- Historic Sites
Our Last Great Wilderness
America’s greed for oil has drastically upset the ecological balance of Alaska’s North Slope, and the end is not in sight
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
The immediate issue, of course, is the land-claim situation. The Eskimos do not have a tradition of land ownership. Ina state with 375,000,000 acres where, through courage and fortitude, the natives and their ancestors have won a living from an extremely inhospitable land, they own, outright, less than five hundred acres, according to the report to Senator Jackson’s committee. All told, 37,400 live in settlements on public domain. In Alaska as a whole, whites now outnumber the natives four to one, but the whites are concentrated in a few centers. Over most of the vastness of Alaskan territory it is the natives that numerically prevail.
Beginning with such incursions as DEW-line construction and Pet 4 exploration, the natives began to organize: by now there are some twenty-one regional and community organizations. In 1966 the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives was organized “to seek an equitable adjustment of Native affairs and Native claims.”
The land claims filed by these groups cover about 80 per cent of the state, including some of the richest oil lands. As the North Slope bids were being opened inside the Anchorage auditorium last September, pickets outside carried signs that read: “$2,000,000,000 land robbery” and “Eskimos own North Slope.” Leaflets handed out to passers-by said: “Today’s lease is perpetrating of economic genocide on a native minority.”
When the clamor of the Eskimos reached Washington, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall called a halt to further release of federal land, pending settlement of the claims issue. President Johnson, in a message to Congress on March 6, 1968, said: The land rights of the Native people of Alaska—the Aleuts, Eskimos, and Indians—have never been fully or fairly defined. Eighty-four years ago, Congress protected the Alaska Natives in the use and occupancy of their lands. But then, and again when Alaska was given statehood, Congress reserved to itself the power of final decision on ultimate title. It remains our unfinished task to state in law the terms and conditions of settlement, so that uncertainty can be ended for the Native people of Alaska.
It was two days later that Senator Jackson set in motion a study of the situation. As noted earlier, the resulting report found the situation of the Eskimo almost catastrophic and recommended a settlement that would set up a corporation, with the natives as shareholders, to conduct educational and development projects. The Jackson committee modified this scheme, proposing two corporations: the Alaska Native Services Corporation and the Alaska Native Investment Corporation. Two per cent of federal income from mineral and oil leases would go to these native-owned corporations until the total reached $500,000,000.
An alternate proposal by the Interior Department would involve a flat payment of $500,000,000 to the natives. Incidentally, Walter Hickel, when he was governor of Alaska, revealed his impatience with the land freeze imposed by Udall, which he felt was throttling the state’s development. Since he was known to have extensive business interests in Alaska, Hickel was closely questioned by the Senate Interior Committee during hearings on his nomination as Secretary of the Interior, and he pledged to continue the freeze until this year.
But by January of 1970, with the oil companies clamoring for permission to build a giant pipeline from the North Slope to the south coast of Alaska, Hickel had lowered the barriers in two respects. He had given permission for construction of an all-year road for hauling pipeline materials to the Yukon, and he had set the stage for releasing land along the pipeline route, once the engineering plans had been finally approved.
The pipeline project is one of two apparently feasible solutions to the greatest problem facing the oil companies: getting the oil out to populated areas. The second solution is the use of giant tankers to bully their way through the Arctic ice.
Humble Oil assigned its 1,005-foot Manhattan to test the sea route. This, the largest tanker flying the American flag, was cut into four sections so that modification work could proceed at maximum speed. Eventually all parts, including a new bow, were brought together and reassembled.
On August 24, 1969, the ship left Delaware Bay with a group that included seventy-two scientists, oil company representatives, Canadian officials, and newsmen. Its bow, reaching ahead like the neck of a flying waterfowl, was aimed north. The ship sailed between Greenland and Baffin Island and turned west to fight its way through the ice-clogged channels of the Arctic Archipelago in the hope of achieving what so many earlier mariners had attempted—the Northwest Passage.
The ship, displacing 150,000 tons and with engines developing 42,000 horsepower, plowed its way through the ice as no ship ever had before. But when it was first brought to a dead halt, off Melville Island, on September 9, its weakness also became apparent. The bulk of this monster was so enormous that, once dead in the water, it was hard to get it moving again, particularly if the ice pressed close, leaving no room to back and charge. The final frustration came in McClure Strait, and the giant ship had to give up and take a detour around Banks Island.