December 14, 2018
RE: Please oppose inclusion of S. 785 (Alaska Native Veterans Land Allotment Equity Act, S. 785) in public lands package
On behalf of our millions of members and supporters, we are writing to express our opposition to the Alaska Native Veterans Land Allotment Equity Act (S. 785) and its inclusion in an omnibus public lands package or any other end of session legislation.
While born out of good intentions, this bill represents a massive potential privatization of as much as 500,000 acres of public lands including lands within national wildlife refuges and even congressionally designated Wilderness areas. Far from a targeted, thoughtful effort to address inequities, S. 785 is a virtual blank check that could lead to thousands of new inholdings on public lands and allow for their development, transfer and sale to private interests.
In 1971, Congress established a sunset date for a land allotment program from 1906, as a component of the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. At the time, some Alaska Natives were stationed overseas in Vietnam and missed the deadline to select an allotment. To correct for this, Congress created a new 18-month selection window for those veterans in 1998, which was amended in 2000. 700 applicants applied for 991 parcels of land through that reopener. Instead of seeking to resolve any potential problems with that reopener program, S.785 unjustifiably creates a completely new land entitlement program and, in doing so, puts hundreds of thousands of acres of sensitive lands at risk, without the essential safeguards from previous programs.
Of particular concern, S. 785 as amended would:
1. Removes an estimated 500,000 acres of federal public lands – including national wildlife refuges and designated Wilderness areas – and place them in private hands.
The amended legislation still makes all national wildlife refuge lands except the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including designated wilderness lands, available for privatization. These ecologically sensitive lands are afforded the most protected status available under ANILCA, and should be the last areas offered for privatization. This is especially true where, as here, there is no required showing of any prior use or actual connection to the land to be privatized. When Congress re-opened the allotment program in 1998, it specifically prohibited selections within Wilderness areas and also restricted selections where the public has established campsites. These restrictions don’t exist in the amended legislation, leaving areas of public interest vulnerable to privatization.
This issue with the bill affects lands across the state. Whether it’s the designated ‘Special Areas’ in the NPR-A or the heavily utilized areas of designated Wilderness in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, this legislation could greatly impact access to and management of currently public resources.
- Provides no flexibility for the agency to protect the integrity of Conservation System Units. The prior reopener gave the Secretary the ability to offer ‘alternate lands’ in instances where the selection and ultimate privatization of a parcel from a Conservation System Unit would be incompatible with a purpose of that Conservation System Unit. This legislation does the opposite - it requires the conveyance of the allotment, even in instances where the conveyance is not in the public interest or is counter to the purpose of the designated public lands.
- Removes the ‘personal use’ requirement that used to determine land selections. To qualify under the 1906 program, individuals had to show personal use of selected lands; this factor would help determine that the size and location of an allotment was appropriate based on an individual’s connection with specific lands. By removing this requirement and also allowing heirs to make claims, a dramatic increase in lands will be made available by this program. This dramatically changes the program from redressing a historical injustice to creating a novel land program. It also creates incentives to select lands based on their potential market value – for resale – rather than for the purpose perpetuating historical personal use of the land.
- Provides for the selection of a second allotment, if an eligible recipient was previously conveyed less than 157.5 acres. Even if an individual selected and was conveyed a previous allotment, this legislation creates the opportunity for an additional allotment – by the standards of this new, novel program – unless the prior selection conveyed almost the full 160 acres. This could nearly double the size of inholdings compared to prior programs.
- Sets an arbitrary timeline for the conveyance of allotments, jeopardizing a thorough review that protects other private and/or public interests. The legislation intends that the Secretary convey lands within two years of a selection application being filed. As applications will likely require substantial review – including site visits that survey selections – this may not leave sufficient time for affected private parties or the public to raise legitimate objections, and for those objections to be thoughtfully analyzed.
- Continues in perpetuity. Unlike the 1998 reopener as amended, this legislation has no deadline for making a selection. Coupled with a provision allowing heirs of eligible individuals to make selections, this new land entitlement program creates the potential for public lands privatization to continue for many decades, and throws public land status into uncertainty.
Upon the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, Congress stated its belief that it had struck the right balance for legislative allocation of Alaska’s federal public lands and sought to limit administrative creation of new Conservation System Units (CSUs). If S. 785 passes into law, some of the public lands that were protected as CSUs by ANILCA would be placed in private hands, altering the balance that Congress achieved in ANILCA. To protect the public interest, any changes to the law that allow the privatization of public lands – particularly those in CSUs – should be accompanied by a repeal of the provision of ANILCA that seeks to limit the ability of an administration to create additional CSUs. At a minimum, this would include repealing Sec. 1326 of ANILCA (16 U.S.C. § 3213), one of what are commonly referred to as the ‘No More Clauses.’
In sum, the committee substitute for S. 785 remains deeply flawed. We urge you to reject this legislation.
Thank you for your consideration. Signed,
Alaska Wilderness League
Alaska Wildlife Alliance
Alaskans for Wildlife
Blue Goose Alliance
Center for Biological Diversity
Defenders of Wildlife
Delaware Ecumenical Council on Children and Families Earthjustice
Endangered Habitats League
Endangered Species Coalition
Environmental Protection Information Center Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges Hip Hop Caucus
Howling For Wolves
Klamath Forest Alliance
League of Conservation Voters
National Audubon Society
National Wildlife Federation
National Wildlife Refuge Association
Natural Resources Defense Council
National Parks Conservation Association National Wildlife Federation
New York Whale and Dolphin Action League Oasis Earth
Save Wolves Now Network
Sitka Conservation Society Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Stand.earth
The American Packraft Association The Trust for Public Land
The Wilderness Society Wilderness Watch