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Paula Easley’s contributions to Alaska come in many forms, especially in the public policy arenas advocating sound natural resource, land-use and energy policy, and expanding the state’s mental health services.
Stony River village on the Kuskokwim River was a far cry from suburban Louisville, Kentucky, where she grew up. However, her introduction to Alaska in this remote community of about 100 residents in the early 1960s set her on a path that would include leading Alaska’s largest resource advocacy organization and also shaping economic and land-use policies by mayors, governors and three US presidents.
Paula (nee Shain) married James B. Pence II in 1956. An undergraduate of the University of Louisville and graduate of Bryant-Stratton Business College, Paula had been raised in a large family where self-sufficiency was instilled as a basic principle. At age 21 she tested the principle, starting her own secretarial business serving small Louisville companies.
Paula, her husband Jim and daughter Kathryn, born in 1960, moved to Stony River to help run a lodge and fur trading post with her sister Diane and husband Dr. Bob Carpenter. Together they planned to build log cabins on skids for barging to treeless western communities, using local labor. The project included an arts and crafts component that would enable Native residents to market their handmade crafts. At the time, Alaska’s rural communities teetered on the brink of change from a subsistence-to- cash economy with few or no jobs available, as was the case in Stony River.
While the first cabins were built, villagers were proud of finally being able to earn a living. To the families’ great disappointment, however, the project was ultimately abandoned due to government agency requirements and insurmountable equipment, production and shipping challenges. Paula and Jim moved to Anchorage in late 1963 where her mother, Margaret Vollertsen and young brothers, Rick and Steve Vollertsen, lived.
Not realizing it at the time, Easley’s bush experience inspired a life-long course of advocating for a diversified Alaska economy. She began researching everything available on development policies of other sparsely-populated states and sought help from the country’s top think tanks. With virtually no infrastructure off Alaska’s limited road system and great distances from national and international markets, it became apparent that Alaska manufacturing was not feasible. The most realistic option was natural resource exploration and production, if people could be encouraged to risk investing in them.
In 1964, while working for IBM in Anchorage, Easley and family experienced the Great Alaska Earthquake. The lure of independence struck again, and from 1965 to 1970 she managed a company providing secretarial, employment and logistics services to rural businesses and communities across Alaska. Conference services were provided to organizations such as the Alaska State Council on the Arts, Alaska Centennial Commission, the Governor’s Economic Development Policy Council and numerous government agencies.
Through her research and travels, Easley learned about both Alaska’s urban and rural economies. In the late 60s, as staff to the Alaska Business Council, she staged several Alaska Travel and Trade Fairs in Washington, Oregon and California, thanks to funding by Western Airlines. She worked with the part-time Anchorage Mayor, George Sullivan and hundreds of Alaskans to promote tourism and trade. Many thousands of people attended each event, excited to learn about the 49th state. At the time was the new world-class Prudhoe Bay oil discovery also attracted attention
Easley’s second daughter Laura was born in 1966. In 1967 tragedy struck the family when Jim, her husband and business partner, became ill with melanoma cancer and died that same year, leaving Paula the children’s sole supporter. Juggling family and a demanding company that involved frequent travel proved her greatest challenge. Earlier she, Jim, and Paula’s mother had bought a large home to accommodate their combined families; chaos and many memorable adventures were shared during the five-year period.
In 1970 Paula married George Easley, then Anchorage Deputy City Manager. George accepted an engineering assignment in California soon after, and the family headed south. In 1971 Governor Bill Egan appointed George Commissioner of Transportation and Public Facilities. So the family moved back north, to Juneau.
The Prudhoe Bay oil discovery brought an era of optimism and excitement over Alaska’s ability to become self-supporting. George and Paula became spokespersons advocating a trans-Alaska oil pipeline route as opposed to a Canadian route. Vice President Spiro Agnew broke a tie vote in Congress to affirm construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the project, which was completed in 1977.
In early 1975, the Organization for Management of Alaska’s Resources (OMAR), was formed to advocate a second pipeline that would carry Prudhoe Bay natural gas south to a deepwater port near Valdez. Easley became OMAR’s executive director and headed a three-year national grassroots campaign, as the route decision required federal approvals. Countless Alaskans paid their own expenses to travel to other states and Washington DC to gain support for an Alaskan route. President Jimmy Carter ultimately chose a trans-Canada route, which was a shocking disappointment to Alaskans. Nearly forty years later, there is still no pipeline to carry gas from the Arctic to any market, domestic or foreign.
Easley is given much credit for bringing together a coalition of industries, labor and communities as a powerful force with the OMAR gas pipeline campaign. The organization broadened its focus in 1978 and became the Resource Development Council (RDC), Alaska’s largest development advocacy group.
In Easley’s writings, speeches and participation on national land-use and regulatory panels, her advocacy was always based on the conviction that public decision-making had to reflect a balance between economic development and environmental protection, and to recognize that both must be achieved to protect all interests.
