Guest Essayist: Bethany Marcum

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Known as “The Last Frontier,” Alaska was the forty-ninth to ratify the U.S. Constitution and be admitted to the United States. The Alaska State Constitution currently in use was actually ratified in 1956 before Alaska entered the Union, and went into effect upon statehood January 3, 1959

While there are in theory strict limits on federal governing powers as laid out in the Tenth Amendment to our U.S. Constitution, in the real world of at least one state, Alaska, the federal government wields enormous power and control. To understand how this came to be, one must look at Alaska’s history.

The area now designated as the state of Alaska was originally inhabited by indigenous people. Russians and European explorers visited and settled in the 1700s. Expeditions found the region rich in natural resources, with particular interest to the fur traders of that day. Russian settlement grew, but in 1867, the area was purchased from Russia, and became a department of the U.S. government.

The military was the most obvious presence in Alaska until the 1890s when gold was discovered. That brought a rush of miners and other settlers, causing much activity, and reorganizing the region into a federal government district.

In 1912, another reorganization designated the area as the Territory of Alaska. As airplanes became more prominent, settlement continued away from the road system, and the population increased.

Due to its strategic location, Alaska was very important during the war years and as it grew, so did a movement for statehood. The issue caused fierce debates. The state’s small population relative to the rest of the country made it obvious that residents couldn’t produce the revenue needed to develop the immense land mass and to create a viable economy. The rest of the country feared Alaska could not even take on the responsibility of creating a formal state government.

Eventually, however, statehood proponents prevailed and on January 3, 1959, Alaska entered the union as a full-fledged state. But it came at a high price: the federal government retained title to the majority of lands. In fact, even today, over 60% of the land in Alaska is owned by the federal government.

Contentious deliberations over land and resource ownership and control continued for decades, resulting in two landmark federal laws, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980. Even so the problems were not resolved; today, management of the resources on lands in Alaska continues to create friction between D.C. agencies and the state. The most recent example of this was the case of Sturgeon v. Frost, heard twice by the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision was a victory for Mr. Sturgeon and the State of Alaska, over the National Park Service. Still, overzealous federal agencies continue to lock up Alaska’s land and resources as political winds blow first one direction, then the other.

The population of Alaska is small even today, and just as feared during the statehood debates, the 49th state remains heavily dependent on the federal government. This dependency comes in many forms, from federally subsidized bypass mail for sparsely populated Alaskan villages (essentially an air freight service), to federal obligations to the state’s indigenous people through special health care and other programs.

Due to the large amount of federal land, and as a result of the federal government’s role in funding so many programs and projects in Alaska, it is often the federal government which makes the rules—not the state.

This has led to great difficulty for Alaska in developing its resources. In the area of natural resource development, federal overreach is particularly devastating. Resource development is the predominant driver of Alaska’s private economy. Lack of infrastructure, a harsh climate and distance from markets and populations have resulted in Alaska having very few industries. Most of its non-governmental economy is based in resources: oil and gas, mining, and commercial fishing. As the federal bureaucracy grows and with it, the number of regulations on these industries, the ability for Alaska to move toward less federal dependency is reduced even further.

If Alaska is ever to take its rightful place as a strong and independent state, it must be freed from the constraints of federal overreach, and from the lures of federal funding. It must be allowed to develop and manage the land and resources within its borders so that it can create the revenue needed to support its residents. Only then will Alaskans be truly free to govern themselves.

Bethany Marcum has made Alaska her home for over 20 years. She currently works as Executive Director of the Alaska Policy Forum. She also serves as a citizen airman in the Alaska Air National Guard. She worked as legislative staff for State Senator Mike Dunleavy from 2013 to 2017. She is currently the Alaska Republican Party Region V Representative and has held a variety of other positions at the district and state level. She is a former president, long-time board member and life member of the Alaska Chapter of Safari Club International and is a life member of the NRA. She serves in her church with the children’s ministry and is a volunteer “big” with Big Brother Big Sisters of Alaska. She and her husband Conley enjoy hunting together.

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