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Taking a stand on Alaska.

How will the new Clinton administration move on issues affecting the 49th state, from ANWR to Native sovereignty?

Some people have painted a grim picture of Alaska, with its laughable trio of electoral votes, casting its lot with the sinking political ship of George Bush and the ghost ship of Ross Perot. Now, as this scenario goes, the upstart, unrepentant state will soon get its punishment from the vindictive admirals of the victorious Bill Clinton.

Such bleak visions probably wouldn't exist if there wasn't already a history of adversarial relations between Alaska and the federal government, and a list of pending issues capable of straining the relationship further. This is especially true of issues related to natural resource management and development. The pessimism of some Alaskans is sharpened by their perception that the Clinton-Gore team is riding a wave of global environmental activism that threatens to engulf the state and drown any hope of economic growth or diversification.

The gloomiest of these predictions have not been published; they only circulate in private conversation. Publicly, Alaska's Republican state and congressional leaders have extended best wishes to the Clinton administration.

"We're very interested in working with Clinton's people to help them understand that Alaska is different," says John Manly, press secretary to Gov. Walter Hickel. "We have an open mind about it. We want to work with them."

Clinton Up Close

Those with a chance to watch Clinton closely -- mostly members of the state's Democratic Party leadership -- have worked hard since November to ease fears about Clinton, especially regarding environmental and development issues. Their efforts may be paying off in some quarters.

"They're legitimate fears. It remains to be seen if they're exaggerated fears. |But~ I'm not that gloomy," says Becky Gay, executive director of the Resource Development Council for Alaska Inc. (RDC).

"I've always rejected that |kind of~ paranoia, but it's still there, and there's some historical foundation for it," observes Tom Hawkins, president of Bristol Bay Native Corp.

Esther Wunnicke, former commissioner of natural resources under Gov. Bill Sheffield, attended Clinton's economic summit and was buoyed by the leadership qualities she observed in the new president.

"There's a willingness to listen. That's the biggest thing we have going for us," says Wunnicke. "I came away from the economic summit really hopeful that the spirit of our country might be restored. Wherever he is, he's engaged. We were very well received."

Wunnicke stresses Clinton's emphasis on people, his ability to identify with their problems and his intellectual capacity to track complex problems and proposals. Far from the stereotypical liberal assumed by some, Clinton is likely to be attacked from all sides because he is a true centrist, Wunnicke says. Based on her observations of the summit, she does not foresee extensive new regulation of the private sector by the federal government.

A Governor's Perspective

Also in Alaska's favor is Clinton's long-time run as governor of Arkansas.

"Clinton said several times |at the summit~ that he was the governor of a small state for 12 years, and he knew what it was to be regulated," notes Wunnicke.

Gay agrees, noting she can live with the appointment of former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt to the crucial post of interior secretary for that very reason.

"I'm fairly pleased that Clinton is selecting from governors. The Department of the Interior is the end-all, be-all to us in terms of land use. I think the fact that they've served as governors, they've at least had to grapple with pulling themselves up by the boot straps," she says.

Vic Fischer, economist, policy analyst, former state senator and delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention, agrees that Clinton's long-time role as governor is a boon for Alaska, but says how that affects issues will vary from one situation to the next.

"In the broad sense, Clinton coming from |the position of~ governor and president of the Governors Association, will have a state-oriented presidency, but it will depend very much on the issues involved."

For example, Fischer says, he expects states to be given more latitude in experimenting with solutions to social problems and health care reform.

At the same time he doubts that states will have any luck in relaxing federal environmental policies. He projects that there will be greater emphasis on oil development, but not offshore.

No End to the Issues

Long-time government watchers like Fischer aren't forecasting any dramatic changes in Alaska's fundamental relationship with the rest of the union under the Clinton presidency. Still, a host of state/federal issues await the test of time and political temperament:

* ANWR - Considerable speculation has and will continue to focus on whether Clinton will be an impediment or an ally in efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. Advocates hope that statements made by Clinton late in the race about the importance of reducing oil imports signal a willingness to consider the ANWR option.

* Wetlands - An effort to relax federal wetlands protection standards in Alaska was headed for approval, then dropped in the waning hours of the Bush administration. The proposal, which would have exempted any state that has used less than 1 percent of its wetlands from a rule requiring mitigation of lost wetlands, is the kind of notion that might pass a common-sense test in a Clinton administration with high economic priorities.

