Unorganized Borough, Alaska facts for kids
Quick facts for kids
Location within the U.S. state of Alaska
Alaska's location within the U.S.
|• Total||323,440 sq mi (837,700 km2)|
|Time zone||UTC−9 (Alaska)|
|• Summer (DST)||UTC−8 (ADT)|
The Unorganized Borough is composed of the portions of the U.S. state of Alaska which are not contained in any of its 19 organized boroughs. While referred to as the "Unorganized Borough," it is not a borough itself, as it forgoes that level of government structure. It encompasses nearly half of Alaska's land area, 323,440 square miles (837,700 km2), an area larger than any other U.S. state, and larger than the land area of the smallest 16 states combined. As of the 2020 U.S. Census, it had a population of 77,157, which was 10.52% of the population of the state. The largest communities in the Unorganized Borough are the cities of Bethel, Unalaska and Valdez.
Unique among the United States, Alaska is not entirely subdivided into organized county equivalents. To facilitate census taking in the vast unorganized area, the United States Census Bureau, in cooperation with the state, divided the Unorganized Borough into 11 census areas beginning with the 1970 census. Currently, after Petersburg Census Area was made a borough, there are 10 census areas in the Unorganized Borough:
- Aleutians West Census Area
- Bethel Census Area
- Dillingham Census Area
- Hoonah–Angoon Census Area
- Kusilvak Census Area
- Nome Census Area
- Prince of Wales – Hyder Census Area
- Southeast Fairbanks Census Area
- Valdez–Cordova Census Area
- Yukon–Koyukuk Census Area
This vast area has no local-level government other than that of school districts and municipalities within its limits. Many of the villages do have tribal governments, however. Except within some incorporated cities, all government services in the Unorganized Borough, including law enforcement, are provided by the state or by the Tribal government. School districts in the Unorganized Borough are operated either by cities, in those limited instances when the city has chosen to undertake those powers, or through the general guidance of the state Department of Education under the auspices of Rural Education Attendance Areas (see below).
During the 1950s, when the push for the territory of Alaska to become a state was at its height, the presence of municipal government was extremely limited and scattered. Territory-wide, there were no more than a few dozen incorporated cities, and a small handful of service districts, broken into public utility districts and independent school districts. The service districts were authorized by the territorial legislature in 1935 to allow unincorporated areas limited powers to provide services and to tax for them.
The United States Congress had forbidden the territory from establishing counties. The delegates of the convention which wrote the Alaska Constitution had, in fact, debated the merits of establishing counties, and had rejected the idea in favor of creating a system of boroughs, both organized and unorganized.
The intent of the framers of the constitution was to provide for maximum local self-government with a minimum of local government units and tax-levying jurisdictions. The minutes of the constitutional convention indicate that counties were not used as a form of local government for various reasons. The failure of some local economies to generate enough revenue to support separate counties was an important issue as well as the desire to use a model that would reflect the unique character of Alaska, provide for maximum local input, and avoid a body of county case law already in existence.
Instead, Alaska adopted boroughs as a form of regional government. This regionalization was an attempt to avoid having a number of independent, limited-purpose governments with confusing boundaries and inefficient governmental operations. The territorial service districts had amounted to this much, but were seen by many as an important foundation in government being able to provide services without becoming all-powerful and unnecessarily intrusive, an argument which would surface time and again during various attempts by the legislature to create organized boroughs out of portions of the unorganized borough.
Alaska formally adopted the borough structure by statute in 1961, and envisioned boroughs to serve as an "all-purpose" form of local government to avoid the perceived problems of county government in the lower 48 states as well as Hawaii. According to Article X of the Alaska Constitution, areas of the state unable to support borough government were to be served by several unorganized boroughs, which were to be mechanisms for the state to regionalize services; however, separate unorganized boroughs were never created. The entire state was defined as one vast unorganized borough with the Borough Act of 1961, and, over the ensuing years, Alaska's organized boroughs were carved out of it.
Alaska's first organized borough, and the only one incorporated immediately after passage of the 1961 legislation, was the Bristol Bay Borough. As pressure would increase for other areas of the state to form boroughs, this led to the Mandatory Borough Act of 1963. This legislation called for all election districts in the state over a certain threshold in population to incorporate as boroughs by January 1, 1964.
To wit, a resolution of the State of Alaska's Local Boundary Commission introduced in January 2009 spells this out in greater detail:
- WHEREAS, the 1963 Alaska State Legislature passed, and Governor Egan signed into law, the "Mandatory Borough Act" (Chapter 52, SLA 1963), dictating that certain regions of Alaska - those encompassing Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Kodiak Island, Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna valleys, and Fairbanks - form organized boroughs by January 1, 1964.
Furthermore, Rural Education Attendance Areas were established by the Legislature in 1975. This had the effect of creating regional divisions of the unorganized borough for the purpose of establishing rural school districts. 21 REAAs were originally created; many of those would eventually be absorbed into organized boroughs over time.
Dispute over future mandatory boroughs
A number of organized boroughs have been incorporated in the years since the Mandatory Borough Act, but most (the primary examples being the North Slope Borough, the Northwest Arctic Borough and the Denali Borough), were incorporated to exploit a source of significant taxation potential, including natural resource extraction and tourism.
The unorganized status of this vast area is not without controversy. Many residents of the Unorganized Borough, particularly those in the larger communities which may be most susceptible to organized borough incorporation, have been vociferous in stating their opposition to incorporation as a borough, and in stating why the status quo suits them just fine. Many point out that they would already live in an organized borough if they desired that lifestyle and the level of government which came with it.
On the other hand, many Alaskans residing in organized boroughs feel that they unfairly subsidize residents of the Unorganized Borough, especially for education. In 2003, the Alaska Division of Community Advocacy identified eight areas within the Unorganized Borough meeting standards for incorporation. Bills have been introduced in the Alaska Legislature to compel these areas to incorporate, though as of 2009[update], none have been signed into law.
- Bethel (the largest city in the Unorganized Borough)
- Delta Junction
- Fort Yukon
- Hooper Bay
Regional Educational Attendance Areas
There are 19 Regional Educational Attendance Areas in the unorganized borough.
|Regional name||Headquarters||REAA or Borough School Locations||Notes|
|Alaska Gateway||Tok||Northeast central Alaska area|
|Aleutian Region||Nikolski (closed)|
|Bering Straits||Unalakleet||Norton Sound
|Chatham||Angoon||Elfin Cove (closed), Cube Cove (closed)|
||Chistochina (closed), Copper Center (closed), Gakona (closed), Nelchina (closed)|
||Healy Lake (closed), Fort Greely (closed)|
|Iditarod||McGrath||Lake Minchumina (closed), Lime Village (closed)|
|Kuspuk||Aniak||Red Devil (closed)|
|Lower Kuskokwim||Nunivak Island|
|Lower Yukon||Mountain Village||Pitkas Point (closed)|
|Pribilof Islands||Saint Paul||Saint George (closed)|
|Southeast Island||Edna Bay (closed), Port Protection (closed)|
|Southwest Region||Aleknagik||Portage Creek (closed)|
|Yukon Flats||Fort Yukon||Birch Creek (closed), Central (closed)|
|Yupiit (Akiachak, Akiak, Tuluksak)||Akiachak|