OPINION: The Alaska lands crisis no one’s talking about

Tribes across the country, including in Alaska, closely followed President Donald Trump’s final push for an avalanche of last-minute moves to open protected lands and sacred places to development. Amid this churn, it would be easy to miss another effort to open vast Alaska lands to mining, oil and gas interests through the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) planning process.

In the last days of its administration, Trump’s Interior Secretary signed off on plans to open 99% of more than 13.5 million acres of BLM-managed lands in the Bering Sea and Western Interior Alaska to mining, oil, and gas development — prioritizing industrial activities over all other land uses. At the same time, another plan is underway, yet to be finalized, to open another 13 million acres in the Central Yukon region to these industries -- a potential total of 26 million acres. These management plans will be in place for the next 25-30 years and will govern these large areas of Alaska that are equivalent in size to half the state of Washington.

These lands — which hug the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, and include wildlife corridors, abundant salmon streams, Dall sheep and caribou habitat, from forest to coastal estuaries — have been protected from development for nearly half a century. This is our tribal ancestral land and our Alaska Native tribes have properly managed and stewarded these lands and resources using our traditional knowledge and traditional values for thousands of years. Our hunting, fishing and gathering traditional ways of life depends on their health, and these lands and waters are intrinsically connected to our tribal communities, food resources, economy, spirituality, and overall well-being. To expose 99% of this land to extractive industry will put our people and our way of life at risk of serious harm.

The Bering Sea-Western Interior planning region of Alaska is home to more than 65 federally recognized tribes, 37 of which have asked the BLM to protect watersheds and fish populations that provide food security to local communities. So far, both the Trump and Biden administrations have dismissed these concerns, even in the face of the agency’s own findings.

Consider the Anvik River, which the BLM describes as rare and irreplaceable, and supporting significant fisheries resources for the Yukon River Delta. Fish stocks from the Anvik River provide food resources for at least nine tribal communities. The agency’s plans revoked the watershed’s designation as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern and lifted existing protections from development.

The BLM’s mandate is to balance uses on the public lands it manages, and it has a special trust responsibility to the tribes that call this region home. Opening 99% of the land to exploitation not only fails to strike that balance — it openly mocks it.

This week, the 37-member Bering Sea-Interior Tribal Commission is meeting the sixth time with Biden Administration BLM officials, urging the federal agency to amend the plan and restore protections for important spawning areas and watersheds, cornerstones to maintain biological diversity and community food security.


The Biden administration’s own policies would indicate BLM should be doing more:

• A Joint Secretarial Order to ensure the department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior are managing federal lands and waters in a manner that seeks to protect subsistence and cultural interests of federally recognized tribes. This order ensures that tribal governments will play an integral role in decision making related to the management of federal lands and requires the agencies to give due consideration to tribal recommendations on public lands management. The order endeavors to engage in co-stewardship to elevate the role of tribes in land management.

• An Executive Memo on Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge that commits to strengthening the relationship with tribal nations, ensuring that federal agencies conduct regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with tribal officials in the development of federal decisions -- especially decisions that may affect tribal nations and the people they represent.

• President Joe Biden issued an executive order to tackle the climate crisis domestically and abroad. In it, he established national policy of conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030 and to work with tribal communities to accomplish this ambitious goal.

The next few months may be a test as to whether the Biden administration’s Joint Secretarial Orders mean anything. The Bering Sea-Interior Tribal Commission urgently asks Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and BLM agency officials to work with the Tribal Commission in an amendment process for the Bering Sea-Western Interior plan to return to a more balanced plan that safeguard the Indigenous peoples’ values in the region. Given the administration’s top priority policy considerations, it should give great weight to the concerns of tribal communities so closely connected to this landscape.

This commentary was submitted by the following the Bering Sea-Interior Tribal Commission leaders: Past First Chief Mickey Stickman, Nulato; First Chief Ivan Demientieff, Grayling; First Chief Robert Walker, Anvik; First Chief Eugene Paul, Holy Cross; First Chief Leo Lolnitz, Koyukuk; First Chief Cavin McGinty, Kaltag; First Chief Charlie Wright, Ruby; First Chief Alice Dale, McGrath; First Chief Carl Burgett, Huslia; President Terence Fitka, Marshall; First Chief Marjorie Gemmill, Venetie; First Chief Wassilie Alexie, Iqurmiut; Chief Roy Atchak, Chevak; President Axel Jackson, Shaktoolik; President Frank Katchatag, Unalakleet; President Leo Charles, Koyuk; Charlie Fitka, St. Michael; and President Robert Keith, Elim IRA Council.

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