Ward measure seeks sale of public property

Bill would put land on block

Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2002

There is a Texas ranch comprising more acres than all the private property in Alaska combined, says Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Kenai, who has sponsored a bill to put a million acres of state-owned territory on the auction block.

Senate Bill 330 would direct the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources to offer 1 million acres for sale at the rate of 100,000 acres every 60 days until the million acres -- less than 1 percent of the state-owned land -- has been offered to private buyers. Parcels would range from 40 to 1,000 acres. The minimum sale price would be $100 per acre.

"Selling 1 percent of our state-owned lands to the people will help to satisfy the desperate need for access and opportunity," Ward said in a sponsor statement. "Current state land policies frustrate Alaska families and limit economic development."

There is nothing wrong with the notion of putting land into the hands of private citizens, but the way Ward's bill would do that job could lead to very serious land-use conflicts, said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

"It's not the kind of thing you do without a plan, and it's not a plan to just force the release of X number of acres," he said.

Ward said his focus is on opening Alaska's lands to future generations the way much of it was in the past, he said. Almost anywhere in Alaska one lives today, he said, once was homesteaded land.

There are 106 million acres of public land in Alaska, more than the total of all land in California; the federal government and Native corporations own more still. Very little is owned privately, he said.

"The King Ranch in Texas is over 1 million acres, more than all the privately owned land in the whole state of Alaska," he said.

Should the bill pass as currently written, successful bidders would be required to put down 20 percent of the purchase price and pay off the remainder in not more than six years. Interest would be set at 6 percent. No survey would be required until the parcel is turned over to the buyer. Surveying would then be the responsibility of the new landowner. The bill authorizes, but does not compel, the Legislature to place the proceeds of land sales in the Constitutional Budget Reserve account. Ward predicted that opposition would come from people against development who want to keep Alaska pristine.

"Basically, they have theirs, and their fear is Alaska will develop in areas it has not developed before. I hope it does," he said.

"It's a notion that I think is going to be popular," Elton acknowledged. "But any disposal of state land has to be crafted as thoughtfully and carefully as a prayer. Clearly the magnitude of what he wants to accomplish is enough to give anybody pause."

The person who may have to craft such a plan is Natural Resources Commissioner Pat Pourchot.

"We are opposing the law," he said Friday. "We've had a lot of experience over the years with the disposition of state land under many different mechanisms, various legislative programs trying to get state land into private hands."

The state has a working land-disposal program in which lands go through an areawide planning process to identify wildlife habitat, public recreation uses, resource uses as well as land sale. It is a detailed and technical process that must be done responsibly in order to avoid land-use conflicts, Pourchot said.

"I don't know of a million acres that doesn't have multiple uses going on it," he said. "I don't know how you could avoid serious problems from a resource standpoint" by taking Ward's approach.

Land sales produce fairly modest revenue streams, he said, so the revenue from a million-acre's worth of auctions wouldn't have a major impact on the budget gap, he said.

Still, with so much state-owned land, Ward insists some of it should be made available to the people who actually own it. It will give people room to move.

"For all of us to be all crammed together on postage stamps (lots) doesn't make a lot of sense," he said.

Pourchot understands the point of view, he said.

"In fairness, we don't disagree with the need to provide state land for private purposes," he said. "We think we are doing that now. We think we have an adequate system and that nothing's broken. But there is nothing wrong with the goal."

Ward said Friday he has requested a hearing on the bill in the Senate Resources Committee next week but no date has been set.

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