Free Land in Alaska?

By , October 23, 2009

You’re not going to like this, but it’s the truth: you cannot get free land from the U.S. government in Alaska or any other state through the Homestead Act! Despite what you read on the Internet and in classified ads, homesteading as legally defined is suspended throughout the United States, most likely for good.

The Federal Homestead Act that allowed Americans to obtain 160 acres of unclaimed land by staking a claim, defining boundaries, and “proving up” over a five year period, is no more. It ended in 1976 in the United States, except in Alaska, where it lingered till 1986. The term “homestead” is still used, but it refers to property on which the occupant lives off the land as independently as possible. When my family refers to our homestead, that’s our definition. We did not and could not have legally homesteaded this property. It’s a homestead only in the sense that it provides us most of our living.

All of Alaska is now in the hands of either the Federal or State government, or private ownership. Land can still be had relatively cheaply in Alaska under certain conditions. The State of Alaska sells parcels over the counter and through competitive bids, but there are restrictions and requirements, one of which is that you must be an Alaska resident to participate. Another way to get inexpensive acreage in Alaska is to bid in the Mental Health Trust Land Office Auctions. Alaska funds its mental health needs by granting land to the Mental Health Trust, which auctions off property each year. These properties are undeveloped and nearly always remote, but the prices are low, and financing terms are excellent. Still, they are not nearly inexpensive enough to qualify as “free land” in any sense of the term.

And yet the pernicious belief that anyone can simply go to Alaska and “stake a claim” persists. The sad fact is that Alaska remains little known or understood by the rest of the United States or the rest of the world. It’s an easy place to exploit, and people do it all the time. A Google search will find you many, many people who are anxious to provide details on how to find free land in Alaska, almost always for a fee. You’ll also find scores of sites with misinformation about the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend. Again, many of these offer information for a “reasonable” fee. That money is better flushed down the toilet. Better yet, send it to me—either way, the results will be about the same.

The danger here is that, particularly in these troubled economic times, people actually do pull up stakes and move to Alaska, expecting to be handed a permanent fund check and the deed to prime land when they cross the border! Since many do this with their last savings, they end up stuck here, depending on Alaska’s social networks for food and shelter. Unrealistic expectations and some measure of desperation often lead to dissolution, and sometimes tragedy. Some are so eager to “rough it” that they strike out into the woods on their own. Eventually, we find their bones. If possible, we notify their next of kin. The lucky ones return to wherever they came from, poorer but hopefully wiser.

Still, dare to dream! If you long for a homestead in Alaska or elsewhere, it can be had, but the price—beyond hard work, determination, skill, intelligence, flexibility, and luck—includes an initial layout of funds for the land itself.

26 Responses to “Free Land in Alaska?”

  1. Michael says:

    Thank you for publishing this article. There is a lot of misinformation out there online and I’m glad I decided to click this site to get the truth. I am truly grateful for your honesty and clarity of “homesteading” in Alaska. Thanks again!

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Michael,

    Thanks for your feedback! I often feel like a Cassandra, crying out against the flood of misinformation propagated by profiteers and simple “know-it-alls” about what can and can’t be had for free in Alaska–land, money, etc. it’s gratifying to know that I helped someone learn more about what’s really available.

  3. David says:

    its too bad the land that is affordable through the mental health is so hard to get to it would be a good deal if it had a road to it.

  4. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi David,

    The Mental Health Trust Land auctions are an excellent deal, unless you want roads. For me and my family, that’s obviously not a problem. We bid in past auctions before buying our homestead from a private owner. Still, there are a few lots each year that are accessible by road, particularly in the Wrangell area, where I did some of my growing up.

    Thanks for visiting the site!

    Mark

  5. mickael says:

    So what I need to do first is move up for a year right? Or is their any elder people on a remote river some wher that could help and teach me as long as I do my share of the work? And how would I find these oler homesteads …..go up river? Till I find one? Since their is probley no way to contact…please let me know since this is a dream of mine im 21 and know alot of primitive skills thank you very much mike smith cedar city utah

  6. Mark Zeiger says:

    Mike, yes, you’d need to be a full time Alaska resident for more than a year, and intend to continue living in Alaska indefinitely. But, I must stress again–the Alaska Permanent Fund helps, but it is NOT a reason to move to Alaska! Nor will it sustain a person who moves to the bush. The cost of living is simply too high out there, even for bare essentials. (Keep in mind that while technically/legally I live in “bush” Alaska, I’m in an urban center compared to many residents in the state!) The elders are out there, but to get help from them requires earning their trust first–something that may never happen, no matter how helpful one may be. As for heading up one of the rivers looking for homesteads, that seems futile at best, if not dangerous.

