Minerals explorers will have over a million acres of highly-prospective Alaska lands open to them in a few weeks. The state of Alaska may also wind up owning a good portion of that land, too.
The U.S. Department of the Interior has rescinded two Public Land Orders, or PLOs, dating to the early 1970s that closed off 1.3 million acres of federal land to exploration. The lands affected are in the Fortymile District of the Eastern Interior and the Bering Glacier area in Southcentral Alaska.
The PLOs were issued in 1972 under Sec. 17(d)(1) of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA, which was passed by Congress in 1972. The orders rescinding the closured were signed by Joe Balash, Assistant Interior Secretary for Lands and Minerals, at the Resource Development Council’s annual meeting in Anchorage June 26.
However, the June 26 action did not include a 1.5-million-acre swath through Interior Alaska that is highly sought after by the state of Alaska and private explorers. This is a large land withdrawal made in 1971 along the corridor of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System.
ANCSA was a landmark federal action for Alaska that transferred about 45 million acres of federal lands to Alaska Native people, who had also formed regional and village corporations to own and manage the lands. Section 17(d)(1) of the act withdrew large areas of public lands from private exploration and selection by the state of Alaska until the Native corporations had time to do their land selections.
The withdrawals were kept in place while federal agencies developed plans for new Alaska national parks, wildlife refuges and national forests which were created in 1980 when Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act, or ANILCA.
But even after ANILCA the withdrawals were kept in place by federal agencies, a kind of informal land freeze. Much of the land in the eastern Interior and Southcentral regions are prospective for minerals. The Fortymile, for example, is a historic Alaska gold mining district.
The TAPS corridor lands are another example of a federal withdrawal left in place long after its initial purpose, establishing a utility and transportation corridor for the oil pipeline, has been served.
“Signing these PLOs is a return to a cooperative partnership with the people of Alaska,” Balash said at the RDC as he signed the orders. “These decisions are the product of years of review and analysis, resulting in an action that delivers on overdue federal promises made to Alaskans in the Statehood Act and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
“We are proud to continue to foster economic prosperity for local communities, ensure continued access to public lands for hunting and fishing for generations to come — both sport and subsistence — without compromising stewardship of our nation’s lands,” Balash said.
“These actions are the product of close work between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources,” said BLM State Director Chad Padgett. “ We’re looking forward to many more collaborations in the near future.” That could possibly include the TAPS corridor lands.
This revocation will not impact ANCSA 17(b) easements, which ensure public access to public lands as directed by Secretarial Order 3373.
The original PLOs affected by these actions were analyzed in the Eastern Interior – Fortymile Resource Management Plan in 2016, and the East Alaska Resource Management plan in 2007, respectively. Both plans recommended these actions.
The original PLOs in the Fortymile Subunit and Bering Glacier were largely lands set aside for study and classification through the land use planning process over forty years ago. The lands will be open in 30 days, BLM officials said, and any applications received prior to that will be considered simultaneously filed at that time.
Dan Saddler, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the state of Alaska has filed applications for lands to be selected in the two areas affected but he did not have information on how much acreage was involved. The state has rights to select 102 million acres under the 1959 Alaska Statehood Act and has already received much of that acreage. There are still several million acres of remaining entitlement, however.