The University of Alaska will gain a large swath of new land thanks to a provision in the recently-passed $1.7 trillion omnibus bill.
The clause, located on page 2,819 of the massive 4,100 page spending bill, will allocate 360,000 acres of land to the UA system within four years.
The university system currently owns 150,700 acres of land, or 30% of what was promised via land conveyance before the Alaska was granted statehood.
UA President Pat Pitney called the legislation a pivotal step forward for the university.
“We’ve been working diligently for years to resolve our land grant deficit,” Pitney said in a Dec. 28 statement. “This break-through legislation means that the university will be empowered to actively manage productive lands that will generate recurring revenue for the benefit of our students, our cutting-edge research, and the education of our next generation of leaders.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski wrote the clause initially as standalone legislation “University of Alaska Fiscal Foundation Act.”
“By providing a new way to expand the University’s land grant, we are ensuring it can generate additional revenues that support its students, faculty, and campus infrastructure,” Murkowksi said. “Through our successes in the CDS process, we are improving the University’s facilities, meeting priority research needs, and expanding its pipeline of well-educated Alaskans who enter key fields across our economy.
Sen. Dan Sullivan supported the legislation, though he ultimately voted against the spending bill due its excessive size and limited time to read through it.
Despite the legislation, a land transfer won’t be done overnight.
The legislation allows the state and UA to identify up to 500,000 acres to be conveyed. It would require the Bureau of Land Management to survey the selection and work with UA to transfer up to 360,000 acres to the university.
Lorraine Henry, communications director for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, said the process could take up to four years. DNR manages Alaska’s public lands.
“The Department of Natural Resources is encouraged that the University of Alaska will finally receive federal land that is due to UA as a land-grant school,” said Lorraine Henry, DNR’s communications director. “In collaboration with other State agencies, DNR will begin to work with UA on the process to select and receive that land.”
What the land use will look like remains unknown, said Monique Musick, UA’s communications manager.
“Since the land has not yet been designated, it is too soon for specifics on where it will be located and what it could be used for,” Musick told the News-Miner Thursday. “So far the UA Lands office already selected 200,000 acres which have been sent to the Department of Natural Resources for review.”
She added it would take years before UA reaps the benefits.
“There is still a long way to go before the 360,000 acres are identified, and conveyed to the university, and even more time before the university will be able to monetize the lands conveyed,” Musick said.
UA uses much of its land as a revenue generator, earning between $7 million and $8 million annually from various uses, such as logging, real estate, mining, timber and gravel sales.
Musick said a portion of the revenues help fund the UA Scholars Program.
“Land earnings have also supported teaching and research in natural resources, fisheries/ocean science, biology, agriculture, minerals, and education,” Musick said.
Musick said the university system has been in a “land deficit’ for years despite the land it’s owed under the original conveyance.
“The University of Alaska has one of the smallest holdings of all U.S. land grant institutions,” Musick said.
Only Delaware received less land, or 90,000 acres.
“As with many land issues in Alaska, original congressional intent has been eroded by a complex history of federal laws and adverse court rulings,” Musick said. “In this instance, the State of Alaska is prevented by provisions in the Alaska Constitution from being able to directly convey additional lands to UA from its own entitlement as Congress had initially intended.”
The Alaska Legislature attempted to remedy the land shortage by transferring 250,000 acres to the university in 2000 and enacted in 2005. The Alaska Supreme Court blocked the attempt in a 2009 decision, calling it an illegal dedication because it dedicates proceeds to the university.
The Alaska constitution forbids dedicated funds, an effort Musick said has hampered state-level efforts.
“This latest solution is the result of the work of the Alaska Federal Delegation, in particular the support of Sen. Murkowski, the governor, university leaders and the hard work of many staff to find a solution to the long-standing land deficit,” Musick said.
The federal provision, she said, should provide “a way that will withstand judicial scrutiny.”
Pitney, the UA president, said it’s been a long road that now has an end.
“I thank our congressional delegation for finding a path forward through the omnibus appropriations bill,” Pitney said. “I also want to recognize the bipartisan backing we’ve had from our Alaska businesses, organizations, and state leaders who advocated for this positive outcome.”