50 years on, ANCSA’s legacy looms large in Alaska


I’m tired of bad news: The virus, anti-vaxxers, the Big PFD lobby crowding out serious business in the Legislature, Afghanistan — on and on.

Let’s talk about a really good thing:

December marks the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, an act by Congress that settled longstanding aboriginal claims to Alaska lands, returned 45 million acres to Native ownership, and seeded private Native regional and village corporations with $962 million in a cash settlement.

A lot of Alaskans have forgotten about ANCSA or don’t know about it or its huge role in creating our state’s economy, the Permanent Fund and, yes, the Permanent Fund dividend.

Just look around Anchorage today at all the office towers with the names of their Native corporation owners proudly displayed. More than anything, that shows how important the Native corporations are to our economy.

In my opinion, ANCSA is one of the most successful innovations in U.S. domestic policy in history, and despite major opposition in Alaska, a handful of young Native men and women pulled it off. They would not accept anything less.

What’s important, though, is to see the linkage between the land claims settlement and other congressional actions that laid the foundation of our state.

The Alaska Statehood Act created the state of Alaska and endowed it with rights to select 105 million acres and use those lands for resource development. Alaska wisely selected potential oil lands on the North Slope as well as other lands.

But that was a wake-up call for Alaska Natives, who realized that if they didn’t assert their rights over historic lands they still used, those would be lost as others took the lands.

The story of the land claims movement, which began in earnest in the 1960s, is an interesting tale. Others will tell it as the December anniversary approaches, but an remarkable part of this is how North Slope oil made the settlement possible, at least when and how it happened, and how ANCSA in turn helped tip the scale in Congressional approval of construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in 1973.

The back story on this: Native land claims had clouded title on lands needed to build the pipeline. This brought the oil industry into lobbying Congress, side by side with Alaska Native groups for passage of ANCSA, to get clear land title.

A lot of Alaskans opposed the settlement and there was, frankly, a racial element to this. But Alaskans also badly needed the pipeline.

Historian Jack Roderick, deceased, recalled how Ed Patton, the plain-speaking first president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., bluntly told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce: “No claims settlement, no pipeline.” (Roderick was there.) The message got across.

ANCSA was finally passed and signed by President Richard Nixon, who strongly supported it, in December 1971.

The Native groups in turn helped the oil industry get the pipeline authorization in 1973, and it wasn’t just returning a favor. Congress had structured the claims legislation so that oil production paid for more than half of the $962 million cash settlement. This was in a temporary extra federal royalty on the oil, terminating after $500 million was paid.

The Native-industry alliance was a marriage of convenience, of course, but a lot of interesting things were to come of it. As oil companies and Native groups got to know each other they started doing business, and the newly formed Native corporations created companies to provide various support services for the industry.

NANA Regional Corp. of Kotzebue; Doyon Ltd. of Fairbanks and Ahtna Inc. in the Copper River region led the way with camp services, catering and security and, in Ahtna’s case, pipeline maintenance. Almost 50 years later, many of these support contracts are still in place.

Most interesting to me is that Doyon formed a drilling company, Doyon Drilling, that is now one of the top two major drillers in Alaska. Doyon is also deeply engaged in innovative and highly sophisticated new drilling technology.

The company’s Doyon 26 rig, for example, is now at work on the North Slope drilling “horizontal,” or lateral, producing wells that reach out to underground oil deposits 7 miles from the surface location of the drill rig. Doyon has several other rigs at work, too. What’s also notable is that over the years, many of Doyon’s shareholders have worked their way up through the ranks to be drilling managers.

Many other Native corporations are in oil support work today, but many also pursued other opportunities in hotels, real estate, transportation and communications.

Most also own businesses doing work out of state, which bring profits back to Alaska that Native corporations often use to invest in their Alaska businesses and in resource development.

NANA, for example, owns the Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska, the world’s largest zinc mine. Calista Corp., the regional corporation for the Yukon-Kuskokwim area of Southwest Alaska, along with TKC Corp., a consortium of local village corporations, own lands at Donlin Creek, near the Kuskokwim River, where mining companies plan what could be one of the world’s largest gold mines.

Calista and TKC already have shareholders at work on this, as NANA does at Red Dog and other mining projects in its region.

Besides its drilling work, Doyon is exploring for oil and gas in Interior Alaska and has invested heavily in the effort, although so far unsuccessful.

To bring this full circle, though, we’ve connected the dots to show the linkage of the Alaska Statehood Act in 1959; the passage of ANCSA In 1971 and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act of 1973.

There’s one more: The Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act of 1980, or ANILCA, established millions of acres of new national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests and wild and scenic rivers, which included huge areas given formal wilderness designations.

ANILCA grew directly from ANCSA. In the Native claims act, Congress required the study of federal lands left after the Native selections for designation as federal conservation lands. Nine years later, that became ANILCA.

The Native claims settlement proved to be a powerful spur to Alaska’s economic development. But it was just as influential in the permanent protection of tens of millions of acres of Alaska.

Tim Bradner is publisher of the Alaska Economic Report and covered the Alaska Native land claims movement as a reporter in the 1960s.

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