ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN THE LAND
One of a Series of Articles on
THE NATIVE LAND CLAIMS
Alaska Legislative Aide
to the Late Congressman, Nick Begich
COMPILED & PRODUCED
ALASKA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
CENTER FOR NORTHERN EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH
UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA - FAIRBANKS
Dr. Marshall L. Lind
Commissioner of Education
Director, Center for Northern Educational Research
ARTWORK: CANDACE OWERS
TO THE READER
This booklet is one of a collection of articles written by people
who are interested in Native land claims. As you will see, all of the
people do not agree. They present their ideas for you to read and
discuss. You may be excited about some of their ideas because you
think they are absolutely right, or very wrong. When you have
finished reading the articles, you will probably have done a lot of
thinking about Native land claims and Alaskan politics.
Politics is not an easy field to understand. And yet politics is
what the Native land claims are all about. Most of the articles were
written by people who have spent a lot of time working in the world
of politics. These people have a whole vocabulary which most students
have not yet learned. So, to help students understand the reading,
there is at the beginning of each article a list of definitions of
terms. Any words in italics are explained for you at the
beginning of that article, or an earlier one.
At the end of some articles are questions which you can ask
yourself. In the margin, next to the question are numbers. If you go
back to paragraphs in the article with the same numbers, and reread,
you can increase your understanding. We cannot say you will always
have definite answers but you may form your point of view.
ARTICLES AND AUTHORS
ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN THE LAND CLAIMS
There were times, around Alaska Statehood in 1959 and during the
1960's, when the Alaska Native Land Claims were an unexciting and
unpopular cause, pursued by only a handful of Native leaders. Those
times ended during 1968, when one of the largest oil fields in the
world was discovered on the North Slope of Alaska. From that time on,
interest in Alaska's land was great, and the Native Land Claims were
discovered along with the oil.
The pressure on Alaska's land was intense. The oil companies
wanted to develop the oil lands as soon as possible, and to gain new
lands for oil exploration. In addition, a proposal was advanced to
build a pipeline across Alaska to transport the oil to outside
The State of Alaska was eager to encourage the development of
North Slope oil reserves. A giant lease sale of oil lands was held
which brought nearly one billion dollars to the State. This amount
was to combine with tax revenues from the oil, and with the general
prosperity of an economic boom, to make Alaska financially secure.
The State wanted more land to lease, as well as for other purposes,
and was eager to get on with its selection of land under the
Statehood Act. The State had gained the right, with Statehood, to
select 103 million acres out of the 365 million total acres in the
State. In 1971 only about 15 million acres had actually been
In addition to these pressures, the private citizens and
businesses of the State wanted land for oil and mining exploration,
for homesteads, for recreation, and a number of other uses for which
land can be gained from the Federal and State governments.
In spite of this pressure, there were two things standing directly
between these many interests and the land they wanted so badly. The
first was the simple fact that of all the land in Alaska, ninety-six
percent was in the firm ownership and control of the Federal
government. The second factor was that a "land-freeze" covered all of
this Federal land. What the "freeze" did was to prevent the transfer
of any of this land to the people who wanted it. There was every sign
that the freeze would remain in effect until the Native Land Claims
were resolved. So the real thing standing between the land and those
who wanted it was the settlement of the Native Land Claims
The land freeze was originally imposed in 1966 by Secretary of
Interior, Stewart Udall, who planned to create pressure for a
settlement. Without such pressure, it was feared that the land of
Alaska would be gradually drained away, leaving the Natives with a
claim but no land to select even if they won their cause. Under the
freeze, no one - not even the State - could get land.
Although most non-Native Alaskans hated the freeze from the
beginning the pressure because of it was never as great as when the
oil discoveries reminded everyone, including the Natives, how
valuable even the tundra of the North Slope could be. Also, Alaskans
hoped that, somehow, the freeze would be lifted, either by lawsuit or
by a new and friendlier Secretary of the Interior. A lawsuit failed,
but when Alaska Governor Walter Hickel was appointed by Richard Nixon
as Secretary of Interior in 1968, there was new hope.
Hickel wanted to lift the freeze, and had even brought the
unsuccessful lawsuit to do so while he was Governor. But it quickly
became clear that the United States Senate would not confirm him in
the new office unless he promised to leave the freeze in effect.
Under pressure, some of it from Alaska Native leaders who knew the
value of the freeze, Hickel made the promise, and the freeze was
preserved. For the State, the oil industry, the Alaskans who wanted
land, and the Natives, this was a clear signal that the only real
alternative was to work for a settlement of the land claims.
