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Harriman Expedition Retraced


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A Panel Discussion on Oil and Alaska's Search for Economic Diversity and Environmental Protection

Summary by Julia O'Malley

When the panel convened on July 31, 2001 to discuss economic development, Mead Treadwell of the Anchorage-based development group, Institute of the North, introduced the theme that would carry throughout -- Alaska is a resource-rich state, he said, but all development requires careful consideration and compromise. Treadwell used a triangle diagram to illustrate this. On it he gave equal importance to considerations of biological sustainability, economic sustainability and social equity.

The next speaker, possibly the most extreme in support of major oil and gas development, was state oil and gas economist Dan Zobrist who opened his talk with this statement: "Let's have a reality check, for the last 20 years oil has paid for everything in this state."

Zobrist went on to discuss how the Alaskan economy is mostly dependent on oil as well as what he saw as bright prospects for further oil and gas development. He ended his talk with the conclusion that "oil and gas have tremendous benefits, but they also have a cost."

"That's right," continued Molly McCammon, of the Oil Spill Trustee Council, "There is a cost for oil and the spill is that cost."

McCammon discussed the lasting impact of the 1989 oil spill that devastated parts of Prince William Sound. "There is still oil in the food chain 12 years later. In certain localized areas populations are stressed -- if something were to happen on top of that -- like another spill -- that could put the area into a tailspin."

One part of the spill that is sometimes overlooked is the economic boom it created, she said.

"Exxon spent two billion dollars cleaning it up. It created a class of what we called 'spillionaires' -- people who made a lot of money cleaning up the oil."

She stressed that with development can come many unexpected impacts on the environment that will go on to effect the economy, like the way the spill, an unexpected impact of oil development, has negatively affected fisheries. McCammon also said that many of the spill impacts are subtle and long lasting, but that because of the many factors that influence animal populations, they are hard to link indisputably with the spill.

The next panelist was Jamie Kenworthy, the executive director of the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation. Kenworthy talked about what he termed the political culture of Alaska where Alaskans, he said, seem to feel like an economic colony of the Lower 48.

"Alaskans see themselves as bemused outsiders," Kenworthy said, "It is like we live in someone else's park."

Kenworthy continued to discuss what he saw as a romanticized view of nature that stands in the way of the realistic necessity to develop.

"We have a model of nature in stasis and we think of it without humans…We think of the environment as being fragile, but we don't think of the economy as being fragile."

Bernice Joseph, the Deputy Commissioner of Economic Development, spoke about the role of Native Corporations in the Alaska economy.

"Alaska Native corporations are the largest private land owners in the country," she said, "Native corporations here are very different than other corporations. If you look at Native corporation mission statements, you'll see that the main goal is to protect the social and economic welfare of our shareholders as well as the land base."

Native corporations, Joseph said, must think not only about the bottom line, but also about public and cultural health. They have special benefits for Elders and their shareholders may not sell their stock. Part of their earnings go directly to Native communities. To illustrate this, she gave herself as an example.

"If it weren't for the support of DOYON Corporation with scholarships for school, I probably wouldn't be here today."

Once again, Joseph stressed the theme of compromise, citing Treadwell's triangle diagram.

"In the business decisions we make, we still have to weigh how it will effect our shareholders," she said.

Anne Castellina, Superintendent of Kenai Fjords National Park, was the last to speak to the topic of land management and eco-tourism.

"Running a national park is like being at the center of a balancing act," she said, talking about weighing the park's popularity against a need to protect wildlife from too much disruption. Park use rose from 60, 000 to 290,000 visitors a year in the last 13 years, she said.

Castellina also talked about how the increased tourism has effected the town of Seward, the largest portal to the Kenai Fjords.

"With this park, it's like McDonald's, if you build it they will come. All of this has brought economic viability but we've also lost something, too in terms of our way of life -- Seward has become a seasonal town, which is all part of the compromise," she said.




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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