Reporting from Thorne Bay, Alaska — Decades after many of America's national forests have been tamed into tree farms and campgrounds, the Tongass National Forest stands as a reminder of what wilderness once was. Beneath its 800-year-old stands of Sitka spruce and Western hemlock lurks a mossy hush, a thick, verdant silence.
But even the 17-million-acre crown jewel of the national forest system has not been immune to the demands of the dollar. Years of heavy logging laid bare large swaths of the forest, especially on Prince of Wales Island, where entire hillsides were shaved by clear cuts.
The end of the logging heyday saved the forest but crushed the rest of southeast Alaska, turning massive lumber mills into rusting hulks and leaving timber towns struggling to keep their schools open.
Now, Alaska's congressional delegation is sponsoring legislation to hand over prized sections of the Tongass to a private Alaska Native corporation that has engaged in some of the region's most aggressive clear-cutting campaigns.
Legislation written by Alaska Republicans Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young would transfer up to 85,000 acres to the Sealaska Corp., an enterprise owned by 20,000 Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian shareholders.
The land exchange would allow Sealaska to complete the settlement it never finalized after the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, opening the way for timber harvesting, tourist lodges and alternative energy projects in a region of rushing salmon streams, azure bays and glacial fiords that many here have come to see as part of the public trust.
Opponents say the legislation is an ill-disguised attempt to evade years of environmental lawsuits and efforts by Democratic administrations to limit logging by privatizing parts of America's first and largest national forest.
"This is corporate welfare," longtime resident Leonard Lein complained at a recent community hearing on the land exchange in the former logging camp of Thorne Bay. "They say they can't make it with the lands they have. Too bad."
Under existing law, Sealaska is required to select its final land settlement out of 327,000 acres previously designated by the federal government. Hardly anyone opposes that.
But corporation officials say much of that land is locked away in roadless areas or too near existing communities.
The new proposal would give Sealaska not only prime forest lands on northern Prince of Wales Island -- much of it already designated for timber harvest by the U.S. Forest Service -- but $60 million worth of roads the Forest Service built over the years to open up the region for logging.
The proposal has drawn fire in a way hardly seen since the early settler days, pitting many of the non-Native homesteaders, fishermen and eco-tourism operators against Native leaders, who say that after decades of outside companies exploiting the Tongass, it is time for Alaska Natives to get more than the leftover lands nobody else wanted.
The debate is over not just the future of the forest, but the ability of Alaska Natives to fully capitalize on the unique land claims settlement that handed over $962.5 million and 44 million acres of land to indigenous people.
"We have a right. Out of the 22 million acres [of our historic lands], we are only asking for 3%. We are asking for a sliver," Sarah Dybdahl, cultural projects coordinator for the Sealaska Heritage Institute, declared at a public hearing last month. "When can we have something good? When can Natives have prime land?"
Sealaska Chief Executive Chris McNeil Jr., a Tlingit who holds a law degree from Stanford University and a master's in political science from Yale University, often points to the 1907 presidential decree that created the Tongass -- with no mention of compensation to those who had inhabited it for thousands of years.
"Those were our lands," McNeil said.
In fact, nearly everyone, including Alaska Natives, has cashed in on the Tongass over the years.
The biggest and best old-growth trees started falling to the chain saw in the 1960s, when a pair of pulp mills in Sitka and Ketchikan -- armed with lucrative federal contracts -- began chewing through millions of board feet a year.
Then came the historic 1971 settlement with Alaska's Native tribes. Unrestrained by many of the federal environmental regulations that govern public land, the new tribal corporations began mowing down hillsides, often from ridge top to the water's edge. Most of the Native-cut trees bypassed local mills and were exported to Asia, where they would fetch a higher price.
Alarmed at the speed with which the rain forest was being brought to its knees, Congress canceled the pulp company contracts in the 1990s.