CHICKALOON -- The Chickaloon Trail sank into the muddy subsoil, its ruts deepened by more than a hundred years of use. Wagons once rolled here. Now the tracks were left by moose, four-wheelers hunting those moose and my kids' sopping sneakers. The path twisted along a route that only vaguely resembled the line on our map. We had to trust, like generations of travelers before, that it would get us where we needed to go. It used to be the only way.
This is my family's way of life -- shuffling from somewhere to somewhere else at the fickle and faltering speed of 3-year-old legs. We sucked the sweet paste of rose hips and the sour juice of cranberries. We schemed ways to paddle children and gear across a torrent of water. We spent a week trekking through the forested coal fields between Chickaloon and Palmer, on a slow, meandering, non-motorized path.
From the highway, it takes less than an hour. Sutton is a gas station and a bar. Chickaloon is a sign on the side of the highway. Small roads peel off here and there. There are mountains and yellow-painted highway lines and the rushing gray curves of the Matanuska River.
SLIDE SHOW: Chickaloon coal
In the forest, the air was damp and tangy with the scent of highbush cranberries. Both river and highway were invisible, only 2 miles away. I measured it on the map with a pinch of my fingers, coaxing the kids to run a bit farther through the puddles. We had dinner plans. This is always the first lesson of being on the ground: reality is much larger and more intricate than the map.
Dinner was at one of those Alaska cabins built of logs, sweat and love -- with beautiful craftsmanship, salvaged odds and ends, precarious lofts and unfinished corners. Between sips of soup, the stories tumbled down around us like the forest's yellow aspen leaves. This place reminded me of my own small community of Seldovia. Except for the coal.
There's a lot of coal in Alaska – trillions of tons, maybe a quarter or more of the world's total supply. We are the Saudi Arabia of coal.
This fact has been noted now and then throughout history, mostly an after-note in the race for sea otters, gold, and oil. During World War I, as the railroad was being built to link Seward and Fairbanks, a spur was built out here for this particular patch of convenient coal. Local coal powered the trains for a while. It powered the Navy until 1922, when the Navy didn't want it anymore, shuttering a brand-new coal washery two weeks after its opening in Sutton. Oil was cheaper. The boomtown of Chickaloon was dismantled around the remains of the Native community that came before, and most of the tiny coal mines along Alaska's coasts went the way of the commercial whaling industry. The end of the rail line shrank back toward Sutton, where coal still filled the rail cars until the early 1960s, when the Anchorage military bases turned to natural gas. The last mine shut down in the early 1980s.
Now, the Usibelli Coal Mine company wants to put in a new coal mine at Wishbone Hill — the most advanced proposal in a new flurry of interest in the coal beneath Alaska -- and the state has granted it a surface mining permit.
From the top of Wishbone Hill, the mines appear as a sort of anti-oasis, islands of gray between the green and gold trees. Closer up, there is trash and shotgun shells. Water streams through grating at the mouth of a closed mine shaft. From the inside, a bullet-riddled trailer sparkles like a planetarium. There's a faint whiff of burned hydrocarbons from fires burning through underground coal seams that have now, after decades, mostly been put out. Many people living here today never saw any more of the coal mines than this -- and want to keep it that way.
"I've invested everything," said Chickaloon resident Melea Roed, the sweep of her arm encompassing the house her husband built, the gardens out the window and her teenage daughter, who'd never lived anywhere else. "My whole adult life is here ... But if the mine comes, I guess we'll leave."
We heard the same thing from other coal opponents, ranging from new residents to ones who were born here. Except for Chief Gary Harrison of the Chickaloon Tribe. He started his story of coal-related conflict in World War I, long before his birth. When we asked, "What do you think of coal development?" he answered by pointing to a dusty picture of himself being handcuffed in front of a coal exploration truck in the 1980s. The Chickaloon Tribe and the Chickaloon Native Corporation -- who come down on opposite sides of the coal mining issue — have nowhere else to go.
