Alaskans have a chance now
to return to big Alaska dreams

President Obama’s recent attention to Alaska — especially in Dillingham, Kotzebue and Seward — provides a welcome focus for looking beyond the bleak landscape of oil price collapse and budget cuts toward a brighter, more sustainable future. For perhaps the first time since western contact, Alaskans may be motivated to turn away from the love-em-and-leave-em dynamics of extraction to embrace their genuine treasures: the cultural diversity and frontier spirit of its people; an abundance of renewable resources that can be managed and sustained forever; and indigenous wisdom from the North that can benefit all mankind.
Seward, then trapped in antique notions of development, once invested its hope in projects like a shiny new grain export terminal and a prison on the outskirts of town. Yet despite sometimes ugly protests and resistance to “federal interference,” it was the creation of Kenai Fjords National Park and opening of the Alaska SeaLife Center that created lasting economic value.

In Dillingham, the president stood at the heart of the eternal debate about renewable versus non-renewable resources; no matter how big the mine, gold is temporary, while healthy salmon return forever.

And Kotzebue illustrates the most important undervalued resource of all: the accumulated wisdom gathered by people living for thousands of years in one of earth’s harshest environments. Across millennia the Inupiaq, for example, have evolved rhythms of living, cultural traditions and touchstones of art that have much to teach people all over the world. The
Inupiat Ilitqusiat — the cultural code and guidelines of behavior of Inupiaq people — is far more precious than the Pebble Mine.

Though it’s satisfying to paint with broad brushes, I know none of these issues exist in isolation from contemporary Alaska and its economic and political dysfunction. Establishing the vibrant and lasting northern culture Alaska deserves will mean bringing every resource to bear. Telecommunications and modern transportation infrastructure are no less important than fish camps in the Delta or carvers in Metlakleta. Fossil fuels will continue to play an important role, especially if managed to maximize revenue and minimize environmental risk.

The president is long gone now and Alaskans are back at work imagining what the future will hold. Though the landscape these days looks rocky, Alaskans have long been reinventing their lives, and this is no time to stop. Big dreams fit well in a big state.

These are the kinds of ideas I’d add to the list:

• As China’s takeover of Hong Kong loomed, tens of thousands of residents there sought refuge in more hospitable, freer societies. I lobbied then for Alaska to spend some small fraction of its “economic development” budget on a campaign to entice and assist some in moving to Alaska. Imagine the infusion of 10,000 driven, entrepreneurial people into the state’s economy. They had built a capitalist wonderland in Hong Kong with no exportable natural resources at all. Imagine what they might have done together with Alaskans.

(Just before World War II there was a proposal to settle displaced Jews in Alaska. There’s another group known for doing much with damned little.)

• Making something out of nearly nothing? How about the 10 “Kids From Nowhere” (as they called themselves) from St, Lawrence Island who won renown in the 1980s for victories in Future Problem Solving International, billed as the worldwide team championships in academics? I argued later that the strengths of Inupiaq problem solving — the deliberate, fact-based life or death decisions Eskimos have made for generations — could be a perfect foundation for budding software programmers.

With proper training and good internet, programmers in Gambell and Savoonga could well compete with India, China or Silicon Valley — and kids from Bethel, Minto and Angoon probably could, too. That’s a shot at economic development that isn’t disadvantaged by Alaska’s small population or distance from markets.

• Iceland, remote from populous markets and home to just over 300,000 citizens, also holds important clues for Alaska planners. I wrote approvingly in years past about their policy of “import substitution,” a government effort to limit imports to give local industries time to grow. Increased globalization and the dictates of free trade with other U.S. states limits how much Alaska can do in this arena, but Iceland’s success surely suggests paying attention to the concept, which has American roots reaching back to Alexander Hamilton.

• Finally, think about the biggest dream around nowadays, a human mission to Mars. Technologists and scientists around the world will figure out how to power the journey, but who can teach the explorers to thrive in unforgiving environments; to keep the peace in crowded, small communities where must people live and work in constant togetherness; to make decisions in non-confrontational ways? The wisdom of Alaska’s indigenous people could hold crucial answers to those questions.

If I was flying away with a Mars colony, I’d damned sure want an Inupiaq elder along for the journey.

None of this is a panacea; there are no silver bullets. The urgent need for economic recovery and reformation of politics in Alaska demands hard work and quick action on a wide range of issues and will, under the best of circumstances, take time.

The good news is that a return to traditional Alaska values and appreciation of all her assets will begin paying dividends in satisfaction long before financial returns on investment are calculated. Knowing they are part of an aspirational movement to create a truly special society in the north can animate the politics, arts and recreations of Alaskans. It will bring renewed appreciation for the state’s eternal treasures: bounteous fish and wildlife; clean rivers and pristine fjords; a rich multicultural society of neighbors helping one another along the way.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Basking in the joyful presidential visit last week, Alaska was full of dreamers once again. One of them, I’m pretty sure, was the president of the United States.

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I've written about Alaska's future for more than 40 years. Click here to see a recent essay on what Alaska faces —
Storm Out of Paradise—and a selection of my other Alaska journalism here.