Congress renews assault on Alaska's development

Meanwhile, Russia is embracing visionary rail-tunnel project

Posted: Sunday, May 20, 2007

Earlier this month, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., introduced legislation to permanently prohibit oil and gas drilling in Bristol Bay. Prior to this, the Bush administration had announced plans to begin drilling there in July.

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Another Massachusetts Democrat, Rep. Edward Markey, has introduced House Resolution 39 that designates as wilderness the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Mentioning HR 39 brings nightmares to old-time Alaskans. Back in the late 1970s, Rep. Morris Udall, D-Ariz., introduced his HR 39 to declare large sections of the state wilderness to block development. It sought to create such areas at the end of every road leading out of each community in Southeast Alaska. One designation would have made wilderness out of a freshly logged tact of land at the end of Wrangell's Zimovia Highway.

Fortunately, better thinking lawmakers, such as Alaska's legendary Sen. Ted Stevens, blocked the bill and negotiated the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. The act specifically left the coastal plain of ANWR open to future oil exploration. Congress, however, would have to approve the exploration.

Congress tried during the Clinton administration, but the Democrat president vetoed the legislation.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., led a successful move last year to block development of ANWR when Stevens sought again to open it. The same Washington senator now complains about high gasoline prices caused by a shortage of oil for northwest refineries.

Clinton Democrats also shut down Southeast Alaska's timber industry. Their environmental colleagues, now better financed, are blocking mining as well as logging. It makes Alaskans wonder what to expect under a Democrat administration headed by the likes of Hillary Clinton.

At statehood, Democrats dominated Alaska politics, which was led by Gov. Bill Egan and U.S. Sens. Ernest Gruening and E. L. Bartlett. U.S. Rep. Ralph Rivers was a Democrat, too, and so were 52 of the 60 state legislators.

There were a few prominent Republicans boosting Alaska statehood at that time, such as then-attorney Stevens and Walter Hickel, who was to become the state's first Republican governor.

So what happened? The Democrats sold out to the national environmentalists. President Jimmy Carter used the Antiquities Act to set aside large sections of Alaska in reserve. Now a Democrat-led Congress has renewed its assault on Alaska's economy. Fortunately we still have some big men (and women) in Alaska who are pushing some big projects.

Gov. Sarah Palin, a new Republican leader, and the Legislature are pushing for a pipeline to carry Alaska natural gas from Prudhoe Bay to the Lower 48, preferably down the Alaska Highway and into Canada. Not ruled out is a proposal to run a gas line down the trans-Alaska oil pipeline corridor to Valdez, where it can be liquefied and shipped to ports around the world.

Hickel has been pushing that plan longer than some state lawmakers and the governor have been alive. Hickel is the example of an Alaskan who thinks big. He's also advocating a railroad tunnel across the Bering Strait. Some scoff at this plan as others scoffed at space travel before the Russians beat us into space.

And the Russians are coming again. At an a conference on April 24 in Moscow, the Russians announced they are pushing for a railroad to the Bering Sea coast at Uelen. Two weeks before the conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his minister of railways and declared the rail line to Uelen a priority. (And the Alaska Railroad is dragging its feet on even hooking up with the Canadian system and the Lower 48!)

Before the April 24 Moscow meeting, the Russians asked the Interhemispheric Bering Strait Tunnel & Rail Group to seek a high-level American to co-chair the Moscow conference. The reaction of many American and Alaska leaders was negative. Then Hickel was asked.

He came through as he always does for Alaska and for the future. Alaskans are raising too few like him. It's sad that our current leaders are uninterested in at least monitoring the Russian project, considering its direction.

• Lew Williams Jr. is a retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News.

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