News-Miner opinion: Alaska’s relationship with the federal government remains complex. We want the money that the federal government provides for programs and projects, but we chafe at the intrusive reach of some of the distant government’s tentacles.
One good way to do something, maybe minimize, that federal reach into the Last Frontier is to re-establish the Citizens’ Advisory Commission on Federal Areas, which was created a year after President Jimmy Carter signed the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act into law. The commission, which consists of members appointed by the Legislature and governor, was created to give Alaskans a voice into implementation of the complex ANILCA.
Former Gov. Bill Walker vetoed the panel’s entire $272,900 in funding, however, as part of sweeping budget cuts necessary to deal with a staggering budget deficit. The money paid the salary of the executive director and the commission’s three annual meetings, which were held in Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks.
The commission’s funding was also eliminated in 1999, and the panel vanished until 2007, when the late Fairbanks Rep. Mike Kelly obtained funding to revive it.
Now funding is proposed to be restored. An approved Senate Finance Committee budget amendment would provide $200,000 to hire an executive director and provide travel funds for the commission.
Why do we need the commission?
The answer is clear in a letter accompanying the advisory commission’s final report, dated June 30, 2017.
“With control and governance vested in a distant capital, subject to pressure from interest groups who know little of Alaska’s situation, Alaska has no reason to trust that any federal decision-making will listen to its needs. Likewise, we often hear federal management is justified, perpetuated and increased because people who live on or near federal land cannot be relied upon to care for it. Mutual trust has been undermined and the restoration of that trust must be prioritized.”
The commission made three recommendations:
• Conveyance of additional land owned by the federal government in Alaska.
• Reinstatement of the Alaska Land Use Council. The council consisted of representatives of state and federal agencies and Alaska Native corporations created by the 1971 Alaska Natives Claims Settlement Act. It was created in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and had a duration of 10 years, as defined in the act.
• Restore funding for the Citizens’ Advisory Commission on Federal Areas and, with the state, aggressively “mount the fight necessary to protect and realize the promises of statehood. It is discouraging that private citizens have had to mount defenses for all Alaskans without assistance. Such programs could include the defense of RS 2477s, easements and navigable waters through a rebuttable presumption of state ownership where the necessary characteristics have been validly established.”
Why reinstate the commission now when Alaska still has a budget crisis?
Because restoring the advisory commission might help ensure that federal agencies don’t try to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Anchorage moose hunter John Sturgeon, who prevailed at the nation’s highest court in a case over who controls access to some waterways in Alaska. The court, in a unanimous ruling, said the National Park Service had gone too far in barring Mr. Sturgeon from using his hovercraft on the Nation River as it passes through the Yukon-Charlie Rivers National Preserve.
The Sturgeon case was one of the reasons laid out when the funding amendment surfaced in the Senate Finance Committee on April 26.
The goal of the Citizens’ Advisory Commission on Federal Areas is simple: making sure the federal government lives up to the promises of the Statehood Act, ANCSA, ANILCA and any resultant court rulings and that Alaskans have a greater say in what happens in their state.
House and Senate negotiators are working out their chambers’ differences on the state operating budget for the coming fiscal year. Funding to restore the Citizens’ Advisory Commission on Federal Areas is an appropriate expense, even in tight financial times.