My Turn: Creating rural jobs while saving the Alaska soul

Posted: Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fourteen people showed up at Elfin Cove's community potluck Thanksgiving dinner. This was somewhat surprising because the year-round population of the isolated Southeast community had dropped off to single digits in recent years.

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Elfin Cove boasted a year-round population of 50 only a decade ago, but young families drifted away as the school closed and charter sport fishing vessels displaced trollers on the salmon grounds. While the boardwalks of the picturesque village are busy during the summer, there are just a few lights on during the long winter nights.

This slow death of a once vibrant community is likely to be repeated many times in the coming decades, as energy costs skyrocket, commercial fishing opportunities shrink and global warming takes its toll. As these slices of frontier life die the Alaska soul will wither.

Should we even try to save these villages? Certainly the state could spend a lot of money trying to support communities that have no economic base. And, as the only state with no statewide sales or income tax, what does Alaska have to give? The answer, at least for the coming year, is plenty. The recent change in petroleum taxes combined with all-time high oil prices might result in the state having $2 billion in surplus revenues during the coming year.

My family ties have been traced back through records by a family historian to 1798 when our Aleut grandmother married a Russian sailor. One of the saddest changes I've witnessed during my own six decades in Alaska has been the loss of the strong feeling of community that came from shared isolation and hardship. Life in urban Alaska has become very easy and differs little from anywhere else in the country, and today we are asking how we can bridge a growing urban-rural divide.

Our population is so transient that many Alaskans fail to recognize how much our urban centers depend upon the economic health of rural communities. The economies of Anchorage, Mat-Su, Fairbanks and Juneau all depend upon natural resources harvested and processed in other areas or by servicing rural communities.

While I've been a resident of Juneau for the past three decades, I continue to draw my spiritual essence from my time on the water at my remote oyster farm, doing many of the same things my ancestors have done for centuries. But this question keeps coming to mind: How are future generations going to continue to make a living from the sea?

For many coastal residents, one option is tourism. I, for one, hope my great-grandchildren don't end up selling T-shirts and lattes to tourists or living in communities that more closely resemble Fishermen's Wharf in San Francisco than Alaska.

So what should Alaska do? There are some models and tools in place to help rural Alaska survive into the next millennium. One of the most interesting is the Community Development Quota system created by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. Consortiums of Bering Sea communities have been given a share of the lucrative pollock and crab fisheries to use in developing the local economies.

The potential of this system can be seen in Atka, an Aleut village located near Adak. The Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association built a small processing plant and helped put local skippers behind the wheels of modern fishing vessels. When I visited Atka five years ago, everyone who wanted to work had a job and workers were coming from other communities to work in the processing plant.

As we continue to move toward becoming indistinguishable from the rest of America, I believe it is vital that we attempt to preserve some of what makes us unique. Face it, our image of the "real Alaskan" isn't someone who gets caught in rush hour traffic or goes shopping at a big-box store.

The creation of new, sustainable jobs in rural communities will help build a more solid economic base for the entire state, fuel the service economies of urban centers, and preserve some of what makes Alaska so unique.

• Rodger Painter operates a remote oyster farm on Prince of Wales Island and is president of the Alaskan Shellfish Growers Association. He is a Juneau resident.

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