Alaska Native
Improvement Act
Course corrections for 2019
By Julie Stricker

ast year was a big one for politics. The midterm elections garnered headlines across the nation and statewide, with big turnouts and tight races. For example, the race for House District 1 ended with a vote of 2,663 to 2,662. That one vote gave Republican Bart LeBon—who called the race and subsequent recount “one for the books”—the win and the Republican party control of the state’s House. Republicans also have a majority in the state’s Senate and, following another tight race, Alaska has a Republican governor.

The race for governor was no less exciting. Republican Mike Dunleavy won the governor’s seat with about 51 percent of the vote compared to Democrat Mark Begich, who lost by a slim margin, garnering about 45 percent of the vote.

But the election is now in the rearview mirror, and the state’s Native corporations are looking toward 2019 for change. Charlene Ostbloom, vice president of communications for Fairbanks-based Doyon, Limited, says the corporation plans to “focus on building a relationship with the new administration and legislators” in Alaska. But those relationships extend beyond Alaska’s governing bodies: because these corporations were formed under ANCSA, changes—or a lack thereof—to that piece of legislation have significant effects on Alaska Native operations.

ANCSA Improvement Act
Nationally, several corporations were keeping a close eye on a Senate bill (S.1481—ANCSA Improvement Act of 2017) co-sponsored by Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan that would update certain provisions of ANCSA.

“ANCSA was intended to be a living measure that would change as the needs of Alaska Natives changed,” Murkowski said in a statement. “Over the years, Congress has amended the act more than forty times, and this package contains the latest series of common-sense solutions to real issues that have arisen with it. The bills we introduced will help ensure the federal government lives up to its promises to Alaska Natives, and I am eager to work with Senator Sullivan and the rest of my colleagues to advance it.”

“ANCSA was intended to be a living measure that would change as the needs of Alaska Natives changed.”
—US Senator Lisa Murkowski
ANCSA was written to settle aboriginal land claims and allow construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline. Under the legislation, Alaska Natives received 44 million acres of land and $962 million, creating twelve regional corporations and more than 200 village corporations in the state “to provide a continuing stream of income to help improve the lives of Alaska Natives,” Murkowski states.

A 13th corporation was later created for Alaska Natives living outside the state.

The 13th Regional Corporation differed from the Alaska-based regional corporations because, while it received $54 million when it was created, it was not granted any land when it was incorporated and was not eligible for the revenue-sharing provisions under ANCSA.

A series of failed investments and poor management in the early 2000s doomed the corporation. It last held an annual meeting in 2007. For the next several years, shareholders tried to jump-start the corporation, working on a volunteer basis and lobbying for a land allocation of up to 1.2 million acres. All failed, and the corporation was dissolved in 2014. Despite this, various efforts, such as a Facebook page, have kept shareholders’ hopes up that the corporation would one day come back to life.

One of the fourteen specific provisions of the ANCSA Improvement Act would provide a process for the approximately 5,500 shareholders of the 13th to reconstitute the corporation.

Other provisions deal with land access and allocations.

Alaska’s congressional delegation is heavily invested in the legislation. When he unveiled the bills, Sullivan noted that ANCSA has been amended many times. The ANCSA Improvement Act is only the latest iteration, Sullivan says, and “is needed to assist in the resolution of issues specific to many communities in Alaska. This bill is a combination of many small efforts and aims to resolve many local issues, some of which have been around since the initial passage of ANCSA.”

The bill includes measures that would:

  • allow Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, based in Utqiaġvik, to obtain gravel from under its holdings inside a local gas field;
  • grant Shishmaref an easement across the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve to reach a gravel source at Ear Mountain needed to control erosion;
  • ensure Shee Atiká in Southeast Alaska can maximize shareholder compensation for land sales it has initiated with the federal government;
  • create a mechanism for Sealaska to exchange its subsurface estate at Cube Cove, located within the Admiralty Island National Monument, to the Forest Service in exchange for other lands;
  • provide CIRI with land selection options;
  • allow Kaktovik to select its remaining lands; Canyon Village to select lands at its original location; and Nagamut to select lands closer to residents’ traditional hunting sites or settle their land claims;
  • authorize urban corporations for five Southeast communities: Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Tenakee, and Haines;
  • allow Alaska Natives who served in Vietnam to select land allotments;
  • and study the effect that federal land acquisitions have had on Chugach Alaska Corporation’s ability to develop its subsurface estate in Prince William Sound, as well as options for potential land exchanges.
“This bill is a combination of many small efforts and aims to resolve many local issues, some of which have been around since the initial passage of ANCSA.”
—US Senator Dan Sullivan
Other provisions address technical and financial issues affecting the corporations.
Interior and North Slope
Doyon’s Ostbloom says the corporation is hoping the bill will allow the residents of Canyon Village to receive the land selections they were promised under ANCSA but were denied due to later federal land withdrawals.

