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A Brief History of ANILCA and BHBC’s Role in the Congressional Enactments

On Behalf of | Dec 3, 2020 | Blog

Three unprecedented federal land bills carved up Alaska: the 1958 Statehood Act, the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).  These three Acts designated nearly 270 million acres of land – only the Louisiana Purchase was a larger transaction (at 530 million acres).  Interestingly, BHBC personnel had key roles in two of these Congressional enactments.

All three Acts derived from the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867 negotiated by then-Secretary of State William Seward.  The transaction was with Tsarist Russia but Alaska Natives, primarily Tlingits in the Southeast, objected that their land was not for sale.  Seward’s purchase agreement promised to resolve Native land claims at an unspecified point in the future.

Nearly a century later, Alaska citizens pushed for Statehood and achieved it in 1959.  Congress worried that the remote State would not be able to support itself and included in the Statehood Act provisions enabling the new State to select 104 million acres of “vacant, unappropriated and unreserved federal lands” as a dowry of sorts.  A young Alaska lawyer, working then in the U.S. Department of the Interior, spearheaded the Eisenhower Administration’s policy on these matters: Ted Stevens.

National partisan politics also played a role.  In those days, Alaska was considered Democrat and the territory of Hawaii, Republican.  Both were admitted simultaneously to maintain the political balance in the U.S. Senate.  Obviously, things have reversed in the intervening 60+ years, but the goal of political balance did work out – just differently than contemplated in 1958.

The fledgling State began its land selections including parcels on the remote North Slope near a then-unknown bay on the Beaufort Sea: Prudhoe Bay.  Alaska Natives objected that the State was taking lands that should, instead, be provided to the Natives to satisfy the promises enshrined in Seward’s purchase agreement.  The Johnson Administration agreed and imposed a “land freeze” blocking State land selections until Native land claims were resolved.

At this moment, oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay and the oil companies sketched out a pipeline route to carry oil from the North Slope to the Gulf of Alaska.  The Natives promptly filed aboriginal land claims along much of the route to block the State, and the Interior Department, from issuing any pipeline right-of-way to the industry.  Stalemate.

The oil industry lent its muscle to settling the Native land claims to enable the pipeline to proceed.  And by the middle of 1971, ANCSA was making its way through Congress with one of Alaska’s new Senators – Ted Stevens – taking the lead.  His administrative assistant (chief of staff) was a young New Yorker who had stumbled into Alaska after law school: Ron Birch.

Environmental interests raised objections to ANCSA.  They argued that the State was provided 104 million acres, and the Natives were in line to get 40 million acres – but what about the “national interest” in new parks, wildlife refuges, forests and such?  The “greenies,” in the fall of 1971, mounted a campaign to add a provision to ANCSA directing the Department of the Interior to consider new parks and such and to segregate such lands to make sure these areas would not be selected by the State or the new Native Corporations.  I was a college senior in Washington, D.C. working part-time for Trout Unlimited and participated in the lobbying to add the provision to ANCSA.  The effort succeeded and section 17(d)(2) was added to ANCSA.  It specified that the Secretary of the Interior would study and recommend adding “up to 80 million acres” to the National Park, Refuge and Forest systems.

The Native Corporations were formed, they began their land selections while the land freeze was enabling the State to restart its land choices (taking second place behind the Native Corporations).  The Interior completed its “D2” study and in 1973 recommended 83 million acres of new federal conservation units.

Before Congress could take up the “D2” recommendations, it took a detour to approve the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline in 1974.  Three years later it turned its attention back to “D2.”  The post-Watergate 1974 Congressional elections had given the Democrats a 2-to-1 edge in both the House and Senate and Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976 had put D.C. squarely in Democrat hands.  The House leadership responded by introducing its 1977 version of D2 legislation – H.R. 39 – designating 147 million acres of new Federal Wilderness areas in Alaska: the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).  So much for the “up to 80 million acres” deal codified in section 17(d)(2) of ANCSA.

The bill was referred to the new Alaska Lands Subcommittee (within the House Interior Committee).  It was chaired by H.R 39 co-sponsor Rep. John Seiberling (D-Ohio); the ranking Republican was Alaska’s Don Young beginning his fifth year in Congress.  Young hired me to be the sole GOP staffer on the subcommittee staff (the Democrats had 5 staff); Roy Jones was one of the Democrats.

