Watch: Gov. Mike Dunleavy announces Alaska Native Veteran Allotments plan

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks on a proposal on May 5, 2021 at the Walter Soboleff Building in...
Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks on a proposal on May 5, 2021 at the Walter Soboleff Building in Juneau, Alaska.(Sean Maguire/KTUU)
Published: May. 5, 2021 at 1:01 PM AKDT|Updated: May. 5, 2021 at 6:15 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Gov. Mike Dunleavy is proposing to allow Alaska Native Vietnam-era veterans to exchange an allotment of federal land for state land closer to their cultural homelands.

Under the governor’s proposal that would be limited to Native veterans who receive a parcel of federal land under the 2019 Dingell Act.

The battle to resolve the lands issue has gone on for almost 50 years.

While serving overseas, some Native Vietnam-era veterans missed out on an allotment owed to them of up to 160 acres. Over the decades, two programs have been set up to fix that but roughly 2,800 Native veterans have still not gotten their land.

The Dingell Act tried to rectify that. Over 28 million acres of federal land across Alaska became available for mining as well as for land selection for the Vietnam-era veterans. The Department of the Interior has 130 pending applications, but no one has received land from that program yet.

With the Dingell Act, there were limits to what federal land could be selected.

Any land in a conservation area such as a national forest would not be available, meaning all of Southeast Alaska with the vast Tongass National Forest would be off limits. So would land in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska on the North Slope.

The Department of Interior also announced recently that there would be a two-year pause to review the land orders opening up the 28 million acres, claiming there were “defects” in the approval process that allow for mining as well as Native land selection.

The department wrote those defects included a “failure to adequately analyze potential impacts on subsistence hunting and fishing, and reliance on outdated data in environmental impact statements.” A process of consultation with tribal groups is now set to take place.

The result of the department’s decision for the eligible Native veterans is that 1.5 million acres of other federal land would be available for selection. Some is close to Bethel, another stretch sits north of Yakutat and a third is close to Chicken.

George Bennett, a Tlingit veteran who stood beside the governor on Wednesday, described those lands as “inaccessible” and far away from his homeland in Southeast Alaska. The state land that could be made available is scattered across the state, including in small stretches of Southeast.

Bennett gave a vivid account of returning home, traumatized after serving in the Vietnam War. He said he was aware of the land allotments at the time but didn’t pay them much attention.

He said being able to have an allotment of state land closer to home would be “medicine to our souls” for the Native people impacted.

The governor said his proposal would be presented as an amendment to a land bill introduced earlier in the session. He said it was a “moral imperative” to resolve the issue quickly for the Native veterans and their descendants.

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Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional details.