FAIRBANKS — One year ago today, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner published a letter to the editor from a “professional Alaskan” titled “Who runs Alaska”? The author did research and correctly gave his readers the information about who owns what percentage of Alaska’s 591,004 square miles or 378.24 million acres.

To understand and answer his question, it is necessary to examine the history of the United States system of territorial government that was established in the 1780s and elaborated over many decades. It was formulated out of the original 13 colonies-turned-states. With independence in 1783, they found themselves, collectively through Congress, in a relationship with the settlements along the Ohio River similar to that which the British government had had with the American colonies.

A revolution in the West could have occurred if Congress mishandled its responsibilities, just as the colonies had revolted against the rule of the British crown.

Early territories

The territorial or land ordinances of 1784 and 1785 were the earliest formal responses to this problem. Thomas Jefferson drafted the former and it provided that, when sufficient population developed, boundaries would be established to create perhaps 16 small territories, eventually to be states, in the territory northwest of the Ohio River. Jefferson proposed that an increasing measure of self-government be allowed the inhabitants. This ordinance was a nullity because land titles in the West were largely unsettled and there were few inhabitants. Finally, the 1787 Northwest Ordinance superseded it.

Before that, the 1785 land ordinance was pretty effective. It established the system of land sales, based on rectilinear survey of sections (one mile square) and townships (36 sections, with one reserved for educational purposes). The new system was attractive to Congress in part because it opened the way to the sale of immense tracts at auctions which would benefit the anemic U.S. Treasury.

The Northwest Ordinance successfully provided for governance of the Northwest Territory throughout the evolution of five new states, which looked toward admission to the Union on a basis of equality with the original 13 states.

Under the system, the president appointed a governor, a secretary and three judges, who together adopted from existing states all necessary laws and administered them. The first stage was passed when the population of a territory grew to include 5,000 adult white male voters, who then could elect the lower house of a territorial legislature; the president appointed the upper house. The two houses elected a nonvoting delegate to represent the territory in Congress. When a territory’s total population had climbed to 60,000, it could apply for admission as a state. The promise of statehood and certain declarations of citizen freedoms and rights were set apart as “articles of compact between the original and the people and states in the said territory,” to be forever “unalterable, unless by common consent.”

With these enactments, the basic framework of the American territorial system was created, to be revised gradually through the years as a result of practical experience and a changing political climate. Territorial citizens sought federal support, and obtained it, for land surveys and sales, roads, postal service, river and harbor improvements and protection from Indians.

The objective of the entire territorial system was to elevate western “colonies,” or territories, into states, that would enjoy absolute legal parity with the original states.

When the United States assumed sovereignty over islands in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, these were not expected to be incorporated into the union of states. Upon acquisition, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa the Philippine Islands and later the Virgin Islands fell into a new category, namely “unincorporated territories” where the U.S. Constitution only partially extended to them. Tariffs could be levied on their goods imported into the United States and they were not expected to become states, ever. The U.S. Supreme Court formalized the concept of dividing the territories into the two categories, incorporated and unincorporated, in its decision in 1901 in the case of Downes vs. Bidwell. Hawaii and Alaska were specifically placed on an incorporated basis by “organic” acts of 1900 and 1912. A territory was called “organized” only after Congress had enacted organic legislation defining its form of government, which could be incorporated or unincorporated.

Debating Alaska’s share

Fast forward to the debates on Alaska statehood. In December 1951, Bob Bartlett and Bob Reeve, founder of Reeve Aleutian Airways, announced their candidacy for the office of delegate to Congress. Reeve supported “proper statehood as soon as possible.” He called for state control of the tidelands and Pribilofs, although with due regard for treaty obligations and no interference with “federal control of water power or free navigation rights.” He also wanted nearly all federally owned lands in Alaska to be conveyed to the state.

Republican Sen. Hugh Butler of Nebraska supported Reeve’s demands, but the Anchorage Daily Times wrote that Butler knew full well that Congress would never consent to wholesale alienation of the public domain in the north. Nevada was about 84 percent federally owned. Other states with large federal estates included Utah (72 percent), Arizona (70), Idaho (65), Wyoming (52), California (46) and New Mexico (45). If Alaska received substantially all of the public lands within its borders, the other western states would demand theirs.