As one of Alaska’s primary lobbyists put it, in the House all we could do was “negotiate the size of the truck to run us over.”  Young did his “Spartans at Thermopylae” thing and held up House action until May 1978.  That gave Senator Stevens leverage in the Senate although his counterpart – Sen. Mike Gravel (D-AK) – was largely AWOL throughout the legislative process.  By October, the Senate had not acted and serious negotiations commenced on a compromise bill.  After many days – and nights – an “Ad Hoc Conference Compromise Bill” was assembled.  The staff – catching catnaps in their offices – put the actual bill together over two pressure-packed nights.  All of the key players – House committee leaders, Senators, Carter’s Interior Secretary Andrus, and senior staff met the next morning in a small committee room in the U.S. Capitol.  All of the negotiators agreed to the Ad Hoc Bill and Sen. Henry Jackson (D-WA), Chairman of the Senate Energy and Resources Committee, asked Gravel (who had skipped the negotiations) if he was on board (as fate would have it, I was sitting next to Gravel).  Gravel announced he was opposed, would object to the bill on the floor (killing it under the circumstances) and walked out of the room.  There was anger, dejection, and pandemonium.  One democrat Senator had to be restrained from trying to chase down and punch Gravel.

When things calmed down, there was a chilling (in hindsight) occurrence.  Stevens asked everyone to remember that they had reached a deal and to act on it in the next Congress.  He then explained he had a bad feeling he was not coming back.  His colleagues told him that was nonsense.  Six weeks later he was in Alaska rallying the troops and raising money for the ANILCA fight for 1979-80.  He was angry about it because he had gotten the deal but Gravel killed it.  Returning to Anchorage the plane he was in crashed.  Ted and Tony Motley were the only survivors, among the deceased was Ted’s wife Ann.  When I heard the news that night in December 1980, a chill ran through me remembering his words in October.  Stevens never forgave Gravel – and never spoke to him again.

President Carter (and Secretary Andrus) had threatened using executive orders to withdraw millions of acres of federal lands in Alaska if Congress did not act.  So a bipartisan group quickly drafted a bill to extend the section 17(d)(2) land withdrawals to forestall executive action.  The bill passed the House but Gravel killed it too in the Senate then dared Carter to use the Antiquities Act withdrawal authority in Alaska.  Carter called his bluff using that Act to create 58 million acres of new federal “Monuments” in Alaska while Andrus used other authorities to withdraw an additional 60 million acres of land.

Twenty-two years later I shared the stage with Carter and Andrus at UAA for an ANILCA 20th anniversary retrospective.  At lunch, we discussed this history and the President and Secretary were flabbergasted that Gravel had taken these actions wholly on his own.  When I explained that Stevens, Young, and then-Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond were blindsided too Carter and Andrus were disbelieving.

Back in the legislative trenches, the battle was renewed in 1979 – but absent legislation (i.e., ANILCA) Alaska would be stuck with the Carter Monuments.  The State had hired BHBC to litigate against the Monuments and that case was proceeding on a parallel course with the Congressional action.  By the summer of 1980, the action was in the Senate and a compromise bill was negotiated to break the political logjam.  By this time Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-MA) was leading the “green” forces and Roy Jones was his key staffer.  Stevens had the lead for Alaska (Gravel was AWOL again) and Steve Silver and I were his staff guys.  A bill got hammered out which Stevens (and Young and Hammond) could swallow reluctantly and passed the Senate as the Tsongas-Hatfield Substitute.

The House Democrats (House Interior Chairman Rep. Mo Udall (D-AZ), Seiberling, et al.) were not happy and were waiting to see if Carter would be reelected in his race against Ronald Reagan.  If Carter won, Udall and company would hold out for a “greener” bill.  When Reagan crushed Carter, the House leadership threw in the towel and passed the Senate bill in late November 1980.

President Carter signed ANILCA into law on December 3, 1980 at a large White House ceremony.  A few weeks later, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated and not long thereafter I was named Deputy Undersecretary of the Interior and given the job of directing implementation of the new law.  That was my primary job for eight years until I left government to join Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot.