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Reflecting on long road to statehood, work left unfinished

Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2004

As far as we know there was no celebration, but Alaska marked 45 years of statehood Saturday.

Few likely would have envisioned "Seward's Folly" of 1867 turning into the place it is today.

As Gov. Frank Murkowski noted: "Today Alaska enjoys a reputation for having a vital role in national energy and defense security. This state is also recognized for our superb stewardship of bountiful natural resources, and for balancing resource development with environmental protection, safeguarding air and water quality and protecting habitat for fish and wildlife. Alaska sets the example for other states to emulate, including setting aside land for permanent protection. Over the years, this state has placed more land in protected park status than has any of the other 49 states."

Lots of Alaskans today were here before statehood was achieved. And many of them likely remember the debates that preceded that milestone.

Like every other issue that has shaped Alaska, there were fierce fights over statehood. Not everyone believed it was the answer to what the vast territory needed.

Only one newspaper in the state led the charge for statehood: Bob Atwood's Anchorage Times. Other newspapers, including the Juneau Empire, didn't oppose statehood, but they did oppose "statehood now," believing the costs would be more than Alaska's small taxpaying population could bear.

The Empire editorialized that "sufficient growth and progress" should precede statehood. For William Prescott Allen, publisher of the Empire in the years right before statehood, sufficient growth meant "two to three million people." And the progress he envisioned could be accomplished only with a "20-year tax moratorium ... (to) create a favorable climate for the establishment of more industries in Alaska."

As Alaskans look forward to a new year, it's appropriate to look back over the long road to statehood. Some of the highlights and history, as reported by the Juneau Empire in its 75th anniversary edition several years ago, include:

Support for immediate statehood was popular among some territorial residents even before 1915, with the first statehood bill for Alaska being introduced March 30, 1916, by Judge James Wickersham, Alaska's delegate to Congress.

In the early years, much of the statehood debate focused on dividing the territory. Because of its great size and scattered population, it was generally assumed that Alaska eventually would be divided into at least two territories, and some believed as many as five.

During the 1930s more attention was focused on Alaska as a strategic defense location. During this decade, the airplane contributed to a growing consciousness of the importance of Alaska by bringing the territory much closer to the continental United States.

During the general election of 1946, Alaskans went to the polls to cast their vote for or against statehood. The vote in favor of statehood was not the landslide some had expected. The final tally was 9,630 people voting in favor of statehood and 6,822 voting against. It was defeated in two of Alaska's four divisions, passing only in Southeast and Southcentral.

During the next congressional session, Bob Bartlett, Alaska's delegate to Congress, introduced a statehood bill on the first day of the session.

In the 1950s, the Korean War prompted defense considerations to become prominent arguments for statehood as they had been during World War II. Some protested saying the development of Alaska, not national defense, was the statehood issue.

On Nov. 8, 1955, the constitutional convention convened in the new student union building on the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks.

On April 25, 1956, Alaskans went to the polls and ratified the constitution.

Although in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Congress to grant statehood to Alaska, the measure died in committee.

In 1958, the U.S. House and Senate approved statehood for Alaskans. On Aug. 26, 1958, Alaskans did the same. All that was needed to add Alaska's star to the American flag was a presidential proclamation, which came from Eisenhower of Jan. 4, 1959.

Interestingly, even since statehood, some of Alaskans complaints have changed little. It was said then Alaska was treated more like a colony than a commonwealth and its residents more like subjects than citizens.

In fact, Alaska's chief trouble, according to one Empire editorial, was "too much meddling by Washington busybodies."

Sound familiar?

While there is much Alaskans can be proud of in the 45 years since statehood, there is still much work to be done, as some of promises by the federal government at the time of statehood still have not been realized.

As Gov. Murkowski said: "Yet to be fulfilled are Congress's promises of 104 million acres of land to the new state in 1959 and its promise of 40 million additional acres to Alaska Native corporations in 1971. The authority given to other states to build roads across federal lands in order to tie together communities and provide access for growth and development has been severely restricted in Alaska. And the sovereign authority granted all other states to manage the fish and wildlife populations within their borders has been restricted in Alaska, the result of an impasse between the state and federal governments over the federal subsistence law."

These statehood-related issues should be solved sooner rather than later. Certainly, by the time Alaska marks its 50th anniversary of statehood, these matters should be history.



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