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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2014

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Editorial - Developing Alaska Sustainably

When my wife and I traveled to Alaska last summer, we thought we knew something about our 49th state, however disconnected it was from the "lower 48." As we sat on the airplane headed for Fairbanks, our first stop, little did we know how surprised we were going to be.

In the last issue you read about some of the differences that characterize Alaska; the vast coal reserves that the state contains-about one-eighth of the world's supply; and the challenge that Alaska faces in preserving its abundance, rather than saving what little wilderness there is left. Although there are indeed many similarities between Alaska and the lower 48, there are some fundamental differences to which we must pay heed.

Alaska is the largest state in the union, twice the size of the next largest, Texas. With only 700,000 people, it has America's lowest population density. Much of the state is wilderness, and it has more than 190 villages of fewer than 1,000 people. For many of these villages, the only way in or out is by air. Its capital (Juneau) is not directly reachable by road; main access is by air and sea. Juneau has the second largest area of any city in the United States, larger than Rhode Island or Delaware, and almost as large as the two states combined. All for a total of not quite 32,000 people.

The only road going to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields from 70 miles north of Fairbanks, in the middle of the state, is the Dalton Highway. Also called the Haul Road, it was built by the Alyeska Pipeline Company to supply the oil fields, mostly by large tractor trailer trucks, for which everyone else on the "highway" gives way, particularly on the narrow one-lane bridges. For most of its 414 miles the road is gravel and at its widest it is two lanes. Although the requirement for permits to travel the road was dropped in 1995, it is not recommended, and few people attempt it.

The phrase "turning point" is used in many contexts, but it is nowhere more true than in Alaska. Alaska has always been an extraction state, a fact that has benefited the citizens of Alaska. In 1976, as the Alaska pipeline was being finished, a constitutional amendment was approved to establish the Alaska Permanent Fund. In the words of the amendment, "At least 25 percent of all mineral lease rentals, royalties, royalty sales proceeds, federal mineral revenue-sharing payments and bonuses received by the state be placed in a permanent fund, the principal of which may only be used for income-producing investments." The legislature may spend investment earnings, not capital gains; most of the spending has been for dividends to qualified Alaska residents. The fund does not invest in economic or social development. Investments are expected to produce income, which must have an "acceptable" level of risk. One of the most contentious extraction proposals is for Pebble Mine.

In this issue, you will read the first of two articles on Pebble Mine, a proposal for a huge mine to extract copper and gold from a place called Bristol Bay. In future issues, you will read much more about the decisions that Alaskans and the country must make about how sustainable development is going to take place.

Alaska is also different from the rest of the United States in the way that its indigenous peoples are treated. Land claims are contentious, and they became even more so after Alaska achieved statehood in 1959. However, the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968 gave them added importance. Then the planning of the Alyeska Pipeline, to ship the oil from Prudhoe to Valdez in the south, gave them particular urgency. To settle these claims, the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act was passed and signed into law by President Nixon, and the act, among other things, set up so-called Native Corporations. The only shareholders are people of native ancestry. The original act said that only native Alaskans born before 1971 could be shareholders. Some corporations have allowed original shareholders to pass their shares to the next generation; others have not.

The Native Corporations are for-profit corporations that pay dividends to their shareholders; they also own the subsurface mineral rights to much of the land. They earn a profit when these lands are leased to extractive industries. However, those extractive industries, when allowed to mine, destroy the fisheries and hunting grounds that these same indigenous peoples use for their subsistence livelihood. In the words of one father, "If I don't fish, we don't eat."

With a child poverty rate at 14%, a senior poverty rate of 19%, and 23% of single-parent families with children below the poverty line, Alaska needs development. Almost 26% of Alaskans are working poor. This development must be sustainable, meaning in this case that the state must maintain a balance between the need for some kind of industrial development and the importance of retaining the bounty that is Alaska's heritage. The articles in our ongoing Alaska series will highlight these challenges and, I hope, do justice to their importance in the environmental field.

-Alan H. McGowan

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