On Aug. 31, Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in a Fox Business interview, publicly and explicitly endorsed former President Donald Trump for his 2024 election bid. Trump, Dunleavy said, has been the best president for Alaska in the state’s short history. In support of his claim, he cited Trump’s approval of the sale of oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ending the prohibition on new road construction in the Tongass National Forest, and his backing for permitting a rail line between Canada and Alaska.
While ostensibly simple and straight-forward, there’s a lot to unpack in Dunleavy’s allegation that Trump has been the best president for Alaska. Aside from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s recent cancelation of the Refuge leases and the Forest Service’s reinstatement of the “roadless rule,” there are presidents whose actions have had a far more significant and permanent impact on the 49th state.
We might begin with President Dwight Eisenhower. Early in his presidency, Eisenhower opposed Alaska statehood. Head of allied forces in Europe during World War II, he had watched uncomfortably as Russia moved quickly from ally to implacable enemy as the atomic age and the Cold War dawned. Alaska, he felt, needed to be under direct federal control to face any Russian aggression that might come from Siberia. Yet he later came to approve the statehood effort and signed the Alaska statehood bill when it passed Congress, a bill he could have vetoed. Has there been any greater impact on Alaska and its future than statehood?
Then there’s President Richard Nixon. Learning of Dunleavy’s endorsement, Rep. Andy Josephson suggested to me that Nixon had a far greater impact than Trump and many other presidents. It was Nixon who signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. Unprecedented in many ways, in the late 1960s, the sheer size of the proposed claims settlement and the large monetary compensation for extinguishment of Native title boggled the imagination. Nixon directed his aide John Ehrlichman to study the matter and make a recommendation. Ehrlichman embraced the proposed settlement and Nixon signed the bill that December. Has there been any act of greater impact for Alaska and its residents, particularly its Native residents, than ANCSA, save statehood?
And President Jimmy Carter. ANCSA was incomplete; it left to the future a policy on Native subsistence harvesting in Alaska’s wilderness lands. Throughout the 1970s, Rogers C.B. Morton — as Nixon’s Interior Secretary and Gerald Ford’s Commerce Secretary — worked assiduously, alongside Sen. Ted Stevens, to craft an Alaska land settlement that would be accepted by both the environmental community, then at the height of its influence, and Alaska’s longstanding, continuing development needs. When in 1978 Stevens brought forward a bill that had been generally agreed to, Sen. Gravel brought the process to a standstill with an unacceptable amendment. Carter’s Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus then recommended that Carter utilize the ancient Antiquities Act to withdraw over 100 million acres of Alaska land in national monuments, protecting them from development. This, plus the election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980 brought Congress to pass the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, placing 104 million new acres in Alaska under permanent federal environmental protection, and providing for Native (rural) subsistence harvest under the sanction of a federal board. Whether one views ANILCA as a boon or a curse, few other presidentially approved actions have had greater impact on Alaska and its future.
Anything former President Trump did pales in comparison to these three enactments.
Moreover, Trump’s actions have been quite temporary. As noted, Haaland has rescinded the Refuge leases. They were essentially a dead letter, anyway, as no major oil company any longer viewed Refuge leases as an advantage, and refused to bid on them, leaving only the state of Alaska and bit players (who have since canceled their leases) to purchase any, hoping that someone might be interested in a partnership.
As for the roadless rule in the Tongass, Biden administration officials cited climate change and Native protests, as well as protecting fishing and tourism, as primary reasons for restoring protection for 9.3 million acres of the Forest.
And the A2A corporation that promoted building a rail connection from Alaska to the Alberta oil sands in order to bypass British Columbia (which has prohibited such a line across the province) has filed for credit protection, as its principal lender has gone into receivership. So much for Trump’s backing of the connection.
Looking at the real history of Alaska, Dunleavy’s casual distortion of it seems careless at best.
Steve Haycox is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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