OPINION: Alaskans are building a prosperous next economy while our leaders are stuck in the past

I want Alaska’s leaders to talk about what’s needed to ensure that future Alaskans are able to enjoy the uniquely Alaskan lifestyle I have. I grew up steeped in the assumption that our state’s only hope for a healthy economy lies in drilling, digging and clearing land. Now I see these as outdated issues politicians focus on in an effort to win votes. Oil and gas jobs are disingenuously presented as the only way to achieve the stable and high quality of life Alaskans actually care about. Candidates beat the drum for a familiar list of politically motivated projects – that includes the natural gas pipeline proposal, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil lease sale, Cook Inlet natural gas lease sale, state-funded private road projects (like the Ambler Road and West Susitna Access Road), Pebble Mine, Donlin Mine, and the Nenana land sale – and make false promises of big paydays for everyday Alaskans. They also mire us in obsolete debates and funnel public money into private hands, largely outside of Alaska.

Alaskans’ priorities and the global economy have moved on, yet our elected leaders continue to champion decades-old projects. Just days ago, the last private company with Arctic Refuge leases, Knik Arm Services, pulled out. Now the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned corporation that paid more than $12 million to the federal government for leases that the market continues to deem worthless, is the last remaining lease holder after no major oil companies bid on Arctic Refuge leases in 2021. I’m tired of seeing Alaska’s resources used as a political pawn, like in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, which reinstated the Cook Inlet lease sale that was canceled in May due to lack of interest, the same month that Chevron and Hilcorp paid $10 million to back out of their Arctic Refuge leases. A more obscure project Alaska’s government is spending massive amounts of public money on is the Nenana land sale, which wouldn’t impact food security much less turn a profit for decades and is likely to be a complete flop because industrial agriculture is unlikely to succeed there – not to mention that environmental analyses have yet to be completed and the local tribe has not been adequately consulted.

Another timely place this dynamic is playing out is in the draft statewide economic plan, which is a five-year Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS). The outdated vision for Alaska presented in the CEDS focuses on extractive industries, in contrast with the types of projects public survey respondents think will boost the economy, listed in an appendix on page 149 of the draft plan itself: Alaskans want investment in housing, energy, infrastructure, workforce, roads, broadband, business development and local foods.

Betting Alaska’s future on economic drivers from the last century, namely non-renewable resource extraction, appears willfully ignorant of the diversified economic innovation happening across Alaska today. Renewable energy offers a real chance for a strong economic future in Alaska along with local agriculture, kelp & oyster farming, a growing health care industry, broadband expansions that multiply entrepreneurial potential, and locally owned tourism businesses. Hardworking Alaskans have already laid the foundation for a thriving, vibrant, diversified and resilient economy that is forward looking (check out AKNextEconomy.com to learn more). Our politicians should embrace these opportunities and instead of getting stuck in a rut pushing old ideas should get to work so Alaskans’ lives aren’t subject to the booms and busts of a resource colony anymore.

Business as usual, as currently articulated in the draft statewide economic plan, will result in economic stagnation. You can help bring Alaska’s five-year Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy up to date with what Alaskans deserve by submitting comments today at ua-ced.org/statewide-ceds. We need robust public input in order to reflect the will of the people rather than the interests of the current administration. I encourage the authors of the report to extend the comment period beyond the current Aug. 26 deadline, do targeted outreach until a broader swath of perspectives are reflected in comments.

Imagine the returns on investment we’d reap if Alaska’s leaders spent their time, money and political will on forward-looking opportunities instead of distracting boondoggles. Alaskans deserve leaders who represent our values today, not what voters cared about decades ago. It’s time to elect leaders who will stop fixating on the idealized solutions of the past, and support the real work of resourceful Alaskans who are creating our State’s economic future.

Margi Dashevsky is a lifelong Alaskan and the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition’s Regenerative Economies Director.

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