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Alaska marks 25th birthday

By ANDREW MacLEOD

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Fireworks exploded, bands blared and Alaskans lined up to buy commemorative stamps marking the Last Frontier State's celebration of its 25th anniversary as the 49th state.

A $25,000 fireworks display -- the largest ever in Alaska -- sparkled in the foggy skies over Anchorage Tuesday, while children at one school rang a replica of the Liberty Bell.

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Among the highlights of a ball in Fairbanks Tuesday night was was a ceremony issuing a 20-cent Alaska Statehood stamp, showing a caribou with snow-capped peaks and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the background. The stamp also marks the 200th anniversary of the first permanent settlement in Alaska.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the proclamation making Alaska the 49th state on Jan. 3, 1959.

In his statehood statement, Gov. Bill Sheffield noted that oil has played a major role in Alaska in recent years.

Oil revenues started pouring in with the discovery of Prudhoe Bay petroleum 15 years ago, the largest oil field in North America, and it transformed Alaska from poverty to wealth overnight.

The state receives royalty interest from the oil and the income accounts for about 85 percent of its operating budget -- $3.8 billion in a state with the smallest population in the union, about 460,000 people.

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Although oil generated much growth, economic diversification has been minimal, and oil revenues have been large but not as large as expected.

The money has supported a variety of public services unavailable to other sparsely populated, rural states, but one job in four is dependent on federal, state or local government.

Knowledge that the clock is winding down on Prudhoe Bay -- revenues are projected to begin declining at the end of this decade -- has sparked questions about state spending.

'We were poor for a long time so when we got a pot full of money, people went out and spent a lot of money,' Sheffield said.

'... But what I've been doing in our administration in the last year is cost containment. ... We went out and raised everybody's hopes and anxieties and now we're bringing them back.'

Although another boom like the North Slope may be unlikely, the Democratic governor and other state leaders believe Alaska's economy will continue to grow with the export of energy resources.

The physical growth of almost all communities in the state is best illustrated by Anchorage. Barely a tent city for railroad workers at the start of the century, it now has 230,000 residents -- half the state's population -- in a mix of glass skyscrapers, subdivision housing and occasional log cabins with moose racks over their doorways.

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Of the state's 375 million acres, only 1 million are privately held. The bulk is federal land.

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