of ANCSA, risks setting a precedent for other similar communities to seek to overturn administrative finality and re-open their status determinations. Establishing this de facto new process would contravene the purposes of ANCSA and could create a continual land transfer cycle in Alaska.
The Department also has concerns with specific provisions in the bill. For example, in section 6, new ANCSA section 43 contains very open-ended selection language. The provision does not require the new urban corporations to take lands for “the township or townships in which all or part of the Native village is located,” as provided for in ANCSA. Instead, it requires only that the lands be “local areas of historical, cultural, traditional, and economic importance to Alaska Natives” from the villages. The bill also appears to require the Secretary, in consultation with the Secretary of Commerce and representatives from Sealaska Corporation, to select and offer lands to the new urban corporations.
Although the Department does not support S. 872, we would be glad to work with the sponsors and the Committee to address these issues as well as problems with eligible existing ANCSA communities. For instance, rather than simply addressing the perceived inequities of five communities formerly deemed to be ineligible under ANCSA, the Department would like to work with the Committee to find solutions to the existing eligible communities that have no remaining administrative remedies, such as the villages of Nagamut, Canyon Village andKaktovik.
The BLM’s Alaska Land Transfer program is now in a late stage of implementation and the Department strongly supports the equitable and expeditious completion of the remaining Alaska Native entitlements under ANCSA and other applicable authorities. S. 872 would delay the Department’s goal of completing the Alaska Land Transfer Program and fulfilling land entitlements for Alaska Natives and the State. The Department believes that the completion of the remaining land transfers under ANCSA and the Statehood Act is necessary to equitably resolve the remaining claims and realize the existing Congressional mandate.