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September 24, 1989
Part 1: Alaska struggles with its soul

Part 2: Centuries of tradition...and a televised disaster

Part 3: A North Slope gusher bring a 'pointy shoe' invasion

Part 4: A whiff of petroleum, and burial by paperwork

Part 5: 'The good life is what Alaska is all about'

Part 6: Wildlife, wealth...and an illusion of changelessness

Part 7: The damage done...

Stories by Ross Anderson, Bill Dietrich and Mary Ann Gwinn

The Lost Frontier

'The good life is what Alaska is all about'

In April, fisherman Tom Copeland added what was certainly the most bizarre fishing expedition yet to his years of catching Alaska salmon. In a sense, it was one of his most successful. Copeland never caught a fish. What he did was invent his own oil skimmer — a Rube Goldberg contraption of hoses, flour scoops, five-gallon buckets and a small pump — and launch a free-lance cleanup on Prince William Sound.

It worked. A week later, the outspoken 45-year-old fisherman and his crew had collected 11,500 gallons of the goop, which he personally delivered to Exxon officials.

And Exxon bought it back — at more than $5 a gallon.

Copeland, a squat, barrel-chested fisherman with a full black beard and a bellowing baritone, lives half the year in Cordova and winters near Bellingham, where he was planting trees at his farm when he got word of the spill. He dropped his shovel and headed north.

"When I got to Cordova, I wanted to go right to work, but nothing was being done. We were screaming at the state, the feds, Exxon. . . . They all told us, 'Don't do anything. We're doing it.' But, in fact, nothing was happening."

Days passed, and the giant spill continued to surge across the sound, inundating what had been Copeland's prime fishing grounds for 27 years. Enraged and frustrated, he declined to sign one of the lucrative Exxon cleanup contracts. Instead, he contacted a lawyer to draw up a lawsuit, hoping to force the state to shut down the pipeline and tanker traffic through the sound.

That was too radical a response even for the fishing-dependent community of Cordova. Copeland, already known around town as a firebrand, was forced off the board of the local fishermen's association because of his stridency.

Finally, nearly two weeks after the spill, Copeland decided it was time to do something. "Fishermen are primary producers," he says. "It's not in our nature to sit at the dock and do nothing.

"I walked into Cordova Outboard and spotted a little deck pump - the kind they use for transferring gas from one boat to the next. And it suddenly occurred to me this was the ideal equipment for collecting oil."

He bought the $780 pump, added an air compressor, 100 five-gallon buckets, and — almost as an afterthought — some big metal flour scoops, piled it all onto the deck of his 47-foot fiberglass seiner, recruited a couple of friends as crew, and set a course for the spill.

Ten hours later, he was gazing grimly across Herring Bay at the north end of Knight Island, some of the best herring spawning grounds in the sound.

"It was awful," Copeland said. "The bay's just solid oil, six inches deep in places, most of it leaching out from behind these booms that Exxon people have put out there. They've got booms, but nobody to collect the oil behind it, so it just sits there.

"So we roar in, tie up to the boom, and start pumpin' and scoopin' and pumpin' and scoopin'. The pump and hoses work great. And we're whooping it up like crazy. It feels so good to finally be doing something about this stuff."

Before long, Copeland says, an Exxon employee motored up in a skiff and asked what they were doing.

"I'm collecting oil off the water," Copeland says.

But who you working for?

"I'm not working for anybody. I'm an independent contractor. Look at my oil skimmer! Works great!"

Not sure you're allowed to do this, allowed the man. This is Exxon oil.

Figuring there was oil enough for everybody, Copeland moved north, to Northwest Bay, where he found another mass of oil floating on the surface, washing up on the beaches — "so much oil I couldn't believe it, and one guy in a skiff watching the boom."

"By this time, we're three weeks into the spill. Perfect weather. And we're the only ones in sight cleaning up any oil."

In no time, Copeland had filled all his buckets, wishing he'd brought more. The oil was so thick the scoops would leave a deep dent on the surface.

With 100 buckets of oil, he headed for the Exxon dock in Valdez.

"The boat was filthy, with oil pouring down the sides. I put on my oiliest clothes, stomped up to Exxon command. People there didn't know what to do with me. I guess I was the first oiled human they'd seen."

Here's the deal, the outraged fisherman said. "I've got your oil. You buy it back for $100 a gallon, or I pour it onto your corporate carpets. Sort of a Valdez Tea Party."

Exxon negotiated. Eventually, they settled on $5 per gallon, plus a $1,750-per-day cleanup contract. For a while, Copeland was in the oil business. In his effort to make a point, he actually made some money.

A month later, on a gray, stormy Sunday in May, nearly two months after the spill, Cordova salmon fishermen finally got a respite from the trauma of the Exxon Valdez. At dawn on a Monday, the state would open the season on the Copper River Flats, southeast of Prince William Sound, away from the oil. Some 500 gillnetters would dip their nets into the shallow channels of the river delta, famous for its rich, red sockeye and 50-pound kings. After two long months of pandemonium, the salmon fleet would get a chance to do what it does best.

