Empire Editorial: Share the wealth

Posted: Sunday, November 20, 2005

Southeast Alaska Native leaders who gathered for a Juneau summit last week raised a good question: Why shouldn't the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. share the wealth if and when oil starts flowing from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

It's tough to find a logical reason.

Federal law isolates the mineral revenues at ANWR from the formula that affects most resource development by Native corporations in Alaska. Where those corporations have abundant enough resources to reap significant profits, generally they are committed by law to spreading some of the money to the less-fortunate regional corporations. It's a compromise reached in federal law in 1983 that recognized that not all regions would offer the same riches to Alaska's original inhabitants.

Since that time, Sealaska Corp., the regional Native corporation based in Juneau, has held its end of the bargain. Of $700 million paid into the 13 regional corporations' revenue-sharing pot, Sealaska has contributed $300 million. It's not hard to see how that may have happened. Southeast Alaska's traditional resources, such as timber, were obvious targets for development from the start. But the fact that Sealaska has profited from its surroundings over the year does not mean it doesn't deserve some reciprocity when another region of the state strikes pay dirt.

Participants in the Southeast Alaska Native summit voted Tuesday to encourage Arctic Slope to share its potential future profits. The state's political leaders likewise should encourage a change in federal law.

The U.S. House Resources Committee's leadership recently rejected an amendment to federal law that would have required the Barrow-based Native corporation to share revenues derived from its 90,000 acres of subsurface mineral rights in the refuge.

To Outside observers, shuttling funds from ANWR oil to Native shareholders hundreds of miles away may seem illogical. The debate over whether to drill in ANWR in the first place has long been framed by fears of how drilling might affect the subsistence hunting abilities of North Slope inhabitants. It would follow that reasonable people would hope for the money to stay with the affected population if there is to be development.

That view ignores the reality and recent history in Alaska, though. The system is set up so that over time Alaska's resources benefit all Native shareholders rather than rewarding only the boom-and-bust cycles of resource extraction. Just last week Sealaska announced that it would have to cut its logging program by a quarter next year and half in future years because timber reserves had been overestimated. The economic effect is expected to be $22.5 million, which will mean less money for Sealaska shareholders, and less that the corporation can pay into the statewide pool.

After all, one could argue that Sealaska's logging over the years has affected shareholders' subsistence capabilities just as oil drilling might for their North Slope counterparts.

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