North of 60 Mining News - The mining newspaper for Alaska and Canada's North

By Shane Lasley
Mining News 

Area of critical concern

BLM's Eastern Interior plan unpopular; Alaska miners hope for better deal


Last updated 1/24/2018 at 5:53pm

Despite protests by Alaska miners and government, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has pushed ahead with a management plan that will place roughly 74 percent of BLM-administered lands in Alaska’s Eastern Interior region off limits to mining for decades to come.

BLM is responsible for the management of 6.5 million acres in the federal government’s Eastern Interior planning area, a roughly 30-million-acre, triangle-shaped expanse of eastern Alaska that stretches from the Yukon Territory border to a point about 240 miles into the interior of the state. This area, roughly the size of New York State, blankets most of five historic mining districts – Fortymile, Goodpaster, Fairbanks, Circle and Tolovana (Livengood). It has produced roughly 21 million ounces of gold and is known to host a broad range of other minerals.

Every 20 years, the federal land manager is charged with developing a resource management plan that serves as a framework for decision making across this swath of Alaska for the coming two decades. It has, however, been more than 30 years since the plan for this particularly gold enriched area was refreshed.

The federal agency said its new Eastern Interior management plan seeks to strike a balance between responsible development and conservation.

“We’ve worked hard to listen to the concerns of a diverse group of local stakeholders who rely on these public lands for their subsistence, mineral development, and recreation,” BLM Alaska State Director Bud Cribley said upon releasing the proposed management plan for a 30-day comment period at the end of July.

Many of Alaska’s political leaders, however, feel the plan is weighted heavily toward conservation; deliberately making it difficult for miners to realize the mineral potential on federal lands in the area.

“While some parts of the Eastern Interior deserve special protection, the withdrawals and closures in this plan are intentionally excessive,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “As has become the norm over the past eight years, the Obama administration has gone well beyond what is necessary, in an attempt to shut down economic activities such as mineral entry that it simply refuses to support.”

Beyond excessive, state of Alaska officials believes the actual and de facto conservation areas under the plan breaks a promise the federal government made to the state in 1980, when it placed 106 million acres of federal lands in the 49th State into conservation units as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

“Because key portions of the plan violate the 1958 statehood act and other laws, the state of Alaska took the significant step of formally protesting it. Doyon Limited, representing 19,000 Alaska Native shareholders, also protested the plan,” added Alaska Gov. Bill Walker.

Unnecessary conservation

Alaska and its miners are particularly troubled with the plan for the Fortymile sub-unit, a 15-million-acre region that covers the southern half of the Eastern Interior planning area, including much of the Fortymile, Goodpaster and Fairbanks mining districts.

BLM says the new Eastern Interior management plan opens up roughly 1.13 million acres, or about 60 percent of the some 1.89 million acres of BLM-administered lands in the Fortymile subunit to mineral exploration and mining.

Miners in the area, however, believe this claim is “disingenuous and deceiving”.

“BLM has released this plan with claims that it allows for more access and mineral development. However, the plan elements ensure that 99 percent of the planning area has wilderness-like qualities that will largely be managed like wilderness, not allowing for resource development and access, even if not formally designated as such,” Fortymile Mining District President Dick Hammond penned in a Jan. 7 response to management plan.

The final plan ties up roughly 745,000 acres of the Fortymile sub-unit in conservation units that would be off limits to development. This includes expanding wild and scenic designations along the Fortymile River and placing about 399,000 acres in controversial conservation units known as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.

Hammond said much of the lands being placed in ACECs were previously tied up in public land orders that should have expired years ago.

“What BLM is doing is making the majority of these withdrawn lands permanent by placing them under Areas of Critical Environmental Concern,” he explained.

The largest ACEC designation in the Fortymile District measures roughly 80 miles by 10 miles in a corridor of federal lands that border the southeast side of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. The designation also traps state and Alaska Native lands in an island between a national reserve and the environmental conservation area.

Another 632,000 acres of lands in the Draanjik, formerly known as the Upper Black River, sub-unit is now tied up in an ACEC.

Only about 34,000 acres of the roughly 2.3 million acres of BLM-administered lands in the Steese and White Mountain sub-units of Eastern Interior, which cover much of the historic Circle and Tolovana mining districts, are open to mining under the management plan.

The only areas where mining would be allowed under the plan consist largely of already established federal mining claims in these mineral-rich areas north of Fairbanks.

“As a result of this new plan, another one million acres of Alaska will be withdrawn and almost five million acres will be closed to mineral entry,” said Sen. Murkowski. “BLM has continued to disregard its multiple-use mission and the livelihoods of Alaskans as it seeks to impose unnecessary conservation designations.”

“We are concerned that implementing this plan will reduce economic opportunities in Interior Alaska,” added Gov. Walker. “For example, the plan preemptively bans mineral exploration and development on more than three quarters of the available public lands, with no opportunity to show that these activities can be done in compliance with existing state and federal laws.”

Sliver of hope

The Eastern Interior management plan was published to the U.S. Federal Register on Jan.6, triggering a 30-day period during which individuals or groups have a right to appeal decisions in the plan.

This means that official implementation of the plan would not happen until after Donald Trump is sworn in as president and his administration is in charge, leaving Alaskans opposed to the plan with a sliver of hope to change the outcome.

“Like the rest of the working people in the United States, we are waiting and hoping that the new administration will follow the law and bring a return to reasonable regulation,” Hammond wrote on behalf of his fellow miners in the Fortymile District.

The Eastern Interior management plan is one of a number of Alaska land management issues that Gov. Walker plans to take up with the incoming administration.

“Now that the plan has been adopted without fixing these serious defects, we will work with the incoming administration and our congressional delegation to determine how to address this decision, which is just one in a series of disappointing decisions we’ve received from the Department of Interior in recent weeks,” the Alaska governor penned in a statement.

Sen. Murkowski, who is chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she will be working with the incoming administration to overturn many of the midnight rules and directives pushed through by the Obama administration.

Author Bio

Shane Lasley, Publisher

Over his more than 13 years of covering mining and mineral exploration, Shane has become renowned for his ability to report on the sector in a way that is technically sound enough to inform industry insiders while being easy to understand by a wider audience.

Phone: (907) 726-1095


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