Historian: Alaska politicans have long used 'federal overreach' as a scapegoat and rallying cry

The illusion of federal overreach gives Alaska politicians a boogeyman to cast attention away from their own failures. As a new book establishes with an enormous weight of evidence, the whole idea that the federal government has been Alaska's adversary is ridiculous.

Stephen Haycox, since 1970 one of Alaska's most respected historians, finished his book recently enough that it discusses legislation that is pending in Juneau right now. But he began working 10 years ago on "Battleground Alaska: Fighting Federal Power in America's Last Wilderness."

The book reflects both his deep excavation of archives of past environmental wars and his encyclopedic knowledge of the entire span of Alaska political events. No future generation will have a member like Haycox, who brings academic rigor and analysis to our history and also has been here as a resident studying the state for 40 percent of the time Alaska has had a significant non-Native population.

Now this distinguished professor emeritus (that's his actual title) at the University of Alaska Anchorage points out that the emperor has no clothes.

"Much historical treatment of Alaska has favored heroic tales of resilient individualism," Haycox writes. "A more realistic history of Alaska acknowledges the essential and continuing role of federal support for a population without a self-generated economy that demanded all the services and amenities of contemporary American culture."

He's right. Our U.S. senators use every trick they can come up with to beg or demand the military keeps forces here. Even leaving aside active-duty military, the proportion of federal jobs in Alaska is higher than in any other state. We get almost $2 back from the federal government for every buck we pay in federal taxes. When it comes to highway spending, the ratio is five-to-one.

At the same time, our leaders constantly complain about federal overreach. Legislation sponsored by the speaker of the Alaska House, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Kenai, demands that the federal government simply turn over its land to Alaska.


Every parent of teenagers has heard this kind of talk before. "You're not the boss of me. Can I have some money?"

Haycox says Alaskans hold an extreme version of a self-image developed in the American West as exceptionally tough and independent and deserving of a special measure of freedom. This attitude goes all the way back to gold rush days when, he points out, the vast majority of non-Natives lived in towns just like they had left back home except for the weather.

Even then, the federal government picked up the tab. Alaska was a project, and an expensive one.

Haycox says anti-federal resentment grew during the statehood movement, particularly with the influential writings and speeches of Ernest Gruening, a territorial governor who became our first U.S. senator. Gruening vilified the federal government in Alaska as neglectful and even malevolent.

But even while attacking the federal government, Gruening and other politicians called for vast federal projects that, in retrospect, were clearly nutty. Yes, Gruening and the establishment of his day wanted to dam the Yukon River. They wanted to explode a series of thermonuclear bombs to create a port on the Arctic Ocean.

The Statehood Act that passed in 1958 gave Alaska 104 million acres of land. Alaska voters approved the terms, which recognized the state couldn't take land that belonged to Alaska Natives, and confirmed a "compact" that said Alaskans would never ask for any more land.

Over the next two decades, Congress gave the Natives their land, approved the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and set aside about 100 million acres of Alaska for conservation. Through those political battles, the idea of Alaska victimhood that Gruening had planted bloomed into a full-fledged mania.

The heart of Haycox's book takes up these epic battles in turn, dredging long-forgotten evidence from the historical record to powerfully win his case that the federal government was never an enemy and, in fact, acted fairly and within its rights in the major decisions that determined Alaska's map.

The idea that the federal government violated the "statehood compact," he demonstrates, never made any sense. The state's lawsuits to enforce the compact were doomed by laws dating to the founding of the nation.

"It's all poppycock. It's all illusion," Haycox said in our interview. "And the way it is illusion needs to be put on paper, it needs to be put in a library where people can look at it."

He's done that. Haycox's book explains how a plain reading of the Statehood Act shows that the only compact mentioned was Alaskans' agreement not to ask for more land. Congress never bound itself to future actions concerning the federal government's own land.

The anti-federal crowd has adopted a mixed-up idea of how Alaska relates to the nation. We didn't join the union. The United States bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, non-Native U.S. citizens moved here and the nation then decided to make the territory it owned into a state. It didn't need Alaskans' permission.

We are residents of Alaska. We are citizens of the United States. All Americans have an equal ownership of federal lands in Alaska.

None of this would matter much if it didn't still drive politics in unproductive directions. Haycox notes politicians use "federal overreach" as a rallying cry and as a scapegoat.

He finishes the book with an epilogue that reprints Chenault's legislation demanding federal lands, a legislative attorney's statement that the bill is obviously unconstitutional and then a quote from Ecclesiastes about how nothing ever changes.

Haycox writes, "For Alaskans, the most difficult challenge is to leave behind the obsession with failed promises; to accept the legitimacy of the American people retaining ownership and management of the land the nation acquired from Russia a century and a half ago; and to embrace and nurture the potential of the land over which they have control, that area larger than California. It would also be helpful to future relations if they could recognize the federal government for the friend and helpmate it has been to Alaska since its acquisition."

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.