Opinions

What serves us and what’s just noise in these pandemic times

Normally, this time of year at Denali has an anticipatory edge to it, a calm before the storm of seasonal workers and tourists and traffic hits the park and neighboring communities. Needless to say, it’s been different this spring. Like much of the world, we’re all waiting, but we don’t quite know for what, except that it’s not the imminent arrival of busloads of tourists.

Summer brings more people, and with more people, more noise. In recent years, that’s included the sounds of a mobile asphalt plant and rock crusher in the middle of the neighborhood adjacent to the park, in a state-managed gravel pit/off-season sledding hill. The Denali Park Road, like any road, demands near-constant maintenance, even the parts that aren’t slumping off a mountainside, and that means house-rattling industrial construction. Even under normal circumstances, I work from home, and last summer I kept a tally sheet at my desk tracking how often what felt like an earthquake was the rock crusher (Wilderness maintenance: 13. Earthquake: 1). Some days, the smell of burning asphalt was so strong you couldn’t leave the windows open. I sat in my garden watching seedlings vibrate. Road maintenance, even in a wilderness destination, is a high-impact process.

In September, a side-dump truck flattened the sign at the intersection of the Parks Highway into the ground. I never liked that sign, but you wonder if that’s the kind of driver you want barreling down a road frequented by kids and dogs and the occasional wandering tourist. Someone propped the sign halfway up, and most of it’s still there this spring, the stop sign curled around the post.

The Anchorage contractor, Pruhs Construction, overwintered the equipment in the pit. I stopped by one of the last cold evenings, and watched kids — and adults — throw themselves down the hill on orange plastic sleds. Some of the runs almost reached the portable operation room’s door, and the tanks and platforms reflected the spring sun. The company is back at Denali this summer, finishing the paving work at the park entrance and also stationed in the middle of the closed park to haul gravel into the space where the map says a road should be, and see how many years we can fend off gravity and climate with renewable contracts and dump trucks.

Dana Pruhs, the company’s owner, also serves as chair of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA. He’s been in the news for AIDEA’s recent transfer of $35 million in state funds away from small-business support to instead finance the proposed Ambler mining road in the Brooks Range. Mr. Pruhs cut off public testimony at the first of two last-minute call-in meetings when someone’s unmuted phone broadcast the song “Horse With No Name” to the dozens of people on the line hoping to speak up for Alaska businesses, intact landscapes, clean water and food security. “I don’t give a sh*t” were the last words we heard from Mr. Pruhs that day. He explained at the next meeting that his frustration was with the noise, not the callers, but his words certainly left a bad feeling about the process.

I mean, I get it. It is indeed frustrating to talk over someone else’s noise. And it’s an obnoxious song (“la la la la la la la la”). However, it doesn’t seem that the board wanted to hear Alaskans; they only wanted to expedite yet another road, another place to crush rocks in someone else’s backyard. The Brooks Range villages opposed to the Ambler Road know what’s up: Once a road is built, there’s no going back.

With all the questions about the coming summer, the future of industrial tourism, the booms and busts that have defined this economy, it’s unsettling to think about what may or may not happen, the tourists who won’t drive on the re-paved road. But it’s also a chance to pause, to think about what parts of this economy serve us, to think about what keeps our homes, lands, and waters safe and healthy, and what’s just noise that we’ve gotten used to.

These are questions about which all Alaskans should give a ... well, you know.

Erica Watson is a writer living just outside Denali National Park. She is the communications manager for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

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