We met the pro-coal crowd at the Sutton bar, the Alpine Inn. On the side facing the highway, the Alpine Inn proudly displayed a banner congratulating Usibelli Coal Mine company on receiving a minor air quality permit. Most of the people at that gathering didn't remember coal mining any more than their opponents. But the few who did, including one ex-miner, spoke of it in glowing terms; the picnics, the close-knit family of coal miners, the vibrant community built on the jobs coal brought.
Now, kids travel the highway to school in Palmer, leaving Sutton Elementary half-empty. Parents travel it to work, the local farmers travel it to the market and the folks we met are now so used to zipping down to Anchorage that they can't fathom why their Anchorage friends think they're too far away to visit.
"They don't have time to be part of the community," said one elderly woman. "Their whole lives are somewhere else." The Mat-Su Borough mayor spoke up from the corner of the room. "It [the commute] isn't healthy. We need resource jobs."
In any economy, some people can work for their neighbors -- fixing their roads, teaching their kids, selling them gas. But to bring anything in from outside, you need to have something that outsiders need. It could be a digital document. A cup of coffee for a passing tourist. Or a lump of coal. Raw resources have long been Alaska's currency.
We tend to lump all those resources into political abstractions -- "resource jobs are good jobs" or "resources built this state." Certainly, Alaska has a lot of resources: coal, oil, gas, wind, fish, trees, metal, scenery, water and moose. They're not the same.
Coal is our dirtiest fuel. From the mine to the smokestack, it has the largest footprint, creating more carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel. We don't use it much, either. Despite our vast reserves of coal, Alaska runs on oil and gas, burning only half of the small amount of coal we mine. We tax it so little compared to oil that coal barely contributes to state coffers. Any industry requires workers, but coal -- measured in investment dollars per jobs produced -- is one of the least effective ways to create them, and the Alaska Railroad moves our coal on the back of massive federal subsidies.
The crowd at the Alpine Inn swept climate change aside with a series of practiced and contradictory denials, running through "It's not happening," "It's not human-caused," "It's all China" and "Alaska has too few people to matter anyway." Coal opponents acknowledged the issue, but talked much more about coal dust blowing in the wind.
But climate change matters, even to Alaska – perhaps especially to Alaska. It matters to the mobbing walruses stuck on shore, melting permafrost, the eroding villages.
If you live here, worldwide concerns pale compared to the thought of coal dust coating the vegetables on your farm, coal trucks rumbling past your house or a well-paying heavy-equipment job for your son-in-law. The one thing everyone seemed to agree on was what none of them could have: the power to choose what was going to happen here.
"(The Alaska) Mental Health Trust owns this land, and they don't even care what we think," one said.
"People locally should build things for themselves, and have a choice -- not just let some foreign company walk in," said another.
Coal opponents wanted the opportunity to keep the life they'd built here. When I asked the pro-coal group if the community should have the final say, they vehemently agreed. Who wants a mining company (or grant money, depending on your point of view) deciding their future? Shouldn't locals decide?
That's not how it works, though. Our map is carved into pastel-colored political chunks -- this one for the federal government, that one for the state, the other for a Native corporation. Each chunk's managers are supposed to decide for the good of that chunk's collective owners. In this region, it's mostly Mental Health Trust land.
Really, we — the people -- don't decide at all. Earnest opinions about what the community might lose or gain from coal development don't matter much. Money does. Coal prices shift on the world market and extraction and transportation costs change, and with them the answer to the real question: "Is this profitable right now?" That's why mines open and why they close. That's why this issue is cropping up again just now, in a coal field we've known about since the 1890s.
The government layers things on top of the basic economics: taxpayer-funded infrastructure that tips the balance of profitability, regulations and reviews that go smoothly or not so smoothly, permit requirements and rulings on lawsuits.
Is a particular project a good idea or not, for the community or the state or the world? These fundamental questions are usually left unanswered.
Note: In the weeks since this trip took place, Usibelli received a surface mining permit for Wishbone Hill from the state. The federal Office of Surface Mining will rule on its validity soon. Other coal leases in the area are currently inactive, but may be pursued at any time.
Erin McKittrick is a writer, adventurer and scientist based in Seldovia, Alaska. She is the author of "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski" and "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska." You can find her at GroundTruthTrekking.org.