Love him or hate him, it is undeniable Ted Stevens has done more than anyone in history to contribute to the development of Alaska.
That's what Dan Fagan, one of Alaska's worst historians, had to say in this morning's Anchorage Daily News, in an opinion piece he penned about what appears to be a pretty lousy history book, commemorating fifty years of Alaska statehood. After reading Fagan's Gail Phillips-fueled anti-Sarah Palin diatribe, I wasn't about to go out and buy this book, which I hadn't heard about yet. Reading through the comments, though, it appears I may be able to pick up a copy for free.
I neither love nor hate Senator Ted Stevens. He has certainly been useful to Alaskans - to some, far more than for others. I called his office last week, urging him to vote on Sen. Russ Feingold's amendment to the FISA legislation being considered. The last time he wrote back was the time before I urged him to retire at the end of this term, with dignity - about three years ago.
But is Sen. Stevens undeniably the person who has done the most for Alaska since statehood? I can certainly think of others who had roles at least as important as any Stevens has had. Fagan's contention that Sen. Stevens was once "the third most powerful man in the country," is almost correct technically, but quite false in real terms.
Sen. Stevens' chief claim to fame is probably that he has had such influence over such a long span, and that, at times, he was able to see beyond the sort of snide, ill-informed partisanship Fagan snidely wallows in, to create meaningful legislation. Like many important Alaskan historical figures, Stevens was there when an important issue came up, or a decision had to be made.
But we'll never know that if, somehow Jay Hammond or Chancy Croft or Giorgiana Lincoln had become our U.S. Senator for life, things would have worked out better for Alaskans over a similar time span.
Perhaps the three single most important decisions made in Alaska since statehood had nothing to do with Sen. Ted Stevens. They were the 1959-60 stopping of Project Chariot, the 1964 state selection of Prudhoe Bay, and the creation of the Permanent Fund. Although the first of these three events was certainly a complex collaboration, the second and third are attributed, respectively to Democratic Governor Bill Egan, and to Republican Governor Jay Hammond.
As more information comes out about Project Chariot, it becomes more obvious that we came very, very close to having five thermonuclear explosions happen within a few miles of one of the most important settlements in North America, Point Hope.
Point Hope has been continuously inhabited since before the Battle of Thermopylae. It was over 200 years old when Alexander the Great founded new cities in the mountains of Afghanistan. It was over 500 years old when Jesus fought against conservatives until they killed him. It was 1,000 years old when the Western Roman Empire fell. It was over 1,600 years old when the Magna Carta was signed, 2,000 years old when Columbus discovered the West Indies, and 2,300 years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Point Hope was over 2,500 years old when the United Sates military and Atomic Energy Commission began forcibly removing Pacific Islanders from their ancestral homes so that atomic and hydrogen bombs could be tested in the atmosphere. When, in 1958, the Atomic Energy Commission's Department of Nuclear Excavation sought to remove the Inupiat people from around Point Hope, the modern American environmental movement began. The successful fight had more than a little to do with the empowerment of Alaska Natives, and helped fuel their hopes for meaningful political and economic power in the state's development.
These peoples' fight to keep their homes, to keep their lands from being irradiated, and to end the madness of atmospheric testing, is to me, one of the greatest of all Alaska stories. And how different would the history of Alaska be had this increasingly important part of Alaska been toxified for twenty times longer than Point Hope has existed, merely to demonstrate to the nearby soviet Union - which no longer exists - that, when it came to atmospheric testing, the USA, as Dan Fagan might put it, wasn't about to "cut and run," or to "surrender?"
Had the five bombs been detonated, Point Hope, Kivalina, Noatak, Kiana, Noorvik, Selawik, Point Lay and many other villages and towns would have had to have been evacuated. For generations, if not longer. All the caribou in northern Alaska and Canada would have developed even higher levels of Strontium 90 than they did during the few years of atmospheric testing, making them unusable as game, and most likely decimating many herds. The incredibly beautiful Kobuk River basin would have become an environmental basket case.
Bill Egan's decision to select Prudhoe Bay was done, most certainly, with the help of knowledgeable staff. Hammond's bold decision to create the Permanent Fund, was likewise informed by many experts. But in the sense of being collective decisions, or decisions that couldn't have happened without tremendous input from a wide array of individuals and groups, the thwarting of Chariot is also in a league of its own.
So often, when I see praise of St. Ted and his "earmarks," or scan the list of projects his office wants to give him sole credit for, I just have to shake my head. Like when his office credits him not just for the F-22s coming to Elmendorf, but for the hangers they have to build or modify to service the fighter jets. As if the Pentagon, as dysfunctional as it sometimes is, is going to keep these $140 million dollar aircraft out in the weather 24/7? This is just one of many examples of how Stevens is given credit for something that would happen no matter who our U.S. Senator is.
images - Bill Egan on Cat; Project Chariot blast plot; hunter at sunset near Point Hope; St. Ted