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Thirty-five years ago, Carter drew wrath of many Alaskans

Dermot Cole
President Jimmy Carter at the signing of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act Jimmy Carter Presidential Library

FAIRBANKS -- To mark the 33rd anniversary of his signing of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, former President Jimmy Carter is to speak with some Alaska students in a webcast Monday afternoon. On a visit to Anchorage some years ago, he described it as “the most important environmental legislation in the history of the entire world."

There is no ceremony today to mark the 35th anniversary of another landmark action by Carter, his decision to use the Antiquites Act to withdraw 56 million acres in Alaska and place them in national monuments.

Overshadowed by the 1980 approval of the Alaska Lands Act, the unprecedented action taken by Carter on Dec. 1, 1978 met with an angry response from many Alaskans, who did not see it as a bold move to preserve land for the future but as an infringement of their rights. Arguments that the federal lands in question belonged to all Americans failed to ease the discord.

In Washington, the move gave Carter some leverage with Congress. But in Alaska, every elected official condemned what the president had done, with both Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens claiming that the federal government was at "war" with Alaska.

An opposing view came from Vic Fischer, who had helped write the Alaska Constitution and said the "hysteria" over the land withdrawals was unjustified. "The withdrawals will have a rather limited overall effect on Alaska's economy or future development," Fischer predicted.

Passions cool after 35 years

After 35 years the passion over the federal land decisions has tempered. Many key players have died, and Alaskans have become accustomed, more or less, to the new land classifications.

In 1978, though, emotions were raw.

“We’re trying to show our state government that the people are upset and angry about the Antiquities Act,” is how pilot Pete Haggland described the Fairbanks protests that took place that month.

The first protest drew 30 people, while two days later 120 walked the streets near the post office and soon more than 200 people were spending lunch hour carrying hand-made signs attacking Carter and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus.

The messages ranged from“Forever Yours Cecil,” to “When I grow up I want to live in a democracy, not a dictatorship” and “Antiquities Act of a Peanut Brain.” In later years, Carter would say that rich businessmen opposed his efforts to preserve Alaska land, but there were also students, construction hands, office workers and many others in the protests.

'A tyrant's action'

Former University of Alaska President William Wood, who was city mayor at the time, was one of the few protesters wearing a suit and tie. He carried a sign that said, “This is not Carterland, but Alaska for Alaskans.” Former mayor Harold Gillam walked the line, as did a judge who remarked that Alaska Independence advocate Joe Vogler “is looking better to me every day.” Vogler was collecting signatures on a petition for what he called the “Alaska Secession Law of 1979.”

In his weekly newspaper, the All-Alaska Weekly, Tom Snapp headlined an editorial, “A Tyrant’s Action Cements Alaskans.”

On Dec. 11, one of the disgruntled protesters, John Eubank, stuffed a set of coveralls with straw and attached a photo of the president’s head. He had a noose around the neck of the strawman. Eubank, who wore a Lower 48 Indian headdress for the occasion, drenched the effigy in lighter fluid and waited until a TV camera was in place to light it, drawing cheers from the crowd.

I wrote about Eubank’s effigy in the Daily News-Miner and the Associated Press picked up the story, which became a symbol of Alaska opposition to Carter. The former president has mentioned this act as an example of how extreme the reaction was in Alaska.

As a followup to the Fairbanks protests, sportsmen’s groups organized what they called the “Great Denali-McKinley Trespass,” with the goal of trying to violate 27 national monument regulations in two days, everything from using a public address system to skydiving and taking target practice.

Estimates of the attendance ranged from less than 1,000 to nearly 3,000. The idea was to bring guns and snowmachines to a site near Cantwell and break the rules that came with restrictive federal designations. The crowd was orderly and the National Park Service wisely avoided any confrontations.

Two days after the trespass, a Fairbanks man named Mike Hartman began camping out in front of the Fairbanks post office, pledging to fast “until President Carter and the Congress repeal the ridiculous law or until my feet and hands freeze and I keel over.” Twelve days later he came in from the cold, with the monuments still in place.

104 million acres set aside

Protests continued in Alaska after that, but the next major development that forced a change in policy came in the 1980 elections, when Ronald Reagan was elected president and Republicans gained control of the U.S. Senate.

Two weeks after the election, conservationists backed a compromise bill that won approval from the Senate. On Dec. 2, 1980, Carter signed the bill to set aside 104 million acres of Alaska in parks and refuges. “With this bill we are acknowledging that Alaska’s wilderness areas are truly this country’s crown jewels,” he said.

At the signing ceremony, Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona mentioned how he and other conservationists had been seen in Alaska. He said the preceding summer the fair in Fairbanks had included a booth with 2,000 empty beer bottles..

“They had four pictures on the wall that you could pay a quarter and throw a beer bottle at -- Jimmy Carter, Cecil Andrus, Mo Udall, and the Ayatollah,” said Udall, referring to the leader of Iran.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DermotMCole.