When Enough Is More Than Enough: Federal Overkill In Alaska
by Kathryn G. Arlen
Alaska’s wealth of natural resources, vital to both its own and national needs, constantly faces the frustrating challenges centered on mineral access and extraction--- especially in a state having millions of land acres either under Federal protection or open to review. Out of Alaska’s 365.5 million acres, 215 lie under some sort of Federal jurisdiction, including Bureau of Land Management (BLM,) National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service, and the Department of Defense. How far these agencies go in setting and changing policies specifically affecting mining development has created an angry statewide atmosphere focusing on many issues, currently highlighting wildlands’ designation and Congress’ ability/willingness to effect appropriate changes.
Many parts of the country are affected by various Federal tentacles consistently reaching for intervention and control; for example, “Right now EPA is the absolute gorilla. That office is on an attack mode…[they] change requirements, standards that have to be met and do it on a regular basis…Their limits are so tight that they can’t be met in many cases,” stressed Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Steve Borell, But other agencies approach issues differently: “The BLM’s policy is much more complicated here in Alaska than it is any place else in the Western states just because of all the overriding laws that we operate under, ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act,) ANSCA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act,) and several others affecting public lands here,” emphasized Alaska State BLM director, Bud Cribley.
When ANILCA passed in 1980, one of its many concerns addressed pre-existing rights, especially relating to wilderness areas. Discussing BLM’s current policy review, Cribley stated his intent to re-engage with the Resource Advisory Committee to have a public discussion/dialogue on how to implement that policy in Alaska: “…being sensitive to recognizing prior rights, what those rights are, especially relating to subsistence and such. And one of the biggest discussions we were having is how existing mining rights affect wildlands designation.” These characteristics address area size, how the land is affected by nature’s forces, and “opportunities for solitude and unconfined type of recreation” (BLM Wilderness Inventory Handbook.)
Litigation, much coming from environmental groups, slows down the development and implementation process for public land use, but this is an issue only Congress can address. “Right now the way Federal laws are written, the BLM does not have the authority or ability to require that type of [restrictive] action on somebody who wants to litigate…Only Congress can do that,” Cribley continued. “Congress would have to change the laws on how those processes are handled for us to have authority to do that.” However, he added that Congress is starting to shift perspective and taking “action to preclude some of the things they [environmental groups] are doing, for example, de-listing the wolf in Idaho and Montana, and that flies in the face of the Endangered Species Act. That’s the first time that’s ever happened and is an indication that Congress is getting frustrated just like everybody else has with the litigation.”
Another group dealing with these frustrations is the Citizens Advisory Committee on Federal Areas (CACFA,) and Executive Director Stan Leaphart specifically identified the problems arising from ANILCA as basically one of erosion: “The Alaska Lands Act [ANILCA] had a lot of provisions in it that protected Alaskans’ traditional uses of Federal Land up here. Unfortunately, what we have seen over the years is a steady erosion of those guarantees. From management decision and efforts, regulatory changes, etc. It’s a constant battle.” Borell agreed: “Erosion of the rights of the citizens—that’s what’s eroding away. The rights of the public.”
And the Alaskan public is vividly aware of its own needs. As Leaphart continued, “Those of us who live up here, on land surrounded by Federal lands, making a living off the lands, whether subsistence, mining, or logging, maybe we should have more than a ‘say;--maybe a ‘say and a half…There is a provision in the Alaska Lands Act actually allowing hiring local people based on their knowledge and expertise, so when Congress passed that statute, they recognized how valuable that local expertise could be for those management agencies.”
Various agencies and how they operate is the underlying critical factor for eventual restructuring public land use, particularly as the evolving process affects rights for mineral entry and development on any Federal lands. “Agencies do things differently, that’s one reason the public gets confused,” Leaphart first explained, adding how one organization may rely on handbooks/policy and another more inclined to follow regulations.
Borell expressed stronger sentiments: “Every kind of agency will continually try to reach for more control and power. It doesn’t matter what kind of agency it is, it will reach…That’s the way they function.”
Adding his emphasis, Rich Hughes, former Mineral Development Specialist for Alaska, pointed out that “People are just getting fed up with this, the overreach of the Federal agencies…It’s threatening the economy of Alaska and the United States…It’s not just the Democrats, incidentally, it’s the whole system. We’ve got to stop overreach by the government.”
What to do about all this? Leaphart responded by “…making an appeal to logic, Both sides have to make some kind of compromise, and that’s really what it’s all about. Banding together with other interested groups, ranchers in the West, for instance, and appealing to Congress.” Borell answered the “how” question with a simple directive: “At the election box. The only way I believe to turn this around is the next national election.”
Perhaps the most forceful sentiment comes from one Alaska Miners Association member at a recent Fairbanks meeting: “Think of the problem like a bear that’s about to charge: you can stand there and let it eat you, try to run—but that’s just a short term solution—or eliminate the threat. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
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Kathryn Arlen is a f reelance writer and communication consultant in Fairbanks, AK, and can be reached at email@example.com.