The University of Alaska is set to gain hundreds of thousands of acres of land because of a provision in the recently passed, $1.7 trillion federal spending package.
The institution, which is a land grant university, has only received a fraction of the land Congress had intended for it. The university has about 30%, or 150,700 acres of the land it’s owed. Delaware is the only state with a smaller land grant.
The clause in the new spending package creates an avenue for the university to gain around 360,000 acres of land.
“This is a monumental day for the university,” UA president Pat Pitney said in a statement last week. “We’ve been working diligently for years to resolve our land grant deficit, and today is the day that hard work has paid off.”
The University of Alaska is in a “land deficit,” according to spokeswoman Monique Musick.
“As with many land issues in Alaska, original congressional intent has been eroded by a complex history of federal laws and adverse court rulings,” she said in an email. “In this instance, the State of Alaska is prevented by provisions in the Alaska Constitution from being able to directly convey additional lands to UA from its own entitlement as Congress had initially intended.”
Over the last two decades, the Legislature has tried to remedy the land shortfall, but a state Supreme Court decision in 2009 kept that from happening.
“Since then, UA has been striving to get the state and federal governments to take collaborative action to fulfill UA’s unkept land grant promise in a way that will withstand judicial scrutiny,” Musick said.
The new solution, a clause in the omnibus bill called the UA Fiscal Foundation Act, provides a way within the federal Bureau of Land Management to find and transfer land chosen by the state to the university system. The state and university in conjunction now have four years to pick a half-million acres of federal land. Up to 360,000 acres of that land will be transferred to the university, Musick said.
The act was initially drafted as standalone legislation by Sen. Lisa Murkowki, who said in a statement that she worked to add the provision to the omnibus bill. Murkowski, along with fellow Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan and the late Rep. Don Young, worked with the state and university to develop the plan.
“By providing a new way to expand the University’s land grant, we are ensuring it can generate additional revenues that support its students, faculty, and campus infrastructure,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola voted for the spending bill while Sullivan voted against it, saying while he supported a number of the bill’s provisions, he was concerned by its size and the lack of time lawmakers had to review it.
A 2019 white paper from the university about its land deficit said the institution “has been crippled, historically and presently, by the paucity of lands from which it can generate its own revenues.”
Land can increase university revenue, and the University of Alaska system has used its existing land for real estate, mining, timber and gravel sales. It earns between $7 million and $8 million each year from that acreage. Money from some of the the university’s existing land goes toward scholarships, and other teaching and research, Musick said.
It’s too early to say how the new land will be used, and there’s a long way to go before identifying and transferring it to the university, she said.
“We are encouraged that being a land grant university without the land is finally coming to an end,” Musick wrote.