More importantly, some people began to realize that the settlement
of the land claims had become much more than a simple real estate and
money transaction with the Alaska Natives, it had become the focus of
a major decision for the future of the entire State: how the lands of
Alaska would be used. It would be a major decision because of all the
interests backed up behind the settlement. On the day that the
settlement became law, each of these interests would become free to
exert their own demands on the land of Alaska, and if the
settlement act exercised no control on this process much of the
valuable land in Alaska would be quickly committed to diverse and
Even though recognition of the importance of the settlement began
to grow, the specific issues regarding the environment of Alaska were
not discussed much. Many people did not even recognize these issues,
some recognized them but did not want to talk about them. Only a few
people felt that the future of Alaska's environment was actually the
key issue in the entire settlement. In the end, it was these few who
were probably correct, as the face of the State was transformed by
the results of the settlement.
The most important environmental issues related to passage of the
Alaska Native land claims act were fairly simple. The issues included
the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the need for statewide land use planning
as a part of the settlement, and the need for the settlement to set
aside land for parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas, in
addition to the land set aside for the Natives.
Also, there was the broader issue of how the land distribution in
the settlement would affect people's overall lives. The choices made
would affect living patterns of all Alaskans through changes in
community structures, and shifts of population between urban and
rural areas. For the inter- action between man and nature, every
choice was crucial.
Overall, the most important issue was whether the settlement would
take advantage of the unique combination of pressures and
circumstances to make comprehensive decisions for all of Alaska's
land. If not, it would be narrowly limited to the Native Claims only,
leaving all the important environmental questions until later. Later,
many feared would be too late.
It would be too late because the day after the settlement became
law, the unity which led to the settlement would be gone, and the
pressure on the land would be from hundreds of diverse sources. Then,
it would be difficult to take the sort of comprehensive statewide
action which was possible only at the time of the settlement.
Everything which has been described up to this point was part of
the setting that existed in 1971 when the 92nd Congress prepared to
take up the Alaska Native Land Claims. Although most of the hearings
and attention focused on the Native demands in the settlement, and on
the provisions of other possible bills, the environmental issues were
also raised. The issues of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, land-use
planning, and the need for parks and wilderness were all put forward
by national environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club,
Friends of the Earth and others. Mostly, these issues were ignored,
but when they were not, they were met with the objection that, it
included, they would slow down the settlement bill, and make it
harder to pass.
The Alaska Natives joined in some of the disapproval of these
environmental issues at this early stage, perhaps because of the
threat of delay, but for other reasons as well. The issue of the
Trans-Alaska Pipeline is a good example. This proposal to build an
800 mile pipeline across Alaska had always been controversial. Many
believed that the opponents of the pipeline would try to include a
provision in the land claims settlement stopping the pipeline. Some
Native villages which were near the pipeline route did not want the
pipeline. It might ordinarily be expected that most Natives would
oppose the pipeline because of its possible threat to hunting and
fishing areas. However, the basic Native position either favored the
pipeline, or said little about it.
One of the main reasons for this position was a specific provision
in nearly every proposed version of the land claims bill, including
the Native version and the Administration version. This provision
added a special compensation plan to the settlement in addition to
whatever money the Natives would receive directly from the Federal
Treasury. This additional compensation would occur only when the
North Slope oil was produced, and when the State of Alaska placed a
tax, or "royalty" on the oil. When that occurred, the Natives would
receive a share of every dollar that State took through its royalty.
This Native share, which was set at two cents on every dollar, is
called an "overriding royalty" and had some very important side
The first was that it represented a State contribution to the
settlement, something that was lacking in previous years. The more
important effect was that it placed the Natives in an informal but
strong partnership with the State of Alaska and the oil industry, all
receiving cash when oil production began, and sharing a common
interest in early development.
It is difficult to determine where this "overriding royalty"
provision came from but it is certain that it was crucial as a
pressure in the final settlement Along with the matter of the land
freeze, it was one of the pressures which produced the coalition of
the Natives, the State, the Nixon Administration, and the oil
industry which was so important for the final success of the
Such things were disappointing and frustrating for the
environmental supporters. They had expected to have the Natives as
their partners in support of the idea that the land of Alaska must be
preserved as much as possible in its natural state, so as to best
protect the traditional hunting and fishing practices on which the
land claims were based.
