The Land

Land Status

The most dramatic change in land ownership and land status in the nation's history is taking place now in Alaska. Not only are lands changing from federal to state ownership as a consequence of the Alaska Statehood Act and into Native ownership pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), but the lands remaining in federal ownership are undergoing change from public domain holdings to reserves for particular purposes, such as national parks and national wildlife refuges.

A review of the series of changes which have occurred on the state level will provide a framework for regional land status. To aid the understanding of terminology used in this section, definitions of land classification categories are given in Figure 210.


The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. The new possession was physically remote from the contiguous United States and was inhabited almost exclusively by Natives. Although the Native population consisted of Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts, they were categorized as Indians for federal government purposes. Since the Indian country in the United States was administered by the Army, responsibility for governing Alaska was assigned to the Department of the Army.

Military control continued until 1884 when Congress passed the Organic Act for Alaska, giving it a semblance of civilian government by applying the General Laws of the State of Oregon "so far as they may be applicable" to Alaska. The 1884 act also extended the U.S. mining laws to Alaska, making mining claims legal—Alaska's first land law—and designated Alaska as a land district with an office at Sitka.

In 1898 provision was made for railroad rights-of-way in Alaska. Homestead laws were extended to Alaska in the same year, and the public land survey system followed in 1899. The Civil Code for Alaska, adopted in 1900, added many more facets of government, notably local government and taxes on property. Territorial government was initiated with passage of a second Organic Act in 1912.

In 1923 President Warren G. Harding established by executive order the Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 following reports of potential petroleum occurrence in the Arctic.

Construction of the Alaska-Canada (Alcan) Highway during World War II for support of defense installations made Alaska accessible by land from the contiguous United States. This road and the development of commercial air transport furnished the links to major population centers that permitted Alaska to achieve the economic and population levels necessary for statehood.

Early interest in Alaska's land centered on mining, but as more visitors came to the territory and more of its land was explored, opportunities broadened. Conservation sentiments began to develop in the nation around the turn of the century, and the Federal Government began to withdraw and earmark some public domain lands for permanent national ownership, which had a major impact on Alaska. Tongass National Forest, established between 1902 and 1909 and still the nation's largest, was the first such area in Alaska. The Tongass and Chugach National Forests encompass 21 million acres of land along the coasts of southeastern and southcentral Alaska. Later, Mt. McKinley National Park and two national monuments, Glacier Bay and Katmai, were created to protect areas of unusual natural beauty and preserve them for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

Unique scenery is only one quality of Alaska. Many species of fish, birds, and other wildlife inhabit the area and produce and raise their young in particular environments not duplicated elsewhere in the United States. The Federal Government set aside additional lands for this purpose when it recognized the importance of perpetuating significant wildlife populations and their habitats. About 19 million acres are reserved for wildlife preservation on Kodiak Island, the Aleutian Islands, the Kuskokwim and Yukon deltas, the Kenai Moose Range, and the Arctic National Wildlife Range in the far northeast corner of the state. Large areas were also set aside by the Federal Government for military purposes, petroleum reserves, and other public uses. Figure 208 lists major withdrawals of more than one million acres.


The Alaska Statehood Act departed from the traditional methods of providing lands to new states. Congress gave Alaska the right to select 400,000 acres of national forest lands for community purposes, 400,000 acres of public domain for community purposes, and 102,550,000 acres of public domain for general purposes within 25 years of statehood. Alaska also became eligible to select within 10 years one million acres under the Mental Health Act of 1956. While still a territory, Alaska had been granted selection of 100,000 acres of land for a university. Therefore, a total of 104,450,000 acres was made available to the State for support of its government and the services it provides to its people. In addition to these land selections, the Submerged Lands Act of 1953 entitled Alaska to tidelands out to the territorial sea and land under the state's navigable lakes and streams.

After gaining statehood in 1959, Alaska proceeded to select its share of the public lands. The 25-year period for completing land selections allows the State an opportunity to inventory and plan for choices that will yield maximum benefit to the citizens of the state. By 1969 less than 10 million acres had been transferred to the State, although considerably more land had been selected, and some of it had been tentatively approved for transfer.

During the first decade of statehood, Alaskan Natives—the Aleuts, Indians, and Eskimos—claimed title to lands they had historically used, and their claims received official attention. Federal district offices in Alaska referred protests to Washington and issuing of land patents almost ceased. For several years application after application was challenged by Natives, and in 1969 the Department of Interior withdrew all public lands from state selection, homesteading, or other potential ownership changes.


Back to Index

[Alaskool Home]