Bill designed to 'improve the lives of Alaska Natives' to see update, revision

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - State senators in Alaska are pushing a bill which would effectively modernize another piece of legislation passed by congress in 1971, which allotted lands and compensation to Alaska Natives.

According to U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, that bill, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Improvement Act, "cleared the way for Alaska Natives to receive 44 million acres of land and $962 million of compensation."

Now, 47 years later, both Sen. Murkowski and her colleague and fellow Alaska State Senator Dan Sullivan, are calling for ANCSA to be brought into the 21st century.

At a meeting for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the senator took some time to re-introduce S. 1481, a bill which alleges its design is to "make technical corrections to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and for other purposes."

The bill, which can be viewed in full online, offers several adjustments to the 1971 settlement act, which in turn have ripple effects in various areas of Alaska, specifically for Alaska Native communities.

One specific necessity for the corrective bill mentioned by Murkowski was the prohibition of five towns in Southeast Alaska (Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Tenakee, and Haines) to form Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs). The reason behind this lack of inclusion for those towns, Murkowski said, was "for some unexplained reasons we still don't know exactly."

In order to form these corporations, areas needed to meet criteria such as having more than 25 Native residents in 1970, as well as other conditions. Murkowski said the five towns met all these, but were not allowed to form the corporations. S. 1481 would fix that, the Senator said.

Murkowski said the overall goal of the establishment of Native Corporations is to "provide a continuing stream of income to help improve the lives of Alaska Natives."

Another issue the bill is meant to fix is discrepancy for Alaska Natives who were serving in the Vietnam War at the time that the land was granted, and were thus not allowed to do so. A 1998 act was intended to fix this, but according to Murkowski, it did not. "It only included veterans who served during a three year window, instead of any time during the [Vietnam] conflict."

Sen. Murkowski pinpoints adjustments like these as an effort to "finally fulfill the promises that Congress made to Alaska Natives all those years ago."

In addition to making good on past promises, the bill includes updates to previously unforeseen land issues around the state.

Various state's land objects appear in the update bill, such as an easement in Shishmaref. Under the bill, the native corporation in the village of Shishmaref would receive 300 feet of land crossing the Bering Land Bridge National Monument in order to "permit a surface transportation route" between the village and the general area of Ear Mountain.

In Shishmaref, much of the coastal land is receding due to volatile tides and coastal storms caused by climate change depleting sea ice that usually protects the coast.

Needless to say, the authors of the 1971 bill would not have had many of these climate change-related provisions in mind.

In another section of S. 1481, a land exchange is proposed between the state and Sealaska Regional Native Corporation. The land swap would effectively trade 23,000 acres owned by Sealaska for a separate 8,872 acres of federally-owned land. This is considered a "conveyance" which was intended in ANCSA, but not correctly administered.

In yet another, Alaska Native Corporation of CIRI is permitted to adjust it's acreage through ANCSA. The bill is full of instances like these, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is on board with the changes.

Brian Steed, a deputy director of policy for the Department, said it "supports this legislation and looks forward to working with the sponsors and the Committee on technical modifications to specific sections."

Editor's note: An earlier vision of this article referred to Sen. Murkowski as an Alaska State Senator, she is a U.S. Senator.