Alaska's Boldly Anti-Environment Trio

Raucous, ribald, and proudly Republican, Alaskan lawmakers are cutting a swath through US resource policy

THREE years ago, when Democrats were in charge of Congress and poised to take the White House, a seemingly humbled Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska rescued his faltering reelection bid with television spots seeking voters' forgiveness for ''abrasive'' and ''arrogant'' behavior.

He may have been referring to the time he slammed his hand into a steel trap at a hearing to prove the devices are benign to furry animals, or the time he waved a knife at a congressional colleague critical of Alaskan logging practices.

But Mr. Young is making no apologies now. Last year's Republican sweep installed him as chairman of the House Resources Committee, the most powerful House member on environmental issues.

The bombastic Young is one of three ardently pro-development Alaska Republicans - dubbed ''Alaska's Terrible Trio'' by the Sierra Club - in charge of congressional natural-resource policy. They are bringing some uniquely Alaskan antics and ideas to the powerful posts, to the derision of many here and across the country, and to the delight of their staunchest constituents.

Frank Murkowski, a fatherly former Fairbanks banker and state commerce commissioner, chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Diminutive and hot-tempered Ted Stevens, a onetime US Attorney for Alaska, chairs the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, is the second-ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee and derives power from his 27 years in office.

All scorn ''extreme environmentalists,'' especially policymakers in the Clinton administration. All express hopes that President Clinton will be ousted by a Republican, ''a good president,'' in Young's words. And all see their power as an opportunity for sparsely populated Alaska to catch up to the development of the lower 48 states.

''What a lot of people don't recognize, we've only been a state for 36 years ... so we're doing today what a lot of states did a long time ago,'' Senator Murkowski told the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Frontier agenda

Topping the Alaskans' agenda is oil drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. To avoid a filibuster from eco-friendly senators, they inserted an ANWR-leasing provision in the budget bill that assumes a $1.3 billion infusion into the federal treasury. So far, the strategy is working. Budget bills with ANWR-drilling provisions have passed the House and Senate.

Also high on the trio's agenda is more logging in southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest, which environmentalists cherish as North America's last intact old-growth temperate rain forest.

The delegation's agenda reaches beyond Alaska. They are championing rewrites of the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts and other environmental policies to defend the rights of property owners. Their stances draw howls of protest from the White House but mixed reviews in Alaska, where the economy relies almost entirely on resource extraction.

The Tongass measures, for example, are opposed by many fishermen, hunters, tourism operators, natives, and Alaska's Democratic governor, Tony Knowles. Governor Knowles says the delegation's new power highlights the philosophical differences he has with the three. ''Previously, their endangered species and Tongass bills would have never seen the light of day,'' the governor said.

Senator Stevens, appointed to the Senate in 1968, is a wily strategist who has used his seniority to deliver billions of federal dollars to Alaska - appropriations that critics deride as pork. He promotes high pay and benefits for federal workers, a big Alaska constituency. He also champions public broadcasting, popular in rural Alaska.

Young was sent to Congress in a special 1973 election, which followed the death of incumbent Democrat Nick Begich - who actually beat Young in 1972 despite being killed in a pre-election plane crash.

A transplanted Californian who once taught school in the Athabascan Indian village of Fort Yukon, skippered boats on the Yukon River, and trapped in the region, Young is revered in the native-dominated Alaska bush. His wife is Athabascan and he has long championed native causes.

''No group has benefitted more from his efforts than the native community,'' said Inupiat Eskimo leader Oliver Leavitt, who calls Young ''the best congressman that Alaska's every had.''

Experts predict easy 1996 reelection for Young and Stevens, since they reflect most Alaskans' pro-development leanings. Environmentalists, says Young, ''are the most despicable group of individuals I've ever been around.''

But Young's antics are fodder for satire and political problems.

After promising congressional leaders that Alaska will settle for 50 percent of the revenues from leasing oil tracts in ANWR, Young last week told a constituent on a Fairbanks radio call-in show he would ''go after the rest of it'' 90 percent, ''at a later time.'' That prompted a letter of explanation to House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Young's relations with the powerful Georgian have been rocky. Young once tried to oust Mr. Gingrich as minority whip because of his pro-environment stances. ''He better mind his Ps and Qs,'' Young told the Anchorage Daily News then. ''A thorn can be removed''

Choice words

Young was uncontrite in April, when he punctuated a speech to some Fairbanks high school students with an obscenity about federal arts funding. ''I was a teacher. I was trying to educate,'' he told a local reporter after the speech. ''If anyone is offended, they shouldn't have asked the question.''

Some fans of the Alaska delegation are likewise unapologetic. One is fisherman and Republican activist John Winther, used who his fists in August to defend the three men's honor after he overheard what he considered disparaging comments in a Ketchikan bar.

No charges were filed against Mr. Winther, now a folk hero to some Alaskans. ''I really support our delegation,'' he said later. ''They're all friends of mine.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.