Ted Stevens’ death marks the end of one of the most fascinating political lives in American history. The longest-serving Republican senator left his fingerprints on countless policy issues including the environment and energy.
Stevens devoted much of his time in the U.S. Senate from 1977 to 2009 to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWAR) for petroleum development. In 2003 and 2005, Congress narrowly defeated measures to begin drilling in ANWAR. In both cases, CNN reported that Stevens took the defeats personally. “People who vote against this are voting against me. I’ll never forget it,” Stevens said in 2003. In 2005, Stevens got a temporary two-vote victory when he attached an ANWAR drilling provision to the defense appropriations bill. Once again, Stevens took the vote personally: “This is as important to me as the first step that Armstrong took when he stepped on the moon,” Stevens said. Eventually, a group of Democratic senators filibustered the provision. When that happened Stevens called it, “the saddest day of my life.”
Stevens’ political life is said to have begun when he wrote position papers about Western water law during Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential campaign. In 1956, he took a position at the Department of Interior where he became a leading force in Alaska’s statehood movement.
Following his tenure at Interior, Stevens returned to Alaska where he became devoted to building the Rampart Dam, a massive hydroelectric project on the Yukon River in central Alaska. The dam would have created the largest man-made reservoir in the world and would have been roughly the size of Lake Erie. The proposed dam was said to have the potential to produce between 3.5 and 5 gigawatts of electricity. In 1967, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall scrapped the plan, which faced several objections regarding the environment, namely a high cost and a limited benefit to both Alaska and the United States.
Stevens became a U.S. Senator in 1968, when he was appointed to replace Sen. Bob Bartlett who died in office. Stevens was the victor in 1970 in a special election to finish the remainder of Bartlett’s term and was subsequently elected six times before current Sen. Mark Begich defeated him in a cloud of ethical controversy in 2009.
During his decades in the Senate, Stevens often found himself in the center of several environmental debates. He continuously pushed for the federal government to fund logging projects in Alaska. He was behind a failed plan to allow 2.4 million acres of old growth forest to be clear-cut to revive the depressed Alaska timber industry. The logging plan lost traction when it became clear that it depended on the construction of thousands of miles of roads, which came at an estimated taxpayer cost of $200,000 for each job created.
Stevens played a major role in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act or ANCSA, which was signed into law in 1971 by President Richard Nixon. ANCSA settled disputes between native Alaskans and the petroleum industry. It allowed tens of millions of acres of land to be exchanged for drilling access; villages and communities were paid nearly $1 billion, and to this day Alaskans are written annual checks for the petroleum extracted from their state.
Nixon signed Stevens’ Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act in 1973, which ended all legal challenges to the massive pipeline that connected the Port of Valdez to the state’s North Slope.
But Stevens’ most notable and controversial environmental stance came years later in the twilight of the Carter administration. The Alaska senator strongly supported a compromise between conservation and petroleum development known as the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which designated about 80 million acres as a wilderness area. This land included six national parks and several other preserves, forests and wildlife refuges.
As the country mourns his passing, we are reminded of this legacy that has shaped much of the environmental debate in this country for the better part of a century.