Delegation Tells Interior Department to Leave Politics out of Land Management Decisions
Washington, April 16, 2021
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan, and Congressman Don Young call on the Department of the Interior to fulfill its promises to Alaska and Alaska Natives after the Department’s announcement that it will impose a two-year stay in the implementation of several new Public Land Orders (PLOs) in Alaska, despite the PLOs already being signed. These PLOs would have lifted withdrawal restrictions on 28 million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land that have been in place for nearly a half century and whose purposes have long been met.
This action goes against the federal government’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. It will also prevent needed new economic development opportunities, including for the many critical minerals vital to meet our renewable energy goals.
In 2004, Congress enacted the Alaska Land Transfer Acceleration Act (ALTAA), which Murkowski introduced to require a review of “d-1” PLOs issued under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). Most of these “d-1” PLOs closed or segregated lands from entry under all public land laws, including mining and mineral leasing laws. Both the review required in ALTAA and multiple resource management plans led to federal recommendations that these lands be opened for entry.
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.
“This decision by the Interior Department is continuing to deny Alaska our rights to conveyed lands. Whether it’s from the Statehood Act, ANCSA, and the Dingell Act—Alaskans have a right to access these lands. The Interior Department’s action goes against the advice of the career experts who determined that the environmental analysis under NEPA was adequate to support the decision to lift these withdrawal restrictions. It also wastes the tens of millions of dollars and a decade of work that went into the development of these resource management plans. Secretary Haaland at her confirmation hearing promised she would follow the law, trust the science, trust the career experts, and honor the trust relationship between the federal government and Alaska Natives and Native Americans; this decision goes against all three,” said Senator Murkowski. “Once again this Administration has taken actions which undermine responsible land management and made decisions not based on science or the law. And to the Alaska Native Vietnam Veterans who have waited decades for their Native allotments, this is an insult to injury to tell them to continue to wait. The actions today by Secretary Haaland are not only hurtful but wrongheaded. The Department has an obligation to be upfront about the exact details of their concerns with the existing PLOs and completed this review as quickly as possible.”
“Secretary of Interior Haaland has chosen to start off her relationship with Alaska by going back on the promises she made to me prior to her confirmation, undermining rural communities and stabbing Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans in the back,” said Senator Sullivan. “Alaskans have been waiting decades for the federal government to remove the encumbrances through these five Public Land Orders, and the Biden administration has now effectively kicked that decision into the future, perhaps indefinitely. The impact will be felt most acutely in rural Alaska, where communities will be denied access to gravel resources to build out local village infrastructure and ANCSA and Statehood land settlements will be further delayed. Most egregiously, though, this misguided decision will drastically limit the lands available to thousands of Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans who were unable to select land allotments due to their military service. It is deeply saddening and shameful that, as a result of Secretary Haaland’s decision, Alaska Native veterans who served their country admirably, and have waited decades for land allotments, may not live long enough to see them. I have spent an enormous amount of time explaining this situation to the secretary—including just yesterday—but she put her allegiance to radical green groups over heroic Native veterans and other Alaskans. Secretary Haaland owes all of these Alaskans an explanation and, frankly, an apology.”
"I am incredibly dismayed by today's announcement from the Department of the Interior. Alaska has proven time and time again that we can develop our resources and protect our environment. Minerals are in everything, our cell phones, household appliances, automobiles, and more. To shut down Alaska's mineral sector like this not only puts us at a competitive disadvantage, but it also forces us to rely on minerals extracted from nations with far lower environmental and labor standards than the United States. Frankly, Interior's decision is not based on science, and the years of work and millions of dollars spent on environmental review have been thrown out the window,” said Congressman Young. “In addition to their rush to lock up Alaska and prevent us from responsibly developing our lands, the federal government has also delivered another devastating blow to the Alaska Native Vietnam veterans who were promised land allotments. For too long, the federal government fell shamefully short of making good on what was promised to them. Last Congress, we secured an overdue victory by passing legislation requiring the Bureau of Land Management to begin the land allotment process for those veterans who missed their opportunity. This decision means the federal government is once again turning its back on our Alaska Native veterans. Here is the simple truth: these heroes are not getting any younger, and time is of the essence. For years, our nation has been working to improve our relationship with Indigenous communities and earn back their trust. What message are we sending by pulling out the rug from beneath their feet? Secretary Haaland is my friend and former colleague, and I was disappointed that she did not contact me about this issue ahead of time. However, she called me today and we had a very productive conversation. I will be up front, there is a clear difference of opinion between us on the mineral development issue, but she recognized the urgency behind the Vietnam veteran land allotment program. I am pleased to share that she has committed to resolving the issue and getting allotments to our Alaska Native veterans within the next six months. I appreciated her candor and will be holding her to that promise. I am appreciative of Secretary Haaland for contacting me, and I look forward to working with her to ensure that land can get to our veterans as quickly as possible.”
The roots of the allotment issue date back to 1906, when Congress passed a law allowing Alaska Natives to acquire 160-acre parcels of land. Those rights were extinguished with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971. However, at that time, many Alaska Natives were serving during the Vietnam War and didn’t get the chance to apply for their own allotment.
The Alaska Native Veterans Act of 1998 attempted to partially fix this injustice, but due to restrictions, less than 500 Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans ultimately applied. An estimated 2,800 veterans have still not received their allotments.
On March 12, 2019, President Donald Trump signed S. 47, the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, legislation authored by Senator Murkowski and shepherded through the House by Congressman Young. The bill included a provision authored by Senator Sullivan allowing several thousand Alaska Native veterans who served during the Vietnam era to apply for their congressionally-promised ANCSA land allotment of up to 160 acres after missing their initial opportunity due to their service.