* EPA Region 11 Office - Another proposal on which pro-development advocates in Alaska have long pinned hopes did win Bush approval late January: creation of a new regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Proponents expect the new Region 11, to be based in Anchorage, will evaluate and approve permits more quickly and sympathetically. They also hope it will survive the presidential revolving door. Clinton's team will undoubtedly apply a philosophical test, but observers say a budgetary test may be more decisive.

* Wilderness Designation - "The shoe that still hasn't dropped from ANILCA is all the wilderness designations," says BBNC's Hawkins. Like many Alaskans, he is concerned that substantial new wilderness areas, even within established parks and refuges established under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, could even more severely restrict development of state and Native lands.

* Military Spending - During 12 years of Republican rule, Alaskans have had little opportunity to really watch their Congressional delegation pull out all stops. Senior Sen. Ted Stevens is singled out by some as a political powerhouse waiting for the first whiff of Democratic adversity to join an impressive defense of Alaska interests.

Such a summons could come over decisions affecting military spending in Alaska, including the potential closing of Fort Richardson. Clinton's defense and deficit-reduction strategies will greatly influence this debate, but Washington-watchers see room for Stevens and Alaska's two other federal lawmakers to maneuver.

* Oil Export Ban - Hickel spokespersons say pending litigation against the federal government to overturn the current ban on export of Alaska crude oil is the only one of several jurisdictional lawsuits being pursued by Hickel that might be resolved through negotiated administrative and legislative action. If Clinton is serious about reducing the trade deficit, he could champion lifting the ban. But because of long-standing opposition to export, analysts are unsure whether Clinton would make this issue a priority.

* State Land Selections - In January, state officials filed for the remaining 23 million acres of Alaska's 103-million-acre statehood land entitlement. Pessimists say a vindictive Clinton administration, bent on punishing Alaskans for sins real or imagined, could sit on the claims. Optimists scoff at such a notion and note that the vast federal machinery for the most part cranks away on such matters without White House prompting.

Hawkins says that state selections previously filed within the trans-Alaska pipeline corridor languished under the sympathetic administrations of both Reagan and Bush for fear of backlash from Native and environmental interests.

* Fisheries - Federal officials must give final approval to a number of plans periodically put forward by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council governing resource allocations and regulations beyond the 3-mile limit of state waters. No radical direction changes are anticipated from Clinton in philosophies underlying this authority.

* Gas Pipeline - Sponsors of a project to pipe North Slope natural gas to tidewater for tanker shipment to Asia already have their domestic permits in hand. What they need is firm foreign markets. Conventional wisdom is that Clinton will have little interest or impact on this issue, at least initially.

* Native Affairs - It is unclear whether or in what way Clinton may signal his thinking on Native sovereignty or issues arising from implementation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. However, Interior Secretary Babbitt is a strong advocate of sovereignty and may have considerable influence on this issue.

Many see it significant that Willie Hensley, a prominent NANA Corp. official and statewide Democratic leader, was early "accepted into the fold," as one observer put it, of Clinton's transition team.

"It's taken better than 20 years to establish the standing of Native corporations in the eyes of agencies. You always hope the new guy comes with a history of the settlement," says BBNC's Hawkins. For now, he adds, the early signals from Clinton's people about racial harmony and Native participation in the transition "have been real positive. But it's too early to tell how that comes out in the operation of the agencies."

Presiding over a corporation whose shareholders are trying to design their own economic destiny with limited capital and a lot of land, Hawkins worries that the Bristol Bay region will be asked to shoulder yet more restrictions in the form of wilderness and wetlands designations. However, he's willing to give Clinton a chance.

The key, say Manly and Gay, is to understand that the process of educating Clinton and his advisors requires a long-term commitment and a lot of hard work; there are no short-cuts to this education process.

Fischer, who has seen a lot of federal administrations and state/federal squabbles come and go through the years, says having the savvy to take a measure of the American political pulse won't hurt prospects for a good relationship with Clinton.

"We need to remember there are Alaskans that will be filling policy jobs in the Clinton administration. It's not as if Alaska will be stripped naked," says Fischer. "We can expect decent treatment, so long as we act rationally and don't propose killing wolves with automatic rifles from helicopters."
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Title Annotation:Clinton's economic policies on Alaska
Author:Richardson, Jeffrey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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