Searching for scapegoats

Posted: Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Mr. Fremming's My Turn on Sunday loudly urges us to "go out on a limb and challenge the environmentalists." I hear the sound of sawing behind us on the limb that Alaskans sit on together.

In troubled times people want scapegoats. Mr. Fremming, along with many of our elected officials, have selected environmentalists. His My Turn promotes two tired myths. First, that natural resource extraction spurs economic and social development, and second, that environmental protection stalls it.

As a life-long Alaskan and amateur historian, I don't see much evidence for the truth of either proposition. Most resource extraction created booms and busts that disrupted our communities. Sea otters and Aleuts were first to go. Mining corporations quickly took the highest grade gold and copper before leaving ghost towns. Seattle-based canneries and their fishtraps decimated salmon fisheries by mid-century. Big timber corporations highgraded the Tongass and then closed their mills. Today multinational oil corporations dominate our economy and politics, while foreign-owned cruise lines gain influence in coastal towns.

Alaskans have failed to capture most of the benefits of corporate-dominated resource extraction and use them as a basis for development. If we need scapegoats, I propose big Outside corporations. Oil might be different, if only because of the foresight of those who created the Permanent Fund.

Mr. Fremming accurately points out our dependence upon, and vulnerability to, the whims of our federal representatives. In a world where the costs of physical materials are steadily declining due to globalization and the information revolution, emphasizing natural resource exports will also make us more dependent and vulnerable.

I'm heartened by the signs of real development in the state. Agriculture, with a focus on freshness and quality, is finally starting to take hold. Local businesses are creating new products from local woods and fishery resources, and offering a wide range of high quality tours. More retirees are staying, and more people are developing businesses that rely on telecommunications and computers, and can locate anywhere their owners want. Much of this development depends on one of our greatest competitive advantages - the high quality of our natural environment and the abundance of our fish and wildlife.

But every week seems to bring unrealistic promises of fiscal salvation and new proposals for weakening the environmental protection that helps us balance out on the limb together. Let's quit sawing behind us.

Steve Behnke


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