Utah-based group pushing to transfer federal land to states

Doug Heaton, executive director of the American Lands Council, says he has a plan for Alaska to take control of federally owned lands within the state’s borders.

Speaking at the Jan. 9 Meet Alaska event, an annual gathering hosted by the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, Heaton laid out a legal argument for the passage of federal lands into state control and implored the audience to do what several western Lower 48 states have done and sign his petition.

The federal government controls more than 60 percent of Alaska land, and Heaton’s argument says that land should’ve been given to the state 60 year ago after entry into the union.

Heaton’s case rests on an appeal to the Federal Property and Territory Clause in Article IV, Section III of the U.S. Constitution, giving the federal government the power to “dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”

Predictably, this passage has been the subject of lengthy debate and has several dominant interpretations, ranging from pro-federal to pro-state. Essentially, Heaton’ argues that “dispose of” means “get rid of,” and that the U.S. government hasn’t lived up to the deal.

According to Heaton, when Alaska was admitted to the union as a state in 1959, the enabling act mentioned no such transfer of public lands into state hands, leaving the majority in Congressional control. By contrast, Hawaii’s 1959 enabling act put public lands into state ownership; Hawaii’s lands are now less than 1 percent federally controlled.

Heaton cites historical cases for examples of successful public land transfer in the past under similar circumstances. In 1828, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, all recently admitted states, petitioned the federal government for disposal of public lands, and after some court battling, received them.

Historically and economically, Alaska has many commonalities with the large western states in the Lower 48, including lengthy territorial status, vast potentiality for natural resource development, and expansive borders.

A wide disparity exists between eastern and western states in terms of land management, where western refers to the Intermountain West, Southwest, and Pacific Northwest states and eastern describes the Great Plains and everything eastward. Where less than 10 percent of eastern lands are federally controlled, over 50 percent of the western state lands are under federal management.

In Heaton’s mind, the potential economic benefits to putting millions of acres into state ownership far outweighs the benefits of the system of national parks and federal natural resource leasing options under large federal control.

Alaska is no stranger to legal scuffles over federally managed land. Rep. Don Young has been a longtime opponent of federal control of Alaska lands and vied several times to limit the authority of federal bodies over state-owned property. Last year, two court decisions established the National Parks Service’s supremacy over Alaska-controlled rivers that run through federal lands.

Other groups like the Alaska Coalition actively lobby to add more lands into Congressional control by adding acreage to federal wildlife and resource reserves, arguing that protecting the Alaska natural resources through national parks trumps private economic development.

The American Lands Council has its home in southern Utah, a state that has been at the forefront of a battle to wrest public lands into state domain for years.

DJ Summers can be reached at daniel.summers@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
11/18/2016 - 1:55pm

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