“There are a few lonely places in this world, and the wastes of the great Alaskan Interior are the loneliest of them all.”
Isolation is omnipresent in the pages of Guy Salisbury’s The Cruelest Miles. The book describes the 1925 sled dog relay to deliver medicine to the Alaskan city of Nome, where a diphtheria outbreak threatened to turn into an epidemic. With aircraft and ships inoperable in the harsh polar conditions and the nearest antitoxins almost one thousand miles away in Anchorage, the government opted to send the medicine by train as far as possible before teams of sled dogs relayed it for the remaining 674 miles. Miraculously, the medicine was delivered and administered within five-and-a-half days, preventing an epidemic that could have wiped out the entire city.
92 years later, Anchorage and Nome have grown no more connected; aircraft and ship remain the only safe methods of travel between the two cities. With the third-lowest population among all fifty states but the largest land area by a longshot—larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined—Alaska is uniquely disconnected: its capital city of Juneau is not even linked to the state’s road system. Lacking a typical infrastructure grid and strapped for cash, Alaska faces significant governing challenges in providing for its most vulnerable populations.
Campaigning Far and Wide
Alaska’s vast size complicates the process of running for office. Despite accounting for 17 percent of total U.S. land area, the state accounts for only one percent of the country’s roads, making political candidates largely reliant on Alaska’s network of small planes for traveling to campaign stops. As Dr. Amy L. Lovecraft, Political Science Department Chair at University of Alaska Fairbanks, told the HPR, “No candidate can afford to go barnstorming in Alaska. It’s just too expensive.”
While access to television and internet have increased in rural Alaska due to innovations such as the Alaska Rural Communications Service, which provides free over the air TV service to rural communities, Alaska is the only state in which radio remains the key communication infrastructure. In a 2015 interview with the Alaska Dispatch News following threats to the Alaska Public Radio Network budget, Cyd Hanns, a resident of Barrow in Alaska’s far north, said “it would be pretty drastic to lose the APRN,” with another citizen calling rural Alaska “completely dependent” on the network.
While Alaska is considered a red state at the presidential level, it has notably weak partisanship and an affinity for independent candidates. But partisan rancor is often replaced by conflicts rooted in Alaska’s immense geographic divide. Divided into five geographic regions that Alaskans call their ‘states,’ Alaska is often home to competing urban and rural interests. In the state legislature, this divide results in conflict between the Urban Caucus (often hailing from the populous cities of Anchorage, Juneau, and Fairbanks in the Alaskan states of Southcentral and Southeast) and the Bush Caucus (representing the rural areas of Southwest, Interior, and North Slope). “The split between the two caucuses is where you can have a problem in people feeling like they’re not being heard,” said Dr. Lovecraft. “These two groups can have very different priorities.”
Infrastructure has shaped the contours of this divide. The Alaskan Bush is made up of the vast land area where the North American Road Network does not reach. Separated from the rest of the state by their exclusion from the infrastructure system, people in the Bush have historically expressed frustration with the status quo in the Alaskan state government, feeling that their voices hold less sway than the voices of those in the cities.
An Oily Residue
Alaska’s infrastructure has been greatly impacted by the energy industry, particularly oil interests. Perhaps the most audacious undertaking in Alaskan infrastructure development has been the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, a privately-owned crude oil pipeline that stretches over 800 miles between the Prudhoe Oil Field in North Slope and the Southern port of Valdez. In the 1970s, the construction of TAPS coincided with the state’s oil boom, which gave rise to massive revenues for the state government and eliminated the need for tax revenues. To this day, Alaska remains the only state without a sales tax and individual income tax.
But those who think that this tax-free era seems too good to be true are right; the oil and gas infrastructure that symbolized the promise of Alaska’s untapped resources could only perform economic miracles for so long. Now Alaska is going broke—but the electorate, accustomed to paying no state taxes, has failed to adjust to this reality. Instead, anti-tax politicians have continued to dominate Alaska’s state legislature. The result? An endless series of budget cuts that has severely compromised the government’s ability to provide public goods and invest in development.
In the capital, the oil and gas industries have an even more direct impact. Campaign contributions from the energy sector are often directed towards powerful committee chairs in the legislature. Dr. Jerry McBeath, a professor emeritus at University of Alaska Fairbanks and author of The Political Economy of Oil in Alaska, described this exertion of influence to the HPR. He noted that those in the industry “focused in on close elections, and made a difference in the outcomes.” The subtext to these campaign contributions is reciprocity. If the winner doesn’t take sufficiently pro-oil positions during their tenure, it’s a safe bet that oil money will fill their opponent’s coffers come re-election time.
The oil industry, however, has been tainted by the residue of corruption after a statewide scandal that unfolded between 2003 and 2010. A political corruption probe by the name of “Operation Polar Pen” implicated multiple state legislators and led to the convictions of two executives from the VECO Corporation, an oilfield services provider. The web of bribes, kickbacks, and illegal campaign contributions also raised questions about the state’s sitting congressman Don Young and former senator Ted Stevens, whose original conviction for accepting gifts from VECO was overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct.
