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Speech: Welcome to the Land of Opportunity

Location: Unknown

Welcome to Alaska, everyone! You have caught us on a great day, and at a great time. It's our solstice; the time with the greatest spread of daylight in our state. Growing up here -- and I grew up in this town in Anchorage -- and it was not unusual, and still not unusual for kids to be playing out on the streets at 11 o'clock at night, and wondering how come their parents are asking them to come inside. That's something that is the norm here.

And then, in the wintertime when it's darker, the sun comes up at 9:30 a.m. in this town, and sets at about 3:30 p.m., it really is a time when people are more in their homes, have people in their homes, and share life together indoors, rather than outdoors. You are 20 minutes from the wilderness. You are 20 minutes from encountering bears, and probably two minutes from encountering moose if you wander down the trail here.

And I just love this land. My father, in 1957 and 1959, served at Fort Richardson, what's now called JBER, Joint Base Elemendorf Richardson. He was a young soldier.

That was the time when Alaska became the 49th state in the union. You might have seen the Park Strip, the strip of grass that is four blocks south of here. That's an old Army Air Corps landing strip, but at the time in 1959, it was the site of a big bonfire. My father tells stories about how the young soldiers were running around with transistor radios listening to the news of statehood and what that meant for Alaska.

What that meant for Alaska was a lot of things, but it meant a complete change. We went from being a territory with a Legislature representing the people and a governor appointed by the Department of Interior, to an elected governor, and elected Legislature.

In our state we have a very strong executive that appoints the attorney general, appoints all of his or her cabinet members, and appoints the judges and justices in the state. It's quite an awesome responsibility, but one that I accepted humbly and without reservation, and I am just proud to be serving as Alaska's 10th governor.

Our Attorney General Mike Geraghty is a seasoned litigator. He's somebody whom I have practiced with, in fact. As a young "baby attorney," I got my first job in the firm where he was a partner at the time. I got an up-close chance to work with him and to watch him, not only mentor and train me, but train others in the practice of law.

Our state is like many of your resource-oriented states, and those from the Rockies and the West. So much of our land is owned by the federal government; about 60 percent of our state's lands are owned by and controlled by the Department of Interior. We have a lot of litigation with the Department of Interior and other federal agencies.

I wanted to touch on a few cases Alaska has been involved in, to demonstrate a little bit of that tension. So you'll hear some familiar themes with your states.

I think about one with our friends in Idaho: Sackett vs. EPA. Several of you represented states that joined the Sacketts in that case. A few weeks ago, Mike and Chantell Sackett came to Alaska, spoke at a luncheon here and told their story. They expressed their deepest appreciation for the support they received from the 10 states that supported their lawsuit against the EPA.

They were just a couple of homeowners, landowners outside Priest Lake, Idaho, where they were building a home on a small lot. Many of you know the facts of this case and I won't reiterate them too much, except to say that one day an EPA employee walked up to their quarter acre, in search of wetlands. And they had just leveled it and put some gravel on it to create a home there. They ordered the Sacketts to cease construction, told them to remove the fill they'd brought in, restore it to its original condition with its original fill, and then wait a couple of years before asking the EPA for permission to build. They had already gotten their local permits they thought they were good to go.

If they didn't comply, they faced up to $75,000 a day in fines. The Sacketts were stunned to learn there was no appeal process in this "Government by Administrative Order" regime.

So, they're not rich. So far as I know, they are not connected to powerful officials. They were not prepared alone take on the federal government. But the Pacific Legal Foundation did. Alaska filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Sacketts, and nine other states joined us. If you are from one of those other states -- and you know who you are -- I want to say thank you, because that decision gives courage to many of our individual homeowners and landowners here, too. The Supreme Court agreed nine to zero with our state's position, with the Sackett's position. It didn't matter what party you were, or anything -- it was nine to zero.

The Sacketts are in Idaho. Why should we care? I want to tell you that any time we see cases go on in your state that impact our citizens and their rights and their freedoms, and the use of our lands as we see them, we want to join you. So I want to make that offer to you that we will be open to considering joining you when we see our residents' rights and privileges at stake.

