GUEST COMMENTARY: Public lands bill a bipartisan win for Alaska and U.S.
In March I joined Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate at the White House with President Donald Trump for the signing of major lands and conservation legislation.
The “John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act” is now law after years of effort. As chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I worked to combine more than 120 lands, resources, and water measures — including many that will help resolve long-standing issues for Alaskans.
One of the provisions of which I am most proud will provide equity to Alaska Natives who served during the Vietnam War to finally receive their land allotments. Sponsored in the last Congress by Sen. Dan Sullivan, this provision will provide an estimated 2,800 veterans with a chance to receive the lands promised to them decades ago by the federal government.
Due to their service, many missed the application deadline imposed by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Previous programs have had a rejection rate of up to 75 percent, which led us to create a new program that will work better for everyone.
Other provisions within my lands package will provide new opportunities for economic development. For example, the new law will provide routing flexibility for the gasline project in Denali National Park and Preserve.
A separate provision repeals a prohibition that prevents the Kake Tribal Corp. from exporting unprocessed logs harvested from its lands. Another requires the Department of the Interior to convey sand and gravel resources within and contiguous to the Barrow Gas Field to the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp.
In a state with 224 million acres of federal lands, we encounter more than our fair share of land management issues. To address one in the Southcentral region, we require the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service to conduct a study to identify the effects that federal land acquisitions have had on Chugach Alaska Corp.’s ability to develop its subsurface estate and identify options for possible land exchanges.
We also restore the claims of four Alaskans who wrongly had their placer mining operations taken by the government over a decade ago due to bureaucratic discrepancies. Now that this bill has been signed into law, those miners will finally have relief. Their claims will be reinstated and they will able to go back to business.
My lands package also includes national policies that will benefit Alaska. We extended a geologic mapping program for five years, which will help us understand our world-class mineral base and highlight new opportunities for mining in our state.
By modernizing and expanding our nation’s volcano early warning and monitoring capabilities, we will keep communities and travelers in Alaska safe.
The permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a significant national conservation achievement that also now includes a requirement that at least 40 percent of its annual funding go to the popular state-side program, which supports the Alaska park system and local recreation sites.
I am also proud of the provisions we included that relate to access to federal lands for sportsmen and women. We direct federal agencies to expand and enhance opportunities for hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting on public lands, in accordance with applicable laws and regulations. “Open unless closed” will now be the standard for Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands to ensure that closures are justified and provide for public notice and comment.
We also agreed to include a number of conservation-related provisions specific to the Lower 48. Our lands package designates new federal wilderness in states such as New Mexico and Utah. We created new wild and scenic river segments in Oregon, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. And we established five National Monuments the right way — with Congress in the lead — in California, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Utah.
Our lands package is the result of good process and extensive negotiations. It took us years of regular order in the committees of jurisdiction to process its components. Following that, we spent months engaged in bipartisan, bicameral negotiations to reach agreement on its exact scope.
We struck a careful balance between the need to provide for economic development and the desire to protect treasured landscapes. And we ensured that every provision — especially those related to conservation — enjoyed strong state and local support.
The result is a sweeping package that drew 92 votes in the Senate, 363 votes in the House, and the support of hundreds of stakeholder groups all across the country. That’s a rare occurrence in an era where partisan division and gridlock often prevail. And while much work remains, our lands package will deliver real benefits for Alaskans and all Americans.
Lisa Murkowski is the senior U.S. senator from Alaska.