State, Doyon, miners opposed to Eastern Interior plan

  • Miners at the mouth of the Fortymile River, 1894. Photo © 2017 Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in

The State of Alaska and mining proponents are once again at odds with Bureau of Land Management; this time the dispute is over the agency’s updated plan to manage 6.5 million acres of federal lands in Eastern Alaska.

On Jan. 5 BLM released the decision documents to its Eastern Interior Resource Management Plan that would keep approximately 4.8 million federal acres off-limits to development, namely mining in the region known for gold production.

Much of that land was previously set aside by prior actions, but Gov. Bill Walker’s administration contends the management plans for the four subunits — White Mountains, Steese, Draanjik and Fortymile — ignore historic legislation regarding lands in the state.

The Eastern Interior Resource management plan pertains to BLM-managed lands across a massive triangle of Eastern Alaska from just north of Fairbanks; east to the Canadian border; north to the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and south to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park including the Alaska Highway corridor.

The four subunit records of decision are the result of the environmental impact statement process that began way back in 2008. The previous land management plans for the Eastern Interior were enacted in 1986.

“People rely on these public lands for their livelihood, for subsistence, for recreation, for access to state and private lands and many other reasons,” BLM Fairbanks District Office Manager Geoff Beyersdorf said in a formal statement. “Over eight years, we have listened and taken the public’s concerns into account. With approval of these plans, we can move forward with management of these public lands in a way that balances use, development and conservation.”

In a 13-page Aug. 29 formal protest letter to BLM Director Neil Kornze that reads more like a court complaint, Senior Alaska Assistant Attorney General J. Anne Nelson wrote that BLM’s then-proposed Eastern Interior plan does not allow for conveyance of lands selected by Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act corporations without revising the areas targeted for conservation.

James Mery, vice president of lands for Doyon Ltd., the Interior Alaska Native regional corporation, also protested the management plan on several fronts.

Mery wrote that while BLM met with Doyon leaders to discuss the plan in 2015, the agency did not adequately address how changing large areas of critical environmental concerns, or ACECs, would impact the company’s use of its lands adjacent to or “effectively enveloped by the ACEC.”

Mery specifically referenced ACECs designated for caribou and Dall sheep habitat within the Fortymile Eastern Interior subunit. The Fortymile River drainage is an area known for small placer gold mining operations.

“Given the agency’s consultation obligations to (Alaska Native corporations) and the agency’s knowledge of the substantial economic, historic and cultural interest of Doyon and its shareholders in the area, BLM should have engaged in further consultation with Doyon regarding the specific proposed revisions to the ACEC boundaries in an effort to address Doyon’s access concerns,” he wrote.

Doyon selected about 770,000 acres within the Eastern Interior area to be conveyed by the federal government, and 755,000 of those acres are within the Fortymile subunit.

The agency’s response to possible Native consultation issues states that conservation withdrawals in the plan would not impact conveyance of Native-selected lands and that an access corridor through the Fortymile ACEC to existing Native corporation lands was proposed.

According to BLM, land conveyances under either ANCSA or the Alaska Statehood Act are administrative procedures that trump land use guidelines established in the resource management plan.

“The BLM also modified the boundary of the Fortymile ACEC to exclude the Fortymile (Wild and Scenic River) corridor, partially in response to Doyon Ltd.’s request,” the protest response document states.

However, the agency also notes more generally that Native corporations are “over-selected and not all selected lands will be conveyed.”

Assistant state attorney Nelson argued further that the plan “frustrates” the state’s ability to get title to the remaining federal lands it is owed and disregards the agency’s own conclusion in a 2006 report — in response to the 2004 Alaska Land Transfer Acceleration Act — that about 95 percent of historic federal land withdrawals have outlived their usefulness.

Nearly 160 million federal acres in the state have been withdrawn, or removed, from possible conveyance to the State of Alaska or private interests primarily for conservation as parts of the numerous public land laws pertaining to Alaska.

The Eastern Interior plan instead retains the withdrawals and “unnecessarily and unjustifiably complicates land management in the planning area,” Nelson wrote.

She also insists the plan perpetuates a common theme among recent Interior Department agency decisions because it “expressly seeks to curtail mineral exploration and development in an area that has significant mineral potential and a rich mining history, including the oldest mining district in the state,” Nelson wrote. “The plan doubles down on this effort by failing to recommend lifting any existing withdrawals until new substitute withdrawals are in place.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski called the conservation withdrawals in the plan “intentionally excessive” in a release slamming the planning documents, a sentiment shared by Rep. Don Young in a statement from his office.

Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the habitat protections should be more targeted to protect subsistence interests. Instead, “BLM has continued to disregard its multiple-use mission and the livelihoods of Alaskans as it seeks to impose unnecessary conservation designations,” she said.

Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack furthered that sentiment in a Sept. 28 letter to BLM Alaska Director Bud Cribley.

According to Mack, not only does the plan hamper the title transfer of state-selected federal lands, it also challenges the state’s ability to build on its resource-based economy, as 40 percent of BLM lands in the Fortymile subunit are off limits to mineral leasing.

“Further, the areas of the (Fortymile) subunit that are recommended as open to mining have low mineral potential; therefore, there is little likelihood that mining will occur in any areas recommended as open in the subunit,” Mack wrote.

According Alaska BLM spokeswoman Lesli Ellis-Wouters, the entirety of the planning area is withdrawn from mineral development unless the Interior Secretary approves lifting from withdrawal status the 1.7 million acres recommended in the plan.

Ellis-Wouters also wrote in an email that the Draanjik and Fortymile plans recommend new withdrawals of more than 5,000 acres, which triggers an Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act Requirement for the agency to seek approval from Congress.

Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Crockett concurred with the state’s stance in a litany of points protesting the plan, most focused on how it limits future mining activity in the region.

In its retort, BLM notes there are still 1.7 million federal acres in the vast region open to mineral leasing. Additionally, there are about 10,000 acres of federal mining claims in the Fortymile region that predate the withdrawals and thus have been grandfathered in along with active placer operations on state claims within the Fortymile Wild and Scenic River corridor, according to the agency.

There are another 11,200 acres of federal mining claims in the Steese and White Mountains areas; and overall the Eastern Interior Planning Area held more than 15,100 active state claims in 2013, BLM states.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

01/11/2017 - 11:53am