Actually, some disagreement among Natives did exist on these
questions. Some rural villages and individuals felt that protection
of the land was a higher priority than extra money or speed of
settlement. The final Native position on environmental issues was
basically neutral perhaps because of differences of opinion among
Natives. However, Native neutrality had to be regarded as a setback
for the environmental cause.
Another disappointment for environmentalists was the general lack
of support for their position within the State of Alaska. Most
Alaskans favored the pipeline, and were more interested in an early
settlement than in provisions for land-planning and parks, which
might cause delay. Vocal, but small, Alaskan environmental
organizations were unable to influence the prevailing public opinion
in Alaska. It became clear that the national environmental
organizations would have to lead the fight for protecting the Alaskan
This was a good year for these organizations to lead such a fight,
as they seemed stronger than ever before. Earlier in 1971, they had
defeated in Congress, the funding for the giant supersonic transport
planes (S.S.T. s), a feat that many felt to be the most important
environmental victory in recent years. These organizations, and
concerned people across the country, regarded Alaska in a very
special way, as a place still free of the environmental problems of
other states, with a magnificent natural environment, and still
having the potential to avoid all the mistakes that had been made
As the land claims hearings drew to a close in the House and
Senate, and the formal work on the actual bill began, it became clear
that the environmental issues could not be avoided. The House and the
Senate handled these issues very differently, however.
In the Senate, a bill which provided for joint federal-state
land-use planning in Alaska had been introduced earlier by Senator
Mike Gravel. This bill consisted of both sound public policy and
diplomatic avoidance of the toughest issues. For example, the bill
provided for a well-structured joint federal-state land-use planning
commission for Alaska - one which could serve as a model for others
in the future. At the same time, the commission had only advisory
power. The entire plan made certain that the land freeze would end
and the pipeline be faced with no additional burdens. In effect,
whatever planning was accomplished had no guarantee of being carried
With some changes, and after some difficulties, this bill was
later incorporated into the Senate version of the land claims bill.
Its inclusion is one of the main reasons that environmental issues
never became a major controversy in the Senate.
The argument was in the House, where there was much less agreement
on the wisdom of including special environmental provisions in the
bill. Alaska Congressman Nick Begich shared the Senate view that some
provision was essential, both for public policy considerations, and
to avoid a later fight which might threaten the bill. Begich prepared
an amendment based largely on the moderate Senate provision, and
attempted to include it as the House bill was being prepared in the
Indian Affairs Subcommittee. The amendment was rejected so firmly
that stronger environmental amendments were not even attempted.
In the House, a moderate amendment was not acceptable to either
side of the environmental issue. Chairman Wayne Aspinall of the
Interior Committee and other committee leaders all felt that the
amendment was too demanding and irrelevant to the land claims bill
altogether. They claimed that all land-use issues were separate from
the land claims and should be treated in another bill which applied
to the whole country, not just Alaska.
At the same time, environmental organizations and the Members of
Congress who shared their views believed the proposed amendment was
far too weak, and were prepared to fight to get a better one. Their
position was that there should be a comprehensive land planning
process for Alaska which should be binding rather than advisory. They
also argued that, as the owner of nearly all Alaska's land, the
federal government should dominate the planning process, and that all
of this planning should take place before the Settlement Act was
fully carried out.
This position met strong opposition. Alaska Natives saw such a
plan as a threat to their hard-won rights to the land; the State saw
it as taking away Alaska's rights; the oil industry and Alaskan
businessmen saw it as a threat to the pipeline and the economic
future of Alaska. Nearly everyone, including the Nixon
Administration, saw it as causing delays in passage of the bill.
The rejection of all environmental provisions in the Indian
Affairs Subcommittee was partly the work of Wayne Aspinall. He forced
an agreement where many different interest groups agreed to support
all aspects of the settlement bill as it emerged from the
subcommittee. If they refused to agree, he threatened to delay
everything. It was later called an oath "signed in blood" by those
seeking to add an environmental amendment on the floor of the House.
It was really a strong informal agreement between those most involved
in the settlement struggle. By agreeing, all differences were
compromised in the Indian Affairs Subcommittee bill, and basically
unified support was insured throughout the process. Such agreements,
forced by threats of delay, are not commendable, but they are not
unusual in a legislative body. This particular agreement led to the
final, and prompt passage of the land claims bill in the 92nd
Congress, yet it almost completely stopped consideration, in the
House, of many questions of real importance, including the crucial
ones concerning the environment.
Even in the face of these handicaps, several Members of the House
had begun early to develop environmental amendments to the settlement
bill. One of these amendments, prepared by Congressmen John Saylor of
Pennsylvania and Morris Udall of Arizona became the battleground for
the entire environmental issue in the House.
