Alaska Tribes Unite Around Conservation of Public Lands

28 million acres critical to nature and people could lose protection in federal decision

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Alaska Tribes Unite Around Conservation of Public Lands
A person paddles an inflatable kayak loaded with camping gear down a river between gently rising banks. The sky above is foreboding, with thick clouds.
Packrafter on the upper Anvik River, Alaska.
David W. Shaw

For millennia, Alaska’s lands and waters have supported a diverse array of flora and fauna and sustained hundreds of Indigenous communities. But today the future of those benefits to nature and people is uncertain on a significant portion of Alaskan public land because the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is in the process of determining whether some areas should be opened to mining or oil and gas development, transferred out of public ownership altogether, or retained and conserved.

The decision will affect management for decades to come across 28 million acres in interior and coastal Alaska. They are known as D-1 lands because they were withdrawn from development in 1971 under Section 17(d)(1) of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

The decision about whether to lift the D-1 protections has far-ranging consequences for the state’s 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.

The BLM’s analysis of its pending decision takes shape in what is formally called the ANCSA 17(d)(1) Withdrawals Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Since ANCSA became law in 1971, the BLM has transferred tens of millions of acres of federal land in Alaska to the state government or Alaska Native regional and village corporations to satisfy allowances under the Statehood Act. Now it is determining the fate of many of the remaining D-1 acres protected under the law. 

In its draft, the BLM is considering four options: one to remove all protections across the 28 million acres; two separate options to remove protections for distinct proportions of the total acreage; and a fourth to retain all of the protections, which constitutes the “no action” alternative. Alaska is home to 70 million of the more than 245 million acres that the BLM manages throughout the U.S., almost all of which is in the West. The agency has a dual mandate of supporting multiple uses and conserving natural, historical, and cultural resources.

Tribes that will be affected by the decision have unanimously asked the agency to choose the “no action” alternative, which would retain the status quo and continue to protect the 28 million acres. Pew has summarized the process and the importance of these D-1 lands for wildlife and people and agrees with the Tribes.

Eugene Paul, chairman of the Bering Sea Interior Tribal Commission, said, “The lands are important hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds for more than 100 Indigenous Alaska communities. Safeguarding critical D-1 lands and watersheds will help mitigate the impacts.”
Tanana Chiefs Conference

Pew has long-standing partnerships with Tribal communities and Tribal consortia organizations that weighed in on the BLM draft throughout Alaska. The groups included the Bering Sea Interior Tribal Commission (consisting of 38 Tribes), Kawerak (20 Tribes), the Tanana Chiefs Conference (48 Tribes), and the Association of Village Council Presidents (56 Tribes), among others. Pew’s Alaska partnerships focus on providing resources and capacity to Tribally led conservation efforts in Alaska.

More than 130 federally recognized Alaska Tribes have called for retaining the protections, noting the importance of the D-1 lands for salmon spawning and rearing, caribou wintering, and moose habitat important for community sustenance. Also, because Alaska is at the forefront of climate change—the state is warming at two to three times the rate of the global average—Tribes and Tribal consortia know that maximizing conservation of natural ecological systems of the surrounding land and water will increase resilience.

Numerous scientific studies show that lands and waters that are protected from damage by humans are healthier and more resilient to climate change than those that aren’t. And in 19 public meetings hosted by the BLM to gather input on their pending decision, the vast majority of speakers asked the BLM to choose the “no action” alternative in formal comments. Pew has also asked the BLM to adopt that alternative. 

The BLM plans to make its final decision on D-1 lands later this year. Pew urges the agency to decide in favor of nature and Alaskan Native peoples to help ensure that these lands, waters, and communities can thrive far into the future.

Suzanne Little and Matt Skroch work on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. conservation project.

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