U.S. Should Revise Misguided Alaska Land Management Plan

Trump-era policy stripped protections for 13 million acres in Bering Sea-Western Interior region, against Tribes’ wishes

Pew.Feature.Listing.NavigateTo

U.S. Should Revise Misguided Alaska Land Management Plan
A panoramic view of the Nulato Hills above the North Fork of the Unalakleet River, Alaska.
A sunrise brightens the sky over the North Fork of Alaska’s Unalakleet River in a region Indigenous people have stewarded for thousands of years for hunting, trapping, gathering, and fishing.
David W. Shaw

One day before Joe Biden was sworn in as president of the United States, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) finalized a plan for a huge swath of western Alaska that eliminates existing protections for the landscape and dismisses nominations for additional conservation areas submitted by Indigenous peoples whose lives and ancestry are intertwined with the land. That final plan favors extractive development such as mining and drilling and poses a serious threat to wildlife, watershed ecosystems, and communities that this landscape has sustained for centuries..

Now, the Department of the Interior has an opportunity to address Tribal concerns and revise the plan to achieve greater balance and meet the agency’s multiple use mandate.

The BLM’s Bering Sea-Western Interior planning region is home to more than 65 Indigenous communities that have relied on the region’s abundant fish, wildlife, and plants—for food, clothing, building materials, and cultural practices—for generations. The vast BLM-managed area includes most of the Yukon River, Kuskokwim River, and Unalakleet River watersheds, as well as other critical ecosystems that federally recognized Tribes in Alaska have stewarded for thousands of years.

Federal Plan Puts Millions of Acres, Vital Watersheds in Alaska at Risk from Industrial Activity

The January 2021 plan opens 99% of the Bering Sea-Western Interior to extractive development, despite the BLM previously identifying some planning area watersheds on which Tribes depend as “rare and irreplaceable.” The agency has also recognized “an internationally significant fisheries resource” that spans more than 2,000 miles of the Yukon River and its tributaries in the U.S. and Canada and provides food for thousands of people in the region.

Vera Spein hangs salmon at fish camp near Kwethluk, Alaska.
Vera Spein, a Kwethluk Tribal citizen, arranges salmon on a drying rack at fish camp. Salmon are a food security cornerstone for Indigenous communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region.
Clark James Mishler

Since 2014, Tribes in the region have asked the BLM to protect crucial watersheds and culturally important areas of the Bering Sea-Western Interior, and in 2019 they formed the 37-member Bering Sea and Interior Tribal Commission to advocate for land use decisions that reflect Indigenous priorities. Since President Biden took office, the commission has met five times with current BLM leaders, each time asking for an amendment to remedy the significant deficiencies in the 2021 Bering Sea-Western Interior plan.

Specifically, the commission has requested that the BLM use the plan amendment process to re-evaluate Tribes’ nominations for areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs) and revisit the agency’s decision to remove designations of all previously existing ACECs in the planning area. The agency should address the commission’s concerns as soon as possible, because implementation of the plan could potentially devastate Tribes’ food sources and customary uses of these lands and waters.

Updating the Bering Sea-Western Interior plan to respond to Tribes’ concerns would be consistent with Biden administration policies to improve relations with Tribes and safeguard ancestral lands, including:

The Biden administration can make good on these commitments to Tribes by revising the BLM Bering Sea-Western Interior plan to address Tribes’ concerns and creating clear requirements on consultation, co-stewardship, subsistence, and conservation. Doing so would help build trust between the agency and Indigenous peoples of the planning area and help the region’s people, wildlife, lands, and waters thrive far into the future.

Suzanne Little works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation program based in Anchorage, Alaska.

David Shaw
Smokehouse
Issue Brief

Bering Sea Western Interior at Risk of Resource Extraction

Quick View
Issue Brief

Since 2016, the U. S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service have advanced five efforts that would dramatically alter protections for some 60 million acres of federally managed land in Alaska.

Hiking along the edge of a butte, overlooking Crooked Creek, in the Musselshell Breaks in Montana.
Hiking along the edge of a butte, overlooking Crooked Creek, in the Musselshell Breaks in Montana.
Article

Protecting Public Lands to Fight Against Climate Change

Quick View
Article

The Biden administration has an unprecedented opportunity to increase BLM protections for important wildlife habitat, Indigenous peoples’ ancestral lands, watersheds, and ecosystems that can help lessen the impacts of climate change.

 Taylor Peak above Fortymile Wild and Scenic River
Taylor Peak above Fortymile Wild and Scenic River
Article

At 75, BLM Should Increase Focus on Conservation

Quick View
Article

From the vast sagebrush sea of the West and red rock of the Colorado Plateau to the traditional homelands of tribes across more than a dozen states and vibrant deserts of the Southwest, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stewards approximately 250 million acres of American landscapes.

Sunray
Sunray

Biden's Chance to Work With Tribes on Alaska Public Lands

Quick View

Since 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service have advanced five land management plans that would eliminate protections for the roughly 60 million acres of federally managed lands—the most of any state—in Alaska. If enacted, the Alaska plans would open vast stretches of the Bering Sea-Western Interior, Tongass National Forest, Central Yukon, National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and other pristine landscapes to extractive development with significant potential repercussions for lands, rivers, wildlife in Alaska, and the Indigenous peoples whose lives and culture are intrinsically connected to these places.