Alaska's century

Statehood, oil and ANCSA help define last 100 years in Alaska

Posted: Sunday, January 02, 2000

ANCHORAGE - As the 1900s dawned in Alaska, the happening place to be was Nome - gold was lying on the beachfront, just waiting to be scooped up. Thousands of people had already arrived to stake their claims, and thousands more were on their way.

In 1900 there was no Anchorage, no Fairbanks and the governor still ruled from Sitka. There was no oil, no telegraph and no roads that connected to the outside world. Natives and whites existed in equal numbers - 30,000 of each. Subsistence hunting and fishing were not political issues - they were the way to survive in a raw and unforgiving land.

During the past 100 years, Alaska has moved closer to the American mainstream. But in many ways the Last Frontier remains apart, where forces not experienced by other parts of the country continue to shape people and place.

The Associated Press surveyed more than a dozen Alaska historians, social scientists, museum curators, journalists and others about the dominant forces and events of the past century.

The survey attracted a wide range of selections, five of which appeared on nearly all ballots: World War II and its military legacy, statehood, development of North Slope oil, settlement of Native land claims and the 1980 expansion of national parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas.

Other events and trends were also mentioned frequently: gold rushes, construction of the Alaska Railroad, the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, formation of Native political groups, creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund, and the health-care improvements that reduced tuberculosis and other diseases endemic to Bush Alaska.


In the air: Flight crews at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage get one of the F-15 jets ready for takeoff. Alaska became the focus of the military buildup when the Japanese captured several Aleutian islands during World War II.

There were also individual favorites, like the actions of Alberta Skenk, a Native woman who in 1944 was forcibly ejected from Nome's Dreamland Movie House after refusing to leave a seat in the whites-only section. Skenk pushed the issue and eventually the seating policy was changed.

``Alaska had a Rosa Parks more than a decade earlier,'' said Paul Ongtooguk, a senior associate at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research.

World War II started the military buildup in Alaska that continues to pump millions of federal dollars into the state economy. When the war started in 1939, the territory had but one isolated military post and some 300 soldiers armed only with rifles.

But after the Japanese captured several Aleutian islands in June 1942, the United States quickly amassed an Alaska defense force of 150,000 men. Bases and airfields were built, along with a crude 1,400-mile road to bring in supplies by land from Canada. That road, since improved, is now known as the Alaska Highway.

``It changed practically everything for practically everybody,'' Mary Mangusso, a history professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said of the war. ``It brought attention, people and infrastructure to Alaska.''

``Crudely put, World War II dumped a hell of a lot of cash and equipment on Alaska,'' said Michael Carey, editorial-page editor at the Anchorage Daily News. ``No World War II and Alaska would not have become a state.''

Statehood came in 1959 after a long struggle both within Alaska and in Washington, D.C. The territory's ambitious residents wanted more local control over fish and other resources, but doubts persisted in Congress that the thinly populated territory could support itself as a state. Outside commercial interests - salmon canneries, steamship operators and mining companies - also used their clout to help fend off statehood for more than 40 years.

With statehood, Alaska received political and judicial autonomy, and more than 100 million acres of land from which to create an economy. The federal government retained more than twice that acreage, and with it a continued strong influence over Alaska that remains controversial.

``In the decades that followed (statehood), the utopian vision of local control never materialized, largely because Alaska remains dependent on federal spending and the federal government controls two-thirds of the land,'' said Dermot Cole, an author and columnist for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Stephen Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said that federal presence also provides a convenient whipping boy for state politicians.

``There's a powerful independence and individualist mythology in Alaska, and a failure to recognize it as a myth,'' Haycox said. ``Everything in Alaska history makes it clear that Alaska and Alaskans are not independent - they're dependent on absentee corporate investment and the federal government.''

The discovery of oil on the Kenai Peninsula in 1957 helped secure statehood, but it was the mammoth find at Prudhoe Bay more than a decade later that made Alaska rich and set off a northward stampede of workers to build the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Revenue from Prudhoe and the later North Slope discoveries filled the state's coffers to overflowing, and politicians spent the money just as fast. The Legislature celebrated with two acts with enduring impact - repeal of Alaska's personal income tax and creation of the permanent fund, which has grown to more than $25 billion in assets. This year the oil-fueled fund paid $1,770 to each eligible Alaskan.

``(Oil) brought unprecedented public and private money, inevitably changing our expectations of what we should have, in everything from roads to schools to homes to vacations,'' said Sam Bishop, the News-Miner's editorial-page editor. ``The vast majority of us can live now as if we're in Peoria, Ill., and we have come to take it for granted.''

But Alaska has also experienced the downside of reliance on a dominant industry. When oil prices drop, the state feels the pain. The collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s devastated the state's real estate and banking sectors. North Slope output has been in decline for years, which means declining revenue for a state government with considerable infrastructure to support.

Oil discovery forced a solution on one of Alaska's most enduring problems - land claims by Alaska Natives. The pipeline needed to carry Alaska's oil treasures to market would have to cross land claimed by Natives, so the issue jumped onto a legislative fast track.

The result was the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which created the 13 Native regional corporations and dozens more village corporations that we know today. The corporations were started with nearly $1 billion in cash and 44 million acres of federal land.

``ANCSA privatized Native wealth in for-profit corporations, (which are) now major regional and state asset managers,'' said Jerry McBeath, a UAF political-science professor.

That wealth is not evenly distributed, and conflicts over money flare up between Native shareholders and their corporate managers.

Barrow-based Arctic Slope Regional Corp. had revenue of nearly $900 million in 1998, most of it from its oil-field subsidiaries. Cook Inlet Region Inc., headquartered in Anchorage, has investments ranging from Alaska tourism and Lower 48 telecommunications and brought in $250 million last year. At the other end of the range was Bering Straits Native Corp., with 1998 revenue of $5.2 million.

After Native land claims were settled, the federal government moved to preserve large blocks of Alaska land from development. The result was the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, one of the most wide-sweeping environmental measures ever passed by Congress.

ANILCA set aside more than 100 million acres - an area the size of California - for new national parks, preserves, refuges and monuments. The law was cheered by conservationists, who said Alaska's unique wildlands belonged to the entire nation, but it was condemned by many Alaskans as a land lockup that hurt the state's economic future.

``Throughout the whole century, the question of land and who owns what land has been a central one in Alaska,'' said Joan Antonson, state historian in the Division of History and Archaeology. ``With ANILCA, they put into preserves the last allocations, once and for all. What we have created is a great deal of federal land and a federal presence forevermore up here.''

The law also created the long-running subsistence conflict between the state and federal government. ANILCA includes a rural priority for subsistence hunting and fishing on federal land, a provision that clashes with a state law guaranteeing equal access to resources for all Alaskans.

After years of extensions to reconcile the conflict, the federal government in October took over management of subsistence fishing in most of Alaska.

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