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Rural-urban divide: Time for an honest discussion

  • Author: Bob Poe
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published March 14, 2009

But we are all somewhat guilty. Urban Alaskans are guilty when we proclaim unkind, uninformed generalities about rural Alaskans' demands for better schools, infrastructure, economic opportunity and social services or about their requests for help. Well-meaning people out of state and in Alaska alike are guilty when we put Alaska Natives in a box defining them, naively, as noble aboriginals living off the land in perfect balance with nature in perpetuity. Politicians are guilty when we make rural programs expendable fodder in broader political battles. And rural Alaskan people are guilty when we don't take an honest look at our failings and blame our frustrations solely on others.

Victoria Briggs of Ugashik and Ann Strongheart of Nunam Iqua, in their essay "A Future with Dignity," write eloquently about specific things their two communities could do to develop their economies and empower residents. In his article "We Need to Live Without Handouts," Alvin F. Oweletuk Sr. honestly confronts the personal responsibility rural residents have for their own future and well being.

Rural Alaska issues are complicated and challenging. The future development of our rural communities and of the people who live there will be one of the greatest challenges to whoever is Alaska's next governor.

Rural Alaska is about people first, mostly Alaska Native people, but not entirely. Rural communities vary tremendously in size, population, geographic location, climate, infrastructure, economic opportunity, resources, history, tribal make up and personality. Our communities are spread over an area twice the size of Texas and are often difficult to reach. Solutions which work in one community may not bring success in other villages.

Rural and urban living in Alaska is part birthright and part choice. Villages today are often centered around sites where the first missionaries built their churches, early traders built their stores, or the BIA built schools. Alaska Native people traditionally moved with the fish and wildlife resource and the change in seasons. Today, fixed infrastructure holds them to a particular location. Small rural communities often struggle to provide the necessary operational support to their power plants, water and sewer systems, bulk fuel facilities, schools and other public facilities. Since economies in villages are small, the support for these facilities must generally be subsidized by the state or federal governments.

Shouldn't all Alaskans have the advantage of modern conveniences? Ask any elder who really did live a subsistence life, with few store-bought goods, and they'll tell you life is much easier today. On the other hand, the innate creativity and intelligence Native people brought to the challenge of subsistence, along with their unique cultures developed over thousands of years, can often be lost or neglected with the onset of the modern world. This is often where the misunderstandings begin. Whether we are Alaska Native, European, Russian, Hispanic, African, Islamic, or Kiwi, we all want to embrace our family and ethnic heritage. At the same time none of us want our choices limited by where we are born or what ethnic heritage is wrapped within our individual genomes.

Alaska Natives are people, not museum images of Eskimo, Indian, or Aleut. Often, when urban Alaskans speak about rural Alaskans or Alaska Natives, they refer to "those" people, and the reference stings. "Those people" are us. Rural migration to Alaska's urban centers is fueled by this desire to advance in education, employment opportunities, proximity to needed medical and social services, etc. Like all people, rural Alaskans seek to better their lives in whatever ways available to them.

Where do economic realities draw limits? The Alaska Department of Education will not provide school funding when the student population drops below ten. This has happened in some places; Rampart had a school when I visited in the early '80's. It doesn't today. In some ways the economic realities are driving themselves. Are there other thresholds that should be used when deciding to fund infrastructure in some rural communities? At what point does a community cease being a community?

Infrastructure and social services become easier to support when populations gain critical mass. Rural migration is not only something urban Alaskans are seeing, rural hub communities are also experiencing this change. Emmonak has actually grown 6.5 percent to 775 since 2000. Bethel has grown 16 percent to 6,400 since 2000, and urban communities have seen rural residents, in large numbers, relocating there.

All our natural resource wealth comes from rural Alaska. Of Alaska's 375 million acres, the Statehood Act granted 104 million acres of resource wealth to all Alaskans. As resolution to bona fide Native land claims, another 44 million acres of federal land and $962.5 million were granted under state-chartered corporations created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). And in recognition of our state's unparalleled natural beauty, 56 million acres, under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) were withdrawn as national monuments. As it stands today the state of Alaska owns 28 percent of Alaska, Native Corporations own 12 percent and the federal government owns 59 percent, much of it withdrawn from the possibility of resource development. Our land and its owners will play a critical role in the urban/rural debate.

I don't know the answer to many of these questions, but I do know they will each factor importantly into Alaska's ongoing discussion about the rural-urban divide. For this debate to have any hope of resolution we each need to stop blaming the other. We each need to make a real effort to lower the rhetoric, educate ourselves about the facts, and remember that we are all Alaskans. As Alaskans, we need to reach back both to our spirit of self-reliance and to our spirit of helping our neighbor.

Bob Poe has had a 28-year career in both the Alaska private and public sectors, including serving four governors in top posts at the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, Alaska Energy Authority, Alaska Department of Transportation and Alaska International Trade. He is running as a Democrat in the 2010 gubernatorial election. Visit his website at BobPoe.com.

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