From bombing to logging, forum looks at state's destiny

Posted: Friday, April 01, 2005

If a few old-time dreamers had their way, the road to Juneau would have been carved into the mountains with a few nuclear bombs.

In fact, if state history had taken a slightly different course, test-bombed Amchitka Island wouldn't have been the only thermonuclear target.

In a state where king salmon can grow bigger than small children, "Maybe it's kind of inevitable that Alaska would be the birthplace - or at least the venue - for all kinds of outsized dreams and schemes," said Fairbanks author Dan O'Neill on Thursday, giving the keynote speech for the first day of Juneau's Pacific Rim Forum.

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For a schedule of today's and Saturday's events at the Pacific Rim Forum, see

The three-day forum at the University of Alaska Southeast is billed as a gathering of ideas on development, culture, arts and the environment in the Pacific Rim nations and states. It ends Saturday.

O'Neill's audacious and humor-tinged speech Thursday morning - about Alaska's past love-affair with nukes, its continuing involvement with the National Missile Defense System, and ethical problems faced by Alaska scientists - set a high bar for discussion of other ideas to shore up Alaska's economy at the forum on Thursday morning.

The consensus: Some big ideas are reasonable but others just need to go to the trash bin.

And it is well that some of them did get canned, said O'Neill, citing the infamous Project Chariot, which he wrote about in his 1994 book, "The Firecracker Boys." The project proposed detonating an underwater nuclear device to form a harbor near the Eskimo community of Point Hope.

"Had Alaska followed its leaders, it would have been pasted with a walloping dose of radiation that might have reached levels 600 times greater than was released at Chernobyl in 1984," O'Neill said.

Other ideas - like a plastic freshwater pipe to Southern California and a dam across the Bering Strait - also slipped into fortunate oblivion, he said.

O'Neill, whose regular column for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner was canceled in 2002, had choice words for civic boosters, politicians and journalists who fall victim to such ideas or perpetuate questionable statements in the press, and he targeted the National Missile Defense System as a case in point.

Some missile defense boosters, for example, have made hay out of a 1998 North Korean missile test that in fact never got within 1,000 miles of Attu. "Not without regular claims to the contrary from Alaska newspaper reporters and editors, our boosters, politicians and even our university president, who are all - like their historical predecessors - salivating so heavily over federal dollars that it has apparently dehydrated their brains," O'Neill said.

A handful of other speakers on Thursday morning gave their perspectives on "good" big ideas and "bad" big ideas.

Rick Harris, executive vice president of Sealaska Corp., said the Juneau regional Native corporation is focusing on selling timber in competitive Asian markets, rather than pursuing the traditional dream of a low-grade timber industry in Southeast Alaska.

"People criticize us" over why Sealaska doesn't invest more in "value-added" manufacturing in the region, Harris said. But Southeast Alaska is "littered with failed manufacturing operations," he said. "We would be taking a substantial hit by manufacturing in Southeast."

In order for a value-added timber industry in Southeast Alaska to work, "we need a better model," Harris said.

John Tichosky, an adviser to an eastern Russian provincial governor, told the forum audience that isolated, resource-rich regions like Alaska and eastern Russia don't need to try to be like the rest of the industrial world.

"An isolated community's size is based on its exports," said Tichosky, a former researcher at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

He said Alaskans, for example, should focus on the exports that will drive their economy instead of trying to build a self-sufficient economy, which may be too expensive or unnecessary.

In his Chukotka region, the provincial leadership has built up its financial prowess by creating a tax haven for Russian corporations. "The investment in the region has been phenomenal," Tichosky said.

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