Natural treasure, national treasury

It's the biggest, wildest state in the United States: If you added up all the national parks, monuments, and wildlife refuges here, they would be 25 percent bigger than the state of California.

Consider some other items on Alaska's long list of superlatives: It contains one-sixth of the US landmass (at 570,374 square miles); it has the tallest peak in the North America (Mt. McKinley, 20,320 feet); it stretches across four time zones (only two are used); it is not only the northernmost and westernmost state, paradoxically it is also the easternmost - the Aleutian Islands extend into the Eastern Hemisphere.

For all its geographical stature, however, Alaska cuts a very modest figure politically. Because it is so sparsely populated (589,000 residents), it is also the largest congressional district in America: Rep. Don Young (R) is its only US representative.

It was President Andrew Johnson's far-sighted secretary of state William Seward who urged the US to purchase Alaska from the Russian czar in 1867 for $7.2 million. Though that averaged out to about two cents an acre, the purchase was widely ridiculed in the press as ``Seward's Folly.'' The last of the critics fell silent in 1898, when gold was discovered at Anvil Creek near Nome.

Alaska's new gold is black: In 1968, recoverable reserves estimated at 9.6 million barrels of oil and 26 trillion cubic feet of natural gas were found in Prudhoe Bay. The Alaska pipeline, completed in 1977 at a cost of $7.7 billion, transports the oil to the port of Valdez.

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