Tribes organize ‘First Indigenous Sovereign Habitat Tribal Conservation District’ from Bering Sea to Interior Alaska

A map of the Bering Sea Coast in Alaska

The tribe of the village of Holy Cross, near the Yukon River, has won a $1.2 million federal grant to organize a multi-tribe conservation district across a wide swath of Alaska, from the Bering Sea to the Central Interior. 

The proposal goes by a long name: The First Indigenous Sovereign Habitat Tribal Conservation District – Mountains to Sea – Alaska.

Holy Cross tribal chief Eugene Paul said the 38 tribes that make up the new Bering Sea-Interior Tribal Commission are seeking co-management agreements with the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies.

“We want to be at the table and making those decisions that would impact our villages,” he said.

The co-management initiative is an attempt by tribes in the area to gain more say over some of the millions of acres of federal land that were set aside under section D-1 of  the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. These so-called D-1 withdrawals were meant to last 90 days so that the federal government could decide what to do with them, but they’ve been in land-use limbo ever since.

The Trump administration tried to revoke the D-1 withdrawals. Holy Cross and other partner tribes asked the BLM for additional protection. The Biden administration is collecting public comments about whether to lift the D-1 status, which could open the area to potential mining. More than 13 million acres of D-1 land are in the Bering Sea-Western Interior area.

Chief Paul said the Bering Sea-Interior Tribal Commission wants to co-manage some of the land and resources in the area, particularly in watersheds and other zones important for subsistence, hunting, fishing and berry-picking. 

“We wanted just these sections of lands around our community, because we’re really close to BLM land. I could step out my back door and step right on BLM land,” he said.

Paul said he’s particularly concerned that the land might be opened to mining or other extractive industries.

The Alaska Outdoor Council, a sportsmen’s organization, has raised objections to the tribal co-management proposal. It is leery of tribal management of public resources. In a blog post, Outdoor Council policy director Rod Arno said fish and game management belongs to the state and wonders where the co-management arrangement leaves non-tribal members. 

The governor’s office and media contacts at state agencies did not respond to emails on the subject. 

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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