Is land owned by Alaska Native corporations private land?

The Alaska chapter of Americans For Prosperity had a dinner on Thursday night. One of the featured speakers was Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, who talked about the possibility–given the state’s current fiscal crisis– of having a state constitutional convention to rethink the concept of the “owner state,” a Wally Hickel concept that, as I understand it, basically envisions collective ownership, funneled through the state, of resources. Sullivan pointed out that the concept was at its heart either socialistic, or communistic. He said that it has kept the land and the resources under government control, and that at the very least, it was time to talk about opening up the land to private ownership. He said that as it is, only about 1 percent of Alaska’s land is privately owned.

In a comment, reader Pamela Brodie took issue with the 1 percent claim, pointing out that Alaska Native corporations own 12 percent of the land. Another reader, who seems to know the subject pretty well, claims that Native corporation land acts more like federally-owned land than land owned by the private sector. Read on:

(T)he Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act established Native corporations with 44 million acres of federal and state land. It also gave the corporations $1 billion. In return the Act “extinguish(ed) all aboriginal hunting and fishing rights that may exist,” and removed all claims that attorneys for Alaska Natives might have been able to use to further delay the oil pipeline. The land was set up in a special, exclusive, protected quasi-governmental status that cannot be taxed by the state and municipalities except if developed in specific ways and it removed the land from the reach of creditors, even in bankruptcy. Profits generated by the land, when distributed to stockholders, are beyond the reach of the Internal Revenue Code. So the case can be made that it is not private land but a special class of federal land.

Moreover, shares in the corporate land cannot be bought or sold (no REIT spin-offs for Native corporations apparently), and if it is inherited by anyone not an Alaska Native, regardless of tribe, region or village, the stock becomes nonvoting. I think that helps make the case, should anyone want to make it, that the land is not private in either a general sense or a usual legal sense.

In Alaska, fire suppression on private land is completely paid for by the state. However, fire suppression on Native land is paid for by the federal government. The state invoices the federal government for any costs the state incurs in fighting wildfire on Native corporation land.

I have not done the arithmetic and have no opinion on the 1%, but I think that on balance most reasonable people would maintain that Native corporation land has more in common with federal land than it does with private land in Alaska.


15 thoughts on “Is land owned by Alaska Native corporations private land?

  1. Mayor Dan

    JQPublic – your question “do you expect that ( federal land) to be given to you by the taxpayer ‘ also'” makes no sense since I have never received anything for free from the taxpayers, your misinformed earlier comments notwithstanding. Buying federal land takes a willing buyer and seller and I am not aware of any viable federal tracts for sale. As far as I am concerned, we could start with the 1002 area of ANWR. I’m sure there would be significant interest.

  2. Pamela Brodie

    Thank you, Mayor Dan, for participating. I agree that we should use our real names. As your point was about development, you know that the Native Corporation lands are fully available for resource extraction (and the regional corporations do own the subsurface), and that most of the public lands are also available. Alaska, with only 13% private land ownership, still has 528 acres of private land per Alaskan. No other state comes close. The “1%” is 2.69 million acres of non-Native Corporation private land, amounting to 4.4 acres per non-Native Alaskan. Texas (which you mention in your other comment) has only 2% public land, and 6.4 acres of private land per Texan — most of it in giant tracks that belong to a few old Texas families. I used to live in Texas. There is hardly any place to fish or hunt or even take a hike unless you are one of the very few rich ranchers, or one of their friends, or pay them a lot of money. I moved to Alaska for the public lands. I feel wealthier than Bill Gates, surrounded by all the spectacular land, rich in fish and wildlife, that I own, along with all other Americans. Please stop trying to diminish our wealth for the short term gain of a few. Alaska is the greatest place in the world to live, because of our public land.

  3. Lynn Willis

    Mayor Dan,
    Do you have any historical references regarding what caused that “common ownership” doctrine to be placed in our State Constitution? I have heard that the provision for common ownership was a condition of admission to the Union for both Alaska and Hawaii.
    I have also heard that it is was motivated by the history of the economic exploitation of our resources with no long term benefit to the (then) territory such as what happened to the copper resource at Kennecott and the industrial harvesting of salmon.
    I am also an advocate of holding a Constitutional Convention. That decision is mandated every ten years in the current Constitution. We just voted to not hold that convention yet I wonder what the motivation will be in ten years as our fiscal paradigm changes forever.

