Summer has come to Alaska and with it the annual flood of Outside writers and reporters to pontificate on what is wrong with the 49th state or probe its weighty environmental issues.
Peering through the looking glass, most seem to have simple answers: Change nothing. Stand still in time. Ignore economic realities.
Here is author William deBuys who lives in what he calls “the remote village of El Valle in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains” north of Santa Fe writing in the New York Times last week:
“For 12 days my friends and I floated 80 miles of the Hulahula River. Our journey traversed much of the (Arctic National Wildlife) Refuge, from the mountains of the Brooks Range to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. We saw an abundance and diversity of birds and mammals that beggared imagination, slept on tundra prairies as soft as mattresses, and heard that rare, spacious silence that rolls in from beyond the limits of sight.
“These wonders now appear doomed by America’s fossil fuel addiction. Oil and gas leasing within the refuge is imminent. Additionally, a seismic survey to evaluate oil-bearing geologic formations could be carried out as soon as this winter by trucks as heavy as combat tanks and by crews of men, organized in mobile villages, that will hopscotch day by day across the delicate tundra. Part of the tragedy of the Arctic Refuge is that its integrity is to be sacrificed not to meet a national emergency or vital economic needs, but out of spite.”
There are indeed issues with the development of ANWR. None of them have much to do with deBuys’ claims. The biggest issue involves the visual landscape.
As you leave the Brooks Range on the HulaHula or other Brooks Range rivers to the east and west, the flat and barren coastal plan sprawls out all the way to the Beaufort Sea. Any development on the plain is going to be visible from tens of miles away, and this sign of man alone is going to alter the wilderness character of ANWR forever.
Or at least alter forever the so-called 1002 area on the north slope of ANWR. The south slope of the Brooks Range, which comprises a half to two-thirds of the refuge, would not be affected. The refuge itself covers 13,900 square miles.
On his 80-mile float, deBuys might have seen 2,000 square miles of ANWR, and that’s being extremely liberal in figuring he could see 20 miles in either direction for the 50 miles of the Hula Hula on the coastal plain (50 X 40 = 2.000.)
The first 30 miles of the float are in the Romanazof Mountains where what you see are towering limestone mountains along with occasional Dall sheep, maybe a grizzly bear and lots of caribou or no caribou, depending on the time of year and where the always moving caribou have decided to migrate.
The country is spectacular, but you have to have a pretty small imagination to have it beggared by the supposed “abundance and diversity.” The land is nowhere near as rich in wildlife as the Rocky Mountains of the Lower 48 as the metabolic theory of ecology would dictate.
Still, the summer abundance and diversity of life, especially bird life, is stunning if you’ve been in-country in winter. There is a night and day difference between the short warm and the long cold seasons on the North Slope of Alaska.
“Trucks as heavy as combat tanks” wouldn’t be “hopscotch(ing) day by day across the delicate tundra” of “tundra prairies as soft as mattresses” as deBuys suggests.
They would come in winter atop ice roads on tundra frozen hard as rock in an ice land largely devoid of life. There are a handful of wildlife and bird species the National Wildlife Refuge Association describes as “hardy enough to occasionally overwinter on the refuge,” and a very short list of species regularly resident: a variety of small rodents – lemmings, voles and shrews – ptarmigan, arctic foxes, snowy owls, muskox, Dall sheep, a few moose and some over-wintering caribou.
In many ways, when it comes to oil, the North American Arctic plain is the best place to develop in that potential environmental impacts are minimal during the long, cold dark of winter. And in other ways, it is the worst place.
The Arctic is the last, vast area of North American still largely unaltered by the hand of man. Oil development would be a sizable alteration. But none of this is near as simple as deBuys would have people believe when he proclaims “part of the tragedy of the Arctic Refuge is that its integrity is to be sacrificed not to meet a national emergency or vital economic needs, but out of spite.”
The tragedy, if there is a tragedy, is that the refuge is being tapped so that people like deBuys can fly around the country in hydrocarbon-powered jets that pollute the skies above our heads in more ways than one.
Those who fly to Alaska can then climb aboard hydrocarbon-powered small planes to fly hundreds of miles north into the wilderness to inflate rafts made of materials derived from petrochemicals to float 80 miles of wild river.
After which, they can deflate their rafts in order to climb aboard yet more airplanes to take them back to where they can get in their hydrocarbon-powered cars (or trucks) to drive to their “remote village” where they can lament the desires of Alaskans to be economically able to behave just like they are behaving.
Maybe if deBuys had spent some time in Kaktovik, a truly remote village of 250 on the north edge of ANWR more than 100 miles from the nearest road, and talked to some of the locals about the trade-offs between environmental disruption and economic survival he might have gone home with a different understanding of “vital economic needs.”
ANWR might not be vital to deBuys, but some of the Natives of Kakotvik along with other Alaskans see it differently.
