Thousands of Alaska Native veterans now eligible for land allotments, but hurdles remain

Last month at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Fairbanks, Sen. Dan Sullivan met with veterans from around the state and discussed newly enacted legislation that will allow Alaska Native Vietnam War veterans to receive allotments of land. 

In March of 2019, President Donald Trump signed the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act into law. The sweeping conservation package was sponsored by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and contained over 100 pieces of bipartisan legislation. Among these was a measure (section 1119) pertaining to Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans.

According to that federal law, Alaska Native veterans who served between August of 1964 and December of 1971 are eligible to claim 160 acres of public land in the state of Alaska. Similar pieces of legislation have been passed before, including an allotment act in 1998. However, while many were able to claim land during a prior 18-month application window, a number of veterans were not.

Charles Degnan is a tribal councilmember in Unalakleet and a veteran of the Vietnam era, serving in Berlin in 1967. He points to “administrative procedures” as the reason some veterans have missed out on allotments in the past.

“If you’re living in a village, you’re far out from the administrative qualifications, keeping records and finding records,” Degnan said. “Time passes on for people. Then you miss out because you didn’t meet the deadlines. That’s the biggest hurdle I think, and finding out about what is available, and getting the word out to where the veterans are.”

According to a timeline provided by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Department of the Interior and the Office of Veteran’s Affairs have about a year to identify eligible applicants, select lands and announce regulations. After the official application period opens sometime next spring, veterans and their heirs will have until 2025 to apply.

According to BLM Alaska State Director Chad Padgett, there are approximately 3,000 veterans and heirs eligible for allotments in Alaska — which totals a claim of 448,000 acres of land.

Supporters of the law say it atones for decades of broken promises by the federal government. Nelson Angapak, a former vice president of AFN, has been fighting for this bill for many years. Even still, he cautions against claiming victory just yet.

“Passing the legislation into law, while it took a long time, is not the hardest thing we’re facing,” Angapak said. “The biggest challenge right now we are going to be faced with, is the implementation of this new law.”

Angapak wants to see the Department of the Interior consult Alaska Native tribes and corporations as the process unfolds. He also called upon Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, to ensure that BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) are adequately funded in fulfilling their mandate.

Sullivan is similarly reluctant to just sit back and wait, but for a different reason than Angapak. He sees lobbying efforts from powerful conservation groups as a looming obstacle against the allotment act.

“I just want to give you a dose of reality: At the last minute when this was ready to go to for a final vote, there were some extreme, radical environmental groups that made a huge push to try to strip this one provision out of the bigger land package,” the senator said. “And so those groups are out there and they’re going to try every single way to muck this up, to limit, to screw with the implementation. So it’s not over.”

Environmental groups, such as the Alaska Wilderness League (AWL), have protested the allotment provision before. Adam Kolton, executive director of AWL, said earlier this year to the Washington Post, “Alaska’s public lands often tend to be the political grease for land conservation initiatives in the Lower 48, and that’s wrong.”

The federal legislation does specify which land can and cannot be claimed by Alaska Native veterans. National parks are ineligible for claims, as are the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), designated wilderness areas and national forests. Sullivan implied that, if he had his way, no land would be off the table. 

“My druthers would’ve been every darn piece of land in the state should be eligible. Doesn’t matter. Conservation unit, ANWR, doesn’t matter…that was the original bill,” he said.

Degnan of Unalakleet is more understanding of the conservation perspective, but still supports the overall measure wholeheartedly. 

“The allotment opportunities are wonderful and… I think the Alaska Natives are more conservation minded than most people,” he said.

Degnan advises rural Alaska Natives, who believe they may be eligible for veterans’ allotments, to reach out to their Native Corporations and to regional organizations for assistance.

“There’s organizations set up to assist veterans. In our area, there’s Kawerak; they have a land department. There’s Bering Strait Native Corporation, who has a land department. And the BIA also has responsibilities to Alaska Natives,” he said. “So those organizations should be able to help. So there’s help available to those that seek it.”

There are other wrinkles in the law. Alaska Native veterans who received partial allotments before are not eligible for the new cycle, no matter how small their land parcel is. Heirs whose relatives have passed without a clear will and testament might find themselves locked in probate courts. Sullivan admitted these errors exist, but believes they were necessary concessions in pursuit of the provision’s passage. He went on to say that “no bill is perfect.” 

The BLM, BIA and Veterans Affairs are still working on the specific regulations of the legislation. Alaska Native veterans (or their heirs) who believe they may qualify for land allotments are encouraged to update their address with the BIA and VA.

They can also double check with each agency whether they are listed in the databases as meeting the definition for Alaska Native or Vietnam-era veteran respectively.