Steve Haycox: We trash Uncle Sam, but take his money

Most Alaskans are familiar with the image of Mr. Alaska in his relationship to the federal government, right hand outstretched with the palm up, left hand behind his back holding a club. One third of Alaska's economic base today, as calculated by Scott Goldsmith of UAA, is comprised of federal spending. It comes in four major categories: Native services, conservation unit management, military, and basic infrastructure.

Despite the tragi-comic shenanigans of state legislators passing bills to nullify federal laws and empty blandishments about "federal over-reach," no one wants the federal money to go away -- not the Independence Party Joe Vogler types ("damn the federal government; let's secede"), nor the Native corporations ("Good Lord, where would we be without Section 8a?"), nor the concessionaires at Denali National Park ("we love those summer dollars").

Fun as it is to bash the federal government, we've never been without it and wouldn't be if we could because too many jobs would go away and with them, many people who live here, who wouldn't be here without the capacity to purchase the contemporary material norm of American society. The truth of the matter is that the federal government has nurtured settlement and economic development in Alaska from the time of the purchase, right through the Progressive Era, the New Deal, World War II and the Cold War, up to today.

As part of a New Deal government initiative in the 1930s to rationalize and support development across the nation, Congress created the National Planning Board, later lodged in the Interior Department and renamed the National Resources Planning Board. That board produced a significant report on Alaska in 1938 recommending careful identification of lands most useful for agriculture, mining, forest production and other uses.

Soon after World War II, the Interior Department published a compendium of information titled "Alaska at Mid-Century." It promoted Alaska as a rich opportunity for new settlement, especially by returning war veterans. Interior Department planners hoped new settlers would open up undeveloped lands in Alaska and, as they wrote, push civilization ahead.

With the successful quest for statehood, however, some federal officials in Alaska recognized there was potential for conflict over land use in the new state. While they continued to support development, they also understood that some lands had significant environmental value and would need to be withdrawn for preservation. A representative report was written by two federal planners, Hugh Johnson of the Agriculture Department and Harold Jorgenson of Interior, one a biologist, the other a geologist, titled "The Land Resources of Alaska," published in 1963, fifty years ago. It's an extensive survey of Alaska land indicating its development potential in every imaginable category.

Johnson and Jorgenson were cautious in their discussion of public lands. At the time, before the state selected its lands authorized in the statehood act (28 percent of all Alaska), 90 million acres of Alaska's 375 million acres already had been designated for various federal uses, including national parks, forests and fish and wildlife refuges. The state land selections were intended to provide economic development opportunities for the new state, and the authors did not want to alarm their readers. The public lands of Alaska, they wrote, "belong to all Alaskans, and they belong to all other Americans." It's that last that has always given many Alaskans heartburn.

Both the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society began to realize in the early 1960s that much land in Alaska was threatened, from their point of view, by pending state land selections. Johnson and Jorgenson saw clearly that if all the land in Alaska had been deeded to the state, environmentally sensitive lands would be overrun with development. Making an assertion intended to summon the better angels of their readers' natures, they wrote that "the people of Alaska generally recognize that most federal withdrawals are necessary."

Moreover, they insisted, "It should be emphasized that nearly all Alaskans are in complete sympathy with sound conservation policies. Generally they are not despoilers; almost all are conservationists."

The subsequent battles over constructing the Alaska pipeline and passing the Alaska lands act of 1980 would deeply challenge and batter this assertion. But by then Johnson and Jorgenson had retired, safe from Mr. Alaska's club.

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