The Saylor-Udall amendment was long and complicated, but it
contained several basic provisions. First, it withdrew all Federal
land in Alaska and authorized the Secretary of Interior to dispose or
open the land on a piecemeal basis as he saw fit. This provision was
instantly recognized as no more than a new type of "freeze". It still
placed the State, and all other interests, under the control of the
Department of Interior, which had been disliked and resisted in
Alaska since Statehood.
Second, the amendment created a planning commission to recommend
selection areas to the Natives, the State, and the Federal agencies,
and having the power to zone for the use of Alaska's land. The
selection recommendations were not binding but the zoning was. Since
the commission would have a majority of Federal members, this zoning
provision was immediately regarded as a major threat to Alaska.
Finally, the amendment provided for approximately 135 million acres
of "national interest study areas". Eight-five million acres were
specifically named in the amendment (including areas in the Brooks
Range, Copper River, and Iliamna regions) and 50 million acres the
Secretary of Interior could designate anywhere in Alaska within 6
months after the settlement became law. All of this land was to be
studied for use as Federal land, primarily as national parks,
wilderness areas and wildlife refuges. A period of five years was set
for the study and for action by Congress. During this time, any State
or Native selections which conflicted with study areas could not be
honored, except for certain areas around each Native village.
Needless to say, this amendment did not inspire the friendship of
all those described earlier who wanted early and open access to the
land of Alaska. What the amendment did do, however, was to present a
clearly drawn version of the strongest environmental positions, and
to set the battle lines for a vote in the House.
The Saylor-Udall amendment was soundly defeated in the full House
Interior Committee, while the rest of the claims settlement bill
passed easily. After passage in the House Interior Committee, the
Bill was sent to the House for the vote of all 435 Representatives.
During the 22 days between committee passage and action on the floor
of the House, there was a serious struggle for votes.
The line-ups for the struggle were incredibly mismatched. On the
side of those who said "Vote for the land claims bib', but vote
against the Saylor-Udall amendment" were the Interior Committee
leadership, the leadership of the House, the Chairmen of most House
Committees, the Nixon Administration, the State of Alaska, the oil
and business interests, and the Alaska Natives themselves.
Against this powerful and unusual coalition stood a small
bipartisan group of independent House members backed by
environmentally concerned organizations both in Washington end
Alaska. The environmentalists were attempting to win their point on
the merits in an arena which yielded more easily to power. Their
point: "Vote for the land claims settlement, but first amend it to
make it responsible."
The details of the struggle leading to the vote are fascinating
and certain points stand out. First, it became clear quite early that
in spite of the size and importance of the land claims settlement
bill, it would pass easily and without great controversy. This was a
victory. The debate over the Saylor-Udall amendment overshadowed
debate on the settlement bill.
Misinformation was everywhere, with both sides of the debate
contributing. At one time, it was charged that the Saylor-Udall
amendment stopped both the pipeline and all Native land selections.
Neither charge was true in the final version of the amendment, but
the resulting confusion damaged the amendment's chances.
The amendment also suffered from the rigid procedures of the 435
Member House, where minor changes and adjustment in legislation are
not so easy as in the smaller Senate. This factor was combined with
the determination of those who wanted no land-use planning amendment
at all to frustrate chances for a compromise on this issue. In the
end, it was virtually an "all or nothing" vote, and the result under
these difficult circumstances was remarkable.
After a spirited debate which lasted two days on the floor of the
House, a vote was taken on the Saylor- Udall amendment. There were
many who believed the outcome to be in real doubt right to the end.
The amendment was defeated on a vote of 217 to 177. However, the 177
votes for the amendment showed that an environmental amendment was
important to many of the Representatives. Without question, the joint
House-Senate Conference Committee would have to consider this when it
met to resolve differences in the two bills.
The conference committee did respond, and the land claims bill
which has now become law owes a great deal to the struggles of the
very few who held out for comprehensive environmental provisions in
the bill. The final result is a compromise, and a decision on its
success will not be possible for years.
