Voices of Alaska: High-level talks on Air Force One

  • By Gov. Bill Walker
  • Sunday, September 6, 2015 3:15pm
  • Opinion

I was not quite a teenager when I had my first interaction with the federal government.

In 1963, I was awarded the janitorial contract for the Valdez post office. Every day for an hour before school, I cleaned the building. I was excited because it meant income for my family as we struggled to put food on the table.

Then a postal inspector learned the janitor was a 12-year-old boy. He said he would revoke my contract. I pointed out the bid documents never asked for my age.

I needed the work because my family needed the money, so I transferred the contract to my father’s name and continued to clean.

As I stood Monday morning on the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., looking at Air Force One, I thought about the new responsibility I now have to a much larger family — more than 730,000 Alaskans.

I knew I would need adequate time to tell the President Alaska’s story about the great opportunities our state offers. However, our state has serious challenges. Our fiscal deficit deepens as the price of oil continues to drop. We have a pipeline that’s three-quarters empty. Rural residents pay more for energy than anyone in the entire country.

The federal government owns 62 percent of land in the state. Alaskans need access to Southeast timber harvests and other resources under and on that land — resources that lawfully belong to us — so that we are economically self-reliant and not dependent on the federal government.

About 12 villages need to be relocated. More than 30 percent of our rural communities lack running water. Children in these communities are 10 times more likely to suffer from viral pneumonia, tuberculosis and infection.

In the past decade, the state has seen 25 schools close. Thirty-three more schools are currently facing the same fate because fewer than 15 students are enrolled. Often, when schools close, villages struggle to survive and centuries of culture and tradition are threatened.

As Russia and China beef up their presence in the Arctic, we as a nation should not draw down troops in Alaska.

I had to explain all of these things to the one person who could ease restrictions and pave the way for Alaska’s self-reliance with a simple stroke of the pen.

On Thursday afternoon, five days before the President was scheduled to arrive in Anchorage, I had a call with a senior White House official. I offered to travel to Anchorage with the President to ensure we had sufficient time together to discuss Alaska’s issues. The next morning, the White House agreed.

On Andrews Air Force Base Monday morning, I made the long climb up the stairs to the President’s plane. I had a suitcase in one hand and a brief case in the other, but I knew I was carrying much more — a message from Alaskans.

I was able to spend nearly two hours with the President. I thanked him for restoring the original name of the country’s tallest peak to Denali. I also thanked him for permitting offshore exploratory drilling. But, I explained, it’s not right that Alaskans shoulder the risks but not receive revenue from those activities, whereas Gulf Coast states get up to 37 percent of the offshore federal take.

Alaskans can fix our fiscal problems, I explained, but not with federal restrictions tying one hand behind our collective back. We have in place the infrastructure for an additional 1.5 million barrels per day of oil. Increased flow through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System would mitigate much of the state’s fiscal challenges, add to the federal treasury and give the United States energy independence.

We also discussed the much needed road from King Cove to Cold Bay Airport.

Mostly, the President listened, but he was most direct when we spoke about the need to build a natural gas pipeline. I explained our current process and the past several decades of effort expended on the project.

“Governor Walker, you build that gas line for Alaska and don’t let anyone stand in your way of getting that done,” President Obama said. It’s the same directive the late-Governor Wally Hickel gave me five years ago shortly before he passed away.

The President offered to help, and I told him I would be calling him soon. I want the state and the federal government to collaborate on a way forward.

More than a year ago, I promised Alaskans that if I became governor and the opportunity presented itself, I would climb aboard Air Force One with my right hand extended in greeting to the President and, in my left hand, a briefcase full of asks to unlock Alaska’s limitless opportunities.

During the flight I was able to convey all the issues critical to Alaska. The President listened. The President responded. We will continue the critical discussion which began on that flight.

Bill Walker is governor of Alaska.

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