The 20th Century
In the first decade of the 20th century, the sprawling wilderness was starting to be tamed. The military set up shop at Valdez and Eagle to maintain law and order, telegraph cables were laid across the Interior, the Northwest Passage had been found, railroads were begun at several locations, vast copper deposits were being mined, and thousands of independent pioneer types were surviving on their own wits and the country’s resources.
Footpaths widened into wagon trails. Mail deliveries were regularized. Limited self-government was initiated: The capital moved to Juneau from Sitka in 1905; Alaska’s first congressional delegate arrived in Washington in 1906; and a territorial legislature convened in 1912. A year later, the first people stood atop the south peak of Mt. McKinley, and the surrounding area was set aside as a national park in 1917.
At that time, Alaska’s white and Native Alaskan populations had reached equivalency, at around 35,000 each. Judge James Wickersham introduced the first statehood bill to the U.S. Congress in 1916, but Alaska drifted along in federal obscurity until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
It has been said that war is good for one thing: the rapid expansion of communications and mobility technology. Alaska proves that rule. In the early 1940s, military bases were established at Anchorage, Whittier, Fairbanks, Nome, Sitka, Delta, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, and the tip of the Aleutians, which brought an immediate influx of military and support personnel and services.
In addition, in 1942 alone, thousands of miles of road were punched through the trackless wilderness, finally connecting Alaska to the rest of the world: the 1,440-mile Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek, B.C., to Delta, Alaska; the 50 miles of the Klondike Highway from Whitehorse to Carcross; the 151-mile Haines Highway; and the 328-mile Glenn Highway from Tok to Anchorage, among others.
At the war’s peak, 150,000 troops were stationed in the territory; all told, the U.S. government spent almost $1 billion there during the war. After the war, as after the gold rush, Alaska’s population increased dramatically, with service members remaining or returning. The number of residents nearly doubled between 1940 and 1950.
The 1950s brought a boom in construction, logging, fishing, and bureaucracy to Alaska. The decade also saw the discovery of a large oil reserve off the western Kenai Peninsula in the Cook Inlet. The population continued to grow, yet Alaskans still felt like residents of a second-class colony of the United States and repeatedly asked for statehood status through the decade. Finally, on July 7, 1958, Congress voted to admit Alaska into the Union as the 49th state. On January 3, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the official proclamation—43 years after Judge James Wickersham had first introduced the idea.
In the 92 years between Alaska becoming a U.S. territory and becoming a state, much of the land was split up into Navy petroleum reserves, Bureau of Land Management parcels, national wildlife refuges, power projects, and the like to be administered by separate federal agencies, including national park, forest, and military services.
By the time Alaska gained statehood in 1959, only 0.003 percent of the land was privately owned—mostly homesteads and mining operations—and just 0.01 percent had been set aside for Native Alaskan reservations, administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Statehood Act allowed Alaska to choose 104 million acres, but the issue of Native Alaskan land ownership was not considered, and it would take oil discoveries in the late 1960s to force redress for that injustice.
A little over five years after statehood, the Good Friday earthquake struck Southcentral Alaska; at 9.2 on the Richter scale, it remains the largest earthquake ever recorded in North America. But Alaskans quickly recovered and rebuilt with the plucky determination and optimism that still characterize the young state.
Oil Changes Everything
Alaska entered the big time, experiencing its most recent boom, in 1968 when Atlantic Richfield discovered a 10 billion-barrel oil reserve at Prudhoe Bay. The following year, Alaska auctioned off leases to almost 500,000 acres of oil-rich country on the North Slope for $900 million, 10 times more money than all its previous leases combined. A consortium of oil company leaseholders immediately began planning the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to carry the crude from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. But conservationists, worried about its environmental impact, and Native Alaskan groups, concerned about land-use compensation, filed suit, delaying construction for four years.
This impasse was resolved in 1971, when Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), the most extensive compensation to any indigenous people in the history of the United States. It gave Alaska’s aboriginal groups title to 44 million acres of traditional-use lands, plus $1 billion to be divided among all American citizens with at least 25 percent Athabascan, Eskimo, or Aleut blood. The act also created a dozen regional Native Alaskan corporations, a “13th Corporation” for Native Alaskans in the Lower 48, plus more than 200 village and urban Native Alaskan corporations.
The pipeline was built in 1974–1977. Again, after years of uncertainty, Alaska boomed, both in revenues and population. Since then, the state’s economic fortunes have risen and fallen with the volatile price of oil.
Preserving the Wild Places
The ANCSA of 1971 had designated 80 million acres to be withdrawn from the public domain and set aside as national parks, wildlife refuges, and other preserves by 1978. In the mid–late 1970s, in the wake of the completion of the pipeline, this was the raging land issue, generally divided between fiercely independent Alaskans who protested the further “locking up” of their lands by Washington bureaucrats, and conservationists who lobbied to preserve Alaska’s wildlife and wilderness.
When Congress failed to act, President Jimmy Carter took a bold move that forever changed the way Alaskan lands are managed; he withdrew 114 million acres of Alaskan lands as national monuments on December 1, 1978. The withdrawal still rankles the state’s right-wing politicians, who regard it as a criminal act that should be prosecuted.
Two years later, with the antienvironment Ronald Reagan waiting to take over the reins of power, Carter signed into law one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation ever enacted, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). The act set aside 106 million acres of federal property as “public-interest lands,” to be managed by the National Park and National Forest Services, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies.
These “d2 lands” (from section 17:d-2 of ANCSA) included the expansion of Mt. McKinley National Park (renamed Denali); the expansion of Glacier Bay and Katmai National Monuments, which became national parks; and the creation of Gates of the Arctic, Kobuk Valley, Wrangell–St. Elias, Kenai Fjords, and Lake Clark National Parks, plus the designation of numerous national monuments and preserves, scenic and wild rivers, and new wildlife refuges.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition