In a series of moves, the Obama administration seized control of nearly 100 million acres in Alaska over the past year.
The amount of land seized is comparable to the size of New Mexico.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter designated 157 million acres of Alaskan land through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), as national parks, national wildlife refuges, national monuments, wild and scenic rivers, recreational areas, national forests, and conservation areas.
As part of a compromise to gain sufficient support for ANILCA’s passage, the 1906 Antiquities Act was changed to prevent a president from declaring any area of more than 5,000 acres in Alaska a national monument without ratification by Congress.
Under ANILCA, the federal government recognized the State of Alaska’s authority to manage various natural resources, including fish and wildlife, on the vast majority of the lands covered by the law.
In October 2015, the National Park Service overrode Alaska’s predator control regulations on 20 million acres of land. In July 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) seized control of fish and wildlife management on an additional one million acres of land previously under the control of the State of Alaska under ANILCA.
Under new rules effective in September 2016, FWS took control of 77 million acres of national wildlife refuges in Alaska from the state. The new rules undermine Alaska’s comprehensive wildlife management plans by prohibiting previously approved hunting practices.
Violating Statehood Agreement
Former Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell says the Obama administration’s actions violate Alaska’s statehood agreement.
“[FWS’] action is contrary to the Alaska statehood compact of 1958, which allowed Alaska authority to manage fish and game,” said Treadwell. “Congress said unilateral changes [to the compact’s terms] cannot be made.
“What the USFS is doing makes no sense legally,” Treadwell said. “Alaska should examine all the legal options.”
Sarah Curry, policy director of the Platte Institute, says the Obama administration’s actions in Alaska are unconstitutional and set a dangerous precedent.
“For the feds to take away Alaska’s land is unconstitutional,” said Curry. “States have legal recourse. There has been an active effort by the states to push back against federal takeovers of lands.
“Gov. [Bill] Walker (I) should be doing something, because Alaska’s land is 62 percent owned by the federal government,” Curry said. “He is Alaska’s voice, and he should be working with the attorney general, the State Legislature, and [Alaska’s] U.S. representatives and senators to do something.
“It 100 percent sets a precedent [for other states],” said Curry. “More than 50 percent of the land west of Kansas is controlled by the feds, while less than 4 percent is controlled in the east coast. If Gov. Walker continues his apathy on the issue, Colorado’s land could be taken, for example.”
Heritage Foundation Policy Analyst Katie Tubb says the Obama administration’s land seizures in Alaska raise multiple constitutional questions.
“While the FWS’ actions are egregiously invasive of Alaska’s sovereignty and the courts are in the practice of giving wide deference to agencies, the problem starts and stops with Congress,” Tubb said. “Congress has delegated away authority and empowered executive agencies, which face little accountability from Alaskans.
“Alaska’s response, or lack thereof, feeds into a bigger conversation going on right now about the federal estate: How much land is enough?” said Tubb. “The federal government currently owns 640 million acres and hundreds of millions more offshore and in the mineral estate below ground.”
Tubb says Utah’s legislators’ attempts to recover federal lands set an example for other states to follow.
“I think Utah is a good example of a state taking leadership on this issue,” said Tubb. “The legislature has taken initiative by studying the economic feasibility and legal pathway for recovering federal lands, and Utah has been very engaged at the local, state, and congressional levels regarding a potential national monument designation the Obama administration is considering.
“Western states have effectively raised the profile of the issue of federal management in state lands to the point that Washington, DC is finally paying attention,” Tubb said.
‘Up to the States’
Jennifer Fielder, CEO of the American Lands Council, says it is up to the states to fight to force the federal government to remain within the boundaries established by the Constitution.
“The federal government will undoubtedly continue efforts to amass unlawful power unto itself as long as it goes unchecked,” Fielder said. “It is up to the states and the people to become more engaged in the civil processes to limit the federal government to its constitutional boundaries so we can restore the balance and have a healthy environment, abundant outdoor recreation, and safe, vibrant communities once again.”
Treadwell says states must act in concert to fight unconstitutional federal actions.
“It is absolutely essential that public-lands states work together to make sure states have more ownership of public lands regardless of who is president,” Treadwell said. “Devolution is the best way going forward.”
It matters who manages land and natural resources, Tubb says.
“What’s disheartening is too often decisions like this are made by people who feel almost none of the consequences, but people who live in and around these lands will face the consequences every day,” said Tubb.
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.
Jan Elise Stambro, et al., “An Analysis of a Transfer of Federal Lands to the State of Utah,” Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, November 2014: https://heartland.org/wp-content/uploads/documents/utah_lands_report.pdf