Many Alaska politicians reacted with overwrought rhetoric when President Obama proposed that Congress designate key areas of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, .  Among the more restrained examples:  the new Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Lisa Murkowski (Republican - Alaska), called the proposal "a stunning attack on our sovereignty."  By which she meant Alaska's. 

In fact, however, the Arctic Refuge is owned by and for the benefit of all of the citizens of the United States.  Alaska state sovereignty is simply not relevant. 

When the State of Alaska entered the federal union, it selected more than 100 million acres of land and was granted additional acreage to support education and medical trusts.  The lands in what is now the Arctic Refuge were not included in these grants to the State.  Setting aside for the moment the human rights issues involving indigenous peoples (see below), the Refuge lands have been “owned” by two national governments -– Tsarist Russia prior to 1867, and the United States of America since then -- but never by the State of Alaska.  

Alaska has no sovereign authority over the Refuge lands.  Specifically, Article 12, Section 12 of the Constitution of the State of Alaska contains this explicit “Disclaimer and Agreement:  The State of Alaska and its people forever disclaim all right and title in or to any property belonging to the United States or subject to its disposition, and not granted or confirmed to the State or its political subdivisions, by or under the act admitting Alaska to the Union. ...  The State and its people agree that, unless otherwise provided by Congress, the property, as described in this section, shall remain subject to the absolute disposition of the United States.“

As I noted in a previous post on Political Bedfellows, Alaska is sometimes called an "owner state," but it does not own national lands, including the Arctic Refuge -- we all do.  Local politicians and business interests will always be tempted by the siren songs of temporary employment and tax revenues.  This is an inherent structural bias that tilts local interests in favor of development.  Which is precisely why long-term national interests need to be protected by federal decision-making about the lands that we all own together. 

That said, the national government is not opposed to all resource development on our property in Alaska's arctic, nor should it be.  There are other federal lands where energy development would be more appropriate, and closer to existing pipelines and other infrastructure, than in the Arctic Refuge.  For example, the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska is a 23 million acre area to the west of the Arctic Refuge that has been designated for energy extraction for decades. 

There have been 10 NPR-A lease auctions since 1999, and in 2011 President Obama directed the Bureau of Land Management to hold the auctions on an annual basis as part of his "all of the above" domestic energy strategy.  These auctions are consistent with a management plan for the NPR-A that was finalized in 2013 by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.  The plan allows for the development of 72 percent of the oil that is estimated to be economically recoverable in the Reserve, while protecting subsistence resources and critical habitat areas.  Acting under this authority, the BLM recently approved a development project known as Greater Moose's Tooth #1 in the NPR-A.  

Decisions about where to develop, and where to protect, can be reasonably debated.  But, please:  keep the red herring of state sovereignty out of it.

An iconic symbol of national sovereignty:  President Obama's second inauguration at the United States Capitol.

An iconic symbol of national sovereignty:  President Obama's second inauguration at the United States Capitol.


I don't want to gloss lightly over the issue mentioned above regarding human rights issues involving indigenous peoples.  There has been a lot of very powerful commentary about the historical and cultural use of the Refuge lands by the Gwich'in people.  One example that happened to be current when I wrote the first draft of this post is an ADN op-ed by Gilbert Trimble, the traditional chief of Arctic Village, titled "ANWR wilderness is vital to caribou, Gwich'in people in Alaska" (click the link to read it).  Mr. Trimble makes a powerful case, as others have done, that preserving the wild status of the Refuge is a human rights issue for the Gwich'in.  

It also struck me as I read his op-ed that he might well have a different take on the sovereignty issues discussed above.  Mr. Trimble writes:  "When I was a boy in Arctic Village ... , the border with Canada was open, so the Gwich’in traveled freely between Arctic Village and Old Crow, and people traveled to the refuge to get caribou for their families and communities."  Borders, whether dividing caribou ranges between countries or marking the boundaries between state and federal lands in Alaska, are an artifact of European culture, as meaningless to the caribou as the notion of sovereignty.


This week's post concludes my series of Small Bites exploring principles that are foundational to my analysis of public policy issues.  See  LimitsGenerations, Hedges and Priorities and Legacy.