In Alaska, safety vs. free spirits
VALDEZ, ALASKA — Being at the southern end of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline used to be good for Valdez tourism. A guided bus tour of the marine terminal, where crude oil is loaded onto tankers after its 800-mile journey through America's most famous pipe, was a popular day trip.
But the terminal is also the state's most plausible terrorist target and has been closed to visitors ever since Sept. 11. The end of pipeline tours has meant the end of cruise-ship stops in Valdez - and far fewer tourist dollars in local tills.
Welcome to the era of homeland security on America's frontier, where campers sometimes find themselves out in the wilds with no matches and pepper spray because these were confiscated at airports. In fact, many in the state now complain about an overzealous defense against terrorism: The legislature and several municipal governments have passed resolutions protesting the USA Patriot Act.
In some ways, Alaska reflects what is going on in the rest of the nation: States and localities struggling to find the right balance between security and a sense of normalcy. As the US moves further out from 9/11 without having experienced another terror attack, many are rethinking the calibration - and economic and social cost - between vigilance and individual freedom.
Perhaps nowhere is this clash starker than here in the "last frontier," where the potential terror targets are more prodigious and the spirit of independence and individuality more deeply ingrained.
This summer, campers were furious to discover, on unpacking their bags in the wilderness, that airport security workers had removed items like pepper spray and flare guns used to ward off bears - along with lighters, waterproof matches, and glue meant for emergency raft repairs.
"I'm going camping. It's Alaska," says Brad Meikeljohn, who lives in suburban Anchorage. On a solo kayaking trip along the Alaska Peninsula, he went without a hot meal for two days, until he flagged down a fishing boat for matches. "It's silly," he says. "And it's arbitrary."
And it's not just adventure seekers who are feeling annoyed. Earlier this year, two educators and two travel agency owners filed a lawsuit challenging the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) plans to use a classified system to screen passengers before allowing them to board flights.
There are also complaints from residents about homeland security expenses. Valdez incurred $75,000 to $85,000 in extra costs during the last national "orange" alert, says city manager Dave Dengel - and that's not counting the overtime costs that result from mandated training and consultation.
Even when residents are not directly footing the bill, some security spending has raised plenty of eyebrows. Take Gov. Frank Murkowski's request to spend $2 million in federal homeland-security funding on a corporate jet - which he defended as vital for in-state travel. Though the request was eventually denied, the high-profile incident became, for many here, a symbol of waste.
Plenty of officials across hinterland regions with low populations like Alaska and Wyoming recognize that their local governments are getting money that could be better used in coastal cities like Los Angeles or New York, says Tom Schatz, president of the Washington watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. "People are saying, 'Why are we getting this?' But they're not about to write a check to New York City."
Defenders of homeland-security efforts in Alaska point out that the state has two international borders and more coastline than the rest of the states combined, along with several military bases and a somewhat vulnerable oil pipeline.
And while Alaska might not seem a likely terrorist target, neither did the Russian border town of Beslan, where Chechen rebels staged a deadly attack on a school, says Tom Burgess, the state's homeland security director.
Alaska's federal grant money - nearly $20 million provided a year ago - has gone to useful purposes, such as modernizing communications equipment. Eventually, says Mr. Burgess, the state office charged with preventing terror attacks will probably merge with the office that handles natural disasters. And Alaska has plenty of experience with those. "If you're prepared for one," he says, "you're prepared for the other."
As for confiscating camping gear, that has little to do with antiterrorism efforts, says Corky Caldwell, the TSA's federal security director for Alaska. It simply reflects better enforcement of longstanding rules. "The screening process has greatly improved," he says, pointing out that keeping matches, pepper spray, and other potentially dangerous items off of airplanes is a matter of common sense. "Why would people endanger the lives of other people?" he asks.
In Valdez, tourism goes on despite the new restrictions. Strains of German are audible in the modest downtown district, attesting to Valdez's growing popularity among Europeans who've come to hike, kayak, and fish.
Tour-boat operator Stan Stephens says he doesn't object to the idea of heightened security, even though it means he can't get close to sea otters within a buffer zone around the pipeline terminal. He says he's made some adjustments to his business. To spare his customers the indignity of preboarding searches that he says are federally mandated for large ships, he has made sure that each ship in his fleet, including a newly acquired vessel, holds fewer than 150 passengers.
But Mr. Stephens, a longtime environmental activist in Valdez, worries that the homeland-security duties are diverting the Coast Guard from its rescue and environmental protection responsibilities. "A lot of their time and energy is getting away from their original mission," he says. "I don't think that's good."