Alaska—The Changing Giant Speaks Out
By “Awake!” correspondent in Alaska
HOW would you feel if someone called you a useless “white elephant”? What if they called you a “frozen waste” and “utterly worthless”? Well, I was the victim of such name-calling several years ago. When I was sold to the United States by the Russian government in 1867 for $7,200,000 in coin, there was quite a controversy. The New York World of April 1, 1867, commented: “Russia has sold us a sucked orange.” That really hurt, let me tell you. When W. H. Seward, the then Secretary of State, negotiated for me, opponents of the purchase of Alaska spoke of me as “Seward’s Folly.”
Some persons, however, expressed high hopes for my future, even though I was sold for only two cents an acre. They felt that my bulk, stretching over 586,000 square miles, might someday bring enormous benefits. Let me assure you, I did not disappoint them.
Yes, I have changed. Things are beginning to look different. Rather than a “white elephant,” people now speak of me as a giant with vast resources. Just a glance will reveal an abundance of fish in my streams, lumber in my forests, and invaluable fur throughout my snow-covered wilderness. And practically everyone has heard of the gold rush of the 1800’s that made so many people rich. Did you know that even today I am supposed to have thirty-two of the thirty-four major metals known to exist in the world? Yes, I still have great quantities of valuable ore in my pockets.
As far as nickel is concerned, the largest United States reserve is said to be in my southeast panhandle region. Experts claim that I have billions of tons of coal to be mined, perhaps a trillion tons. A recent checkup that I had revealed what some claim as the world’s largest reserves of fluorides and tungsten hidden in my earthen vaults. Now, does that sound “utterly worthless” to you?
Since the recent emphasis on the energy crisis the whole world is really taking notice of my huge oil reserves. One estimate says that there is no less than ten billion barrels. Another estimate puts the figure at fifty billion barrels in the North Slope and Prudhoe Bay area! So now that I have started to flex my muscles, plans are under way to tap the energy source. Oil should start flowing to market by July 1977.
Finding oil is one thing. Getting it out and to the market is quite another matter. It will be a tremendous operation and one that is bound to affect me for life, since the changes will be irreversible. Let me tell you more about this.
Largest Private Construction Project in History
Plans are under way to transport two million barrels of crude oil per day. It could take upward of twenty years to extract the oil now located. Can you imagine spending more than six billion dollars to complete the project for moving oil through a pipe forty-eight inches in diameter, almost eight hundred miles long? No wonder they call it the biggest construction project in the history of private enterprise. I am somewhat nervous about the whole thing, for, in spite of my size, I have a very tender surface. I need to be treated delicately, due to a permafrost condition over much of my body.
Oil pushes out of the ground at a temperature of 145 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Since about three fourths of the distance from Prudhoe Bay in the north to the Valdez terminal in the south is over permafrost (frozen subsoil, subject to thawing and sinking), you can realize that keeping the pipeline from twisting and breaking is an immense challenge. If the pipe is buried, the heat will melt the permafrost, causing slides. If it is built on stilts, a barrier above ground will be created that will block the thousands of caribou and other migrating animals.
Think of what might result if oil spills out due to a broken pipe. I have been assured, however, that ecologists and scientists will work together to protect my wildlife, riverbeds and tundra. But whether this agreement will be lived up to I will have to wait and see.
Such an intricate piping system would also require a service road. Already work crews have completed this major engineering task—the construction of a 360-mile “haul road,” which involved moving about eighty million cubic yards of gravel.
Can you picture a city 800 miles long, and about 50 feet wide? Well, that is what the project amounts to, with about 17,000 workers assigned to twenty-nine construction camps scattered across my abdomen. Not a formal city, of course, but an organized society of individuals gathered for a common purpose.
Not only will the road service the oil pipeline, but plans are under way to transport daily three to four billion cubic feet of natural gas from Prudhoe Bay to market. There are proved reserves of twenty-six trillion cubic feet of gas that I have available for your use, on a come-and-get-it basis. That project, which is also a gigantic undertaking, is still under study, and if it materializes, that will be another story.
So you can see that, as man begins to exploit my treasures, my population and popularity have grown immensely. I seem to have more friends than ever before. My physical changes are not the only thing, however, for there are emotional stresses that are bound to leave their marks.
Effects in a “Boomtown”
Imagine how you would react if you suddenly had more guests in your home than you planned for! Your main concern would be that you had sufficient provisions to accommodate everyone satisfactorily. Well, that is how I felt when I saw so many construction workers and their families converging on Fairbanks.
Fairbanks is at the midway point of the pipeline corridor, an ideal spot to stage the construction project, but not an ideal spot for living conditions, in view of the overload on the schools, the roads, the need for housing, and the extra demand for energy. Officials estimate that more than 10,000 newcomers have arrived since April of 1974. I can remember when this town was a cozy, calm, quiet place in which nearly everyone knew the others. Things changed very little from year to year. Now I can hardly believe the difference. Rents have skyrocketed. A two-bedroom apartment was renting for $300 a few months ago. Now it goes for $450. One apartment house reported a waiting list of seventy persons; another, sixty. Traffic is bumper to bumper. Telephones are jammed. People are locking their doors for the first time in years. Anchorage too is experiencing a similar impact, as the cost of living rapidly increases.
