By John MacKinnon
Henry Springer, one of the more colorful Alaskans you’ll ever meet, was executive director of AGC from 1990 to 2000. At his “Bon Voyage” in May, reflecting on his 60 years of experience in Alaska, he offered some parting words to us:
“I immigrated and came over here on a visa, not as an illegal. The first day I came in here, I knew that was where I was going to stay. It was the answer of all where I wanted to be. It was unspoiled; there was a lot of work to be done, and there was little knowledge of scientific things and data. I just saw nothing but one opportunity after another.
You rarely in life get a chance to come in when a new state is being formed because it only happens once in a great while. There are unique opportunities to be able to get in when things start out and helping shape it and putting your experience and your knowledge to work. That’s what I did for 25 years.
But during that time, I really experienced tremendous things. Alaska in the early ’60s bears no resemblance to today’s Alaska. It has changed, and I’m not saying it’s all bad, but most of it is no good. I would like to make some remarks about that because Alaska is the home of my choice and it’s the place I love and I never thought one moment about leaving here. I was lucky enough to be here right after statehood, and there were so many challenges and opportunities.
However, things started to change in the early ’70s. If you remember, that’s when the first sweeping federal laws and regulations came about. We didn’t get singled out as Alaska as a state; most of them pertained to the whole USA, and most of them had good reason to be come about. Remember Love Canal and the pollution from the industry and the problem with air quality and water quality and so on. They were not made up — they were very real. I participated in working on some of those laws on the Clean Air Act and then in the sea mammal act and then the Endangered Species Act for many years and then the things like the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which really shaped the construction industry and many industries. All of a sudden so many things that were unregulated before became regulated.
In Alaska specifically, there were two things of utmost significance, and one of them was ANCSA, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, followed by ANILCA, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. There was nothing of more consequence to Alaska since those two things because what they entailed was a complete subdivision of the land masses according to political boundaries and geometric boundaries, not according to life units or habitats or waterways or things that needed to be taken in consideration. You cannot manage a big land mass in little squares. We still have a problem with that nowadays.
The other thing that was of great consequence because of those regulations: None of them had any money with it, so the money had to come out from someplace, and in the in the industry which I know best — construction and capital industry — it had to come out of the appropriations for the capital projects. That means that before, when we started out in the ’60s, about 5 percent of a dollar went into nonconstruction items, in planning, right-of-way and things like that. Now it’s below 50 percent because all the things: the evaluations, environmental impact statement, the public hearing process, all that type of stuff, is coming out of those funds. Now, I’m not saying it’s all bad, but certainly the system is being abused to a point now that interest groups have found mechanisms to completely shut down projects that already had certain amounts of appropriations. No nation, no matter how rich, can support that type of a process. Over the long run, something’s got to give. The next thing that I experienced — and still deal with — was a worldwide computerization and the internet. I can’t think of anything that has affected everybody — industries, individuals — more than the invention of the computers and the internet and the instantaneous capability to reach anybody worldwide in seconds. We’re in the beginning of that, but those consequences are going to be felt.
We’ve already seen it because, not only has our national policy been affected by it, it’s an international deal and as a consequence less and less are national interests paramount. We are sliding more and more into a situation where it’s going to be an international program and international dictate what is going to happen in specific countries. And we see that already, again not all of it bad, but when you have that type of a mechanism then it’s a danger that it is being abused by politicians.
I’m afraid that Alaska’s unique status, its people and their lifestyles will lose its identity and will become just another state. I really hope that this can be avoided and that the federal dictatorship can come under the control the way the constitution envisioned the division of powers and the roles of local communities in the states and the federal government.”
Henry’s words should strike a chord with all of us. Alaska has changed. As he said, it’s not “all bad, but most of it is no good.” Some of the change we can control, and some we can’t — but we can influence it, as long as we try. That’s why AGC and our members need to remain active.