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Properties of Change: Politics and Land Ownership in Northern Alaskan Social-Environmental Systems

Presentation Date
Friday, December 11, 2020 at 5:58am



There is a strong tendency in the field of Social-Environmental Systems (SES) studies to operate at scales and resolutions that do not account for the complexities of land ownership, despite the fact that ownership conditions the use, accessibility, and potential futures of a given area. Ecologically, topographically, or politically defined SES boundaries are frequently fragmented among diverse types of owners, who operate in parallel and according to culturally specific logics and state-sanctioned property regimes. Since becoming a state in 1959, Alaska has undergone a complex process of land transfers, claims, and designations, with the federal government today holding 60% (220 million acres) of the total. On the oil rich North Slope, whose nearly 95,000 square miles are represented as a unitary jurisdictional Borough unit and a geoclimatic region (Arctic Alaska), ownership is divided in a complex arrangement among state, federal, tribal, corporate, and private interests. The federal government controls two areas of exceptional environmental and economic importance: the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. In 2019, however, the Trump administration developed plans to auction off vast tracts of these areas and rewrite the regulations that have focused on Arctic preservation. Whether by the arbitrary fiat of executives or as a result of frequently-clandestine, multi-level networked practice, such changes are both transformative and broadly unpredictable beyond election cycles or fiscal years. In light of these and other dynamic and heterogenous land ownership trends in the North Slope, we examine how politics introduces high levels of uncertainty into predictive SES models of publicly-owned land on the North Slope of Alaska. We scrutinize the long-term efficacy of federal and state land use policies, management, and leasing, and discusses how SES would benefit from a deeper engagement with managerial, legal, and political practices of spatialization and power.

Funding Program Area(s)