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Revisiting ANCSA: Mike Gravel

Former Alaskan statesman reminisces


Photo courtesy of Mike Gravel

In a memorable photograph from the 1970s, Mike Gravel sits astride the trans-Alaska oil pipeline looking proud and confident about Alaska’s coming oil bonanza and the economic security that would accrue to the state. Gravel, a Democrat, was in the United States Senate at the time. He served two terms from 1969 until 1981, along with Ted Stevens, a Republican.


It is fair to say that more Alaskans know about Stevens, who died in a plane crash in 2010. But Gravel’s service is also important and it came at a crucial juncture in the state’s history. He recently came back to Alaska to speak about his leadership in securing Congressional authorization to build the oil pipeline. While here, Gravel met former staff and old friends. He also spoke to Alyeska Pipeline Service Company employees about the pipeline that they oversee.


Gravel, now eighty-six, harbors no resentment that most Alaskans do not know how the pipeline came about. He knows that Alaskans understand that the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) is the state’s most important asset. He wants to set the record straight about what he did to help make it happen. “I am proud of my role in bringing about the pipeline, and I want that history to be accurately understood,” he says. “For a period of time I was the only one kept alive the hope of getting it authorized through Congress and which from my point of view seemed simple,” although others disagreed, sharply, at that time.


That was in 1973, when the construction of the pipeline was mired in lawsuits. Gravel felt that Congress, bogged down in politics, was not moving to take care of the problem.


Looking for Success

Like others before him, Gravel came to Alaska to find success. He arrived in August 1956, shortly after obtaining a BS in economics from Columbia University in New York City. Gravel had previously served in the US Army Counter Intelligence Corps and as Adjutant for the Communications Intelligence Service.


While attending Columbia part-time, Gravel worked full-time on Wall Street and later drove a taxi in Manhattan. He researched locations to launch a political career. “I was ambitious and decided to go to Alaska and stay there until I succeeded.”


Gravel endured an arduous journey up the Alaska Highway, which was no more than a dirt road in those days. But he didn’t mind. “I felt the travail was no big deal because I had a strong sense of awareness and awe that I was on my way ‘home’—even though it was a home that I had never seen before. I never had a change of heart from that first experience.” He still considers Alaska his real home.


It took him only a day after arriving in Anchorage to land a job selling real estate at Northern Realty, a local firm. Anchorage was still a small town with only two paved streets—Fourth and Fifth Avenues. But Gravel felt at home, settled down, and started planning his next steps.


He sold real estate for a couple of months, but when winter set in the real estate commissions dried up. “I had made some good sales but I wasn’t provident in saving money. So I got a job as a brakeman with the Alaska Railroad. I had an edge in getting that position because the railroad was then under the US Department of Interior and I was a veteran.” He worked on the Anchorage to Fairbanks run, including the winter snow fleet.


A few months later, by spring 1957, Gravel had had enough of the railroad. He got his real estate brokers license, became a solo realtor, and entered the world of politics in Anchorage. He became involved with the Young Democrats, and was soon elected as its president.


He embarked on a calculated trajectory to get ahead in politics. “In advertising for my real estate work, I advertised my name so that it became known, which also helped my political career.”


His strategy worked. He plunged into local politics and within a couple of years ran for his first political office. “I ran for the Territorial Legislature (1958) and lost, then I ran for the Anchorage city council and lost. In 1962 I ran for the state Legislature and won.” Alaska had become a state by then. He served two terms in the Legislature (1963-66), and was speaker of the house in his second term (1965-66).


While he was speaker, Gravel organized a trip for the Legislative Council to remote rural villages to survey economic conditions, particularly schools. Rural poverty and the emotional stress on families of having to send children to high schools in the Lower 48 left a deep impression on Gravel and the other legislators. Out of that trip came a successful statewide bond issue to expand the state’s educational system, including regional high schools. Although only one school was built at that time, the idea of state responsibility for education of rural Native children had been firmly planted through Gravel’s initiative. Today there are several regional boarding high schools in the state.


