Clem Tillion, former state legislator who influenced Alaska's oil boom and fisheries, dies at 96

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Oct. 14—JUNEAU — Clem Tillion, a longtime state legislator who influenced state fisheries policy and the creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund, died this week at age 96.

"It's a very sad day for Alaska," said Diane Kaplan, president and CEO of the Rasmuson Foundation and a friend of the Tillion family.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, current Gov. Mike Dunleavy and former Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, among others, offered condolences.

"Clem once told me the problem with Alaska now is that there aren't enough people who want to die here," Murkowski said. "I was taken aback by his words but I came to understand what Clem really meant was that those who truly love Alaska never leave and will die happy here. I believe Clem was happy."

A cause of death was not immediately available, though a friend of the family said he died at home after having been released from the hospital.

Born Clement Tillion on July 3, 1925, in Brooklyn, New York, he grew up on Long Island and served in the U.S. Navy's Seabees construction battalions for five years during World War II, from 1940 through 1945.

He arrived in Alaska in 1947 aboard the SS Aleutian and married his wife, the artist Diana Rutzebeck Tillion, in 1952. She died in 2010. The couple had four children: William, Marian, Martha and Vincent.

After arriving in Alaska, he chose to homestead at Halibut Cove, a roadless community south of Homer.

"When I arrived in Alaska after WWII, I was glad to be alive. I had served over two years with a naval construction battalion on Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands. Malaria and other jungle diseases wracked my body. I was a wreck in some ways. But Alaska provided. Alaska healed me," he wrote in 2018.

Halibut Cove was home to a major herring fishery in the early 1900s, but overfishing and pollution had caused a bust by the time Tillion arrived.

He took a lesson from that experience, strongly supporting conservation measures that limited the number of fish that could be harvested. He also applied that principle to Alaska's oil development as he supported the creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund, which he saw as a way to turn a temporary resource into a permanent one.

"I made it very plain that the fish came first," he said in a 2019 documentary produced by the Alaska Humanities Forum.

Elected to the Alaska Legislature in 1962 as a Republican, he was reelected to both the House and Senate and played a key role in the drafting and enactment of many of the first fisheries laws after statehood. He was a close confidant of former Gov. Jay Hammond, who appointed him to the state Senate in 1975.

While in the Senate, he supported the creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund and cast the lone "no" vote against the elimination of the state's income tax, his last major action before leaving office in 1980.

Though out of office, he stayed active in state politics, and his home became a common site for political fundraisers and discussions about state business. He founded a ferry between Homer and Halibut Cove, which has become a vacation destination.

He made regular trips to the state Capitol, where he was a frequent visitor to the lounge accessible only to current and former state legislators.

Though serious about issues involving the Permanent Fund and fisheries, he kept a sense of humor. At a 2013 event celebrating the Legislature's centennial, he remarked, "To watch an American legislature in action is to believe 'Alice in Wonderland' is normalcy."

In 2016, he joined former state Sen. Rick Halford and current state Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, in a lawsuit that attempted to overturn a veto by Walker that eliminated half that year's Permanent Fund dividend.

When the lawsuit failed to change the result, Tillion continued to lobby for passage of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing dividend payments and the resumption of the state income tax.

In the early 1970s, after salmon returns crashed, Tillion was among the strongest supporters of a constitutional amendment and subsequent laws that limited access to the salmon fishery.

"Even my niece got her tires slashed," Tillion said years afterward. "My kids were beat up on the playground. It wasn't nice."

In 1976, he was named to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which federal law placed in charge of fisheries management beyond state waters. He served on the council through 1983, including as chairman from 1978 through the end of his term, and was reappointed from 1991 to 1997.

Former Gov. Wally Hickel described Tillion as a "crafty, crusty fisherman" and made him a special assistant on fisheries issues.

He later lobbied in the Capitol on behalf of Aleut Corp. on fisheries issues. In 2016, he said he was persisting at the Capitol because he was interested in leaving a good situation for his family.

"I've never been silent in my life — this is my land," he said. "How my children live depends on the decisions I make here."

Three years later in the Alaska Humanities Forum documentary, he said he had a good life.

"The whole secret is your mate, and when the young fishermen, they ask me: What's the best route to success? I said, marry well. If you really want to build something, you've got to have a partner," he said. "It's been everything I could have hoped for. Now, let's see what the next generation does with it."

State flags will fly at half-staff from sunrise to sunset on Oct. 18 in Tillion's honor.

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