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Know the West

At first, locals protested Alaska’s land sale. Now, they’re reclaiming it

The buyers plan to transform 40 acres of fire-scarred land into a sustainable, Indigenous-led farm.

In October, the state of Alaska closed bidding on the long-awaited Nenana Totchaket agricultural project land sale. The project opened up the sale of nearly 150,000 acres of state land to bidders willing to develop the land for agricultural use, which the state hopes will relieve local struggles with food insecurity. The sale included 27 parcels totaling 2,450 acres near the town of Nenana, about an hour south of Fairbanks; every parcel sold. But it was not without controversy, drawing protests from Nenana residents, Nenana tribal members and climate activists over the project’s potential ecological, cultural and historical impacts.


The project was first considered in the 1970s but did not move forward because the area was separated from other towns by the Nenana River. In 2020, the Nenana Native Association obtained a federal grant to build a new bridge over the river to make the area more accessible. That reignited interest in the project, and in 2022, the Alaska Legislature approved $5 million to open the land sale in June. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration believes the project could help ease Alaska’s decades-long struggle with food insecurity, which has been exacerbated by climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. 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. However, local residents raised concerns that the land sale could actually make the problem worse since development could disrupt subsistence hunting, trapping and fishing. A local community group, led by Indigenous residents, decided to place bids to reclaim their ancestral lands. In October, the state announced that they won two parcels — and now they’re planning what they’ll do with the land.

A grocery store in Nenana, Alaska. Ninety-five percent of the food in the state is currently imported, with most grocery stores having only a three-to-five-day supply.

The Tlaa Deneldel Community Group, a Nenana organization focused on food sovereignty and cultural revitalization, worked with the statewide nonprofit Native Movement to raise $80,000 for the land sale. The group bid on four parcels and were outbid on two of them, but they were awarded two 20-acre plots. “It was exciting to hear that our name was called as the winner,” said Enei Begaye, who is a citizen of the Diné and Tohono O’odham nations and the executive director of Native Movement.

Still, there’s much work ahead; the land will require some careful tending. When Eva Dawn Burk walked through the two parcels this summer, she noticed they were in poor shape. Burk is Dene' Athabascan from the villages of Nenana and Manley Hot Springs, and leads The Tlaa Deneldel Community Group. She’s passed by this land on the way to her father’s trapline for decades, and in 2009, a wildfire burned through the area. Since then, she’s seen the land slowly regrow. Today, it’s a mosaic of baby spruce, birch, willow, alder, cottonwoods and moss. Burk and the community group are hoping to encourage that regeneration and use the land as part of a small, Indigenous science-led farm.

Eva Dawn Burk (Dene' Athabascan from the villages of Nenana and Manley Hot Springs), leader of The Tlaa Deneldel Community Group, in Nenana, Alaska, with the Tanana River behind her.

It won’t look like a typical farm. Instead, the community group plans to mirror what the wild environment looks like. “We want to keep our traditional plants and vegetation,” Burk said.

The two parcels will become a place to educate and display permaculture and farming practices that champion Indigenous science and local knowledge. That work begins beneath the surface with soil testing. Burk wants to use natural, locally sourced ways to build up the health of the fire-scarred soil, such as promoting vegetation that grows in the years after a blaze. The group plans to measure how effectively those plants build the health of the soil. Burk’s daughter will delineate and catalog plants in their boreal forest ecosystem that might provide habitat or food and medicine for people to harvest.

Once the group is happy with the soil, they will figure out which crops work best in that region. Burk said they are combining what they learn from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the state, nearby farms and the group’s own knowledge of the land; they're working toward an approachable, standardized and Indigenous science-led way of doing agriculture in rural Alaska. One way Burk sees blending Western and Indigenous practices on the farm is by clearing willows. Once the willows are pulled, they can be dried and turned into mulch, which enriches the land with carbon as it breaks down. In the willows’ place, new willow shoots will grow. Those shoots are a favorite snack for moose, which have become rarer in the area. The large mammals are important for local hunters, and Burk hopes the shoots might attract more of them.

A moose processing shed in Nenana, Alaska, that was built by funding Eva Dawn Burk helped gather. Residents have raised concerns that the land sale could make food insecurity worse since development could disrupt subsistence hunting, trapping and fishing.


BEING AWARDED THE PARCELS was a bittersweet moment for Burk. While it felt good to reclaim some of her ancestral land and have space to develop a hub for Indigenous-led agriculture in Alaska, she said she believes the land sale was rushed, and doesn’t urgently address local or statewide food security concerns. 

Being here in Alaska during COVID, in Fairbanks, and watching the shelves go empty and not knowing when things were going to come in – we’re in this emergency place where we need to increase food production right now,” Burk said. But, she added, it will be years before the farmland in Nenana can be productive.


Burk also thinks the governor’s office and the Alaska Department of Agriculture could do more to bolster food security and protect the natural environment from overdevelopment, like requiring that farms in the project area produce more than $1,000 worth of food annually and creating clearer guidelines for clear cutting new spruce and birch growth. Tim Shilling, the natural resources manager for Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land and Water, said they’re receptive to community feedback. “The state is planning to continue working with the Nenana community to answer questions and find solutions about their concerns to the best of our ability,” he said. On Dec. 12, representatives from three state agencies gathered in Nenana for a listening session. Since then, Burk said she’s more optimistic about working with the state. “The effort was there to try to understand, which is hopefully a step in the right direction.”

Each bidder awarded land will spend the next several months developing a farm plan, which will be reviewed and approved by the state before any development begins. And in 2024, the process will begin again; Schilling said another sale is planned next year.

Both Native Movement and Tlaa Deneldel are excited and nervous as the bidding process continues and plans for their farm take shape, Begaye said. “It’s a really exciting time, and it can feel a little scary since we don't have a handbook necessarily to follow. We're really at the forefront of shaping this out,” she said.

Victoria Petersen is a freelance journalist living in Anchorage, Alaska. Previously, she was a reporting fellow at The New York Times and a High Country News intern. Follow @vgpetersen

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