- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 11, 2021

Alaska is fighting the Biden administration’s move to delay the reopening of millions of acres of federal land, including allotments for tribal veterans, accusing the Interior Department of seeking to keep vast swaths of the state locked up as “de facto parks.”

The state sued in federal court last week to stop the Interior Department from reversing the Trump administration’s January release of 28 million acres in Alaska from federal temporary land withdrawals, making available the areas to natural-resources development.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s April 15 reversal “blocks State land selections and Alaska Native Vietnam Veteran allotments” in violation of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, said Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office in a Wednesday statement.

“This is a methodical effort by the Biden administration — more than just bureaucratic foot dragging — to frustrate ANILCA and the Statehood land entitlement and leave these lands locked up as de facto parks,” said Mr. Dunleavy, a Republican. “They are consciously ignoring and going around appropriate processes to hold things in perpetual limbo. It has needed to be challenged for a long time and it needs to be challenged now more than ever due to these new delays – and I am challenging it.”

The department said it would delay for two years the effective date for former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s five Public Lands Orders lifting the withdrawals to address “legal defects in the decision-making process,” although the tribal veterans’ land applications would be expedited.

Under a 2019 program, Vietnam-era Alaska Native veterans may apply for Bureau of Land Management allotments of up to 160 acres from otherwise vacant federal lands in Alaska.

“The BLM will prioritize review of those lands in order to provide them for selection by eligible veterans and will accept applications across the 28 million acres during its review of the land orders,” said the Interior press release. “Based on pending applications, veteran claims would represent 0.14% of the 28 million acres of land proposed for extraction.”

Alaska lawmakers have long chafed under a 1971 federal law that allows the Interior Department to issue temporary land withdrawals to consider “how federal lands should be used in the state,” arguing that there has been nothing temporary about the orders.

Eleven of the 16 withdrawals removed by Mr. Bernhardt were issued in 1972 and 1973, said the department in a Jan. 19 press release.

“Many of these 1970s-era orders have never been lifted even though the reasons for the withdrawals have been satisfied for decades,” said the governor’s office. “Under 16 such orders, about 28 million acres of land have sat under outdated restrictions, all the while with the federal government proposing that the withdrawals be lifted but never doing so.”

The agency said the review would include “whether to release all 28 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land in Alaska and open it to mining and mineral development.”

“During this time, the BLM will work to correct defects associated with initial analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, including inadequate review of potential impacts on subsistence hunting and fishing,” said the agency in an April 29 statement.

Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor called the decision “to further delay the effective date of actions lifting these restrictions is a punch in the gut to Alaskans, an affront to common sense, and a violation of law.”

Corri Feige, Alaska Department of Natural Resources commissioner, called the decision typical of the Biden administration’s efforts to block natural-resources development on federal lands.

Last month, the Biden administration froze oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, citing the need for additional environmental analysis, after Congress approved in 2017 leasing on 1.9 million acres of the 19.3-million-acre refuge on Alaska’s North Slope.

“This announcement follows the Biden administration’s already well-established pattern of assuming excessive administrative authority, rehashing completed actions, and even defying settled law to advance the policy goals of anti-development activists and political donors in the lower 48 rather than the everyday Alaskans that benefit from multiple use of public lands,” said Ms. Feige.

The state’s lawsuit asks the federal district court in Alaska to prevent the Interior Department from delaying the January orders and order the department to lift immediately the 16 withdrawals.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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