BLM resource management plan would open millions of acres to development

Tribal entities want focus on subsistence priority for federally recognized Alaska Native tribes

The sunrise over the Bering Sea as seen from the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. Photo by Bering Land Bridge National Preserve staff

A grassroots consortium representing 33 federally recognized tribes is raising concerns over a federal Bureau of Land Management plan for allowable uses of over 13.5 million acres of traditional tribal land stretching from the Bering Sea to the upper Kuskokwim.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Dec. 8, the Bering Sea-Interior Tribal Commission said that the new resource management plan, which will guide management of these lands for the next 20 to 30 years, would significantly impact a total of 65 federally recognized Alaska Native tribes living within the planning area.

The acreage includes all lands south of the Central Yukon watershed to the southern boundary of the Kuskokwim River watershed and all lands west of Denali National Park and Preserve to the Bering Sea. The plan is to replace the 1981 Southwest Management Framework Plan and a small portion of the1986 Central Yukon Resource Management Plan.

“We don’t own the land, but we belong to the land, and what happens to the land happens to us,” said Nathan Elswick, environmental director for the Anvik Tribe.

“Impacts to our customary and traditional use areas were not considered or evaluated seriously,” said Frank Katchatag, president of the Native Village of Unalakleet and vice chairman of the tribal commission. “Our communities will bear the burden from the plan and our input has been largely ignored.”

During the public comment period tribes nominated critical watersheds for protection from mining and extractive development, yet none of the nominated watersheds received protection in the BLM’s proposed plan, tribal spokespersons said.

According to a statement released by Chad Padgett, Alaska state director for the BLM, the agency worked hard to develop a plan that strikes a balance between protection of critical subsistence resources, development of local resources, and conservation of important fish and wildlife habitat. The proposed plan also recommends lifting obsolete public land orders issued in 1972 under section 17(d)(1) of the Alaska Native Claims settlement Act, opening up lands to public land laws and allowing for mineral location and claims.

The BLM said developing of the Bering Sea-Western Interior plan involved extensive local involvement, with over 40 public meetings in communities within the plan area from 2013 through 2019. Hundreds of stakeholders provided valuable information about current and anticipated public land uses in the planning area which helped the BLM craft alternatives considered in the proposed resource management plan and final EIS, the BLM said.

The tribal commission contends that the BLM has failed to recognize planning area tribes’ knowledge, expertise and role as stewards of their traditional lands. The new BLM approved plan selects a newly developed alternative that cooperating agency tribes had no opportunity to review before the plan’s publication, the tribal commission’s statement said. BLM’s decision to reject meaningful protections for the nominated watersheds sends the clear message that voices of planning area tribes do not matter in the BLM’s planning processes, they said.

The commission now has 30 days to respond, said Austin Ahmasuk, a spokesperson for the tribal commission, who runs the marine program for Kawerak, the nonprofit social services entity for the Bering Straits region, based in Nome.

This plan opens up a lot of areas for development, but does not protect areas important to communities, Ahmasuk said.

“The lands should be used to protect our subsistence way of life,” he said. “The (BLM) plan looks very similar to the agency’s preferred alternative and they didn’t change that too much.”

A number of organizations in western Alaska, including the Association of Village Council Presidents, Kawerak, and the Tanana Chiefs Conference, are lending staff support to protect these lands for subsistence priority, he said. The Native American Rights Fund, which has an office in Anchorage, is also getting involved, and some funding has been received from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which collaborates with philanthropic partners to make positive change for the public good.