Many Alaskans See Ally in Babbitt
Interior secretary gains a fervent following for his managed-ecosystem ideas
KODIAK NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, ALASKA — SURROUNDING icy, finger-shaped Karluk Lake are 1.8 million acres of emerald-green wilderness where unnamed mountains are tracked only by animal paths. Schools of wild salmon rush up rivers and streams, drawing some 3,000 Kodiak brown bears that feast on fish all summer long. The salmon also fuel a thriving commercial fishery that is the economic backbone of Kodiak Island and makes the city of Kodiak one of the world's top-volume seafood ports.
For United States Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, it was a proper setting to describe his "New West" philosophy, which holds that natural resources can be managed as complete ecosystems, with people pursuing sustainable economies by living more "lightly on the land."
In Alaska, unlike most of the US, there is enough time and unspoiled ecosystem left to do that, instead of struggling to correct past environmental mistakes, he said. "I know we're all a little crazy when we come up here, because we're coming from the desert to the Promised Land."
If Mr. Babbitt approaches Alaska with a prophet's passion, he has drawn a cult-like following since he arrived. Here the high-profile Interior secretary is considered by many to be the most important US government official. Everywhere he has gone during his three-week Alaskan journey, he has been trailed by reporters, film crews, government officials, adoring environmentalists, Department of the Interior employees, and citizens with assorted grievances against the federal government.
So far, he has been quizzed and lectured on such topics as oil development, Eskimo whaling in the Arctic, mining reform, national-park access and overcrowding, the woes of Alaskan fishermen, and the failure of federal officials to understand Alaska's American Indian culture. None of his predecessors, except Gov. Walter Hickel (Ind.), who served as President Nixon's first Interior secretary, has shown so much interest in delving into Alaskan details. And it is unlikely that any federal official could comm and so much attention here, where 59 percent of the land is owned by the federal government and two-thirds of National Park Service land and some 85 percent of the national wildlife-refuge system is located.
Kodiak Island, where Babbitt spent two days, was no exception. In Old Harbor, a picturesque village of some 350 Alutiiqs, a procession followed him to the gleaming, blue-and-white Three Saints Russian Orthodox Church, filled with historic icons, some donated to the old Russian-American Company by imperial Russian czars. Here, Babbitt's top issue was negotiating for a federal purchase of some 300,000 acres of native American inholdings within the wildlife refuge.
The inholdings are the legacy of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Alaska's alternative to the lower 48 Indian reservation system. The act settled aboriginal claims by organizing Alaskan natives Americans into 13 regional and 200-plus village corporations, giving them cash, the right to select lands in their areas, and instructions on becoming profitable.
For Kodiak native Americans, the only available lands were around the 52-year-old refuge, and the most logical selections were areas of key bear habitat, which they believed the federal government would trade for cash or income-producing property elsewhere.
But natives Americans have been frustrated in their decade-long attempt to make a deal, and were forced to plan unwanted income-producing activities - ones that would degrade bear habitat on sites like Karluk Lake. Options have been such developments as commercial lodges and subdivisions, canneries, and perhaps logging operations within the refuge.
Until now. With some $600 million of restoration funds left in the $1.025 billion federal and state Exxon Valdez oil-spill settlement, and the Interior Department headed by an avowed environmentalist for the first time in 12 years, native American leaders are optimistic that their interests and the bear habitat will be protected.
Ralph Eluska, president of the Akhiok-Kaguyak village corporation, said: "We hope that our issue here will be one of the top goals that he'll accomplish in his administration."
"It's been a long struggle, and his is about the most interest we've ever seen," said Emil Christiansen, president of the Old Harbor village corporation, who took Babbitt salmon fishing on Saturday.
On Friday, in the tall grasses of Sitkalidak Island, south of the refuge and near the remains of Alaska's first Russian settlement, Babbitt vowed to native American leaders that he would protect the volcanic Kodiak archipelago. "I think these islands may be perhaps the most important totally intact ecosystem in the United States. There's just nothing like this in the lower 48," he said.
Signaling his intent to complete the refuge-land deal, he accepted a ceremonial Alutiiq hunting hat festooned with whale symbols and made of wood by 19-year-old Teacon Simeonoff. "I promise you, I will wear this in the streets of Washington when the deal's done," Babbitt said.