Alaska and Hawaii: The Youngest States

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember.

The United States has had 50 states for 50 years. Alaska and Hawaii both joined the Union in 1959. They were the first new states admitted since New Mexico and Arizona in 1912. And they are the subject of our program today.Alaska and Hawaii are the only states not connected to the mainland, or "the lower 48" as Alaskans call it. The Hawaiian Islands are in the Pacific Ocean almost 4,000 kilometers west of California. Alaska is on the border of northwestern Canada, far enough north that part of it is within the Arctic Circle.

Alaska and Hawaii are very different states, but they shared attention last year during the presidential campaign. Hawaii is the birthplace of President Barack Obama. Alaska is the home of Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican candidate for vice president.

Alaska is the biggest of the 50 states by territory but one of the smallest by population. People have lived in Alaska for thousands of years. The population grew nine percent between 2000 and 2007. Still, fewer than 700,000 people live in Alaska.

Like to fish? Alaska has more than 3,000 rivers and three million lakes. It also has about 100,000 glaciers, or slow-moving mountains of ice.

Seventeen of the tallest mountains in the United States are in Alaska. They include the tallest mountain in North America. Mount McKinley is almost 6,200 meters high.

And speaking of mountains, Alaska has more than 70 volcanoes that are potentially active, meaning that someday they could erupt.

Because of volcanic activity, Alaska also has a lot of earthquakes. The Alaska Volcano Observatory records 5,000 a year. Most of the shaking is not very strong, but Alaska has had some of the biggest quakes ever recorded.

Alaska is just across the Bering Strait from Russia. Russia took control of the territory in the 1700s. The United States bought it in 1867 for seven million dollars.

Many Americans criticized the purchase. But it was one of the best deals the country ever made. Alaska proved rich in oil and minerals.

Gold was found in the nearby Yukon area of Canada in the 1890s. Thousands of gold seekers traveled to the Yukon through Alaska hoping to get rich. Most never did. But some of them decided to stay in Alaska. Mainly they earned their money as miners, fishermen, animal trappers and store owners.

Alaska became an official territory of the United States in 1912. Four years later, the first Alaskan statehood bill was proposed in Congress. Opponents argued that Alaska was far away, disconnected from the other states and little populated. Only about 58,000 people lived there at the time.

Yet those were not the only concerns. Historians say Congress was also unsure about the loyalties of the Alaska natives -- the Aleuts, Indians and Eskimos. But during World War Two, national leaders recognized the importance of the territory to security in the Pacific.

The United States entered the war in December of 1941 after Japanese planes attacked the Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The surprise attack sank many ships. After that, Congress provided billions of dollars in defense spending for Alaska. Today, federal spending is one of the most important parts of the state economy.

After the war, Alaskans were more serious than ever about statehood. They formed a Statehood Committee in 1949 to work toward that goal.

Finally, in 1958, Congress passed the Alaska Statehood Bill and President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law. Alaskans accepted it, and on January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower declared Alaska the 49th state.

Today, Alaska's economy is tied to a large extent to the oil industry. Oil and gas was found in 1968 near Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope of Alaska. The discovery of the largest oil and gas field in North America led to the Alaska Pipeline. After the pipeline was built, the field began production in 1977.

But 20 years ago, in March of 1989, the tanker ship Exxon Valdez created a huge oil spill along the Alaskan coast. That disaster led Congress to pass new measures to prevent oil pollution.

Today environmental groups are fighting proposals to open protected areas of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling. But supporters of drilling say America needs it to reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

Another important industry in Alaska is tourism, much of it involving cruise ships. The Alaska Travel Industry Association says tourism directly pumps a billion and a half dollars a year into the state economy. Nine percent of Alaska's total employment is in tourism.

State economists say Alaska had 21 years of economic growth through 2008. But now those economists are unsure of the future. There are more questions than answers, they say, about how the worldwide economic downturn will affect Alaska.

Oil prices have collapsed from their record highs of last year. But that is not the only problem. Because of the recession, people are traveling less. Not good, as Alaska heads toward its busiest time of year, the summer vacation season.Travel is even more important to Hawaii. The tropical weather and beaches bring people from all over the world. But Hawaii is also experiencing problems from the downturn.

Last year was the first year since 2004 that Hawaii has had fewer than seven million visitors. The state had 6,800,000 arrivals in 2008. That was a decrease of ten percent from the year before.

State officials expect a decrease this year of another two percent. And they expect no growth in the economy through most of the year.

Around 1,300,000 people live in Hawaii. The state has eight major islands. Most people live on the four largest.

The Hawaiian Islands were formed starting millions of years ago by hot liquid rock flowing from undersea volcanoes. Visitors can still watch the process take place on the largest island, which like the state is named Hawaii. People usually just call it the Big Island. On the Big Island, red-hot lava has been flowing from the Kilauea volcano since the early 1980s.

Experts say Polynesian people first sailed to Hawaii about 2,000 years ago. A king ruled the islands when the 18th-century British explorer James Cook arrived. At first, Hawaiians treated Captain Cook like a god. But in the end, he was killed on the Big Island in 1779.

Britain gave the islands their independence in 1843. Then, 50 years later, a group of American businessmen ousted the ruler and established the Republic of Hawaii. It became an American territory in 1900.

That was three years after the United States established a naval base at Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu. Oahu served as the command base for American operations in the Pacific during World War Two.

After the war, two-thirds of the people of Hawaii supported statehood. In Congress, though, there was resistance from southern states because of Hawaii's non-white native population. But Congress passed the Hawaii Statehood Bill in 1959. Hawaiians accepted it, and on August 21st, President Eisenhower declared Hawaii the fiftieth state.

Today, Hawaiians are thinking about their future. Hawaii wants to re-invent itself as more than a "sun, sand and surf destination," in the words of David Young, a state information specialist.

A report last month from a government committee, the Sustainability Task Force, outlined goals for Hawaii's future. These include increasing affordable housing and strengthening public education. Other goals are creating better transportation between the islands and controlling development to preserve the state's natural beauty.Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.