Compass: Hickel film says much about the man and Alaska

Former Governor Wally Hickel, who passed away in 2010, asked his family to bury him standing up, he said, "so I don't have to get up to fight." After six decades in Alaska's political fray, he wanted to keep pushing Alaska's potential.

In a new film, "Alaska, The World, and Wally Hickel," Hickel does just that. On public TV this week, we are reminded of old battles, and inspired to fight new ones.

We see how a tough Kansas-born, Golden Gloves boxer helped Alaska become a state -- unique in America and the world.

Hickel coined a term for Alaska's system: the Owner State. His words on incentives resonate with those on all sides of today's Alaska oil tax debate.

For me, a longtime Hickel associate, the film may also solve a mystery Wally Hickel watchers have had for some time. We are taken back to the controversies of the Vietnam War and Nixon's invasion of Cambodia. We learn who leaked Hickel's famous "youth in their protest must be heard" letter from Hickel to Nixon, sent in the outraged hours after four student protesters were killed by the National Guard at Kent State, Ohio. That letter made Hickel a hero to many Americans, who loved him for standing up to Nixon and Agnew, but got him fired as Nixon's Interior Secretary in 1970.

For Alaskans, the film is as much about us as it is about Wally -- it shows how we came to be.

Alaska didn't just become a state in 1959 -- Alaskans long battled to get into the Union, and Hickel, then a young carpenter, broke ranks with Alaska's leaders to demand that 103 million acres of Alaska's vast land come with it. Congress, in 1952, was about to give us just 23 million acres, less than 10 percent of the territory. Without more land, we might never have selected Prudhoe Bay. America's biggest oilfield might still lie unexplored, just like tens of millions of acres of adjoining federal land on the North Slope.

Our Alaska Native Land Claims, and our Native corporations, help drive our economy today. They didn't just happen either -- the 1971 act was the result of a struggle for justice by Native leaders, including Willie Hensley and Emil Notti. Hickel was not an early ally, but Hensley explains better terms were won from Nixon than President Lyndon Johnson had offered. That was a result, perhaps, of Hickel serving as Nixon's Secretary of the Interior and the push for the trans-Alaska pipeline.

Days after he took office, an offshore oil blowout fouled the beaches of Santa Barbara, and Hickel was on the front line, standing up to some of the same oil companies he had courted as Alaska Governor.

In his two years as Secretary, Hickel pushed passage of major new U.S. anti-pollution laws and celebrated the first Earth Day. Hickel took oil spillers to criminal court. He blocked a Florida Everglades jetport. The same day he was fired, Hickel put eight species of whales on the endangered species list.

While Hickel played a part in many environmental milestones, he never joined the crowd that wanted vast wild parts of Alaska locked up from development. Instead, he campaigned -- as a private citizen and later again as governor -- for access to Alaska lands, parks for people, and big projects and policies that manage public lands for "people, people's needs and nature."

I applaud filmmaker Ken Mandel, of Great Projects Media, who worked with Alaskan Paul Brown to produce the film, first in a series on Alaska leaders. Their film has enough drama to be fun, distance to remain objective, and sensitivity, I believe, to let those who loved Wally Hickel feel it does justice to his legacy. By all means you should see it. Generations of leaders to come should do the same.

Mead Treadwell has served as Alaska's lieutenant governor since 2010. "Alaska, the World and Wally Hickel" airs at 7 p.m. today in Anchorage on KAKM, Channel 7.