In a state as young as Alaska, the chance to reach back into its short political history for perspective on contemporary problems is a rich opportunity.
To that end, political science professor Forrest Nabors launched a class at UAA this fall called "Studies in Alaska Statesmanship," focused on the state's formative leaders.
On their first class day in August, students gathered to find a trio seated before them, all public figures who'd served in the administration of Alaska's first governor, Bill Egan. They were Eric Wohlforth, Egan's revenue commissioner; Joe Henri, his commissioner of administration; and John Havelock, his attorney general.
Nabors invited his guests to talk about problems the fledgling state faced and how they were handled. These three remained a resource throughout the course as students searched for a compelling policy question from the past that resonated with issues the state faces now.
One student focused on Egan's struggles to save Alaska from bankruptcy by getting the trans-Alaska pipeline built, comparing it with the state's stalled natural gas pipeline.
Another looked at Egan's leadership on Alaska fisheries. Under federal management before statehood, Alaska's fisheries declined so dramatically they were declared an economic disaster zone in 1953. Egan negotiated state control and ordered resource managers to restore populations at all costs. He also forced the federal government to secure a 12-mile limit on international fishing interests by threatening to dam Bristol Bay tributaries and create a much less valuable freshwater fishery, a publicity stunt that worked.
Both these research papers were honored with $1,000 Egan Awards, a fund established by Henri and Wohlforth to stimulate political and historical research on Egan or Alaska. Winners presented their work to an audience on Egan Day, Oct. 8, at UAA. In the audience, in addition to students, Alaska historians, parents and a few legislators, were Egan contemporaries: Katie Hurley, Jack Roderick, Henri and Wohlforth.
The two students honored were an interesting pair. Calvin Henry is an older sophomore, a Marine veteran of eight years who served two terms in Iraq and several humanitarian missions, including Hurricane Katrina.
Samantha Mack, a junior, is the Aleut daughter of a King Cove commercial fisherman. She's fished with her father in the Aleutians since she was 13, and although Anchorage is her residence, she says King Cove will always be home.
Nabors said he asked his students to be "brutally honest about Egan, whatever the results might be."
Still, the students' research found value in Egan's problem-solving strategies.
With respect to the pipeline, Calvin Henry said, Egan behaved with the state's interest top of mind.
"While he certainly did fight partisan battles," he wrote, "extreme partisanship did not seem to infect him ... He risked his party's success and his own popularity in order to achieve goals that served the public good."
Egan preferred a state-owned pipeline because he feared industry ownership would allow oil companies to set high transport tariffs and diminish wellhead value. Chancy Croft's compromise would allow the industry to own the pipeline, but extract property tax on the land the pipeline passed over, tied to industry annual income.
After the industry sued, dangerously delaying start of the pipeline, first Havelock and then Egan negotiated a compromise that allowed the state to charge a $20 million property tax and a minimum 25-cents a barrel oil tax.
To Egan, Henry wrote, the essential task was getting a pipeline built so the state could start earning revenue. The Legislature balked, accusing him of selling out to Big Oil. While his compromise eventually prevailed, Egan paid with loss of the governorship.
Calvin Henry compared this commitment to the languishing natural gas pipeline. He argued that the oil industry is actually in charge this time, delaying pipeline construction to protect its global businesses from a flood of Alaska gas.
Egan's main mission was to get that pipeline built and secure revenue flow, however divided. In contrast, current Alaska legislation doesn't guarantee that a gas pipeline will ever be built.
In fisheries management, Samantha Mack complimented Egan for restoring fishing stocks and pushing back aggressive international fishing interests.
She faulted the state's regulatory agency today for leaving Alaska Natives behind in a way Egan did not. She advanced a theory that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is a victim of "agency capture," meaning a regulatory agency that has fallen under the influence of interest groups it regulates, to the degree that it molds policy to benefit those groups.
She suggested that the oil industry influences fisheries management in favor of sports fishermen's interests. Why? Because, in the event of a spill, sports fishermen have no rights to sue, while commercial fisherman have that as a remedy.
She argued that Egan's protective approach to fisheries management and the health of rural communities would never have allowed this to happen.
Nabors said he plans to offer this class again in the fall. You can listen to the students make their arguments here: (UAA podcasts)
Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.