University advocates for land grant

Government Relations officials from the University of Alaska are continuing to work with federal institutions to receive the federal land grant. The University of Alaska is a so-called “land grant” institution, meaning that federal laws enacted in 1915 and 1929 set aside land for a university in Alaska.

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Graphics courtesy of University of Alaska

Officials at UA say that the university has not been granted all of the land it was entitled to because the federal land was ceded to state management in 1959, when Alaska was recognized as a state. Associate Vice President of Government Relations, Miles Baker, said he will advocate at the federal level to obtain the total land grant.

“That is a huge priority for us, but there is nothing right now that we need from the [state] legislature, but it is our top federal priority,” Baker said.

Government Relations professionals at UA have had success at the state legislature advocating for the land grant in the past. In 2005, the legislature enacted a bill that would grant the university 265,000 acres, according to the university’s 2010 memo on the land grant. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and the Tongass Conservation Society filled a lawsuit against the State which ended with a 2009 Alaska Supreme Court decision that overturned the land grant law.

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“As this case illustrates, dedicating funds for a deserving purpose or a worthy institution is an attractive idea. Our constitutional founders were aware of the power of the dedication impulse. They decided that the good that might come from the dedication of funds for a particular purpose was outweighed by the long-term harm to state finances… We enforce the considered judgment of the founders in this case. We do so with full awareness that the University is an important state institution and that it would benefit from the enhanced endowment that the legislature intended to bestow,” wrote Justice Warren Matthews in the majority opinion for the court.

Baker said he considers this a federal priority because of a part of the Constitution of Alaska that “dedications,” which were ruled unconstitutional, can be exempted if a federal regulation requires the dedication of land.

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“We have to go back to Congress, because there is a small exception in the Alaska constitution that would allow such a dedication if it’s to comply with a federal program,” Baker said. “We are working with the Department of [Natural] Resources and the Governor’s office and our congressional delegation to try and find a solution to this.”

UA President, Jim Johnsen, said the land is important to the university’s fiscal future.

“[It] could very well be a really important funding source for the university in five years, 10 years,” Johnsen said.

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Like other land managed by the university, property that is not used for educational purposes is termed as investment property. Some UA land holdings from 2017 were classified as potential timber development, material sales and oil and gas development.

“Even if we are successful in getting land, you have to then figure out a way to monetize that land,” Baker said. “It’s not going to be an immediate solution to our financing problems, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle.”

It is not clear where in Alaska the land for the land grant would come from.