Recently I sent a letter to Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) strongly encouraging her to understand the impacts any proposed changes to the 8(a) program could have on Alaska Natives and the original intent of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). I also wrote the senator to thank her for her willingness to consider and incorporate information on the Alaska Native 8(a) businesses and subsequently modify her position on proposed reforms to the 8(a) program. I encouraged her to listen to the bi-partisan Alaska congressional delegation on this issue.
RDC supports the mission and directives of Alaska Native 8(a) businesses and although there has been significant progress since Congress established the 8(a) program, the original reasons for its creation still exist.
Many RDC members do business in the Lower 48, including McCaskill’s home state of Missouri. The success these companies have in Alaska impacts their efforts around the rest of the United States, and vice versa. Missouri has been able to develop its resources and create a healthy, diverse economy. Among that diverse economy are automobile assembly plants and a large agricultural base, both of which have shown significant reliance on government assistance. Alaska, not having a climate or geography for farming and being disadvantaged by distance to market for manufacturing, constantly strives to diversify its economy in other arenas. The 8(a) program helps Alaska do this.
Due to the potentially serious impact proposed changes to the program could have, this issue is of great importance to RDC. The concern of the membership includes both those who participate in the 8(a) program and those who do not, evidence that the program is working to help align Alaska’s diverse interests on the economy.
When enacting ANCSA, Congress saw a way to end the poverty that gripped many Alaska Native communities. As the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs reported while deliberating the Act, “[Alaska Natives] are among the most disadvantaged citizens of the United States in terms of income, employment, educational attainment, life expectancy, health, nutrition, housing, and every important indicator of social welfare.”
Today, many rural Alaskans still have difficulty making ends meet. Alaska Natives comprise 82% of the population in rural parts of the state. Poverty and unemployment rates among rural Alaskans still far outpace those of their urban counterparts. Per-capita income is about half that of non-Natives. The precipitously high cost of living in rural Alaska exacerbates the economic hardships. Alaskans living in rural villages pay extraordinarily high prices for food, energy, and transportation due to their communities’ isolation far from the road system and power grid, their villages’ low populations, not to mention Alaska’s extreme climate.
Indeed, Congress enacted ANCSA in order to provide a means by which Alaska Natives could derive economic benefit from the resources around them, oftentimes in rural Alaska. Native corporations are the largest private landowners in Alaska and responsible resource development offers these corporations the opportunity to generate jobs and economic benefits for their Alaska Native shareholders. Resource development on ANCSA lands partially offsets the economic challenges by stimulating the job market and providing greater financial selfsufficiency for a growing number of Alaska Natives. These opportunities support the implicit promise Congress made to Alaska Natives when it offered them resource-rich lands in exchange for extinguishment of their aboriginal claims.
The 44 million acres of fee-simple land that were allocated to Alaska Native corporations through ANCSA were meant to help bring Alaska Natives to the path of economic self-sustainability. Alaska Native people sacrificed millions of acres of land in exchange for meaningful economic development opportunities. Much of this remaining acreage now exists as national parks and wildlife refuges, unavailable for economic opportunities. Through 7(i) and 7(j) revenue sharing, profits from resource development on their lands are shared with other Native corporations statewide.
But, despite Congress’ best intentions, resource development and land title alone have proven insufficient to materially overcome the economic and social challenges Alaska Natives face. The 8(a) program has been an effective tool the federal government has used to help meet the goals of ANCSA.
With success in the 8(a) program, Alaska Native corporations build capacity, develop a trained workforce in diverse sectors, and ultimately provide opportunities for shareholders to advance other causes, such as responsibly developing the natural resources on their land here in Alaska. However, without the economic diversification earned from 8(a) revenues, these companies would oftentimes be unable to bring such responsible Alaskan projects to fruition, ultimately risking jobs, educational opportunities, and further revenue outside of the 8(a) program, potentially increasing reliance on other government programs. Ultimately, for programs like 8(a) to succeed, sufficient time must be given to realize their positive impacts.
The 8(a) program is critical to the future economic viability of Alaska Native Corporations and in turn, their Alaska Native shareholders. This tool should be improved and used as a model to further the economic status of Native Americans, not eliminated.
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