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One Year After Taking Office, Walter Hickel Is Undaunted by Problems

December 13, 1991 GMT

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) _ When self-described dreamer Walter J. Hickel returned to the governor’s office last year after a 22-year hiatus, he pledged to help Alaska ″recapture its glory″ with projects as big as the state itself.

As he marked his first year in office this month, that glory remains elusive. His big projects face political and economic hurdles that in most cases appear insurmountable.

Hickel’s ambitious and costly ideas, from a huge port near Anchorage to a gigantic water pipeline to thirsty California, have been met with as much derision as enthusiasm.

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In Juneau, his administration has been mired in controversy as Hickel has tried to remold the bureaucracy in his image and promote an unabashedly pro- development agenda.

Infighting among his staff has been rife, he and Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill are the subjects of a recall campaign. His administration has alienated and offended some of the state’s most influential special interests.

A special prosecutor this month filed ethics charges against Hickel over his ownership of stock in the Yukon Pacific Corp. The company has a major stake in development of a trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline - an $11 billion project that Hickel has made a priority.

On Thursday, Hickel said he would not contest the charges and would donate his stock to a charitable foundation. The prosecutor recommended the case be dismissed.

It has been a rough year. But the 72-year-old governor, true to form, remains undaunted.

″If you don’t have problems, you don’t have any opportunity,″ he said in a recent interview. ″We have a lot of problems, so we have a lot of opportunities.″

So it has always been for Walter Hickel. He first served as governor from 1966 to 1969, and then left to become interior secretary under President Nixon. His outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War prompted Nixon to fire him.

Hickel, a lifelong Republican, switched to the right-wing Alaskan Independence Party last year, less than two months before he was elected. Some speculate he may return to the GOP.

Hickel considers his bullish effort to settle the Exxon Valdez oil-spill litigation the crowning achievement of his first year. A federal judge approved the $1 billion pact in October, five months after he and state lawmakers rejected an earlier settlement.

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Hickel’s list of other successes is short. If nothing else, he has shaken up the state capital.

His overhaul of nearly every state board and commission, his appointment of a Cabinet largely from the ranks of business, and his budget vetoes have been part of his plan to reduce the size and scope of government.

″I think we took the first step in the direction of making the government a little more responsive, a little more efficient,″ he said.

But in recent months, his administration has backed off from its hard line on cutting the operating budget. Having failed to cut this year’s budget by 5 percent as promised, Hickel on Monday is expected to propose a status-quo spending plan for next year.

Critics say Hickel’s problems stem more from his aides.

″They have a sort of disdain, a lack of respect for the system,″ said Democratic Rep. Fran Ulmer. ″They have a lot of people who are not qualified to do the job they are doing.″

Ulmer says the administration also is out of touch with what’s important to Alaskans. She cites a proposed road to Cordova, a Hickel priority that Ulmer says would not affect most Alaskans.

Hickel resurrected the long-dormant, multimillion-dollar project last summer by dispatching bulldozers to clear part of the route, without legislative approval.

The road work, which may have violated state and federal laws by damaging fish habitat in the Copper River, also angered environmentalists and local Native groups. It led the Sierra Club to endorse the Hickel recall campaign.

Republican Rep. Robin Taylor, the House minority leader, says criticism of the road and Hickel’s other big projects is unfair.

″We’re looking for somebody who’s going to kick this economy in the butt and get it moving again. If it takes big projects to do them, let’s take a look at them.″