Quest for National Office

At the end of his second state legislative term Gravel began his quest for national office, running for the US House of Representatives seat held by Ralph Rivers. He lost that election by a narrow margin. Nevertheless, support from the rural Native community in that race signaled an awakening of political power. In 1968 he ran for the US Senate against Ernest Gruening and was elected in an upset campaign, serving two terms in the Senate (1969-81).


Gravel’s years in the US Senate coincided with major issues important to Alaska, including the settlement of the Alaska Native land claims and construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.


When Gravel went to the Senate in 1969, the land claims struggle was just beginning and the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), organized in 1966-67, was working on securing a settlement by Congress rather than pursuing a lawsuit through the Court of Indian Claims, a lengthy process. Gravel worked closely with Alaska Native leaders in getting a fair settlement. Oil had been discovered on the North Slope, and a land settlement with Alaska Natives was needed in order to facilitate the pipeline construction. Gravel encouraged an alliance between the Natives and industry.


"I co-authored and co-sponsored the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) legislation along with Ted Stevens, under the leadership of the Interior Committee Chairman Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson of Washington state. I provided leadership for two key elements of the legislation.” Gravel says.


The first was the question of how much land Alaska Natives would receive as part of the settlement. “It started out with a hundred thousand acres, went up to a million acres, then 2 million acres but it never really got off the ground.” Gravel was the first Alaska leader to support Native leaders with a larger land settlement. “They [AFN] want 40 million acres and to me that sounds like justice,” Gravel told Alaska newspapers at the time.


Alaska’s politicians and its business community did not greet that statement with enthusiasm. However, Walter Hickel, then governor, also followed Gravel and came out in favor of 40 million acres and that locked in the number. The final settlement was 44 million acres and $963 million in a cash settlement, with land and money divided among the new Alaska Native corporations.


Gravel’s second contribution was that money and land that went to the Native corporations would not be subject to US Bureau of Indian Affairs control as would have been the case with financial awards through the Court of Indian Claims.


The cash, however, was dependent on resource revenues—oil. Gravel made a unique contribution in moving the trans-Alaska oil pipeline forward. Once completed and in operation, the pipeline opened the road to the prosperity most Alaskans enjoy today.


Many people have assumed that Ted Stevens had a significant role in getting authorization for the pipeline. Gravel says that was not the case, and he has a letter from then-Alyeska President Ed Patton to prove his case.

“If I hadn’t taken the initiative to introduce an amendment to Jackson’s bill in Congress, the pipeline might not have been built, or at a minimum it would have been delayed several years beyond its projected start date,” he says.


Pivotal Year: 1973

In early 1973 the Alaska Native land claims were settled, but the pipeline was still mired in lawsuits, holding up construction. Nearly $300 million had been spent on studies to address concerns raised by environmental groups, but Congress wasn’t taking any action. “We had gone through years of study and judicial delay. I was getting briefed and was well aware that we had substantial knowledge and the technology to build the pipeline properly,” Gravel says.


“In February [1973] Senator Jackson introduced what amounted to technical legislation to expand the right-of-way for a pipeline, but there was no plan for construction because that was being held up in the courts. So I took it upon myself to do something.”


What Gravel did next was gutsy. The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), under which various environmental lawsuits had been filed, had caused the delay. “I realized that if Congress authorized the construction under NEPA we could proceed to build it. But at the time, all I thought I was doing was advancing the date of construction,” he says.


In retrospect, Gravel realizes that the situation was “more serious and that we might never have built the pipeline had we not proceeded at that point in time.” The litigation might have lasted several more years and Congressional leaders, including Jackson, were much influenced by the “ascendancy of the environmental movement and would have dragged their feet. So I filed my amendment,” Gravel says.


In February 1973 Gravel invited Ted Stevens to co-sponsor his amendment to authorize construction. Gravel’s amendment aroused the ire of Senator Jackson, powerful senior Senator and chairman of the Interior Committee, who asked Ted Stevens to withdraw his support. Stevens was close to Jackson at the time, says Gravel, and did as asked. The entire political and economic leadership of Alaska opposed Gravel’s amendment, including the oil companies who “also asked me to withdraw the amendment.”


