Politicians/Fake News Fuels Confusion About Decision to Extend Veterans Selections on Alaska Public Lands

By Hal Shepherd

In a classic example of the current fake-news culture, several media outlets fueled the false narrative started by Alaska politicians.

Alaska Politicians were reportedly furious after the Department of the Interior (DOI) announced a two-year extension of several new Public Land Orders (PLOs) restricting development on 28 million acres in Alaska. In a press release earlier this month, Senators Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan, and Congressman Don Young claimed that the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) extension of the PLOs fails to acknowledge the extensive environmental analysis and tribal consultation involved in the process for lifting the PLOs. According to this Delegation, the “Interior Department claims this two-year stay is necessary to do additional environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), despite the years of analysis and public process already completed supporting the decision to issue the PLOs lifting these withdrawal restrictions.”  

In 1971, Congress Adopted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in order to settle conflicting state and Native public land claims that arose after statehood. The Act established a process for allowing native corporations, the state and others to select lands and conveyance of those lands. ANCSA also set aside 50 million acres in the state, over half of which is located in the Arctic, 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and other development until such time as he/she could determine whether all or part of those lands would be permanently withdrawn. Although the Act directed the Secretary to complete the recommendations for permanent management of D1 lands within ninety days of ANCSA’s enactment, to this day millions of acres remain provisionally withdrawn under ANCSA.

While the Delegation’s claim of inadequate analysis and consultation did occur, it was the Trump, not the Biden administration, who, in order to make good on political promises, moved quickly and quietly to revoke the PLOs. This was done by rushing through the planning process, including environmental analysis regarding the substantial impacts this action would have on water and subsistence resources, while ignoring repeated requests from Alaska’s local communities, businesses and tribal and conservation organizations for an adequate consultation and public process

As a result, these groups asked the Biden administration to place a two year regulatory freeze on the massive land transfer 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 responded with a notice in the Federal Register that solidifies the agency’s recent commitment to the inclusive processes and holistic analyses. 

Similarly, the Delegation claims that extending the PLOs was contrary DOI’s “responsibilities to fulfill land conveyance commitments to the State of Alaska and Alaska Native Vietnam Veterans contained in the Alaska Statehood Act and the Dingell Act.” Extending Alaska Native selections for Vietnam Veterans under the Dingell Act, however, 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.

In fact, even as the Delegation was jumping up and down about what a travesty the extension of the PLOs was for the ability of tribal veterans to make land selections and that the BLM had made the decision to extend the PLOs without consulting Alaska tribes, the agency announced that it would make Government-to-Government consultation it’s top priority, including how to proceed with prioritizing land selections by tribal Veterans and would begin the process for issuing consultation notices to tribal governments. In a mid-May press release, 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.”

Further, rather than opposing the BLM’s extension of the PLO’s and promise to move forward with tribal veteran land selections, more than two dozen Alaska tribes and tribal organizations sent letters to the agency, specifically thanking it for finally listening to their concerns about the rushed environmental analysis and failure to adequately consult with the tribes. The letters also expressed appreciation to the BLM for moving ahead with honoring the commitment to tribal veterans made in ANSCA and the Dingell Act while simultaneously protecting water and subsistence resources on public lands. Secretary Haaland, therefore, clearly recognizes that the Delegation’s argument that unless all the PLOs are lifted 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 congressional delegation and the Governor claim that holding up protections for 28 million acres of land so that veteran land selections can be made illustrates that the politicians would like to continue the Trump administration’s strategy to hold them hostage in order to push through the massive extraction industry land grab while ignoring Tribal requests to protect such resources.

Never-the-less, in a classic example of the current fake-news culture, several media outlets fueled the false narrative started by Alaska politicians, claiming that, instead of opening more land for and speeding up Vietnam Veteran selections,“Haaland’s recent decision took 28 million acres of federal land off the table.” Instead of fact checking, such media quote mistaken and partisan statements by the Delegation and Governor about the administration’s extension of public land protections while prioritizing Alaska Native land selections.

In a more accurate description of the agencies approach to Alaska Native land selections, on May 14 E&E News reporter quoted Nada Culver, BLM's deputy director for policy and programs, as stating "’The BLM is committed to expediting Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans' land applications, even as we review and complete the analysis for the decisions in the previous Administration's land orders.’" True to its word, the BLM immediately followed up on its promise by sending a letter which formally invited tribal government entities to engage in government-to-government consultation regarding the agencies intention to develop Environmental Assessments “to disclose and analyze the…effects of opening lands within the Kobuk Seward, Bay, Ring of Fire, Bering Sea-Western Interior and East Alaska to selections by [tribal] veterans” and recommendations regarding D1 Land withdrawals in these areas. While the BLM plans to formally announce release of the EA over the coming weeks, it is proposing an ambitious schedule for initiating consultation with tribes in order that tribal in-put can “shape or approach to this issue from the outset.”  

To this end, the BLM will hold consultation meetings in accordance with the following schedule:

-       Wednesday, May 26, from 1:30-3:30pm AKT

-       Thursday, May 27, from 1:30-3:30pm AKT

-       June 14, from 1:30-3:30pm AKT

Written comments can be submitted to consultation@blm.gove on or before June 22, 2021

Any questions, comments or requests to schedule a meeting with the agency should be directed to Danna Jackson (406-422-9154; djackson@blm.gov) and Byron Loosle (202-302- 1442; bloosle@blm.gov).