  4. John Q. Public

    Don’t hold your breath.

    But why don’t you make a fair market value offer for the federal land? Or do you expect that to be given to you by the taxpayers also also?

  5. Mayor Dan

    The discussion wasn’t about Native lands or Ted Stevens, it was about state and federal lands and how little is in private ownership as compared to Texas and how that fits into the founders concept of property rights and individual freedom, when much of that freedom is manifested in the private ownership of land. The debate about whether Native lands are private or not is irrelevant to the discussion I was initiating.

  6. Mayor Dan

    The subject of Native Alaskan owned lands was not really the point of my comments. If we concede that they are a special form of private land ownership, so be it. My point was directed to the other 88 percent of Alaska land, of which 87 percent is owned by the federal or state government. The remaining 1 percent is only partly owned by the private sector since you can’t own your sub-surface rights, they belong to the state. This model is totally opposite of what the founders of the U.S. Constitution had in mind when granting government very specific and limited powers. My comments were designed to ask the question of what kind of economic stimulus would be created if much more land was available for private investment and development? A reasonable question to ask when facing a 3 billion dollar deficit and with our economy based on the price of a single commodity. I realize some people are unable to engage in such an intellectual discussion without name calling but it is a discussion worth having. As for John Q. Public, as the trustee for my father’s insurance trust, I was required by law to submit his insurance claims. I recused myself from any decision regarding the municipal policy, which both the Begich and the current municipal attorneys said had to be paid. As trustee, neither myself nor my immediate family could be beneficiaries, hence no ‘largesse’ as you falsly claim. Have the courage to use your real name in these discussions and your comments might actually earn some respect and credibility. I won’t hold my breath.

  7. brent crude

    Since Stevens and Young pushed the bill through, does that mean they’re communists? The organizers and supporters of Ted Stevens day should be informed.

  8. Pamela Brodie

    There is only one issue that determines whether land is public or private: ownership. Native corporation lands are owned, fee simple, by the Corporations and through them by the shareholders. As with any other private lands, the owners (the shareholders — not the people of the United States) control decisions about public access and development; they pay the costs of development and reap its benefits. There are many other private lands that get tax breaks for conservation easements, senior citizen ownership, etc. — special taxing rules does not make the land public. Corporation shares cannot be sold, but the land can be sold, and some has been. The fact that most of the owners choose not to sell is their decision and their right. Plenty of other private land stays in the ownership of a family for generations, without ever being offered for sale. The fact that it cannot be foreclosed upon is an extra strong bond of private ownership. Which government agency pays for fire suppression is irrelevant to the question of ownership. The land belongs to the shareholders of the corporations. It is private land.

  9. John Q. Public

    Good to see that the real Mayor Dan Sullivan is coming out now that the election is over.

    Calling Wally Hickel a socialist or a communist for advocating the owner state concept is really rich, coming from a guy who has benefited greatly from government largesse, e.g. his father’s “insurance policy.”

    Pretty soon he’ll be calling for an end to the permanent fund dividend, as for him it must be an outrageous example of wealth redistribution that must be wiped off the face of the earth.

    p.s. Maybe he still wonders how a Unity Ticket with the slogan “Put Alaska First” might have won.

  10. Mae

    I tire of ethnocentric people who continue to define the private belongings of American’s First Peoples.

    It is tacky. Kinda like the “hipster” who thinks it’s trendy to wear a war bonnet to a picnic at the park strip.

  11. Anonymous

    A very small percentage of land is available if a person or company wants to buy land. If I want to buy land to build a house, then Native Corporation land is not available. If a company wants to move to an area, investing capital in buildings and structure is certainly different on Native land than a parcel that can be bought and owned. Lawyers and courts can debate and decide. Alaska Native Corporation land has many wonderful attributes, but it doesn’t act like private land that can be bought and sold.

  12. Not a lawyer, but...

    The Supreme Court in 1998 found that ANSCA Native lands of the village of Venetie were not trust (i.e. reservation lands aka Indian Country) lands but were in fact fee simple lands, privately held. . Unanimous decision. Seems like ANSCA lands are indeed private property.

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