The mining newspaper for Alaska and Canada's North

Critical land access unit gets budget ax

Although the Statehood Act contemplated access to resources, legislation and litigation have burdened our roads to prosperity

The Governor has stripped the state's Public Access Assertion and Defense Unit from the fiscal 2015 budget, potentially jeopardizing several programs critical to resources development in Alaska.

Access to remote locations has long been a critical issue, first due to a lack of infrastructure, then due to the manpower demands of two World Wars in the Twentieth Century.

Ultimately, as metals prices began to build, and funding for exploration became available, vast treasures were discovered from one end of the state to the other.

Over time, while timber languished and hydrocarbon development emerged as the star performer, our mining industry was able to gain traction to the point where Alaska is now a major player in domestic mineral production.

Notwithstanding this treasure trove; however, the combined weight of regulatory burdens and political pressure have slowed the rate at which mine development and the realization of the benefits of our unlimited bounty can be realized. The Statehood Act, in concept, was premised on the notion that the development of Alaska's mineral resources would generate the revenue to subsidize the demands of life in a remote location; however, that left two-thirds of the state under the auspices of land management agencies that had little interest in protecting the economic subfloor of the new state.

These entities held little sway, initially; however, the gnawing awareness that unresolved Native land claims had to be put to rest precipitated enactment of a statutory dedication of 40 million acres of land, frequently selected for its resource potential, to that end. The settlement of Native land claims interrupted the state's land selection process, allowing Native claims to precede.

Unfortunately, streams of commerce both terrestrial and Native selections, sowing the seeds for future conflicts. In 1964, when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Organic Act was passed, among other things, the statute prevented the creation of new access routes from one remote location to another simply by using it, and substituted a far more complex regulatory regimen instead. The repeal of Reserved Statute 2477 did not cause existing trails to be closed; it only precluded new ones from being initiated.

Following the Native selections, Congress determined that national interest lands in Alaska, through a strained interpretation as to what constituted a national interest, needed to be protected. Thus, Congress foreclosed more than 105 million additional acres to mineral exploration and development. These so-called national interest land selections, in many instances abutted one another, and the affected land management agencies, notwithstanding the statutory guidance to the contrary, made it their business to thwart access across these withholdings and to interrupt access to landlocked in-holdings as well.

Finally, the State was able to fulfill its land entitlement, but essentially these scraps were a fraction of what could have been obtained; had the State been able to connect isolated parcels by dropping a blade and pioneering a road.

Although RS 2477 was still on the books for pre-existing access routes, and although, for the most part the riverine highways were still in place, the overlays and the adjacent entities were strident in fending off the use of the transportation network, no matter the justification for use. Instead of a free-flowing vascularity of commerce, there are roadblocks across and contests over virtually every route.

If the State were to assert a water body to be navigable a federal lawsuit had to be adjudicated. If there was a well-used trail between two points, its maintenance and improvement precipitated costly and time-eating litigation. In some instances, Alaskans prevailed; in too many, they fell victim to the priorities of others. If a river divided a National Park Service Unit, armed federal agents were prepared to pounce on the users.

Although this controversy has lingered on for half a century, it was only six years ago that the State determined to address these access issues in an organized and consistent fashion. When the Public Access Assertion and Defense Unit was organized, the State, through this unit, finally had the resources, talent and commitment needed to level an assault on the opposing forces. Alaska had finally actually brought a gun to a gunfight.

Unfortunately, that effort has been blunted by circumstances. No one will argue that the State, in addressing the existing fiscal dilemma, can avoid cutting flesh where there is no more fat to trim; however, it is sad, and a little frightening, that when the State has finally come close to getting its act in place, the curtain drops.

Legislators pondering the budget proposals would be wise to give this excision at least a second look.


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