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Alaska's Tribal Foresters Shatter The Myth of Native Stewardship


Logging in southeast Alaska not only pits the timber industry against environmentalists. It also raises questions about native American stewardship of millions of acres here.

To settle long-standing native land claims, Congress in 1971 passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The law transferred 40 million acres to 13 regional and hundreds of local native corporations around the state. In southeast Alaska, those newly created corporations were allowed to choose some half-million acres of the most valuable timberland on the Tongass National Forest. And to generate regular dividends for their stockholders (all Alaskan natives born before Dec. 18, 1971), they began to clearcut their forests at a rapid rate.

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Today, the trees are all but gone, mostly exported as raw logs. "The native cutting has been particularly drastic," writes James Deane, editor of the Defenders of Wildlife's magazine.

While many Alaska natives have benefited financially from the timber sales, others rue the results - not only on the land but on the people.

The land-settlement law and the massive logging that resulted, says Gilbert Fred, a tribal leader in the village of Angoon, "has given the people a taste of money."

Mike Jackson, a Tlingit Indian who heads the traditional tribal group in the village of Kake on Kupreanof Island, has lived in both worlds. A graduate of Oregon State University, he worked as a government forester for 11 years where his "primary interest was doing clearcuts."

But after he began to see the impact the logging was having - in particular the damage to wildlife on which his family had depended for generations - he said to himself, "I just can't live with this."

Today, of those Indians who support the logging, Mr. Jackson says, "They wear the corporate hat; I wear the traditional hat."

Now, he is a wood carver and part-time magistrate who promotes sustainable use of natural resources. Standing beneath low clouds in the middle of a clearcut just above the village, he says, "If we don't learn from history, this is all going to be a biological desert."

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Alaska's congressional delegation wants to turn over more national forest land to native corporations. But in a recent letter to Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska, senior Interior Department officials said the Clinton administration would veto any such proposal on the grounds that it would reopen the whole issue of native land claims in the state.

Some native groups in southeast Alaska are looking for new ways to manage their lands and resources. The Kake Tribal Corporation is considering using the 10 to 15 percent of harvestable trees that remain (and eventual second-growth timber) to manufacture speciality wood products such as laminates and finger-jointed lumber for things like furniture and window frames.

"The options are to liquidate or diversify," says Pat Joensuu, vice president of timber and construction operations for the tribal corporation.

There is a tribal fish hatchery here, where young men and women sort and kill salmon to the sound of loud rock-and-roll. (Just downstream, a black bear and her cub take their share.) And along the waterfront, a five-year-old fish processing plant packs 120,000 pounds of halibut and salmon a day during the peak season.

"When we recognized that the timber industry was pretty much exhausted, we started refocusing our attention, looking at our strong points," says Matthew Bell, fleet manager of Kake Fisheries.

Meanwhile, the debate over what it means to be a native American in the late 20th century goes on here, particularly as it relates to a place where people lived for thousands of years before industrial forestry drastically changed the landscape.

Matthew Fred, a native elder on Admiralty Island, reminds people of something their ancestors taught: "We should let our island be as a dish.... We can eat out of it, but we shouldn't break the dish."

"We're a part of the land. We always have been," says Peter Jack, a member of Angoon Tribal Council. "Without the land we're going to be extinct as a people."

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