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SOURCE: Center for American Progress

DATE: September 10, 2019

SNIP: The Trump administration is quietly leading one of the largest liquidations of America’s public lands since the late 19th century. If fully implemented, this effort could result in the transfer, sale, or private exploitation of more than 28.3 million acres of public lands in Alaska, including old-growth forests, subsistence hunting areas for Alaska Native communities, habitats for polar bears, salmon spawning streams, and other backcountry areas. It would affect millions of acres in the Tongass National Forest and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge alone.

The work to liquidate national public lands is a shortsighted and inadequate response to the state of Alaska’s worsening budget crisis, a result of the state’s overdependence on revenues from oil drilling. As the Alaska Oil and Gas Association notes on its website, “Alaska is the only state in the Union that is so dependent on one industry to fund its government services.” Since 1977, oil revenues have accounted for an average of 85 percent of the state’s annual budget.

Recently, however, the production and profitability of Alaska oil fields have been in steep decline, causing the state’s collection of oil and gas production taxes to fall from nearly $6.9 billion in 2008 to $806 million in 2018. For the past eight years, Alaska’s elected officials have struggled to find the resources to pay for emergency responders, schools, and other basic services for residents. In fact, the state faced a budget deficit of $2.5 billion going into fiscal year 2019.5

This growing budget crisis is presenting Alaska with one of its most consequential choices since voting to become a state in 1958. On the one hand, Alaska can start to solve its budget problems by broadening its funding sources, encouraging economic growth in nonextractive industries, and safeguarding the natural resources that power its $7.3 billion outdoor recreation economy and support the nation’s most valuable fisheries. Unfortunately, Alaska politicians—led by Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) and the state’s congressional delegation—have opted to pull the state in the opposite direction, doubling down on Alaska’s reliance on extractive industries.

In June 2019, Gov. Dunleavy attempted to cut more than $440 million from the state operating budget while increasing direct payments to state residents and preserving subsidies for the oil industry. His newest cuts would, among other things, reduce Medicaid benefits for Alaskans, end a study on sexual assault and domestic violence in rural Alaska, and effectively bankrupt the University of Alaska system.

Gov. Dunleavy’s budget proposal has been widely—and rightly—criticized, but the parallel effort to bolster the state’s finances through a massive liquidation of national public lands is moving ahead with little scrutiny. The Trump administration’s effort represents one of the largest disposals and privatizations of national public lands since the late 19th century, when the U.S. government, under the Homestead Act of 1862, deeded more than 160 million acres of federal lands in the West to private citizens. The public land liquidation currently being pursued in Alaska could result in an area of land that combined is as big as the state of Georgia being privatized, privately developed, or transferred to state or corporate ownership.