Alaska’s delegation to Congress writes bills every year to transfer or sell federal land to local governments and Native corporations. In late May, Sen. Lisa Murkowski sponsored one public land bill for Native corporations that’s particularly far-reaching — apparently more expansive than the senator intended.
Congress, in 1971 promised Cook Inlet Region Inc. more than a million acres of land. CIRI Senior Vice President for Land Ethan Schutt says the corporation is still trying to get its final 43,000 acres but all of the good, income-producing land in the region is spoken for.
“So we’re kind of fighting and scratching and clawing to find something that is reasonable and has economic potential to fulfill the 45-year-old promise made to our shareholders,” he said.
Schutt says CIRI has its eye on some federal acreage outside the region, but it needs a new law to make the government hand it over.
To help CIRI, Sen. Lisa Murkowski filed the ANCSA Improvement Act in May. The bill does a lot of things, but one section would open up vast amounts of land all over the state for CIRI to choose from. CIRI would be allowed to select land from National Wildlife Refuges and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. National Parks, monuments and the Arctic Refuge would be off-limits.
Asked if there are other limitations in her bill, Murkowski thought there were. She said her bill would not allow CIRI to select from areas designated as “wilderness,” the federal category that receives the highest level of protection.
After further questions to her staff, a Murkowski spokesman later said nothing in the bill now would prevent CIRI from selecting wilderness, but he said the senator intends to add such limits later.
The CIRI legislation is just one part of a 12-part bill that would open up federal land for Native corporations to select, and in some cases, requires the government to convey it. One paragraph likely to attract attention would require the Interior secretary to give a small piece of the Arctic Refuge, near Kaktovik, to the Native corporation for that village.
Andy Moderow, state director of the Alaska Wilderness League, says the bill is a concern for conservation groups.
“Because of how broad the legislation is, many places that have earned protections over the years would be up for grabs,” he said.
Schutt, the CIRI vice president, doesn’t want to say yet what land they hope to obtain, but he says they are aiming for selections near other Native corporation land.
“Are we trying to engender additional controversy? Absolutely not,” Schutt said. “And we’re trying to look at areas that are potentially within wildlife refuges or NPR-A but not brand new holdings that are deep within the heart of some conservation unit.”
This isn’t the first time CIRI has tried to expand its land pool beyond the low-value land it says it was left with, which corporate lore describes as “mountain tops and glaciers.” In 1976 it won the right to select half its acreage from elsewhere in the state. Schutt, though, says that legislation has conditions that make it impractical for getting the final 43,000 acres. The 1976 law, for instance, says the secretary of the Interior must agree to give up the land CIRI selects. Murkowski’s new bill says the secretary can’t stand in CIRI’s way.
Murkowski’s committee, Senate Energy and Natural Resources, hasn’t had a hearing on the bill yet. Environmental groups are on the lookout for pieces of it that might be added as riders to other bills.