Senator Lisa Murkowski's defeat by the Tea Party candidate Joe Miller came as quite a shock to just about everyone. Political etiquette says the loser smiles, congratulates the winner and takes his/her medicine, and helps the party win. The problem is Joe Miller's Tea Party agenda will set Alaska back 50 years, undoing almost everything we have built up since statehood. For Alaska, this is a dilemma of devastating proportions.
The root of the problem is not complicated. IN 1959, in Alaska's Statehood Compact, it was recognized that Alaska's lands were 99% federally owned, 78% in the public domain. 21% was in national forests, parks, refuges and monuments, none of which could be taxed by the state. If you can't tax the land, how do you feed a state treasury? This was addressed in the Statehood Compact by giving the State of Alaska 90% of all future royalties paid the U.S. government for activities on Alaska's federal lands. This was in compensation for the existing withdrawals and for awarding the State of Alaska just 24% of Alaska's federal lands. It wasn't perfect, but all sides were reasonably content.
Then came two game changers. The Alaska Native Lands Claims Settlement Act, which awarded Alaska's Natives 10% of the remaining federal lands, and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which withdrew a further 30% of Alaska's lands for Parks, Wild and Scenic Rivers, Refuges and Monuments. Almost all Alaskans are OK with this. But there is a problem.
As it stands today, 65% of Alaska is owned by the federal government. Only 13% of this estate is in the public domain and accessible for development with royalties. While the State of Alaska has done well with royalty income from its 24% of Alaska and the Native community has been successful in managing its lands and resources, the federal government has been pretty much of a failure in holding up its part of the bargain as set out in the Statehood Compact. Not only is the federal government not doing what it said it would, it does not cover the costs of maintaining the 65% of Alaska it retains. These costs include roads, airports, docks, communications, emergency services and the like.
To make up for this shortfall, Alaska has relied on its Congressional delegation to obtain federal funding assistance to develop its infrastructure. Our Congressional delegations since statehood, democrat and republican alike, have been reasonably successful in this.
And now comes the Tea Party, something really new and different.
Tea Party money bought Alaska's primary. Buying an election isn't a crime, nor is it new. But buying an election on the basis of a national agenda that, if followed, would dismantle the relationships Alaska has built carefully since statehood to assist the federal government in making good on its unfulfilled obligations to Alaska, is unconscionable.
Joe Miller and his Tea Party would chop federal spending in Alaska and replace it with a transfer of federal lands to the state so Alaska could support its government on a much larger land base. A successful Joe Miller would in all likelihood find it easy to chop federal spending for Alaska, a Tea Party imperative, but could he offset this loss by gaining control of Alaska's federal lands for development? No.
Alaska can't even ease federal control on 5,000 acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge just to explore for oil, potentially worth hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions and billions of dollars to a nation mired in tough economic times. Joe Miller and the Tea Party are going to get Alaska's federal lands, 242,000,000 acres including ANWR's 5,000, deeded over to the State? And Alaska forgoes its federal funding as part of this unworkable deal? Not for a minute.
Recently, when New York fought for the survival of its financial industry, the engine of its economy, it wasn't about party or ideology, it was about fighting for jobs, for a way of life. That's what is going on in Alaska now. Its not about ideology and the control of Congress as the national media would have you believe. Its about our survival. Alaska should no more end its modest financial relationship with the federal government than New York should live without Wall Street.
Make no mistake. Alaska is in the biggest political fight of its life. Senator Lisa Murkowski is "all in", putting Alaska first, before party or national agenda. Alaska has never before needed anyone as badly as it needs Senator Lisa Murkowski now.
Keith Tryck, a third generation Alaskan, author, miner and consultant, lives in Anchorage.