Young: Chances slim this year for pending university lands bill

Posted: Monday, August 21, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Legislation that would give as much as 500,000 acres of federal land to the University of Alaska has only a slim chance of passage this year, according to U.S. Rep. Don Young, but he and others say they aren't giving up on the idea.

The measure has moved through all of its committees and could be poised for approval next year if it finds favor with the new Congress and White House.

Young, R-Alaska and chairman of the House Resources Committee, reported the bill to the full House on July 19.

''We're going to try to bring it up on the floor,'' he said at a meeting with members of the Alaska press corps before leaving Washington, D.C., for the annual August recess.

He described the effort as a long shot, however.

The Clinton administration has promised to veto the bill, so passing it as standalone legislation is all but impossible.

The Alaska delegation also could expect difficulties in ushering the bill through the two houses of Congress, Young said. That task is difficult, ''especially when the governor vetoed the state bill,'' he said.

Young was referring to Gov. Tony Knowles' veto of bills from the Alaska Legislature that would have given the university 250,000 acres of state land. The federal bill would provide 250,000 acres outright and up to another 250,000 acres as a match to whatever the state itself gives the university.

Young said it's hard to persuade his congressional colleagues about the bill's merits when the governor doesn't appear to support the idea.

Knowles does support the federal bill. But he thinks the obligation to give the university more land is the federal government's, and not the state's.

''My support is based on the fact that the University of Alaska did not receive a fair land entitlement from the federal government under the land grant program,'' Knowles said in a letter to Young last year. ''I remain firm in my belief that the land grant program represents a federal, not a state, commitment. Thus, equity can only be achieved by the federal government meeting its obligations to the university.''

The University of Alaska was given 112,000 acres by the federal government -- less than any other state except Delaware and Hawaii.

Opponents of granting Alaska more land say the state was supposed to provide for the institution by using the 102 million acres it got at statehood. The state did add to the university's real estate holdings in 1983 to settle a dispute over management decisions, bringing the institution's total land ownership to about 150,000 acres.

Since 1994, the university administration and some legislators have championed the concept of giving UA more land so it can be developed and earn money for the institution. Some have questioned, however, whether the school really could make much money.

The bill pending in Congress tries to resolve that uncertainty in a unique way.

First, it would grant the university permission to select up to 92,000 acres of land within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, north of 69 degrees latitude -- essentially north of the Brooks Range. The NPR-A is a vast tract of potentially oil-bearing land covering the North Slope from Icy Cape to the Colville River.

The selection right itself is no guarantee of income, since no commercially viable oil fields have yet been found in the reserve.

Second, though, the bill specifies that the university would have two years to negotiate an NPR-A revenue-sharing agreement with the Secretary of the Interior. The university could forego any NPR-A land selections north of the Brooks Range in exchange for 10 percent of NPR-A's annual oil leasing revenues, or $9 million, whichever is less.

The federal government collected $104 million in one-time bonus bids from a limited NPR-A lease sale held in May 1999. The legislation isn't retroactive, so the university may have missed the opportunity to collect on that income. Oil companies also will pay much smaller annual rental fees, according to Ed Bovy, with the Bureau of Land Management in Anchorage.

Any agreement negotiated between the university and the Interior Department would be subject to congressional approval. If Congress did not approve it within three years of the act's passage, then the university would have the right to go ahead with the selections north of the Brooks Range.

Knowles, in his letter to Young, said the NPR-A proposal was his.

''In my opinion, earmarking a portion of the federal revenues (bonuses, rentals, and royalties) from oil and gas development in the NPR-A to fund the corpus of a university endowment is a viable alternative to a proposed federal land conveyance and can fulfill the intent of the federal land grant college mission,'' Knowles wrote.

The university would have the right to tentatively select lands and explore them for petroleum or minerals prior to making a final selection.

The bill also has been criticized by environmental groups, who see it as a backdoor effort to develop Alaska's public lands.

The bill makes some attempts at compromise on the environmental side. The university would have to give up 14,000 acres of land it holds within federal parks and refuges in Alaska. Also, no lands could be selected from military reserves or conservation units, except the Tongass National Forest, and no old-growth forest would be available.

Martha Stewart, UA's representative in Washington, D.C., said the bill is available now for floor votes in both houses of Congress. While she agreed that such a vote was unlikely this year, the fact that committees in both the Senate and House have cleared the measure means it could come up in the future.

Unlike the Alaska Legislature, Congress sometimes brings bills to the floor that have had committee hearings in the previous session, Stewart said. So if the White House's view of the legislation changes with the election of Vice President Al Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush, then the bill could see new life next year, she said.

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