“It is important to recognize that limited oil and gas exploration and development on the coastal plain of ANWR is consistent with the intent of Congress with regard to Alaska statehood,” as the Alaska Resource Development Council put it. “Alaska became a state based on the congressional intent that through development of its natural resources it would be able to sustain its economy and not become a ward of the federal government.”
In short, the issue is complicated because as with so many things in life it parallels the tradeoffs and compromises people make every day in their personal lives. You want the $70,000 Porsche Cayenne, but you settle for the Hyundai Palisade because it has more room for your Alaska family and all their outdoor gear plus it costs half as much.
This is the reality. Certain realities, however, are easily ignored when writing about or reporting on Alaska. What Alaska should or shouldn’t do is a lot easier to determine if you don’t have to live here and worry the economic survival of the state.
The pendulum on Outside views has swung both ways. Most Alaskans certainly supported the development of the North Slope oil fields, but the pressure put on Lower48 Americans by the Arab oil embargo is what really got that project moving.
The deBuys’ of the world had different views equally simplistic but 180 degrees opposite when they found themselves sitting in long lines waiting to get fuel at the gas station.
Since then, new technologies have boosted oil production in Texas, New Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico and turned North Dakota into a major player, making it easier for more to look at Alaska primarly as that national park and ignore the fact that the state needs an economy to survive and that the existing economy still depends heavily on resource extraction of oil, fish and minerals with oil being the elephant-size player.
Economist Scott Goldsmith has estimated a third of the jobs in the state depend on oil, either directly or indirectly. Without oil, Goldsmith has painted a pretty stark picture of where the state would be today:
“…About two-thirds of the growth of the economy since statehood can be traced to the petroleum industry. And what would we look like today without the growth from petroleum?
“Growth would have come from our other resource industries (the most jobs would come from tourism—highly seasonal) and the federal government, but the economy would be half its current size.
“It would look today a lot like it did at statehood—small, thin, seasonal, poor, and dominated by the federal government.”
But this is an issue for Alaskans, not writers or reporters from Outside who in the partisan America of today can’t be bothered by the confusing details that mess up efforts to make everything simple: Good versus bad, right versus wrong, caring versus uncaring, progressive versus regressive.
It is a new Age of True Believers divided not by religions but by philosophies. The Times could have fact-checked the deBuys “opinion piece” the way it fact checks every utterance of President Donald Trump, but it didn’t.
Why would it?
Three thousand miles to the east of ANWR on the opposite coast of North America, the media elites see ANWR – in fact the whole Arctic – as a place to save because, well, because it makes them feel better about paving over so much of the Lower 48.
Preservation’s economic costs to the 250 people of Kaktovik are of no significance in their world. Economic costs to those who winter over in Alaska are of concern to no one but Alaskans. This bias colors a lot of the reporting and writing of those who trek north in the summer.
It leads to some bizarre conclusions on the part of people most interested in maintaining the state’s status as that “national park to the world.”
“The contentious debate over the proposed (Pebble) mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay could have ramifications for the Puget Sound salmon and orca population, as well as fishing industry jobs,” reported MyNorthwest on Monday. The website is a product if KIRO-FM, the top news and talk station in Seattle.
The story never explained how Pebble – a pollution-diluting ocean away from Puget Sound -could affect the Lower 48 killer whale (orca) population suffering for lack of Chinook salmon. But the Candy, Mike and Todd show had University of Washington professor Daniel Schindler wired in to talk about Pebble because, well, he was “speaking from Alaska.”
“There’s broad-scale concern because of potential environmental damage that this mine could do,” said Schindler, an ecology professor with the University of Washington Alaska Salmon Program.
His 10-minute assessment of the Pebble battle was fairly objective until he got to the end and proclaimed that the suggestion the mine could be constructed without destroying the Bristol Bay environment is “a promise that’s hard to believe.”
This makes it easy for Schindler, who lives comfortably in Seattle most of the year, to boil the entire issue down to a simplistic sound bite:
“It’s important to realize that currently the commercial fishery supports somewhere on the order of about 14,000 jobs. Many of those jobs are seasonal. Some of them are permanent jobs, and many of them originate in the Pacific Northwest, actually. And then, of course, the mine will have a few hundred jobs probably for about 25 years.”
The reality of the situation is nowhere near this simple. Eighty to 90 percent of those 14,000 jobs are so hard and pay so little the fish processing industry has to import labor because most Alaskans don’t want the work. And most of the jobs last only months.
The Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference reported in 2014 that the entire Bristol Bay Borough was down to 1,049 full-time jobs. The number has been shrinking slowly since the start of the decade as fish processors increasingly automate.
A shifting economy
It can be expected to shrink even more as that process continues. A lot of Bay salmon is now headed and gutted and shipped to China for further processing because Chinese labor is cheap. But it’s not so cheap that it can’t be replaced with machines.
