ANCHORAGE - Mining restrictions will be lifted on about 1 million acres of federal land in southwest Alaska, officials have announced.
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The decision announced Friday by the Bureau of Land Management can be appealed. Opponents have until Jan. 14 to file a protest letter to the agency's Alaska regional director, Tom Lonnie, and some residents and groups have already asked the BLM to postpone its decision until after mid-January.
"It's unbelievably disappointing," said Tim Bristol, the Alaska regional director of Trout Unlimited, a national sportfishing advocacy group. Others that oppose mining in the Bristol Bay area include southwest Alaska villages, environmentalists and sporting groups.
There's already controversy in the Bristol Bay region over potential development of the Pebble copper and gold prospect north of Iliamna Lake. Pebble is on state land not subject to Friday's decision.
The project lies in the headwaters of two of the five main rivers that feed the bay's salmon and trout fisheries.
Some of the BLM land that will be reopened to mineral entry is in the same river drainages as Pebble, but many miles downstream.
BLM officials said the 1 million acres don't appear to contain valuable mineral resources and they say they do not have a legal basis to continue the ban.
"Its purpose has been served," Gary Reimers, based in BLM's local office, told the Anchorage Daily News.
Millions of acres of federal land in Alaska have been closed to mining or oil and gas leasing due to the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the federal law that created Alaska's Native corporations.
The land was off limits to development while the new Native corporations selected land from federal holdings in their regions. Under the Alaska Statehood Act, which Congress passed in 1958, the state also can select land.
The remainder of the land the state and Native corporations selected in the Bristol Bay region will soon be given out.
"The lands of the highest mineral potential have been taken," Reimers said.
Much land the BLM plans to reopen to mineral entry are located on uplands in the Nushagak and Kvichak river drainages, which feed some of Bristol Bay's commercial, subsistence and sport fisheries.
A coalition of village Native corporations unsuccessfully asked the BLM and congressional leaders to maintain the ban on mineral entry in the region over concerns pollution discharges from mining could harm their salmon runs, said Bobby Andrew, a Dillingham-based spokesman.