Under the compromise, most of which is contained in Section 17 of
the final bill, these major parts of the environmental position are
still clearly visible:
1. Alaska's land is not open to an immediate "land-grab." The land
selection rights of the Natives are given a clear priority. The land
selection rights of the State are given a partial priority for lands
already selected under the Statehood Act. Entry for mineral
prospecting is also allowed, and after an absolute 90-day continued
freeze of all Federal programs (such as homesteading and mining
claims), a gradual phase-in of these programs will probably
2. The land-use planning commission is still included in the final
bill, but on a basis which balances the Federal and State roles. The
bill provides the Commission with broad responsibilities but only
advisory powers. Most of the study and recommendations of the Joint
Federal-State Land-Use Planning Commission, but none subject to its
control. Since the Commission has only advisory powers, its success
will depend on its influence based on expertise. This is a major
burden to carry when so many of the decisions will be made in the
political arenas of Alaska and Washington, D.C., and mostly at the
3. Finally, there is the feature of the "public-interest study
areas," which are contained in Section 17 of the Act, and have
created considerable controversy in Alaska. Section 17 of the
Settlement Act attempts to insure that all areas having possible
future value to the public are not subjected to immediate private
pressures or use without full study. Under these two sections (17 (d)
(1) and 17 (d) (2), the Secretary of Interior has withdrawn for such
study a total of over 125 million acres. Under 17 (d) (2), 80 million
acres were withdrawn to be studied for possible inclusion in the
National Park, Forest, Wildlife Refuge or Wild Rivers system. Under
17 (d) (1), 45 million additional acres were withdrawn under less
restrictive guidelines to be studied for any appropriate
classification under Federal land laws without the two and five-year
The effect of these withdrawals was 1) to avoid the rush on
Federal land which threatened to follow the end of the old land
freeze, and 2) to retain control of Alaska's prime land at the
Federal level. Many Alaskans see the withdrawals as a massive Federal
land grab which violates the spirit and intent of the Land Claims
Settlement and the Statehood Act.
Recently, the studies of these lands have been completed, and the
Secretary of Interior has recommended over 83 million acres for
inclusion in the "four systems" (parks, forests, refuges, wild
rivers). This decision will have to be made by Congress, and it will
be the subject of a sharp debate.
The State will take the position that the Federal government has
overstepped its authority while other will insist that setting aside
even 80 million acres in Federal reserves is not enough to protect
Alaska for the future.
Up to this point, most would conclude that the Land Claims will is
reasonably successful from the environmental standpoint. The outcome
of the decision on the 8C million acres will be another chapter in
that story. Still, the real decision will only come years later when
we can all see whether we live in a better Alaska, with the high
quality of life we expect.
Alaska Legislative Aide
to the Late Congressman, Nick Begich
a lease gives the right to use something for a certain
length of time - in this case to drill for ___years.
a time when a lot of money is made by businesses and
taxing agencies; businesses spend a lot of money to make
more, and government agencies tax them and wage-earners who
are making extra money.
people who want land to be left in a natural state or to
be used by people taking great care not to destroy or
an area delineated on a map where land uses are
1. Why did each of these groups want the Native Land Claims
a. State of Alaska b. oil companies c. non-Native
Alaskans d. Alaska Natives
2. Mr. Martin sums up the major environmental issue in paragraph 9
- Whether the Land Claims Settlement would include provisions on "how
the lands of Alaska would be used." " Were provisions on land use
finally included before the bill passed?
3. What was the major objection to environmental amendments when
they were first suggested?
4."It might ordinarily be expected that most Natives would oppose
the pipeline because of its possible threat to hunting and fishing
areas." Do you agree with this statement in paragraph !6?
5. What is the reason that Mr. Martin puts forward, for Native
support (or lack of opposition) for the pipeline?
6. Who might have been responsible for getting the "overriding
royalty" provision written into the Land Claims bill? Think of what
each of these groups stood to gain:
a. Alaska Natives b. Oil industry c. State of Alaska d.
7. Why did individuals and organizations outside Alaska work so
hard for environmental amendments to the Land Claims Settlement
8. Mr. Martin describes Senator Gravel's bill for a joint
federal-state land-use planning agency as consisting of "both sound
public policy and diplomatic avoidance of the toughest issues." Do
9. In a social studies text or government document, find the
responsibility for the land which the Interior Department has. Try to
relate it to the arguments by the Interior Committee against an
10. The Saylor-Udall amendment was defeated in the House Interior
Committee. It was also defeated in the House. However, one very
important group recognized the amendment. How did so much of the
Saylor-Udall amendment become law?
11. The Joint Federal-State Land-Use Planning Commission is
advisory. According to Mr. Martin "its success will depend upon
influence based on expertise." You might check with local Native
corporation and Bureau of Land Management officials to see how
influential and expert they consider Commission members to be.
12. What do you think of the final environmental amendments