House Passes Bill To Seize Federal Lands

Of the nearly 200 bills that have been introduced in the Alaska House of Representatives, fewer than 20 have been put to a vote. On Monday, a controversial bill that would seize millions of acres of land from the federal government joined that group. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

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To say Alaska has a complicated relationship with Washington, DC, would be an understatement. The federal government spends billions in the state, but it also owns millions of acres of land in Alaska and often manages those lands in a way that is not to the liking of the state’s leaders. Now, lawmakers are moving legislation to seize those acres, with a few exceptions.

“The bill requires that the federal government turn over the lands held by the federal government except for lands that are in private ownership, lands used for military or naval purposes or military reservations, and land that was a national park on January 1 of 2015,” said Rep. Steve Thompson, a Fairbanks Republican, while carrying the bill on the House floor.

If the bill becomes law, Alaska could lay claim to nearly 170 million acres of federal land within the state. But there may be a slight problem: The federal government may not feel legally obligated to comply with the bill.

“The Constitution says it’s illegal,” said Rep. Andy Josephson, an Anchorage Democrat. “The Supreme Court reading the Constitutions says it’s illegal. The lawyers we pay in the Terry Miller building say it’s illegal. And our past attorney general says it’s illegal.”

Josephson cited a memo, drafted by the Legislature’s legal department, that plainly said as much. He also pointed to unintended consequences, like the state unintentionally seizing United States post offices and interfering with the delivery of mail.

“Now, some people will say, ‘Andy, this is hyperbole, and you’re overdramatizing this,'” said Josephson. “I’m just reading the words. I don’t mean to overdramatize it. I really don’t. It’s just what the words call for.”

Other opponents, like Rep. Les Gara of Anchorage, argued that the bill should not be a priority at a time when the state is facing a fiscal crisis. In Utah, such legislation is expected to cost $2 million to litigate.

“We’re facing a $3.5 billion budget deficit. We don’t have the money to litigate a bill that is 100% unconstitutional,” said Gara.

When a similar bill passed in Arizona, its Republican governor vetoed it because of its questionable legality.

But defenders of the bill pointed out that Alaskans still should be able to take the battle to court, if they want to. Referencing the Declaration of Independence, Wasilla Republican Wes Keller argued that the state had grounds to pursue the land seizure policy.

“It’s never unconstitutional to fight what’s rightfully yours,” said Keller. “That’s just part of the fundamentals of the pursuit of happiness — it’s ours, we can fight for it, whether we’re talking 5.5 acres, a million acres, or more.”

Anchorage Republican Gabrielle LeDoux noted that the state has defied the federal government by legalizing marijuana, and the federal government has not yet interfered.

“I suspect that at least some of the lawyers might say that the pot initiative was unconstitutional, and yet we’ve done that. Colorado has done that. Several other states have done that,” said LeDoux. “And guess what? The federal government blinks. If enough states do it, and enough states say what they want, and say we’re going to take it — we just might get what we want.”

The bill passed 27 to 11, on caucus lines. It will now be sent to the Senate.