In February 1953, John Saylor, R-Penn., held hearings on the Alaska statehood bills that he and Bartlett had already introduced. They provided for a two-fold increase in the floating land grant, to 40 million acres, and eliminated the five-year waiting period before the state could begin selecting its entitlement. Also, for the first time ever, the proceeds from the land would not have to be held in trust for the support of public education. The land grant for community expansion and recreational purposes was doubled from 200,000 acres of public land and 200,000 acres of national forest land to 400,000 acres of each. The provision for an additional 2.55 million acres of public land for internal improvements was left unchanged. A grant of $50 million was provided for constructing and improving roads and harbors, building state mental, charitable, penal and reformatory institutions and surveying land granted to the state.

The House Subcommittee on Territories and Insular Affairs began to deliberate Saylor’s statehood bill on April 27, 1953. During the next 2 1/2 weeks, 23 amendments were adopted. The most important one dealt with the land grant. Rep. Arthur Miller, R-Neb., sought to transfer half of the public domain to the state. Ultimately, the subcommittee decided to enlarge the basic floating land grant from 30 million acres to 100 million acres, to be selected within 25 years after admission. The 100 million-acre grant was sort of a compromise with the 20 million-acre provision of the Senate. Besides this immense floating grant, Alaska would receive 2.55 million acres of other public lands for internal improvements, as well as 400,000 acres of national forest land and 400,000 acres of public land for establishing and expanding community centers and recreational areas.

This 103.35 million acres of land equaled about 28 percent of Alaska’s landmass, or about 10 sections out of every 36. By agreeing to so generous a patrimony, the subcommittee ended most complaints that the terms of the bill were inadequate and seemed to meet the Republican requirement of an equitable enabling bill. The bill passed the House in May 1953.

Senate amendments

In February 1954, the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs approved the Alaska statehood bill proposed by Sen. James Murray, D-Mont. Although the bill had been approved, it was not yet in a position to be reported. Numerous amendments had been agreed upon which needed to be considered carefully and drafted in legal language. That task was given to the subcommittee. Four of the amendments were of enduring importance.

First, like the members of their counterpart committee in the House, the senators raised the primary floating land grant to 100 million acres. They required that all selections be made in reasonably compact areas of at least 5,760 acres (nine square miles) unless isolated from other eligible tracts. Unfortunately, the provision was also applied to the 400,000 acres of public land and 400,000 of national forest land to be used for community and recreational purposes. The result was a limitation on the number of towns which could qualify for such grants and the necessity for them to apply for more acreage than they needed. A 25-year limitation was imposed on the selection of the 2.55 million acres of internal improvement grants.

Second, any withdrawal order revoked subsequent to admission was required to give the state priority for at least 90 days to select the land as its own. This right could be exercised only where it would not supersede “prior existing valid rights” or “equitable claims subject to allowance and confirmation.”

The third major change of lasting importance related to the Submerged Lands Act of 1953, which had established a state’s title to offshore lands as far seaward as its historic boundaries. For Gulf Coast states this was three marine leagues (54,685 feet); for the Atlantic and Pacific states, it was three geographical miles (18,228 feet). The committee extended it explicitly to Alaska, and, since the future state had coastline of 6,640 statute miles, it added an estimated 35 to 45 million acres to its land grant.

Lastly, the committee agreed that the enabling bill was not to deal with aboriginal land claims. The determination of what these claims were and what should be done about them had, for all practical purposes, been deferred in the enabling act of the 13 most recently admitted states. In stating its intent not to affect Native claims, the committee faced the danger of inadvertently creating rights where none had existed previously. The Alaska Native claims were not based upon treaties but upon aboriginal use and occupancy.

Sen. Guy Cordon, R-Oregon, expressed in masterfully unequivocal language that nothing in the enabling bill was to be interpreted as in any way authorizing, establishing, recognizing or confirming the validity or invalidity of any such claims against the United States.