The Chinese are starting to worry about losing a lot of those jobs to new automation in Russian fish processing plants. The Scandinavians – world leaders in salmon production – are already running near fully automated processing plants. It’s only a matter of time before such operations come to Alaska.
Northeastern University researchers are at work on a program called FISH – Collaborative Robotics to Foster Innovation in Seafood Handling – dedicated specifically to putting robots in fish processing plants.
Seafood processing plants are inherently harsh environments for humans, Northeastern professor Taskin Padir told writer Allie Nicodemo, who noted that “factories are kept cold to keep fish fresh. There’s often slushy water and ice coating the floors, making them slippery. And some of the tasks, such as cutting and portioning fish, are dangerous. These factors limit the number of people interested in working at processing plants.”
Automation will solve that problem, and then what? The number of jobs in the salmon business will shrink and communities along with it as fewer and fewer people are needed in Alaska to keep the lights on in the winter.
The shrinkage already has been considerable. More than 50 percent Bristol Bay fishermen now live elsewhere.
Original fishing permit holders either sold out or took their permit and moved away to return only for the few short weeks of fishing every year. When they left, they took most of their earnings from the fishery with them leaving no trickle-down dollars to support Bay businesses. This has caused a downward spiral for years. It will only get worse.
Against that backdrop, a few hundred, year-round, well-paying jobs look a whole lot different. Those jobs, like oil-industry jobs, have a big trickle down.
“Keep in mind that the number of Alaskans the basic sectors employ directly is only a small fraction of the total jobs they generate,” Goldsmith wrote after his examination of the basic industries that power the Alaska economy. “The best example of small direct employment but huge indirect employment is in the petroleum sector. Only about 5,000 Alaskans work directly in producing oil and gas, but the petroleum sector supports more than 100,000 jobs.”
In other words, each job in the oil patch supports about 20 jobs elsewhere. Nobody knows what the numbers would be for Pebble, but it’s not unreasonable to believe the “few hundred jobs” there would support more jobs than the 1,049 that now exist in the Bay.
None of which minimizes the risks associated with a mine opened and run by an industry with a bad reputation for environmental protection, but it does put the whole job debate in a different light.
Instead of being simple, Pebble becomes more complicated. People need jobs. Not just for the financial return, but because they give meaning to people’s lives. That, in turn, makes them better people.
Alaska’s socioeconomic tangle
Social problems go up as jobs go down. The lack of jobs might be the least talked about problem in the 49th state given that it ties into so many other problems.
The long term unemployed “tend to be in poorer health and have children with worse academic performance than similar workers who avoided unemployment. Communities with a higher share of long-term unemployed workers also tend to have higher rates of crime and violence,” researchers at the Urban Instituted observed.
“Although there is considerable research documenting the association between long-term unemployment and poor socioeconomic outcomes, it is not clear what drives those associations.”
Rural Alaska might be the poster child for the socioeconomic problems caused by long term unemployment, but that is another complicated issue – the kind with which the media of today do not like to struggle.
ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News are now focused on the rural areas of the state. They have described them as “lawless” places and called for more law enforcement.
Alaska Native villages in particular have been the target. U.S. Attorney General William Barr in June announced the federal government was planning to provide $10 million in additional funding to provide “basic physical security” for the people living in Native villages.
Such security will only come from putting more people in jail. Alaska Natives, most notably Alaska Native men, are already incarcerated at more than four times the rate of white Alaskans. Many of the crimes involve domestic abuse or sexual assault.
Economic uncertainty, creates “chronic stress, instability, and fear” in households, neighborhoods, and communities, University of North Caroline Law Professor Deborah Weissman has observed. Weissman is an authority on domestic violence and its links to socioeconomic status.
She has noted the corrosive effect of joblessness, University of California-Davis law professor Lisa Pruitt wrote in a paper titled “Place Matters: Domestic Violence and Rural
Difference.” It examined the social problems economic insecurity causes in rural areas across the U.S.
Alaska isn’t alone in this struggle.
“Insecurity corrodes a sense of community identity, leading to desperation,” she wrote. “As economic transitions impact communities, Weissman notes, ‘traditional family
structures’ collapse, leading to instability within the household and increased
domestic violence. A man’s inability to fulfill his masculine role of household
wage-earner can contribute to feelings of emasculation, which may cause him to compensate with hyper-masculine performance, perhaps including increased
Rural Alaska has a lot of villages where it is basically impossible for men to fulfill that “masculine role of household wage earner.” Propublica has so far published 10 stories about lawless rural Alaska. It has yet to talk about economics.
Why would it? It’s complicated. And in these times the media has come to love the simple, especially when it comes to reporting on Alaska.
The Los Angeles Times is now in the process of reporting on Pebble Mine. Maybe it will do better in presenting the project, and Alaska, in its full complexity. One can always hope.