Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a ceremony for Alaska Native Veterans from the Vietnam War era at the Walter Soboleff Building in downtown Juneau on May 5, 2021. Dunleavy announced the state filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Biden administration for what Dunleavy says is illegally keeping restrictions in place on federal lands in Alaska. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at a ceremony for Alaska Native Veterans from the Vietnam War era at the Walter Soboleff Building in downtown Juneau on May 5, 2021. Dunleavy announced the state filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Biden administration for what Dunleavy says is illegally keeping restrictions in place on federal lands in Alaska. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

State sues feds over continuing land restrictions

Dunleavy: land should go to development, veterans

Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Wednesday announced a lawsuit against the Biden administration over federal restrictions on lands in Alaska.

In a statement, Dunleavy said the Biden administration’s decision to keep restrictions in place on federal lands, some of which could be allotted to Alaska Native Vietnam War-era veterans, is violating the state’s ability to fully use its resources.

“This is a methodical effort by the Biden administration — more than just bureaucratic foot dragging — to frustrate (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act) and the Statehood land entitlement and leave these lands locked up as de facto parks,” Dunleavy said in a statement.

In a news release, the Dunleavy administration called keeping the restrictions in place illegal and unjustifiable, and said that restrictions have prevented the state from exercising its right to claim valuable lands or assess the natural resources on the lands in question. The restrictions have also blocked Alaska Native Vietnam War veterans from selecting land allotments, according to the governor’s office.

Earlier this year the Department of the Interior decided to extend a review process for approvals passed by the Trump Administration to withdraw federal restrictions on certain lands in Alaska. Dunleavy and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, have accused the Biden administration and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland of preventing veterans and their families from receiving their right to land allotments, granted as a result of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

The Department of the Interior declined to comment on the lawsuit but referred to past statements issued by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland addressing the issue. The Trump Administration approved 28 million acres for potential mineral exploration, only a small fraction of which would be available to Alaska Native veterans.

[Program allows some Alaska Native Vietnam vets to get land]

“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,” Haaland said in a May 13, statement.

In that statement, DOI said the Trump Administration attempted to open an additional 28 million acres of Bureau of Land Management-managed land in Alaska to mining and mineral development through five Public Land Orders. The Biden administration extended the effective dates for those orders by two years in order to review the lands up for selection.

The Bureau of Land Management will prioritize review of those lands in order to provide them for selection by eligible veterans, DOI said, and will accept applications across the 28 million acres during its review of the land orders. Based on pending applications, veteran claims would represent 0.14% of the 28 million acres of land proposed for extraction, the department said.

The Dunleavy administration contends the lands in question have undergone extensive environmental review and should be transferred to the state. The governor has repeatedly accused the president of offering environmental protections in Alaska as a way of appeasing Lower 48 environmental activists.

The state’s lawsuit asks the federal district court in Alaska to prevent the DOI from continuing to delay the Jan. 2021, orders and to direct the department to lift the withdrawals immediately.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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