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By Shane Lasley
Mining News 

AMA calls out Jewell

Secretary cites 'much' mining on Alaska's federal lands; miners disagree

 

Last updated 5/3/2015 at Noon



Alaska miners are taking U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to task over recent comments she made that suggest mining is prolific on federal lands in Alaska.

Following a speech to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank based in Washington, D.C., Jewell told Alaska Public Radio Network Correspondent Liz Ruskin that "much" of mining in Alaska is done on federal lands.

The Alaska Miners Association said this assertion contradicts what is actually happening in the Far North State and seized the "opportunity to clarify the actual amount of mining activity on federal lands and point out why there isn't more - massive areas currently closed to mineral entry and more proposed to be added, permitting delays, and other circumstances of bureaucracy."

In an April 22 letter to the Interior secretary, the mining group said that while nearly two-thirds of Alaska is owned by the federal government, a disproportionately small amount of mining activity takes place on these lands.

This is the latest exchange in an ongoing row between those advocating for resource development in Alaska and the department managing a large swath of the state's public lands.

Not much

While Jewell's comments on mining activity on federal lands have raised some questions about how much is 'much,' AMA does not see two of six large-scale mines and roughly 18 percent of placer operations fitting the Secretary's description.

"For Secretary Jewell to say 'much' of Alaska's mining activity is on federal lands is an overstatement at best," according to AMA statewide board of directors President Jason Brune.

The mining association points out that the two large mines operating on federal lands in Alaska - Coeur Mining's Kensington operation and Hecla Mining's Greens Creek Mine, both in Southeast - are on U.S. Forest Service lands that do not even fall under the administration of the Interior Department.

Of these, Kensington was only developed after a lengthy legal battle between Coeur and another federal agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, which was only resolved when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of the mine developer.

Much of the reason for the dearth of mines on federal lands in Alaska, however, is that many companies familiar with the landscape sidestep exploration on federally administered lands whenever possible.

Mineral companies, however, are reluctant to publically express this discontent because of needing to deal with the Department of Interior and other federal agencies as a normal course of business - no matter whether it is state, federal or Alaska Native lands in which they are exploring or developing.

"Personally, we avoid working on federal lands," one such mining representative told Mining News.

This is particularly true at the exploration stage, according to a mining executive.

"Working on federal lands in Alaska is way more difficult than working on state lands, in terms of getting permits for exploration," he said.

While Millrock Resources Inc. CEO Greg Beischer said his company would not turn down the chance to evaluate a promising mineral prospect on federal lands, the prospect generator's extensive portfolio in Alaska does not include any federal claims.

Beischer said that, due to the perception that it is harder to get permits for projects on federal claims, his company tends to prefer Alaska Native and state lands.

This avoidance results in fewer mineral projects on federal lands in Alaska being explored to a point that they can be proven feasible for future development.

Jewell's advice

Jewell's comment on mining was not the only problem that the AMA had with what the Interior Secretary had to say.

During the same interview with APRN, Jewel advised, "I do think if I was in Gov. Walker's situation, I'd be looking to diversify my sources of revenue for the state."

AMA contends that federal policies that prevent resource development need to be eased before Alaska can fully diversify its economy.

"Alaskans would love to diversify its revenue streams, if the federal government would allow us to do so," said Brune.

From policies to block development of the oil-rich Arctic Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to similar plans to place large swaths of the Fortymile Mining District off-limits, the federal government has increasingly been at odds with Alaska's government and resource sectors over the best use of lands in the Far North State.

"You need to look no further than recent decisions to permanently block drilling in the coastal plain of ANWR, permanent prohibitions on oil leasing in the North Aleutian Basin, delays for drilling in the OCS (outer continental shelf), closure of the most resource-rich areas of NPR-A (that's entirely closed to mineral entry), actions to obstruct the Pebble Project from entering the permitting process, the staggering reduction of timber sales and harvesting in Southeast, and mineral closures through ACECs (Areas of Critical Environmental Concern)," said AMA Executive Director Deantha Crockett.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced plans to designate 685,000 acres of the historic Fortymile mining district in eastern Alaska as an ACEC, a move that would put this area in a conservation unit that is off-limits to mining.

In its letter to Secretary Jewell, AMA contends that this withdrawal breaks a promise the federal government made to Alaska in 1980, when it placed 106 million acres of federal lands in Alaska in conservation units as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

In brief, ANILCA promises that the federal government will not withdraw more than 5,000 acres of Alaska public lands without an act of Congress.

Many Alaskans see the use of ACECs as a way to skirt this promise and further debilitate resource opportunities on BLM lands in Alaska.

"The Fortymile ACEC, and the proposal of others in the western and northern regions of the state, closes off opportunities for mining on federal lands to expand in the future," AMA inked in its letter to Jewell.

Despite diverging views of the best use of Alaska public lands, the miners association encourages the Interior Secretary to help diversify Alaska's economy through policies that encourage development of the state's rich mineral resources.

"Mining on 'much' of Alaska's federal lands will occur only when a stable and predictable permitting process is in place and land is managed in a way that incentivizes business investment," Executive Director Crockett said. "AMA looks forward to that day and stands ready to help Secretary Jewell make her statements a reality."

 

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