Who Is Behind Appeal Delaying a Rightful Land Claim?

Michael A. Baines

We are profoundly disappointed and frustrated that the trustees of the defunct Sheldon Jackson College have filed a notice to appeal a recent federal decision rejecting their claim to 160 acres by Redoubt Falls and surrounding areas near Sitka.

The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) rejection of their land claim was a victory for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and Sealaska, which filed for title of 11-acres around Redoubt Falls almost 40 years ago under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The Act allows regional Native corporations to select land that is historically or culturally important.

For nearly four decades, Sealaska has sought to protect the site, which we know as Kunáa, a culturally important area that was historically owned by the Kiks.ádi Clan. Sealaska’s claim was finally beginning to move through the BLM process when the college suddenly filed its claim in 2012. In July, the BLM adjudication branch ruled that the Sheldon Jackson trustees failed to prove ownership, and on August 6 they filed a notice to appeal and moved for a stay on BLM action. The appeal means yet another costly delay. And we are left to wonder: who is really behind this effort and what do they really want?

The trustees claim their motive is to ensure that the public has continued access to the sockeye fishery in the area. In early 2012, months before the trustees filed their claim, Sealaska, the tribe, the Forest Service, and the City of Sitka held intensive negotiations and produced a property management agreement for Redoubt Falls that would go into place if the BLM transferred the 11 acres to Sealaska. Under that plan, the public would be guaranteed continued subsistence access. The Forest Service would have continued use of its weir and fisheries enhancement program at Redoubt Falls, and under a separate agreement between Sealaska and the tribe, the tribe would have taken on primary responsibility for stewardship of the acreage. The property transfer to Sealaska would have been seamless, and the public would not have noticed anything different in the way the property was being managed. The parties were near consensus when the trustees filed their claim, which brought the process to a halt.

The trustees argue that if Sealaska owned the land, the future of public access to the Redoubt Falls area is in question. However, Sealaska and Sitka Tribe of Alaska agree that public access will continue to be the priority. How does a transfer to the college ensure continued access in the future?

And on that point, if the Redoubt Falls property transfers to the defunct college, does it then become vulnerable to being taken by their creditors? What if one of their creditors seized control of the area, built a private fishing lodge, and closed the area to the public? Will anyone continue to administer property owned by the college in the future, when it is our understanding that the entity will cease to exist in the near future?

The approach we endorsed was a win-win: the property would transfer to Sealaska, a federally-recognized tribal entity; the stewardship of this historic site would fall to STA, a federally-recognized tribe; the Forest Service would have continued use of its weir and fisheries enhancement program there; and the area would continue to be open to subsistence users.

We respectfully ask the trustees to stop their appeal. Stop fighting us. You are scratching old wounds. The namesake of Sheldon Jackson College came to Alaska to stamp out Native languages and cultures, and the pain of those times lives on in our people today. We respectfully ask the trustees to cease their efforts to claim this historic Tlingit site as their own and not further delay a return to Native ownership and management.

Michael A. Baines is Tribal Chairman of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

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