ver since the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, the elusive road to prosperity in that wild frontier has run through gold mines, salmon runs, timber-rich forests, and, finally, oil fields. For the hardy and foolhardy alike, this vast wilderness seemed to offer the chance to go out and strike it rich -- though few succeeded. Less than 1 percent of the gold rush prospectors were successful; most of those who flocked to Alaska in the late 1800s ended up working for large mining companies or salmon canneries. Merchants from San Francisco and Seattle dominated both salmon canning and shipping, and by the 1940s, when reckless overfishing decimated salmon populations, it was the merchants who had made their pile of cash and left Alaskans without jobs or fish. For the first half of the twentieth century, all wealth flowed to the colonial motherland, into the pockets of corporations and financiers in the lower 48 who plundered and profited.
Throughout those early years, there was a faction of outsiders whom many Alaskans liked even less: the ones for whom Alaska represented the last great wilderness, worthy of preservation, not exploitation. Those who wished conservationists begone equally reviled meddling officials from Washington who passed laws restricting development. (One meddler, President Theodore Roosevelt, had by 1907 set aside most of southeastern Alaska as the Tongass National Forest.)
These polarized struggles between outsiders and insiders, conservationists and industrialists, argues Daniel Nelson in Northern Landscapes: The Struggle for Wilderness Alaska, set the stage for the passionate political warfare over land use in Alaska that continues today, evident in the ongoing arguments about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and road construction for timber extraction in the Tongass.
Despite a healthy tourist industry centered on wildlands protected by hard-won environmental laws that industrialists fought against, the view of conservationists as meddling outsiders hasn't entirely faded. One former oil pipeline worker, Potter Wickware, aptly expressed the sentiment this way: "What is the Sierra Club, anyway? A bunch of rich bastards in San Francisco who've made their pile and don't want anyone else to make theirs. They're saving the wilderness for themselves, and damn everybody else."
Indeed, a bunch of rich outsiders do control Alaska's economy -- but they're not conservationists. Alaska's volatile, resource-based economy has been wholly dependent on the financial investment of large corporations and other profiteers.
The development of Prudhoe Bay's oil resources in the 1970s paved the way for today's most contentious battles over wild Alaska. "Far from insulating Alaska against the boom-and-bust pattern of its past and liberating it from its colonial status," Nelson says, "oil made it even more dependent on outsiders." Oil taxes are the state's largest source of revenue, and another bust looms large on the horizon: Prudhoe Bay has passed its peak production, and the Arctic refuge contains only a fraction of Prudhoe Bay's reserves. And when the wells run dry? Bust. The outsiders will pack their bags again, leaving unemployed Alaskans and ravaged landscapes in their slick wake.
-- Laura Wright