A new Interior Department order revokes Trump-era plans to boost mining and oil and gas leasing on federal lands for two years, giving the agency time to meet with tribes and hear public concerns regarding potential impact of the plan in several areas, including subsistence uses.
“From day one, President Biden was clear that we must take a whole-of-government approach to tackle the climate crisis, strengthen the economy and address environmental justice,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, in a statement issued on Friday, April 16. Haaland said she feels the Interior Department has a unique opportunity to make communities more resilient to climate change and help lead the transition to a clean energy economy.
The Eyak Preservation Council in Cordova hailed the pause as an opportunity to listen to tribes and the public’s concerns about Trump administration plans to open 28 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land in Alaska to extractive development. The BLM is now mandated to address comments, undertake additional analysis and correct defects in the current public land offerings. Although this is being described as an extension of the opening of the Public Land Order until April 16, 2023, it is considered a strategic, hopeful victory for tribes, Native lands and all communities that would have been adversely impacted by development and mining in ancestral homelands, the Eyak Preservation Council said.
The council noted that a critical intersection of the paused land orders and tribal concerns also involves the Vietnam Veterans Allotment Act, which allows some 2,200 eligible indigenous veterans who were serving in Vietnam during the original allotment period to apply for land claims.
BLM’s past interpretation of the act has put indigenous people in a difficult position, the council said, by requiring all public land orders to be lifted before these veterans could apply for allotments. The Biden administration is indicating that this approach was disproportionate, potentially removing protections from tens of millions of acres to accommodate some 352,000 acres of veteran allotments and force indigenous peoples to choose between their veterans’ rightful claims and the essential landscapes that have nurtured communities for millennia, the council said.
Haaland’s decision to call for the two-year stay in implementation of these and other public land orders, meanwhile, did not sit well with Alaska’s congressional delegation, which said Alaskans have a right to access these lands.
“The interior Department’s action goes against the advice of the career experts who determined that the environmental analysis under NEPA was adequate to support the decision to lift these withdrawal restrictions,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “It also wastes the tens of millions of dollars and a decade of work that went into the development of these resource management plans.”
The senator said that Interior officials have an obligation to be upfront about exact details of their concerns with the existing PLOs and complete the review as quickly as possible.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, called Haaland’s decision “misguided” and contended that it would drastically limit lands available to Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans eligible for allotments.
“To shut down Alaska’s mineral sector like this not only puts us at a competitive disadvantage,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. “It also forces us to rely on minerals extracted from nations with far lower environmental and labor standards than the United States. The decision is not based on science and years of work and millions of dollars spent on environmental review have been thrown out the window.”