Joe Miller, Alaska's Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, says he came to the 49th state 16 years ago to slake his love for the outdoors, seeking opportunities to hunt and fish Alaska's abundant wildlands.
The problem, says the Yale Law School graduate and Gulf War veteran, is that most of those lands remain in the tight grasp of the federal government, which has prevented the state from tapping its vast natural resource base.
The answer, according to Miller, is for Alaska to take over management of those federal lands -- including national parks -- and seek responsible development of oil and gas, minerals and timber that could help wean the state off of its dependence on federal subsidies.
"The resource base in this state is extraordinary," Miller recently told CBS's "Face the Nation."
Industry experts believe about 10 billion barrels of oil lie underneath the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the North Slope that is currently off-limits to drilling. The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska's (NPR-A's) northwest corner is believed to contain another 10 billion barrels of oil, plus 61 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (see related story).
"We have a hydrocarbon base ... beyond that of any other state," said Miller, who last month said he believes the scientific findings behind climate change are in "serious question" (ClimateWire, Aug. 26). "If only a fraction of them were tapped,it would create more than enough jobs for the residents of this state and can be the economic engine, frankly, of the United States."
By handing lands over to Alaska, the federal government would take a huge step toward shrinking the national deficit by shifting the cost of managing those lands to state agencies, Miller said. Federal lands cover roughly two-thirds of the state, but generate virtually no mineral royalties from onshore production.
Miller's calls echo the sentiment of the Sagebrush Rebellion that swept through parts of the West in the late 1970s after Congress adopted a new policy allowing land disposals only if it served the national interest.
The rebellion took off in 1979 with the Nevada General Assembly's passage of a bill calling for state control of lands held by the Bureau of Land Management, but had largely petered out by the early 1980s.
Miller, riding support from the Tea Party Express and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), now joins a rising group of politicians, including Utah Republican Senate candidate Mike Lee, who believe the federal government's management of federal lands has exceeded its constitutional limits (Land Letter, July 1).
"Now is the time for all Alaskans to come together and reach out with our core message of taking power from the federal government and bringing it back home to the people," Miller said in his victory speech after defeating incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) in the state's Republican primary last month. "If we continue to allow the federal government to live beyond its means, we will all soon have to live below ours."
Miller's staff did not respond to phone calls and e-mails requesting information on his public lands policy positions. But his record of public statements reveals Miller's penchant for positions that many conservationists view as provocative or even antithetical to a public lands ethic that has remained a core governing principle since the Theodore Roosevelt administration.
Miller has said there is no constitutional basis for the federal government to own lands in his state that, when combined, are larger than the state of Texas.
While the idea of Alaska acquiring more federal lands is likely to resonate strongly with many voters, it is unclear how Miller plans to accomplish that goal if elected to Congress.
The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for 2 cents an acre, and virtually all of its 365 million acres were federally owned when Alaska achieved statehood in 1959.
But under its charter, the young state was allowed to select 104 million acres that it could manage as a revenue base. Subsequent legislation gave 12 Alaska Native regional corporations and more than 200 local village corporations the rights to an additional 44 million acres of federal lands.
The state has received title to about 96 percent of its allotment, with the remaining 4 percent receiving final approval pending survey work by the federal government, according to BLM.
The remaining federal land in the state -- including more than 100 million acres of national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests and BLM lands -- could only be acquired via acts of Congress, experts say.
"The most important thing, from a legal perspective, is that Alaska has no right to these federal lands," said Peter Van Tuyn, an Anchorage attorney who represents conservation groups in the state.
As for his constitutional claims over federal land ownership in Alaska, Miller may be arguing that states' rights supersede those of a centralized government, Van Tuyn said. "Now he's going to have to quickly gin up some details to support that," he said.
But on the issue of federal lands jurisdiction, the Constitution is explicit in stating that the federal government has final authority, said Buck Lindekugel, an attorney for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
"'The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States,'" Lindekugel said, citing Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2. "Authority is unambiguous," he said.
National park disposals?
Miller, a former U.S. magistrate judge in Fairbanks who holds a master's degree in economics, said the United States would be better off disposing federal lands to help rein in national debt.
Among the lands Miller has suggested could be acquired are portions of Denali National Park, particularly if such lands contain energy reserves that could be responsibly developed.
"We must be prepared as leaders to confront what happens when this nation fiscally goes bankrupt," Miller told the Alaska Dispatch last month. ""My hope is it's a pragmatic change that occurs through leadership."
While Miller's call for the federal government to relinquish lands is not new, he may be the first to suggest the government turn over parts of Denali, which features more than 2 million acres of pristine wilderness, including Mount McKinley, and is home to grizzly bears, wolves and Dall sheep.
"[Miller's] stance on Denali and other public lands is bound to win him favor with many Alaskans, particularly those who are staunchly pro-development and state's rights advocates," Alaska nature writer Bill Sherwonit wrote in a recent opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News.
But moving the country toward a "constitutional model" where state powers trump the federal government "ain't gonna happen," Sherwonit added. "Nor is the federal government suddenly going to bequeath its lands to states because of a bankruptcy crisis."
Ron Tipton, senior vice president for policy at the National Parks Conservation Association, said, "The discussion has not been about who manages [federal land], but how it is managed," citing battles waged in recent years over snowmobiles in the 6-million-acre Denali National Park. "I don't think there's been a single acre that has been transferred to the state."
Some also question whether divesting Alaska federal lands would make even a small dent in the national debt.
Jeffrey Olson, spokesman for the National Park Service, said the agency spends about $1.14 per acre annually to manage its 54 million acres in the state. And other land management agencies spend even less to manage their lands, according to data obtained by E&E.
Olson said he was not aware of any circumstance where NPS has sold or otherwise disposed of its Alaska holdings. The agency is far more likely to acquire private and state lands within national parks using funding mechanisms such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, he said.
In cases where the agency holds surplus property, the Park Service must first offer those lands to other federal agencies before putting them on the open market, Olson said.
And in such cases, the government's management costs could actually decrease, not increase.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, spends about 67 cents per acre each year to manage its roughly 76 million acres in Alaska, said spokesman Bruce Woods. And ANWR, perhaps the state's highest-profile wildlife refuge, costs less than 25 cents an acre annually to manage, he said.
With seven weeks to election day, Miller must now distinguish himself from another political upstart, Democrat Scott McAdams, who as Sitka mayor has not matched Miller's notoriety nor enjoyed the heavyweight endorsements of figures like Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R). Yet McAdams appears within striking distance of Miller in recent polls, trailing by just 6 points according to recent polls by Rasmussen Reports.
McAdams, too, has yet to lay out how he would approach public lands policy in the state. Like Miller, McAdams supports the responsible development of oil and gas beneath ANWR.
McAdams also pledged to support development of oil beneath the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and the Outer Continental Shelf, and to pressure federal agencies to quickly approve the necessary permits to greenlight such development. Murkowski in February slammed the Obama administration for rejecting a permit application for ConocoPhillips Co. to construct a bridge to access oil reserves in NPR-A.
Miller, who has never held elected office, earlier this summer came out against a proposed lands swap by Murkowski that would allow a private native corporation to select choice lands in the Tongass National Forest, saying the senator's drafting of the bill failed to include all stakeholders.
The bill, which awaits a vote in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Murkowski is the top Republican, has also drawn concerns from the Forest Service and environmental groups who fear it will thwart efforts to transition away from old-growth logging (Land Letter, April 29).
For her part, Murkowski is yet to endorse either candidate and has not indicated whether she will seek the nomination of a third party or pursue re-election as a write-in candidate.