Run-up to statehood

In April 1954, Alaska territorial Gov. Frank B. Heintzleman suggested that Alaska be partitioned along the 156th Meridian. His proposal produced a violent reaction in Alaska, whose citizens overwhelmingly rejected the governor’s proposal.

In 1957, at the request of Delegates Bob Bartlett and John Burns of Hawaii, Sen. Murray introduced separate statehood bills for the territories, and each delegate introduced a separate bill for his own territory. In March, both houses of Congress held hearings on the admission of Alaska into the Union.

In May 1957, the House debated the Alaska bill. William Dawson of Utah presented the first of the amendments that the sponsor and manager of the Alaska bill, Leo O’Brien of New York, had said he would accept. It would reduce the grant of 182 million acres of public land to 102.55 million acres and required that the additional 400,000 acres of public land and 400,000 acres of national forest land also be selected within 25 years. Walter Rogers of Texas suggested that the land grant be reduced to 21 million acres, but that was rejected.

The House passed the Alaska bill, 210-166, in May 1958. The Senate then ditched its own bill and substituted the House measure and passed it June 30, 1958, 64-20.

Alaska’s advantages

On Jan. 22, 1972, Alaska Gov. William A. Egan announced that the state had selected some 76 million acres of its land grant. The governor said that the acreage roughly equaled the combined areas of Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, New York and the District of Columbia.

Congress not only had been generous when it allowed Alaska to select and acquire almost a quarter of its land area but also had departed considerably from its traditional pattern of granting public lands to new states. The historic formula, developed over many years, called for special grants for specific purposes, particularly internal improvements. The acreage in this category was always relatively small. The bulk of the land grants consisted of two sections out of the 36 sections in each township, dedicated to the support of public schools. The last three states admitted before Alaska — Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona — received four sections of each township instead of the traditional two.

In addition, those earlier admission bills specified that the states would not receive title to mineral lands. Where minerals were discovered, the state was obliged to make alternative selections known as in “lieu” lands.

In Alaska, Congress abandoned the historical land grant formula, which had awarded to the states sections 2, 16, 32 and 36 in each township regardless where they might be located, whether on mountain tops or glaciers or in valleys. Instead, Alaska was granted the right to make its own land selections best suited to it particular needs, so as long as these selections were made from the vacant, unappropriated and unreserved lands of the public domain.

In 1950, Congress had drastically departed from the traditional land grant formula. It had done so largely on the strength of Winton C. Arnold, the chief representative of the Alaska Salmon Industry Inc., a trade organization designed to block statehood. Once Congress had shattered historical precedent, the size of the land grant to the proposed new state was greatly increased.

Alaska received a total of 103.35 million acres to be selected from the vacant, unappropriated public lands within a 25-year period after admission.

Most remains federal

The magnitude of the congressional land grant to the new state can best be understood in comparison to the acreage turned over to the contiguous states.

The contiguous states consist of approximately 1.9 billion acres, of which 1.44 billion acres at one time were part of the public domain. The federal government disposed of 1.03 billion acres by various methods over a period of time.

Total land grants to the contiguous states amounted to about 225 million acres. The public land states carved out of the public domain Congress did not treat uniformly as far as public domain lands they received. The midwestern and southern states received a larger percentage of their total area than did 11 western states. Florida ranks first with a grant of 24.12 million acres out of a total state area of 37.48 million acres, or an astounding 64.3 percent. Nevada, with a land grant of 2.73 million acres out of a total state area of 70.75 million acres, received a miserly 3.8 percent. It ranks last.

Alaska places only seventh in the percentage of area granted, but it received by far the biggest total acreage of any of the public land states, about 27.9 percent of its total area.

The American people, represented by Congress, own about 60 percent of Alaska’s land area. They can do with it what they want, and they have done so. The miniscule northern population has little influence on what happens to Alaska’s public lands. And that is how it should be in a democracy.

Claus-M. Naske is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. A 1961 graduate of UAF, he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award in September. The third edition of his book, “Alaska: A History,” was published last year and describes events through the early 2000s.