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Powering Santa's sleigh.

Each December, the Downtown Anchorage Association brings in Santa Claus to light the community Christmas tree. He arrives in a sleigh pulled by nine real reindeer from the Reindeer Farm near Palmer owned by Tom and Gene Williams.

Raising reindeer was Tom's idea, Gene said. "Definitely all of the farming ideas are Tom's."

Tom and Gene met at Brigham Young University. She describes herself as a city girl from Chicago; he grew up on the Mat-Su Valley farm that is now their home. At first glance, the fenced fields, house, barn and other outbuildings in the shadow of Pioneer Peak look much like any other farm.

But, in pastures where one would expect to see "normal" livestock, there are hundreds of bounding reindeer-heavily antlered bulls, delicately antlered cows and frisky calves. Approach the fence, and a mini-stampede takes place as the animals trot over for a handout or a scratch. They're just as friendly as can be.

"When we do the tree-lighting in Anchorage, we take nine deer to pull the sleigh and nine handlers," Gene said. "After Santa arrives, a handler leads each reindeer through the crowd allowing people to pet them."

While Christmas presentations are fun, the real mission of the Reindeer Farm is showing the animals to tourists during the summer. Gene figures they had about 10,000 visitors from May to September 1996.

But while reindeer attract more tourists every year, owning reindeer has ensnared Tom and Gene in a legal mine-field. In the 1930s, Congress passed the Reindeer Act at the urging of Lower 48 beef producers worried about losing market share to reindeer meat from Alaska. This made it illegal for anyone except Alaska Natives to own Alaskan reindeer. The cattlemen were undoubtedly satisfied with the result. The Reindeer Act put thousands of people out of work and virtually destroyed the reindeer industry.

At the time the act was passed, there were about 600,000 reindeer in Alaska and 4,000 people, mostly Natives, herding them. Today there are 17 Native herders and about 35,000 reindeer, according to Gene. Hardly anyone markets reindeer meat anymore. The largest commercial value these days is a mid-summer roundup to cut off antlers, which are sold to Asian buyers.

Before buying reindeer, Tom, a lawyer, did his homework. He wanted to avoid running afoul of federal law. He contacted the U.S. Solicitor General for a legal opinion on importing and owning non-Alaskan reindeer. The solicitor general determined that imported reindeer would be legal. Starting in 1986, Tom began importing reindeer purchased from Canadian herders.

Tom and Gene developed a new reindeer industry as a tourist attraction. Their operation did not raise meat for market or antlers for Oriental aphrodisiacs.

Although the Williams offer no threat to the tattered remnants of Alaska's reindeer industry, herders, working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, have for years tried to force the Reindeer Farm to close. The latest round in court concluded in early August. At the time, the Williams were promised a decision within two months. As of November, they have yet to hear anything, so for now, it's still business as usual at the Reindeer Farm.

Which means Anchorage's children will squeal with delight again this year when Santa arrives in a reindeer-powered sleigh. But whether they will next year is anybody's guess.
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Title Annotation:Small Business Spotlight; Reindeer Farm
Author:Dalby, Ron
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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