    Your best bet, if you want an Alaska homestead, is to search the Internet for people selling out. Craigslist is a good source, some homesteading sites have classifieds, etc. Also, look into the Alaska Mental Health Lands Trust for killer deals on remote, undeveloped property around the state. Work like crazy to earn a huge nest egg to keep you afloat once you find a place and make your move, then work like hell to make it happen. That’s not encouraging, nor is it meant to be, but it’s the best advice I can offer. Good luck!

  7. Ron allen says:

    I too was looking at all the “free” land. Glad I saw your site. Was considering the idea of homesteading land there. It makes me really excited to think of the idea of doing that. Maybe one day. I am an avid hunter at 40 yrs old hunting trapping teaching my son to live off the land in Illinois. I have gained fairly good skills of being self sufficient by not purchasing meat for our food Source in years. I feel I could survive there. But unfortunately it would not be a dream of my family to live that way for the remainder of our lives. Great blog. Very informative. Congrats to u and yours. For doing what I’d love to do.

  8. Mark Zeiger says:

    Thanks, Ron. All my life, the conventional wisdom has been that couples can’t make it in Alaska unless they both love it. Most of the divorce, ruined dreams, and even murder (all of which we see far too much of) can be traced to those kinds of tensions here. Next year, Michelle will have lived 20 years in Alaska, and I’m thankful every day that she took to the place when I first brought her here!

  9. patrick says:

    I checked out some of the auctions for the mental health department.70 to 90 thousand for 3 to 4 acre lots in remote areas.What a rip off.Makes me sick to my stomach.

  10. Mark Zeiger says:

    Patrick, actually those are excellent prices for Alaska land. A piece of paradise–even a remote piece, is not cheap.

  11. Nancy Rudd says:

    I so glad I came upon your web site I bookmarked your site, I live on a small farm in the Santa Barbara CA area Which is very nice here. I am interested In Alaska and would love to Come to Vacation too! I have a question for you about Animals do u have live stock such as Chickens or Goats there? I was thinking of homesteading till I read the above, so since I will not be moving there I will come check on your blog from time to time God bless your family and thank you for sharing your life and experiences. NR

  12. Mike says:

    Alaska’s a rip-off, period, unless you’ve got a very, very high paying job there. The cost of living is expensive (you can expect to pay 8-9-10 bucks for a gallon of milk in some places!), it’s cold (insanely so, depending on what part your in), and just generally sucks. Sure, there’s some beautiful scenery, a great place to go hunting, fishing, and sight seeing, but it’s not for everyone, believe me. Once you tire of the outdoor scene, there’s nothing to do but stay drunk or smoke pot (if your into that kind of thing). I’ve actually come across some folks whom wanna move there due to the fact that they believe it’s insulated from what they preceive to be the declining situation down here in the lower 48, but I urge you to research, research, research, make sure you know what your getting into, lol.

  13. Mark Zeiger says:

    Mike, normally I would not approve comments on this blog that are so insulting to my home and native state, but I chose to do so in this case because you make a good point: Alaska is not for everyone, and, as one who lives here (on far less than “a very, very high paying job”) I prefer that people don’t move here, especially if they feel the way you seem to about the state. If you don’t have the skills, strength, intelligence, and desire to live here, stay the hell home and leave us alone.

  14. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Nancy,

    We don’t have livestock personally. We plan to try raising chickens or ducks eventually, but I need to figure out how to feed them without hauling sacks of feed over the hill on my back. We like the idea of goats, but are intimidated by the observation that a pen that holds water might hold a goat.

    Many people here and in other parts of Alaska do raise livestock with a fair amount of success. We just haven’t taken that step ourselves.

    We fell in love with Santa Barbara when we saw it on our honeymoon 30 years ago. We’d love to visit there again someday!

  15. Shawn says:

    WOW!!! Thank you so much Mr. Zeiger for your honesty and time in creating this site. I’m a recently retired soldier, with our last child 6yrs away from going to college and the wife and I considered your beautiful state as a retirement home. I really toyed with the idea of “ruffing” it, figured being an infantry soldier would help out..lol but it sounds like you folks have a different idea of ruffing it, again thank you for this site.

