Alaska: America's Final Frontier - Because of the State's Boom-and-Bust History, Many Residents Have Deep Concerns about the Future

By Easley, Paula Pence | The World and I, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Alaska: America's Final Frontier - Because of the State's Boom-and-Bust History, Many Residents Have Deep Concerns about the Future


Easley, Paula Pence, The World and I


Alaska is an untamed, exciting place many Americans dream of someday experiencing. Special it is, and few appreciate its uniqueness and frontier spirit more than Alaskans themselves. Throughout the state, there are people who survive by living off the land and are good stewards of it. The state's native population has done it for thousands of years, often under extreme circumstances.

Everything about the forty-ninth state's physical features is grand-- towering mountain ranges, endless forests, rugged coastal waters, glaciers, lush valleys, fjords, volcanoes, and northern lights. Imagine--one state as large as 23 other states combined.

Texans have an especially hard time admitting Alaska's size, until they see it superimposed over a U.S. map. We chuckle when someone phoning from, say, Georgia, asks: "What's the temperature in Alaska?" Looking at the map, it would be like checking the weather in Jacksonville, Florida, Mackinaw City, Michigan, and San Diego at the same time. Of course, we'd never tell a Texan that if Alaska were split in half, Texas would be the third-largest state.

Modern-day Alaska

After the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, the discovery of gold brought the realization that "Seward's Folly" might not have been such a bad deal. Gold fever primed Alaska's modern development, with a major discovery in Juneau in 1884. Other history-making discoveries soon followed in the Anchorage, Nome, and Fairbanks areas. In 1923 construction of the Alaska Railroad between Seward and Fairbanks was completed to support the bustling mining activity.

World War II brought a Japanese attack on two of the Aleutian Islands, focusing more attention on the new territory. National leaders quickly acknowledged Alaska's strategic defense importance and mineral resources that could be used to support the war effort. During the Cold War, Alaska was the first line of defense between North America and Russia. Alaska's facilities for strategic defense, deployment, weapons testing, and troop training are among the nation's most sophisticated. Military installations, in close proximity to Asia and Europe, provide rapid emergency-response capability.

Mining, logging, fishing, and military spending sustained the territory for many years, facilitating population growth by funding road building, airports, power generation, and basic community services. Infrastructure created by natural resource industries and military operations laid the groundwork for today's thriving tourism industry.

The railroad and the 1,500-mile Alaska Highway opened up the territory, and people came. It took some 10,000 U.S. troops less than a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor to complete the monumental highway. Once Congress appropriated the funds (for the Canadian portion as well), the troops headed north. It may have been the fastest-built highway in history.

After decades of subordination and paternalistic treatment by Washington, Alaska finally achieved statehood in 1959. Getting congressional representation and the right to vote in national elections was a hard-fought victory. Today, however, 43 years since becoming a full-fledged member of the Union, Alaska still lacks equal footing with the other 49 states.

Sometimes it's the little things. One would assume that, after all this time, the federal bureaucracy could include Alaska's land, resource data, and other easily accessible information in national statistics. U.S. maps might even someday accurately depict the state's location and size. Alaska is at the top of the map, not the bottom left; it is in the North American continent but not contiguous with the lower 48 states, an important distinction in travel, mail, and shipping transactions.

Population and the economy

Alaska's population (627,000) is slowly growing but still only equates with that of the city of Milwaukee. …

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