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The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act is the largest purchase of land in United States history. Signed by President Nixon in 1971, it was intended to help the U.S. economy specifically, as a result of the abundance of oil discovered in the 1960s, but also the Alaskan economy. Oil was discovered in Alaska in the late-1960s and a pipeline was built across the state from Barrow to Valdez to carry the oil, but it could not be transported until the Act was passed. Once the pipeline was up and running, Alaska enjoyed an incredible oil boom until the oil bust in the 1980s and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was an important act, not solely for the oil companies but also for Alaskan citizens themselves because the “provisions of this legislation embraced two basically unrelated causes: the fight of Native Alaskans for a greater share and role in Alaska’s development and a national concern that the course of this development would not endanger lands of special conservation value” (Naske and Slotnik, Alaska: A History, 283). When oil was discovered, no one really knew who owned the land, and as we have seen with almost every other civilization in the world, if no one has an "official claim" to the land, then whoever "finds it" claims it for themselves. However, this time, natives of Alaska, once they were official citizens of the United States, decided that they would use the system for their benefit and sued for their rights to their land.
According to the Wildlife and Fisheries website, the act “authorized Alaska Natives to select and receive title to 44 million acres of public land in Alaska, and $962,000,000 in cash as settlement of their aboriginal claim to land in the State. The Act established a system of village and regional Native corporations to manage the lands and cash payments, and made extensive provisions regarding the operations of the corporations.” The ANCSA excluded national parks and forced 80 million acres to be set aside for future consideration of national park areas and if Congress did not use these lands by 1979, they would again belong to the natives.
Issued in 1977 and signed into law in 1980 by President Carter, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act thus went into effect. According to NPCA.org, "ANILCA expanded the national park system in Alaska by over 43 million acres, creating 10 new national parks and increasing the acreage of three existing units." Some of those expansions and creations involved Denali National Park, Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and many others. Some were excited and happy to have these additions and to know that these beautiful lands were being preserved. However that was not the case for everyone. Although throughout the parks there are areas that allow hunting and fishing, because the government would control and own the land, that land could not be sold and used for economic profit. As a result, not only were natives concerned with the new legislation, corporations seeking mineral rights also opposed it.
As far as we have learned here from watching a film at the Denali National Park Visitor Center and from other discussion of it, the debate over both the ANCSA and the ANILCA remains today. Whether for or against the laws, places like Denali National Park (right) and Wrangell St. Elias National Park (bottom) are two beautiful places that everyone should take a chance to visit at some point in their lifetime.