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According to some Alaskans, Uncle Sam is always wrong

  • Author: Steve Haycox
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 16, 2017
  • Published November 16, 2017

As long as there has been Alaska politics, its purveyors have complained about the federal government. On the one hand, it's "federal overreach"; on the other, "neglect." We can't seem to make up our minds.

First, overreach. Federal constraints on use of the Tongass National Forest have always generated Alaskan angst. Today it's the federal roadless rule, prohibiting the construction of new roads for access to timber lease sales, which restriction, the state argues, has devastated the timber industry. But from the moment the Tongass was created, Alaskans have grumbled about too much limitation on its development.

Then there's the Arctic refuge. When President Eisenhower ordered creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Range (original name) in 1960, miners and hunters grumbled about too little access, even though both of their organizations had resolved approval of the withdrawal. Since 1980, the issue there has been permission to drill for oil and gas. More on that in a moment.

And Pebble. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has halted the Environmental Protection Agency's clean water restrictions on the Pebble project, a victory for the developers. And the Alaska Miners Association has a long list of grievances about limitations on prospecting and developing mineral prospects going back to its founding. The several tons of Canadian imported coal shoveled into Prince William Sound at the Cordova "coal party" in 1911 were a protest about the federal conservationists closing entry to Alaska coal lands near the mouth of the Copper River.

And then neglect. At statehood, Congress committed to developing resources on federal land in Alaska to benefit the development of an Alaska economic base, to provide jobs and revenue. Our politicians have argued ever since that the feds have not kept that commitment, that instead of developing resources, they've locked them up in conservation reserves of one kind or another. Given that the feds have leased more federal acreage in Alaska than the total acreage of several states for oil exploration and development here, have cooperated with the state in fisheries management, and that Congress approved construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline project, that one's a tough case to make.

So Alaska politicians have wanted to have their cake and eat it too, to complain about overreach when it suits, and the government not doing enough for Alaska when that fits better. They insist on having it both ways. Perhaps that's part of the job description.

Now we have Sen. Lisa Murkowski's bill introduced last week providing for opening the 10-02 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. As written, it provides that Alaska and the federal government would split the revenue generated by leases sold within the federal refuge 50-50. That sounds good. If the drillers really struck commercially profitable deposits, and the oil market was positive, both parties would make over one billion dollars over a 10-year span.

But some say that's a serious violation of the Alaska Statehood Act. That act provides that the federal government will give to Alaska 90 percent of the revenue generated on federal mineral leases sold in Alaska (oil is classified as a mineral). Not 50 percent — 90 percent! Alaskans have protested bitterly whenever they've thought the federal government has not remitted the 90 percent. In 1991 Gov. Wally Hickel sued the feds for $29 billion, which he said was the potential revenue lost to the state when 148 million acres of federal land were made non-revenue producing from mineral leasing: 44 million acres titled to Alaska Natives in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, 1971, and 104 million tied up in new federal conservation units in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, 1980. He lost that suit because the federal courts said Congress can change its previous legislation, such as the Alaska Statehood Act, whenever it may choose to do so.

Sen. Murkowski's 50 percent reflects the political reality of today; 50 percent is the best one can hope to get through this Congress. But it would be nice to think she also remembered the failed Hickel suit, and Congress' prerogatives, when she made that decision. And one might ask: Is this federal overreach ("You'd better take what we're willing to give you"), or a case of ignoring Alaska ("We just don't care about your sacred statehood act")?

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

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 Send submissions shorter than 200 words to 

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