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Feds seek public input on potential opening of millions of acres of wilderness lands across Alaska

Dean Swope
The site of the proposed Donlin Gold mine, located about 12 miles north of the Kuskokwim River community of Crooked Creek.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is seeking public input on the potential impacts of removing protections for 28 million acres of wilderness lands across Alaska. In addition to accepting comments online, the agency will be hosting in-person public meetings in close to a dozen rural communities, including Bethel, in January and February 2024.

The protected lands, known as “D-1 lands,” are scattered across Alaska and were set aside following passage of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). They have been off-limits to development ever since.

Dozens of tribes across Interior and Western Alaska have joined conservation groups to oppose removing protections, which they say would directly threaten Indigenous ways of living.

“If these lands are changed from withdrawn status to mineral priority status, they will be open to mineral claims that stand to really disrupt caribou migration routes and impact salmon habitat,” said Melanie Brown, outreach director for SalmonState, one of the conservation groups leading the calls for protection.

Brown also said that development of remote and difficult-to-access areas could start small, but lead to a domino effect.

“All it takes is one big project to be built. And then if that's possible, and the infrastructure is there, it's going to make other projects more viable,” Brown said.

BLM’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS) notes that removing protections could also lead to a loss of a subsistence priority for rural residents for the harvest of fish and game on lands where the state of Alaska gains ownership. The rural subsistence priority issue is at the core of an ongoing lawsuit brought by the federal government against the state over management of the Kuskokwim River.

Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have both voiced strong support for removing D-1 protections and have introduced legislation touting the benefits of potential development. Neither Sullivan nor Murkowksi responded to requests for comment.

The state of Alaska is also currently suing the federal government, claiming that the protections were meant to be temporary. In a 2021 press release, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said that D-1 lands had been “locked up as de facto parks.” On the industry side, the Alaska Miners Association has echoed the governor’s criticisms.

Millions of acres of the land in question lie in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Among these D-1 lands are thousands of acres surrounding the site of the proposed Donlin Gold mine, about 145 miles northeast of Bethel. If developed, Donlin would be one of the largest open-pit gold mines in the world.

The Calista Corporation, representing around 34,000 shareholders across Western Alaska, owns the subsurface rights to the proposed mine site. But Calista Vice President of Corporate Affairs Thom Leonard said that Calista currently opposes removing protections for D-1 lands in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) region.

“Any such proposed revocation would be unlawful until DOI (Department of Interior) one, consults with Calista and other affected agencies and the tribes on any proposed revocation as required by law,” Leonard said. “And two, fulfills the sacred promise and statutory duty to convey all of the land to which Calista and the 45 village corporations of the Y-K region are entitled.”

A map shows D-1 lands in question in rlatio
Ben Sullender
Kickstep Approaches
A map shows the location of protected D-1 lands in relation to the site of the proposed Donlin gold mine.

Brown stressed the need for communities across Alaska to offer their input online and through in-person meetings held by BLM.

“It's really important for people to talk about their relationship to the land and how the land feeds them and takes care of them and their families,” Brown said. “If you're in a community where there is a meeting, please show up; have your voice heard.”

BLM is scheduled to hold a public meeting at Bethel’s cultural center on Monday, Feb. 5 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. A public meeting is also scheduled to take place in the middle Kuskokwim River community of Aniak on Tuesday, Feb. 6 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Public comments can also be submitted online here.

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