by David Raskin, Friends Board President
Deborah Haaland was confirmed as the first Indigenous Secretary of the Interior. Both Alaska U.S. senators voted for her confirmation. The conservation community looks forward to working with her and her appointments to DOI and the USFWS. We are particularly concerned about the upcoming choice of her Special Assistant for Alaska. This is the letter that Friends sent to Secretary Haaland and key staff concerning her choice and related Izembek issues.
There have been serious repercussions from the Supreme Court decision in Sturgeon v. Frost, 139 S. Ct.(1066) 2019. Based on this ruling and Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) Sec. 103, the State of Alaska asserted primary jurisdiction over navigable waters on federal lands in Alaska. They can apply for quiet title through the courts or to BLM for a disclaimer of interest. If they succeed, they will be able to manage navigable waterways in refuges and parks that might include many rivers and lakes and Wild and Scenic rivers. This would require a determination of which are navigable waters, which have never been clearly defined. This creates a frightening potential for access to mining, motorized recreation, and oil and gas development on refuge rivers, lakes, and lands. We need to work with Department of the Interior (DOI) and refuge staff to minimize these potential impacts.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The moratorium on all oil and gas activities in the Arctic Refuge continues under President Biden’s executive order that directs the Interior Department to review the oil-leasing program for the Refuge, and “as appropriate and consistent with applicable law,” to do a new analysis of its potential environmental impacts. In the meantime, the lawsuits to nullify the lease sales by the conservation community were stayed for 60 days that likely will be extended another 60 days.
The lease holder 88 Energy may be planning to do directional drilling from the adjacent State land on which they hold a lease. The Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign is putting pressure on 88 Energy to halt their plans. We will watch for any news on this latest threat to the Refuge.
Meanwhile, the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation (KIC) application for seismic exploration this winter on their inholding was not granted because it did not meet the February 13 deadline set by USFWS. This resulted from the failure of FWS to act on the required Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) because they ran out of time to analyze the 6 million comments they had received. KIC criticized FWS for delaying the permit process and has reapplied for a permit to conduct seismic exploration next winter. We understand that the IHA is nearly complete and is awaiting guidance from DOI about its issuance. It is related to a possible permit from BLM for seismic exploration next winter.
The threat to the Arctic Refuge by the recent claim by Kaktovik that they can use off-highway vehicles (OHV) for subsistence hunting in the Refuge is the subject of a year-long study under contract to USFWS to be completed by December 23, 2021. The study is gathering information to determine if there is a factual basis for their claim that there are established traditional uses of OHVs in the Refuge. In addition, the solicitor’s opinion issued under the prior administration determined that the Refuge is currently open to OHV uses for subsistence because no formal policy prohibits such uses. We are hopeful that recently nominated DOI Solicitor Robert Anderson will re-examine that decision, which many believe was an incorrect interpretation that allows OHV use in the Refuge.
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
The State of Alaska is working on their revised application to construct a road through the biological heart of the Izembek Refuge Wilderness. The Biden Administration 60-day pause of all FWS permitting processes expires this month, and we are waiting to see how DOI proceeds under Secretary Haaland. If the permit process does proceed, it will likely take at least a year for the required National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. The State also needs a Clean Water Act 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and is seeking other ANILCA temporary permits for site investigation, including wetland delineations, endangered species, and cultural resources. There are also NEPA requirements and other ANILCA permitting requirements that apply to this process. We hope that the new administration will ultimately halt this latest assault on the Izembek Wilderness by the State and King Cove. In the meantime, we await the decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concerning the defendants’ appeal of our second successful lawsuit that stopped the illegal land transfer for the proposed road. We are hopeful that the new administration will abandon the appeal.
Central Yukon Management Plan
The recently released Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Central Yukon Draft Resource Management Plan and Draft EIS affects 56 million acres of public lands, which include 13.1 million acres of BLM-managed lands along the Dalton Highway and Central Yukon areas. Their proposed plan could open up many areas to mining and other developments that would negatively impact wildlife, habitat, and fisheries of many tributaries that flow into the Yukon River and several refuges. Together with the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Friends submitted comments and worked with other organizations that succeeded in having the comment period extended until June 9, 2021
Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge
Doyon Corporation is working with Hilcorp to develop a plan for exploration and possible drilling on Doyon’s inholdings in the Refuge. They plan to do exploratory drilling on Doyon inholdings but will not need a permit for these activities that will be conducted using helicopters. As of now, Doyon has not requested permits from FWS for activities on Refuge lands. We will be watching this very closely and will explore options to prevent any proposed activities on Refuge lands.