It was 10 p.m. and pitch dark by the time Copeland wheeled his small gillnetter, the "Greenback," into the lee of a low-lying sand bar. He dropped anchor and killed the engine. The wind blew 30 knots off the angry North Pacific, gusting higher through the rigging of the 28-foot boat, causing the bow to pound rhythmically on the wind waves. But even the remote, windblown anchorage was welcome after an exhausting two-hour run into the teeth of the wind and horizontal rain.

Exhausted, Copeland climbed out of his drenched rain gear, hung it alongside the diesel stove, poured a steaming cup of coffee from a Thermos jug, and reminisced about his initiation to the salmon fishery in the early 1960s, before the oilmen arrived in Prince William Sound.

In a homemade plywood skiff equipped with a 40-horse outboard, canvas tent and Coleman stove, Copeland and his younger brother had learned their trade in the face of some of the world's worst weather. Each year, he said, the fierce storms and treacherous tidal currents claimed another fisherman or two. His younger brother had lost a boat - and nearly his life — on those bars. The flats remain littered with the skeletons of wrecked boats, rotting on submerged sand bars.

There is something greater than irony but less than tragedy to the hardship and the loss of human life. The same big Alaska kings and reds could be netted more easily, efficiently and safely, if the fishermen wanted to do it. They don't want to.

About 10 miles to the north, the Copper River narrows from its delta into a single channel. There the salmon could be netted from the bank. Even more efficiently, they could be detoured onto a fish ladder, from which they would leap into a truck waiting to haul them to town.

So why risk hundreds of fishermen's lives, and burn huge amounts of fuel, to chase the same fish around the flats?

"Because it's a great place to die," Copeland said, laughing and waving his burly hand toward the bleak, windblown delta.

Among other things dramatized by the Exxon Valdez spill was the clash between two dissimilar groups of Alaskans, oilmen and fishermen, who went north for a remarkably similar purpose: to make a living by extracting a resource and selling it.

They're not the only ones. A few hundred miles to the south, two huge pulp companies clear-cut thousands of acres of the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska every year, subsidized heavily by the federal government, in the name of maintaining a few hundred pulp-mill jobs.

Just offshore, an ever-expanding fleet of high-tech factory trawlers annually scoops up 2 million tons of pollock and other bottomfish. Vast amounts are wasted in the rush to be first to catch it and get it to market. As the fleet grows, its operators pressure federal regulators to increase their catch quotas.

Alaska is a veritable cornucopia of publicly owned resources - oil and fish, timber and minerals — which remain essentially up for grabs. The race to extract those common resources is the history of the American frontier. As the fishermen and oilmen and loggers jostle with each other and among themselves to get the first and the most, they are re-creating the battles between cowboys and Indians, between cattle ranchers and shepherds.

Historians and economists warn that people are unlikely to conserve resources that are commonly owned. If nobody owns the fish or the oil, human nature drives the exploiter to grab as much as he can before someone else grabs it. Left unregulated, the most conscientious of fishermen will over-exploit his resource.

Economists have come to call this the "tragedy of the commons."

Allocating the resources is addressed in very different ways. Salmon and other fish remain a common property, with more or less open access to anybody who can afford to buy a boat and, in some cases, a license to catch fish with it.

Oil is "privatized," the harvest rights sold to the oil companies, which then undertake the costs of extracting the stuff and shipping it to market to be sold for a profit.

There's a price to be paid with either system. In the case of fish, government is saddled with the task of allocating limited numbers of fish to seemingly unlimited numbers of fishermen who compete fiercely for the biggest slice of the pie. Under pressure from the industry, the state has systematically banned what could be more efficient harvesting in favor of spreading the wealth and maintaining traditional, romantic lifestyles in Cordova and dozens more coastal towns and villages.

Oil, on the other hand, is managed to maximize efficiency. Public royalties from oil leases translate into huge returns to state and federal taxpayers. The oil companies then pick up the costs of extracting, transporting and refining the oil. Those costs, like the costs of salmon inefficiencies, are ultimately paid by the consumer.

The Valdez spill, with all its degrees of inattention, lack of preparation and slow response, dramatized the downside of all that production efficiency. Unlike the fishermen, the oilmen don't live in Prince William Sound. They live in Anchorage or Houston. Geared for profit, and owning no stake in the common resources of the state, including its environmental quality, the industry had little incentive to be well-prepared for catastrophe.

"The idea is not efficiency," Copeland argued that stormy night on the Copper River Flats as he contemplated his old-fashioned, salmon-chasing way of life. "You've got to get that out of your head. Oil tankers and pipelines are efficient, and look what we get for it.

"Fishing has nothing to do with efficiency, unless it has to do with the efficiency of good lives — good, exciting, valuable, dynamic, thrilling, productive lives."

Oil may produce more income for the state of Alaska, Copeland explained. But salmon and the other fisheries employ more people, and employ them in a trade and a lifestyle that are unique to this land. Here is a refuge for a few people who choose to thumb their noses at the fluorescent lights and traffic jams down south, and to do something productive and profitable in the midst of one of the world's most dramatic landscapes.

"If you're going to maximize production, you do it like the oil companies do it," he said. "You build hatcheries, let the fish swim back, crank 'em out like wieners or something, and do away with all those funky fishermen. It would work.

"But what you lose is the whole town of Cordova, and everything it represents. You lose the ability to live this good life. And this good life is what Alaska is all about."

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