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Owning land means working it: Native corporations today live up to Don Wright's vision

  • Author:
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published November 11, 2015

Alaska author Lael Morgan has a wonderful story about Don Wright, the 1960s-era Alaska Native leader who led the Alaska Federation of Natives through some of the darkest, most discouraging days of the Native claims movement.

Wright had been invited to debate land claims before the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce, not exactly a welcoming crowd in those days. He showed up in his usual Alaskan attire to face off against his opponent, some guy in a suit (Morgan doesn't remember who).

Things did not go well. Local business leaders did not understand why Alaska Natives should be given title to millions of acres of land (the fact that it was all originally Native-owned land escaped them).

The suit argued eloquently. Wright, a construction guy, responded in his typical blunt style.

Then Wright turned the tables abruptly. Had it occurred to the chamber, he asked, that Native land ownership would put big parts of Alaska into private ownership, removing those lands from the clutches of the government?

The lights went on, Morgan remembers. "It was immediate," she said. Private ownership meant private landowners developing their lands.

The suit had no arguments. On that day the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce became the first Alaskan business organization to endorse Native land claims.

It's interesting today to see how Wright's vision has played out, 43 years later. I was reminded of this last week at the Alaska Miners Association annual convention.

Oil and minerals prices are in the pits, and almost no one is exploring in Alaska -- except Native corporations. These landowners, who are also major business enterprises, are spending their own money to do mineral and petroleum prospecting, and even drilling.

What's really interesting, however, is that some of the corporations' more ambitious efforts are on state, not Native, lands. Some examples: Doyon Ltd., based in Fairbanks, is planning its third exploration well in state lands in the Nenana Basin west of Fairbanks, hoping to show that oil and gas can be found in the huge, unexplored Interior basins.

In two earlier wells Doyon did not find commercial deposits, but they found encouraging indications that petroleum is there. Doyon originally had partners in its venture, but they proved fainthearted and pulled out after the first well.

Doyon has pressed on.

Another example: Ahtna Inc., the regional corporation for the Copper River Basin, is drilling for gas west of Glennallen, again on state lands. Ahtna does have a partner, an experienced Midland, Texas, independent company, but Ahtna is leading the project. Like Doyon, Ahtna drilled two previous wells. One found gas, but technical problems prevented its development.

Yes, this is not a business for those who lack nerve.

On the minerals side, NANA Regional Corp. is engaged in its own exploration of what could be a significant gold discovery on the northern Seward Peninsula, again on state lands.

NANA has a long history in minerals, of course. The corporation moved quickly in the 1970s to select lands on a mineral deposit in the De Long Mountains north of Kotzebue. Today this is the Red Dog Mine, one of the world's largest zinc mines. Had NANA not acted that mineral prospect would be in a national park today.

NANA is also working in a partnership with NovaCopper, a "junior" mineral exploration firm, to explore rich copper deposits on the upper Kobuk River region. These are partly on NANA's lands and partly on state lands.

One final example: It was early minerals exploration sponsored by Calista Corp., the regional corporation for the Yukon-Kuskokwim River, that led to the discovery of the Donlin Creek gold prospect, now confirmed to be one of the world's largest undeveloped gold deposits. Barrick Gold and NOVAGOLD Resources, two mining companies, are now working to develop a mine that could cost $6.7 billion. Calista is still the subsurface resource owner, and TKC Corp., a consortium of local village corporations, owns surface lands at the potential mine. This means the economic benefits of the mine will be spread widely across the region, now one of Alaska's most economically depressed areas.

I must also mention Arctic Slope Regional Corp. of Barrow, however. This is the region that basically kicked off the land claims movement, at least in its modern form, in 1966 after the state selected large swaths of North Slope lands and leased them to oil and gas companies. Many Arctic Slope people feel Prudhoe Bay was on their original lands, and should have been theirs.

Still, ASRC is in the oil business today. Besides being a major contractor it is a part owner of the producing Alpine and the new CD-5 fields, and possibly soon GMT-1, a project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. ASRC has also leased state lands on its own and plans its own exploration.

Don Wright's vision of private Native corporations as economic development engines has become a reality, but credit those early Fairbanks business leaders with quickly grasping that.

It took Anchorage's business leaders a little longer, and a messenger who was much more blunt than Don Wright. He was Ed Patton, the first president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.

Anchorage's leaders, led by Bob Atwood, the conservative publisher of the Anchorage Times, were opposing land claims. Historian Jack Roderick tells how Patton showed up at an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce meeting with a stern warning: No land claims, no pipeline.

That quickly turned Atwood and other local leaders around, Roderick recalls (he was at the meeting). The claims movement had clouded title to lands needed by Alyeska to build the pipeline. Patton and other oil executives were working with Native leaders to get the claims act through Congress, which they did.

It took a couple of years to get the pipeline actually approved after the land issue was settled and that was through a daring initiative by one of Alaska's U.S. Senators at the time, Mike Gravel. It passed the Senate by one vote.

A story for another time, however.

Tim Bradner is a natural resources writer for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He writes a regular column for Alaska Dispatch News.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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