Friday, 5 May 2000


The technological snafus I ranted about in yesterday’s entry look trivial compared to the havoc wrought by the “ILOVEYOU” virus (or worm or whatever they call it), which shut down Internet connections and erased data on computers worldwide. Here at rainforest battle central, we got no LOVE, so we got no virus. I’m sure glad we dodged that bullet.

Our office — balky equipment, cramped quarters — has me wishing that our search for new office space were going faster. We are located in “Alaska House,” an aging townhouse on Capitol Hill that we share with one of our coalition partners, Alaska Wilderness League.

Alaska House has a storied history and a kind of low-rent charm. It is a base camp where visiting Alaska conservation activists set up shop when they come to D.C. There are a couple of extra desks and phone lines for them to use and a wealth of inside information at their disposal from the Alaska Wilderness League folks. When an Alaska issue is running hot here in Washington, the House is jammed to the gills with people phoning and faxing and Xeroxing and getting ready to dash off for meetings with decision-makers. It can be about as chaotic as a fire hall mobilizing to fight a four-alarm blaze. There’s great energy and camaraderie here, a real sense of mission, and great people who know how to get things done. They work hard and they play hard.

There’s a downside, though. What on a good day seems like cozy, collegial quarters can feel, on a hectic, humid summer day, like working in a submarine that’s running out of fresh air. We need more space! We need a copier that works! We need high-speed Internet connections! We need more phone lines! All must wait until we can find that elusive commodity on Capitol Hill — affordable, convenient office space.

Good news today from Taxpayers for Common Sense, an organization that fights environmentally harmful government subsidies and projects. They report that “The Fleecing of America” feature on NBC’s national news will air a story on one of the battles we are fighting, the University of Alaska land grab. It might hit the air tonight.

This is an issue where Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) is using the financial woes of Alaska’s state university as an excuse to launch a raid on federal public lands in Alaska. Murkowski says the university never got all the land it was entitled to under the federal system of land grants for higher education. He’s pushing a bill that would let the university grab up to 500,000 acres (two and a half times the area of Shenandoah National Park, here in Washington, D.C.’s backyard). The university could take the land from places like the Chugach National Forest, the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, the Outer Continental Shelf (site of potentially valuable oil leases), and second-growth lands in the Tongass National Forest.

Once the university gets its hands on the lands, it would be duty bound to develop them for maximum financial benefit. On timber lands, that would mean wanton clear-cutting. One university logging site, near Ketchikan, is known as “Slide Ridge” because the timber was cut from such a steep slope that the loggers had to rappel by rope down from the top to cut the trees. The state Division of Forestry just shut down university logging operations at another site because erosion was fouling nearby fish streams. It must have been pretty bad, because the state is one sleepy, small town sheriff when it comes to watchdogging timber operators. The university could also grab some pretty attractive recreational sites in the rainforest and sell them as vacation properties or install big lodges to serve Alaska’s ever-growing stream of cruise ship visitors.

Murkowski’s bill is an environmentally ruinous giveaway — and a completely unnecessary one at that. Alaska has plenty of land and money to take care of its needs, including the university. When Alaska entered the Union in 1959, the federal government gave it the right to select 102.5 million acres — an area equal to the state of California — to be used as the state saw fit. The state picked North Slope lands that included Prudhoe Bay, which became the nation’s largest oil field. After 23 years of oil production, the state has some $27 billion stashed in a savings account called the Permanent Fund.

Earnings from the fund can be used on any state government function. But what do Alaska politicians do with the money? Do they spend it on the struggling state university, which Murkowski says he is so eager to help? No. Alaska politicians sprinkle the landscape with cash handouts to every resident. Last year, every bona fide resident — man, woman and child — got a check for $1,767. That’s $7,068 for a family of four. The total cost of the handouts was $1 BILLION. That’s B for billion.

Seen in this light, the answer to the university’s financial woes is state cash, not federal land. Murkowski’s bill is just a cynical ploy to pry lands out of protected federal status and open them up to more rapid development. It is, as NBC has apparently discovered, a gross example of the Fleecing of America.