TWISP, Wash. — On Tuesday, the Senate passed the biggest conservation bill in years. The Natural Resources Management Act of 2019 swells with more than 100 combined pieces of legislation related to public lands, water and natural resources. Many environmentalists are happy: Wins for public lands and wildlife have been scarce in recent years under an alternately hostile and sclerotic GOP-controlled Congress. The bill is expected to sail through the House.
Slice open this giant haggis and peer inside, though: Something reeks. The act contains language that would hand over nearly a half-million acres of federal lands in Alaska — your land and mine — to private hands. That is an area roughly equal to half the size of Long Island, or 31 Manhattans.
Alaska’s two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, say their proposal would correct a lingering injustice by granting up to 160 acres each to Native Alaskans who are Vietnam War veterans and who missed out on an earlier chance to stake a land claim because of military service during that war. They estimate about 2,800 veterans and heirs could take advantage of the program, which means 448,000 acres of land could be handed out. It presents a thorny issue for conservationists: Justice for Native veterans! What anthracite heart could object?
The Alaska Native Veterans Association did not return my calls and messages. But when a similar bill was previously introduced in the House, Nelson Angapak, an Alaska Native, Vietnam vet and former senior vice president for the Alaska Federation of Natives, testified in 2015 that impediments — from confusion about veteran land programs to poor communication up in the Last Frontier or outright rejection of applications by the government — had frequently blocked Native veterans from getting land. He urged passage: “The Vietnam War era veterans are an aging group and many of them are dying, this includes the American Indians and the Alaska Native veterans of that war.”
There is one problem with this tale of Uncle Sam-finally-does-vets-a-solid, however: It is not accurate. This wrong already has been righted. In 1971, to settle Native land claims, Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which gave newly formed Native “corporations” that represented Native peoples nearly $1 billion and the ability to select 44 million acres of the state. The act ended an earlier homesteading law that also had allowed Native peoples to claim land. Even so, Congress later worried some Native Alaskans missed out on these programs during their Vietnam War service. So in 1998, it amended the law to explicitly make provisions for those veterans to claim land.
And yet, now Republicans are back for another bite at the apple. Proponents say past efforts only targeted veterans who were in the military through 1971, and the new language helps people who served later, up until the war’s end in 1975. But that is a red herring: The whole point of the 1998 amendment was to help compensate vets who missed out on that 1971 deadline because they were gone fighting our war. A vet who was in Saigon in 1975 did not miss an opportunity.
Alaska’s delegation has tried this before. Nearly 20 years ago, they floated another land-to-vets program. George W. Bush’s Interior Department — hardly the acme of conservation values — did not bite. Reopening the allotment program “no longer has any basis in missed opportunity,” Interior officials wrote in 2002. (The bill died.)
The latest plan would go even further than the 1998 one. That program required veterans to have a historical connection to the land they selected. In the new bill, vets could choose land regardless of connection. Heirs would also be eligible for a claim. They can turn around and sell it to others for development. “This dramatically changes the program from redressing a historical injustice to creating a novel land program,” three dozen environmental groups wrote to Congress in January, opposing the idea and asking to keep the program out of the larger conservation bill, which they supported.
The legislation does contain a few guardrails: National parks are off-limits to land claims, as are the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), designated wilderness areas and national forests. Democrats were able to add a provision barring allotments in Alaska’s 15 other national wildlife refuges — for now. The sponsors countered by adding language that the refuge ban be studied and revisited in a year. This means private lands, and development on them, soon could pepper the nation’s premier habitat set-asides for birds and other wildlife. It is easy to foresee, too, scenarios in which speculators snap up land on the cheap from aging vets or their heirs — then try to sell it back to the government or swap it for sweeter parcels to develop. And so the public loses twice. Such dealing has happened before, many times, in the Lower 48.
Alaska is big, though. So why do a few hundred thousand acres matter?
The American people together own 640 million acres of North America. Public land is one of America’s great ideas. When public land becomes private land, we are less for it. The most obvious loss is access — whether that is access to hunt, fish, watch birds or simply wander. Once gone, that access rarely comes back. In the hills outside Boise, Idaho, for instance, a chunk of public land was sold to a timber company decades ago. For a long time, that was not a problem. The company let the public drive and snowmobile through the property, a very popular area to recreate and hunt. In 2016, the Wilks brothers, wealthy siblings from Texas, bought a large amount of land in Idaho, including this land. One year ago, they put up a gate and posted “no trespassing” signs. (They also have had run-ins over access issues in Montana.) The public is apoplectic. It is unclear what will happen next. Now imagine Alaska with thousands of such pockets of private property sprinkled across the landscape.
Access is far from the only problem. When public land becomes private land, it means more development, and the roads and infrastructure that accompany it. Habitat declines. Pollution often increases. Water quality drops. Public lands provide services many of us never think about. For instance, the country’s national forestlands provide drinking water for 180 million Americans.
When it comes to insults to public lands, nowhere has been pummeled more by the Trump administration than Alaska, where the bruisings have come almost weekly — from opening ANWR to oil rigs, to reversing a ban on baiting bears with food in Denali National Park and Preserve so they can be shot, to now-disgraced Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke allowing a controversial land swap to allow a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Western red-state pols have cheered on such efforts, eager to push Uncle Sam out of their state’s wide-open spaces whenever possible, or at least yield his grip. Murkowski, the powerful chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, is no exception, whether it is trading her vote on the tax bill to score the opening of ANWR, or her push to lift the roadless ban to allow more logging of old-growth trees in the Tongass National Forest. Now comes this giveaway, smartly bound up with numerous other liberal wants.
“If this were public lands anywhere else in the Lower 48, there would be an absolute uproar. No one would accept that,” a frustrated Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, told me. But, Kolton added, “Alaska’s public lands often tend to be the political grease for land conservation initiatives in the Lower 48, and that’s wrong. These are the last fully intact ecosystems in the United States. They shouldn’t just be trade-bait to pass broader public lands bills.”
It does not help that the bill has been cynically packaged to further thwart liberal opposition — robed in patriotic warmth we share for veterans and grotesquely manipulating Native disenfranchisement and our guilt over our historic wrongs done to Native peoples.
So the land, which gets no voice, takes another blow from the hand of those who swore to do right by it.