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Alaska delegation sets sights on getting US lands into local hands

At 40th Avenue and Denali Street in Midtown Anchorage, a weather-worn sign leans against a fence that encloses a 9-acre lot overgrown with grass and weeds, flush with squawking birds that have appropriated the land.

The sign touts plans for a new National Archives and Records Administration building. But that is not to be.

Far from building a major new National Archives facility in Anchorage, the federal agency closed up shop and moved to Seattle a year ago. The prime property, situated between Cuddy Park, a Home Depot and Loussac Library, has gone back to the birds. It has been 12 years since former Sen. Ted Stevens got the federal government to buy it for $3.5 million from local developers Jonathon Rubini and Leonard Hyde.

Now, the plot on 40th Avenue is just one of many parcels that Alaska's congressional delegation hopes to wrest away from the federal government.

Rep. Don Young and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have, between them, introduced 24 bills so far this year that would chip away at the federal government's 222 million-acre hold on the 365 million-acre state of Alaska.

The bills range from broad efforts to give Native corporations greater control of development and energy production on their lands to a slew of single-shot efforts to turn over federal property to localities, Native corporations and private entities.

The bills would require the federal government to turn over the 9 acres of archives property in Anchorage; give 2,500 acres of federal land in Point Spencer, northwest of Nome, to the state and the Bering Straits Native Corp.; transfer 3.25 acres of unused former Coast Guard housing facilities in Tok to the Tanana Chiefs Conference; and give 23 acres to the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. in Bethel.

All of those deals are fairly straightforward, asking the feds to unload unused property.

But they are not without a contentious past. The archives property is one of the more memorable boondoggles in recent history, an unfinished vestige of the time before Washington turned its back on earmarks and "Uncle Ted" could use his considerable Capitol power to craft local deals.

The bills introduced in the House and Senate would allow the city of Anchorage to buy the property back from the federal government at "fair market rate."

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan said the city is ready and able to take on the property, much of which would likely be resold to develop affordable housing. He has lobbied the delegation in Washington, D.C., and says Murkowski, Sullivan and Young are all supportive of the plan.

Sen. Sullivan said that one of his biggest "areas of focus … is how to get more federal lands into state and local and private hands," and the archives project certainly fits into that box.

Projections show that by 2020, Anchorage could be 8,000 housing units short of anticipated demand, and not having enough housing "slows your economic growth," Mayor Sullivan said. And the archives property sits empty on "absolutely prime Midtown property," he said.

The parcel is also under consideration as a location for a Midtown bus center, something the mayor says doesn't stand contrary to housing. "Nine acres is a large parcel," Sullivan noted in an interview.

Congressional order not necessary

The unusual thing about the years-long effort to use Congress to move the property is that it's not entirely necessary. The federal government has the power through the General Services Administration, its property manager, to sell the property at fair market rate to state and local governments for public use.

But everyone involved insists that takes too long.

"If we're lucky," Congress could pass a law directing GSA to sell the property to the city this year, Mayor Sullivan said. That is "still significantly quicker than the GSA process."

But Congress is also slow, particularly at a time when partisan politics make it difficult to attach even noncontroversial amendments to must-move legislation in the Senate -- the most likely way to get the bills passed in the upper chamber.

The federal government, for its part, acknowledges it has a problem with unloading unneeded property. On Tuesday, House and Senate committees held hearings on how to reign in the federal footprint across the U.S.

"Despite previous and current administrations' efforts to reduce excess and underutilized properties, our recent work has demonstrated that significant real property management challenges remain," Dave Wise, director of physical infrastructure issues for the Government Accountability Office, testified Tuesday. "The government continues to hold on to more real property than it needs."

David Mader, controller for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the government hopes to "increase the pace and number of properties disposed through sale, demolition, and public benefit conveyance." Already in fiscal year 2014, the government disposed of 7,300 buildings and 47 million square feet of space, Mader said.

On the House side, Young carried a bill through passage earlier this month that would allowing the sale of the Anchorage property.

