Land Ownership

When the US bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, almost all of the approximately 35,000 residents were Alaska Natives. Congress acknowledged that the native people had a right to land in 1884, but it would be nearly 100 years before congress settled land claims. Until statehood in 1959, almost all of Alaskas 375 million acres of land were owned by the federal government. Upon statehood, congress gave Alaska claim to about 104 million acres, but transfer from the federal government to the state was slow because of unsettled claims by Alaska Natives to the lands they had traditionally used and occupied. By the late 1960′s there were so many native claims to land throughout the state that the secretary of the Interior suspended land transfers until the claims were settled.

In 1971, the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act settled native land claims with a grant of 44 million acres, and also authorized an additional withdrawal of 80 million acres for possible inclusion in National Parks and conservation lands. Land selections, surveys, and the controversy over which lands could be selected by the State and Native Corporations created a bottleneck of cross-claims and confusion. In 1980 the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act helped define what lands would be available for transfer from the Federal government to the State of Alaska and Native Corporations. ANILCA added 104 million acres to the federal conservation system, with 56 million acres designated as wilderness. These series of events defined how the pattern of ownership for lands within the Copper River Watershed would be established. Today, about 40 million acres are in private ownership in Alaska. Most of this land belongs to Alaska Native Corporations, with about 2.7 million acres owned by other private interests. The pattern of ownership in the Copper River Watershed is described below.

ANILCA created the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest park in the U.S., and the largest landowner in the Copper River watershed. Of the 13.2 million acres within the park and preserve system, 9,677,000 acres are designated Wilderness. About 7,779,033 acres of the park and preserve system are located within the Copper River Watershed.

Within the boundaries of the park system there are 709,000 acres in non-federal ownership and an additional 925,000 acres under application for transfer to the State of Alaska and Native Corporation ownership. Of the 1,634,000 acres, the majority, about 1,400,000 acres is held by or scheduled for transfer to seven local Native Corporations. In addition to the State and Native lands, there are about 15,000 acres of mining lands and privately held small tracts.

The Chugach National Forest manages 1,551,799 acres within the watershed. The majority of the Copper River Delta’s 700,000 acres are located within the forest service boundaries. The Copper River Delta area is managed by the Cordova Ranger District, and is required to be managed for fish and wildlife values, the only district in the National Forest system with this management mandate.

The BLM currently has 2,984,114 acres under management within the watershed. Of this, all but 833,245 acres have been selected for transfer to either the State of Alaska or Alaska Native Corporations.

The State of Alaska owns approximately 3,579,507 acres within the watershed, and has selected an additional 1,322,564 acres.

The pattern of land ownership follows the rivers, streams and lakes that are vital components to the landscape of habitats needed by wild salmon As final land selections are completed, and title transferred, there will be significant changes in the administrative policies governing land development and use. These changes in land ownership will create new challenges for land and resource managers.

© 2011 Copper River Knowledge System