Photo of men working with surveying instruments near a parked helicopter.
A survey being conducted in Alaska.  (BLM)

Alaska Land Transfer

By Ramona Chinn and Christy Favorite

Statehood came late to Alaska—it entered the Union on January 3, 1959.  About 10 years later, the discovery of huge oil reserves on the North Slope prompted a call for development.  Before development could commence, however, Congress had to address the Alaskan Native land claims.

On December 18, 1971, the Alaska Federation of Natives convened in Anchorage to vote on the proposed Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).  The federation set up a phone link between the convention hall and the White House.  The delegates voted 511 to 56 to accept the bill and informed President Nixon of the outcome.  The delegates waited quietly.  Finally, the President spoke:  “I want you to be among the first to know that I have just signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.”

By October 21, 1976, the BLM in Alaska was inundated with land title applications to adjudicate.  Under the Alaska Native Allotment Act of 1906, Alaskan Natives could acquire title to up to 160 acres of nonmineral land, and approximately 16,000 parcels of land required field examination, adjudication, and survey.  Almost all of the 105 million acres granted to the State of Alaska under the Statehood Act, and the vast majority of the 46 million acres mandated for conveyance to Native corporations pursuant to ANCSA and to individuals under the Native Allotment Act, also remained to be adjudicated and surveyed.  The state and the Alaskan Native corporations were allowed to select land simultaneously, and much land was selected by more than one entity, village corporation, or regional corporation as well as the state.  Thousands of individual Native allotment claims survived ANCSA’s repeal of the 1906 act, and many claims were amended, causing much change in land status.  The repeal of settlement claim laws by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, as well as the legislative approval provision, affected the many settlement claims that were still pending.  In 1980, the selection period for the Alaska Statehood Act was extended to 1994 by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. 

ANCSA was a complex settlement to a complex situation—implementing ANCSA alone would have been far from simple, but the simultaneous need for adjudication of Native allotment claims together with overlapping state selections created additional complications.  Myriad appeals, lawsuits, and disparate legal interpretations among the state, the corporations, the public, and the Department of the Interior all contributed to delayed conveyance.  New regulations, policy changes, case law, and legislative amendments resulted from such disputes, sometimes causing further delays as they were interjected into the process over time during the adjudication of overlapping selections and claims.

In 2002, the executive officers of the ANCSA corporations met with the Secretary of the Interior and expressed frustration with the pace of conveyance, particularly for claims under the Native Allotment Act.  No less frustrated than its constituents, the BLM worked with the state and the corporations to identify and seek solutions.  They established an ambitious goal of sunsetting the land transfer program, which required federal legislation so that the ANCSA, the Statehood Act and the Native Allotment Act could be worked more in concert.  To that end, Senator Lisa Murkowski sponsored the Alaska Land Transfer Acceleration Act, which was passed in 2004.  It gave the BLM tools such as the authority to amend title for conveyed land claimed by allotment applicants and set deadlines for selection priorities

Almost all of Alaska was unsurveyed on the date of statehood.  Unsurveyed lands were conveyed to the state and the Native corporations through tentative approvals (TAs) and interim conveyances (ICs), respectively.  While TAs and ICs transfer all right, title, and interest of the United States, the law requires survey and confirmation by patent.  By 2012, approximately 96 percent of ANCSA and state entitlements had been transferred under a combination of patent and ICs or TAs as appropriate.  Approximately 98 percent of the more than 16,000 parcels filed in the Native allotment program are patented or closed, while approximately 38 percent and 43 percent remain to be patented to the Native corporations and the state, respectively.

It is through the creativity and dedication of BLM employees and partnerships with land transfer clients that completion of land title transfers in Alaska is realized.

Editor's note:  In the Features section, read about the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in "The Battle to Conserve the Crown Jewels," by former Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus.

Ramona Chinn is BLM’s deputy state director for the Alaska Lands Division.  She moved to Alaska to work in the lands program in 1974 after beginning her career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle, Washington.  In 2008, Ramona was recognized as the National Public Lands Manager of the Year by the Public Lands Foundation.  Ramona is also an award-winning quiltmaker whose work has been featured in numerous publications.

Christy Favorite has been with BLM since 1977, and is the coordinator/clearinghouse for ANCSA issues.  Christy, who has been an Alaskan since before statehood, is the mother of two children and a bead and fiber artist.