US-Alaska: Why does Congress want to raid our best carbon bank?
On its face, the bill is my-eyes-glaze-over routine: H.R. 2099 and companion bill S. 881 "will provide for the settlement of certain claims under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and for other purposes." The bill will permit an Alaskan Native corporation, Sealaska, to complete lands selection process granted under a 1971 law. Sealaska needs the Congressional decision because it wants to choose lands outside the original boundaries of the Act. If the bill passes, Sealaska will be permitted to log 80,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest.
Or, rob our best carbon bank of 80,000 acres of carbon storage.
As background, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 resolved all claims of Alaskan Natives by creating 12 regional corporations, including Sealaska in the southeast. Sealaska owns 290,000 acres in Southeast Alaska, making it the largest landholder in the Juneau-Ketchikan region. The pending legislation is portrayed as tying up of loose ends by giving Sealaska certain lands not within the original 1971 law. Sealaska wants lands on the north side of Prince of Wales Island within the boundaries of the Tongass National Forest.
At first blush, this is purely an internal Alaskan story. Some local residents oppose the bill because it would make private certain public lands currently being used for subsistence living. Others opine that the bill is fair. Mudflats exposed the attitude, by one state legislator who also happens to sit on the board of the Sealaska Corporation, toward conflict of interest: "turn over the trees and no one gets hurt."
However, the land at question is currently part of the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest national forest. A new Wilderness Society study lists the Tongass ninth on a list of top carbon-storing national forests, or carbon banks. The thick, wet forests of the Pacific Northwest, including the Tongass, store 1 1/2 times as much carbon as the entire amount of carbon dioxide burned in fossil fuels throughout the country each year. Old, wet cool temperature forests such as the Tongass top even the tropical forests of Indonesia and Brazil for storing carbon.
Timber harvesting has been the cornerstone of Sealaska’s economic enterprise. Sealaska’s wholly owned subsidiary, Sealaska Timber, boasts that it’s the largest timber supplier in Alaska and North America’s seventh largest exporter of timber (in other words, its wood is shipped overseas). Although Sealaska portrays S. 881 as a struggle to obtain a small fraction of Native lands, residents are convinced that Sealaska will log whatever land it gets from S. 881. Once land is transferred out of the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska, it’s no longer part of any forest management plan (or national politics of same) and its trees can be harvested at will.
The need to do right by Alaskan Natives needs to be balanced against the need to do right by the planet. Rather than a simple no vote, Congress could consider the concept of reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) in the bill. If we’re willing to consider paying Indonesia and Brazil not to cut down their tropical forests, perhaps a similar solution for any land transferred to Sealaska can be found close to home? The Wilderness Society believes that the economic realities in the Tongass work in favor of conservation, recreation, and carbon sequestration, and against logging. Or, as any Goldman Sachs banker knows, it’s better to keep assets in the bank than to give away parts of the bank to a raider.