Curious Alaska is an ongoing feature powered by your questions. What do you want to know or want us to investigate about life in Alaska, stories behind the news or why things are the way they are? Let us know in the form at the bottom of the story.
Question: Why are there no billboards in Alaska?
Very short answer: It’s too beautiful.
Imagine: You’re driving down the Seward Highway, gazing out on velvety green mountains dappled with snow. Is that a moose among the lupines? No, it’s a billboard that shouts “INJURED? CALL A LAWYER WHO WILL FIGHT FOR YOU!”
Since before statehood, Alaskans have soundly rejected the billboards that dot American roadsides elsewhere. Washington, our neighbor to the south, has 2,237 of them.
As one of only four states to completely ban billboards, Alaska has zero. (Hawaii, Vermont and Maine -- all states that rely on tourism -- are the others.)
Alaska’s territorial legislature banned all advertising along Alaska’s highways as far back in 1949, and later authorized the highway patrol to remove illegally raised billboards. The law was solidified in 1998, when voters overwhelmingly passed an initiative that permanently banned billboards from the state’s roadsides, with 73.5% voting in favor.
The language on the books today couldn’t be clearer: “The people of the State of Alaska,” the law says, “find that the presence of billboards visible from Alaska’s highways endanger Alaska’s uniqueness and its scenic beauty.”
Followed by: “Alaska shall forever remain free of billboards.”
That’s about the most forcefully written law banning billboards in the U.S., said Mark Falzone, the president of Scenic America, a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated “protecting and enhancing America’s visual character.” The group advocates for restrictions against billboards, which it considers “visual blight.” (Other words Scenic America uses to describe billboards: “Visual pollution. Sky Trash. Litter on a stick. The junk mail of the American highway.”)
Billboards are an $8.5 billion industry that pours millions into lobbying against restrictions, according to Scenic America. In many states, the number of displays is rising — especially new digital screen billboards. Florida, Texas, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania have the most billboards.
Billboards are one of those rare issues that cuts across partisan lines, Falzone said.
“Whatever their background or party — people want to live in scenic beauty,” he said.
Alaska may be forever free of billboards — at least the big, commercial kind that dot two-lane highways and churning interstates throughout much of the Lower 48 — but the broader category of outdoor advertising is much more complex.
Signs are banned in what’s known as the “right of way,” the land immediately around a roadway, said Heather O’Claray, the statewide chief of right-of-way for the Alaska Department of Transportation.
But even when a sign is outside the right-of-way, even on private property, it’s illegal if it “advertises for a business of some activity located somewhere else.”
That could include real estate signs, notices about beef jerky for sale in a parking lot 2 miles down the road or just about anything else. The rule is also why it’s legal for Fred Meyer to place a huge sign looming over the highway on the store’s own property but not to advertise an entity or activity miles away. The rule also goes for political signs, by far the source of the most citizen complaints, O’Claray said.
There is another exception: Small, uniform road signs produced by the DOT and jauntily known as “TODS” -- tourist oriented directional signs -- are allowed. They can be used to advise of the imminent availability of gas stations, restaurants, fishing opportunities, even gold panning or reindeer, in a visually uniform way.
Alaska is a frontier state where people don’t much like to be told what to do, and O’Claray says the state doesn’t relish the idea of taking down people’s signs. But the federal funding Alaska gets for road projects is tied to enforcing rules to keep the right-of-way clear. A small (less than a dozen people statewide) group of DOT workers respond to complaints and remove illegal signs, said O’Claray.
“I describe it as the fine print on the check we cashed from the federal government,” O’Claray said. “You take this money, you agree to do all these things.”
“Alaska being such an infrastructurally young state -- that hasn’t built as much -- we’re really dependent on those funds,” she said. “We don’t wanna make them mad.”
In 2018, the ACLU sued the state on behalf of a Palmer man who said the state was selectively enforcing the law by targeting political advertisements for removal. The ACLU won, and the settlement established “a permanent injunction protecting the rights of all Alaskans to exercise their free speech rights during the election season with temporary political signs outside of state rights-of-way and prohibits the Alaska Department of Transportation from targeting political signs for special enforcement inside of the rights-of-way,” according to the ACLU.
Meanwhile, the commercial billboard industry hasn’t pushed hard to get into Alaska’s market or lobby for a law change, O’Claray says. Alaska’s population density isn’t worth trying to get billboards legalized here. And voters have resoundingly banned billboards.
Falzone, the anti-billboard crusader, said he once met then Gov. Bill Walker at a conference.
“He said to me, ‘Mark, even if for some reason billboards became legal in Alaska, you never have to worry about billboards here, because everyone in Alaska owns a chainsaw.”