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Land access restrictions.

Gold, silver, zinc, platinum, tin, coal and untold tons of other minerals exist in vast quantities throughout Alaska's 365.5 million acres of land. Finding and developing these resources remains a challenge.

Almost 48 percent of Alaska's land (174.4 million acres) is closed to mining. The land open for mineral exploration and development poses other problems: restricted access, conflicting regulations and ownership questions from the federal, state and private agencies managing the land.

The largest owner of Alaska land, the federal government, also places the most restrictions on mining. Almost 60 percent of Alaska's lands belong to the federal government, but roughly 75 percent (165.4 million acres) of this land remains closed to mining, an area equal in size to the entire state of Texas. Prior to 1971, federal land withdrawals that prohibited mining totaled only 55 million acres.

But the federal land withdrawals increased following the 1971 passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. ANCSA, which set aside more than 44 million acres of land for Native corporations, included a provision allowing the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw up to 80 million acres that he "deems are suitable for addition to or creation as units of the national park, forest, wildlife refuge, and wild and scenic river systems." Negotiations with state officials finally resulted in the Department of the Interior withdrawing 83 million acres of land and closing nearly all of that land to mining.

In 1980, with passage of the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act, 104 million more acres of public land were withdrawn into federal conservation units -- areas almost totally closed to mining. By 1991 more than 165.4 million acres of Alaska land lay preserved in conservation units, a total acreage that equals the combined sizes of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. This vast acreage remains totally sealed off to mineral exploration and development.

"A lot of mineral exploration investment is now going around the world and not coming to Alaska because of our legacy of land withdrawals," says Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association.

Today, further restrictions on Alaska lands may come from bills currently before Congress. S. 433, known as the "Mining Law Reform Act of 1991," and H.R. 918, the Mineral Exploration and Development Act of 1991, contain many items that will add costs and regulations to the process of exploring and mining on federal lands. These bills would stifle the mining industry by imposing new fees that would make many operations uneconomical; eliminating mineral patents; and allowing federal land management agencies to veto mining projects on public lands.

"The Minerals Exploration and Development Act is a radical and devastating approach to public lands management," says Bill Schneider, president of the Resource Development Council in Anchorage.

Statistics show that a large percent of state and private land remains open to mining activities. Of the 104.4 million total state acres, 95.5 million allow mining exploration and/or development. The 46.1 million private acres offer 45.6 million acres available for mining if agreements are obtained with the private landowners.

But the statistics can mislead. When private, state and federal ownership is spread across a map of Alaska, it becomes apparent that it is impossible to cross Alaska east to west or north to south without entering at least one restrictive federal or state conservation unit (with the exception of the trans-Alaska pipeline corridor). Access to the state and private lands that allow mining brings obstacles of expense and red tape.

Another primary issue concerning mining on state land revolves around the Alaska Mental Health Trust. Back in 1956, federal legislation allowed Alaska's territorial government to set aside approximately 1 million acres of land to generate revenues for mental health needs in Alaska. Areas chosen for the mental health settlement included prime commercial real estate along the Alaska Railroad track; around cities, including Anchorage; along the Kenai River; and in other areas rich in mineral and forest resources.

In 1978, the Alaska State Legislature voted to dissolve the trust and disposed of some of the land for use in municipalities, parks, homesteads and other parcels. A 1985 Supreme Court decision ordered the state to reinstate the Mental Health Trust and to compensate mental health groups for land that had been transferred out of the trust.

A new Mental Health Trust settlement proposed by the Hickel administration would allow selection of lands, including parts of the Healy, Wishbone Hill and Beluga coal deposits and gold and other mineral prospects in the state.

"Until final settlement is reached and the management of mental health lands is well understood, some uncertainty will exist for mineral exploration and development," Borell says.

Most of Alaska's private lands belong to Native corporations. Mineral deposits have been pinpointed on several areas of these lands, and 12 Native regional corporations have been set up to guide the use of the land. To mine on these lands, individuals or companies must develop agreements with the Native corporations.

The future of mineral exploration in Alaska depends largely on resolution of today's land challenges. It's virtually impossible to open up lands that have been designated as federal parks, preserves, refuges or "wilderness."

Organizations such as the Alaska Miners Association and the Resource Development Council do mount vigorous efforts on local and congressional fronts to prevent lockup of additional Alaska federal lands. To keep Alaska's state lands open to mining development, these organizations propose legislative changes such as multiple use of state lands, limitations to lands closed for mining purposes and issuance of annual land withdrawal reports.

The state still has 20.5 million acres to select from federal ownership. Mining organizations are pushing for the state to rely on geological information to choose land that will add to the state's natural resource ownership in oil, gas and mineral lands.

Access to mineral deposits remains a big hurdle to overcome. Proposals to conquer this challenge include Alaska's promotion of its Revised Statute 2477 rights-of-way power granted by an 1866 law that gives states title to roads and trails across federal lands historically used by the public.

Building roads also could aid mining, and road plans recently released by the Hickel administration include building highways around the state. "We're encouraged by the current administration's positive attitude toward mining," says Borell. "But, unfortunately, history has shown that once lands have been closed to mineral exploration, they remain off-limits for future production."
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Author:Woodring, Jeannie
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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