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Dozens of tribes urge federal government to maintain protections for millions of acres of BLM lands

The North Fork of the Unalakleet River and the Nulato Hills
David W. Shaw
Pew Charitable Trusts
The North Fork of the Unalakleet River and the Nulato Hills in northwestern Alaska.

Seventy-eight Alaska Native tribes have signed onto letters urging the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to maintain long-standing protections on millions of acres of land throughout Alaska. The tribes say that the potential opening of the lands to development poses a direct threat to Indigenous ways of life.

In a series of moves by the federal government since 2019, the amount of lands across the state from which Alaska Native Vietnam War veterans can select allotments has grown to roughly 29.5 million acres. Under the allotment program, veterans or their descendants can claim 160-acre parcels, regardless of where they live.

Twenty-eight million of those acres could soon be opened to potential mineral exploration and development, depending on the results of an environmental impact statement (EIS) set to be released by BLM as early as mid-December 2023.

That’s a cause for concern for dozens of tribes in the state, including 38 tribes represented by the Bering Sea-Interior Tribal Commission, which has been at the forefront of the opposition.

“It's right in our backyards. We are going through salmon crashes throughout the state of Alaska," said Frank Katchatag, who is vice chair of the commission and tribal president of the village of Unalakleet.

The land that Katchatag refers to as his backyard is called the “Bering Sea-Western Interior” planning area. It contains the lion’s share of the land in question, more than 13 million acres. Much of it lies along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, with large portions also overlapping the southern range of the declining Western Arctic Caribou Herd.

“It makes no sense to impose any kind of mining until our sustainable resource has rebounded,” Katchatag said.

Ben Sullender
Kickstep Approaches

Lands set aside

The 28 million acres that could be opened to development are classified as “D-1” lands. They are unreserved public lands set aside under the authority of the Interior Secretary following passage of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) for selection by Native corporations and the state. They have been off-limits to development ever since.

The tribes’ letters to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland say that opening millions of acres of D-1 lands represents a threat to cultural preservation. They also say the already apparent effects of climate change warrant continued protection. Katchatag says it’s serious.

“I've said it to (the) Bureau of Land Management. This is the beginning of genocide,” Katchatag said.

Supporters of opening the 28 million acres in question, including Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowksi and Dan Sullivan, say that the ANCSA-era land withdrawals are outdated and unnecessary. Both have called for opening D-1 lands.

Former president Donald Trump’s interior secretary, David Bernhardt, signed orders to open the lands in the final days of Trump’s presidency. But that was quickly reversed by the incoming Biden administration, citing legal “deficiencies” and a need to consult with Alaska Native tribes and corporations.

Sullivan has characterized the moratorium, now in the EIS stage, as an injustice to Alaska Native veterans, though applications for lands currently in question are still being accepted.

Katchatag said that he supports the effort to honor promises to veterans, but that he wants more tribes to sign on to the effort to keep D-1 protections in place.

“I've said to Sullivan and Murkowski, I can eat a lot of salmon, but I sure can't swallow a chunk of gold,” Katchatag said. “Once the land is scarred, we are forever impacted.”

For now, veterans and their heirs who missed out on the opportunity to claim their rightful allotments will have first pick of the D-1 lands. But depending on the results of the BLM draft EIS, which is expected as early as mid-December, they may not end up the only stakeholders of this vast swath of wilderness.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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