TESTIMONY — Melanie Bahnke speaks during a public meeting with BLM on protections for D-1 lands on Thursday, February 1 at the Mini Convention Center in Nome.

BLM hears pleas for retaining protections on D-1 lands

Indigenous residents of the Bering Strait region who attended a meeting with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Nome last week sent a clear message to the agency: They want to keep federal protections on so-called “D-1 lands,” fearing the consequences of state management and new opportunities for resource extraction.
On Thursday night at the Mini Convention Center, representatives from BLM answered questions and collected testimony about D-1 lands that could soon have their protections revoked.
“We find ourselves constantly at odds with our state government, and I don’t think that removing these protections right now in this area at this time would do anything but put us more at risk,” Melanie Bahnke, president and CEO of Kawerak, said during the public comment period.
Kawerak has already joined the Association of Village Council Presidents and the Tanana Chiefs Conference in formally asking BLM to retain protections on D-1 lands. But Bahnke said she wanted to offer additional comments that were more specific to the Bering Strait region.
“You can’t just look at these lands in isolation,” Bahnke said, citing a long list of other pressures facing the region: increased shipping, climate change, declining fish, difficulties hunting caribou, a housing crisis, and the threat of new socioeconomic pressures from an expanded port in Nome and from large-scale resource development like Graphite One’s proposed mine.
“I don’t know that your environmental impact statement looks at things holistically,” Bahnke said. “It’s looking at what possibly could happen on these very specific points on the map if the restrictions are lifted, but I encourage BLM to look at more holistically all of the challenges that we’re facing.”
Back in December, BLM released a nearly 400-page draft of an environmental impact statement, or EIS, that outlines the potential effects of taking away protections on D-1 lands in Alaska.
As Emily Murray of Elim said in her testimony, “You have to almost become a lawyer to look at deciphering what’s in it, and how can we as Native people, Indigenous people respond to such a thick document?”
D-1 lands were reserved under section 17(d)(1) of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. They were meant to fulfill future claims by Native corporations and the state, but they were never turned over.
The Trump administration had advanced a plan to lift D-1 protections. But the Biden administration halted that plan and began a process to study its potential impacts. The draft is meant to guide U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in her decision about whether to lift the D-1 protections; the public comment period on that draft will close on Feb. 14. Comments can be submitted by mail or online, but BLM has also been traveling around the state to collect public input. After the meeting in Nome, the group was set to go to Unalakleet.
The draft EIS puts forth four possible options for the 28 million acres in question across the state. Put simply, Alternative A would retain all D-1 protections, and Alternative D would lift all D-1 protections, while Alternatives B and C would see some protections retained and others lifted.
All seven commentors who gave testimony on Thursday advocated for Alternative A.  
The lands that could lose protections include areas in the Darby Mountains, the Kigluiak Mountains and the upper Bendeleben Mountains.
Some of the D-1 lands are top-filed by the state, meaning they were claimed by the state but were unavailable at the time of their selection. If D-1 protections are lifted in those lands, the state could take over management. This could have implications for subsistence users in the region, as the state does not legally prioritize subsistence in the same way that the federal government does, as a few commenters noted in their testimony.
Murray, who is vice president of the Norton Bay Watershed Council, said that revoking the D-1 land withdrawals would severely impact the region’s subsistence economy.
“Alaska rural communities are predominantly engaged in a subsistence economy with a cash overlay,” Murray said. “Alaska Indigenous people hold a complex, innate connection to clean water, salmon, edible greens and berries and wildlife from both the land and ocean based on the sustainable economy.”
Others drew a connection between preserving these subsistence resources and the continuity of Alaska Native culture.  
“As Alaskan Natives we rely on these lands to continue our way of life passed down generation to generation,” said Kerry Ahmasuk, who was born and raised in Nome. “I urge that we protect the D-1 lands and take no action.”
The revocation could open new lands to certain forms of mineral entry. For example, there are D-1 parcels adjacent to the state-owned area where Graphite One wants to build a mine north of Nome. Many of these parcels are top-filed by the state. A loss of D-1 protections could potentially open new areas for Graphite One to expand its operation.
While dozens of tribes have asked for the D-1 protections to be retained, Alaska’s two Republican U.S. Senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, have advocated the opposite position. Last year, the senators reintroduced legislation intended to lift D-1 protections by codifying the Trump administration’s land orders.

 

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