University land grant should not be forgotten

Posted: Monday, July 10, 2000

The following editorial appeared in the July 5 edition of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Most residents and property owners of Section 33 parcels in this corner of the Interior are, in a sense, trespassers.

The figurative status arises from the approach Congress used in 1915 when it sought to set up a land-grant endowed institution of higher education in the territory of Alaska. You see, every Section 33 parcel, in the Tanana Valley near Fairbanks, was included, along with a designated campus site, in that initial 250,000-acre grant intended to support what was then described as the Territorial Agricultural College and School of Mines.

In 1929, Congress expanded on that endowment with an additional grant of 100,000 acres of public land.

Thus, by the time statehood dawned 30 years later, the University of Alaska should have rightly possessed a 350,000-acre land bank. This would not have come close to matching the 1.35 million acre land entitlement provided for higher education in New Mexico, or the 1.05-million-acre federal land grant bestowed upon Colorado's university system. Given the unsettled nature of this frontier state, it would have, over time, placed Alaska's university in a position to select and manage a valuable real estate portfolio, generating revenue for educating future generations of students.

The arrival of statehood changed the dimensions of UA's federal grant. Instead of 350,000 acres, the school only received lands already surveyed by 1959.

Our land-grant university found its endowment chopped to 112,000 acres overnight. The new state was left to make up the potential revenues lost from the university's whittled federal land entitlement.

This history is worth repeating because it explains the ownership of Section 33 parcels fragmented among the assortment of public and private hands holding clear title to those Tanana Valley lands today.

The history explains the justification for continuing efforts in the Legislature and in Congress to add to the inventory of lands managed by the University of Alaska.

It also explains the odd turn of events that left the university system of the nation's largest state, both in terms of sheer total size and public land holdings, in possession of a meager land endowment ranked 48 th among the 50 states.

Only Hawaii, which received no federal land at all, and tiny Delaware, with 90,000 acres set aside for its land-grant school, received smaller allotments.

The Legislature's recent move boosting UA's land holdings with a new 250,000-acre grant can never, at this late date, match the value of the lands stripped away during the statehood exchange. Nevertheless, it would have made a fine start.

How unfortunate Gov. Tony Knowles persists in disputing the legality of the Legislature's 41-19 vote overriding his veto of the Legislature's award.

The delays resulting from litigation merely devalue the university's promised land grant yet one more time.



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