We in rural and coastal Alaska were relieved recently when Congress passed a resolution to keep the government running. A recent Gallup study showed Alaska ranks first in percentage of state populations employed by government, and fourth for percentage employed by the feds.
A shutdown would have furloughed Alaskans across the state, draining money from our supermarkets, our satellite university campuses like the University of Alaska Southeast's Ketchikan campus, and our federally regulated fisheries, an industry valued at over a billion dollars just in my home of Southeast Alaska.
Headlines are missing a debate in D.C. that is of critical importance to Alaskans. This debate asks whether it's acceptable for Congress to continue to squeeze funding for our outdoor economy.
For almost a decade, Congress has flat-funded our outdoor economy through the Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill. Every time D.C. makes another short-term budget compromise, another government shutdown threatens deep, irresponsible cuts to Alaska's outdoor infrastructure and the over 91,000 Alaskans employed in outdoor recreation.
You might ask, what's the cost of undercutting investment in our outdoor economy?
• It limits resources for wildland firefighting and fire management. This means if Alaska has another wildfire season even close to as bad as last year, money to fight fires is taken out of fire prevention and suppression funds, which makes the problem much worse down the road. This isn't as much of a problem where I live, in the heart of the Tongass rainforest, but clearly last summer's wildfires severely disrupted the lives of our friends in the Kenai, the Mat-Su, the Y-K Delta and the Interior.
• It reduces support for our fish and game management and clean water programs, scaling back research that enables Alaska to plan long-term and keep stocks healthy. It strips support from the National Fish Habitat Action plan, which focuses on species vulnerable to climate change, a critical threat to our fishermen.
• It undercuts infrastructure upgrades and jobs in our state and national parks. This threatens the livelihood of contractors, employees and those in the tourism industry.
We already know that the state cannot continue to make up the difference. This year the state cut its parks budget by $500,000, and made additional cuts to Natural Resources and Fish and Game. This past legislative session, I had to fight like hell to save the only wildlife trooper position in Wrangell, an island community with a strong commercial and sportfishing economy that cannot be reached in a reasonable time by the trooper in the next town over. The ripple effects from these cuts in small communities are my No. 1 concern as we prepare to head back to Juneau.
But right now, there's a clear difference between the health of Alaska's economy (wracked by reduction in oil revenue) and the rest of the country (thriving thanks to low gas prices). In rural and coastal Alaska, we don't care as much about political games as they do in D.C. It doesn't matter whether you're a Republican, Democrat, or nonpartisan independent. We all know the outdoors are critical to our economy. We know it makes sense to invest in healthy fish, fire prevention and the jobs and businesses that go hand-in-hand with our outdoors. We hope our congressional delegation will continue to support a strong federal investment in Alaska's outdoor economy.
Rep. Dan Ortiz represents House District 36. He is the only Independent in the Alaska Legislature.
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