Alaska gambles on turning boreal forest into farmland

Alaska’s boreal forest is the largest carbon dioxide trap in the world. But as the state warms twice as fast as the rest of the US, the once-frozen land is now put out for grabs.

“I see climate change in Alaska as an opportunity to bring in more crops, to grow more land,” said Eric Johnson, who oversees the Nenana-Tochket agriculture project for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

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

“This is the most suitable land for agricultural development,” Johnson said. “It’s only 140,000 acres out of 3 million acres in the state.”

But there is competition for land across the state. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the number of farms increased by 44% between 2007 and 2017, making Alaska the state with the most new farms in the country.

Indigenous tribes, who live off the land in the Udichya forest, worry that the project will be misused and cause pollution.

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

The state says it requires bidders to submit development plans, but admits they are not strict.

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

This is a new gamble for Alaska and not a risk everyone is willing to take.

“Agriculture is probably something we need, but what does it look like?” Burke said. “Don’t think so.”

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