Does oil, mine push betray statehood?

COMMENTSeptember 6, 2012 

When the Alaska constitutional convention met in Fairbanks in the fall of 1955, Alaska's lone elected delegate to Congress, Bob Bartlett addressed them on the first day. Delegates expecting a fuzzy, warm talk of patriotic platitudes were likely surprised by what they heard. Bartlett did not mince words. He was anxious delegates understand how their work would shape Alaska's future, and he laid out his concerns starkly and boldly. A testament to his vision, his words were prescient and prophetic.

Most particularly, Bartlett focused on the central role of Alaska's natural resources. "Fifty years from now," he counseled, "the people of Alaska may very well judge the product of this Convention ... by the decision taken upon the vital issue of resource policy." At statehood, Alaska would receive more than a hundred million acres of land, more acreage than all of California.

Where such vast resources potential exists one need not be clairvoyant to foresee an influx of interests wanting to develop these resources. Unfortunately some of these interests will not be scrupulous in the choice of measures to achieve their ends. Alaska is not unfamiliar with the activities and importance of lobbies. But it is important to bear in mind lobbying activity on a scale never before seen will take place in the capital when Alaska becomes a state.

What would Bartlett make of the intense effort being made by absentee oil companies in the state today?

Two dangers would face future Alaskans, Bartlett warned. One would be absentee developers who would gain control of Alaska resources and then not develop them, so as not to compete with their other ventures. The other would be exploitation of Alaska's resources "... under the thin disguise of development." The exploitation of Alaska's mineral resources without leaving an appropriate return for "... all the people of Alaska will mean a betrayal in the administration of the people's wealth."

Alaskans today must address the question of whether industry lobbying of our state representatives constitutes such a betrayal.

Convention delegates went some measure toward curtailing the influence of absentee resource developers by writing into the constitution's natural resource article the mandate that the state's resources be developed for the maximum benefit of all Alaska's people, a vague but nonetheless meaningful statement of principle. It is a unique statement of principle among the 50 states of the union.

Previously, upon gaining title to their lands, states were able to transfer title to individuals, including corporations acting as individuals. Most did, and most such lands were not developed for the maximum benefit of the people, but the maximum benefit of the individual or corporation.

Two years after the convention, as he worked to craft the final Alaska statehood bill that would pass Congress, Bartlett again acted on his concern about rapacious exploitation of Alaska's resources. He arranged that an extraordinary provision be written into that act, viz., the state cannot alienate ownership of its mineral lands, including subsurface ownership. Section 6(i) of the act contains Congress's "express condition" that such ownership be reserved exclusively to the state. If the state violates that provision, title reverts to the federal government.

At least two aspects of this provision are unique. It contradicts the territory's long romance with miners and mining, its Gold Rush heritage. Under traditional hard rock mining law, individuals could claim, and by paying a fee and doing some work, gain a patent, an effective title, to their claim. The Alaska statehood act prohibits this. It also prohibits individual title to coal, oil and gas deposits; as has the federal government since 1920; the state may lease, but not sell, the right to develop such deposits. That, more than the vague statement of principle in the constitution, is what makes Alaska truly an "owner state," as Tom Meacham explained recently in the Anchorage Press.

Today, as resource developers strive to manipulate Alaska's unique capability to their own ends, it is well to remember Bob Bartlett's prophecy about such full assault lobbying as manifest by the oil industry and the Pebble prospect lessees, and to resurrect his deep concern for fairness to the state's people and its future.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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