Resource Development Council

RDC Comment Letter:
Wild Lands Policy

February 25, 2011

The Honorable Doc Hastings
House Natural Resources Committee
1324 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

Re: Department of the Interior’s “Wild Lands” Policy

Dear Chairman Hastings:

The Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc., is writing to express its strong opposition to the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) “Wild Land” Policy, established by Secretarial Order. In our view, the policy is an attempt to establish de facto Wilderness areas without Congressional approval. In Alaska and across the West, this de facto Wilderness would place severe limitations on public access, prohibit many popular forms of recreation, and severely restrict or prohibit resource development, including vital energy-producing activities. For a nation that is struggling to grow its economy, this policy makes absolutely no sense and directly conflicts with efforts to create jobs and boost the economy.

RDC is an Alaskan membership-funded organization founded in 1975. Our membership is comprised of individuals and companies from Alaska’s oil and gas, mining, timber, tourism, and fisheries industries, as well as Alaska Native corporations, local communities, organized labor, and industry support firms. RDC’s purpose is to link these diverse interests together to encourage a strong, diversified private sector in Alaska and expand the state’s economic base through the responsible development of our natural resources.

The Wild Lands Policy circumvents Congress’ statutory authority to establish Wilderness areas. Millions of acres of lands managed for multiple uses in the West and Alaska are at risk of being locked up if DOI prevails in implementing this policy. The ramifications to the local, state and national economies could be far-reaching.

Alaska stands to lose the most from this policy, given the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 75 million acres in the state. A “Wild Lands” designation would effectively allow the federal government to create more Wilderness in Alaska without congressional oversight. Alaska already contains 58 million acres of federal Wilderness, accounting for approximately 53 percent of the nation’s federally-designated Wilderness. If combined into one block, Alaska federal Wilderness would make the 11th largest state in the U.S. and at least as large as Idaho. To put Alaska’s federal Wilderness into perspective, it is larger than each of the following states: Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, and Washington. It is bigger than the combined size of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.

In comments submitted to the Department of the Interior, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell warned the Wild Lands designation would diminish access to federal lands and cost jobs. “Putting such a sweeping initiative in place overnight, with no congressional direction and no advance consultation with affected states or the public, is unfathomable,” Governor Parnell said. He noted that Alaska lands have been repeatedly studied, with large areas placed off-limits to resource development.

Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980, which set aside 106 million acres of federal lands in Alaska in highly-restrictive conservation system units (CSUs). The sweeping law enlarged the federal acreage dedicated to conservation purposes in the state to 148 million acres, constituting 70 percent of all national park lands in America and 80 percent of wildlife refuge acreage. Nearly every Interior Secretary since 1980 has chosen not to conduct further discretionary wilderness inventories in Alaska, and has recognized the importance of a public process and discussion with state leaders. Governor Parnell has promised to not allow such disregard for Alaska and its citizens to stand unchallenged.

Of the 365 million acres that make up Alaska, federal agencies currently claim 222 million acres, or 61 percent of the state. One third of all federal lands in the U.S. are in Alaska. Federal lands in Alaska alone are larger than the entire state of Texas or bigger than the combination of 15 eastern states stretching from Maine to South Carolina. More than 65 percent of federal lands in Alaska and 40 percent of total acreage in the state are set aside in CSUs. With the exception of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline corridor, it is impossible to cross the vast Alaska mainland from north to south or east to west without entering a CSU. While the extensive network of conservation units has preserved a great portion of Alaska, the cumulative overlay of federal and state land withdrawals has posed a challenge to access natural resource deposits on lands surrounded by these units, despite provisions in ANILCA addressing access corridors inside CSUs. This cumulative overlay of CSUs has also left Alaska without an integrated surface transportation network, leaving most of the state and its communities inaccessible by road and rail. The Wild Land policy would only serve to further limit future access.

The passage of ANILCA had significant effects on Alaska’s lands that still cannot be fully quantified. For example, it placed known mineral deposits and mineral belts within conservation units, and by drawing boundaries that blocked natural transportation routes, it may well have foreclosed development of deposits on BLM, state and Native-owned lands. Specifically, some of the best state-owned mineral lands in the Southern Brooks Range will only have value if transportation corridors are permitted through federal units.

Alaska’s private sector economy is highly dependent on natural resource development. In fact, the statehood battle 20 years before the passage of ANILCA was won only after Congress was finally convinced the development of natural resources within Alaska’s borders could support the state. However, Alaskans feared then, as many still do today, that if future development were blocked, the state could lose its ability to support itself.

Given so much of Alaska is essentially off-limits to development, it is imperative that BLM lands be managed according to their multiple use mandate. The last thing Alaska needs right now as it struggles to diversify its economy is more highly restrictive land classifications, which strangle new economic and resource development opportunities. Without access to potential world-class energy and mineral deposits on federal lands, or on state land that requires access through a federal area to reach the deposit, Alaska could very well lose the ability to support its economy, and therefore become a ward of the federal government.

In addition to the flawed process surrounding the Wild Lands policy, RDC has a number of concerns with the policy:

  • By designating “Wild Lands,” Order 3310 circumvents congressional authority where Interior improperly acted as a surrogate for congressional designations of Wilderness.
  • Given most of Alaska’s BLM lands retain their wilderness values, the heavily weighted default protection of wilderness characteristics could easily render most BLM lands in the state as de facto wilderness areas, absent BLM’s multiple-use direction. This would have a devastating impact on Alaska’s ability to develop its natural resources and sustain its economy. Access to federal areas for multiple uses, including commercial tourism activities, would be severely curtailed or outright prohibited. Moreover, the order directly conflicts with the “no more” clauses in ANILCA and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA).
  • The order is an end-run around ANILCA, which will lead to serious social and economic consequences for Alaskans. In writing ANILCA, Congress attempted to accommodate the unique characteristics of Alaska and the Alaskan way of life. Congress included numerous exemptions for Alaskans, known as the “Alaska Protections.” These protections were for access and continued use of valid and existing rights, lands, and resources. Access was the core of the protections. Without the explicit special provisions and protections of ANILCA that apply to conservation system units, BLM Wild Lands will likely be managed more restrictively in Alaska than ANILCA-designated Wilderness.
  • The order claims to seek balance between responsible resource development and protection of wilderness characteristics, yet there is a strong bias toward wilderness-style protection. As a result, this order will have a severe chilling effect on future resource development, economic expansion, and job creation once an area is designated Wild Lands.
  • BLM has no authority to apply this policy to the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) because it is not subject to FLPMA. In addition, a Wild Lands designation along the coastal plain of NPR-A could lock up trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and billions of barrels of oil in the energy reserve. Ironically, environmental groups are demanding that the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) be designated Wilderness. Such a designation on the ANWR plain would lock up America’s most promising onshore oil prospect. With a nation so heavily-reliant on foreign oil, why would the U.S. even consider further restrictive land designations, especially in an energy reserve such as NPR-A, which would prohibit oil and gas development?

RDC joins the State of Alaska in strongly opposing the Wild Lands policy and urges Congress to block its implementation.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments on this unilateral secretarial order.

Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc.

Cc: Senator Lisa Murkowski
Senator Mark Begich
Congressman Don Young
Governor Sean Parnell