Land going to Alaska Natives

FAIRBANKS -- Fifty years after statehood and more than 37 years after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed, the federal government, state and Native corporations are still negotiating millions of acres of land transfers.
The Bureau of Land Management filed public notice Friday to convey more than 554,000 acres to a handful of village and regional Native corporations. That figure includes 233,000 acres near Minto, McGrath and Tanacross to Fairbanks-based Doyon Ltd.
Jim Mery, Doyon's vice president for lands, said the conveyance process has proved far more complicated and expensive than most people thought 30-plus years ago.
"Most of us thought most of these lands would be conveyed years ago," he said. "People didn't realize just what it would take for the BLM to do the job. ... There just hasn't been enough funding."
The Bureau of Land Management's Alaska office was charged with administering the transfer of more than 150 million acres, or 42 percent of the state's land area, from federal to state and private ownership under the Native Allotment Act of 1906, the Alaska Statehood Act 50 years ago, and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Bob Lloyd, acting deputy state director for conveyance management, said the project is massive. About 65 employees are assigned to the state's team, with other BLM staffers at field offices pitching in as needed through legal work, surveying and more.
Mery attributed a rush of recent conveyances to legislation sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, which passed Congress in 2004.
"The latest crush you're seeing right now is really a direct result of the Alaska Land Conveyance Acceleration Act," he said.
Murkowski introduced the bill to ensure that federal conveyances, both to the state and to Native corporations, would be complete by the 50th anniversary of statehood, said Robert Dillon, Republican communications director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on which Murkowski holds a leadership position.
While the BLM isn't likely to meet that goal, Murkowski's bill drove movement. The state has received about 94 percent of entitled lands, and Native corporations have taken receipt of about 90 percent of land due them under the settlement act.
"While there's been progress in accelerating the pace of conveyance since 2004, there's still a ways to go to fulfill the promises the federal government made to Alaska at statehood," Dillon said. "We're further disappointed that there's been a slowdown in conveyances in the past two years."
Murkowski recently requested another $5 million in the BLM's budget to finish the process, he said.
The state has received 98 million of 105 million acres due from the federal government. Of those, seven million acres were transferred in the past four years.
The state isn't expecting to collect on its full share in the near future, according to Dick Mylius, director of the state Department of Natural Resource's Division of Mining, Land and Water. Instead, Alaska will hold back a few million acres' entitlement in case prime parcels become available in the future. In particular, the state has its eye on the federal pipeline utility corridor paralleling the Dalton Highway and several military installations.
Congress passed the Native claims act in 1971, granting 43.7 million acres of land to Alaska Natives. In addition, the act provided $962.5 million in compensation.
The legislation drove creation of regional and village corporations, such as Doyon, to manage the land entitlements and funds. With a land entitlement of 12.5 million acres, Doyon is the largest private landholder in North America, according to the corporation's Web site.

By:  Rena Delbridge
Source: LAW SPED UP PROCESS: Agency would convey more than 554,000 acres.