Over the past few weeks there’s been a lot of talk about the redrawing of electoral districts by the Alaska Redistricting Board. The Alaska Constitution commands the Redistricting Board to, “…establish the size and area of house districts …formed of contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area … (containing) …a population as near as practicable to the quotient obtained by dividing the population of the state by forty.” The Constitution goes on to instruct that, “consideration may be given to local government boundaries …(and that) …drainage and other geographic features shall be used in describing boundaries wherever possible.”
The Redistricting Board is comprised of five Alaskans, two appointed by the Governor, one by the Speaker of the House, one by the Senate President, and one by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It’s impossible to make every one happy most of the time in this life, but when it comes to redrawing political boundaries, one is practically guaranteed to infuriate others no matter how hard one tries. In the interests of full disclosure, I am co-chairman of the Capital City Republicans, and a majority of the Board members were appointed by members of my party. I believe all the men and women serving on the current Redistricting Board are good and dedicated choices for what is a very hard job.
The population of Southeast Alaska has declined since the last redistricting 10 years ago, and has barely remained flat in the Capital City. Juxtaposed with the continuing population explosion in Southcentral, this means we’re going to lose seats in the House and Senate no matter how you slice it. That stated, the plans the Board has put forward as templates for the next decade of Alaskan elections are harsher to the smaller communities in our part of the Great Land than they need to be. The City & Borough of Juneau has suggested maps which protect Juneau but would likely prevent the election of people from any communities other than Juneau, Sitka, and Ketchikan. It grieves me to think that really good leaders like Wrangell’s Peggy Wilson and Haines’s Bill Thomas might find it practically impossible to get elected if the Redistricting Board fails to consider protecting the voting power of rural communities.
Of course, no amount of careful consideration or devotion to the concept of fairness to rural Alaska can stop the effect of demographic trends. Unless we do something to stem the shrinkage of Southeast, things are going to be even grimmer in 2021. What can we do? The most recent positive economic boost for Juneau was the opening of the Kensington Gold Mine, which would not have happened but for tremendous efforts undertaken to counter senseless and illogical opposition from unrealistic opponents of all resource-development activity. I shudder to think what enrollment at our schools would look like and what our census numbers would be but for such essential developments, past and future.
Currently our community is considering the potential economic benefits of re-opening the old AJ Mine near downtown Juneau. A committee of residents has been meeting to deliberate the potential parameters of such a project, and maintaining the integrity of Juneau’s watershed is unsurprisingly among the highest-priority conditions. As a Juneau resident who drinks a lot of water, I fully embrace the imperative of making sure that we do nothing to cause any environmental damage to Perseverance Basin or Gold Creek, but it saddens me that some of those charged with debating the pros and cons of this project appear to have decided to oppose it regardless of the technology that might be used to extract gold and yet ensure clean water. The price of gold just passed $1,500 an ounce for an historic first time, and is predicted to continue rising for the next several years. I can not imagine how this economic fact wouldn’t lead even the most die-hard skeptic to reconsider a preconceived determination to refuse to consider re-opening the AJ under any circumstances.
The rest of Southeast faces similar challenges and enjoys similar opportunities. The doubling in size of the Southeast State Forest effected by Gov. Sean Parnell’s House Bill 105 offers a ray of hope — especially to towns like Wrangell and Ketchikan that have lost so much from the demise of the timber industry in the past 20 years — by making timber from State lands available to small mills and wood-working entrepreneurs in the face of uncertain supply from federal lands. The vast potential of Bokan Mountain at the south tip of Prince of Wales Island lies in its documented world-class reserves of rare-earth minerals that are crucial to modern information technology hardware and are currently only commercially produced in China. Of course our fisheries and visitor industries must be protected, nourished, and enhanced so they continue to play vital and sustainable roles on our economic future.
It is not surprising that smaller rural Alaskan communities often embrace the need for responsible resource development in a way that eludes many comfortable defenders of the status quo in the urban centers like the Capital City. It is at best short-sighted and inconsiderate to ignore the well-being of our regional neighbors, whether in planning for new electoral boundaries or in supporting responsible resource development. At worst, such ill-considered, myopic courses of action may prove to be self-destructive. I hope that 10 years from now we’re not looking at having only two representatives and one senator from Southeast Alaska, for when such a day comes to pass, keeping the Capital City in Juneau may have become an impossibility.
• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.