President must experience 'real' Alaska through its people

Alaska has benefited from many Presidential visits, and it’s always good to have the national spotlight shine on us. President Ronald Reagan’s visits were particularly memorable, given his keen appreciation for Alaska’s vast natural resources and understanding of the federal government’s history of locking up those resources by taking Alaska lands.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” President Reagan said in a 1979 campaign stop, bemoaning federal land-grabs. “It’s gotten to the point where a tourist who comes up here won’t even be able to see this land.” In 1983 while serving as President, he spoke stirringly of the importance of Alaska’s natural resources during a visit.

“Your state is a treasure trove of resources vital to our economy and to the well-being of every American,” he said.

President Reagan, a former western governor, understood Alaska.

I know that President Obama — whose upcoming visit is important for us all — is from a different party and has vastly different beliefs about how to grow the economy and the role of the federal government in our lives.

And I believe that many of his administration’s actions — including the consistent usurpation of Congress’ powers through issuing executive orders and locking up huge swaths of energy-rich Alaska land — are very detrimental to our country’s and Alaska’s economy.

However, there’s something I’m reminded of every day while representing Alaska in the U.S. Senate: Most Alaskans’ hopes and dreams transcend political ideologies. We all want what’s best for our families and communities now and for generations to come. We all want to live in a country that is teeming with opportunity, available to us all.

But in Alaska, a land of extraordinary potential, we face a unique problem, one that I hope President Obama recognizes during his visit. In order to make full use of our opportunities, we need to be seen not as symbols or abstractions, but as individuals. With real problems, real needs, real hopes and wishes, living in real cities and towns and rural communities — real people living in a real state.

For too long and by too many Outside, Alaska hasn’t been treated as a place in and of its own. It’s been a battleground and a playground, over-romanticized and underappreciated.

When the President visits, I hope that he is able to see Alaska not as a snow globe — something to put on a shelf and shaken for a feel-good moment — but as a place described by the drafters of our Constitution as “a homeland filled with opportunities for living, a land where you can worship and pray, a country where ambitions will be bright and real, an Alaska that will grow with you as you grow.”

Specifically, I hope that during the President’s visit he sees beyond his climate change agenda to all the state has to offer its residents and the rest of the country.

He might begin by focusing on our military and strategic value. Alaska is at the crossroads of the world. We are home to America’s only airborne brigade combat team in the Arctic and Asia-Pacific. They are among the toughest soldiers in the world and are absolutely critical in maintaining our country’s strength as we face increasing challenges to America’s security in the Arctic and Asia-Pacific regions.

Yet, the Obama’s administration has made a decision to cut Alaska’s troops. It’s a strategic mistake for the country, and if the President studied the issue and met with the soldiers during his visit, he would realize that. I hope he does and announces he’s rescinding that short-sighted decision.

I also hope President Obama sees the potential in the Arctic and announces more resources to bolster our lackluster icebreaker fleet. Russia has 40; we have two, one of which is out of commission. The highways of the Arctic are icebreakers; currently Russians have superhighways and we have dirt roads with potholes. This is the moment to become true leaders in the Arctic by rapidly expanding our icebreaker fleet.

A large-diameter natural gas pipeline in Alaska is a project of huge importance that would provide thousands of jobs, low-cost energy throughout the state and dramatically increase America’s national and economic security. In a recent meeting with me, Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell committed that she would work with our state to expedite federal permitting of this critical project. I hope the President makes an announcement directing all federal agencies to fast-track this project as a national priority.

The President plans to visit rural Alaska while he’s here, which is great news. The soul of our state is in rural Alaska, where some villages lack basic amenities like water and sewer. Infrastructure development is not only crucial in rural Alaska, it’s the key to unlocking our full economic potential. The highway bill that just passed the Senate emphasizes this. I hope that the President will support it.

When I was the Alaska Attorney General, I met with Vice President Joe Biden about our Choose Respect initiative to combat high rates of sexual abuse, domestic violence and suicide. These issues are ones that we Alaskans ultimately have to tackle ourselves. Still, I was heartened by the Vice President’s response when I met with him.

“Whatever we can do to help you guys on this, we will do it,” he said. I hope the President announces that he will stand by that pledge.

The President himself has said that economic opportunity is one of the best ways to ensure our common good and to give power to the powerless who have fallen victim to violence and despair. That holds just as true in Alaska as anywhere in the country.

In Alaska, economic opportunity is stymied when the federal government locks up our resources. An executive order to lock up even more or our land or water, which I fear he will announce while here, will take away more jobs and create more economic hardship and more social problems.

When President Obama visits, I hope he sees Alaska for what it is: both a symbol of the very best in the American character and spirit, but also a real place, with real people, working to build a real future in a real world that will benefit not just Alaska, but our nation.

I hope he sees the place we call home.

By:  Sen. Dan Sullivan
Source: Juneau Empire