Bid to rename airport flies into rough air

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Two days after former University of Alaska president William Wood's death in late February, Fairbanks legislators announced plans to rename the local airport in his honor. But rising opposition has the name change in a holding pattern.

Critics contend Wood's name doesn't belong at the airport. Despite his work building the university into a statewide system in the 1960s and early 1970s, Wood was the subject of some controversy for his support of Project Chariot. That was an early 1960s plan to dig a new deep-water harbor north of Kotzebue using nuclear weapons.

Roughly 1,500 members of the Fairbanks igloo of the Pioneers of Alaska and its female auxiliary recently voted to oppose the renaming. Their reasoning was that Wood wasn't an aviator and the airport's current name, Fairbanks International, is just fine.

The proposal also is dredging up some bad memories of Project Chariot for leaders of Native communities in the northwest corner of the state.

Wood backed the Atomic Energy Commission's project as an economic boon for the region. The plan was to detonate up to six thermonuclear devices on the remote coastline between Kivalina and Point Hope to excavate a harbor.

The project was scrapped after opponents pointed out the potential for poisoning residents and wildlife with nuclear fallout.

''Many of us ... clearly remember the push to blow up our country here,'' said Ross Schaeffer of Kotzebue, mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough. ''We know now that President Wood was involved in pushing that and has never made any attempt to apologize.''

At least some academics came out against the renaming, as well. The 26-member executive board of the Alaska Community Colleges Federation of Teachers voted this week to oppose the renaming. Two vocal critics of the Chariot project, university biologists Bill Pruitt and Les Viereck, allege they lost their jobs in the 1960s because of their stands.

Fairbanks Senator Gary Wilken drafted the renaming legislation. Wilken said critics of the name change are a small but vocal minority.

Wood's legacy is unmatched in Interior Alaska, Wilken said.

The Senate already has passed a version of the bill. A companion measure in the House -- stalled in the House Rules Committee by the public outcry -- was sponsored by state Rep. Jim Whitaker, R-Fairbanks.

Wood was a longtime president of the University of Alaska, a Fairbanks mayor, a published poet and the driving force behind a number of community projects. He was named Alaskan of the Year in 1985.

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