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Forget the fish, Alaska's share of revenue too small to allow Pebble

Clem Tillion

When I hear and read all this endless blather over the Pebble copper and gold deposits in the Iliamna area, the first thing that comes to my mind is 'What do I and the other Alaskans who own this deposit get if and when the mine goes into production?' Or to show my greed, 'How much will it put in the Permanent Fund?' Unless our state Legislature takes some action, we will be giving our wealth away under the 1872 Mining Act.

For those newly arrived from our mother country to the south, or those who never stopped to think about it, Alaska is the only land-grant state in the union. True, other states have land-grant schools and universities, but as part of the Alaska Statehood Compact, we were given 100 million acres in addition to the 3 million that were to come with statehood. We were also to get 90 percent of the oil found under the Federal land. The fight to get this is too long a story to cover here, but our first governor chose a wise commissioner of Natural Resources, who in turn chose a sharp mining man, and they set out to choose the resource rich areas that if wisely used would help support Alaska through future generations. Prudhoe Bay and the Pebble copper deposit were among the choices made.

When I first ran for the Alaska Legislature shortly after statehood, our state had only a 1-percent severance tax on oil. Our first big oil boom at Swanson River on the Kenai Peninsula made many investors wealthy but brought nothing to the people of Alaska. The fight to raise oil royalty to 12.5 percent plus the right to tax in addition to cover costs is again another story, but a veto-proof majority had done its job before the Prudhoe sale.

Alaska has done well with our fisheries, but then, we had a failed federal system that had spent years teaching us what not to do. In spite of the many ups and downs of salmon runs in one area or another, our salmon runs are eight times larger the those bleak days at statehood, and Alaska produces 62 percent of the fish harvested under the U.S. Flag and is the envy of much of the rest of the world.

On oil we lacked a teacher. True, we did put 25 percent of our oil bonus and royalty in a Permanent Fund but this is only one-twelfth of what we have received from oil. We have acted like a rich rancher who tries to keep a standard of living above what his land can sustain, subdivides a portion of his holdings each year and drives a Cadillac instead of a pick-up.

Alaska hired a well-known consultant after our first $900-million windfall. To quote him: “Oil by its very nature is but an enclave within your state. To consider it a permanent part of your economy is to court disaster. The day will come when the only person to see Prudhoe Bay will be an Eskimo looking for a Caribou.”

The Norwegians had the advantage of looking at us and Alberta, Canada, and they chose to put all of their bonus and royalty into their permanent fund, so that when the North Sea oil is gone, the investment funds would help carry them.

Now coming back to Pebble, if it puts enough into the Alaska Permanent Fund, I might take a look at it, but at the present 3 percent of net tax rate, I see no reason to even consider the environmental problems.

My father-in-law came to Alaska from Denmark 100 years ago. The race of man is a short-lived species. I came up to Alaska in steerage on the old S.S. Aleutian, a skinny kid with malaria from a government paid vacation in the Solomon Islands, and I now have great grandchildren here in Alaska.

I know the Chamber of Commerce is only interested in jobs now, and jobs for our young people are a good thing, but do we need to give our resources away? Tomorrow's young people will need jobs too. I for one would not sell our copper for 3 percent of net even if mining was good for the fish.

Clem Tillion is a retired commercial fisherman and a nine-term former Alaska state legislator. He is a charter member and past chairman of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council and has served on numerous government fisheries regulation councils and committees. He lives in Halibut Cove, near Homer, Alaska.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.