Whose Land is it Anyway?

For about two decades, I have been planning for and eventually implementing a retirement strategy that now enables me to spend almost half of the year in Alaska.  That said, I recognize that I am still a newcomer, what Alaskans sometimes refer to as a cheechako.  Of course, Alaska Native descendants of those who have lived in the Great Land for thousands of years might refer to most current residents of the last frontier in similar terms.  

There is a fundamental question just below the surface of the more general topics covered in this blog.  The question is, whose land is it anyway?  By this I mean to ask who is entitled to hold strong views and advocate for public policies affecting land use, resource development, wilderness conservation and habitat protection in Alaska.  What moral standing does a corporate lawyer in the Midwest, for example, or a schoolteacher in Alabama, or a dental hygienist in California, have with respect to decisions that are geographically associated with Alaska?

These questions come up all the time.  A current one involves oil exploration and drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off the arctic coast of Alaska.  Another is that the Department of the Interior resolved some issues about the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in 2012, but the details, and the permanence, of those decisions remain to be seen.  And perhaps the granddaddy of them all is the future of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which ANILCA deliberately left hanging in the balance, requiring a further act of Congress either to open the so-called 1002 section of the Refuge to drilling or to provide it with permanent wilderness protection.

Similar issues, and deep-running tensions among local, regional and national interests, are as old as Alaska.  Ever since 1867, when the United States purchased the land from tsarist Russia, the proper roles of the federal government and concerned citizens in the Lower 48 have been hotly debated.  Sometimes the Outsiders push for conservation, other times for development.

One need only think of the Rampart Dam proposal of the late 1950s, which would have brought a massive hydroelectric project to the north by flooding an area of the Yukon Flats larger than Lake Erie.  To say nothing of the roughly contemporaneous Project Chariot, which was the Atomic Energy Commission’s bright idea of creating a deep water harbor in Alaska by detonating a couple of nuclear explosions.  

I intend to explore this question of moral standing in future blog posts from time to time.  I will posit that Aldo Leopold’s land ethic and Richard Nelson’s notion of environmental patriotism provide useful frameworks for thinking about this issue, explaining why all Americans have a stake in the game and are entitled to be heard.

Next post (Saturday):  wilderness is not just in Alaska.


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