The Orutsararmiut Native Council is calling the federal planning process for how 13 million acres of public land is managed in the region “woefully inadequate.” The Bureau of Land Management says that it is taking more steps to reach out.
At a federal subsistence meeting in Bethel in November, Bonnie Million reassured tribes that BLM is always open to government-to-government consultation.
Million works at the BLM as the Anchorage field manager. She was in town for the meeting and to discuss the Bering Sea Western Interior Management Plan, which is a very broad blueprint that dictates how land managed by BLM will be used in the region. Her response came months after tribes in Western Alaska expressed their disappointment in how BLM handled their input.
The Orutsararmiut Native Council in Bethel is one of those tribes. This past spring, its natural resource director, Mary Matthias, got an email. In the subject line were the words “Bering Sea Western Interior Draft Resource Management Plan.” The email offered government-to-government consultation to ONC concerning the plan, but it offered few clues on how important the broad plan was to the region.
Matthias says that she notified ONC’s executive director and then ignored it. They were focused on other things, like protesting the proposed Donlin Gold mine and preparing for fishing. That meeting came and went. BLM finished the comment period on the plan and has begun preparing to release the final version. Matthias says that ONC only learned how important the plan was after the comment period had passed.
“We felt like we lost our opportunity to provide our comments,” Matthias said.
ONC, along with two other tribes from the Y-K Delta, sent BLM a letter critizing the planning process and demanded consultation. Months earlier, in June, 20 tribes sent a 10-page letter to BLM detailing the ways in which they felt the agency had failed them in the process.
The BLM plan is a document that can be used when a project is proposed on BLM land. It lists all the land that BLM manages, and the land that belongs to the state and private landowners. It shows how that land is being used: where the Iditarod trail goes through; which areas tribes rely on most for subsistence; which areas are rich in minerals and could be good for mining. The last plan that came out for Southwest Alaska was almost 40 years ago in 1981. Chad Padgett, the BLM’s state director, says that it is time for a new one.
“Well, you have to do that because, you know, things change, right? You’re looking at climate change. You’re looking at, you know, maybe communities are starting to grow or shrink, or the land pattern has changed,” Padgett said.
Tribes in Western Alaska hunt and fish for the bulk of their food on their ancestral lands, so any updating needs to include their input to ensure they can practice their way of life. And because tribes are sovereign, their political status requires more collaboration from the federal government than just the standard public comment.
Government-to-government consultation is standard practice at the federal level. It means that federal agencies, like BLM, must reach out to tribes for their input on projects or policies that directly impact them. Tribes can choose how they want to participate. Anvik Tribal Council participated as a cooperating agency, which is an option reserved for government entities and federally-recognized tribes. It gave them more leverage than the government-to-government process, but the tribe’s environmental manager, Nathan Elswick, says that they still felt left out.
“We already knew our government-to-government relationship. We could ask for consultations any time, but that didn’t really give us a seat at the table,” Elswick said.
BLM’s Padgett calls the complaints from the tribes “disingenuous.” He says that BLM employees dedicated a lot of time to making sure tribes were consulted in the planning process.
“So in some cases, and I’ll be very frank, I think maybe they’ve been convinced by outside parties that we’re not hearing them because they didn’t, the outside party didn’t get what they want. But that’s not how this works. You know, we’re not always going to agree on everything,” Padgett said.
Still back in Bethel, BLM’s Million offered to hold more meetings with ONC. She told them that it was too late to include ONC’s input into the plan unless it was new information, but Matthias said that ONC felt better about the process after that meeting.
“I do have a little confidence, feeling better that Bonnie did offer to meet with the tribe,” Matthias said.
ONC plans to take Million up on her offer for more meetings. The plan is scheduled to be released in the next year.