THE GREAT RESOURCE RUSH; Alaska
Among the letters that recently piled up on Gov. Jay S. Hammond's desk was a note from Barbara Carey, a county commissioner from Florida.Skip to next paragraph
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Mindful of the Alaska's recent oil riches, she offered a suggestion on how the state could help out its distant Southern friend and boost its own tourism drive: Alaska could bankroll the new sports complex her Dade County was planning to build in Florida. It would become an ''architectural advertisement'' for the 49th state.
''Governor,'' she wrote, ''how would you like the idea of all of these national telecasts opening with the phrase, ''. . . and now, from the beautiful Alaska Sports Complex in Miami, we bring you . . . .''
Mr. Hammond, a former bush pilot, trapper, and part-time poet, replied with an ''Owed'' (as in ode) to Barbara Carey that included a few penny-wise phrases of its own:
While it's true that we briefly were riding high
on a ballooning oil wealth bubble,
total dependence on price of oil
can lead to a barrel of trouble!
For example, it takes just one . . . A-rab
who's swallowed a rancid date
or fallen off of his camel's back
to clobber this forth-ninth state.
The pen pal exchange sums up a major challenge facing Alaska today: The euphoria of oil wealth can melt like an iceberg in August.
In fact, any illusions Alaskans may have had of unlimited energy fortunes are bumping into the harsh realities of tumbling world oil prices, migrating job-seekers, and social strains from unequal growth.
Enough petrodollars have flowed into the treasury from state-owned Prudhoe Bay in the past decade to start Alaska on its way to underwriting the most dramatic changes in its brief but colorful history.
But now the state is being forced into a more miserly mood. The crimp in world oil prices has eroded the earning power of its Arctic bank vault--source of some 85 percent of state funds.
Though far from putting Alaska into the poorhouse, the decline in affluence is sharpening the focus on larger questions the state faces in managing its roller-coasting wealth:
* How best to smooth out the seasonal and historic bumps in the economy. They began with the fur-trade boom of the 1700s, were followed by the Klondike gold rush a century later, and have peaked in today's oil age.
* How to use the oil bounty to improve the lot of average Alaskans. Residents of some rural areas just recently caught their first glimpses of television in their own villages.
* How to spur development of otheb mineral and energy resources without creating ''state subsidized'' industries and without marring some of the world's most hauntingly beautiful real estate.
To some officials, including Mr. Hammond, the current anxiety may bring some much-needed setting of priorities. But, adds the salt-and-pepper-bearded governor, ''I'd just as soon have the point driven home with a carpenter's hammer instead of with an 18-pound mall.''
Alaska today stands as something of an impoverished billionaire. On the one hand, Prudhoe Bay has become a honey pot producing more money than even the most glittery-eyed Klondikers could have ever imagined.
Oil rigs on the tundra-shawled North Slope pump enough crude to dump close to current revenue projections tumbling monthly, the state is expected to take in $ 53 billion from Prudhoe between now and 1998. (That is down $24 billion from a projection made in January.)
A dip in future fortunes may leave some highways shorter than expected or the balance in the state's ''savings account'' a little lower than some might like. But after Prudhoe Bay, there may still be pools of crude to tap. Oil companies are now gearing up for a new era of exploration. As much as half the country's undiscovered oil is believed to lie in the area, although almost no one expects another bonanza like the current one.
On the other hand, the hardships are many in this unwieldy state. Thinly settled with 400,000 of the country's most doggedly independent people, Alaska is an endless expanse of Arctic desert, glacially clawed mountains, and misty fjords. All this makes for spectacular scenery but taproot-tough economic conditions.
Bigger than Texas, California, and Montana combined, the state has fewer roads than Rhode Island. Health care in many rural villages consists of yearly visits by a public nurse. Many communities still lack running water.