"Gloomy Outlook for Generous Claims"

by A. Robert Smith

Anchorage Daily News, July 10, 1971, p. 1

 Washington — An understandable climate of gloom has settled over the proponents of a generous settlement bill for Alaskan Natives to resolve the dispute over their land claims.

Because all of the action is under the secrecy edict of Rep. Wayne Aspinall, D–Colo., behind the closed doors of the House subcommittee on Indian Affairs, no complete account of developments is available for assessment.

At the least the participants are discouraged by the drawn-out nature of the subcommittee’s deliberations. Starting with three meetings three weeks ago, the subcommittee has held only two meetings since then, one last week and one this week.

It is becoming more difficult for the congressmen, upon emerging from these secret discussions, to keep up the pretense with terse remarks such as, "We are making progress."

The second cause of discouragement appears to be the terms of Aspinall’s bill which the subcommittee has gone over line by line. As one member put it, "It’s so bad it will require major surgery just to get it in the ballpark."

But are things really all that bad? It depends on one’s perspective.

In the first place, no one should ever expect a bill authorizing up to a billion dollars in cash and millions of acres in land grants for a relatively small number of American citizens to whisk through any committee of Congress.

No matter how worthy the claim of Alaskan Natives, this is an unprecedented amount of money and land that Congress is considering granting to settle the issue of who owns what in Alaska.

Last year it took the Senate Interior Committee months, not weeks, of the same sort of closed door sessions before a compromise bill was agreed upon. The fact that it took so long made it practically impossible for the House to follow suit.

This year the House Interior Committee has taken the lead, and the Senate committee plans to await the results before moving on companion legislation.

The second bit of fresh perspective may be offered by this assertion: a year ago if anyone had known that Congressman Aspinall would advocate a settlement package of nearly $1 billion plus 11 million acres of land, this would have been regarded as just cause for celebration rather than gloom.

When the Senate passed its version just a year ago, it provided for $1 billion and 10 million acres—and only the Arctic Slope Native Association was heard to grumble that this was insufficient. While the Alaska Federation of Natives had asked for 40 million acres, they were willing to settle for the Senate formula as the most they could realistically expect to receive.

The big fear a year ago was that this Senate version would be drastically reduced in Aspinall’s committee, with the consequence that a final compromise figure would provide something less than the terms of the Senate bill.

Today, however, it seems clear that Aspinall won’t demand such a drastic cut and, indeed, may be willing to support legislation approximating the terms of last year’s Senate bill, which then was considered generous.

What makes the Aspinall proposal seem outside the ballpark today is that the AFN has increased its demands to 60 million acres, and the Nixon administration has agreed to go along with 40 million acres, all of which makes 11 million acres seem penurious.

On the issue of cash, Aspinall’s bill reportedly would give the Natives $350 million over a period 8 or 9 years with 4 per cent interest on the unpaid balance. This figures out to nearly $500 million in true dollars, or comparable to the administration’s plan for giving $500 million in $25 million installments over 20 years without interest.

The provisions of the Aspinall bill for distributing land are less generous—but the political reality on this point is that Sen. Henry M. Jackson, D–Wash. is also opposed to giving more than 10 or 11 million acres.

Unless there is some surprising shift in the attitude of both Aspinall and Jackson, the final compromise figure is more apt to be closer to 10 million than to 40 or 60 million acres.

Any improvements will be that much gravy.

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