Alaska land sale kicks off the state’s ambitious new agricultural project

The Nenana Totchaket Agricultural Project aims to fight food insecurity in the state but could interfere with local trappers’ ability to gather food.

In early June, the state of Alaska opened the first land sale for the long-awaited Nenana Totchaket Agricultural Project. The state had first considered using the land for farming in the 1970s, but its location made it difficult to develop: It’s separated by a river from other interior Alaska towns. Now, a new bridge has made access to the area easier, and 27 parcels, totaling about 2,000 acres, are available for direct purchase and bidding. The Alaska government hopes the land will be used for agriculture. 


Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration believes the project could help ease Alaska’s decades-long struggle with food insecurity. One in seven Alaskans is food insecure, and 95% of the food in the state is currently imported, with most grocery stores having only a three-to-five-day supply. The fertile soils of the Nenana-Totchaket Valley are perfect for growers, and state assessments suggest that climate change is making the region even better for farming; over the last few decades, the valley has experienced warmer temperatures, longer growing seasons, fewer frost days and more rain. Its proximity to Fairbanks, the Parks Highway and the Alaska Railroad makes it ideally suited to become a regional agricultural hub. But some residents in Interior Alaska have concerns about the project’s ecological, cultural and historical impacts.

Eva Dawn Burk (Denaakk’e and Lower Tanana Athabascan from the villages of Nenana and Manley Hot Springs) is a master’s student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who is studying natural resource management with a focus on sustainable agriculture and rural development. Burk’s father, like many families in the area, uses the land for subsistence purposes, especially as salmon runs have become more erratic. Ironically, selling land parcels for agriculture could actually increase the food insecurity of locals. “The state doesn't really give two squats about our needs as subsistence people,” Burk said. Even though the Nenana Native Association made the new project possible by securing funds for the new bridge over the Nenana River, some Native residents feel their concerns have not been heard. “They don't recognize tribes. They don't recognize our sovereignty and our ability to manage our land, nor do they respect the consultation process,” Burk said.

Salmon hang for drying in Nenana, Alaska, where subsistence fishing, hunting and trapping practices could be impacted by a new state agricultural project.
blickwinkel / Alamy Stock Photo

“The state doesn't really give two squats about our needs as subsistence people.”

Still, the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition, an Alaska-based climate education and advocacy group, is asking the state to pause the sale. The coalition is concerned about a number of incomplete environmental studies of local waterways, soils and wildlife like salmon, a crucial food source for people living near Alaska’s interior rivers. Though some studies have begun, they are not expected to be complete until the fall. The organization worries that the process has been rushed and deserves more careful consideration. “The way it is being enacted and expedited by the governor’s reelection campaign is another boondoggle,” Margi Dashevsky, the coalition’s regenerative economies director, said.

The coalition also fears that locals will be at a disadvantage when it comes to buying land, given likely competition with well-funded outsiders. Any U.S. citizen is able to make a bid for the land, Schade said. “We can't legally give (locals) priority, but this particular sale has not been advertised far and wide, like future ones might be. So, if you're local, you know about it. You live right here. You have an advantage.”

A cleared area around which several parcels of the Nenana-Totchaket Agricultural Project are plotted.
John Whipple, Alaska Division of Agriculture

But Burk pointed out that the 27 parcels could be bought by one corporate entity. “We don't want slaughterhouses,” she said. “A lot of farmers here want to be small businesses. They don't want to be large corporations.”

The coalition is planning on fundraising to support area residents who want the opportunity to purchase some land. “Access to that scale of capital is really important for locals to maintain the subsistence use of that land – which is actually a key part of food security right now,” Dashevsky said, adding that selling public lands to private owners reduces access for Alaskans who use it to trap game. “It is just so ironic, since the governor is championing this as food security,” she said.

Schade doesn’t think the project will affect trapping. “There’s not a lot of trapping going on,” he said. “I only know of one person who is trapping in the area.” He said the state has been careful to make sure traditional trails are available to use, and that the project will make access to those lands easier for people who are trapping or hunting.

The Alaska Legislature has approved Gov. Dunleavy’s proposal to include $5 million in the state’s 2022 budget to move the Nenana Totchaket agricultural project forward. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has been contracted to do detailed soil surveys, which won’t be complete until this fall, just before the sale closes. After that, Schade said the Division will take a year to decide when the next sale is and how to move forward with the project.

 “It is just so ironic, since the governor is championing this as food security.”

A new bridge has opened up access to more than 100,000 acres of land near the community of Nenana, Alaska, where plots are set to be auctioned by the state for the Nenana-Totchaket Agricultural Project.
John Whipple, Alaska Division of Agriculture

Both Burk and Dashevsky believe that money would be better invested in existing agricultural projects in Alaska’s Matanuska Susitna Valley. The area is the fastest-growing region in Alaska; over the last decade, the population has increased by 20%, and experts predict that growth will continue. Dashevsky said state support would tangibly increase Alaska’s local food production and resilience by the next growing season. “That $5 million could increase food security immediately if that money was to be invested there,” Burk said. “Otherwise, the $5 million is turning my dad's trapline into a road.”