Why 'stepchild' Alaska decides to join the family

This has been, perhaps, the most headstrong of states--America's brawling, bellowing 49th member of the family. Here, where ''rugged individualism'' is the common man's manifesto, personal freedom is valued above nearly all else and the federal government above almost nothing else.

In the 23 years since statehood, relations between Washington and Alaska have been difficult at best. The situation has been inflamed, certainly, by what Alaskans see as the federal government's heavy hand in the divvying up their state. But things have not been made any easier by Alaska's insular way of considering everything beyond its borders as ''outside'' and all outsiders as at least slightly suspect.

Today, however, Alaska is showing signs that it may be ready to come in from the cold. It is true that citizens were so outraged at Washington during the debate on the 1980 Alaska Lands Act that they voted to establish a commission charged with studying ''appropriate changes in the relationship of Alaska to the United States''--including secession. But today tempers no longer flare as they once did.

Of even greater portent may be the preliminary report issued early this year by the Alaska Statehood Commission, which recommended that Alaskans, to be freer from the restrictions of the Union, must work more closely within it, not opt to withdraw from it. This recommendation could be vital to Alaskans as the focus of federal-state relations shifts from distribution of Alaska's land to use of the land.

Some residents still complain about the 1980 Lands Act, which gave the federal government 225 milllion acres of Alaskan land, and fret that the transfer of 104 million acres to state control has been too slow. But observers note general relief that the controversy finally has been settled.

Now Alaskans face a land-use challenge that sends shudders down the spines of every politician in the state. It is a federal effort to sharply curtail, or even eliminate, Western states' ability to raise revenues through severance taxes on resources removed from their soil.

This move, championed recently by legislators in the resource-poor states of the Midwest and Northeast, both worries and infuriates Alaskans. They see oil severance taxes, amounting to nearly $1.6 billion this fiscal year alone, as a way to help the state even out its boom-bust economy.

''In our opinion,'' Alaska Statehood Commission members wrote in their January 1982 report, ''the threat to Alaska's resource revenue is the single most important federal-state issue now and until the end of the century.''

Although ''outside'' media have made much of the brief consideration the commission gave to secession, they have largely ignored the bulk of the study. It urges Alaska to address federal-state issues such as the severance tax by teaming up with other resource-rich Western states--a radical suggestion in a state which has long been a loner.

For all its far-flung expanse--375 million acres of majestic mountains, glaciers, tundra, forests, lakes, and streams--Alaska historically has been an inward-looking state, preoccupied with its own problems and often treated as a neglected stepchild by its federal parent. What consideration Alaskans gave to the outside, particularly Washington, centered largely on how to hold those forces at bay.

''Unfortunately, the state's physical separation breeds a psychological and political separation,'' says State Rep. Brian Rogers, a Democratic commission member who represents Fairbanks, one of Alaska's remaining hotbeds of antipathy toward Washington. ''The only way we'll be successful is to stop being insular, to drop our parochialism, and team up with others. We don't want to be perceived as the 'American emirates,' the blue-eyed Arabs of the North.''

Although some Alaskans still actively advocate secession, Mr. Rogers's comments hit on a concern that is a driving force here today: Unless the state tries to forge a Western partnership and explain its feelings about the oil wealth to other Americans, Alaska risks inviting a backlash against its relative prosperity during a national recession.

Already, state officials have embarked on a vigorous campaign to inform the public that severance taxes are Alaska's best tool in planning an economy that will not collapse when oil--a limited resource--runs out.

The state has appropriated $2 million for a nationwide advertising blitz (''awareness campaign,'' say politicians) next month. Among other things, the media push involves trying to explain to consumers that because Alaskan oil is tied to the price of world oil, abolishing the severance tax would not cut gasoline prices even a penny.

The task is not an easy one. For one thing, some outsiders find it hard to feel sympathethic when Alaska pleads that it needs all the money it can get from oil revenues. They point out that the state, in a fit of oil-fueled benevolence not long ago, abolished its income tax. Even more forbidding is the highly effective political coalition that the Midwest-Northeast states have developed, which out-clouts anything the Western states have come up with to date.

Still, observers say, it seems likely that Alaska, by choice or force of circumstance, will pursue its newly hatched team-player philosophy. This will probably include some coalition-building with other states in the near future.

''We cannot emphasize too much that if Alaska truly intends to protect its new, desperately needed resource revenues, it must build coalitions with these (energy-rich) states,'' warned the commission report. ''One state alone carries little weight.''

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