DNR issues latest revisions to Bristol Bay land use plan

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources unveiled its official Bristol Bay region land use plan Sept. 5.

The Determination of Reclassification and Plan Amendment to the Bristol Bay Area Plan is a resolution to a dispute between DNR and groups opposing the proposed Pebble copper and gold mine that goes back to the agency’s issuance of an area plan in 2005.

Nearly 13 million upland acres and 6 million submerged and tidal lands are designated for best-use determinations in the plan.

The most recent plan is a revised version of a draft Bristol Bay Area Plan the agency put out for public comment in January. It was part of an August 2012 settlement reached between DNR and the plaintiffs to revise the plan through public process rather than litigation.

Primary wildlife habitat increased from just more than 1 million acres in the January draft to more than 1.6 million in the final amendment. Land designated for habitat and secondary uses expanded from about 1.9 million acres to more than 4 million in the most recent version of the plan.

Division of Mining, Land and Water Deputy Director Marty Parsons said the land use designation changes were made as a result of information DNR received from the state Department of Fish and Game. He said primary areas used by large game had changed since 2005.

“We look at what’s critical or important to the life cycle of a particular species, which in the case of caribou is calving areas — moose it’s calving and wintering areas. In the case of brown bears you look at denning areas,” Parsons said. “Those types of things are very important to the survival process.”

Overall, DNR increased the wildlife habitat-use area by 89 percent around Bristol Bay. Lands determined to be best suited for mineral development shrunk from 328,000 acres to 203,000. The roughly 70,000 acres on which Pebble Partnership has mineral claims north of Iliamna Lake went largely unchanged.

In January, DNR Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels said that the Pebble claims are there for a reason and if there the land has high mineral value, then a mineral-use classification is appropriate.

A fight over the 2005 Bristol Bay plan began in 2009 when Trout Unlimited, the Alaska Independent Fisherman’s Marketing Association and five Bristol Bay area village and tribal councils filed a lawsuit against DNR in an attempt to force revisions to the plan.

The 2005 version was the region’s first land use update since 1984, when 11.5 million of the upland acres were classified primarily as wildlife habitat. The total wildlife habitat acreage — dual-use land included — was 2.8 million acres in 2005, according to DNR. Also, all of the planning units that contained Pebble mining claims were reclassified to mineral land.

According to a DNR release, 497 comments were submitted during the 120-day comment period that ended in May on the draft plan.

Trout Unlimited Alaska Director Tim Bristol said at the beginning of the comment period that the petitioners would “vigorously” assert their concerns over the draft plan through the public comment process.

Trout Unlimited spokesperson Lindsey Bloom said environmental advocacy groups studied the public responses and found that 95 percent of them were in favor of adding wildlife land.

Bloom said the resolved area plan was a positive step and that the state needs to continue accounting for renewable resources in the area.

“The (public) comments demonstrate with the area plan and with the Pebble issue that the villages and people that live in the region want to emphasize the value of the renewable resources there,” she said.

DNR took time to listen and respond to the public’s concerns, Parsons said.

“We met with (area) village representatives and listened to their concerns and things that they knew about the areas and some of the lands were given a co-designation based on that information,” he said.

The comments requesting closure of land to mineral development go beyond the scope of the Bristol Bay Area Plan, Parsons said.

DNR manages all land for multiple uses, he said. He noted that closing a tract of land more than 640 acres to a specific use requires legislative action.

“We basically identify where the resources are,” he said.

Land use designations are fluid, Parsons said, and new information can always prompt changes to such plans.

The final Bristol Bay Area Plan now enters a 20-day reconsideration period, according to DNR.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

09/12/2013 - 11:20am