There's a second case, known as Sturgeon vs. U.S. Park Service. In this state, we do a lot of hunting. John Sturgeon was hunting in the fall for moose when armed Park Service rangers stopped his airboat on the Yukon-Charley River. They told Mr. Sturgeon he needed to remove his hovercraft from waters within a national preserve -- or he would be criminally charged.

For nearly two decades, Sturgeon had plied these waters. He hunted moose and enjoyed a traditional lifestyle afforded by Congress under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act -- also known as ANILCA.

Sturgeon sued. Later, Alaska submitted a motion to intervene, because we believe under ANILCA, the state owns the submerged land, under those waters flowing through the national park.

Once you start losing your state's rights, once they're taken by the federal government, you just never seem get them back. And we want our people to be able to come and go unimpeded, and to be able to legally access the game they need to fill their freezers before the long winter. We claim these as state-owned waterways.

Here's a photo of a couple of our State Wildlife Troopers and their airboat … something the Park Service evidently objects to.

Similarly this month, our Law Department filed a suit against the federal government, asserting our ownership of land underlying the Mosquito Fork of the Fortymile River.

This, again, is to protect citizens engaged in legal activities. This time, mining. The federal government has declared the river non-navigable. Wait a minute. Let's take a look at the picture. It may not be navigable if you were planning on taking a cruise ship down it.

OK, you say. You have waterways. You have mining. You have wetlands.

But only in Alaska can you find Case Number 3: The Polar Bear, now listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. But there is nothing to indicate a precipitous decline is under way.

In fact, in the "70s there were 8,000 to 10,000 polar bears. Today, there are as many as 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic. And although they roam, they are as Alaskan as it gets, and we do our best to protect them.

Yet the reason they are on the threatened list is based on a projection far, far into the future. The projection is this: Greenhouse gases lead to more CO2 in the atmosphere, lead to a warming planet, lead to loss of sea ice, which may lead to reduced survival 45 years in the future.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is now using this logic model on ringed seals. There are millions of seals, but by using a projection, not 50 years in the future, but up to 100 years in the future, the agencies say that the species may be endangered -- someday.

We do go at it with these agencies, not for sport, but because the Endangered Species Act is now being applied based on speculated risks, projected many decades into the future, despite currently healthy and stable numbers of these animals.

Finally, I want to touch on what's really important to me on a greater level, and I know to you, and that's our people. These resource issues are about our people, but we also have issues that you fight, among your people.

Alaska has epidemic rates of domestic violence and sexual assault. In the early "90s, when I was a legislator, I went on my first ride-along with an Anchorage police officer, and I saw that domestic violence and sexual assault knows no boundaries -- no economic boundaries, no gender boundaries. It's not a crime only for our smaller communities in rural Alaska, it is here in this town and across this state. Then, and now, I decided to do something about it.

And in this state, now we have what's known as the Choose Respect Initiative. It has three elements: prevention, intervention and support services.

You think about the prevention element, and think about Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and what the media campaign by Time Warner did years ago for drunk driving, and what it did for us culturally as a people. If you go to a party now with your fellow AGs, and you see somebody drinking too much, you have cultural permission to take their keys and drive them home, or get them a cab. Forty years ago, you used to just get in your car and drive away.

For too long we have kept domestic violence and sexual assault in the darkness, as well. It was a private thing: You go hunting with your buddies and you don't talk about it. You don't talk about it among your spouses, either. But in Alaska we're giving permission to speak to it. This is the prevention element.

Every year now -- in 2010, 2011, and 2012 -- at the end of March, we've had Choose Respect rallies and marches across this state. So every year, starting March 31, 2010, we said, "Everyone's going to be at Town Square at noon, and we're going to rally and send a message across this state that we're going to Choose Respect for each other, that we will eradicate and get rid of this epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault."

At that first March 31 rally, 18 communities in the state participated. What it did was it began to crack the door on this resident evil. People called in and said, "Hey I saw Alaskans standing up for me on the news and I'm going to get help." And they got help.

Eighteen communities in 2010; by 2011, we had 64 communities on that specific day at lunchtime marching together and rallying together around the state. This year, in 2012, we had a 123 communities.

