Alaska: Lawsuits Aim to Kill All Development

By Paula Easley for eco-logic/Powerhouse magazine

July 09, 2007

Last month's column touched on foundation grants accepted by a Southeast environmental coalition to stop development in Alaska's panhandle, home to 73,000 people. The copy editor entitled the piece, "Conservation can strangle tiny towns."

But conservation didn't do the strangling; "preservation" did. Conservation (the wise use of resources, or "sustainable use") would have allowed the eagles and the sawmill to co-exist, with sensible precautions. The preservation strategy (no development) denied the mill a sustainable wood supply. That's what killed it, and "killing it" is the objective of most lawsuits plaguing Alaska projects - not the legitimate lessening of a project's environmental impacts. The same thing just occurred with the Kensington gold project, in which the agencies' environmentally preferred alternative was shot down by a suspiciously motivated lawsuit.

So let's tell it like it is. Alaska is under siege by some of America's wealthiest foundations, urban environmentalists and politicians opposed to resource extraction in our state, not their own. Their commitment virtually guarantees every project will end up in the proverbial shootout. They are hurting our state and our people. Who'd have imagined that, in the country's precarious circumstances today, they could kill access to ANWR's huge oil and gas supplies, with nothing to take their place? And here at home, how much $5 and $6 gasoline in outlying areas will it take to cripple Alaska's tourism and fishing industries?

The big question is: can Alaska's economy survive the next few years? Let's assume the natural gas pipeline sponsors are assembled, financing is arranged and a "go" decision is reached by mid-2012. What impact will global warming, endangered species habitat designations and obstructionist lawsuits have on the line's viability? What if the project is stopped dead in its tracks?

Of course, people worry about our economy. In one sense, it seems to be growing at a reasonable pace. There's plenty of economic activity, optimism and speculation, at least around Alaska's largest city. New retail and entertainment services for urban and rural Alaskans are nice to have, but we need a bigger pie, not just to re-circulate money already here. Health care services that improve our quality of life are also expanding. Still, we know it takes more than low-paid seasonal and minimum-wage jobs to sustain these businesses.

Alaska's living costs keep rising; we need stable jobs and good, year-round paychecks. Our basic industries have long fueled the economy with money from producing and selling goods and services outside Alaska (like oil and minerals), and generous federal appropriations have sweetened the pot. But that is changing. Without strong basic industries, the services sector will unravel, as it did in the late 1980s.

The challenges to creating new wealth are formidable. Undeveloped infrastructure. Distance from markets. High operating costs. Limited access to resources. Lack of investment capital. Inadequate skilled labor. Regulatory roadblocks. We have fewer allies in Congress, declining oil production, unfunded entitlement obligations, no long-term fiscal plan - and that's just the short version.

Development was difficult enough before the environmental movement mobilized to "save Alaska" in the 1970s. Land-use policies have since changed dramatically, driven by a powerful land preservation ethic. This has stimulated federal legislation to both designate the ANWR coastal plain as wilderness and permanently prohibit Bristol Bay oil and gas leasing. Various coalitions oppose offshore Beaufort Sea exploration, access roads and bridges, any and all timber sales, Mental Health Trust land uses, lease sales in NPR-A, university land grants, the Chuitna and Chickaloon coal projects, and the phenomenal Pebble discoveries. We face an onslaught of endangered species lawsuits and countless acres of onshore and offshore habitat set-asides for polar bears, birds, sea lions and otters, most varieties of whales (including the Cook Inlet belugas), and who knows what other species waiting on the sidelines.

How can we convince the nation that Alaska is one-fifth the size of the contiguous 48 states and nearly all of it will be preserved forever as wildlands? There is ample room to safely produce the priceless resources with which our state has been blessed - the basic necessities of humankind. It can't happen, though, until the hundreds of organizations that profess to care about the economy and the environment make an honorable commitment to work for both.

Paula Easley, an Anchorage public policy consultant, serves on the Resource Development Council's board of directors. E-mail her at



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