Alaska gambles on turning boreal forest into farmland

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Alaska’s boreal forest is one of the largest trappers of carbon dioxide in the world. But as the state warms twice as fast as the rest of the U.S., once frozen land is now thawed out and up for grabs. 

“I see climate change in Alaska as an opportunity to bring in more crops, to develop more land,” said Erik Johnson, who oversees the Nenana-Totchaket Agricultural Project for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. 

In October, the project began auctioning off 140,000 acres of the forest, divided into parcels, to the highest bidders from all over the world. 

“This is the most suitable land for agriculture development,” Johnson said. “This is only 140,000 acres out of a 3-million-acre state.”

But statewide, the rush for land is on. The number of farms have grown 44% between 2007 and 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, making Alaska the state with the most amount of new farms in the country. 

Native tribes, who live off the land in the boreal forest, worry the project will be abused and cause pollution. 

“This is our grocery store. This is how we grew up, learning how to live off this land,” said Eva Dawn Burke. 

The state says bidders are required to submit development plans, but acknowledges they are not strict. 

“We want real farmers. We want to provide opportunities. We can’t tell them exactly how to use that opportunity,” Johnson said. “I see the lower 48 as getting hotter and drier, and we’ve got a lot of water and a lot of clean land.”

It’s a new gamble for Alaska and not a risk everyone is willing to take. 

“Agriculture is probably something we need to get into, but what does it look like?” Burke said. “It doesn’t look like this.”

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