The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is considering whether to open some of its land in Southeast Alaska now restricted from oil, gas and mining development.
In a series of orders in the 1970s stemming from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the secretary of interior withdrew millions of acres of federal land in Alaska from resource extraction.
Now, under pressure by Congress, the BLM is taking a second look at that land.
In Southeast Alaska, the BLM is looking at a few parcels near Yakutat and "a lot of small, fractured pieces" of land throughout the Panhandle, including parcels near Haines, Skagway and the Devil's Thumb area near Petersburg, said Dave Mushovic, a realty specialist with the BLM's Alaska headquarters in Anchorage.
The majority of the BLM parcels, called "d-1 withdrawals," are in the central and western parts of Alaska rather than in the Panhandle, where the BLM manages a limited amount of land, Mushovic said.
Some of the lands that are restricted to development have already been selected by the state of Alaska or Native corporations.
"Obviously the land should be reopened," said Steven Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association. "There just doesn't seem to be any reason not to. We've been languishing for several decades."
The possible opening of some land near Yakutat's Bering Glacier to mineral development, as well as oil and gas leasing, has drawn attention in Yakutat, though.
For one thing, the remote, craggy areas under consideration near Yakutat seem "pretty darn inaccessible," said Yakutat's city planner, Skip Ryman
"We've received mounds of information from the BLM and we are going through it, but it's pretty overwhelming for an office of one or two people," Ryman said.
A separate BLM project that is now in draft form, called the East Alaska Regional Management Plan, suggests that the BLM preserve a large area called the Bering Glacier Research Natural Area, but allow future mine, oil and gas leasing in the eastern third of the research area.
The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe sent a letter to the BLM in May asking the agency to initiate a diplomatic process with the tribe related to that proposal.
"That (plan) is so huge. It's really hard to figure out what is in there," said tribal planner Judy Ramos.
Ryman said Yakutat officials learned about the BLM's proposal for oil and gas leasing near Yakutat from an environmental group, the Alaska Coalition.
"If it wasn't for (them), we still wouldn't know it was coming," Ryman said.
The Alaska Coalition is pleased with the BLM's proposal creating the Bering Glacier Research Natural Area, but opposes the partial opening of the area to development, said Sarah James, with the Anchorage-based coalition.
BLM officials involved in the East Alaska Regional Management Plan were out of the office and could not be reached for comment Friday.
At this time, the BLM does not know whether the d-1 parcels near Yakutat and elsewhere in Southeast Alaska have significant potential for industrial development, Mushovic said.
Though it is seeking public comment on the withdrawn federal lands until Sept. 15, BLM does not intend to hold public meetings, Mushovic said.
Mushovic said the agency has a limited amount of time to prepare its recommendations to Congress for opening the lands. The Alaska Land Transfer Acceleration Act, passed in 2004, requires BLM to provide a report to Congress in 2006, he said.
Maps of the d-1 withdrawals can be obtained at the John Rishel Juneau Mineral Information Center in Douglas or by contacting the BLM Alaska State office at 907-271-5960.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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