What made the corruption scandal unique was that its perpetrators boldly displayed their actions. Vic Kohring, one of the legislators implicated in the scandal, “had in his office a huge Alaskan code book that was riddled with bullets, showing his disrespect for the law,” according to Dr. McBeath. The members of the state legislature engaging in illegal behavior with VECO would even wear baseball caps embroidered with the initials ‘C.B.C.’ while the body was in session, an abbreviation for their self-adopted moniker, ‘Corrupt Bastard’s Club.’ Clearly, association with the oil industry in Alaska is worn as a badge of honor.
On the Fringes
Since the oil and gas industry exercises immense power in Juneau, local development funds, however small, often go to pipelines and fuel storage tanks rather than public service provision. As a consequence, these projects face opposition from much of the rural community, especially Native Alaskans. Assembling a confederation that represented 21 languages and more than 150 federally-recognized tribes, Native Alaskans first organized against the oil and gas industry under the Alaska Federation of Natives in opposition to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. The AFN’s original goal of land preservation has remained salient over the course of its more than 50-year history.
Beyond protecting Native lands, accusations that pipeline companies discriminate against indigenous peoples have led to further conflict. “Native communities regularly protest about their inability to work for the oil and gas companies,” said Dr. McBeath. “There are non-Natives living in these rural areas, but they are there because they’re employees of the oil industry or the State of Alaska.” This form of intrastate outsourcing has led to claims of an anti-Native agenda.
The energy sector has countered charges of employment discrimination by citing the inability of many Native Alaskans to pass the drug tests necessary to work for government contractors. The issue of drug addiction in Native Alaskan communities is indeed potent. Due to their isolation in the Bush, indigenous communities are hit particularly hard by the state’s high healthcare and education costs, especially in light of their reduced access to medical resources compared to the state’s urban centers.
The consequence of this disconnect has been soaring rates of substance abuse, particularly the abuse of alcohol and opioids. This is only compounded by the fact that many Native Alaskans live in what is termed a ‘food desert,’ where nutritious food is hard to come by; simply put, there aren’t a lot of supermarkets in the Alaskan Bush. Native health is thus compromised by a limited diet that leads to elevated rates of cancer and osteoporosis. Any description of this health crisis would be incomplete without mentioning the suicide rate among Native Alaskans, which is five times greater than the US population’s as a whole, and is highest among those aged 10 to 19. The isolation of Native Alaskans results in a shocking statistic: they are dying at 150% the rate of non-Natives.
The devastating picture of indigenous health in Alaska leads to a crucial question: how is the state’s government working to ensure that its health, education, and welfare infrastructure is working for everyone in an equitable and efficient manner? The answer remains unclear. While organizations such as the Federal Health Program for American Indians and Alaska Natives have tried to implement public policy approaches and emergency-response solutions in the state, they have frequently been undercut by budget slashes and a state government enamored with anti-tax rhetoric. Meanwhile, there is no indication that cities like Nome and Anchorage will ever be capable of overcoming their physical disconnect.
The failure of government leadership has led outside groups to step in and innovate. Some have hailed private-public partnerships as the ideal solution, arguing that they ensure public benefit while infusing projects with funding from the private sector, thus circumventing the cash-strapped government. Other groups have emerged at the grassroots level. Nuvista Light and Electric Cooperative, Inc., for example, is a nonprofit that was founded in 1995 to tackle the issue of energy provision for rural Alaska. Nuvista operates as a planner for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Western Alaska to improve transportation, education, and healthcare in addition to energy infrastructure. In an interview with the HPR, Nuvista Executive Director Natalie Hanson sounded an optimistic note on the direction of the state’s model of rural energy provision: “The state is actively discussing energy projects for rural Alaska, and wind turbines and solar projects are happening as we speak.”
Still, groups like Nuvista face challenges. In 2012, Nuvista’s marquee proposal to construct a dam in Alaska’s largest state park at Chikuminuk Lake was nixed in the legislature after environmental and economic concerns prompted opposition. The geography of rural Alaska also remains an immense obstacle to the viability of large-scale development. “Seasonally speaking, a lot of the time the last barge comes in the fall and then after that there’s no option to get items until springtime,” said Hanson, who also noted the tremendous economic pressure this places on rural communities themselves. “Transportation from these communities to the hubs with the main hospitals comes at enormous cost. It can cost $1,000, and that’s just for airfare. A lot of people are living a subsistence lifestyle in these areas and not getting a paycheck for most of the year, so that cost is incredibly challenging and frustrating.”
There are easily identifiable problems affecting isolated communities in Alaska, and there are no easy answers. But with the state’s limited infrastructure development too frequently servicing vested oil interests, the status quo must be called into question. Pipelines do not bring nutritious food or medical care to Native Alaskan communities. They cannot be used as a means to communicate or hold government accountable. And pipelines cannot bridge the divide between Alaska’s urban and rural populations.
Nuvista’s bottom-up, grassroots approach may represent the way forward for rural Alaska. Still, it will take a concerted statewide investment of monetary and human capital to bring rural communities out of isolation. In order to ensure equitable and affordable access to the resources the Alaskan Bush desperately needs, policymakers must change the way that they look at infrastructure; it must not be evaluated by the typical metrics of cost and revenue, but by its impact on the welfare of those it serves.
Image Source: U.S. Air Force/Bo Joyner