Let's talk, not litigate, over Indian country in Alaska

Since we came into office, the topic of tribes placing lands into trust in Alaska has engendered some of the most passionate comments and concerns we have heard on any issue.

Many believe this action will further empower tribes to become more self-sufficient while improving the quality of life throughout rural Alaska — a goal we all share.

Those with strong state's rights convictions are concerned it may weaken state authority and make an already overly complicated fish and game management system more difficult and impact the constitutional requirement of sustained yield.

The reality is, as of Aug. 22, the federal government can take lands into trust in our state under a 2014 adopted federal regulation.

[Only needless fear stands between Alaska and the benefits of Indian Country]

We recognize the validity of many of the concerns we have heard. But instead of litigating a resolution in court no one may be satisfied with, we think it is time to forge a new path forward of dialogue and collaboration to see if we can achieve a resolution that's in the best interests of all Alaskans.

We have an opportunity as we embark into this new reality to help shape the outcome so it works best for our state. Alaska is unique, and just like so many other areas, the way trust lands may occur in our state is unique. There is no reason to assume Indian country here will be the same as Indian reservations in other places. We believe we can work together to address people's concerns and shape solutions that improve public safety, empower local communities and protect our resources.

The current reality is rural Alaska experiences the highest unemployment in the nation, very high rates of domestic violence, and drug and alcohol abuse and some of the lowest graduation rates in the country. The current reality in rural Alaska is an utter failure rivaling some of the worst conditions found on reservations throughout the country. We must consider other options that seek partnerships to make Alaska better instead of the decades-old practice of perpetual lawsuits that have not made Alaska better.

After the decision came out ending the lawsuit, some have said we are not recognizing the many concerns our administration raised in the litigation regarding Indian country and reservations; quite the opposite. We acknowledge the concerns that have previously been mentioned — such as ensuring the state's role in resource development and game management — and there will likely be additional concerns raised. But the question is how best to have those concerns addressed — will continued litigation get us to a solution? Or should we try to see if we can resolve concerns through proactive outreach and negotiation?

[Taking Alaska land into federal trust: How did it happen? What can be done?]

We believe Indian country in Alaska should look different than the typical Indian reservations we all know in the Lower 48. Being an active participant in the way lands into trust is implemented in our state will hopefully bring us to a better solution. We are not sitting back and letting something happen — we are going full steam ahead on engaging with tribes, the federal government, and others to ensure all concerns are addressed.

The alternative that some support is continuing to pursue dead-end litigation that simply divides our state further. Litigation is win or lose, all or nothing. Litigation does not allow us to be at the table. The state lost its appeal in Akiachak Native Community v. U.S. Secretary of the Interior on procedural grounds. Therefore, it is if that lawsuit never happened, including the original ruling against the state.

That leaves us with no binding legal precedent. As Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said, litigation remains an option, but a court challenge is a blunt instrument that is not well designed to address such a complex issue, let alone one critical to the future of this state. Further litigation remains an option, but let's try sitting down and talking to each other here in Alaska rather than doing so in a courtroom in Washington, D.C.

The end of this litigation provides some breathing room for all Alaskans to sit down and see if everyone's concerns can be addressed outside the courtroom.  We view this as a blank slate to craft a new set of rules. Lindemuth will be reaching out  to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribes, other Native interests and organizations, commercial interests doing business in Alaska, local governments, and other stakeholders to discover both common ground and disagreement. Hopefully, we can reach consensus on the major issues and gain a better understanding of what lands into trust will mean for Alaska.

We envision a path forward where Alaska as a whole engages on the issue and decides what is best for the future of all Alaskans. We did not "give up" nor are we sitting on our hands, responding to one trust application at a time. Rather, this administration is engaging in active diplomacy on this critically important issue.

In the end, the onus is on the federal government and all of us collectively to make sure the state's concerns are addressed and we have engaged in a meaningful process before any application is granted. We expect the federal government to uphold its end of the bargain and believe reaching out early to start the discussion will help lead to a smooth transition.

Having the federal government take lands into trust will be one tool in the belt to help address rural justice issues and improve government relations with tribes. There are other innovative solutions we should continue to explore, including diverting certain matters to tribal courts, continuing to streamline the child-in-need-of-aid process, and figuring out how to expand our law enforcement presence in spite of dwindling state resources.

We are not a one-size-fits- all state, and we need solutions to address the unique circumstances of each tribe and each community. It's time to think outside the box, and we encourage you to send your thoughts and comments to our office or to Lindemuth as we forge this new path.

Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott were elected in 2014 on the unity ticket.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.