Opinion: The Case for Tribal Lands in Trust

Giving back to rural Alaska communities.

Alaska Native Corporations have become powerhouses of our state’s economy, generating billions of dollars and providing thousands of jobs for Alaskans. In 2013, according to the ANCSA CEO Association, Alaska Native Corporations accounted for more than 70 percent of the total revenue of the top 49 Alaskan-owned companies. They also provide more than 40,000 jobs across the United States with an annual payroll of $2.2 billion.

However, for all the strides that Alaska Native for-profit and nonprofit corporations have made in the last four decades since ANCSA passed, tribal governments have lagged behind in taking part in the growth of Alaska’s economy. I have always believed that we should implement policies that ensure Alaska tribes are self-determined and can adequately address public safety, economic development, and other priorities on tribal lands.

Until the Akiachak court decision in 2013, Alaska tribes had been barred from taking land-into-trust—meaning, the United States federal government taking land into “trust status” to hold and protect it for federally recognized tribes. Moving tribal lands into trust not only gives tribes control and use of the land, but also gives tribes control over important aspects like public safety and economic development.

Many reservations in the Lower 48 are considered “trust” land. However, Alaska tribes had been excluded from this opportunity due to a regulation in the Department of Interior that barred the Secretary from taking land into trust status for tribes. The Native American Rights Fund, on behalf of the Akiachak Native Community and other plaintiffs, successfully argued that treating Alaska tribes different from tribes in the Lower 48 violated the Indian Reorganization Act—which barred the federal government from discriminating among Native American tribes. Every court has agreed with the Alaska tribes and the Native American Rights Fund.

During my time in the Senate, I was proud that after repeated pressure, the Obama Administration removed key regulatory barriers that blocked the Secretary of the Interior from taking land into trust for Alaska tribes. This progress has been hailed as an important step forward because allowing Alaska tribes to take land into trust gives tribal communities the control they need to protect and care for their communities while having a positive impact on the Alaska economy as a whole.

Adequate public safety—which many of our rural communities are lacking—is a basic requirement for a productive workforce. I believe the solution is to give the authority and responsibility for public safety back to our rural communities. Trust lands will enhance tribal regulation over alcohol and drug issues in rural Alaska and will enable tribal courts to better protect their communities.

Securing land also provides tribes with space for enhanced services such as healthcare for veterans and elder care—something tribes have already proven they excel at. During my time in the Senate, we pushed the Veterans Affairs Department to allow the Alaska Native Tribal Health Care system to serve rural veterans directly. When the VA finally relented, the Native health corporations began to serve veterans all over Alaska with top-notch care, eliminating the need for expensive trips to Anchorage or Seattle for many veterans. We should allow our tribes and their citizens to continue and enhance their innovative systems for quality care.

In addition to the significant benefit of public safety and community well-being, the ability to take lands into trust will also provide a meaningful economic impact for Alaska’s tribes. While many of Alaska’s valuable natural resources are located in rural Alaska, it is often urban Alaska that benefits most from our state’s resource economy. Trust lands will not only give tribes a larger say in how their traditional homelands are developed, but also the ability to ensure that renewable subsistence resources are protected.

Land into Trust is not something to be feared, but rather something we should all embrace as a step in the right direction. I support and am mindful of the unique land status in Alaska with our ANCSA corporations and understand that some have concerns about how this impacts their overall purpose and goals. I believe that there is a path forward to make this work for everyone. We must continue to support policies and progress that ensure Alaska’s tribes are self-determined and have the resources they need to protect and provide for their communities. What is good for Alaska’s First Peoples is good for all of Alaska.

Read the full editorial here.