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Feds recommend maintaining protected status for 28M acres of wilderness lands in Alaska

Gillnet fishing on the Kuskokwim River near Aniak.
Dave Cannon
Gillnet fishing on the Kuskokwim River near Aniak.

Roughly 28 million acres of wilderness lands scattered across Alaska will likely remain off-limits to development on the recommendation of the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

In a final environmental impact statement (EIS) released on Friday, June 28, the bureau announced its recommendation that the Secretary of the Interior take “no action” regarding the protected lands. In other words, the department recommends that the lands stay in their protected status.

The 28 million acres were set aside decades ago following passage of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). They’re known as “D-1” lands.

The majority of the D-1 lands lie in the vast western reaches of the state, with portions overlapping the range of the declining Western Arctic Caribou herd, and others located along the massive Yukon and Kuskokwim river systems that serve as the lifeblood of the region.

Ben Sullender
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Kickstep Approaches
A map shows the location of protected ANCSA 17(d)(1) lands on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

BLM's announcement has received overwhelming support from tribes and environmental groups, which point to the importance of the lands to subsistence harvest practices. Almost three-quarters of the lands are designated as federal subsistence lands.

Emily Murray, vice president of the Norton Bay Watershed Council and resident of the village of Elim, applauded the decision. She said that her community is already dealing with threats of mining exploration on state-owned lands, and that protecting millions of acres of D-1 lands directly in her backyard is critical.

"We have a subsistence economy with a cash overlay. We don’t have a cash economy with a subsistence overlay from the Western perspective," Murray said. "We rely on healthy, sustainable environments. That's what we protect. And there's strength in numbers."

BLM analyzed three other possible decisions, ranging from partially to fully removing protections. It found that the other options would negatively impact subsistence hunting and fishing due to a loss of federal subsistence priority. If protections were completely lifted, as many as 117 communities could see the loss of a subsistence priority on some lands in cases where the state gains ownership.

In the final days of the Trump presidency, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed orders to lift restrictions on the D-1 lands. But the incoming Biden administration, with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at the helm, quickly reversed the decision.

In 2021, the state of Alaska sued the federal government over the D-1 land protections. Gov. Mike Dunleavy said that the 28 million acres had been “locked up as de facto parks.”

The state did not immediately respond to requests for comment on June 28.

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.

Due to “legal defects” and a need to consult with Alaska Native tribes and corporations, Interior Secretary Haaland ordered a new analysis of the land in 2022.

As a part of the new analysis, BLM held 19 community meetings throughout the state and received over 15,000 comments from the public on the proposed changes.

BLM will issue a final decision and its official recommendation to the Secretary of the Interior within the next month. The agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment on June 28.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.
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