Defending Tribal Sovereignty on the Seward Peninsula

Bering Sea Western Interior Resource Management Plan Response


(Photo credit: Hal)

Background and Introduction

The Norton Bay Watershed Council (NBWC) is closely monitoring and coordinating the tribal response to a proposal by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that poses a serious threat to subsistence resources and ecological integrity on the Seward Peninsula. The BLM released the first version of its Bering Sea Western Interior Resource Management Plan in March 2019, which will govern management of critical and delicate ecosystems for the next 20 to 30 years. The plan is consistent with the Trump administration’s approach of opening public lands to extractive development regardless of the ecological and human rights consequences.

Lack of Tribal Consultation

The planning process, and the public comment period that followed, failed to adequately include and consult with the Alaska Native tribes that live in the planning area and depend on its natural resources for their physical and cultural survival. The result is a Resource Management Plan that revokes 50 year old public lands protections for sensitive fish and wildlife habitats under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. This opens over 46 million acres to mining and other development while removing protections from Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs), ignoring local communities’ requests that such designations remain in place. The failure of this RMP to adequately protect unique watersheds could have serious impacts on wildlife habitat and water quality for critical fish resources and community water sources.

Tribal Opposition and Requests for Areas of Critical Environmental Concern

Much of the plan’s impacted area is the traditional land of over 69 Alaska Tribes, who have lived in the region for thousands of years and continue to sustainably manage the fish, plants, animals, and land. The Tribes are unified in their opposition to the land give away and have warned the BLM of the potential impacts on water resources, wildlife, future generations and their subsistence economy. During the land use planning process, local Tribes asked the BLM to designate more than 7 million acres of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) that would close mining in these areas in order to protect important watersheds and traditional tribal lands vital to community survival. The Resource Management Plan’s Preferred Alternative, however, did not list a single watershed nominated by local Tribes and communities for ACEC status. In fact, no ACECs were designated in the Preferred Alternative at all, leaving the entire planning area open to mining and other development.

Our Response

We, the NBWC, whose board of directors includes members from tribal communities located within the Norton Bay Watershed which is within the planning area, have been closely monitoring the process. We have submitted comments on the RMP to voice the concerns of the tribes about the negative impacts to ecosystems and human health of which the current proposed RMP puts them at risk. Additionally, we're partnering with the Native Village of Elim to secure funding to draft a climate risk assessment of the impacts of rising temperatures and mining development within critical salmon habitat on public lands.

Request for Hold on Final Bering Sea Western Interior Resource Management Plan

April 2020, the NBWC and other tribal organizations and tribes sent a letter to the BLM’s Alaska State Director requesting a hold on the process for issuing the Final Bering Sea Western Interior Resource Management Plan due to the national and state emergency declarations and because many rural Alaskan communities are under travel and staff restriction and have been otherwise substantially distracted by the need to respond to the Covid19 emergency. In recognition of the fact that the tribes cannot realistically participate in the planning process at this time while their resources are focused on supporting their communities through the current health and economic crisis, the letter requests that the BLM place the process on hold.

Press Release Apr 15, 2021

Bureau of Land Management Puts Breaks on Alaska Land Give Away

Biden Administration puts hold on opening Alaska to mining at the expense of local communities, water and subsistence resources

One week before Earth Day, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that it will put the brakes on one of the largest extraction industry land grabs in U.S. history, by stopping the former Trump administration’s efforts to quietly open millions of acres of Alaska’s public land—known as D1 lands—to future mining and oil and gas development.

The Trump administration ignored repeated requests from Alaska’s tribal leaders, local communities, businesses, and conservation organizations for a fair and transparent planning process, in order to rush through opening of the lands through lifting of Public Land Orders (PLOs) that prevent mining and other development on over 50 million acres of public lands in the state, almost half of which are located in the Arctic.

Mining and other extractive development in these vast and unique areas will impact multiple biologically rich salmon bearing watersheds that are critical for subsistence uses to nearby Native villages and communities. According to Doug Katchatag, the President of the NBWC, “The effects of warming temperatures are already killing fish in the North and Golsovia Rivers that we rely on for fishing. If mining also takes place at the head of these rivers it will turn them into dead zones.”

After failing with the Trump BLM, the NBWC along with other tribal and conservation organizations, asked the Biden administration to place the land transfers on hold and require BLM to analyze the potential impacts to sensitive rivers and streams, conduct proper consultation with tribes and conduct a legal review.

The BLM responded with a notice in the Federal Register that solidifies the agency’s new commitment to inclusive processes and holistic analyses before completing broad agency actions on lands that are important to the food security and livelihoods of Alaskans around the state. The announcement also upholds the ability of Alaska tribal Vietnam Veterans to make land selections as provided under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the Dingell Act authorizations.

According to Carol Oliver who is on the Chinik Eskimo Community Tribal Council in Golovin, “We applaud BLM for showing understanding and cooperation in the conservation and protections of our subsistence resources that the previous administration did not.”

What’s next?
BLM requested scoping comments in the fall of 2022 to help guide the development of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Scoping is the opportunity for the public to tell the agency about the issues it needs to consider as it evaluates the impacts of a particular action. Currently, BLM is using the scoping comments to prepare a draft EIS for public review and comment. After the draft EIS and public comment period, BLM will issue a final EIS and then make its decision about whether to leave the D-1 protection is place.
The Norton Bay Watershed Council is working with other tribal and conservation entities to request that Alaska Tribes, Indigenous persons, entities, and organizations add their name to a letter (See below)  to DOI Secretary Deb Haaland undersigned Alaska support the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) process to review and thoughtfully consider the impacts that lifting the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act withdrawals will have on fish and wildlife populations and subsistence resources that support Indigenous Ways-of-Life. We urge BLM to maintain the D-1 protections and finalize the D-1 decision within the next two years."
If you are a tribe or tribal organization, and would like to sign the letter please fill out this form or contact halshepherdwpc@gmail.com; (907)491-1355. 

Doug Katchatag, President: 907-625-1164
Carol Oliver: 907-360-0306

Click here for the link to the Federal Register Order


P.O. Box 15332, Fritz Creek, AK 99603
(907) 491-1355