Dunleavey Administration Carries on Trump era tradition of resource exploitation/False Narrative

By Hal Shepherd

After the Department of the Interior announced a two-year extension of several new Public Land Orders (PLOs) restricting development on 28 million acres in the state, it seems that Alaska politicians are doing their best to carry on the autocratic environmental policies of former president Trump. Earlier this month, for example, the State of Alaska sued DOI for what the Dunleavy Administration claims is an effort to blocks State and Alaska Native Vietnam Veteran land selections, lock up federal lands as "de facto parks,” frustrating ANILCA and Statehood land entitlements in the process. According to Dunleavy, the state filed the lawsuit in response to the Biden administration’s efforts consciously ignore and go “around appropriate processes to hold things in perpetual limbo.”

The dispute over the disposition of the lands in question goes back to 1971 when Congress adopted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) which, in part, was intended to settle conflicting state and Native public land claims that arose after statehood. The Act established a process, under section D1 of the Act, for disposition of 57 million acres in the state and directed the Secretary of Interior to issue the PLOs in order to protect sensitive fish and wildlife habitat from mining and other development until such time as native corporations, the state and others to select lands and conveyance of those lands and he/she could determine whether all or part of those lands would be permanently withdrawn.

Although ANSCA directed the Secretary to complete the recommendations for permanent management of “D1 lands” within ninety days of enactment, over the past 60 years the withdrawals have been lifted for only 7 million acres. Then, just days before Trump left office in January 2021, the former president revoked 1,529 million acres of D-1 land in Goodnews Bay, Fortymile, and Bering Glacier planning areas and, attempted to remove another 28 million acres – within the Kobuk-Seward, Ring of Fire, Bay and Bering Sea Western Interior planning areas, which are the PLOs for which Biden has given an extension. 

While Dunleavy may have a point, therefore, that a final decision on the permanent distribution of D1 Lands is long overdue, that does not justify a failure to conduct adequate consultation with Alaska Tribes or environmental analysis and ignore public comment in making such a decision. As part of the lawsuit against DOI, for example, the state claims that there has already been “years of analysis and public process completed supporting the decision lift the 28 million acres of withdrawals.”  This is contrary to the fact, however, that despite the enormous impact that mining and other development would have on water and subsistence resources over such a vast acreage, in order to make good on political promises before President Trump left office, his administration rushed through the planning process for revoking the land withdrawals, including the environmental analysis. 

Similarly, the Dunleavy administration claims that extending the PLOs was merely the result of the Biden administration’s efforts to let outside interests meddle in state affairs.  According to Corri Feige, Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, the extension of the PLOs was for the sole purpose of advancing “the policy goals of anti-development activists and political donors in the lower 48 rather than the everyday Alaskans that benefit from multiple use of public lands.”

Contrary to the claim that DOI is allowing outside interests meddle in Alaska politics, however, it was the Trump, not the Biden, administration that, in order to make the lands in question, available to mining and other development, ignored repeated requests from the state’s local communities, businesses and tribal and conservation organizations for an adequate consultation and public process before revoking the PLOs. One of the best examples of this was the failure of the Trump BLM to list a single watershed nominated by local tribes and communities for Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) status as part of the planning process. The agency claimed that it threw out the recommendations because the ACECs did not meet the “relevance and importance” criteria. However, in an ACEC Report on the Application of Relevance and Importance Criteria and Special Management completed during the Obama administration, the very same “ACECs were found to meet both the relevance and importance criteria and are considered potential ACECs.” 

As a result of the Trump administration’s exclusion of local interests from the D1 Lands planning process, over two dozen local and tribal groups asked the Biden administration to place a two-year regulatory freeze on the extraction industry land grab so that the agency could effectively analyzes the potential impacts to sensitive rivers and streams, and conduct proper consultation with tribes. On April 15, the BLM granted these requests by announcing that it would adequately consult with tribal governments about the substantial impact that lifting the PLOs would have on subsistence resources throughout the state.

On the other hand, that the State’s politicians are, once again, grandstanding for purely political reasons is probably best illustrated by the claim that the withdrawals have “blocked Alaska Native Vietnam War veterans from selecting land allotments.” Such statements, however, completely ignore the fact that Extending Alaska Native selections for Vietnam Veterans under the Dingell Act, does not require revocation of the D1 withdrawals. Instead, in order to be available for selection by tribal veterans, the Act’s requirement that land be “vacant, unreserved and unappropriated” pertains only to the sub-surface and not the surface estate.

Indeed, last spring, the BLM announced that it would make Government-to-Government consultation it’s top priority, including how to proceed with prioritizing land selections by tribal Veterans. In a mid-May press release, accompanying this announcement, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland – the first Native American woman to be appointed to that post, said:

We have a sacred obligation to America’s veterans. I know the sacrifices made by those who serve in our military, and I will not ignore a right owed to our Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans…. Interior Department personnel are moving forward expeditiously to ensure that Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans are able to select the land allotments they are owed, with an expansive selection area.”

Secretary Haaland clearly recognizes that the state’s argument in favor of lifting  all the PLOs so that tribal veteran land selections can take place on 40,000 acres (a mere 0.14% of the total 28 million acres), is clearly disproportional to the benefits to Alaska Native Communities and continued protections for watersheds and subsistence resources. In fact, the Governor’s claim that holding up protections for 28 million acres of land so that veteran land selections can be made illustrates that politicians would like to continue the Trump administration’s strategy to hold the veterans hostage in order to push through an massive extraction industry land grab while ignoring Tribal requests to protect such resources.

Not surprisingly, shortly after filing the lawsuit against the PLO extension, Governor Dunleavy appointed his former campaign manager and aide, Brett Huber, to head up the “statehood defense initiative” directly aimed at the Biden administration’s land protection programs. According to the Dunleavey administration, the initiative will defend “attempts from President Joe Biden’s federal agencies to overregulate Alaskans” and prevent those who “see our state as another parcel to be managed like a park [and] to fight those attempts to rollback our Alaskan way of life.”

Fake news and false narratives are getting completely out of control, especially among politicians who are committed to carrying out the regulatory roll-back propaganda of the Trump administration. For Alaskan’s it is no longer just a matter of protecting the state’s sensitive water and subsistence resources from development. We must also mitigate the impacts of climate change on critical fish habitat. It is therefore, more important than ever to challenge rhetoric with the truth and call out politicians for lying especially when, as in the case of the D1 lands issue, the impacts to the environment and subsistence resources are potentially disasterous.