Still unclear is what "fair market value" would be -- the $3.5 million the government paid for it, the $1.5 million developers paid to buy it off a group of teachers and flip it to the feds the next year, or perhaps somewhere in between. An outside appraiser would set the value.

Proposed break for Alaska Native veterans

Young recently chaired a hearing on a bill he sponsored that would give Alaska Natives who served in Vietnam another chance at gaining land allotments under a program that has since expired.

Nelson Angapak Sr., former vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, testified in Young's committee that many Natives who served in the U.S. military had been denied their property in the 1970s, often because they were not present to stake their claims.

A revision to the law carried out by Stevens in 1998 gave some of them another shot at it. But of the 1,071 Native Alaskans who applied, only 432 were certified by the Bureau of Land Management. The rest were rejected for a variety of reasons.

The Obama administration doesn't support Young's bill to give veterans more land. It would "require reopening and approval of over 1,000 scattered new inholdings within two national forests," said Mike Black, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Any Alaska Native Vietnam War-era veteran -- or an heir -- could apply for up to 160 acres anywhere outside the trans-Alaska pipeline right-of-way, the National Park System, a national preserve or a national monument, Black said. That means wildlife refuges, national forests, wilderness areas and other federal lands would be on the table.

Young and Murkowski have also introduced legislation to grant land to Natives from five Southeast Alaska villages and towns. Again, the Obama administration is opposed, arguing that it would set a difficult precedent.

As passed in 1971, ANCSA sets out different eligibility for Southeast Alaska Native villages, due to previous cash settlements with the Tlingit and Haida tribes, large non-Native populations in some of the areas, and the existence of the Tongass National Forest and its major logging operations at the time.

Natives in Haines, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Tenakee and Wrangell became shareholders in the Sealaska Corp. in 1972, "but have not enjoyed the social, economic and cultural benefits of owning shares in a village, urban, or group corporation," said Leo Barlow, who testified for the Southeast Alaska Landless Corp. in Congress this week.

Forty years ago, thousands of Natives existed in those communities, but far fewer remain, Barlow said. By the time of the 2000 census, for instance, only 358 Natives remained in Wrangell out of 2,308 people.

In 1971, "the communities involved here all had large lumbering, timbering operations," Young said. "And there was effort put into this Congress at that time not to recognize them because it might have affected the long-term leases of that timber."

Barrow and Young agreed, however, there's not much in the record about why the decision was made to treat the tribes differently in the law.

The new claims would amount to about 115,000 acres of land turned over to Natives, Barlow said.

"How many acres in the Tongass National Forest? It's 17 million," Young said. "So we're talking about itty bitty bits to justify the aboriginal rights to those lands."

Bit by bit

Young has been pushing those bit-by-bit land claim bills for years.

For a decade or more, Young has been pushing a bill to gain recognition for Natives in Alexander Creek, a community just northwest of Anchorage, a move that would grant them nearly 60,000 new acres.

Young has introduced 38 stand-alone bills since the 114th Congress started in January, and 16 of them are aimed at prying control of land and water in Alaska from the hands of the federal government.

If all came to pass, at least 300,000 acres would be handed over to Natives, with a small portion of that going to the state and municipalities.

And the federal government's control over the land that Natives already have would be drastically diminished under new legislation. Federal regulations for energy production would be scaled back on Native land, and the Interior secretary would have to hand over lands the federal government is holding in trust.

Alaska Native corporations would have boosted tax deductions for donating land for conservation. Villages in the Pribilof Islands would be first in line to take new lands back from the Department of Commerce. At sea, Young's bills would limit the president's ability to declare national monuments and add new barriers to creating marine sanctuaries off the coast of Alaska.

His biggest problem is getting legislation through the Senate, Young said.

Murkowski and Sullivan have together or individually introduced bills to transfer lands in Point Spencer, Bethel and Anchorage, and one to recognize the five Southeast Native tribes, as well as bills to force a land exchange that would allow a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and would open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.