BLM speeds up surveys to complete Native land transfers
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is moving faster these days in conveying lands to Alaska Native corporations. As of Sept. 4 the agency has issued patent, indicating final transfer of ownership, to 33.1 million acres selected by Native regional and village corporations, and has granted Interim Conveyance to another 10.6 million acres, according to information provided by BLM.
Interim conveyance is a form of preliminary approval of land transfer, said Ron Dunton, the agency’s deputy state director. The patent, or final ownership, is issued when surveys are completed of the lands being transferred.
The lands were selected under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, in which regional and village corporations were allowed to select about 45.7 million acres of federal lands as part of a settlement of long-standing aboriginal land claims. Congress also provided, in ANCSA, a cash settlement of $962 million.
In interviews, BLM officials said that a total of 43.8 million acres had been given either final patent or interim conveyance as of early September. This represents almost 96 percent of the 45.7 million full land entitlement.
BLM said there are 1.94 million acres left in the ANCSA entitlement left to be selected, or at least for selections to be finalized.
One issue that is still outstanding is acreage that could go to Sealaska Corp. under pending legislation in Congress. Sealaska was unable to select its full entitlement of lands under ANCSA because of the large Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.
The legislation, sponsored by the Alaska delegation, would allow Sealaska to complete its selections.
Dunton said BLM is also moving along in giving approvals to state lands being selected under the 1959 Alaska Statehood Act. Alaska was given the right to select 104 million acres of federal lands when it became a state.
Like the Alaska Native corporations, the state has largely finished its selections of lands, Dunton said. About 100.6 million acres, or 96.3 percent of the state entitlement, have been approved, including 37.06 million acres have been given Tentative Approval, a form of interim land transfer approval similar to Interim Conveyance for Native-selected lands.
Less of the state’s selections have been given final patent than Native selections. About 60.9 percent, or 63.62 million acres, of state land selections have been patented compared with patent issued for 72.5 percent of Native-selected lands, according to information from BLM.
As with Native lands, final patent for state selected lands required a survey, Dunton said. Budget constraints have limited the amount of surveying BLM can so, but a federal law enacted in 2004 requires BLM to put a priority on surveying and completing patents on Native lands.
However, under tentative approval of lands selected, the state has been able to use the lands for economic development, just as interim conveyance has allowed Native corporations to use lands.
For example, oil and gas leases were issued in the 1960s on state lands on the North Slope while those lands were still under tentative approval from BLM. The state leased the lands for oil and gas exploration, which led to major discoveries and the construction of large oil fields and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.
Finalizing the land selection for Alaska Native corporations has been complex because besides the 12 regional corporations who own surface and subsurface lands, there are about 200 Native village corporations selecting surface lands.
Surveying the boundaries of the selections is one issue, and BLM officials said this has recently been simplified, but the process of identifying previously existing landowners or property rights, such as Native Allotments (a type of early homestead right given Alaska Natives) or federal mining claims, is something that must be done carefully.
Dunton said another complication is that there are many cases where state and Native corporations selections overlap, and where Native corporation selections (mainly villages) also overlap, and all of these must be sorted out. Overlapping village selections is particularly a problem in the Calista Corp. area of Southwest Alaska, where many villages are located in close proximity.
Most of the time the various parties must negotiate among themselves. Dunton said one recent development is that BLM has been able to simplify its method of doing surveys and to take advantage of new GPS-based technology, which lowers costs compared with having to do everything with people in the field.
One new procedure is to survey only the outer boundaries of land tracts, which are typically selected in blocks of land, rather than also surveying the inside boundaries of township tracts within the selections. Use of GPS survey systems also simplified things, and still achieved accuracy.
Surveys by aerial photography can also be done in special situations, Dunton said. For example, an aerial survey was done for lands on Saint Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, where two villages selected the entire island of 1.8 million square miles. The effort required five days, and luckily there was clear weather on one day.
The upshot of this is that BLM had annual Alaska survey budgets of about $30 million per year in 2008 and 2009, but budgets have tightened and the agency has been able to survey similar amounts of acreage with less money beginning last year, it says. In 2012, $12 million was budgeted and 8 million acres were surveyed. If conventional survey methods had to be used this would have cost twice what it did, BLM said.
Typically, regional corporations selected lands with an eye toward natural resource development, because they were entitled to own subsurface rights for oil and gas or minerals.
Village corporations were allowed to only select surface lands and were required to do so in a complex “checkerboard” pattern around communities, as Congress did not want to have too many single landowners holding huge blocks of contiguous acreage. Villages typically selected lands that were important to the community for subsistence and cultural reasons.
Not surprisingly, there were problems for some corporations. Cook Inlet Region Inc. and Chugach Alaska Corp. in Southcentral Alaska were severely impaired in their ability to select lands in their regions because of previously existing landowners.
In CIRI’s case it was because the best lands were taken by private landowners, municipalities or the military. In Chugach’s case it was because a good percentage of its region was taken up by Chugach National Forest.
There was, in theory, available land to select in Southcentral, but it was mostly mountaintops and glaciers. Lawsuits ensued, and the settlements eventually worked out gave CIRI and Chugach rights for alterative lands, or rights to federal properties. Some of this worked out to great advantage for several of the corporations.
Today, Alaska Native corporations are Alaska’s largest private landowners and the most aggressive in promoting economic development on their lands. NANA Regional Corp., for example, owns the Red Dog Mine, the world’s largest zinc mine, in Northwest Alaska. Teck Alaska operates the mine under a profit-sharing arrangement with NANA, the landowner, and the mine is now a source of good-paying jobs in the region.
CIRI has natural gas production in its lands in Southcentral Alaska and hopes to see a new gas discovery developed. Interestingly, CIRI’s early selection of gas-producing lands in Southcentral soon after the passage of ANCSA provided critical revenues for Alaska Native corporations at a time when they were short of cash and bearing large organizational costs. The law requires 70 percent of resource revenues to be shared among all Native corporations.