News-Miner opinion: The Interior Department’s two-year stay on the revocation of several Public Land Orders in Alaska is an insult not only to Alaskans in general, but to the state’s Native Vietnam veterans denied a chance to select land allotments because they were away serving their country.
If those 2,200 voluntary and conscripted vets had stayed safely home, each would have been able to select up to 160 acres of land before the Alaska Native Allotment Act of 1906 was repealed in 1971 by passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The United States ended direct combat involvement in Vietnam in 1973, and many veterans missed the allotment application deadline.
After years of struggle and congressional battles, the 1998 Alaska Native Vietnam Veterans Allotment Act authorized an 18-month filing period for qualifying Alaska Native veterans to apply for up to 160 acres of Alaska land. There were few takers. The personal use and occupancy requirement for land selections and the short application window in the act were seen by many as unfair.
The latest iteration, the 2019 Dingell Act’s Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans land allotment section, removes the use or occupancy requirement and provides a five-year window for applications.
Things were looking up. In the waning days of the President Donald Trump’s administration, former Interior Secretary David Berhardt issued Public Land Order 7899, which revoked, in part, 11 PLOs issued in 1972 and 1973 that affected about 9.7 million acres of public lands “reserved for study and classification.” The revocations make lands available for selection by Alaska Native veterans for promised allotments and “allows the state of Alaska to finalize land selections in the region, and opens lands to mineral location and claims in the Kobuk-Seward Peninsula region ... ,” the BLM announced.
But President Joe Biden issued a 60-day stay on those revocations during his first days in office. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat, then extended the stay for two years. She said the Biden administration wanted to focus on climate change.
What Haaland did was environmental appeasement and ensured many of Alaska’s aging Vietnam veterans will never live long enough to see the land they were promised.
Sen. Dan Sullivan was furious with Haaland’s action.
“Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has chosen to start off her relationship with Alaska by going back on the promises she made to me prior to her confirmation, undermining rural communities, and stabbing Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans in the back,” he said in a statement.
“It is deeply saddening and shameful that, as a result of Secretary Haaland’s decision, Alaska Native veterans who served their country admirably, and have waited decades for land allotments, may not live long enough to see them. I have spent an enormous amount of time explaining this situation to the secretary — including just before the announcement — but she put her allegiance to radical green groups over heroic Native veterans and other Alaskans.”
President Biden and Secretary Haaland’s have shamed themselves by showing their utter disrespect and disregard for all Alaskans, but particularly by their cavalier treatment of Alaska Native Vietnam veterans. How long must they wait for what they were promised? When will Native corporations finally be granted lands they were awarded by ANCSA? When will Alaska be viewed as a sovereign state instead of a federal ward?
The president and his Interior secretary owe Alaska and its Native Vietnam veterans a lot. They could start with an apology and the land that was promised.