Mr. President, thank you for planning to spend three days visiting and exploring our great state of Alaska. No sitting president has done this since Warren Harding in 1923. We think it could be transformative for us Alaskans, as well as the nation. You'll have the chance to see and experience the Great Land as few Americans do, and hopefully you will fly away with a new appreciation of how important Alaska is to the future of America.
This is a place so fundamentally different from the rest of our nation that there is no way to grasp its people and qualities except by visiting it in person. We understand your trip is intended to showcase the face of climate change. Alaskans are sitting on the front lines of this international challenge, and we want to help find solutions. But in your time here, you will come across many equally vital crosscurrents in modern life. (And, by the way, you may hear grumbling from our many duck and moose hunters whose small airplanes will be grounded for security while you're here. Feel free to shout out an apology for that inconvenience. Of course, we understand it's unavoidable.)
A few sweeping generalities about us:
Alaska is a showplace for the tradeoffs inherent in a resource-extraction economy. It is a melting pot of indigenous people and their cultures. It is a place where subsistence hunting and fishing are still an exalted way of life, even to us urbanites of Anchorage.
Anchorage includes the most ethnically diverse ZIP code in the U.S. Yet, much of the rest of the state has no diversity and little hope of growth or prosperity lacking road access. In rural Alaska, life is cruelly expensive and jobs and professional opportunities almost nonexistent.
Alaska's geographic location as the farthest northern, western and eastern state (our furthest Aleutian Islands are in the Eastern Hemisphere) offers tremendous potential for its growth as a global commerce hub. In fact, development of some sort is inevitable. Climate change in the Far North is opening up the next great trade routes, along with new oil fields, mines and fisheries. It's a vast region stretching from the Bering Sea, along Alaska's western shores, through the 56-mile-wide Bering Strait that separates Alaska and Russia, to our nation's northern coastline along the Arctic Ocean. But in a mere two-dimensional view of earth, this fact is hard to grasp for many Americans. It often takes looking at a globe to comprehend the relative distances.
We hope your visit will help them understand the economic ramifications of a warming Arctic, but also the imperative of leading us ahead with a proactive Arctic development policy. More and more multinational companies are looking northward for shipping and resource development, and we need to set the parameters for how they interact with our American lives.
For many Alaskans, the warming has already brought tremendous changes.
Adaptation is the name of our game. Our winters have become milder, terrifyingly so for many residents. Bitter cold and an ice-based culture in the northern part of our state has given way to only moderate cold, with thin ice making for dangerous winter transportation and subsistence. Coastal villages are being washed away before our eyes. Animal migration patterns are disrupted. That means food supplies are in jeopardy.
Without affordable energy, everything is more expensive in Alaska. In remote communities, this is shockingly true. Yet, renewable energy sources still need a government-backed boost to take hold. Long-talked-about geothermal, hydro, wind and solar (yes, even solar for half the year) power plants are virtually undeveloped.
Compared to rest of the United States, Alaska is still an infant state. Please keep this thought at hand as you gaze at our awe-inspiring scenery and meet our diverse people. We need an economic livelihood. Some of our villages don't even have sewers or running water. You will hear the phrase "honey bucket." Please know that it refers to something not sweet at all. As our largest landowner, the federal government must join hands with us to improve the picture for human life here.
After you return to the Lower 48 and reflect on your Alaska experiences, perhaps you could consider revisiting the Statehood Compact, the 1959 mandate by which we became a state. Under the compact, we were to use our resource-rich lands to build our state, even though much of Alaska has remained federally owned. As Alaska Gov. Bill Walker has said, and I agree with him, we fulfilled our end of this compact.
Now, something has to give. The making of a tax base, for example. Land swaps could result in opening previously held federal lands to state and private development. And, too, we must look at the long-term opportunity – yes, opportunity – created by none other than climate change: developing the coastline of the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean with ports and other infrastructure to support the already increasing shipping and resource development.
Mr. President, we might wish the Arctic Ocean was still the ice-clogged, no-man's land of the past. But Alaskans are realists and see this transition for the opportunity it creates. Please help us realize it.
Alice Rogoff is owner and publisher of Alaska Dispatch News.
Correction: The preceding commentary at first incorrectly stated that Pres. Warren Harding visited Alaska in 1926. The reference has been fixed above.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.