Gov. Bill Walker speaks in Haines. (Emily Files)

Gov. Bill Walker speaks in Haines. (Emily Files)

The Juneau Access Road was the central issue during Gov. Bill Walker’s visit to Haines last week. But in an interview with KHNS, Walker addressed other topics of local interest, including lands into trust and Outstanding Resource water protection.

In July, tribes in Alaska, including the Chilkoot Indian Association, won what they called a ‘historic victory:’ the right to ask the federal government to put their lands into trust.

It’s an issue the state of Alaska isn’t entirely comfortable with. Former Gov. Sean Parnell and Gov. Walker appealed a 2013 court decision that would give Alaska tribes the same land trust rights as tribes in the Lower 48.

Now that a U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed the state’s argument, Walker says he is talking with the U.S. Department of Interior about what happens next. It’s the Department of Interior that receives trust lands applications.

“As far as the process in place, there’ll be some new regulations that are Alaska-specific,” Walker said. “We’ve been invited to participate in that process.”

Walker said he would be meeting with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to discuss those ‘Alaska-specific’ regulations. He said they might take resource development into account.

“We’re a resource state, and so making sure that we are still able to develop our resources in some way without necessarily being prohibited on some of the issues associated with lands into trust.”

The Chilkoot Tribe in Haines was intimately involved in the battle for lands into trust rights. Walker came to Haines to talk with them about the issue before he decided to continue the state’s appeal. Tribal administrator Harriet Brouillette says the council is still deliberating whether to move forward with an application to place its land, including the Chilkoot Estates Subdivision, into federal trust.

Last year, another statewide issue took on local importance. The Chilkat Indian Village in Klukwan applied for special water protection status for the Chilkat River. They nominated the river for Outstanding National Resource Water status, also known as ‘Tier 3’ protection. If granted, Outstanding Resource waters are shielded from activities that cause degradation, unless they are temporary and have limited impact.

States are mandated by federal law to have a procedure in place to evaluate Tier 3 applications. But Alaska doesn’t. Walker says the state has been slow to take action on that requirement.

“So it’s time that we addressed that. So I’m not trying to…some could step away from that, it’s a sensitive issue, and let some future governor address that. And that’s just not my style.”

Walker did try to address the issue during the last regular legislative session. He introduced bills that would put the water protection decision in lawmakers’ hands. But that backfired. Many people spoke during House and Senate hearings, saying Tier 3 nominations should go to a state agency, like the Department of Environmental Conservation. They said giving power to legislators would ‘politicize’ the decisions.

“I listened last year and I heard some concerns and fairly strong push-back and said ‘you know what, we did hit the pause button on that.'”

Walker withdrew the bills he introduced. At the time, he said he wanted to come to a more ‘broadly acceptable’ proposal.

When asked whether that means making nominations an agency decision instead of a legislative decision, Walker said:

“There might be some room in between.”

He didn’t expand on what that might mean.

“It’s a very sensitive issue on all sides. So we’ll come back with something this year and it’ll be based on what we heard last year, as far as the kind of push-back we received.”

It was definitely a sensitive issue in Haines. A DEC official came to town to explain Tier 3 nominations to residents. The meeting brought out people who were vehemently against the stringent water protection and people strongly in favor. Those against worried it could shut down everything from boating to a potential mine. Walker says he understands both sides.

“I’m very mindful of the need for environmental protection, there’s no one who should be more protective of the environment than us. At the same time, we need to make sure we’re able to have an economy out of our resource development.”

Walker says he plans to address Tier 3 protection in the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January. Meanwhile, the Outstanding Resource nominations in Alaska, including the one for the Chilkat River, remain in limbo.