Biden Administration Announces Stop to Massive Alaska Lands Give Away

The move signals a new area of cooperation between DOI and tribally-lead climate and land development monitoring projects in Alaska.

One week before Earth Day, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that it will put on hold on one of the largest extraction industry land grabs in U.S. history, by stopping the former Trump administration’s efforts to quietly open millions of acres of Alaska’s public land—known as D1 lands—to future mining and oil and gas development.

In 1971, under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). Congress protected over 50 million acres of public lands in Alaska from development activity until such time as the Secretary of Interior could determine whether all or part of those lands would be permanently withdrawn from development and native corporations, the state, and others could make claims on those lands. As a result, under ANSCA Section D1, the Secretary issued a series of Public Land Orders (PLOs) protecting sensitive fish and wildlife habitat from mining and other development on “D1-Lands” in the state, almost half of which are located in the Arctic.

In order to make good on political promises, however, the Trump Administration moved quietly to revoke the 50-year-old PLOs by rushing through the planning process and environmental analysis regarding the substantial impacts this action would have on water and subsistence resources while ignoring repeated requests from Alaska’s tribal leaders, local communities, businesses, and conservation organizations for a fair and transparent planning process. To this end, on the day before Trump left office, the BLM approved a final environmental analysis that failed to adequately analyze climate-related and other impacts of opening 99 percent of the 13.5-million-acre Bering Sea Western- Interior planning area. Similarly, on January 15, the agency suddenly announced that it would open nearly 10-million-acres of the Kobuk-Seward planning area in the northwest arctic to mining without consulting the local communities most impacted.

Mining and other extractive development in these vast and unique areas will impact multiple biologically rich salmon-bearing watersheds that are critical for subsistence uses to nearby Native villages and communities. According to Doug Katchatag, the President of the Norton Bay Inter-Tribal Watershed Council who lives in Unalakleet, “The effects of warming temperatures are already killing fish in the North and Golsovia Rivers that we rely on for fishing. If mining also takes place at the head of these rivers it will turn them into dead zones.”

After failing to be heard by the Trump BLM, Alaska tribal and conservation organizations asked the Biden administration to place a regulatory freeze on the massive land transfers while the agency analyzes the potential impacts to sensitive rivers and streams, and conducts proper consultation with tribes and a legal review. On April 15, the BLM responded with a notice in the Federal Register that solidifies the agency’s new commitment to inclusive processes and holistic analyses before completing broad agency actions on lands that are important to the food security and livelihoods of Alaskans around the state.

In addition, if it decides to keep the PLOs in place the BLM will reverse the Trump administration’s refusal to allow Alaska tribal Vietnam Veterans to make land selections as provided under ANSCA. The Trump BLM interpreted federal law as prohibiting the transfer of title to such veterans until the PLOs had been lifted because it considered them to be encumbrances. However, this rationale became suspect after the administration had already authorized the same land selections by the state and Native corporations before it moved to lift the PLOs. Instead, the new administration has reinterpreted the law to mean the encumbrances include mining claims but not land selections.

According to Carol Oliver who is on the Chinik Eskimo Community Tribal Council in Golovin, “We applaud BLM for showing understanding and cooperation in the conservation and protection of our subsistence resources that the previous administration did not.”

It is hoped that, in addition to better consultation with tribes, the regulatory freeze will allow BLM to enter into a new relationship with Alaska Native communities who are dramatically affected by climate change and natural resources development on water and subsistence resources. To date, the agency’s analysis of how land uses would exacerbate the most dramatic impacts of climate change on fishery resources in Alaska including increased temperature, low water flows, and drought has been largely absent.

Alaska tribal organizations, on the other hand, have been leading the way for years in monitoring the impacts of climate change on freshwater ecosystems and warning federal and state agencies about how land-use activities can multiply the impacts of temperature increases and low instream flows on fishery habitat. They point to tribal resiliency as their greatest asset in addressing the impacts of climate change. Tribes are used to calling on their community strength and resilience and in many cases, they know more about their native lands than even the scientific community does.

In its latest climate adaption planning project, for example, the Native Village of Elim is partnering with the Norton Bay Inter-Tribal Watershed Council to develop a climate change risk assessment for the Tubutulik River Watershed that will apply drought and temperature forecasting to predict instream flows and temperature and develop protocols for collecting instream flow, temperature, and dissolved oxygen data during the summer season when temperatures are at their highest. The risk assessment will also identify a process for applying the modeling and data collected to assist policymakers and land managers in mitigating land use that will potentially exacerbate climate-related impacts in the watershed and applying for instream flow water rights under Alaska state law on stream reaches in sensitive watersheds that have been opened to mining activity. Once the Assessment is completed, it will serve as an ecosystem-wide vulnerability assessment for natural resources that can be used by other tribes as a template for conducting their own modeling, data collection, and outreach to federal and state agency land managers.

Similarly, a broad collaboration between several national and international Arctic research institutes and universities, the US Geological Survey, the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, and the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals is proposing to combine Indigenous Knowledge and conventional science to study impacts of climate-related biogeochemical cycles, and hydrological changes on Arctic rivers, fish and indigenous communities in Alaska, Yukon Territory, and British Columbia. The group proposes to apply specific conductance and temperature measurements and modeling techniques to assess how climate change will alter groundwater, river hydrology, geochemistry, river ice and temperatures, and fish habitat of major rivers in the Arctic. It also proposes to apply these strategies to assist Arctic Indigenous community-based monitoring networks focused on the impacts of climate change on water and subsistence resources.  

After four long years of climate denial and regulatory role-backs, hopefully DOI’s decision to continue protecting watersheds critical for fish will announce a new age of acknowledging the unraveling freshwater ecosystems in Alaska due to climate impacts and cooperate with local communities in doing something about it. Because they are the ones most affected by climate change and its impacts on water and subsistence resources, Alaska tribal entities are taking the lead in monitoring the effects of increased stream temperatures and low flows resulting in salmon die-offs in Alaska. It is good to see universities, other institutions, the tribal entities reaching, and now, after years of setbacks, once again the federal government is reaching out to collaborate with and apply traditional knowledge to mitigation the impacts of climate change.