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September 20, 2021

Why Alaskans Hate the Government

You know that old song from the 70s, “If you can’t report on the governmental body you know, report on the governmental body you’re with.” Or something like that.

Anyway, I’m here, so…

DATELINE: DELTA JUNCTION, ALASKA – Somewhere south of the Granite Mountains, somewhere east of Fairbanks, west of the Canadian border, and squarely in the middle of what most Americans would call “nowhere.”

The current temperature is about -20F with the wind chill factor. I don’t even know what it is without the wind chill factor because frankly, here, it doesn’t matter. Wind chill factor is everything. The local paper is even called The Delta Wind. Five minutes outside is enough to freeze dry your face, and give you an ice cream headache except there’s no ice cream – just Mother Nature throwing knives into your sinuses.

Tonight, there is a meeting of the Deltana Community Corporation, the local community council. There are about 20 people in the volunteer fire department building. The room is made of cinder block, and has a little kitchen area from 1979 I’m guessing. Folding tables are lined up with chairs, and there’s a big American flag on the wall. People have come to hear an informational update from a guy with the Natural Resources Conservation Service which centers around land use in a region just off the Alaska Highway, known unpoetically as “1408.”

Right now, you’re thinking that I’m about to go into the weeds about something that completely doesn’t interest you. But, I noticed, as I sat there listening, that the 1408 issue might be bigger than a land use issue in this beautiful little place most people have never heard of. It might explain to more urban-dwelling folks why it is that some areas of Alaska really, really distrust and dislike the government. It might even be an allegory… So, I’ll try to spare you too much of the wonky parts of soil geology, erosion, sedimentation, and mica schist, and get to the larger problem.

It’s immediately obvious who the presenter is because in jeans and a dark plaid button-up shirt, he’s the fanciest one in the room.

It all started back in 1989 when the state perceived a looming problem. The Clearwater River is a hugely important salmon spawning ground. It’s one of the largest salmon tributaries of the Yukon River, and its productivity is extremely important to about 60 villages which rely on salmon not for sport fishing and recreation, but as a main subsistence food supply.

And there’s a problem with the Clearwater, namely that it’s becoming not-so-clear. The surrounding soils are full of a mineral called mica that has a very flat crystal habit. You may have seen some in science class at some time in your life. When the crystals are big, you can peel them off in sheets, and they feel almost like plastic. Well, when they’re tiny they tend to lie atop one another, fill in, and seal off little spaces in sandy and pebbly river beds. This is no big deal… unless you’re a salmon. Little nooks and crannies are important to spawning salmon because they hold salmon eggs while they develop. Smooth out the river bed, and all the little salmon eggs have nowhere to land, and float away and eventually – no more salmon.

Mica

So the state of Alaska decided to do a bunch of work to remediate this and extend the life of the Clearwater, prevent certain types of flooding and create some drainage areas for times when there was more water and runoff than the area could handle. Engineers engineered, geologists pondered, Fish & Game got involved and an solution was reached. Or so they thought.

Huge spaces were cleared, drainage pools were created, lots of money was spent, and 1408 became much more open to public use. Local hunters, campers, military families, and people from far and wide used it as a recreation area. I’ve been there, and it’s hard to express the beauty of the place, but it’s one of those soul-changing spots on the earth where you stand, you breathe, and you feel a part of everything. From the tiniest blooming arctic plants, to the fields of granite boulders in the braids of the river, to the mountains that hug you from all sides, it’s no wonder so many people seek out this land to share with their families and friends, or just for solitude. Basically “1408” is the worst name ever. Take a second to see what people love about it.

One of the dry braids of the river. After a half hour of kidney busting bumps on the four-wheeler, a little piece of heaven awaits.

Fall is spectacular.

I’m pretty sure that as soon as humans leave, the elves come out.

You can see from the river bed why those mountains are called The Granites.

There’s only one problem about the big solution to the sediment problem. As explained last night by the NRSC guy, “we took a bad situation, tried to fix it, and in the process made it much, much worse.” In fact, the sedimentation got so bad that half-way into the project they realized it was folly to continue so they stopped. I had to hand it to the guy for owning his organizations screw up. There was no blame game, but that still didn’t change the outcome which was a giant catastrophic mess.

Then in 2011 there was a government shutdown. You remember that one. And funding for correcting the mistake went away. Now the funding is back, to the tune of $7 million from the federal government, and all the people who use this rare and beautiful area for recreation showed up to find out what was happening.

We learned that that giant open area that is now naked and sedimenting like crazy into the Clearwater River is to be filled in with “woody debris” which means felled trees, branches, stumps, shrubs, etc. Then it will be filled in with topsoil and seeded with rye grass to try to bring the forest back to what it was before it got “fixed.”

