Alaska Turns to 'Final Frontier' In Quest to Bolster Economy

Kathy Burton used to sit on the back porch of her parents' Florida home on warm summer nights and watch rockets blast off from Cape Canaveral. But when she and her husband moved to the far-off tundra of Kodiak Island 30 years ago, she thought those days were gone.

Perhaps not. Although this remote frontier of the "last frontier state" is best known for its native bears and hearty islanders, by next year one of the most prominent fixtures of the weatherbeaten isle could be the rocket-launch pad two miles from the Burtons' front door.

The project, run by the Alaska Aerospace Development Corporation (AADC), is a part of the state's desire to get its foot in the door of the booming aerospace industry. As traditional strongholds of the Alaskan economy such as fishing and oil have sagged, the state has begun to look elsewhere for money.

"We're a state dependent on oil, mining, fishing, and timber," says Jerome Selby, the Kodiak Island Borough mayor. "The aerospace industry won't replace the state's depleting oil revenues or Kodiak's commercial fisheries, but it will help fill the low spots."

By some accounts, the economic gain could be substantial. John Pfeifer, a Kodiak economic development specialist, is looking to the launch facility (funded by the state, the Pentagon, and NASA) to help ease the island's economic problems.

"The $28 million project, which the state plans to start building this summer, would initially create more than 130 construction jobs and pump $4.5 million in payroll into the economy," Mr. Pfeifer says. "When the launch facility is operating, it could bring another $4.2 million in new payroll each year."

And industry analysts say Kodiak is an ideal site for polar launches. Only 600 miles from the North Pole, Kodiak has a clear, safe trajectory to the south over open ocean.

To attract customers, AADC is touting Kodiak as a dual-use facility, which means it can launch both commercial rockets and military rockets.

Indeed, the military is lending Kodiak plenty of support. AADC has already secured two military launch contracts for 1998, and the Pentagon plans to give $18 million for construction of the launch site.

Though Pentagon funding is involved, the Kodiak facility would remain a state-run launch site licensed through the US Department of Transportation and run by the DOT's operation procedures, says AADC executive director Pat Ladner.

When fully operational, the facility would launch three to nine small and medium-size commercial and military rockets a year.

But the plan doesn't suit everybody. Some people say the economic gains do not compensate for the potential costs to the environment or to the commercial fisheries. The launch site overlooks Fossil Beach at Narrow Cape, a popular recreation area for local residents, and Ugak Island, a seasonal gathering place for the threatened Steller sea lion two miles off shore. Commercial fishing grounds also lie within the launch zone.

"Neither the economic analysis nor the environmental assessment addresses the fishing fleet's traditional fishing areas or its approach to one of the largest fishing ports in the US," says Kathryn Kinnear, whose family is involved in commercial fishing.

The project's environmental assessment, however, did conclude that the infrequent launches would not significantly impact the sea lions and would rarely restrict fishermen and local residents from the region.

The Burtons don't need much convincing. They have grazed buffalo and cattle on Narrow Cape peninsula for 30 years, and they plan to continue.

"[The launches] are really fun to watch," Mrs. Burton says. "We don't anticipate any problems. The horses may spook a little when the rockets go off, but they [AADC] will let us know well in advance of a launch."

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