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Jay Hammond: Alaska's pioneer politician

By TextClara GermaniStaff of The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 1985

Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

AFTER threading our small plane through a hundred miles of saw-toothed mountain passes, the rocky incline of Jay Hammond's beach looks like a positively civilized landing strip. The former governor's 160-acre homestead may seem isolated here hundreds of miles from the nearest highway or telephone connection. But when the governor himself putts out of the woods on a spanking new tractor to offer a bumpy ride from the airstrip back to his spacious (by bush standards) log house, an outsider begins to see that isolation is a relative thing in Alaska.

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``Alaskans are no more or less isolated than anyone,'' declares Mr. Hammond, who has no neighbors on the 50-mile western shore of this deep blue glacial lake. He can communicate to the outside only with a marine-band radio, and finds newspaper delivery to his winter home so late that the only part he reads is the cryptograms.

The gray-bearded former governor, who looks like an L. L. Bean-outfitted Santa Claus with a temperament to match, has proved that isolation may be environmental, but it doesn't have to be social, political, or economic in this state.

It was after all from the bush community that this professional guide, bush pilot, and commercial fisherman rose to political power. He held the gubernatorial seat for eight years while standing firmly on the middle ground between powerful pro-development and environmental interests during the richest and most turbulent boom time in the state.

So successful was his brand of hybrid politics (which earned him the title of ``non-politician,'') that it still tends to boost the popularity of those state politicians who take an independent stance.

Though occupied with things like moving the guest house to high ground after a beaver dam break, or waiting several days for a mail drop, the governor still finds himself in the Alaska mainstream.

He carries on his commercial fishing operation from his Naknek home on Bristol Bay 100 miles farther south, guides and flies fishing parties, and is on the boards of directors of the Audubon Society and Sheldon Jackson College. Hammond also chairs the Governor's Committee on the Longevity Bonus Program (a part of the state's controversial program to give oil royalties back to the people).

In his spare time, he writes a newspaper column and is preparing to serve as the host of an Alaska public-television version of Charles Kuralt's ``On the Road.''

The diversity -- not to mention the geographic range -- of his responsibilities might appear to be a hectic schedule in the Lower 48. But Hammond, who has lived with his wife Bella in these circumstances for most of the last 30 years, exudes the air of a woodsman at peace with his surroundings -- though he relishes the opportunity for spirited debate.

He explains that his is not an unusual life, but that living in wilderness and taking active responsibility for it, are not mutually exclusive. He suggests that ``there's probably more commentary and participation here than any other state'' because the average Alaskan still feels he can make a difference.

Although Hammond sees an urban-rural polarization coming as the bulk of the population shifts to Anchorage, the traditional Alaskan way of life hasn't changed that much from the days when he was a ``wild-haired kid'' lured to Alaska by the tales of a bush pilot and fellow marine.

It's hard to say how much Alaska shaped Jay Hammond, or perhaps how much Jay Hammond has shaped the identity of today's Alaska.

``He's the perfect expression of Alaska,'' a well-known local artist says, echoing descriptions given of him all over the state.

The stereotype of an Alaskan life style held in the Lower 48 may run anywhere from a spartan igloo existence on the tundra, to the excesses of an Alaska sheik whooping it up with oil royalties.

The latter image, Hammond admits, may have been compounded by his creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund -- a sort of savings account to accumulate the riches of the oil boom against a bust, while providing yearly dividends for Alaskan residents.