Lawsuit filed over UA land transfer

Conservation groups contend grant violates Alaska Constitution

Posted: Sunday, April 22, 2007

FAIRBANKS - Two conservation groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the transfer of 250,000 acres of state land to the University of Alaska.

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The lawsuit was filed earlier this month in Superior Court by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and the Tongass Conservation Society, both groups based in Southeast Alaska.

The groups contend that the land grant, authorized by the state Legislature and signed into law by then Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2005, violates provisions in the state constitution.

The land grant was intended as a way to help fund the university. The university can use the land for research or to raise revenue through development, or sale of the land or the natural resource rights.

Most of the state land slated to be conveyed to the university is in the Interior and northern regions of Alaska.

The two environmental groups that filed suit mainly object to the 34,000 or so acres of land in the Southeast.

"While we strongly believe our university should be funded, you don't want it to be funded at the expense of southeast communities," said Buck Lindekugel, conservation director for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

Much of the land slated to be transferred to the university in the southeast, Lindekugel said, is important to locals for recreation, hunting and fishing.

"It's remote, wild and pristine," he said.

The lawsuit against the state and the university claims the land transfer is unconstitutional because it establishes a dedicated fund. The legislation establishing the land transfer says any revenue the university collects from the land will be put into a separate endowment trust fund, known as the Land Grant Trust Fund.

The lawsuit claims this trust fund violates the Alaska Constitution which dictates that the "proceeds of any state tax or license shall not be dedicated to any special purpose" with the exception of the Alaska Permanent Fund.

"We just disagree with the argument that the land grant dedicated a fund," university spokeswoman Kate Ripley said. "The land grant itself is what the Legislature passed, that is just a granting of land, a raw resource."

"The land is a state asset that the Legislature has the constitutional authority to convey," she said.

The actual land grant endowment trust fund that will hold the money was established in 1929, she said.

The constitutional prohibition on dedicated funds does not apply to any such funds that existed before the constitution was ratified. The Alaska Constitution was ratified in 1956.

Mark Morones, a spokesman for the state Department of Law, said state officials are studying the lawsuit.

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