The director of Alaska’s largest outdoor group has labeled the first major road proposed in the state in decades the potential beginning of “a wilderness gated community” near the southern edge of the Arctic Circle.
The observation by Rod Arno of the Alaska Outdoor Council is a reflection on the contentious development issues that have plagued a fledgling state in the decades since the passage of landmark federal legislation intended to resolve social and environmental issues and guide the largest of U.S. states into the 21st Century.
A generation on from the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement of 1971, Alaska is no longer the state hot to develop some of the 104 million acres of land granted it under the Statehood Act in 1959.
In many ways, in fact, the state is a fundamentally different place.
In 1959, it was a frontier outpost home to about 225,000 residents, a little more than half of the population of the Anchorage Metropolitan area today, on the edge of a sprawling wilderness. No direct road link connected the state’s two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks. The George Parks Highway wouldn’t open until 1971.
The drive from Fairbanks to Anchorage was a circuitous, 428-mile adventure via the Alaska, Richardson and Glenn Highways on bad pavement where there was pavement. The drive north from the state’s largest city to what was then as today one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions – Mount McKinley National Park (since renamed Denali National Park and Preserve) – went east on the Glenn Highway to Glennallen, north on the Richardson Highway to Paxson, and then west along the rough gravel of the Denali Highway to Cantwell before turning north again to the park.
There wasn’t a Starbucks to be found anywhere or Target or Home Depot or Costco or most of the elements of the American consumer economy most in Alaska now take for granted.
And other than the beginning of the construction of the Parks Highway, little would change in the years before Congress approved and President Richard Nixon signed the Claims Acts that abandoned the old, U.S. reservation model in favor of integrating Alaska Natives into the capitalist economy of the United States.
Since then, integration has come to be viewed by some in the Native community as assimilation, a dirty word, and a significant number of them have decided they want only the technological convenience of the American lifestyle and would otherwise prefer to continue living off the land as in the past even if living off the land today is not at all like it was even 50 years ago.
Enter the state-backed Ambler Road, which if ever constructed would run 211 miles west along the southern flank of the Brooks Range from the Dalton Highway, a 1970s-era gravel road built as the North Slope Haul Road to allow Prudhoe Bay oil development. The road would end in the Ambler Mining District about 40 miles east of the village of Ambler, population 287, and only about 22 miles north of the village of Kobuk, population 144.
“The road is designed as an industrial access road to provide surface transportation to the Ambler Mining District,” according to the environmental impact statement prepared by the federal Bureau of Land Management. “The proposed road would not be designed or open for public access and would be open only to industrial traffic to support expanded exploration, mine development, and mine operations at mineral prospects throughout the District.”
The ban on public use of a publicly funded road across public lands reflects a decision made by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) to try to win local support by preventing general public access to isolated hunting areas. AIDEA is leading the push to reach the mineral-rich Ambler Mining District and contends an estimated $755 million to $996 million in construction and long-term operating costs can be collected as tolls from mining companies over the next 30 years to cover the cost of the road.
The reaction of the fewer than 1,000 people living in a handful of villages along or near the route of the road has been mixed.
“After all, mining has historically been a boon for the region. The (Northwest Arctic) Borough receives much of its funding from an agreement with Teck Alaska via the Red Dog Mine. A large percentage of the Red Dog workforce is local hire, as well, so the economic impacts of that industry on the area are undeniable.”
But the mining itself is only a part of the story, arguable a small part. The bigger issue comes in opening up the country.
Access, access, access
Arno expects villages near a new road would soon find a way to connect to it to gain the cost-advantages of cheaper shipping for goods and cheaper access to Fairbanks, and the state – which owns a huge amount of land in the area – could sell some of it to people looking to build exclusive wilderness retreats.
Writer Seth Kantner, who runs the gardening project for the Kotzebue-based Maniilaq Association and has long supplemented his income by writing about the virtues of living in a vast wilderness free of roads, offered a vision of this scenario for the National Parks Conservation Association when discussion of an Ambler road heated up in 2014.
A college-educated white man born to adventurous parents in a sod hut along the remote Kobuk River, he wrote about being back in that wild place and having a dream.
“In my dream,” he said, “condominiums stretched like ivory dice out onto the tundra. Gravel pits marred the distant slopes, low cement walls lined the riverbanks. A bridge arched over the river, and yellow dump trucks crossed the metal span. I stood in my buried doorway, sick and saddened.
“Unfortunately, this vision will not fade forever with morning coffee. Instead, my nightmare is on Alaska governor Sean Parnell’s desk, right now, at the top of his wish list. In the past three years he has funneled $25 million toward his quest to send bulldozers bashing a highway across the face of the Brooks Range, to build an industrial mining road to the copper deposits of the Ambler region.”
Kanter, now in his 50s, believes a road would destroy the Northwest Arctic, but admits it is already a “drastically changed landscape” from what he knew as a child.
“Now snowmobiles have replaced dog teams, and a maze of confusing federal, state, and Native land ownership overlays the map, with overlapping rules and regulations, and countless airplanes coming and going from villages, bringing service providers, Internet access, iPhones, and readily available Miley Cyrus YouTube videos, Doritos, Pepsi, Pampers, and all the rest,” he wrote.
