by Ken Jennings, Condé Nast Traveler
Ken Jennings explores the unorganized territory smack in the middle of the America's largest state.
As Americans know, most of their country is divided into counties--3,007 of them at last count, a number that last changed in 2001 with the creation of Broomfield County, Colorado. Many Americans probably also know that there are a bunch of "county equivalents" as well, since Louisiana is divided into parishes instead of counties, and Alaska into boroughs. But you may not know that there are 323,400 square miles of the United States that belong to no county, parish, or borough at all. This vast nonentity is bigger than Texas, but it doesn't even have a real name.
To avoid the hassle of counties, Alaska created one big non-county.
In 1961, the Alaska legislature passed a statute that would allow local governments to incorporate as county-like "boroughs," and in 1963 the controversial Mandatory Borough Act forced the state's election districts to form boroughs once they reached a certain population threshold. But they never divided the whole state into boroughs! Instead, they created one vast non-borough--the "Unorganized Borough"--and allowed for areas to carve themselves off from it.
The 19 boroughs are weirder than any other state's counties.
As a result of all this local autonomy, the boroughs of Alaska vary widely. The only one created immediately was Bristol Bay Borough, a tiny rectangle around the state's salmon fishery capital (and the namesake of Bristol Palin!). It's about the size of Los Angeles. But North Slope Borough, the state's northernmost "hat," created a decade later, is considerably larger than Idaho. The weirdest borough is probably Lake and Peninsula Borough, which covers the Alaska Peninsula that stretches out from the state's southwest corner. It contains no real population centers at all, so its borough seat is the town of King Salmon--located outside its own borders. (Hmm, that sounds familiar.)
13 percent of Alaskans still live in no official place at all.
But most of Alaska's vast area never opted for borough status. The Unorganized Borough is smaller than it was in 1961, but it still covers over half of Alaska, a vast wilderness larger than the smallest sixteen U.S. states, from Ohio to Rhode Island, combined! And the Unorganized Borough lives up to its name: there's no central government whatsoever for the one out of every seven Alaskans who live there, just local school districts and town and tribal councils.
Will the last unorganized frontier ever get it together?
There have been periodic movements in Alaska to carve the Unorganized Borough into actual, functioning boroughs, in hopes of addressing rural Alaska's disproportionate struggle with problems like poverty, crime, and addiction. But many of the non-borough's 80,000 residents like things just the way they are. You see, a non-government doesn't levy taxes. The scattered Un-boroughites are some of the last people in America who pay no property tax. In fact, they pay no local taxes whatsoever.
Explore the world's oddities every week with Ken Jennings, and check out his book Maphead for more geography trivia.
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