Time Hasn't Tamed Wally Hickel

Southern California thirsts for water. Alaska is awash in it. So why not build a 2,000-mile undersea pipeline, as flexible as a garden hose, and let Alaska turn mn the spigot? At $100 billion, even parched Los Angeles County rejects the idea as too costly. But Alaska Governor Walter J. Hickel still likes it. "The Romans did it," he says matter-of-factly. "People have been moving water from where they have it to where they need it for years." Besides, Hickel's closest adviser--a voice he calls "the little man inside"--is all for the plan.

Wally Hickel, the man who paved the way for Alaska's North Slope oil exploration in the 1960s, is back. And at 72, he still spouts ideas as sprawling as the state itself. He wants to plow through the Arctic Ocean with Russian icebreakers to create a northern sea route to Europe. He's paying to study the feasibility of "beaming" hydroelectric power over long distances using microwaves. He's pushing for another 800-mile pipeline across the Alaskan wilderness--this time to transport natural gas instead of oil. And because Congress forbids oil drilling on lands such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he's suing Washington for lost royalties.

PARADISE LAST. Hickel's bulldozer-happy administration enrages environmentalists. Conflict-of-interest charges and his bellicose eccentricity make many Alaskans cringe. But he also strikes a resonant chord in a state that feels misunderstood by the rest of the nation. For most Americans, the Exxon Valdez oil spill drove home the notion of Alaska as the last frontier--a pristine wilderness to be preserved for future generations. Alaskans don't see it that way. Their state depends on oil for 85% of its revenues, and production is down (chart, page 70). Many welcome any ideas for creating new revenue sources, however farfetched.

That's why the man on the street sees Hickel as an antihero of sorts. He may be off-the-wall, but his fiercely independent politics draws many adherents. "What the U.S. has done to Alaska is a scandal," he says. "If a Third World country were similarly abused, the U. N. would step in. Alaska is different culturally, geologically, climatically. It shouldn't be hamstrung by federal regulations."

Such talk emanates from a lifetime of pugnacity, a personal history emblematic of Alaska's frontier spirit. Hickel grew up on a Kansas farm during the Depression and spent much of his time throwing punches as a Golden Gloves boxer. He won the state welterweight championship in 1938. After high school, with job prospects scarce and college not an option, he headed to Alaska, arriving with 37 cents in his pocket.

UP AND DOWN. Hickel worked as a carpenter, bartender, and logger before gradually building up a small fortune in construction. Though his first wife died in 1943, he produced six sons, five of them by his current spouse, Ermalee, herself the daughter of pioneers. Politics came next, and he was elected Alaska's second governor in 1966. His administration encouraged development of the rich Prudhoe Bay oil field--the northern terminus of the Alaskan oil pipeline--by punching a road through the tundra to service it. That caught the attention of President Richard Nixon, who picked Hickel in 1969 as his Interior Secretary.

The next year, though, Hickel criticized Nixon's handling of antiwar protestors and was fired. He became a political gadfly, running for governor in Alaska three times and losing each election. He kept busy expanding his $150 million real-estate business, which includes the Captain Cook, a landmark hotel he built in Anchorage. And he became increasingly involved with Yukon Pacific Corp., which he formed in 1983 to develop a natural-gas pipeline.

In September, 1990, he saw a chance for a political comeback. Hours before the deadline, the lifelong Republican filed as the Alaskan Independence Party's candidate for governor. Left cold by the two major-party nominees, 39% of the voters elected Hickel, who promised to drastically cut spending and fight the feds. A lack of endorsement from most of Alaska's legislators, editors, academics, and environmental activists only enhanced his appeal.

Hickel didn't waste any time. The Sierra Club's Pamela Brodie puts it this way: "He immediately started acting as though he had a mandate to push forward wild-eyed schemes that were not economically viable." In addition to his water-pipeline idea, he advocated building a new port in Anchorage--despite studies saying it was not needed. He also put the $11 billion gas pipeline on the front burner. His most controversial move was to push through a big road project on public land despite a lack of federal approval. That enraged Brodie and other environmentalists largely because it dumped debris into a fishing river.

WHOSE LAND? Later in 1991, a state-appointed prosecutor charged that his 12% Yukon Pacific stake was a conflict of interest. He was forced to divest. When several of his appointees also faced censure or were forced to resign because of perceived ethical lapses, many Alaskans got fed up. Some 20,000 of them have signed a recall petition, citing incompetence. In response, Hickel has backed off some of his more controversial projects, including the port and the water pipeline. The road project will be submitted for federal approval.

All the controversy hasn't stopped Hickel from planning a salvo of lawsuits against the federal government charging the feds with usurping Alaska's right to develop its oil properties, fisheries, and mineral resources. And he's pushing full throttle on the gas pipeline. The motivation for all this: When the price of oil fell from $21 to $15 a barrel last year, the state's projected oil income plunged by more than a third. North Slope oil production is expected to fall to half its 1988 peak level by the year 2000. Some propose a state income tax to make up for a budget deficit that is expected to double to $435 million in fiscal 1993, but Hickel doesn't like the idea. "We're not poor" he intones. "But we'll be poor if we're not allowed to have access to our land."

Critics would at least like to see him reduce spending--something he hasn't done, despite his campaign promises. Even his fans are concerned by the fiscal situation. "He is truly a visionary," says Michael J. Burns, CEO of Key Bank of Alaska. "But he sees the next 20 years much more clearly than the next 20 months."

Alaskans love pioneers. They also like government handouts: Oil brings a $930 annual "dividend" check for every citizen, and state spending that is six times the U.S. average. Hickel aims to find a new gravy train. But if his big projects fail to show promise before his term ends in 1994, he'll have trouble convincing Alaskans he's more than just an expensive dreamer.

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