The greatest land rush in U.S. history will start in mid-February if the Alaska Supreme Court upholds an initiative passed by Alaskans Nov. 7.
Constitutional questions still surround the Beirne " homestead" initiative, which for a time was off the ballot due to a court challenge. The initiative would carve up to 30 million acres of state land - an area the size of New York state - an area the size of New York state - into 40 acre parcels to be given away to Alaskans who have lived in the state three years or longer.
One major question is whether the residency requirement is constitutional. Free Alaska land could become available to all Americans if the court striked that requirement while upholding the rest of the initiative.
"This is the great Alaska gold rush done with pencil and paper rather than with pick and gold pan," said [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Smith, a top official in the Alaska Division of Land.
The program won't go into effect for three months, but free land applications already are flooding division offices in Fairbanks, Juneau and Anchorage.
Smith said the division is not prepared to handle the 100,000 applications expected during the first year of the program.
Alaskans whose applications are not processed within a 90 day period are entitled to the land automatically, under the Beirne initiative. "There will be interminable court suits" over property claims, Smith predicted.
Passage of the Beirne initiative was a popular response to one of the great ironies of this vast, last frontier. In a state more than twice the size of Texas, non-native Alaskans own an area slightly larger than Rhode Island.
The state of Alaska is slated to receive 104 million acres as provided by the Statehood Act Native (Eskimos, Aleuts and others) villages and regional corporations will receive 44 million acres under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Congress likely will designate more than 100 million of the 225 million acres of federal lands as parks and wilderness. Thus, out of Alaska's 375 million acres, non-native Alaskans own 1 million acres.
What these figures mean is a subject of hot controversy, but Beirne initiative opponents point to land prices running up to $3,000 an acre for accessible rural land and say the free-land proposal will put a stop to the high prices.
Unlike the great Oklahoma and Cherokee Strip land rushes for a total 8.5 million acres in the late 19th century. Alaskans will not race across the state to stake their property. An Alaskan doesn't have to see land to claim it under the Beirne homestead initiative. He or she needs only to file the proper paperwork.
Because of that the official use of the word "homestead" to describe the initiative on the ballot is drawing fire. "Our position is that people understand the word 'homestead' to mean that you have to work the land or have some contact with it," said Bill Rice, attorney for an enviromental group called the Trustees for Alaska, which is taking the initiative to court.
M.F. (Mike) Beirne, an Anchorage legislator physican who campaigned extensively on the free-land proposal, defended the homestead description. "Whatever you call a homestead is what a homested is . . If we write a new initiative maybe we'll call it Beirnesteading so they will knock off all this stuff," he said.
He maintained that there should be no requirement that the land be used. "There are those people who would prefer to get their 40 acre tract of land and keep it in its natural state. I think that's beautiful. They may want to put it into a park."
Beirne said that he has wanted to have a homestead ever since he arrived in Alaska 22 years ago. "The reason I didn't get land, of course, was because when I came here under the then-existing law. I was required to live on the land, cut the trees down , break the sod. Because I couldn't I couldn't get into farming up here. I wanted to make it my hobby, a tax shelter . . . Thousands of Alaskans could do that and keep millions of dollars right here in the state. It's a fantastic opportunity."
A populist pitch carried the freeland proposal to a 55 percent victory in the state's general election. "We have totally and absolutely screwed the little guy. We've created such a speculative market here that Big Bucks gets richer and Little Bucks gets poorer . . . Why should this land cost more than a buck an acre?" Beirne said.
Others have predicted, however, that people with the money to hire land advisers and to pay for others to file for land on their behalf will have the most to gain. "What's really going to happen is that some people are going to snip off some absolutely choice tracts. Most people will not have the resources" to claim the best land, said Anchorage appraiser David McCabe.
The Beirne initiative specifices that even if people wrongly acquire property by filing misinformation the state cannot get it back once the land has been assigned.
Administrative problems are not the only ones would-be homesteaders will face. Federal studies show that only about 19 million acres of Alaska are farmable, and most of this belongs to natives. More important, little public land is accessible to people without airplanes. A federal-state study in 1976 showed that the state owns less than 15 percent of the land near roads, rivers and lakes within an hour's travel of some major population center.
Spurred by the campaign for free land, the legislature mandated that 80,000 acres of state land be disposed of this year and 50,000 acres next year. But the proponents of the Beirne initiative point out that this is a paltry amount compared with 30 million acres of free land.
Exactly how much land the initiative would make available is uncertain. It provides that 30 percent of state lands or 30 million acres, whichever comes first, shall be available. The state currently has a clear claim on about 30 million acres of its 100 million-acre entitlement.
So, to begin with, about 10 million acres would be available under the initiative. The state attorney general would determine whether more free land could be released when the state receives more of its entitlement under the statehood provisions.
For now, the state Supreme Court must decide whether the free-land program unconstitutionally amounts to an "appropriation" and whether the residency requirement constitutes special-interest legislation.