ANCHORAGE - The U.S. House Resources Committee has passed a bill that would give Alaska Native Vietnam veterans 160-acre allotments of federal land in Alaska.
"I just think this is the right thing to do," said Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, who sponsored the bill.
The measure cleared the committee by voice vote, as did a second Young bill that would require the federal government to contract with Native groups to manage Alaska's national parks and refuges.
Environmentalists and the Bush administration have weighed in against both measures. Among the objections to the veterans' bill is that it provides very few restrictions on which federal lands could be chosen.
The vets might choose their 160 acres in popular national parks, or they might select lands within wildlife refuges that the government has spent millions of dollars to purchase from private landowners, opponents have said.
Native vets who backed the bill say they aren't land grabbing but are trying to obtain lands they've historically used.
The bill attempts to expand the Native Allotment Act of 1906. That measure allowed Alaska Native adults to gain title to land they used. The application period ended with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.
But thousands of Alaska Natives were in the military, some in Vietnam, when the deadline came. Congress in 1998 reopened the application period for veterans who served from 1969 through 1971.
The trouble was, the veterans say, there was little land to select that wasn't already designated as a national forest or park.
Young's bill would allow selections from vacant federal land. It also lifts any requirement that the veterans prove they used the land, and it extends the program to Native Vietnam veterans who served from 1964 through 1975.
In the Resources Committee, Young said the bill would not allow selections on parks or refuges. "That's my understanding," he said later.
But opponents of the bill say nothing in it would stop selections in parks or refuges.
Tim Bristol, director of the Alaska Coalition, an environmental group, said Young misrepresented the bill. "It's a terrible land grab," he said.
The Interior Department said the bill unjustly discriminates between Native and non-Native veterans, and between Natives who served in Vietnam and those who fought in other wars.
Young said Thursday that the amount of land that would be withdrawn is not substantial.
"To me, to make an issue of this, I think is totally wrong," he said. "Now, if you don't believe that a veteran has any rights, then they ought to speak up and say that."
His Native contracting bill, he said, is an attempt to make the government live up to the 1980 Alaska lands act that expanded federal parks and refuges.
Native groups supported the law, believing that it would mean greater employment and business opportunities.
"Regardless of what administration it is, they have not fulfilled what is the law and I can't for the life of me understand why anyone would object to (the bill)," he said.
The bill says tribal organizations or Native corporations could contract for construction, maintenance, data collection, research and harvest monitoring. It would require the government to negotiate with eligible groups and enter into contracts. The government would set the performance criteria, Young said.
Among the opponents is the American Federation of Government Employees, part of the AFL-CIO. In a letter opposing the bill, it said the law would lead to "sole-source sweetheart deals."
Little time remains before the current Congress expires, and all bills not passed die. Young said he'd try to attach his bills as riders to other legislation if he has the opportunity.
"In the meantime, the committee passed them out," he said. "That's important to me because it keeps them alive."