Access Denied: BLM To Revoke 2021 Public Land Orders, Keep Alaska Lands in Highly Restricted Status

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA—U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both R-Alaska, issued the following statements criticizing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) after it released a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) recommending the revocation of five Public Land Orders (PLOs) signed in January 2021 that would return 28 million acres of Alaska lands to federal multiple use status, and instead maintain a series of restrictive, long-obsolete encumbrances.

Leaving PLOs in place across Alaska serves as a de facto land withdrawal that restricts public access, multiple use, and the transfer of certain selected lands to Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans, Alaska Native Corporations, and State of Alaska ownership. This, in turn, conflicts with federal law by preventing the fulfillment of the Alaska’s statehood entitlement; economic development, including responsible resource development, to assure Alaska’s future prosperity; and the long-term settlement of land ownership across the state.

“With this action, the Biden administration has wasted an opportunity to do right by Alaska by refusing to lift a single acre of a single PLO anywhere in our state, instead keeping all of these lands in a restricted status,” Murkowski said. “This is effectively a new form of administrative land withdrawal, even though most PLOs in Alaska have served their purpose and are no longer needed. This wouldn’t be acceptable in any other state, but this administration is once again treating Alaska differently—and far worse—than states in the Lower 48.”  

“Alaska is under attack yet again by the Biden administration, which has issued more than 64 executive orders and actions directly targeting Alaska,” Sullivan said. “This final EIS indefinitely delays the conveyance of lands Alaskans have been waiting on for decades, harming our jobs and economy, but also our Alaska Native communities, who will be denied access to gravel resources to build out local village infrastructure. Most egregiously, though, this EIS culminates Secretary Haaland’s utter betrayal of thousands of Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans—a shameful and unforgivable legacy of her time as Secretary. The Secretary twice committed to me three years ago to expeditiously execute the Alaska Native Vietnam Veteran Allotment Program—pursuant to the provision I authored in the 2019 Dingell Act. Yet, at every turn, she has done exactly the opposite, throwing up endless delay tactics and unnecessary complications, and drastically limiting the lands available for selection by these great Americans who sacrificed for our country. To date, no more than 29 of them have received their congressionally-mandated allotments under the program, and sadly, many may not live long enough to see the land that is their birthright. It is a scandal the degree to which Alaska has been singularly targeted by the Biden administration. That’s why I work relentlessly every day to fight back against this administration’s war against our state.”

PLOs were imposed on tens of millions of acres of federal lands across Alaska in the early 1970s. Intended to be temporary, more than 55 million acres of BLM lands remain withdrawn through PLOs some 50 years later.

BLM’s final EIS perpetuates a long-running shell game. In 2006, in response to Senator Murkowski’s Alaska Land Transfer Acceleration Act, BLM released a report finding that withdrawals on 152.18 million out of 158.96 million acres—95 percent—“have outlived their original purpose” and “could be lifted consistent with the protection of the public’s interest.” BLM recommended that PLOs be lifted on 50.1 million acres of land it manages in Alaska, with PLOs remaining in place on 6.8 million acres “until a more appropriate withdrawal or land management prescription can be put into place through the land use planning process.”

However, with the exception of limited progress in the previous administration, BLM has made no effort to fulfill its commitment to address PLOs in Alaska. The latest example is the Central Yukon Resource Management Plan (RMP): BLM refused to address PLO 5150 and other land orders as part of an 11-year plan revision, and has now abruptly canceled the standalone process it promised to address a State of Alaska-led compromise to lift PLO 5150—the corridor for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS).

The final EIS recommends the revocation of PLOs 7899, 7900, 7901, 7902, and 7903, which were signed by then-Secretary David Bernhardt in January 2021. The Biden administration instituted a two-year delay for those orders after taking office, initiated this unnecessary environmental review process in 2022, and has now recommended keeping the orders that were in effect prior to 2021 in place.

In March 2019, Congress enacted Murkowski’s S.47, the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act,which included a Sullivan provision to re-establish the Alaska Native Vietnam Veteran Land Allotment Program.

In February 2021, members of the Alaska congressional delegation condemned the Biden administration Department of the Interior’s action to postpone the revocation of PLOs signed by former Interior Secretary Bernhardt.

In February 2023, Murkowski and Sullivan introduced S. 175, a bill to codify the 2021 PLOs that DOI is now revoking. More information about their bill is available here.

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