Alaska's resources locked up, unable to aid national security

Posted: Friday, November 16, 2001

Miners and mining officials at the recent Alaska Miners Association meeting in Anchorage weren't celebrating like they had struck the mother load. But the war against terrorists might be a good news story for resource development in Alaska, once we get by the death and destruction.

It also is an "I told you so" story for many pioneer Alaskans who warned against locking up Alaska resources needed for national security.

"Alaska's economy, specifically the mining sector, could benefit from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath," the Anchorage Daily News credited mining expert Douglas Silver with telling the assembled miners.

According to the newspaper, Colorado minerals economist Silver predicted that mining companies will continue to pull out of many overseas projects and refocus their efforts in North America and particularly Alaska. It is already happening, Silver says.

Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the Philippines, which have large Muslim populations, are increasingly being seen as too risky for foreigners to work in, so U.S. and Canadian mining companies are looking at prospects closer to home.

"Alaska will attract much of the interest because the state contains world-class mineral deposits and vast unexplored terrain and exudes the mystique of being pro-resource development. Unlike many Western states in the Lower 48, where special interest groups regularly use their clout to halt mining projects, Alaska is perceived as being a more industry-friendly working environment," Silver said.

Where Silver got the idea that Alaska is open for business except for another Wal-Mart, deli or hamburger stand is difficult to understand. Alaska does have great resource potential, much of which has been "clouted to death." That is a shame. It is due mainly to ignorance about Alaska and the failure of some Alaskans, such as the Alaska media, to assist by providing accurate information about Alaska and the feasibility of developing its resources. Such information could lead to stories about jobs instead of stories on joblessness, drunkenness and hopelessness.

In addition to natural resources, Alaska has another resource that can help the United States become more self-sufficient, the University of Alaska. It has had projects to convert natural gas to gasoline; to mix coal with water to supplant diesel fuel; to build fuel cells to power remote villages and other energy and resource projects. But if development is frowned upon, as it is by some of UA's own faculty, it will be a tough battle to enlist Alaska's resources in the war against terrorism.

The intent of the Alaska National Interest Lands Act of 1980 was to settle Alaska land issues for all time. Since then, Alaska's oil production has peaked and dropped steadily. It could still replace the 700,000 barrels a day the U.S. buys from Iraq, if special interests hadn't stopped further development in Congress, in the courts and in the media.

Since 1980, 90 percent of Alaska's timber industry has been shut down for no good reason. None of the 6 million acres of trees in wilderness were threatened. Now the remaining Alaska mills export their wood chips instead of turning them into pulp while providing jobs in Alaska.

The oil companies who own the natural gas at Prudhoe Bay want to run their gas pipeline by the shortest route into Canada before going south. After Louisiana-Pacific sold its pulp mill property and the balance of its timber allotment near Ketchikan, it built two new wood processing plants in Canada. That doesn't sound like Alaska is viewed as a great place to develop resources.

Until the majority of the people and leaders in the United States understand that it is a matter of national security to develop our own resources rather than buy oil from the Middle East, coal and wood products from Canada, iron from South Korea, fish from Chile, until Alaskans quit acting like blue-eyed Arabs in their approach to resource development; and until the special interests acquire some patriotism and concern for future generations they profess to be protecting by their lockups, the miners might have celebrated quietly and way too early.

*****

Williams is the retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News and former member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents.



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