Tea Party-backed Joe Miller, who is threatening to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has a bold vision for Alaska, one that would entail the state taking over federal lands, including Denali National Park and Preserve.
In an interview with Alaska Dispatch, Miller said if elected to the Senate, he will fight for state control of vast swaths of Alaska currently under federal ownership. Promoting resource development on those lands would help Alaska pay its own way and break its dependence on federal money, he said.
On Miller's list of federal lands that the state should control is Denali National Park -- Alaska's equivalent of Yellowstone National Park. Denali, a pristine park with only one road, is home to Mount McKinley -- the nation's tallest peak -- as well as grizzly bears, wolves, Dall sheep and other animals.
"If there's a significant resource in that park that we could get at in a responsible way -- and the state decides it's appropriate to extract it -- let's create jobs from it," said Miller, adding that he moved to Alaska because he loves hunting and fishing and doesn't favor anything that despoils the wilderness.
Miller -- a Gulf War veteran and Yale Law School graduate backed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- has fought his way to a 1,668-vote lead over Murkowski in the GOP Alaska primary, with some 20,000 absentee and questioned ballots to be counted starting Tuesday. Lawyers are now involved, the campaigns are slinging mud at each other, and Alaskans are wondering what a post-Murkowski world might look like.
Before the primary, few political insiders and journalists expected Miller would beat Murkowski, leaving many Alaskans unfamiliar about some of his positions. Like other Tea Party candidates, Miller believes government spending is out of control. Even Alaska -- a state that's depended on the federal government for decades -- must find other ways to support itself, he said.
Take back the land
Oil taxes, fees and royalties fund more than 85 percent of state government. Alaska has no state personal income or sales taxes. Petroleum, fisheries, tourism and the federal government are the big economic engines.
Miller's idea that the state should own most of the land -- not the federal government -- is far from new in Alaska. Business leaders and Republicans have long complained the feds have "locked up" Alaska, including places like the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and parts of the Tongass National Forest. (They don't often cite Denali National Park, though.) But Alaska's congressional delegation has been more successful at tapping federal programs and appropriations to pay for infrastructure, services and projects, often to the criticism of government watchdogs.
Miller adheres to the philosophy that the federal government should oversee national defense and border control, and very little else. Miller, who also holds a master's in economics from the University of Alaska, believes Alaska must end federal paternalism and move toward state control of all lands and encourage aggressive resource development. It's the only option, he said in an interview over the weekend, because the billions of dollars the federal government pours into Alaska won't last forever.
"The ultimate goal has to be state control over the (resource) base," Miller said.
The 'constitutional model'
So how would Miller begin transferring federal lands to the state of Alaska?
One way would be to build a strong coalition at the congressional level that could move the country toward a "constitutional model," as Miller puts it, in which the power of the state overrides the power of the federal government in almost all situations.
But this may happen on its own, too, Miller said.
He believes the federal government is headed toward bankruptcy if spending isn't brought under control. If the federal government runs out of money to maintain lands, it would have no choice but to relinquish control and ownership to the states, Miller said.
"If you look at, for example, Greece, where you had people killed on the streets and riots throughout -- if you don't think that's going to be the same sort of thing that happens in this country, think again," Miller said.
"My hope is it's a pragmatic change that occurs through leadership. But again, we must be prepared as leaders to confront what happens when this nation fiscally goes bankrupt."
Contact Joshua Saul at jsaul(at)alaskadispatch.com.