ANCHORAGE - Alaska Native veterans are urging Congress to pass a bill that would allow each Native veteran of the Vietnam War to select 160 acres of federal land.
The bill before the House Resources Committee would expand the land base available for such allotments, allowing qualified veterans to select vacant land within federal parks, national forests and wildlife refuges.
"We're being accused of land-grabbing," said Nelson Angapak, vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives. "We're trying to regain a small portion of what was ours."
Environmentalists say the measure goes too far and would likely turn parts of Alaska's most valuable parks and refuges into private lands that might be logged, built upon or sold.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, would loosen some rules of a program that began with the Native Allotment Act of 1906.
That measure allowed Alaska Native adults to gain title to land where they lived, hunted, fished or that they otherwise used. The application period ended with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
Until the late 1960s, few Natives knew what the allotment program was, Angapak said. Only about 2,400 applications had been filed and only 245 approved during the law's first 64 years.
Just before the allotment law expired, Native advocacy groups mounted an education campaign, resulting in thousands of new applications.
Many Natives who were in the military during the Vietnam era a population the government estimates to be more than 2,800 say they had no chance to apply. They were away defending the country when the deadline came.
"Without having knowledge of this act, there was no opportunity for us to apply for a Native allotment," said Walter Sampson, now a vice president of the Native corporation NANA Regional Corp.
Sampson, from Kotzebue, earned two bronze stars and a medal for valor in combat, but missed the 1971 application deadline for a Native allotment.
In response to stories like his, Congress in 1998 reopened the application period for veterans who served from 1969 through 1971. Two years later, the law was extended to allow allotment applications from heirs of some Natives killed in Vietnam.
But those allowed to apply for allotments say there is hardly any land in Alaska available to them under existing law.
The bill before the House Resources Committee would expand the land base available and would remove the requirement that veterans prove they used or occupied the land for five years. It also would allow applications from Native veterans who served at any time during the Vietnam conflict, which lasted from 1964 to 1975.
Jack Hession of the Sierra Club's Alaska office called the bill a massive giveaway.
"There's hardly any restrictions at all as to where these allotments could be filed," he said.
The government has spent millions of dollars in recent years to buy Native allotments and other private lands that border parks and wildlife refuges. Nothing in the bill would prohibit allotment applicants from selecting the very lands the federal government just bought, Hession said.
"What this bill does is, it throws into reverse years and years of federal land policy," he said.
Angapak said Native veterans aren't asking for special treatment. Congress has passed a number of laws allowing veterans to homestead or otherwise obtain land, he said.
"It is our hope that Congress will see the legitimacy of our efforts, because the nation has a rich history of providing land and access to the land to its military service men and women," he said.