When I came to Skagway in 1956, the Alaska Territory was at the height of its statehood hopes and efforts. The people had just voted to approve the proposed state constitution, which would only be “quickened” if the Congress granted statehood. On 30 June 1958, the U.S. Senate joined in approving H.R. 7999. President Eisenhower signed the bill on 7 July.
For the first time, Alaskans would vote in the November election for two senators, a house member and the chief executive of the state, who up until then had been appointed by the President. The principle of government by consent of the governed had finally come to the Alaska country, 92 years an American colony. Euphoria reigned.
Fifty years on, we can take a measure, and lay out a course. The hard dogged work of finding enough revenue to allow the state to function was lightened almost miraculously with the advent of petroleum riches from the North Slope. Like a young heir with a huge inheritance, our self-governing society has been challenged and perplexed by so much income.
Will we build infrastructure to ease existing needs and attract investment in our far-flung resources, or will we dissipate our capital through per capita distributions? A difficult, conflicted question. We have the power to achieve a productive, fruitful and rewarding society. The state itself owns a vast patrimony of uplands and tidelands which will blossom into ever greater rewards economic, scenic and conservation. We have already done useful things, but Alaska’s greatest days lie ahead.
A place rich in energy is rich in many ways. Intellectual and cultural life can be generously supported; the State Domestic Product will enjoy steady and measured expansion. We did not succeed in realizing the Rampart Dam, a project which would have brought abundant, very low-cost electricity to the urban centers as well as to the villages strung along our river valleys. Before the failure of Rampart, the Territory, and Skagway in particular, lost the great Yukon Taiya Project in 1954, which would have brought ALCOA Aluminum for the very low cost and abundant power which it would have yielded.
In 1976, the legislature enacted the Alaska State Power Authority, at the prompt of my having submitted a pro bono bill. It produced the Four Dam Pool and Bradley Lake, but was shut down in the mid 1980s due to temporary but powerful political pique. The Authority needs a rebirth.
Amazing and unfortunate is our hesitancy and timidity about opening up our land mass with surface transportation. We have no highways to the Westward, to Dillingham, or to Nome, nor have we yet built a road to our state capital.
The Woodrow Wilson Administration installed the Alaska railroad, but we have done very little since to extend its benefits. Clearly by now we should actively seek connection with the North American system; we should extend rail to Russia and China via tunnel under the Bering Strait. Instead of being “at the end of the line,” Alaska would then move to the center of dynamic transportation and trade. The electric traction railroad would convey reliable low cost electricity to all the villages and places near its right-of-way.
The significant and huge geothermal potential of Alaska has drawn interest through the work of Bernie Karl at Chena Hot Springs; he is on the road to beneficial discoveries of its use. An Israeli company has leased geothermal tracts at Mt. Spurr, and during 2008 a group of Icelandic experts visited Anchorage, extolling the benefits of geothermal space heating and electric generation.
In Upper West Cook Inlet, the Tyonek Native Corporation is promoting various energy producing and industrial projects calling for over $20 billion of capital investment which will produce, among other things, low cost electrical power for Anchorage and the railbelt.
One of the great shapers and drivers of Alaska’s richness in the next 50 years will be the Alaska Native corporations to whom the Congress wisely granted a magnificent estate in fee simple of over 44 million acres. The possibilities arising from this act of statesmanship are among the brightest in our future, and probably never would have occurred had Alaska not become a state.
Finally, a word in favor of a School of Architecture, Municipal Layout and Northern Living at the University of Alaska. Tyonek, for example, anticipates the construction of a new town to be known as “Nakacheba” which means “nowhere.” In 16th century England, Sir Thomas More also invented a word which has found favor since, “Utopia,” which also at the time meant “nowhere.” Our university can and should have a beneficial influence on our Alaska living. Alaska may come to be known as a Utopia.
Joseph Henri is President of Southcentral Timber Development Corporation and a former President of RDC. He served in the Egan administration as Commissioner of Administration, responsible for budget and management. He also worked for Alaska’s first senator, Ernest Gruening, while attending Georgetown Law School.
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