From 1906 to 1971, individual Alaska Natives could apply for title to certain federal land they had used and occupied. During the Vietnam War, perhaps as many as 2,800 Alaska Natives may have missed out on the chance to apply because of their military service. Congress decided in 1998 to give those who served in the three years before the deadline another chance to apply for the Native allotment program.
That was the fair thing to do, and Alaska Rep. Don Young can take the biggest share of the credit for it.
But now Rep. Young is back, pursuing a much more generous land program for a much bigger group of Alaska Native veterans. His measure goes well beyond the original idea, which was to restore a lost opportunity to apply for a program that ended while these Native vets were in uniform.
Rep. Young would reopen allotment claims for almost any Native who served during the Vietnam War. The allotment claims could be filed on almost any federal land in Alaska -- including national parks and national forests. Rep. Young would let the vets have the land without having to show they used or occupied the particular site. And his measure sets a hair-trigger mechanism that would automatically approve the vast majority of the applications.
In all respects, the opportunity Rep. Young wants to offer is far more generous than the original allotment program. It gives a second chance to a select class of Natives, even though their military service did not prevent them from applying the first time. (Eligibility would run from 1964, long before the allotment application deadline was an issue, to 1975, long after Congress had shut down allotment claims.) Rep. Young's bill lets those vets apply for parkland and national forests that were off-limits during the original program. It strips away limits that required proof of a connection to the land that the veteran seeks. And it dictates default approval of claims by allowing too little time to process them.
The standards Rep. Young would set are so liberal that his bill is a land giveaway, plain and simple. As President Bush's Department of the Interior told the congressman at a hearing last month, Rep. Young's bill converts the allotment program into ''a special bonus or reward for service for one class of Alaska Natives.''
If the government decides to reward Native vets in the Vietnam War with federal land in Alaska, why not make the same offer to Natives who served in other wars? Why not include Alaska's non-Native veterans too? Indeed, why not offer Alaska land to all veterans from anywhere in the country?
As a general rule, it's appropriate for government to use a generous standard in deciding what benefits may be available to Native veterans. But with Native allotments, Congress has already given a second shot to Native veterans who need it. Members of Congress are supposed to bring home the goods for their constituents, but in this case, Rep. Young goes too far.
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