Battleground Alaska

On April 4, 2016, my favorite Alaska Dispatch News columnist, Charles Wohlforth, wrote a review of Stephen Haycox’s new book, “Battleground Alaska,” which has the subtitle “Fighting Federal Power in America’s Last Wilderness.”  I promptly ordered a copy of the book and noted on social media that I would have to more to say after reading it.  Now I have.

You can find Wohlforth’s comments at http://www.adn.com/article/20160404/historian-makes-case-how-alaska-politicans-have-long-used-federal-overreach.  Here are mine:

“Battleground Alaska” is an important contribution to the history of the tension between conservation and development in Alaska.  It stands in the company, and in some respects on the shoulders, of other works like Roger Kaye’s, “Last Great Wilderness: The Campaign to Establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” and Douglas Brinkley’s, “The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness kingdom, 1879-1960.” 

It is a sweeping and readable overview.  It stands out from previous works like those just mentioned by focusing on the social and political struggle between pro-development politicians and the environmental community.  Haycox zeroes in on the strong anti-statist philosophy in Alaska and its strongest manifestation, the “compact theory” that asserts the federal government has failed to fulfill promises supposedly made at the time of Alaska’s statehood in 1959.

“The thrust of the compact theorists’ argument is that the federal government reneged on its commitment to the state’s economic development first by interpreting and postponing the state’s land selection process and then by denying the state the opportunity of selecting potentially mineral-rich land by granting 44 million acres to Alaska Natives in ANCSA and then by restricting the use of an additional 104 million acres in ANILCA.”  (163-64)

As a legal theory, the statehood compact idea was soundly repudiated by a federal district court in 1996 in the landmark case of Alaska v. United States.  As Haycox explains, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court with the terse statement that the decision was “thoroughly supported with cited and quoted authority and record evidence.  Nothing more needs to be said.”  The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear any further appeal of the case.

Like a social and political zombie, however, the theory lives on.  Charles Wohlforth captured this quite well in his ADN review.  Noting that Alaskans receive about $2 back from the federal government for every dollar they pay in federal taxes, he writes: 

“[O]ur leaders constantly complain about federal overreach. Legislation sponsored by the speaker of the Alaska House, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Kenai, demands that the federal government simply turn over its land to Alaska.

“Every parent of teenagers has heard this kind of talk before. ‘You’re not the boss of me. Can I have some money?’

“The anti-federal crowd has adopted a mixed-up idea of how Alaska relates to the nation. We didn’t join the union. The United States bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, non-Native U.S. citizens moved here and the nation then decided to make the territory it owned into a state. It didn’t need Alaskans' permission.

“We are residents of Alaska. We are citizens of the United States. All Americans have an equal ownership of federal lands in Alaska.”

This general tension plays out in various specific contexts, as Haycox details.  These have historically included some fairly wacky proposals, such as to dam the Yukon River and to use thermonuclear explosions to create a deep-water seaport in northwest Alaska.  They also include the current controversies over the Pebble mine prospect, the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and coal mining near the Chuitna River – and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, which is the protected status of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Haycox outlines these matters elegantly, but his focus is on the social origins of anti-statism.  He observes that, “[l]ike settlers on the American far west frontier, immigrant [non-Native] Alaskans subscribed to the atavistic belief in their democratic right to harvest any and all resources the land provided, without let or hindrance. … For these Alaskans, frontier meant development, a pushing back of nature, a conquest.  Wilderness was an affront, evidence of challenges yet unmet.”  (3)

The author does an excellent job of laying out this frontier thesis and its inevitable clashes with two cultural trends that developed in the late twentieth century.  One was “the civil rights movement’s redefinition of equal rights” in general, which “generated a new sensitivity to the aboriginal land claims of Alaska’s Native people.”  (183)  This new sensitivity was reflected in ANCSA’s settlement of land claims.

The second cultural shift was the evolution of the modern environmental movement.  “Alaska segued in American perception from America’s ‘last frontier’ to America’s ‘last wilderness’” (184), of which the Arctic Refuge is the jewel in the crown.

Without here taking explicit sides in the battle, I would draw the following observations from Haycox’s account:

Even without subscribing to the anti-statist compact theory, it is obvious that Alaska’s economy is, and must be, resource dependent.  Environmentalists need to acknowledge that development will, and must, occur somewhere.  We (and I include myself among them) should pick our spots, not oppose development everywhere and anywhere.

Much historical progress has been made on civil rights issues, including those involving Alaska Natives.  But the Lower 48 states provide ample evidence that cultural insensitivity and prejudice are easily perpetuated and backsliding is a constant danger.

Alaskan exceptionalism can be a positive force.  All Americans should recognize Alaska as a special resource.  Let’s not just replicate and repeat the conservation failures of other times and places.

All the development and conservation in the world won’t help us much if our social norms are overturned, and our very existence threatened, by the effects of climate change.  “The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet.”  (191)  This is surely our most urgent and important priority as a people, a nation and a state.

Haycox elucidates all of these issues, while laying to rest the compact theory and its anti-statist manifestations.  He concludes:

“For Alaskans, the most difficult challenge is to leave behind the obsession with failed promises; to accept the legitimacy of the American people retaining ownership and management of the land the nation acquired from Russia a century and a half ago; and to embrace and nurture the potential of the land over which they have control, that area larger than California. It would also be helpful to future relations if they could recognize the federal government for the friend and helpmate it has been to Alaska since its acquisition.”  (194)

Amen.