While Alaska's governor and Legislature grapple with the much-touted state fiscal gap, a more serious economic outcome is looming. It has much to do with Alaska's real economic resource, little to do with logging, mining, tourism or fishing. This other resource contributes twice as many direct jobs as all the above-mentioned natural resource industries combined.
I'm talking about the $6 billion the federal government reportedly spent in Alaska in 2001 alone.
Of that $6 billion, more than $1.5 billion was in the form of grants to state government. One report suggests that federal grants pay for as much of the state budget as the oil revenues do.
Let me digress. Alaska was able to gain statehood because territorial political leaders at that time made the case that we could become a self-supporting new state. The harvest of our natural resources would sustain the lifestyles of our population, providing for careful growth.
Everyone recognized the federal government would have to make serious infrastructure investments in Alaska during our early years, but these investments would pay off and start to decline as we developed our resource industries. Schools, health facilities, roads, airports, hydroelectric projects all received attention in the beginning.
With this influx of federal investment came new federal and state jobs, many which were filled by professionals that owed their existence not to resource development but to the federal largesse. Alaska's capital more than doubled in population between 1950 and 1970 and most of the increase was due to growth in government employment.
Thus begins the cruel irony.
Some of those imported to help us on our economic feet as the new 49th state started to develop a deeper hidden agenda. Influenced by the Sierra Club and other extreme environmental organizations, they were not here to help create an infrastructure to harvest our natural resources; they came to find ways to lock up those resources. These interlopers felt they had to protect us from ourselves. Territorial Alaskans were warm-hearted hosts. We embraced the new immigrants to our beautiful state. We never saw the real impact coming until it was too late.
Not in anyone's wildest imagination could we believe the wrath these few professionals would create. Over time their policies infected our schools, our places of business and finally our culture. Because of resident apathy at the polls, their voices, although still in the minority, grew to have sway in our local elections. They successfully put a rope around the neck of our economy and still want to create more devastation.
Yes, we have a fiscal gap. But right now I believe our more serious problem is facing the fact that our main financial resource, the federal government, is not a renewable resource. I fear we have wasted decades fighting the environmental movement when we could have been building our basic infrastructure that would allow a sustainable economy.
We must realize the generosity of the federal government is largely due to the astounding efforts of one man, Sen. Ted Stevens. His seniority and strategic position as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the U.S. Senate allowed him latitude to help fund Alaska's basic needs almost without challenge. But, because chairmanships in the Senate change, this will not continue forever.
How, then, will we go about replacing the reported 35,000 direct jobs that result from his efforts? That is the real problem. We have decades of catch-up to do. It will take years to replace these jobs from the private sector.
The looming fiscal gap pales in size; it's time to redirect our attention to natural resource development. Not acting will bring devastation to dozens of Alaska's towns and villages.
It is imperative we get behind our elected officials and drown out the voices of those willing to continue to do harm to us. They have had their way far too long and we have sad evidence of their success.
It is time to stand up and be counted. We have to be vocal in our support for sound development; Alaskans need private-sector jobs, not handouts. It is clear we cannot depend on federal-state largess forever.
It's time to go out on a limb and challenge the environmentalists. You don't find any fruit until you get out on the limb.
Dave Fremming of Juneau publishes Alaskan Southeaster Magazine.