ANCHORAGE - The federal Bureau of Land Management is recommending that Congress lift development restrictions on millions of acres of federal land in the state.
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In a report to Congress this month, BLM officials suggested lifting prohibitions on mining, oil and gas leasing, and other development on some large tracts.
The restrictions were put in place in the 1970s when the Interior Department secretary withdrew lands under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Native corporations were selecting 44 million acres granted by that 1971 law. Also, state officials were choosing land Alaska received under the Statehood Act of 1958. Congress froze huge swaths of Alaska until that process was completed.
Three decades later, Native corporations are still making selections, as are state officials.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, got Congress to pass a bill two years ago to speed up the process. Part of the bill gave BLM a deadline to submit a report this month on what to do with any "left over" lands.
The lands are called "D-1 withdrawals," a reference to the section of ANCSA that gave the interior secretary the authority to freeze them.
The total amount at stake is a 152 million acres. Only about 21.4 million could be open to development anytime soon, said Dave Mushovic, BLM realty specialist. That's because much federal land is designated as national park, forest or refuge, where development is banned or restricted.
Whether mining or oil exploration ever occurs on the 21.4 million acres is questionable, BLM officials said.
"The immediate result of this proposal is up to Congress," said Henri Bisson, BLM's Alaska director. "Until Congress acts, the D-1 restrictions remain in place."
The 21.4 million acres represents an area about the size of Maine.
"This is an enormous amount of land that is the heart of what makes Alaska so special. I think it's a pretty big deal," said Aurah Landau, spokeswoman for the Alaska Coalition, an environmental group.
Environmentalists are most concerned with the fishing-rich Bristol Bay region in Southwest Alaska. Bristol Bay supports the world's largest wild sockeye salmon run.
The region has become a hotbed of mineral exploration. With metal prices soaring and a mining-friendly state administration, prospectors are staking the area and a Canadian company is hoping to develop a large open-pit mine there, the Pebble deposit.
Native corporations and the state selected most of Alaska's valuable mineral lands years ago, BLM officials said. Even if Congress lifts development restrictions on the 21.4 million acres statewide, it's unlikely to cause a stampede of mining companies to dig up the land, they predicted.
Steve Borell, head of the Alaska Miners Association, agreed. Little land in Bristol Bay is not owned already by Bristol Bay Native Corp. or the state, or is off-limits because of federal protection, he said.
"BLM has hardly any land out there," Borell said. "It's a joke."
To speculate that BLM is inviting a rash of mining in Bristol Bay is "a pure red herring," he said.
The BLM is preparing land management plans in Bristol Bay and other areas, which involve a public process and environmental review, Mushovic said.
While it's unclear what, if anything, Congress will do with BLM's recommendation to lift development restrictions, the agency plans to move forward with those plans, he said. The BLM expects major decisions about mining or other development to come from those plans, developed on a local level with public participation, Mushovic said.
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