So the bottom line is: We are working the prevention element, not with a government funding, but with a lot of Alaskans standing up for their fellow Alaskans.

On the intervention side, we have villages in this state where you can pick up the phone, if you're being abused or you're being assaulted, and you won't get help for three or four days, because there is no law enforcement officer in a community with 100 or 200 people, or three hundred people, nor close.

You get a picture of this: There are hundreds of communities that are not on any road system. You get there by airplane or by riverboat. That's how you get there. So my goal is that every community in Alaska that wants a law enforcement officer will get one, because statistically and objectively measured, we will reduce the number of assaults in the state. So we've been increasing our numbers of village public safety officers and state troopers to address that.

And finally, the third leg of the stool of the Choose Respect Initiative: The additional support services. We're increasing shelter funding and support services after the fact.

If I could just say what the next step is: I am setting out this outline because I think this is something that you can all do in your states. It is not just about a march and rally held every year. That raises awareness but it doesn't take it to the next step. The next step is being taken by Alaskans as an outgrowth of this.

In Juneau, Alaska, Coach John Blasco coaches the Thunder Mountain High School Basketball Team, and he asked all the young men on his team to take a Choose Respect pledge -- whether they're on the court or in the hallways in the school.

And then they began teaching a curriculum called "Coaching Boys to Men," teaching those characteristics, teaching character, teaching boys how to become men, using that opportunity as a coach to be more than just a coach of skill sets on the court, but a coach of skill sets in life.

So while we're going to continue having Choose Respect rallies and events once a year to raise awareness, we're going to infiltrate all of our sports team. We're going to give our coaches the opportunities to teach boys and girls about how to Choose Respect for themselves and for others around them and make that a part of Alaska's DNA, rather than letting this epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault be what we are known for when it comes to criminal actions.

I wanted to just touch on a few of those items, from the lands issues that we share with you to the people issues such as domestic violence and sexual assault. And just close with another piece of human interest, tied to domestic violence and sexual assault: Sex trafficking and human trafficking -- big issues that I was not aware of. You kind of know about it and you kind of hear about it, but until you walk into one of these shelters and you see -- they're called unaccompanied minors, we knew them as runaways. But you know that 48 hours after a kid gets on the street, they're going to be trafficked by somebody, they're going to be coerced and put under duress, into the slave trade here of sexual favors, you've got to do something. We're changing the language of our communities as well, so it's not about "promoting prostitution," it's about sex trafficking and human trafficking. We're putting the onus on the people who are enslaving our kids. So I signed a package of crime legislation today that strengthens our penalties against sex trafficking and human trafficking, and begins to redefine who we are as people and how we view prostitution. It is about coercion and duress when there is a pimp or a john out there, especially when we're talking 20 years old or younger. We reserve a serious felony offense category for those kinds of offenses.

So I've talked about some serious topics, and also had the chance to hear Attorney General Geraghty thrill you with stories of earthquakes, cold winters and lots of snow.

But I also want to tell you that this is a great land of opportunity. When I was 16 years old, I was between my junior and my senior year of high school. I was going to high school here, and my mom and dad thought it would be good for me to go to Washington, D.C. and find out what the big-city life was like for a summer.

I was living with a group of young men who were taking care of a facility just across the Potomac from Georgetown. I remember waking up and leaning out from the bottom bed of a bunk bed. And I was saying, "I want to go to my mountains. I want to go to my mountains." The kid above me was trying to wake me up and help me figure out where I was, because I was no longer in Alaska. D.C. was not Alaska. But that summer taught me something about Alaska. That was the summer I made up my mind I would make my way in Alaska. And there's a reason for it. Because we're 50 years old as a state -- we have a human history here of 10,000 years -- but because we've been a state for only 50 years, our laws are not fully developed, we don't have 200 years of code behind us, the social structures are not fixed, you don't have to be a member of the aristocracy or be independently wealthy to make it in this great land.

In this vast space, there's vast opportunity. That's what I live to create as governor. That's what I know you all work for in your state. I just want to say welcome -- welcome to this great land. Welcome to the Last Frontier. Welcome to the land of opportunity. God bless you.

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