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Public meeting on proposed removal of protections for 28M acres of wilderness set for Feb. 13

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.

The United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will hold a public hearing in Bethel on Feb. 13 on a proposed removal of land protections for 28 million acres of wilderness throughout Alaska. The hearing was initially set to be held earlier this month, but was rescheduled because weather conditions prevented travel to Bethel.

The wilderness lands are known as “D-1” lands and were set aside after the passage of the landmark 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. They have been off-limits to development ever since.

Public opinion about the proposed removal of protections for the 28 million acres of D-1 lands is mixed. Millions of acres of the land in question lie in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta. Among those 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 officials have said that the corporation currently opposes removing protections for D-1 lands in the Y-K region.

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 life.

BLM's draft environmental impact statement on the proposed status change for the D-1 lands says that removing protections could lead to a loss of a subsistence priority for rural residents if the state of Alaska gains ownership of those lands. The rural subsistence priority is an issue at the core of an ongoing lawsuit brought by the federal government against the state over management of Kuskokwim River fisheries.

Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have both voiced strong support for removing the protections and have introduced federal legislation touting the benefits of potential development.

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 of the current protections for D-1 lands.

Federal officials will hold a public meeting to hear input on the proposed removal of protections for D-1 lands in the cafeteria at Gladys Jung Elementary on Tuesday, Feb. 13 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

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