Gravel thought Jackson was feeding the oil companies and Alaska a line. Jackson was running for president and was counting on environmental groups for support. “For the next few months the oil companies used their influence in Alaska to pressure me to withdraw my amendment. They thought I was making a mistake, (then-governor) Bill Egan publically opposed my amendment, as did the state Chamber of Commerce, the state’s labor movement, and the Legislature. Anybody and everybody was opposed to my amendment. They all said that I was wrong and that Jackson was the guy who was going to deliver the pipeline.”


But Gravel would have none of that. He had been briefed by a staff member of the Joint House-Senate Atomic Energy Committee about the dangerous US reliance on Middle East oil. Gravel encouraged the staff member to privately brief all other senators and then quietly began to lobby those senators for support for the Alaska pipeline. By May 1973 he had twenty-five senators who agreed to vote “yes” if the amendment came to the floor.


With the twenty-five votes secured, Gravel convinced the oil companies to back his amendment. “Only then,” he says, “did the oil companies pull off the pressure against me.” The oil companies soon garnered the support of Richard Nixon’s White House.


Gravel acknowledges this was a difficult issue for Scoop Jackson, who had authored the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and now opposed the Gravel amendment, in 1973, to exempt the trans-Alaska oil pipeline from NEPA, its first big test.


With the White House now behind it, the amendment went to the Senate floor. Gravel had worked behind the scenes to secure its passage and never gave a single public speech in its favor. The Senate’s 50-50 tie vote was broken by Vice President Spiro Agnew. Soon US Rep. John Melcher of Montana secured a positive vote in the House and in a few months, Congress had passed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act. It was signed by President Richard Nixon in November 1973.

President Richard M. Nixon signing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act on November 16, 1973. (Photo courtesy of Mike Gravel)


Thank You Mike Gravel

No one has ever publicly thanked Gravel for his efforts. But there is that letter from Ed Patton, the Alyeska executive who led the delegation to ask Gravel to withdraw his amendment and subsequently led to the construction of the eight hundred-mile pipeline. “It was a private letter that acknowledged what I did, saying I was the lone vanguard for moving the pipeline forward. And during that period, the oil companies were not,” Gravel says.


Gravel presented the letter and the photo of himself astride the pipeline to Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and its employees last spring. It is part of his legacy.


Mike Gravel visiting Alaska this summer.
(© Shehla Anjum)


An Original Thinker

For many Alaskans, Gravel remains elusive, a contrary figure known as a “maverick” for his unusual ideas. But he is an original thinker, and often his ideas are misunderstood and distorted by opponents.


One idea was to increase winter tourism in Alaska, which he believes is still needed. Gravel’s idea in 1978 for a large tent structure on Denali’s south side came from technology used at the winter Olympics at Munich and Montréal. “It was to cover hundreds of acres at the base of Mount McKinley [Denali] on state lands with a Teflon tent so that tourists would have some protection from our harsh winter weather,” he says. Unfortunately for Gravel, a reporter for the former Anchorage Daily News changed “tent” to a “dome,” which covered the mountain. “I was tagged as crazy for wanting to cover Mt. McKinley with a dome, and that is the ridiculous story that stuck.”


With the state facing another economic crisis, and the oil in the pipeline dwindling, Alaska needs to focus on other things it can sell, Gravel says. One of those is its year-round beauty. And selling that should not be left entirely to the tour boat companies that operate only in the summer. He thinks the state should actively sell winter tourism, too.


Gravel is proud of his Senate record, which includes releasing the Pentagon Papers in Congress and filibustering to force an end to the military draft, but he hopes Alaskans, in particular, will remember him as the person who secured the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. “Without the pipeline, the state would have been bankrupt; and the Native community would have never realized its potential with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act,” Gravel says.


Writer Shehla Anjum is based in Anchorage.


This article first appeared in the September 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.
It ahs been updated to reflect a correction to the caption of the photo of Richard M. Nixon signing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Act, not ANCSA.


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