The villagers selected land on the banks of the Porcupine River in 1976. In 1983, Kian Tr’ee, the village corporation for Canyon Village, was certified. However, villagers were later told their selections were ineligible due to land withdrawals for the Rampart Dam project. By the time the dam project was withdrawn, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act had been passed, which established the Alaska National Wildlife Reservation on the lands Kian Tr’ee had selected.

Doyon continued to work to get legislation passed to correct those errors. Two provisions in the ANCSA Improvement Act, as well as House Bill 231, introduced by Representative Don Young, specifically direct the secretary of the Interior to convey 6,400 acres to the corporation. Doyon would receive the subsurface rights.

“The original lands selected by Canyon Village in 1976 remain, to this day, of significant cultural and historical relevance,” Doyon says. “They are important to the original founders and to the descendants, who now with this legislation have a hope for the future of their village.”

On the North Slope, the village of Kaktovik sits on an island sandwiched between the 1002 area in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Beaufort Sea. Its land selections would be from the coastal plain of the refuge, which is thought to be petroleum-rich. Arctic Slope Regional Corporation would own the subsurface rights.

In Southeast Alaska, the picture is more complicated.

Five communities—Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Tenakee, and Haines—were left out of full participation in ANCSA in 1971, although their Native populations fit the criteria to create urban corporations. Alaska Natives in these communities were allowed to join the Sealaska regional corporation but could not create village or urban corporations. These “landless” communities are seeking to correct that omission. Young introduced legislation in the US House in 2015, HR 2386, or the Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities Recognition and Compensation Act.

The ANCSA Improvement Act has a similar goal. It would award each community 23,040 acres (one township), says Jaeleen Kookesh, Sealaska vice president and general counsel. Sealaska is based in Juneau and is the regional corporation for the Southeast Alaska region.

“That’s just over 100,000 additional acres that would go into private Native ownership for economic development, cultural purposes, and just to ensure some Native land goes back into Native hands,” she says.

In Southeast land selections are further complicated by extensive federal land holdings in the Tongass National Forest, which includes 17 million of the 22 million acres in the region. Glacier Bay National Park, Mount St. Elias National Park, Misty Fiords National Monument, and Admiralty Island National Monument
are all also located in the region. Sealaska owns about 1.5 percent of the region, Kookesh says. Land selections currently are not allowed within those federal holdings.

“It’s very unfortunate,” she says. “Native people from Southeast should be able to select their allotment from Southeast, but so far some of the conservation interests and the interests that want federal land to stay in federal ownership have been successful in ensuring that no selections come out of the Tongass. But we’ll continue to push on that issue and ensure that our Southeast veterans are treated fairly.”

About 4,000 Alaska Natives lived in the five “landless” communities when ANCSA was passed. They, or their heirs, would directly benefit if the landless legislation is passed, but the effects would be felt throughout the region, Kookesh says.

“Sealaska, as the regional corporation, would own the subsurface under these new corporations, so it would benefit all of our 22,000 shareholders,” Kookesh says.

The “landless” portion of the bill is one of the “oldest issues out there,” Kookesh says, noting that the five Southeast communities have been fighting for inclusion in ANCSA since 1971.

However, conservation groups have been highly critical of the effort to create the five urban corporations in Southeast. Robert Dewey, vice president of government relations and external affairs for the Defenders of Wildlife, called the act a “massive public lands giveaway.”

One provision that is of particular interest to Sealaska is a land exchange on Admiralty Island. Shee Atiká, the village corporation for Sitka, owned land at Cube Cove within the Admiralty Island National Monument, land it sold to the federal government in June 2018.

Since Sealaska owns the subsurface, the sale creates a split estate, Kookesh says.

“The federal government owns the surface estate and we own the subsurface underneath the federal government,” she says. “We and the federal government don’t like those situations. In the past we have had land exchanges or efforts to deal with split estates so that we each own the full fee title of the land.”

There’s an additional benefit to the land exchange: it would allow the Admiralty Island National Monument to consolidate its holdings, which would help efforts to manage the wilderness in the monument.

Another provision that affects Alaska Natives statewide is the Alaska Native Veteran Allotment Equity Act. It would allow veterans who served in Vietnam but missed the original ANCSA deadline to apply for 160-acre Native allotments. A 1998 act sought to clarify which lands were eligible for selection, but its complexity hindered the results. Only 432 Alaska Natives received land, 13 percent of those who served during the war.

Kookesh notes that Sullivan, also a veteran, has been helpful with the veterans’ allotment issue.

Despite their efforts, passage of the bill in its entirety is unlikely before this Congress ends, Kookesh says. The senators strategically wrote the bill so that each individual measure could be considered separately, but as federal land ownership issues in Southeast Alaska are controversial, the bills will likely have to be refiled when the new Congress is in session.

The Alaska Native corporations will be keeping a close watch.