  16. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Shawn, sadly, Alaska is a very difficult state to retire in. Every year we see friends move away because they can’t afford to live here, or to move with elderly parents who have to move away for better access to health care and other services. The possibility that we might not be able to age in place looms over our heads as well. For those who can do it, though, the rewards are immense. Good luck!

  17. Chris Forehand says:

    Hello,It has always been a dream of mine to live in Alaska. I am 50 years old and single. I think the time has passed me by to do this on my own but would move there in a minute if I could find someone willing to give me a chance to help work their homestead and prove that I could be a great help.I am looking for true on your own living and willing to do the work required.Thanks

  18. Mark Zeiger says:

    Chris, I’ve been trying to remember the name of an organization that connects people like you with homesteads around the world for this kind of cooperative learning, but I can’t recall it. If you Google “homestead work stay” or similar, I’m sure you’ll find one of several groups that do this. I’ve read reviews from both the workers and the hosts here in Alaska, and it seems to be an excellent experience for all. Good luck!

  19. Chad Bratt says:

    Hi Mark,
    Thank you for writing this. My mom was born in AK a few years prior to statehood. Originally, they offered her (and all others born prior to statehood) 5 free acres of land with proof of birth, and you were required to survey, stake a claim, and build a permanent structure on the land in within 5 years of claiming. She has had a few friends claim this offer, but that was a while back. I am trying to track down information on this program and see if it is still in effect and if AK still honored it. Since reading the info above, I thought you may know about it and point me in the right direction.

    Thanks, Chad

  20. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Chad,

    I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard of that program. It could well have existed at one time, and may still be in effect. This looks like another way I can tease my big brother, who has always lamented that he was born 20 days after Alaska statehood!

    I was born in 1960, and back then the governor wrote letters of congratulations to the parents of every newborn in the state. A program of granting acreage, especially 5 acres, a relatively small parcel in a state this big, could well have been in place. Good luck, and please let me know if anything develops–this is very interesting!

    Mark

  21. Shannon says:

    Hey Mark, I used to live in AK in the Bristol Bay area, Egegik and Dillingham, a short stint in Los Anchorage, and I have to say that I found Alaska to be a bit more hopeful than your blog sounds. I went up there when I was a brand new 22, got a job working for a fishing company, and it went from there to Mental Health (they paid for my college education)and then law enforcement, they also put me through several training programs. What I found to be true was that if you were willing to work, there were jobs available, plenty! And I don’t recall land being that expensive. Certainly not 70 to 90 thousand for 3 to 4 acres in the middle of nowhere. I remembering looking at land just outside of Fairbanks on Chena Hot Springs Road for about $2000 an acre or so. I appreciate that you don’t want people to be misled, but frankly, as one Alaskan to another, I think you’re doing a little misleading yourself. Life is harder there in some ways, yes, but also not as hard in others. The lower 48 has no idea what “community” is anymore. I’ve seen people who can’t stand each other any other time of the year jump in a skiff together side by side to go help look for someone else’s boat or skiff after a storm washed them out to sea. You don’t find that here. Do you have to haul your own wood, fuel, water, caribou? Yes. But you also somewhere along the line made a friend who’s with you doing it. To be honest, it almost sounds like you’re discouraging people a bit. Now having said all that, I can remember when that book, “Into the wild” came out. I was working in law enforcement in the bush at the time and someone from the lower 48 asked me what I thought of the book. I just cringed because I knew there were going to be too many yahoo’s who thought that the young man in the story was ill informed, and that they could do it better, and we were going to have a new influx of yahoos who we were going to have to send out search and rescue teams for. That is the truth. Alaska doesn’t suffer amateurs. I’m sure you have been to more funerals than you care to remember because someone made a simple mistake. I know I attended too many.

    In any case, sorry, a little long winded, I just wanted to put in my two cents worth of, it’s hard for sure, but not so much so that it can’t be done.

    For homesteaders, there is no free lunch, anywhere. I homestead in MO. We chose here because you can grow something besides cabbage, and you can use a horse team to plow and disc your land. Good luck with trying that in the Mat-su valley. Horse maybe, but much besides cabbage and the brassicas, probably not.

    S.

