ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ There is no free land in Alaska. None. Nada. Zip.

But no matter how often officials say it, the calls and letters from wilderness dreamers in the Lower 48 keep coming, asking how to get some of that land.

Apartment-dwellers write from cities, saying they have to get away from crime. Convicts write from prisons, saying they have to get away from society.

''There's a lot of desperation,'' said Salli Slaughter, chief of public information for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. ''Whether it's because the economy's bad, or crime, or something personal - they can't take their situation anymore.''

For many, Alaska is more than a state. It is a metaphor for freedom, a symbol of a world beyond the limits of civilization, a blank slate where you can claim a piece of the wilderness and start life anew.

The reality: There hasn't been free Alaska homestead land open to all Americans since 1986, when the federal government halted its land disposal program.

The state began its own homestead program in 1984. But it's open only to Alaskans who have lived in the state at least a year. And because of a legal dispute over state lands, no homestead land has been offered since 1991.

It will be at least a year before the state opens more land to settlement, but because the state also sells land, there's no assurance that any offerings will be homestead giveaways, Slaughter said.

It may be just as well, considering the headlong approach of some would-be homesteaders.

One family loaded up their car, then halfway to Alaska thought maybe they should call to find out more about the free land, Slaughter said. Told there wasn't any, the family took turns calling all day, pushing coins into pay phones, hoping to get a different answer.

Slaughter's colleagues had a chuckle over that story until someone shared it with a friend who was a welfare worker in Anchorage.

''I know those people,'' the friend said. ''They're my clients now.''