Scientist's decision helps Alaska wallets

Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2001

Every Alaskan who has cashed a permanent fund dividend check owes a thank-you note to Tom Marshall. In the early 1960s, the geologist made a choice that helped transform Alaska from pauper to prince.

Now retired and living in Anchorage, Marshall spoke in Fairbanks late last year at the invitation of fellow geologist Don Triplehorn.

Wearing a string tie and apologizing for his tendency to drift to other subjects, Marshall remembered the days when Alaska was a new state with empty pockets but plenty of land.

"We needed title to the land so we could dispose of it and get money," he said. "I can't emphasize how important that was."

Marshall, 75, moved to Alaska from Wyoming during the lean days of 1958, one year before Alaska became a state. He homesteaded in the Matanuska-Susitna valleys and soon got a job as land selection officer for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

In passing Alaska's statehood act, Congress granted Alaska 105 million acres -- about the land mass of California. Marshall's task was to choose parcels of Alaska the state could sell to homesteaders, miners and other developers.

Homesteaders wanted land in river valleys, such as that along the Matanuska, Susitna, and Tanana rivers, but Marshall also looked for less attractive acreage that might hide mineral or oil deposits. Looking at geological maps of Alaska's north slope, a lonely stretch of coastal tundra caught his eye.

The strip of land was a treeless plain of the Beaufort Sea lost between Naval Petroleum Preserve No. 4 and the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Oil companies showed no interest in the area when the Bureau of Land Management asked for oil and gas lease nominations in 1958, but the underlying geology intrigued Marshall. Studying the few maps made by geologists who had explored the area, he noticed a subsurface arch that might produce structures that could trap oil.

He also saw limestone features that reminded him of large oil fields in the Rocky Mountains, where he worked before coming to Alaska.

Convinced that those two features might merit the immense cost of extracting oil from an area without any roads, Marshall selected the 1.5 million-acre strip that included Prudhoe Bay. He didn't have the backing of the oil companies or any other exploration teams, but his boss trusted his opinion.

"It cost about $40,000 to file, which doesn't sound like a whole lot of money today," Marshall said.

"But when I told the administrator of finances what I was going to select, I got a look like I was Oliver Twist asking for another cup of gruel."

The state selected the parcel of land in January 1964. The first payoff came during the next two years, when oil companies purchased leases that brought the state about $11 million.

The real drama occurred in 1968, when two oil companies announced they discovered the largest oilfield in North America at Prudhoe Bay.

The main beneficiaries of the discovery were the oil companies and the state of Alaska, which has earned more than $49 billion in oil royalties and taxes since the day Tom Marshall made his choice. Alaskans who have received dividends from the permanent fund, an account into which the state deposits and then invests a good percentage of its oil revenue, haven't done so poorly, either. Those who have cashed yearly checks since the program began in 1982 have received a total of $18,511.25.

This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute. He can be reached on e-mail at

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