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'Battleground Alaska' explores long conflict between feds, state leaders

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: October 15, 2016
  • Published June 19, 2016

Battleground Alaska: Fighting Federal Power in America’s Last Wilderness

By Stephen Haycox; University of Kansas Press; 2016; 262 pages; $27.95 and e-book.

Winston Churchill famously said, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." A more recent cartoon has an old man telling a young man, "Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it."

Alaskans would do well to learn about our state's history, as we make decisions today and for our collective future.

How fairly or unfairly has Alaska been treated by the federal government compared to other states? Are we victims of "federal overreach?" How can we come to terms with a national reverence for nature and wilderness when we need to develop resources and perhaps don't share the concept of wilderness as excluding humans? Whose land is this anyway?

Stephen Haycox, longtime Alaskan and professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Anchorage, is one of Alaska's preeminent historians. His earlier books include "Alaska, an American Colony and Frigid Embrace: Politics, Economics, and Environment in Alaska." In this new work, he thoughtfully explores the complex relationship between a state dependent on economic development and a federal government committed to protecting some of our country's last untrammeled land.

Four classic battles

"Battleground Alaska" centers on four now-classic battles involving federal land in Alaska. The first is the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Range (now refuge) in the 1950s. The second is approval of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the settlement of Native claims that cleared its right of way. The third is passage of the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act, or ANILCA, in 1980, which added 104 million acres to conservation units such as parks and refuges, with nearly half classified as wilderness. And the fourth is the use of the Tongass National Forest, culminating in the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990.

In each case, Alaska development interests fought against national environmental interests, and the outcomes represented compromises. In each case, a legacy of resentment remains to affect state-federal relations and present-day debates.

The author describes his book as "primarily a work of interpretation and analysis." As such, it summarizes historical details — which have been well told elsewhere — and focuses on putting events into context. He wants readers to understand the basis for Alaska's "persistent and virulent antistatism," its resistance to federal activity here and the perception by many Alaskans that the federal government interferes unfairly. ("Antistatism" refers to opposition to government rule, in this case directed at the federal government.)

Along the way, Haycox debunks the myth of a statehood compact, often argued by those who claim the federal government promised more than it delivered via statehood. He points out that the continuing resentment of federal government actions has worsened tensions, when cooperation might have been more productive. He suggests that the divisiveness has been exploited by certain leaders and corporate interests pursuing their own agendas. And, he reminds us that, in fact, Alaska has been on the receiving end of considerable federal largess — including massive spending each year on infrastructure, programs, the military and resource management jobs.

If Alaska has not developed economically as some might have wished, the reasons, Haycox says, have far less to do with federal interference than with the challenges inherent in a large, remote land lacking much potential for agriculture, manufacturing or other industries apart from raw resource extraction. Even in cases of oil, gas, mineral and timber development, projects don't always  "pencil out" for their proponents or result in benefits to Alaskans.

‘Beleaguered battleground’

Late in the book, Haycox presents three present-day examples of ongoing conflict between our state and federal governments:

  • The proposed Pebble mine in the Bristol Bay headwaters;
  • The proposed Chuitna coal mine on Cook Inlet; and
  • The debate over a road through a wilderness portion of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
  • "These examples show Alaska to be a beleaguered battleground … (and exemplify) the tragic nature of settlement in Alaska, whose residents enjoy America's most extensive and celebrated natural environment but whose continued residence depends on some level of despoliation of that very environment."

    He also argues that the three are "surrogate battles, stand-ins for a national discussion about the definition and implications of wilderness and sustainability … "

    Regardless of where one stands on any of the issues, past and present, "Battleground Alaska" lays out a useful — and quite readable — discussion of what's at stake. The book is extremely well researched, referencing the work of other historians along with relevant newspaper and magazine reporting. Not everyone will agree with the author's analysis, which is why it should be read and then debated in classrooms, boardrooms, barrooms and the backrooms where political decisions are made.

    Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming."

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