Everyone sat, taking this in, and then the questions started. Was this going to work? Did it take into account the big fire in 1987 that burned everything to the ground and caused the original flooding event that made them want to “fix” in 1989? Was there still going to be parking? People are going to continue to use the area regardless, so is the road wide enough to pass? What about the neighboring agricultural parcels and how they contribute to soil degradation? Can we be sure there are no invasive species in the seed? Would the area eventually heal itself, and are we just going to make it worse again by this new fix? How did this even happen in the first place, because anyone around here could have told you what would happen.

And that last one I believed, because after the questions came personal stories – the guy who mapped out areas of flooding and where culverts should go under the highway – just because he could, the guy who raised these very issues and concerns the last time they tried to fix it, stories of the big fire, stories that went back to the 1970s from people who know the land like a friend. Information about nearby creeks – this slope, that hole. The locals quoted the Alaska Constitution; talked about soil geology and alluvial fans and sedimentation; and the dynamics of trail erosion, gravel beds and rutting… It was an education.

Then someone said that he felt as though all this input was wasted, and like the government had already decided what to do and the wheels were in motion. And the presenter said that yes, that was true – this meeting was informational only. Then the man asked why there had been no public input, no chance to share local knowledge and concerns, no opportunity to make suggestions before the die was cast. And the presenter said that this whole issue had had a public comment period, and even local meetings, one of which was held right there in Delta Junction.

“When?” asked the man, obviously skeptical.

“In 2008,” said the presenter.

Some fell silent. Some laughed. ONE meeting in 2008? All were flabbergasted. Because, the use of the land between the one and only public comment period a decade ago, and today has changed immensely.  Don’t worry, the presenter said, there would be better access than there was in 1989. And I sat there and thought to myself that this is no way to get buy-in. And yet, the federal government was all prepared to spend 7 million dollars on a fixer-upper of their own failed fixer-upper, based on plans a decade old.

What could possibly go wrong?

This meeting was primarily for the Deltana Community Corp. board, but there’s another meeting next Thursday, and the public is welcomed to attend. Perhaps comments will be heeded for things that don’t affect the bottom line, but when the wheels are in motion the wheels are in motion.

I found my way to the truck in the icy pitch black of night, thinking to myself that this little meeting was more than a small community gripe session. This was an allegory for many of the problems in government, especially for land use issues. What we need is not solutions determined hundreds of miles away by a bunch of soil scientists and geologists, nor do we need to leave it only to the hands of people who live in the local area but may not understand some aspects of the bigger picture. What we need is a glorious meetup between the dedicated geeks who have pledged their life’s work to soil geology, AND the ones in Carhartts who live and breathe this place and know it in a much more intimate way than scientists do.

I mean, I know there was that one whole time back in 2008… but if anyone wants to call the local representatives, or the congressional delegation about this issue and request that maybe there should be a few more such meetings before the next round of fixing so the fixers have a better handle on how the land is actually used NOW, here is the contact information.

STATE:

Rep. George Rauscher: 907-465-4859  888-465-4859 Representative.George.Rauscher@akleg.gov

FEDERAL:

US Senator Lisa Murkowski: (202) 224-6665  Email link

US Senator Dan Sullivan: (202) 224-3004  Email link

Rep. Don Young: (202) 225-5765  Email link

 

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4 Responses to “Why Alaskans Hate the Government”
  1. Alaska struck a bargain with the Feds when we became a state: the new state would get 102,550,000 acres, and would forever disclaim any right to other lands. That was the deal. It was ratified by a strong majority of voters. I understand a lot of folks are unhappy with the deal as made, but T.S. That’s the deal.

    Exactly what part of “forever disclaim all right and title to any lands or other property not granted or confirm to the State of its political subdivisions by or under the authority of this Act” don’t we understand?

    • Bruce Probert says:

      About 41 years ago we had a public meeting about permitting the Jarvis Creek coal mine and the BLM official assured all present that permits would be forth coming in a timely fashion, We are still waiting. The State of Alaska is still waiting to receive final approval of lands selected 40 + years ago. We were granted a 90/10 split of oil resources and that has gone away so for any jackass to say with a straight face we don’t have a beef with the feds is bullshit, and that doesn’t include the weaponization of the BLM and the IRS to attack miners and their claims. It’s time for a reset.

    • AlaskaPi says:

      Thank you WC- I am past tired of the feds-take/took/stole/keep/want/extorted OUR land gobeeldygook.

      And I agree Jeanne– “What we need is a glorious meetup between the dedicated geeks who have pledged their life’s work to soil geology, AND the ones in Carhartts who live and breathe this place and know it in a much more intimate way than scientists do.”
      The history of the expansion of Redwood National Park in N. Cal is a larger case in point .Like so many other messes,it ran so far under the radar ( except perhaps as a I- hate -environmentalists campaign by national timber companies) most people have no idea what happened or why and yet taxpayers footed a mongo (external costs) bill for the tomfoolery.

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