ANCHORAGE, Alaska—Alaska Native and rural communities across the state shared a special relationship with former Sen. Ted Stevens. Like many Alaskans, they're still trying to make sense of his loss -- but they say they're grateful for the many opportunities he left behind.
It was Stevens’ landmark work on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that set up Native corporations across the state. Leaders say it initiated a future of jobs and services, which is a work in progress.
Alaska Natives have been crafting artwork for centuries, but it was not until Stevens came along that the work became truly valuable.
“He supported the arts, he supported village activities, but he always had the bent towards the economic side,” said Perry Eaton with the Alaska Native Arts Foundation.
Stevens thought rural communities, even artists, should be economically independent. He helped fund groups like the arts foundation to provide a means for artists to sell their goods and make a living.
That was more than oil -- it was people, it was commerce, it was interaction,” said ???
It helped eliminate some of the disparity between developed communities and rural villages. But the remote corners of the state still lacked basic infrastructure, so Stevens created the Denali Commission: a federal-state partnership that helps direct funds where they're needed most.
“We were trying to move the decision-making from D.C. out to Alaska, get some common-sense approaches and do that in a collaborative fashion,” said Jeff Staser, the commission’s founding federal co-chair.
One of the commission’s first projects was to help clean up leaking fuel tanks that were poisoning drinking water in certain villages.
“In these areas where no one wanted to step forward and take over the task of public infrastructure because it was untenable, the Denali Commission jumped in there,” said ???
Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka says Stevens had his own vision for Alaska's future. Stevens thought villages should set their own alcohol control laws, while AFN wanted additional federal oversight.
“Oh no, we're never going to say we always agreed with him on everything,” Kitka said. “What you give him credit for is, he always listened to your position, and sometimes you were able to prevail in your position and sometimes you weren't.”
It was a unique relationship between a lawmaker and his constituents. And even though Stevens is gone, his ideas remain.
In 1980, Stevens helped broker ANILCA, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, establishing more than 100 million acres of federal land in Alaska.
ANILCA challenges federal land managers to balance the national interest in Alaska's scenery and wildlife with the state's economy and distinctive rural way of life.
Contact Ted Land at firstname.lastname@example.org