One-hundred-eighty-two. It’s not a large number if you’re counting pennies or apples. But when you apply that number to people — to Alaskans — it becomes very important.
A few weeks ago, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that they had reviewed an imaginary resource development project in Alaska. The EPA declared that their imaginary project, on state of Alaska land, should not be allowed.
The ramifications of this federal action, however, are not imaginary. The review attempts to lay the groundwork for a possible veto of a real development project in southwest Alaska. A project that had employed 182 rural Alaskans.
The EPA declaration did many serious things.
First, the federal government once again reached into our lives, into our state affairs, where it has no authority.
Second, the EPA’s action has added another unnecessary barricade to Alaska’s economy.
Third, and most important, the EPA has put the jobs of 182 Alaskans in jeopardy, peoplewho live in remote Alaska communities where only a handful of job opportunities exist.
The economic situation in southwest Alaska is dire and the region is in desperate need of employment opportunities. As of December, unemployment was more than 15 percent. Jobs in the fisheries go mostly to nonresidents, with outsiders owning nearly 60 percent of commercial drift permits. Only 18 percent of permit holders are local to the region. For those fortunate to participate in the fishery, the short commercial fishing season isn’t enough to sustain a family.
The scarcity of jobs, low wages and high cost of basic living expenses are driving families away from their ancestral homes. In the past decade, six schools in the region have closed because they served less than 10 students. When the school closes, the community dies. And with it, culture and history fade away.
The fact is, if additional economic development doesn’t occur in southwest Alaska, the pressure to move to urban areas will persist and communities will continue to disappear.
The threat is significant, particularly from a cultural perspective. Employment is a vital component of maintaining traditional lifestyles, and to passing those values onto future generations. Subsistence requires money for fuel, snowmachines, boats and four-wheelers, guns and ammunition.
But there is hope … for jobs, opportunity, thriving communities and a bright future.
Resource development built Alaska — roads, transmission lines, hydroelectric dams, schools and homes. From the Klondike gold rush to the discovery of oil and construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline, Alaskans have earned a living developing our vast natural wealth.
But our future isn’t secure. Development is increasingly challenged by outside groups or multi-million dollar special interests. It’s also threatened by our own federal government that feels entitled to make decisions for us.
Our permitting process for development projects has served our state well for decades. It’s a process involving local, state and federal agencies (including the EPA) and, most importantly, the people of Alaska.
Our state is regularly applauded as the global standard for environmental protection. We enforce some of the strictest environmental regulations in the world. Our science-based management of natural resource programs, particularly fish and wildlife programs, is unmatched.
If a project can’t live up to Alaska’s standards, it will not be allowed. However, no project should ever be banned before regulators and Alaskans have had the opportunity to properly assess it.
We either continue a process where the rules of the game are clear and one that we all agree to follow, or we agree to relinquish our voice in favor of a political process. A process where the federal government can trump any state or local agency oversight at any time in favor of its own.
I understand that some will reject any development project, regardless of what it looks like. But these projects offer too much opportunity for Alaskans to be denied the review process we have in place.
Resource development is about our people, our families and our future. That’s why decisions affecting us must remain in the hands of Alaskans.
• Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, represents Senate District N.