  22. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Shannon,

    Excellent comment! Thank you for it. Nothing in it really contradicts my thesis, in my opinion. You’re right, I did write this in an effort to discourage people–it’s a dose of reality far too few people get before coming to Alaska to start a new life.

    I didn’t say that it couldn’t be done. Obviously, people can and do emigrate to Alaska, and thrive, but I maintain that it takes a certain type of person–like you, for instance–a type that is rarer than self-evaluation would indicate. Those who are ready and willing to work like hell, and to be open to forming the kind of community relationships you describe (after all, one’s “enemy” being willing to pitch in with one is only half the equation–one must also be willing to pitch in with one’s “enemy”) will do well. Those less willing to do either probably will not.

    I never said that land is expensive here. I merely said that no one should expect it to be free. It requires a financial outlay–I didn’t say how much. My article is a response to the misleading ads that promote the idea of getting free land and receiving a PFD that will make everything okay. Anyone who comes to Alaska with those delusions needs to be discouraged before they make the move here. If they make the effort knowing that they’ll have to do it themselves, they’ll likely succeed.

    You may ruffle some MatSu feathers asserting that they can only grow brassicas there. I visited there recently, and yes, the brassicas are amazing, but so is the other produce they grow. My sister-in-law and I sat looking over a friend’s garden, trying to identify the crops. We kept saying, “That looks like (this or that) only bigger!” I came away pretty jealous!

    Mark

  23. Chris Isaacs says:

    I have recently stopped chasing the all mighty dollar and taken a step back. i only use wood heat, use oil lamps, this week alone we have eaten deer chili, deer roast, deer cude and tomarrrow is squirel. The drug problems in the lower 48 are out of control, the people wont lift a finger to help a neighbor ant more. Im only 39 but do remember days when neighbors helped each other but that time has long gone. I do have 2 kids and cant just shut down there life of tv games and electricity but we are cutting back. They have no problems on not using lights so far, we are installing a 12 volt batter system with solar pannels and generator for charging batteries next, in spring were gonna raise first garden and learn to can the food, learning to can deer meat, we are spending a little time every day learning somthing new to survive off the land. Our plan is to purchase a plot of land in 2014 thru the state financing program, spend a couple month each summer developing it with rustic cabin built with timer from the land, clear space and construct small greenhouse and of course list goes on on an but you get the idea, were not jumping in to quick but working into to it with the skills we will need to survive. we are not relly wanting propery with road access but more wanting access by trails on atv summer snow machine winter, would like to be able to make it to a town where we could access our money and purchase supplies once a month and be able to make the round trip in around 8 hours or so. Were gonna need to be able to haul fuel (estimated 50 gallons month)food we cant raise or kill and such, we not even counting in the alaska money into thoughts, Ive got eye on a largefor canvas tent for use first summer and part of second summer while we build our basic homestead style cabin. I dont know if plans will work out but gonna work hard towards it and keep dreaming every day about it

  24. Mark Zeiger says:

    Chris, best of luck to you and your family!

    I feel, though, that good neighbors do still exist in the lower 48. Were that not true, we wouldn’t spend the money to go visit them every now and then. The key, as you probably know, is to be a good neighbor yourself. If that doesn’t help you find others like you, it might just convert those nearest to you!

  25. Patrick J. Collins says:

    Hello Mark,
    First, I want to thank you for your honesty, I am a firm believer that if something is “to good to be true” it usually is. However, with that said, I currently live and work in Pikeville, KY as a environmental scientist (24 years old) and was borne and raised in the backwoods of the Appalachian Mountains. To me “and many other not from this region” this area is similar to Alaska in many ways but not to the extremes in some instances (It is -30 degrees here now). I was raised to be a steward of the land and live from it when necessary. I am a avid outdoorsman from hunting “everything”, fishing, fur handling,etc, so survival isn’t a issue but I do retain the intellect to understand certain necessary steps will need to be taken if I ever achieve a dream of mine, which is to live in isolation in Alaska. What I mentally classify as “truly living”. My question is, if you were in my shoes what are the necessary steps I need to take to move north to Alaska? and what’s the likelihood of me finding a environmental science related job there in order to acclimate to the region and acquire proper funding to “homestead”? Thanks in advance for any advice

  26. Mark Zeiger says:

    Patrick, I have some ideas to offer. I’m going to take this off the blog, and email you from our “geemail” account in a day or two with my thoughts. Best of luck!

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