The Biggest Alaska Public Land Crises You’ve Never Heard About

In the final days of the Trump Administration, while all eyes were focused on the highly controversial decision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, another effort was underway to open vast swaths of Alaska’s pristine public lands to mining and oil and gas interests—virtually unnoticed.

At issue: over 26 million acres of public lands in the Bering Sea and Central Yukon region of Alaska. On January 20th, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued its final decision to open 99% of the 13 million acres of federal public land in the Bering Sea Western Interior region of Alaska to development, and eliminate safeguards for 1.8 million acres of lands formerly designated as areas of critical environmental concern.

A few weeks earlier, the BLM released its draft plan for the Central Yukon region, with the same industrial focus: opening 99% of the Central Yukon’s 13 million acres to resource extraction, and eliminating protections for 17 out of 18 areas designated as areas of critical environmental concern and natural research areas.  The public comment period for this decision will end March 11, 2021.

These two management plans, which encompass federal public lands about half the size of the State of Washington, include much of the Yukon River and public lands west of Denali National Park to the Bering Sea. The area supports a spectacular array of caribou, Dall sheep, King salmon runs, and critical ecosystems that federally recognized tribes in Alaska have stewarded for thousands of years.

Although the BLM’s mandate is to balance uses on the public lands that it manages, these two plans prioritize mining and drilling over all else. Once these lands are open to mining, the archaic 1872 Mining Law allows individuals and mining corporations to stake as many claims as they like, and hold those claims indefinitely.

The Bering Sea-Western Interior planning region alone is home to over 65 Alaska tribes whose traditional ways of life, supported by abundant fish, wildlife, and plants, have sustained countless generations. Many of the region’s tribes asked the BLM to protect watersheds and fish populations that provide food security to local communities, and filed objections against the BLM’s final plans. Earthworks also filed formal objections to the Bering Sea Western Interior plan on behalf of an Alaska Native Council and regional Alaska conservation groups. Yet the Administration denied all objections and disregarded local recommendations, even in the face of its own findings.

For example, the BLM describes the Anvik River as rare and irreplaceable, and supporting an internationally significant fisheries resource. Fish from the Anvik River travel more than 2,000 miles along the Yukon River to Canada and provide food for thousands of people along the way.  Yet, the final plan ignored the river’s value, revoking the watershed’s designation as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern and eliminating safeguards.

Of all the available options for how these Alaska public lands could be managed over the next 20-30 years, the Trump Administration chose the most extreme, handing out favors to mining and oil and gas interests as he walked out the door.

There is still time to turn this public lands Titanic around, but it must come soon. President Biden put a hold on all public land decisions, when he took office.  Now, we need President Biden and the new Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to go back to the drawing board with these two resource management plans, to develop a more balanced management approach that safeguards the people and values of the region.


Photo: Musk ox in the Nulato Hills. Credit: Luc Mehl