Villagers warm up to roads in Bush

Rural attitude changing as economy founders

Posted: Monday, December 23, 2002

ANCHORAGE - A decade ago, Yukon River villagers would have been riled up at the idea of extending the Elliott Highway from Manley Hot Springs downriver to Ruby, Kaltag or Nome. But times, and attitudes, have changed.

"These villages are dying out," said Arvin Kangas, chief of the Ruby Tribal Council. "Fishing is terrible. Moose are depleted down to practically nothing. Everything is changing. We're sitting in the richest resource-based land in the world, yet the people are broke. There's something wrong here."

Kangas and others believe new roads, barge landings, fuel depots and airstrips are keys to the villages' economic survival.

"We need to do these things for the future," he said.

With "the stars never having been in better alignment" in Juneau and Washington, D.C., as Gov. Frank Murkowski said in his inaugural address earlier this month, chances of extending the state's road system are perhaps the best they've ever been.

But recent planning efforts by the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities paint a broader picture of Bush transportation needs for the new Murkowski administration to tackle. Alternatives are being considered that could lower the cost of living, provide new jobs, and improve residents' safety in Bush communities without road and railroad links from the Railbelt. Among them:

• Constructing a barge port and fuel depot on the Yukon River or Bering Sea coast to reduce heating, transportation and electrical costs.

• Establishing permanent barge-landing sites and fuel- and freight-unloading facilities along the Kuskokwim River with connecting roads to nearby villages.

• Building access roads to North Slope oil fields and Kuskokwim-area mineral deposits.

• Marking and mapping snowmachine and ATV trails.

• Upgrading airports to accept larger, safer aircraft, and even the AeroCat, a 21st-century airship that can land virtually anywhere and carry up to 200 tons.

It's too early for the new administration to establish its transportation priorities, said Murkowski spokesman John Manly. But having plans in place will help, he said.

Rural transportation planning began nearly a decade ago with new federal funding, DOT planner Mike McKinnon said. Areawide plans with a 20-year outlook have been completed for Southeast, Prince William Sound and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in recent years.

Work on the Northwest Alaska plan is under way, and the eastern Interior plan begins in 2003, he said.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta effort has become a template for other rural planning, McKinnon said. Planners traveled to each of the region's 56 villages at least once and to the hub villages several times. Using interpreters, they talked with village elders and leaders and eventually brought the leaders together for regional meetings.

"They helped us make the decisions" on transportation priorities, McKinnon said.

While Murkowski has mentioned the possibility of building roads from Bethel to surrounding villages, Delta residents found little need for inter-village roads or highway connections to the Railbelt, according to the 150-page plan published in March. A higher priority is to keep village airports up to date with changing technology.

Another need is to mark some 900 miles of major snowmachine routes with 8-foot-high tripods bearing directional signs and mileages. Mapping the routes with GPS technology would enable safer travel and faster emergency response, trail users said.

Planning for Northwest Alaska is now finishing up, McKinnon said. More than 100 meetings have been held in area villages the last two years, culminating in a two-day meeting in Galena last month that brought together village leaders, Native corporations, agencies and individuals.

Not surprisingly, different transportation needs and wants arose, McKinnon said. Throughout much of the Arctic, "People were not as interested in (inter-village) roads as we expected," he said. Airplanes, snowmachines, ATVs and skiffs are adequate for most needs, as they are on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Most villages on the Brooks Range preferred to remain cut off from the Dalton Highway, unless they're fairly close to it, such as Nuiqsut.

"On the Yukon, we're hearing a different story," McKinnon said. With the demise of salmon fishing and fur trapping, and with steadily increasing dependence on cash, villages are rethinking their future.

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