Opinions

We did solve problems before oil. Maybe better.

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 26
  • Published August 26

My question comes down to whether Alaska's future should be more of the same or if we need to try something different.

I doubt the wisdom of doing the same, because I'm not happy with the results. The strategy of the last 40 years has been to count on oil as our savior and give oil developers whatever they needed, while asking nothing of Alaskans themselves. Looking at how that worked out, I am not satisfied.

Many Alaskans disagree. In a recent opinion column, North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr. compared the health and wealth of Alaska Natives from the early 1950s to today and gave credit for the improvements to oil discoveries and the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, known as ANCSA.

I've known Brower a long time. We first met in 2001, when I was working on a book about traditional knowledge, science and climate change, called "The Whale and the Supercomputer." Brower hunted whales and helped run wildlife research at the borough he now leads as mayor.

Oil helped pay for research that saved the Inupiaq way of life. Brower's father, Harry Brower Sr., had a key part in that story.

In 1980, government scientists told the International Whaling Commission that bowhead whales were going extinct and the Inupiaq hunt must be stopped. But whalers said the scientists simply didn't know where the whales were and had missed them in their counts. They said there were enough whales to hunt.

Thanks to the taxes on oil levied by the North Slope Borough, the Inupiat were able to hire their own scientists, chief among them Tom Albert, a research veterinarian from Pennsylvania. Working with Harry Sr., Albert's team developed new methods to count whales. They proved the hunters were right.

That story seems to back up Mayor Brower's point about the good things that oil and ANCSA provided. It's indisputable that some oil money helped Alaska and that ANCSA empowered Alaska Natives leaders.

In long conversations with Inupiaq elders, now gone, including Kenny Toovak and Arnold Brower Sr., I learned about the hard life before petroleum warmed Arctic homes and powered snow machines. They didn't want to go back to driving dog teams and living in frigid houses heated by seal oil.

As Brower mentions, in the early 1950s, rural Alaskans died young, suffered poverty we can barely imagine, and received utterly inadequate health services and education.

But changes to address those conditions — and the rise of Native power — pre-dated the arrival of big oil in Alaska.

The first generation of Alaska Natives educated in the dominant culture led the Native claims movement in the 1960s, before oil discovery at Prudhoe Bay. Indeed, Native resistance to the Alaska Pipeline running across traditional lands forced passage of ANCSA.

Health services for Alaska Natives came primarily from federal spending, not state oil money, and that revolution also began before oil. Sen. Ted Stevens funded more rural water and sewer systems than the state, although the North Slope Borough used its own oil revenue to build its systems.

Alaska without Prudhoe Bay wouldn't look like 1953. Nor would it look as it does today.

Without North Slope oil, our public facilities wouldn't be as good as they are — we would have fewer roads and public buildings. We wouldn't receive Permanent Fund dividends. Our fishing streams would not be as crowded.

Oil brought new facilities, dividends, and a lot of new people to use those facilities and collect the dividends.

Newcomers consumed much of the oil wealth. University of Alaska Anchorage economist Alexander James showed (as I wrote previously), that Alaskans' individual incomes didn't rise and probably fell compared to what would have happened without oil.

As oil production and oil prices declined, so did Alaska's ability to support the new people. But we didn't impose taxes, we just sliced the pie ever thinner.

In a state without broad-based taxes, government services did not track population or economic growth. More people always meant smaller shares, even if the new people did productive work that grew the economy.

In Alaska, a successful family business doesn't mean more money for schools, but it does mean more crowded classrooms.

That's why the oil era hasn't felt, for the most part, like a time of wealth. We didn't pay taxes, but we also couldn't afford what we wanted as a state. Alaska government had permanent scarcity along with a Permanent Fund.

Teacher pay that had been the nation's highest fell to become uncompetitive with other states. Services built on income taxes before oil, such as the Alaska Marine Highway System, came to seem unaffordable.

Large swaths of western Alaska remain in poverty as deep as is found anywhere in the United States. Without the Permanent Fund dividend, incomes there might be the very lowest.

Those communities and more affluent areas of rural Alaska also suffer some of the nation's most serious human problems, including violence, sexual assault, substance abuse and low educational achievement.

A Native leader recently likened rates of rural suicide to an epidemic.

These are old problems, and they don't seem to be getting better. Would a new oil boom solve them? How would it, if this is where we find ourselves after all the previous oil booms?

The Alaska Native corporations have dominated the list of the state's biggest companies for many years now. The Alaska Pipeline is more than 40 years old. Why haven't we made more progress?

I wouldn't blame oil or ANCSA for all Alaska's problems, but I think we need some new solutions.

A starting point would be a less polarized discussion of development issues. It's possible to question development without questioning all development; it should also be possible to support development without believing everything depends on it.

Oil development surely will continue. There are hopeful signs from the North Slope that oil production will continue to gradually rise. But not all oil development is good.

Oil will never be all Alaska needs — and it never was.

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