On Tuesday, the Senate passed the biggest conservation bill in years. The Natural Resources Management Act of 2019, S. 47, 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’s 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 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 could be handed out. It presents a thorny issue for conservationists: Justice for Native veterans! What anthracite heart could object?
There’s one problem with this tale of Uncle Sam-finally-does-vets-a-solid, however: It’s 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.
Congress later worried that 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.
The latest plan would go even farther than the 1998 one. That program required veterans to have a historical connection to the land that 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 means that private lands, and development on them, soon could pepper the nation’s premier habitat set-asides for birds and other wildlife. It’s 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. So the public loses twice. Such dealing has happened before, many times, in the Lower 48.
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 that they can be shot, to now-disgraced Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke allowing a controversial land swap to allow a road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
It doesn’t 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.
And so the land, which gets no voice, takes another blow from the hand of those who swore to do right by it.
Christopher Solomon is a 2019 fellow with the Alicia Patterson Foundation, focusing on energy development and its impacts in the Alaskan Arctic.