Polar Politics

Polar Politics

Polar Politics

Making government work better.
Aug. 16 1997 3:30 AM

Polar Politics

Those cool Alaskans love their land--but not enough to pay for it.

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The bark beetle is eating the spruce forests of Alaska. Clump by clump, acre by acre, the tall trees turn brown and drop their needles. Already whole swatches of the lush Kenai Peninsula look drought-struck. Soon, it is expected, the beetle will masticate its way north into Denali and onward to the Arctic Circle.

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No one knows why the bark beetle has suddenly proliferated. Everyone agrees that the bugs must have their meal. Spraying the roughly 150-million-plus acres of America's last great wilderness preserves is simply impractical.

The loggers see opportunity in this. Why not clear-cut the threatened stands before the wood is pitted? The environmentalists see peril. The young spruce trees clinging to their dying parents' skirts are seemingly immune to the beetle's incursions. In not too many years, they, and the aspen and other sprinkled hardwoods, will restore the forest's verdure. Lumber cut many years ago bears witness to earlier infestations. (The door to the sauna cabin at the lodge where I stayed during a recent visit to Kachemak Bay is etched with beetle tracks.) Yet the wilderness restored itself. Clear-cutting will destroy healthy and unhealthy trees alike, allow grass to take root, and impede reforestation for decades to come.

It is scarcely worth asking where the state's congressional delegation stands on the issue. The two U.S. senators and single representative--strategically seated on key committees--unambiguously represent the corporate interests that, absent federal resistance, would log, mine, and drill every corner of the nation's largest land trust. They know that they can rely on their constituents' reflexive resistance to any form of federal intervention, save one. That sole exception to the libertarian orthodoxy is made in the case of federal money.

Illustration by Gary Baseman

Oil money and federal largess--funds available either in full or at the most favorable matching rates for roads, military bases, parks, refuges, the Coast Guard, native affairs, and the full gamut of social-welfare benefits--allows the state to eschew both an income tax and a sales tax. (According to a new report, Alaska ranks second among states in total federal spending per inhabitant, receiving 42 percent more than the average state. So much for rugged individualism.) Meanwhile, the state can reserve the proceeds of its vast North Slope oil-revenue trust fund to be doled out per capita to every person resident in the state for more than a year. (If you have a large family, an aversion to work, and a tolerance for winter darkness, Alaska may be the place for you. Indeed, while welfare rolls are plummeting in the contiguous 48, they are still on the rise in Alaska.)

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This is not to say that the residents of Alaska are indifferent to the natural values of their inheritance. The state's growing eco-tourism industry harbors many "enviros" who regard the fragile bounty of their land with a quiet pride that has less to do with ownership than with stewardship. The enviros, in their well-cured L.L. Bean blues and olives, are an outwardly cheerful bunch. They are never cold or tired or just plain out of sorts. They would rise before dawn--if the sun, which lingers obscenely above the horizon during the summer nights--would only set. Their vices are few--they enjoy an occasional glass of wine or beer, and now and then one may overindulge in chocolate-spiked trail mix. But they would prefer to be trekking across the wildflower-pocked tundra, wading through 35-degree glacial muck, spending hours lichen-looking, or exploring tidal pools for sunflower stars and brittle stars, spiny sea urchins, mussel worms, anemones, and blennies, as curious and brightly colored as any on a tropical coral reef.

The descendants of the sourdoughs (four of whom, early this century, first conquered one of Mount McKinley's two 20,000-foot peaks, dragging with them a pine pole, an oversized American flag, and a bag of stale doughnuts) are, of course, less refined in their sensibilities. So, too, are many of the adventurers, loners, and losers who have migrated to the state in their footsteps. (Life in Alaska has its seamy side. A story making the local papers in recent weeks concerned a 2-year-old who was asphyxiated when his uncle tried to force oral sex on him. You may wonder why the child had been left in the care of an uncle who was on probation for having broken the leg of another toddler. But the child's mother had fled north, his father was in jail in Washington state, and his grandmother--also on probation for an unnamed offense--was otherwise occupied. Oh well, all families have their troubles.)

Yet, as Allen Smith, the Wilderness Society's regional director, points out, voters rejected by a 3-to-2 margin the "sport" of aerial wolf shooting in a referendum, overturning a vote in the state Legislature. When only half the expected number of sockeye salmon returned to Bristol Bay to spawn this summer, more Alaskans began wondering if unrestrained exploitation might, in the end, destroy the schools that lay the golden eggs. Farther south, angry Canadian fishermen blockaded an Alaskan ferry to protest their low catch of sockeye, which, they say, have been impelled northward to the colder Alaskan waters by unknown factors (global warming?).

But because they have no direct financial stake in their government, many of the state's voters are relatively indifferent to its pursuits. This leaves the political field wide open for the developers, their politically active employees in Anchorage (where more than 40 percent of the state's population resides), and their dogged lobbyists in Juneau and Washington, D.C.

And when money is at issue, there is no contest. While 70 percent of Americans consistently tell pollsters they oppose extending oil and gas drilling and other development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 70 percent of Alaskans favor it. Even the Alaskan native population, many of whose members still subsist by hunting and fishing, is divided according to the traditional interests and financial stakes in the potential revenues. The Gwich'in, "the people of the caribou," oppose development of the Arctic coastal plain, to which the caribou migrate to breed. But since the Gwich'in opted out of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, they stand to make no profit from new drilling. The Inupiat Inuit, who hunt whale, seal, and fish, favor development on the coastal plain--but not offshore continental shelf drilling.

Meanwhile, the caribou convoys with their vigilant wolf escorts migrate north each spring, the grizzlies flourish along the salmon rivers, and the moose munch in Anchorage's suburban backyards. Along with the red fox, marmots, otters, beavers, ground squirrels, Dall sheep, whales, sea lions, bald and golden eagles, tufted and horned puffins, and myriad lesser fauna, they participate with quiet dignity in the great cycle of eat and be eaten. The enviros watch them with mixed pleasure and concern. They know that while the bark beetle is self-limiting, humankind is not.