Public Radio for Alaska's Bristol Bay
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Bristol Bay, residents testify on opening federal lands to development

Federal D1 withdrawals in Bristol Bay, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
Federal D1 withdrawals (in yellow) in Bristol Bay, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

In Bristol Bay, about 1.2 million acres, primarily along the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, are part of the 28 million the U.S. Department of Interior is considering opening. If the federal government opens the land, it could become available for resource extraction like mining or infrastructure development like building roads. Much of it is federal subsistence hunting land, according to a Bureau of Land Management Interactive map.

The Bureau of Land Management has traveled to 18 communities in Alaska in the past two months, including to Dillingham and King Salmon, hearing public testimony and gathering information on whether communities support opening the proposed 28 million acres fully, partially, or not at all. The meeting in Dillingham had about a dozen attendees, with several giving testimony. The majority said ‘no’ to opening up any of the land.

Dolores Larson, whose Yup’ik name is Myuuraq, is a lifelong subsistence user from Koliganek. She is also the deputy director at the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. As part of her testimony in Dillingham, Larson said opening the lands, which are called D-1 withdrawals, to development could impact the community’s subsistence.

“Lifting D-1 withdrawals could fragment habitat, shifting migration routes that could potentially decrease or diminish the caribou and moose populations and in turn decrease our access to subsistence resources,” she said.

Larson said that her community is already contending with the challenges of climate change on their lands and in their air and waters.

“These changes further demonstrate the need to protect the landscape and its large intact ecosystem that sustains our traditional ways of life,” she said.

The status of the land is part of a long and tangled history going back to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which was passed in 1971. Under ANCSA, the Department of the Interior withdrew 158 million acres of public land through a series of public land orders from 1972 to 1973. The orders allowed Native corporations time to make selections and for land management agencies to finish resource inventories. They were meant to protect land for the public’s interest. The lands get the name ‘D-1’ from the section of ANCSA that states how the Department of the Interior could withdraw lands.

For decades, the State of Alaska has requested the federal government review the withdrawals. Congress passed the Alaska Land Transfer Acceleration Act in 2004, which required the Secretary of the Interior to review the withdrawals to determine whether any of them should be revoked and opened to appropriation by the state or a company. In 2006, the Bureau of Land Management submitted a report to Congress saying that many of the withdrawals had outlived their original purpose.

In the following years, the Bureau of Land Management made a series of revisions to resource management plans, the last of which occurred in 2021 for the Bering Sea-Western Interior region.

In the final days of the Trump Administration, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt signed five public land orders to open 28 million acres of this land. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan have all shown support for this measure, as well as the Native Corporation Doyon.

Under the Biden Administration, the Department of the Interior paused the public land orders. The Bureau of Land Management said that the decision came after legal defects were identified in the original decision, such as failure to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act and insufficient analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. The new administration ordered an Environmental Impact Statement to assess what opening the land for resource extraction would mean for the wildlife and nearby communities. That move led to the State of Alaska suing the Department of the Interior, but the case was dismissed in 2023.

The federal government published a draft of the Environmental Impact Statement in December. The document identified the loss of federal subsistence priority for some rural residents, increased competition for subsistence resources, and an adverse impact on communities’ cultures of subsistence as potential risks. It also said that the decision could lead to increased infrastructure and human activity in undeveloped spaces. It said, however, that development could create jobs and increase income within communities.

Wassille Andrews, whose Yup’ik name is Qayaruarpaq, represented the Village of New Stuyahok at the hearing in Dillingham. He said that the land and its resources – like caribou, moose, fish and small animals like rabbits and ptarmigan – are important to daily life in his community.

“These resources, you know, that we have, they need clean water. They need clean land…What we get to bring home to our table, and share for those that can’t have,” he said.

Melanie Brown is the outreach director at Salmon State, a conservation group focused on protecting wild Alaska salmon. She also attended Dillingham’s hearing. She said she is concerned that opening the land to development will fragment it.

“My fear is that breaking the land open for developments and exploration will scatter herds and impact wild salmon runs. And we're so fortunate to have what we have in the state,” she said.

At the hearing in Dillingham, one individual spoke about the possibility of opening only part of the lands, and one said they did not have enough information to decide.

Over half of the state’s federally recognized tribes have called for keeping the lands' status as-is. The decision on whether to open the land is set to come out this summer.

Get in touch with the author at or 907-842-2200.