Sullivan’s False Narrative Regarding Alaska Public Land Management
By Hal Shepherd
While Sullivan and the rest of the Alaska delegation were spreading a false narrative about how the Biden administration was discriminating against Alaska tribal veterans by preventing them from making land selections as required by federal law, Biden became the first president in 50 years to actually grant such selections.
Earlier this month, Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan sent a letter to the Interior Inspector General complaining about several congressionally-approved Department of Interior officials in key positions overseeing public lands oil and gas projects. According to the December 10 edition of E&E News’ Greenwire, Sullivan argues that these officials are “utilizing their government positions to work on matters directly and substantially related to their previous clients or employers [at conservation or advocacy groups opposed to extractive projects including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve] to the benefit of these entities. This according to Sullivan raises “dire conflicts of interest and questions as to these appointees’ impartiality.”
Specifically, Senator Sullivan is upset with Nada Culver, deputy director of policy and programs at the Bureau of Land Management, and Laura Daniel-Davis, deputy assistant secretary for land and mineral management at the Department of Interior, who previously worked at the Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation respectively.
It’s strange that Sullivan would bring up the background of DOI officials in the Biden Administration while at the same time openly supporting officials former President Trump appointed to similar positions who clearly utilized their government positions to work on matters directly and substantially related to their previous clients or employers who in those cases, happened to be the extraction industry. Before they entered public service, for example, Trump’s Interior Secretary David Bernhardt who, prior to his appointment, worked as an oil and energy industry lobbyist and attorney. Also, Trump’s EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler worked as an attorney representing coal magnate Robert E. Murray and lobbied against the Obama Administration's environmental regulations before his appointment.
Sullivan’s newfound integrity is confusing given his complete silence about the Trump administration’s authoritarian handling of the William Perry Pendley matter. Perry Pendley was appointed by Secretary David Bernhardt as Temporary Director of the Bureau of Land Management and therefore oversaw the very same Alaska oil and gas programs as those individuals Sullivan now complains about. The only difference is that, in Pendley’s case, there was no doubt about his conflict of interest and openly hostile to environmental regulations, social justice, any inclusion of native and African American communities, and his support for the privatization of public lands, anti-government extremists, and his efforts to dismantle the very agency he was supposed to be overseeing.
Pendley’s radical anti-public land views, racism, and support of right-wing extremists were so atrocious, it became obvious to Bernhardt that there would be no way Pendley would obtain confirmation from congress. So rather than nominate him for that position as legally and ethically required, Bernhardt repeatedly extended Pendley’s appointment as Director of the agency for 13 months. During this entire time, neither Senator Sullivan nor the rest of the Alaska Delegation said anything.
The Federal Vacancies Reform Act, not to mention the Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution mandate that heads of prominent federal agencies be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate and that the U.S. Supreme Court refers to such confirmation procedures, as a “critical structural safeguard” of democracy. These safeguards had no apparent effect on Sullivan or any of the other Republicans in Congress during the Pendley debacle.
When the Trump administration was finally sued for this precedent-setting illegal and unethical conduct, the Montana U.S. District Court promptly enjoined Pendley from exercising such authority and Bernhardt from unlawfully delegating the authority of the BLM director to him. In fact, the Court’s declaration that Pendley served unlawfully as the Acting Director of the BLM for well over a year also meant that many of the decisions he made during that time, including opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the National Petroleum Reserve to oil drilling,” or vast acreages of public lands, including areas relied on by Native village communities for subsistence, to mining, were potentially unauthorized.
In the letter to the Inspector General, Senator Sullivan also asked for a review of Natalie Landreth, deputy solicitor for lands at Interior, and solicitor Robert Anderson, for the sole reason that both of these individuals previously worked with the Native American Rights Fund. Perhaps to make amends to Native Americans, including Alaska Natives, in relation to natural resources issues, Sullivan made a somewhat disjointed floor speech at about the same time, again blaming the Biden administration for lack of movement regarding land selections on public lands in Alaska by Vietnam era tribal veterans. Sullivan said that a bipartisan bill was passed stating that the failure to complete these lands selections
…is an injustice. The previous administration signed it. They were implementing it. And when this administration came into office, the number one issue I asked Secretary Haaland to commit to was to finish getting the Executive order out on these land allotments, to implement this bipartisan bill, because these Native Vietnam veterans aren't living that long.
The administration delayed it for 2 years. Why? It has nothing do to with oil and gas or mining. Why? These Vietnam vets, many aren't going to live for 2 more years. They did it anyway.
Whatever Sullivan was trying to say in this speech, it appears to be nothing more than the continuation of fake news that Alaska politicians began spreading 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. As background, in 1971 Congress adopted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) to settle conflicting state and Native public land claims that arose after statehood. To this end, under section D1, ANCSA set aside 50 million acres of public lands, over half of which is located in the Arctic (the so-called “D1 Lands”), 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 or made available for land selections by native corporations, the state and others to select lands and conveyance of those lands.
Although the Act directed the Secretary to complete the recommendations for permanent distribution of D1 lands, including which lands to make available for land selections within ninety days of ANCSA’s enactment, to this day millions of acres remain provisionally withdrawn. Then in 2019, Congress passed the Dingell Act which directed that tribal Vietnam Veterans were eligible to make lands selections as well.
In order to open the D1 lands to mining and other development, the Trump administration rushed 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 adequate consultation and public process. As a result, these groups asked Biden to place a two-year regulatory freeze on the massive land grab so that the agency could effectively analyze the potential impacts to sensitive rivers and streams and conduct proper consultation with tribes. On April 15, the BLM responded by extending the PLOs.
Sullivan and the rest of Delegation immediately cried foul, stating that the failure to open up the D1 Lands would prevent the mandated land selections from taking place including those for tribal veterans. Unlike the Trump administration, the Biden BLM found that extending Alaska Native selections for Vietnam Veterans under the Dingell Act did not require revocation of the D1 withdrawals and in a mid-May press release, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland – the first Native American woman to be appointed to that post and the same person Sullivan blames for discrimination against Native Alaskans 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.
After this announcement, more than two dozen Alaska tribes and tribal organizations sent letters to the Bureau of Land Management expressing appreciation to the BLM for moving ahead with honoring the commitment to tribal veterans while simultaneously protecting water and subsistence resources on public lands. Ultimately, while Sullivan and the rest of the Alaska delegation were spreading a false narrative about how the Biden administration was discriminating against Alaska tribal veterans by preventing them from making land selections as required by federal law, Biden became the first president in 50 years to actually grant such selections.
Senator Sullivan’s hypocrisy about Biden administration officials and his false narratives about injustices towards Alaska Natives is further evidence that congressional Republicans have lost their way. As Sullivan’s rhetoric illustrates, it appears the only way Senate republicans can defend their inexplicable ability to look the other way or outright endorsement of Trump’s unprecedented unethical and illegal practices in the course of rolling back environmental regulations, is by way of disingenuous and awkward attempts to try to pin the same behavior on Biden and the democrats. We should all be worried about the threat to democracy presented by the current republican trend toward misinformation, partisan obstructionism and, Authoritarianism.