A Senate Bill is currently working their way slowly through Congress, and The Boat Company (TBC) sees it as a potential long-term threat to Wilderness areas on the Tongass: the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act, S. 730. It is intended to settle the Federal Government’s longstanding promise to transfer land to the Sealaska regional native corporation of southeast Alaska.
TBC is concerned because dozens of small sites within Wilderness Areas on the Tongass have been selected for conveyance by Sealaska Corporation due to their sacred, cultural, traditional, or historic significance. The legislation stipulates that any transferred sacred sites may be developed and used for the purpose of cultural interpretation, but not for logging or mining. Additionally, any improvements on these sites may not be inconsistent with the management plans for adjacent public land. Outwardly, the legislation looks fairly benign. But then it goes on to say that upon enactment of the Act, all restrictive covenants terminate. This suggests that while Sealaska, as landowners, will be subject to some land use conditions, they could turn around and sell any real property acquired through the transfer and the new owners would not be similarly restricted.
There are existing stringent federal protections for historically important sites and artifacts, so there appears to be little threat to the sacred sites Sealaska has selected, particularly the ones within Wilderness. So we oppose this part of the land transfer bill. While we may be sympathetic to the natives’ wishes to celebrate and protect their cultural heritage, we strongly feel that a greater need is met by retaining existing Wilderness Areas intact for the benefit of all living things.
TBC is also concerned about the risk of negative impacts to Tongass Wilderness from increasing numbers of large passenger capacity ‘pocket cruisers’ plying the waters of southeast Alaska. These vessels carry between 40 and 120 passengers, twice to six times the passenger capacity of TBC vessels. Some of these vessels have been observed guiding their passengers onshore in Wilderness with group size numbers substantially in excess of numbers allowed under provisions in the Tongass Land Management Plan.
The Forest Service needs to conduct better monitoring of such operations, but with FS budgets shrinking the prospects for this seem remote. While TBC has designed our whole operation to enable and encourage small group sizes which minimize the impact on Wilderness, pocket cruisers with their much larger numbers of passengers are poised to spoil things, not just for themselves but for TBC and all others who enjoy Wilderness and wish to continue visiting these special places.
Actions to Date
TBC has met with senior FS agency personnel regarding the Sealaska Bill, and recently took the opportunity in a public forum in Sitka to speak with Undersecretary of Agriculture for Resources and Environment Harris Sherman on the need to defend Wilderness from such well-meaning but misguided efforts to carve up these special places as S. 730. He appeared sympathetic to our concerns. Fortunately, the bill appears to be stalled for now, but it could revive and gain momentum at any time.
Within the past few years, TBC actively engaged the FS on two Tongass Wilderness management actions. One was a proposal that would allow helicopters to be used in Tongass Wilderness Areas by the FS for a variety of primarily administrative purposes. The other was an unrelated proposal that would allow nearly unlimited floatplane landings on dozens of S. Baranof Wilderness Area lakes. The helicopter action was resolved in due course through the normal public process, but TBC had to file an administrative appeal on the floatplane action in order to resolve the issue in a manner that would guarantee minimal degradation of wilderness values on South Baranof Island.
TBC is in our seventh year of cooperation with FS in their Kayak Ranger Wilderness Interpretation Program. Each time our vessels enter Tracy Arm – Fords Terror Wilderness Area waters, we provide opportunities for FS Rangers in kayaks to board our vessels and provide interpretive presentations to our passengers. This opportunity also enables our crew members to receive the latest updates on issues of concern in the Wilderness such as the status of Harbor seals which are sensitive to small vessel traffic in the area, especially during pupping season.
In 2011, TBC developed a new monitoring program called the Eastern Baranof Shoreline Cruise/Charter Activity Survey. This was a comprehensive study of cruise vessel and charter boat use of both Wilderness and non-Wilderness lands along a 25-mile stretch of shoreline on the east side of Baranof Island. We contracted with three separate vessel owners to alternative and collectively canvass the study area for two days per week for seventeen weeks during the summer, from early May to early September. We continue to have concerns regarding overuse of some remote areas by operators of large passenger capacity pocket-cruisers and plan to continue the survey program again in 2012.
For the last three years, Sitka Conservation Society, in cooperation with the Sitka Ranger District, has conducted a volunteer Wilderness stewardship project. TBC has participated by filing regular reports which provide details on our guides’ and clients’ Wilderness experience during each visit to one of the District’s two Wilderness Areas. This information is intended to serve as baseline data, and should help in the development of management strategies for ensuring the long-term preservation of intangible Wilderness values such as solitude.
The US Forest Service manages all of the 19 Wilderness Areas on the Tongass National Forest. But all marine waters along the shorelines of Tongass Wilderness Areas are managed by the State of Alaska, Department of Natural Resources. The State often has very different interests and priorities than the Federal Government, and in some cases actively challenges Federal agencies on issues such as ESA threatened and endangered species listings. Thus, maintaining contacts within both the FS and DNR is critical when seeking to preserve Tongass Wilderness.
Key non-profit organizations working to help protect Wilderness on the Tongass include The Wilderness Society, Sitka Conservation Society and the Southeast Alaska Conservations Society. Small overnight tour vessels that operate in southeast Alaska also have an organization, the Southeast Alaska Wilderness Tours Association. At the Statewide level, TBC was a founding member and has been a long-time supporter of the Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association.
Need for Future Action
Two issues of significant concern will continue to require action: the Sealaska Bill, and cruise/charter activity monitoring. TBC plans to dedicate time and energy to both of these threats to Tongass Wilderness Areas.