Can Alaska afford its frontier?

Takotna's $18.7M landing strip emergency lifeline for locals, 'airport to nowhere' for others

Posted: Wednesday, August 12, 2009

TAKOTNA - In a flat, piney river valley deep in the Interior, the village of Takotna is marked by a dozen or so houses, a shop, a tiny post office and a school. Intrepid gold miners ventured here decades ago. A small tribe of Athabascan Indians has hunted and fished the woods and river banks for generations.

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Kim Murphy / Los Angeles Times
Kim Murphy / Los Angeles Times

This summer Takotna, population somewhere between 46 and 61, has become one of the best-known villages in Alaska - thanks to the $18.7 million airstrip the federal government is funding on the edge of town. The 3,300-foot-long gravel runway, complete with night lighting, will replace the short one perched on a wind-swept hilltop that in recent years has been the site of numerous plane wrecks.

The cost of keeping rural Alaska afloat has been one of the state's most enduring challenges. Now a place that sees itself as the nation's last frontier, where countless communities depend on bush planes and boats for food and fuel deliveries, is having to support its outposts in an age of cable television, cell-phone networks and the Internet.

And in an era of dwindling public revenue, even Alaskans increasingly wonder how much they can afford to support those who live miles from civilization.

"For decades, Alaskans have numbed themselves to the shock and oddity of the state and federal expenditures that fall all around us. The latest example is ... a new airfield for the tiny community of Takotna. Why does this sort of expenditure occur?" the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner asked in a recent editorial.

According to the University of Alaska's Institute for Social and Economic Research, about $1.4 billion a year in state and federal government subsidies, purchases and wages goes to more than 200 far-flung villages - from the frigid Arctic coastal plain to the soggy, impenetrable tundra of the deep Interior. Federal dollars help pay for airline service and mail delivery, subsidize electricity rates and fund health clinics, among other things.

As a bonus, more than $42 million of President Barack Obama's federal stimulus package has been earmarked this year to supply plumbing for remote villages that still use portable toilets and haul water in by the barrel. An additional $70 million will go to rural airport improvements - not including Takotna's, which is being funded under a separate government grant.

A year ago, the infamous $398 million "Bridge to Nowhere" federal earmark dogged former Gov. Sarah Palin's vice presidential bid. But no Alaska governor, including Palin, has been able to turn down the federal dole. To do so would be to isolate thousands of citizens so poor they can't afford to move to the cities.

The federal Office of Management and Budget, in a 2004 review, noted that 70 percent of the residents in 54 remote Alaskan villages were unemployed, and 70 percent of the residents in 128 villages made less than $14,800 a year.

"The public health conditions of the developing Third World are still a reality up here," the inspector general for the Denali Commission, which brokers federal aid to the Alaskan bush, said in a recent report. The state, the report added, needs better barometers to determine which "micro-settlements" such as Takotna should qualify for public aid.

"While national lore may abstractly decry construction to 'nowhere,' the choices are very real, and very serious, for rural families that must go without what most of America takes for granted," the inspector said.

Takotna's new landing strip has been dubbed the latest "airport to nowhere" - although residents who have had to wait hours or even days for medical evacuations or supplies disagree.

"If there's a medical emergency, you basically just have to wait for daylight," village administrator Terry Huffman said. "The state has refused to put lights on (the old) runway. They say it's just too dangerous."

Takotna is 300 miles west of Fairbanks and 18 miles from the tiny town of McGrath, which has a long, lighted runway - part of a network built across the state by the federal government during the Cold War. But there is no road to McGrath.

The Air Force maintains a runway 10 miles from Takotna, at a military radar site called Tatalina. But because of security concerns, locals are able to drive out and use it only about twice a year.

Takotna residents - nobody agrees on exactly how many there are, and some live here only during the summer - fly in and out via the old 1,700-foot-long strip on four-seat bush planes from McGrath.

Major supplies, including fuel for home heating and the village's power plant, are brought in by barge. But that works only when the Takotna River is high enough. Last fall it wasn't, and the town had to race against the onset of snow and ice to haul the fuel in by truck from 33 miles up the river. The last of three loads was flown into Tatalina. The delivery pushed the fuel cost to $6.74 a gallon.

"I ended up hauling that fuel with a foot of snow on the ground. ... We had to put tarps over the truck and put heaters underneath it just to get it started," said Dick Newton, 78, who moved to Takotna in 1976 to operate a hotel and cafe for miners.

"But we were in an emergency. That fuel was for the power plant and for home heating. You lose that power plant, and there goes everything," he said.

Local, state and federal officials all agree a new runway has been badly needed in Takotna.

Several planes have crashed in recent years on the existing dirt strip, which in the winter turns into an icy slide, bordered by tall trees and steep drops.

"Sometimes they have 90-degree crosswinds on that ridge top," Huffman said.

"Now imagine (landing) on the ice," Brian Martin, a pilot for Tanana Air Service in McGrath, said as his plane plunked onto the runway one recent day. He hit the brakes for all they were worth.

"The runway's short, it's cut into the side of a hill, and the windsocks are always kind of pointing toward each other. Plus the runway drops off at both ends, so there's not a lot of room for error," Martin said with classic bush-pilot aplomb. "Other than that, it's a great runway."

Not long ago, a young boy in the village died of pneumonia when he couldn't be flown out for treatment.

"When you get somebody that's got to be flown out of here at night," Newton said, "we got these flares ... and as soon as the airplane's in sight, then two snow machines start running down each side, trying to outline the strip. ... We've done that maybe a dozen times," he said.

"The air ambulances won't come here even in daylight," Huffman added. "It's not long enough for them. They go to McGrath."

The Denali Commission, in channeling federal aid to rural Alaska, has made the determination that every village is entitled to a basic level of health and safety and some opportunity for residents to support themselves. But for a new runway to be built in Takotna with federal funding, Federal Aviation Administration rules required a long, wide strip with lights.

"One of our dilemmas, I guess, is that some of the most substandard airports have the lowest populations," said Roger Maggard, airport development manager for Alaska's Department of Transportation. "So there is a balancing act when we are trying to correct our potentially worst safety issues.

"Our mission is to provide safe transportation, and to provide airports that are capable of 24-hour medical evacuation for our communities."

Instead of providing expensive infrastructure facilities in every village, officials are looking to connect them when possible at regional hubs, said George Cannelos, federal co-chairman for the Denali Commission.

"Everybody should have a guarantee of access to education, public safety and basic sanitation," Cannelos said. "But after that, I think you accept some standard of risk when you live in rural communities."



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