Alaskans Split as Hickel Returns
Once and present governor won the populist vote, but he has environmentalists worried. WALLY'S WORLD
JUNEAU, ALASKA — AFTER 21 years and a last-minute blitzkrieg campaign, Walter Hickel is back in the governor's mansion. And back in Alaska, he says, is the pioneering spirit that carved out the first homesteads on the Last Frontier and drove the first bulldozers over the tundra to oil-rich Prudhoe Bay.
``I said many times in the past few years it's lost its spirit,'' says Mr. Hickel (nicknamed Wally), who ran on a third-party ticket and won the job with under 39 percent of the vote. ``Part of that spirit thing that I saw eroding came back this last election.''
Not everyone has caught the spirit. Skeptics are sponsoring a ``Welcome to Wallyworld-Back to the Future Ball,'' to compete with the formal inaugural event here next month.
The once-and-present governor and former US interior secretary is an unabashed development booster. A multimillionaire who built a real-estate empire out of the 37 cents he brought to Alaska 50 years ago, Hickel has an unshaken faith in man's power over nature.
Alaska, he says, has not only the right but the duty to develop its natural resources. Alaska is an ``owner-state'' unique in the American system, he contends. State-owned resources are the developable assets, he says, and the 560,000 residents are the stockholders.
His wish list includes a natural-gas pipeline running from the North Slope to Valdez; an extension of the Alaska Railroad over the permafrost to the roadless Yukon River; massive pipelines shipping fresh Alaskan water to parched southern California; a huge Anchorage deep-water port; and oil rigs on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain.
Hickel, who in 1967 lobbied the Atomic Energy Commission to test nuclear weapons in arctic Alaska, declared earlier this month that the state needs ``a thousand and one projects'' to improve life here.
Thanks to the Persian Gulf crisis, the Alaska government has the dollars to fuel some of Hickel's dreams. The state gets 85 percent of its budget from oil revenues; skyrocketing oil prices promise to pour an extra $500 million to $2.8 billion into state coffers, Alaska revenue officials say.
That's what worries critics, who say Hickel's pet projects are boondoggles of dubious economic merit that would spark another violent boom-bust cycle.
``Some people say this is an investment in the future. That's very well and good, but we've got to be able to afford it between now and then,'' said Willie Hensley, an Alaska native leader and the Democratic lieutenant governor candidate in last fall's election. ``We've built hundreds and millions of dollars' worth of projects that went nowhere and didn't make a lot of sense to begin with. Almost every community can point to some kind of publicly funded white elephant that we built because we thought the money would go on forever.''
In ``Wally's world,'' environmental protection is generally the duty of the densely populated regions. Sparsely populated Alaska, along with the rest of the arctic, the subarctic, the antarctic, and even outer space should be developed for man's benefit, he says.
The governor has appointed fellow development fans to top state spots. Among them is new natural resource commissioner Harold Heinze, a former Arco Alaska Inc. president and a bitter foe of environmentalists.
``I said, `Harold, how would you like to come work for the largest oil company in North America?' I think that way,'' Hickel says with a laugh.
Hickel's way of thinking chills Alaska environmentalists. ``To think that the only places we have to protect are the places inhabited by people shows a lack of understanding of how the world works,'' says Anchorage environmental activist Jim Stratton.
None of this was expected in mid-September. Then, moderate Republican Arliss Sturgulewski, a state senator backed by the oil industry, was seeking to become the state's first woman governor. Democrat Tony Knowles, a Yale-educated Vietnam War veteran and former Anchorage mayor, was campaigning to expand an environmental activism galvanized by last year's Exxon Valdez oil spill.
On Sept. 19, 30 minutes before the deadline for ballot changes, Hickel dove into the race, replacing the original Alaskan Independence Party candidate and displacing the normal order. Joining him was Jack Coghill, a right-winger who defected from the No. 2 spot on the Republican ticket because, he said, Mrs. Sturgulewski was a liberal.
In his seven-week campaign, Hickel forged a coalition of the ultraconservative, the disenfranchised, and the dissatisfied. In a state where three-fifths of the voters are unaffiliated with any party and the federal government is a frequent scapegoat for local woes, Hickel had an appeal.
``It was a populist sort of political revolution,'' he says.
To Steve Cowper, the man Hickel replaced in Juneau, the election outcome was no surprise. ``He has always been a symbol of a lot of the values that Alaskans believe in,'' says ex-Governor Cowper, a Democrat.
Hickel is a man of contradictions; he promotes mining in national parks but also seeks to halt logging on the shores of Prince William Sound.
First elected governor in 1966, he authorized an ice road to send equipment over the tundra to then-untapped Prudhoe Bay. The so-called ``Hickel Highway'' melted and became the still-visible ``Hickel's Ditch.'' Critics say all the equipment moved on the ice road would have been more easily and safely shipped in cargo planes.
But as US Interior secretary, Hickel won over environmentalists by cracking down on the oil industry after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, promoting the first Earth Day, protecting marine mammals, and prosecuting polluters. He also tried to melt the Bering Strait ``Ice Curtain'' that separated Alaska from the Soviet Union, and got fired by President Nixon in 1970 for his opposition to the Vietnam War.
Still, some Alaskans question the new-old governor's ability to lead the second time around. ``I think Wally is a nice guy, but I think he's just lost perspective as to where the world is in 1990,'' Mr. Stratton says.