Native Vietnam vets get another chance to claim 160 acres

Photo by Liz Ruskin

Congress on Tuesday passed a massive public lands bill sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The bill expands national parks and wilderness areas, creates new national monuments and sends money to states for parks and recreation. Among its 600 pages is a provision to help Alaska Native veterans of the Vietnam War era by allowing them to select up to 160 acres of land. But critics worry about a land grab.

There’s some history to this issue. Nelson Angapak has been working for years to get land for fellow Vietnam War-era veterans.

“We first raised it in 1979 with the late Sen. Ted Stevens,” said Angapak, a former vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives who is originally from Tuntutuliak. “Yes, it’s a long time coming.”

The roots of it date back even further. In 1906, Congress passed a law allowing Alaska Natives to acquire 160-acre allotments.

Angapak’s father got one, in the Kuskokwim Delta region. Angapak said they would go there to pick berries, fish and hunt.

“When it comes to having a Native allotment, it means a lot more than what a piece of land is for Western society,” he said. “There’s more like a spiritual tie to the land.”

The allotment program ended in 1971, with passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. But Native veterans and Alaska’s congressional delegation have repeatedly tried to extend the application period, for veterans who missed the deadline in 1971, maybe because they were serving their country overseas.

Congress reopened the program in 1998. But fewer than 300 veterans received allotments.

The current changes, crafted largely in Sen. Dan Sullivan’s office, remove many restrictions. For one, veterans will no longer have to prove that they occupied or used the land. They can select land they’ve never seen, in any region of Alaska.

Angapak said he’s not focused on that, only on getting allotments for veterans.

“Many of them have told me that they’re going to be applying on lands that are available where they hunt and fish,” he said.

The bill Congress just passed allows an estimated 2,800 veterans or their heirs to apply for an allotment on vacant land, though they can’t choose acreage in a National Forest, in wilderness areas, or in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A variety of other lands are also off-limits.

Still, environmental groups are concerned. Adam Kolton, director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said he has no objection to providing equity for Vietnam vets, but he said eliminating the historical use requirement allows applicants to chose land anywhere in the state that’s ripe for development.

“There could be as much as half a million acres of now-public lands, that Alaskans enjoy for hunting fishing and outdoor recreation, that could be privatized, transferred, sold off,” Kolton said.

The goes next to the president’s desk. Assuming it’s signed into law, the new allotment application period will run for five years, starting from when the regulations are complete, which could take a year or more.

The allotment section is part of a huge public lands bill, containing hundreds of legislative changes, from parochial to sweeping. Its passage was celebrated by entities as diverse as the Sierra Club and Congressman Don Young.