But a road would be too much. Kanter sees in it not the potential of employment in a region where work is hard to find, but the loss of “pristine land for a few hundred jobs and a line of dusty trucks hauling ore away to a foreigner’s bank. I can’t understand why anyone would tear open our last great wilderness, pollute land and rivers, and wreck Native cultures for copper, lead, zinc, and gold—minerals we’re busy throwing away in other mountains we call landfills.”
Native cultures in the Northwest as in much of rural Alaska are already in turmoil as they continue to struggle to adapt to the American cash economy in which it is difficult to live without cash. The dysfunction is such that Propublica and the Anchorage Daily News, in a bid to win a Pulitzer Prize, are in the middle of a lengthy reportorial project aimed at encouraging the state and federal governments to pay to put a policeman in every village in rural Alaska.
They have described rural Alaska as facing a “dire” crisis, though the law enforcement situation in rural Alaska is not all that different from that in most of rural America, where many communities lack local law enforcement.
“As many as 200 local police departments (have) closed since the late 1960s” in Minnesota that state’s Post Bulletin reported in 2017. “Some smaller towns outsource their law enforcement to either the county, a nearby city or, in some rare instances, go without a formal arrangement as alternatives to spending significant amounts of money operating their own police departments.”
Many rural Alaska communities have long outsourced law enforcement to the Alaska State Troopers given the state’s lack of cities and boroughs with organized police agencies. And rural Alaska has long had problems with crime, especially sexual assault, tied in significant part to substance abuse.
The ADN won its last Pulitzer in 1989 for a series titled “People in Peril” which suggested that most problems could be solved if people would just stop drinking. The story reflected the Alcoholics Anonymous belief that the first step to making your life better is admitting you are powerless over alcohol and that it has made your life unmanageable.
In the wake of that series, more Alaska villages banned alcohol and the state stepped up efforts to apprehend bootleggers, but as the current Propublica/ADN series outlines not much changed.
Some might argue that the problem from which rural Alaska really suffers is similar to the problem with which the crime-plagued inner cities of St. Louis, Baltimore, Chicago and elsewhere suffer – a lack of jobs.
Governing magazine last year reported that failing economies and substance abuse are the problems now leading to a climb in the crime rate across all of rural America.
“In Iowa, the overall violent crime rate rose by 3 percent between 2006 and 2016, but shot up by 50 percent in communities with fewer than 10,000 residents,” reporter Allan Greenblatt wrote. “Violent crime rates have doubled in rural counties in West Virginia over the past couple of decades, while tripling in New Hampshire.
“The explanations for this change are familiar ones. Not all rural areas are poor, but many have lost jobs as factories have closed and farming has become increasingly consolidated. Lack of employment has naturally led to increases in poverty, which is closely associated with crime. The opioid epidemic has hit rural America particularly hard, and methamphetamine remains a major problem in many small towns.”
Some parts of white rural America are starting to look like the failed reservations of the lower-48 which a Penn State University-supported project described as “The Land of Poverty, Crime and Suicide.”
The poverty, crime and suicide description fits some of rural Alaska. Penn State titled its project “Genocide the American Way.” The Claims Act was intended to avoid this.
The failed solution
Alaska’s long-ago, federally charted plan specifically rejected the reservation model. Instead, Congress and the leaders of the state’s then fewer than 55,000 Native residents agreed to create 12 regional Native corporations and 220 village Native corporations. The corporations were then deeded 44 million acres of land – an area bigger than the state of Idaho – and seeded with nearly $1 billion in capital.
The idea was the corporations would develop their lands and put their shareholders to work. The idea failed.
A number of the regional corporations went under and three were forced to reorganize under the oversight of the Federal Bankruptcy Court. The struggling corporations were saved, and all helped, when the late Sen. Ted Stevens convinced Congress to pass legislation allowing the corporations to sell their losses to other successful, primarily Lower 48 corporations looking for tax write-offs.
Stevens later convinced Congress to provide further legislation that allowed the corporations to form what were called Small Business Administration “8A corporations” eligible for sole-source contracts with federal agencies. Some of those corporations have been wildly successful.
Today, the top 18 most profitable companies in the state are Native-owned businesses, according to Alaska Business magazine although only five rank among the top-20 employers in the state, according to the Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce Development.
While the Native corporations were still struggling to find their footing in the business world, Congress set its sites on deciding how much of Alaska would be developed. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980 added more than 100 million acres of land to the national systems of parks, wildlife refuges, wild rivers, wilderness and other preservation categories to grow the amount of protected land in Alaska to 157 million acres – an area 52 million acres larger than the state of California and only 14 million acres less than the nation’s second-largest state, Texas.
Including in the act was a special provision granting priority hunting and fishing privileges for rural residents pursuing fish and game for subsistence. The so-called subsistence provision was loosely and vaguely worded, and Alaskans have been fighting over it ever since.
Some in urban Alaska think it inherently unfair that who gets to hunt or fish is decided by zipcode. Some in rural Alaska believe they are now entitled to private hunting and fishing reserves where even tourists should be restricted because they can get in the way of subsistence activities. Some think the priority should apply to all Alaska Natives, urban or rural, who now number almost twice as many as in 1971.
And it all plays into the argument over whether the state should build a new road or not. The conflicts that were to be settled by federal legislation long ago now seem less settled than ever.