Yakutat is a remote village in the Gulf of Alaska located halfway between Juneau and Cordova. Its economy has long been linked to fishing, tourism and, for the first time since the 1980s, commercial logging. It was because of his native owned aboriginal company that got back into the lumber game – cutting and exporting to foreign shores.
But recently, logging has worried elected city officials and tribal governments, who have called for an end to logging in areas they deem environmentally sensitive and culturally sacred to Yakutat residents.
Yakutat Mayor Cindy Bremner was formerly President and CEO of Yak-Tat Kwaan, Inc. and sat on the board of directors of the village corporation. Since 2015, she has only been active as a shareholder.
But a few years ago, she said she had a hunch and decided to research local lumber plans on a state website. It was there that she first learned about the ambitious logging plans of the village society in Yakutat.
“And then the next day they brought in their equipment barge,” she said. “I had a bad feeling one day, and I was pretty sad that they had applied for it.”
Yak Wood, Inc.
Yak-Tat Kwaan’s last public filings with state financial regulators were in 2017. At the time, he said he had no plans to mine any of his 23,040 acres. , or 36 square miles, granted in the 1970s under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
But the following year, the company created a new subsidiary: Yak Timber, which quickly got to work. A note to shareholders last summer said that in two years, she had earned $ 1.8 million in logging and selling cottages and mini-homes.
“It’s understandable that some people don’t like logging,” Yak-Tat Kwaan CEO Shari Jensen wrote in a letter to shareholders on June 25, in part in response to criticism of the timber.
“Instead of using the energy to sabotage Yak Timber, it would be nice to see it used to help make Yak-Tat Kwaan a viable and long-term business for years to come,” she said. writing.
Earlier this month, the company released an unaudited report that says the company made some $ 3.8 million from timber in 2019, with an overall net profit of just under $ 800,000 this that year.
But this economic boost has been controversial, Bremner said.
“The shareholders, I think, are a bit torn with the logging going on here,” she said.
Yak Timber needed funding to purchase heavy equipment for its crews. Since 2019, she has borrowed at least $ 7 million, according to documents and statements to shareholders who were told the debt was needed to carry the company until more lumber was sold. The fish processing plant and the village corporation’s forest rights to part of its land were used as collateral.
The mayor says she is concerned that Yakutat forest land is being sold too quickly to fund the company’s projects.
“They took advantage of the resources of our land to be able to do this,” said Bremner. “And I don’t think that’s something they should be able to do.”
[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]
ANCSA calls on Indigenous businesses to generate profits for shareholders
Talk to another Bremner and you’ll get a very different point of view.
“You have to hear the rest of the story,” said Don Bremner, director of the village company, who is linked to the mayor.
“Yes, we are related – everyone in Yakutat is related,” he said.
The community has fewer than 600 people and lost people in the last census.
Don Bremner is president of the village corporation and its forestry branch. The long-term health of the business is good and debt is not an issue, he said.
“We are a worthy company, making real, serious business decisions, not based on perception, opinion, without research,” he said. He declined to go into details, saying it was an internal matter for Yak-Tat Kwaan shareholders. And because the village corporation has fewer than 500, it is not required to file its annual reports with state financial regulators.
But Bremner always dismisses concerns about the too rapid exploitation of Yakutat’s lands.
“It’s not a big volume, but the people who have concerns are the ones who will always have those concerns,” he said.
His other message is that Congress has created for-profit corporations to enrich Indigenous shareholders. And that’s exactly what Yak-Tat Kwaan does, he said.
“We are a for-profit company and ANCSA has demanded that we continue to make money with our assets, become self-determined,” he said. “If they want to try to change ANSCA, go ahead. It just won’t happen. Because you have 12 very wealthy regional companies making a lot of money from ANSAA. So that’s what we do is run businesses profitably. “
Tribes, historic state office worried about Humpback Bay clearcuts
The Yakutat city government has opposed this year’s logging around Ophir Creek, which includes pink salmon habitat.
But that did not prompt the board of directors to change course. A state fisheries biologist reported that some of the logging was too close to streams, and follow-up visits are scheduled for November.
But the real battle ahead involves the planned logging on 426 acres of land around Humpback Creek, about 10 miles northeast of the village.
As the name suggests, it is also known for its pink salmon. And its indigenous name comes from both the Eyak and Lingit languages, which locals say testify to Yakutat’s history as a crossroads of indigenous cultures.
“Humpy Creek itself, you know, has a lot of significance in our oral history,” said Judith Dax̱ootsú Ramos, originally from Yakutat and who now teaches immersive languages at the University of Southeast Alaska in Juneau. “People were a little taken aback when they saw the harvest plans in this area and no one knew they were going to harvest in this area. “
Ramos said the company is making its business plans for the timber without consulting elders or anyone with traditional knowledge.
The debate over logging for money versus conserving cultural resources is a common friction that stems from ANSCA’s legacy over the past half century.
Tribal governments urge village society to rethink logging plans
State agencies work with for-profit Aboriginal corporations to realize the commercial value of natural resources. This is despite sustained opposition from tribal governments.
The Yakutat Tribal Council and the Central Regional Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska both passed resolutions opposing the Humpback Creek timber harvest around Humpback Creek.
The state’s Bureau of History and Archeology also recently wrote a letter to the village corporation warning them that its clearcuts could threaten historic sites. He said there are irreplaceable heritage resources in and near the project area.
But well-paying jobs in Yakutat are scarce in the community, which is losing population. So the promise of jobs in the woods and cash dividends resonates, said Mayor Cindy Bremner.
“Has it been good for the local economy and for getting people to work and contributing to payroll taxes? ” she asked. “Yes. Do I like it? Yes. I don’t like the way they do it.
She added, “They could have come up with a 20-year sustainable plan that didn’t require clear-cutting. And more people could have come on board with something like that.
Yak-Tat Kwaan to face shareholders at November meeting
There appears to be an upcoming account at Yaktuat. Successive shareholders’ meetings were canceled this year. The company said this was due to COVID-19 precautions and other planning issues.
“It’s not some kind of world secret that there is a pandemic going on,” Don Bremner said.
But others suspect the company is lagging behind over growing anger over clearcuts near the city, and an anti-logging website has sprung up called “Defend Yakutat.”
Cindy Bremner said shareholders plan to try to hold the village company accountable when directors to the board are re-elected. She said there was a clear disconnect between the people of Yakutat, the shareholders of the village company and those who made the decision.
“Most of these boards don’t even live here anymore and don’t have to see the devastation of clearcutting every day like we do,” she said.
The November 20 meeting could be a referendum on Yakutat’s satisfaction with the last few years of commercial logging. But it will only be open to its few hundred shareholders, many of whom are moving elsewhere.