JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed letting Alaska Native Vietnam War veterans exchange promised federal land allotments that many say are not available in their cultural regions for state lands.
Details would need to be worked out through the legislative process, with lawmakers eyeing adjournment in about two weeks. Several legislators attended the May 5 announcement, along with Alaska Native veterans.
Dunleavy said he sees this as an opportunity to “right a wrong” the federal government should have addressed long ago.
“We're going to help them get land as close as possible to where they grew up or where they hunted or where they berry picked, especially where they want their families to take part,” the Republican governor said.
Under the 1906 Alaska Native Allotment Act, Alaska Natives were allowed to apply for up to 160 acres of land. But Dunleavy's office said that program's restrictions kept many from applying until the 1960s.
There was a push to urge Alaska Natives to apply for lands if they had not already done so before a 1971 law took effect. That period overlapped with the Vietnam War.
Veteran George Bennett Sr. said vets were dealing with a lot of trauma when they returned home from the war. He said he had heard about the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, “but I didn’t know where I fit in that equation. I was told I can apply for lands but at that time it didn’t seem that important, because I always thought we had our own lands already, ... which we actually didn’t.”
A 1998 federal law allowed veterans to apply for land but critics said the timeline was too short and the provisions restrictive. A 2019 law lifted use and occupancy requirements and made lands available until 2025, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has said. The agency has said about 1.5 million acres were available for veterans’ selections.
Some veterans said the lands that were being made available were difficult to access or outside their cultural homelands.
The U.S. Interior Department, under which the land agency falls, last month said it was halting for further review plans advanced during the Trump administration that proposed opening 28 million acres in Alaska to mineral development and for land selections.
Natalie Dawson, executive director of Audubon Alaska, said under the Trump administration, the Bureau of Land Management's interpretation of the 2019 law was that for veteran selections to be made, the agency had to lift other encumbrances on those lands.
But given the amount of land available for veterans’ selections, it raised the question of why there was a push to lift restrictions over a larger area, she said.
A number of tribes and tribal and conservation groups, including Audubon Alaska, raised concerns with the proposed broader lifting of restrictions on development, citing what they considered to be inadequate consultations, public involvement and analyses.
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican, said no process is perfect. But he said the Interior Department response under the Biden administration was unnecessary and driven by interests within the department to please environmental groups.
The Interior Department has said it is “committed to honoring" veterans' land selections.
Melissa Schwartz, an Interior Department spokesperson, said Wednesday there was no one available to speak on the issue.
She pointed to a recent statement from Nada Culver, Bureau of Land Management deputy director for policy and programs. Culver said consultation with Alaska Native tribes “will give us the best understanding of Tribes’ interests and equities in these lands as we begin our work, and will help inform our efforts to prioritize land selections by Alaska Native Vietnam Veterans.”