Under Easley’s leadership between 1975 and 1987, OMAR/RDC and its 78-member statewide board focused on expanding transportation, mining, timber, petroleum, tourism, fishing, agriculture and assuring multiple-use of Alaska lands. She worked with nine RDC presidents, a small staff and hundreds of volunteers on multiple state and federal issues. All required research and preparation of comments for countless public hearings in and outside Alaska.
During her tenure RDC’s leaders played a major role in public policy debates and decisions ranging from ANILCA land classifications to regulations promulgated under the major national environmental laws, particularly the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.
RDC continues to be Alaska’s largest resource development organization and Easley remains a strong supporter, having served on its board for 25 years. After retiring from RDC in 1987, Anchorage Mayor Tom Fink appointed her to serve as the Economic Development and Planning Director and focused on federal policies affecting municipalities.
At the height of the late 1980s recession, Anchorage faced many new federal environmental mandates. She and the mayor feared their new compliance costs were becoming unaffordable to taxpayers. Working with department heads, Easley and the mayor documented the city’s costs and shared their research with 2200 mayors across the nation. The project culminated in a national network of policy leaders from community governments, think tanks and grassroots organizations determined to bring about change at the federal level. The coalition’s Unfunded Mandates legislation was the first bill to become law under the 1994 “Contract with America.”
Easley served as the mayor’s Government Affairs Director for five and a half years until the end of Mayor Fink’s second term. She then formed a public policy consulting firm, Easley Associates, focusing on federal issues affecting Alaskans and the western public land states.
A prolific writer on economic and environmental policy issues, Easley has had 130 commentaries published in newspapers, magazines and trade journals. Sixty of those articles appeared monthly in the Anchorage Daily News between 2002 and 2007. Her policy-related reports include “Alaska’s Role in National Energy Policy: Policy Guidance for Cities and Counties,” “Wetlands of the United States: A Report to Congress,” “Paying for Federal Environmental Mandates” and others. She’s given over thirty speeches to Outside organizations, promoting Alaska’s development and addressing policies affecting Alaska and the Western states. Today, her primary focus is on energy and climate change policy.
President Bill Clinton appointed Easley to the national Regulatory Fairness Advisory Board and Presidents Reagan and Bush appointed her to the National Public Lands Advisory Council, on which she served for eight years. The US Small Business Administration named Paula its “Women in Business Advocate of the Year” in 1993. She has been listed in the Heritage Foundation’s Annual Guide to Public Policy Experts since 1995 and served on the National Council of Women Advisors to Congress, National Policy Forum’s Environmental Task Force, the Clean Water Industry Coalition, National Wetlands Coalition, National Grassroots ESA Coalition, the Environmental Conservation Organization and the National Grassroots Campaign to Stop Unfunded Mandates. Paula is featured as one of fifty-three “real environmentalists” in William Perry Pendley’s book, “It Takes a Hero.”
Unrelated to resource development, her 2001 book, “Paula Easley’s Warehouse Food Cookbook,” has been particularly popular with rural Alaskans who are avid Costco and Sam’s Club shoppers. It is available from amazon.com
Today Easley is serving her second 5-year term on the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority’s Board of Trustees which develops the state’s mental health program serving people with mental illnesses, developmental disabilities and other disorders. Revenues to support beneficiary programs come from Trust fund earnings and development of Trust lands. Her major interests have been growing the rural health workforce and improving rural mental health services and also generating revenue from real estate investments and projects on the Trust’s one million acres of land holdings.
Gail Phillips, former Speaker of the House of the Alaska State House of Representatives said, “Paula’s philosophy and continuing legacy is one of passionate advocacy for responsible development leading to strong economies and healthy communities. Her career as an acknowledged and respected spokesperson for resource development issues has made her a role model for Alaskans in the resource and environmental industries and organizations.”
Easley’s daughters Laura Hill, and Kathryn Easley and her 30-year partner Allison Hewey, live in Anchorage, as do two grandchildren, Gavin and Paige. Paula and George Easley, the girls’ adoptive father, parted ways after ten years but remained friends until his death in 2000. Today she enjoys cooking, entertaining and hosting discussion groups on current events.
Awards and Recognition Received
U.S. Small Business Administration’s “Women in Business Advocate of the Year” Award 1993
National Register of Prominent Americans
Outstanding Young Women in the United States
Outstanding Civic Leaders of America
Heritage Foundation’s Annual Guide to Public Policy Experts – Since 1995
National Council of Women Advisors to Congress
- Personal conversations and interview with Gail Phillips, February 2017
- Personal phone calls and emails with Gail Phillips, February and March 2017
- Written information from Carl Portman of the Resource Development Council
- Biographical Board Member sketch from the Alaska Mental Health Lands Trust
- Information from sources on-line through Google
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/Lqn70XQ98QQ