Alaska Tribes Urge Bureau of Land Management to Protect Critical Lands and Waters

Intact landscapes are vital for wildlife, fighting climate change, and subsistence way of life

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Alaska Tribes Urge Bureau of Land Management to Protect Critical Lands and Waters
A river with trees in the background during a sunset.
The sun sets over Otter Creek, a tributary to the Anvik River in Alaska. The area could be threatened if the U.S. government reopens it to mining.
David W. Shaw

The fate of many large landscapes and diverse, intact ecosystems across Alaska could soon be decided by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which will identify which ancestral lands will remain protected from some forms of mining. Those lands are currently protected by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) public land orders and are sometimes referred to as “D-1 lands” because they’re covered under Section 17 D-1 of the act. 

D-1 lands, which have a long and complex management history, include critical watersheds with highly productive salmon streams, caribou calving grounds, tundra landscapes, coastal estuaries, moose habitat, and marshes important to migratory birds. These lands are also hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds for more than 100 Indigenous Alaska communities and include areas that border national parks, wildlife refuges, and the Bering Sea.

A river flows through a vast landscape. Overhead, the sun is covered with clouds.
The Yukon River flows through the traditional lands of 73 Tribes in Alaska, and much of this land is covered by D-1 public land orders. Various factors, including climate change, are affecting the river’s salmon populations, and safeguarding critical watersheds will help mitigate these impacts.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

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 (EIS). BLM has finalized five management plans that have recommended lifting all D-1 protections from BLM-managed land in areas across Alaska. Most of those plans were completed decades ago and unfortunately did not consider impacts from climate change nor the impacts to Indigenous communities. So the Biden administration announced this EIS process to analyze impacts and make recommendations to the secretary of the interior.

A map of Alaska showing lands and rivers. The lands are light green and the rivers are dark blue. Certain lands that could lose protections are colored a rusty orange and thick, brown lines indicate planning area boundaries.

Because of the D-1 land’s significance to Indigenous Alaskans’ way of life, 78 Alaska Tribes asked BLM on Oct. 19 to retain the D-1 protections. In the letter to the secretary of the interior and the BLM Alaska director, the Tribes identified severe impacts already experienced from climate change, such as increased coastal and river erosion, increasing river temperatures, changing migration routes, and significantly lower salmon returns. Because of these climate-related impacts, Tribes noted the increased importance of the habitat that supports subsistence resources and other culturally significant areas and asked for these lands to be protected.   

D-1 lands support large contiguous landscapes that Indigenous Alaskan communities have used for millennia, the same lands and waters that fish and wildlife need to feed, raise young, and migrate. An increasing body of scientific evidence also shows that healthy natural habitats can help flora and fauna adapt to our rapidly changing environment. In Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, subsistence hunters, fishers, and foragers have been asked for years to harvest less to preserve species. As climate change continues to increase pressure on resources, Tribes believe it is in the public interest to protect intact landscapes and pristine waters as a precautionary approach to preventing further declines in species.

A caribou eats red, orange, and yellow plants on the ground on a fall day.
Lifting protections on public lands in Alaska could affect critical caribou habitat.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Now, as the Biden administration is preparing to release its draft EIS, Pew joins the 78 Alaska Tribes in urging the BLM and the Department of the Interior to consider concerns of the Tribal communities that know these lands intimately. BLM should safeguard Indigenous peoples’ traditional landscapes, which include millions of acres of pristine lands and waters. Such protection would help native plants and animals thrive through the impacts of climate change and ensure that Indigenous communities can carry on the lifeways that have sustained them for millennia.

Suzanne Little works on the U.S. conservation project.

Tundra in the Ray Mountains, Alaska
Tundra in the Ray Mountains, Alaska
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