- Associated Press - Thursday, July 7, 2016

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - Alaska Native communities will now be able to have their land placed in federal trust after securing a victory in federal appeals court that could provide them with more federal funding to enforce criminal and civil laws.

Attorney Heather Kendall-Miller told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (https://bit.ly/29nvrDl) many Alaska Native communities desperately need the aid that comes with a land trust designation. She said it will help particularly with enforcement of liquor laws and in prosecuting bootleggers.

“As everybody has recognized for years, the state of Alaska doesn’t have law enforcement to the extent that is needed or necessary in rural Alaska,” Kendall-Miller said following the Friday ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

The decision comes after the state appealed a federal district court ruling in favor of three Alaska Native communities - Akiachak, Chalkyitsik, and Tuluksak - that challenged the Department of Interior’s interpretation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The ruling struck down a decades-long rule the department used that barred it from putting Alaska Native land into trust.

The federal appeals court determined that the state’s argument for an appeal was moot because the Department of Interior rule no longer existed and the state didn’t put forward any new claims. However, one judge on the Court of Appeals disagreed and did find that the state had been arguing a different point than the Department of Interior.

Kevin Illingworth, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor, said the state should not be upset with the outcome of the case.

“It would not take any authority away from the state,” Illingworth said. “So, in the sense of establishing public safety in villages, it really does go a long way in being able to cross-deputize (and) have cooperative enforcement.”

By placing their land in trust, tribes allow the federal government to share ownership through the trust. The tribes then gain access to Bureau of Indian Affairs funding for economic development and transportation projects and get authority to institute and enforce their own laws on the land in trust.

Woodie Salmon, first chief of Chalkyitsik, said he hopes his community will apply for federal land trust, but acknowledged that “it’s going to take time.” He expects the state to continue fighting the case.

“We’re really happy,” Salmon said, “but we don’t want to be too happy.”

Gov. Bill Walker’s office declined to comment on the ruling and directed questions to the Department of Law.

“We will review the decision as we do all appellate decisions and determine next steps,” a spokeswoman for the department wrote. “We will go through our normal review process before making any decision.”


Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, https://www.newsminer.com

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