Female caribou runs near Teshekpuk Lake on June 12, 2022. (Photo by Ashley Sabatino, Bureau of Land Management)

Female caribou runs near Teshekpuk Lake on June 12, 2022. (Photo by Ashley Sabatino, Bureau of Land Management)

Alaska tribes urge protection for federal lands

80% of food comes from surrounding lands and waters for Alaska Native communities off road system.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will soon issue an Environmental Impact Statement that will help set the direction for some 28 million acres of Alaska lands. The impact statement will offer options with varying degrees of protection from development such as mining. Dozens of tribes are weighing in on the side of conservation.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act protects some Bureau of Land Management lands, which are sometimes called “D-1 lands” after the section of the act that mandates them.

As Officer Suzanne Little of Pew Charitable Trusts explained in a recent article, “D-1 public land orders can be lifted only by the secretary of the interior following recommendations from a BLM resource management plan or an environmental impact statement.”

Under the Trump administration, BLM finalized five management plans, recommending the “lifting of all D-1 protections from BLM-managed land in areas across Alaska,” Little said. The issue includes Alaska lands in Western Interior, Seward Peninsula and Bristol Bay regions, as well as in Southcentral Alaska and in eastern Alaska.

The Biden administration postponed the lifting of protections saying the planning required an environmental impact statement.

Alaska is suing over the federal government’s decision to leave the protections in place until an impact statement is completed. The Alaska Miners Association likewise has recommended the protections be lifted. The Alaska Native corporation, Doyon, which owns about 2.5 million acres of the protected land, commented it “continues to be disappointed and frustrated with the decision of the Department of the Interior to delay the implementation of the Public Land Orders that led unnecessarily to this separate environmental impact statement and related actions.”

However, for dozens of tribes, the main issue is protection of subsistence resources. In an Oct. 9, 2023, letter to U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, 78 tribes wrote: “BLM-managed lands support important subsistence resources and serve as the breadbasket for thousands of Athabaskan, Aleut, Denaʼina, Inupiat, Yup’ik, and Tlingit peoples. For Alaska Native communities off the road system, over 80% of food consumed comes directly from the surrounding lands and waters.”

Tribes from Western and Interior Alaska, 38 in all, joined to form the Bering Sea Interior Tribal Commission in 2019 specifically to speak with one voice during consultations with BLM, said Commission Chair Eugene John Paul, Athabascan, chief of the Village of Holy Cross in Interior Alaska.

He said Bureau of Land Management representatives did come to his home village and listen to villagers’ concerns, “but when they go back to their office, it just seemed like it just went on deaf ears. So when we formed the commission, we feel like they should listen to us all, … a bigger number of people representing. We represent not just our village, but we represent one end of Alaska to the other end of Alaska.”

Paul said 65% of the 179 residents of Holy Cross live below the poverty line and depend on the land for most of their food. Subsistence is similarly critically important in most of rural Alaska. Holy Cross villagers depend on the land and waters for moose hunting; pike, sheefish and white fish harvesting; bird hunting; and ice fishing, John said. “We don’t have access to what they call it — Safeway or Costco or Fred Myers — in our village. So most of our stuff just comes off our land, and that’s what we choose to do, the gathering stuff…

“So we put that in our comments saying that we would like to protect this certain amount of land, not all of it, but this certain amount of land around our villages to do these things. So we put that in …” Paul said.

“And basically they just wiped their map clean and said, ‘it’s open for extraction, mining, hunting, or anyone throughout the state or anywhere down in the lower 48 could fill out a permit and select land around our area for mining or extraction or any other kind of stuff. So that’s basically what they did right at the end of the Trump administration.They didn’t accept any of our protections,” he said.

Rangeland health survey of lichen in Kigluaik Mountains, Seward Peninsula, AK Anchorage Field Office staff conduct rangeland health surveys on the Seward Peninsula to determine status and trend of lichen being used by reindeer that are permitted to graze on BLM land. (Photo by Laurie Cadzow/Bureau of Land Management)

Rangeland health survey of lichen in Kigluaik Mountains, Seward Peninsula, AK Anchorage Field Office staff conduct rangeland health surveys on the Seward Peninsula to determine status and trend of lichen being used by reindeer that are permitted to graze on BLM land. (Photo by Laurie Cadzow/Bureau of Land Management)

In its Record of Decision on the Bering Strait-Western Interior Resource Management Plan, BLM’s analysis acknowledged, “locatable mineral decisions may cause a large reduction in the abundance of fish, moose, and caribou harvesting and a major redistribution of fish, caribou, and moose. Off-highway vehicle restrictions and prohibitions for subsistence users would decrease the access to moose, caribou, and fishing locations, and Right of Way decisions may cause a major redistribution of moose, caribou, and fish resources.”

Still, the agency determined the plan met the requirements of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act Title VIII, which establishes a priority for the customary and traditional uses of subsistence resources by rural Alaskan residents on federal public lands.

In stating its final determination on the issue, the management plan said, “it is determined that, after consideration of all alternatives, subsistence evaluations, and public hearings, such a significant restriction of subsistence uses is necessary and consistent with sound management principles for the utilization of this land, and that management decisions will involve the minimal amount of public lands necessary to accomplish the purposes of the Approved Resource Management Plan.

“Finally, reasonable steps have and will be taken to minimize the adverse impacts upon subsistence uses and resources arising from this action,” reads the management plan.

The tribes say planning documents also don’t take into account the impacts of climate change.

The tribes in their letter said, “Alaska is at the forefront of climate change and widespread impacts are already occurring including melting permafrost, coastal erosion, increasing air and water temperatures and the habitat displacement of fish and wildlife populations across subarctic and arctic environments.” The letter recommends BLM “adopt a precautionary action” and make environmental protection that supports subsistence resources a priority “over the industrial exploitation of intact lands and pristine waters.”

Paul said with the village economy so dependent on food from the land, money from jobs cannot make up for losses of subsistence resources. “I think the most protected thing is our animals and most of our tribal members in our villages and our people that are living there (and our elders) — they want that protected the most; the dollar amount doesn’t count.”

He said he also wants to save the animals for his children and grandchildren.“We’re here for the long run,” Paul said.

Little said BLM is expected to issue its environmental impact statement in December. The plan will include alternative approaches to resource management. After a public review process, the agency will announce the preferred alternative in a later record of decision.

• Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for ICT. Based in Anchorage, she is a longtime journalist. This article was originally published by ICT, an independent, nonprofit, multimedia news enterprise. ICT covers Indigenous peoples. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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