Prospecting the Federal Government: How Buchanan Found Gold In Alaska

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Pat Buchanan is running hard and strong, perplexing all the pundits in the process. His issues, mostly trade, immigration and abortion, appear to be resonating with a sizable block of voters. But, there's a broader message here - Pat is tapping into a rich vein of distrust and disgust with the national government.

Consider the first caucus he won, in what would have seemed the unlikely jurisdiction of Alaska. Unlikely, that is, until we consider Alaska's treatment at the hands of the federal government during its almost four decades of statehood. It's a treatment that makes the state fertile ground for a candidate seeking to harvest people's growing frustrations with the intrusiveness of Washington.

In 1958, the citizens of the Alaskan territory voted by a margin of more than 5 to 1 to accept Washington's offer of statehood. The proclamation signed by President Eisenhower on January 3, 1959 made Alaska our 49th state, guaranteeing it "equal footing" with the other 48 states.

But, that's not the way it turned out. Instead, Alaskans have witnessed one attempt after another - some successful, some not - on the part of the federal government to change elements of the original statehood "contract."

As part of Alaska's statehood, it was agreed that the federal government would be entitled to 10% of any oil revenues arising from federal lands. Yet, in 1964, the federal government unsuccessfully tried to increase its share to 75% of oil revenues from the Kenai Peninsula.

While it was always expected that the federal government would own and manage vast acreage within their state, many Alaskans no doubt felt shocked and betrayed in 1980, when President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Act. The Act gave to the federal government much of the state's most valuable acreage, or acreage that blocked usage of valuable acreage in private and state hands.

Commonwealth North, a group of prominent Alaskans, notes the federal intrusiveness that arises from the large size and unfortunate (from Alaska's viewpoint) placement of federal land ownership within Alaska, noting there are actually 54 different ruling "governors" that have a say over land usage. These include park superintendents, wildlife refuge superintendents, etc. that rule over different federal land units within Alaska. Sadly for Alaska's citizens, these authorities are appointed in Washington, and have no reason to answer to the people of Alaska. Predictably, their rule can be capricious and inconsistent.

The prohibitions against developing some federal land, or even using it to get from private or state-owned land to deep water ports and other elements of business infrastructure, make it impossible to accomplish much economic development. This especially hurts Alaska's attempts to shift its economy away from its dependence on oil.

But, even when Alaskans can work with the land, their hands are often tied. For example, the natural markets for oil extracted from Alaska's North Slope would be nations on the Pacific Rim, including Japan. Yet, until very recently, federal law prohibited Alaska from exporting this oil to Japan, which resulted in Alaskan oil passing through the Panama Canal on the way to a Gulf port, while oil from Mexico headed in the other direction on its way to the Pacific Rim.

Washington's attempts at environmental micro-management have also severely impacted Alaska. 74% of Alaska's non-mountainous land area falls under the definition of wetlands, and so is managed in Washington. So are fisheries and timber. Alaska's everyday life is a series of David and Goliath-like clashes with a distant national government.

Our federal government seems to have broken its promises to Alaska - to have told its biggest lies to our biggest state. Since statehood, Alaska has suffered from laws that were passed and administered by people sitting in Washington, people who were either unaware, or didn't care, how those laws would affect the people in Alaska. And, this has been done with the usual Washington arrogance that it knows better than the people of Alaska what is good for them and their state.

No wonder Pat Buchanan won the Alaska caucuses. And, while it remains to be seen if his win was the first step toward the presidential nomination, or just the start of a good month that ended after New Hampshire, there is one real concern that we should address. If Washington treats Alaska, a state that sits 5000 miles away and is primarily wilderness, so shabbily, just think what it's doing to the rest of us.