Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced during her Alaska visit that she will open up 27 million acres of land in the state so Alaska Native veterans from the Vietnam War era can select tracts up to 160 acres.
The move will dramatically expand the land available under a temporary program for the veterans who missed out on earlier application rounds for the acreage, known as allotments, in part because they were serving overseas during the conflict.
Haaland, in a written statement, expressed her commitment to the program. She said her father served in the Vietnam War, and she will “not ignore land allotments owed to our Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans,” she said.
But Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan denounced the Interior Department’s plans.
They told the secretary in a letter that her agency had delayed the program more than a year by refusing to finalize public land orders related to the acreage that had been issued by the Trump administration.
Instead, the agency put the Trump-era orders on hold for environmental review, which also affected efforts by the state and Alaska Native corporations to receive land they sought as part of their federal land entitlement, the letter said.
“Despite your commitment to us to expedite the program, you have delayed progress, weaponized the lifting of the (public land orders), and convoluted the process to the point that nobody clearly understands the intentions of the department,” the senators wrote.
In February last year, the Interior Department said it found “legal and procedural defects” in the Trump-era orders and deferred opening the land to fix the flaws, the Bureau of Land Management said. The agency addressed the errors with a recently completed environmental assessment that considered the impacts of providing the allotments to the veterans.
The action is one of several Biden administration moves that set aside land use programs in Alaska for review that had advanced under former President Donald Trump, including possible oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In a fresh example on Monday, the agency said it will roll back a Trump-era plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, cutting 7 million acres from the land available for possible oil exploration.
For their part, officials with the Bureau of Land Management say they are steadily moving ahead to provide the land to the veterans.
The window for the applications closes in late 2025, under a 2019 law championed by the Alaska delegation.
“These veteran allotments are our No. 1 priority,” said Erika Reed, the acting associate state director for the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska, in an interview Monday.
The agency last year opened 1.2 million acres of separate Alaska land for the program, in areas such as Goodnews Bay in Southwest Alaska. Eight veterans have received allotments from that land so far, and dozens more have applied and could still apply, bureau officials said.
As for the larger swath of land, with the environmental assessment recently completed, Haaland is expected to soon move ahead with opening the 27 million acres, federal officials said. First, the Bureau of Land Management must provide Haaland with a legal land description in the coming weeks.
More than 65 veterans have already applied for land in that area, and the land transfers can begin happening next year, following land surveys, BLM officials said.
That land includes large areas in Western Alaska and smaller sections elsewhere, such in the Interior and Southcentral.
The agency will also conduct an environmental impact statement for the portion of the Trump-era land orders that deal with the land interests of the state and Alaska Native corporations within the 27 million acres.
That must be completed within a year, Reed said.
The senators asserted in their letter that the agency’s plans will set the stage for land conflicts and legal complications that could delay the land transfers to veterans.
Reed said the agency is taking steps to avoid such conflicts. That includes not allowing veterans to select lands the state has expressed a high-priority future interest in and has not legally selected.
Reed also said legal selections by the state or Native corporations cannot be conveyed to veterans without approval from the state or the Native corporation.
“So we are implementing the law the way Congress wrote it,” Reed said.
Overall, more than 150 Alaska Native veterans have applied for allotments within all the acreage so far.
The U.S. government’s Alaska Native allotment program dates back to 1906, when non-Native settlers and miners arrived in Alaska claiming Native lands.
Restrictions prevented many Alaska Natives from applying until the 1960s, just as today’s Vietnam-era veterans were heading overseas, observers have said. The original program ended in 1971, before many of the veterans returned home.
As a result, many Native veterans missed a chance to apply for allotments.
That led to a Congressionally created program in 1998, but that was described as too limited, preventing many veterans from applying.
In this new round, the Bureau of Land Management has sent letters to about 2,000 Natives or their descendants to let them know they could apply, BLM officials said.
But many have not replied. The agency is worried that about 600 veterans may not even know about the opportunity, Reed said.
“We are working on outreach efforts, including in the Lower 48,” Reed said.