Smaller communities such as Valdez, where the pipeline’s southern terminal is located, have been greatly affected. I remember that about a year ago a thousand residents lived in that fishing village. Now the work on the pipeline will bring an influx of 3,500 workers, a big increase in the population! The community must gear up for police and fire protection, and to handle the transportation and traffic problems, the housing problems for those who bring their families, and the problems created by the overloading of the schools.
While some residents are unhappy about the changes, others see in the economic boom increased business opportunities and an improved standard of living. “Why do I want the pipeline?” says one housewife. “Well, after nine o’clock where could you go for a cup of coffee here in winter? Nowhere. Could you get a soft ice-cream cone? Heavens, no! No way. Well, maybe now we’ll be able to get a soft ice-cream cone. Already you can get a cup of coffee after nine o’clock.”
Nevertheless, I must admit, I have mixed emotions. For as long as I can recall I have been pleasurably identified with the native people of Alaska—the Eskimo, Indian and Aleut, that now reach a combined population of a little more than 50,000. From the Aleut tongue I got my name Alaska, meaning “the great land.” I feel that these people have experienced what is sometimes called “culture shock,” a term used to describe what happens when people are forced to adopt the strange ways and customs of a culture unfamiliar to them.
I often reminisce about the days of long ago when the native culture was a distinct one. The Eskimo, the Indian and the Aleut each enjoyed separate ways of life. They were a rather independent people. They were satisfied to live off this land of majestic beauty that I provided for them. Today, the white man and his ways prevail, and the natives are in the minority. The largest portion of the native population is crowded into villages and is forced to depend on new and different food, fuel and shelter. In spite of the recommendation to make progress toward “modernization,” there are few or no jobs in the little villages. Often the breadwinner must leave his family for a larger city. Then he must find a job to earn the money to buy the goods that the white man has taught him he needs in order to have a more “civilized” life. Of course, there are many, especially the educated youths, who have accepted the new culture and seem to be satisfied with the change to a technological way of life. They have become excellent mechanics, carpenters, radio operators, businessmen, artists, writers, legislators and teachers. But those who cling to the old patterns of life remain in some two hundred villages, most of which must be reached by airplane.
Recently, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was passed by Congress, providing forty million acres of land to be distributed to the natives of Alaska. That means that any United States citizen of one quarter or more Alaskan Indian, Eskimo or Aleut blood can benefit. Additionally, the oil pipeline will bring $500 million in oil revenues to the Alaskan natives. It sort of makes me feel good to know that I can be of such assistance. However, I do not think that these changes in themselves really provide people what is needed most. Let me explain what I mean.
Holding On to True Values
The hope of getting rich quick often causes one to lose sight of the basic values that bring true happiness. I am thinking of the gold rush of ninety years ago. At the time everyone was excited about striking it rich. Many sacrificed homelife, personal care of children, and the normal joys of family life. Some paid dearly in the loss of health and shortened lives. Today it is still possible to suffer from the same “get-rich-quick” fever.
For instance, a man may be tempted to leave home for high-paying employment that will take him away from his family for months at a time. But before he does he should consider the cost—the sacrifice of valuable communication and attention that his wife and children need. Can he afford to deny his family the headship that can supply needed guidance in manners, morality, language, as well as counsel in other matters? True, a mother is an indispensable influence in caring for children. But she cannot supply the discipline and attention of a father.
Children may change for the worse if the father is not around to prevent it. I have seen more than one father leave his family to pursue material security only to have the family disintegrate due to lack of attention. In such cases the financial gain was not worth the sacrifice of a happy and united family. The “good life” is not always the “quality life.”
So you can see what I mean when I say that sudden wealth can produce negative changes in people’s lives and personalities. If the changes are bad ones, then the more important values are lost. This is why I am so concerned that everyone caught up in this current economic prosperity should proceed with caution, so that it does not destroy the more enduring values of life.
While we are on the subject, may I inform you of another treasure of great value that is now making many in this land very rich. It is a resource called spirituality.
A Spiritual Boom in Alaska
If getting rich has an influence on people’s lives, it surely applies to the spiritual riches that they get from a knowledge of God’s Word, the Bible. In this regard I observe that Jehovah’s witnesses are most active, encouraging people to store up spiritual treasure in heaven, where, as Jesus assured, “neither moth nor rust consumes.” (Matt. 6:20) I often notice these Witnesses in their preaching and teaching work, calling on the homes of the people throughout this vast expanse of territory. Looking back, I can still see that zealous group of 587 individuals who were witnessing in January of 1968. But things have certainly changed in their activity. Seven years later they have more than doubled. Actually, they reached a peak of 1,310 in May of this year.
They did not forget the native villages either. During one effort five airplanes were used to visit forty-five villages. Within one year at least 180 isolated villages had an opportunity to hear of God’s promise to make the whole earth a land of beauty. Jehovah’s witnesses are experiencing a boom of solid spiritual growth, not only in numbers, but in their effectiveness in helping people to adjust their way of life to Bible standards. In all of this I can see that helping people to benefit from Christian living will only increase my value as a whole.
Indeed, great changes are being made in Alaska, “the great land.” Some are harmful, others are beneficial. I am truly happy when the changes benefit people in a genuine way. I also feel good because I no longer hear anyone name-calling—except, maybe, “Alaska—you certainly are a changing giant!” I don’t mind that at all.
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