Alaskan Land Use Legislation

Roderick Nash, in Wilderness and the American Mind, chronicles the series of laws that determined land use in the state of Alaska between 1970 and 1980.

On becoming a state in 1959, the state’s residents and leaders had a former-colony-complex.  Many Alaskans felt that to transform from a neglected backwater into a formal state would require the kind of development typical of the American west – a large dam project, providing hydroelectric power to attract industry, and making available land to mining and logging interests.  The dam envisioned was called the Rampart Dam and would have created a lake bigger than Lake Erie.  In the drama of Alaskan land use, the defeat of the Rampart Dam in 1968 was the first victory for conservationists (both Alaskan and non-Alaskan).

On the eve of the North Slope oil strike of 1968, the Rampart controversy climaxed and established two principles that would influence debates in the 1970s.  The first was that many outsiders saw Alaska’s wilderness not as a wasteland suitable for reservoirs but as a reservoir of a scarce, and hence valuable, environmental condition.  Second, the Rampart defeat demonstrated that the wilderness movement was capable of heavily influencing, if not determining, Alaska’s future.

The next major development was in native land use and rights.  The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 was the federal government’s response to the Alaskan natives claims on land and livelihood.  The Alaskan natives benefited from the marginal location of their territory, the decimation of a native population that left them a stark minority in the United States and a national milieu that was far more sensitive to the rights of minorities than 80 years earlier.  As reasonable as the federal government appears to be in dealing with the Alaskan natives, these points should be recalled prior to hailing this, as one conservationist does (see below) a “great, final and retributive payment.”

So it was that when the oil strikes of the 1960s made clarification of land titles in Alaska imperative, the natives spoke for their rights and the federal government hurriedly prepared to deal for the first time with native land claims that were very much intact.  Adding to the pressure…In the context of the burgeoning black civil rights movement, it was impossible to follow the only-good-Indian-is-a-dead-Indian formula that had cleared the western frontier of natives and native claims.

…[the federal government] allowed Alaskan natives to choose forty-four million acres of federal land for outright ownership, awarded them a billion dollars, and established a series of native-run regional and village corporations to manage and promote native lifestyles…John McPhee called ANCSA an attempt to make a “great, final and retributive payment” in compensation for “twenty decades of national guilt.”

The final chapter of the drama deals with non-native land use.  After several years of stalled bills and filibuster threats, in 1980 Morris Udall’s H.R. 39 passed Congress “over the consistent and heated objections of Alaska’s entire congressional delegation.”  The final distribution of land, by percentage, was 12% for native population use, 27% for the State of Alaska, 60% in federal government land claims of one form or another (parks, preserves, as simply public domain) and 1% private holdings.

History will probably look kindly on the decisions made by Congress and President Carter regarding Alaskan land use.  Most Alaskans were not actually in favor of turning the great north into an industrial and natural resource mecca; the issue with H.R. 39 was the strict appropriation of 2/3 of the state to federal decisions.  Alaskans would have preferred a cooperative partnership to ensure the unique lifestyles of modern day frontier and wilderness livers would not be restricted by “armchair” conservationists in the lower 48 states.  In the end, much Alaskan wilderness has been specially crafted for the concerns of Alaskans – allowing subsistence hunting, cabins and homesteading where wilderness in the lower 48 prohibits all three.


One response to “Alaskan Land Use Legislation

  1. Pingback: The Cult of Wilderness | sweep·

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