The Other Great State

ANCHORAGE -- Many and varied are the wonders, the splendors and the peculiarities of the Other Great State. The funniest thing said by Alaskans is, "Gonna be another scorcher," which means "Could get into the 70s".

In Alaska, God is called Ted Stevens. The senior senator and chairman of the Appropriations Committee is worth an estimated $3 billion a year to the state. One of the oddest things about Alaska is the complete disconnect between its politics and its reality. Alaska is an implacably conservative state, albeit with a lovely libertarian lilt. Consequently, the right-wing radio talk show hosts bash government unmercifully, and Alaskans wander around under the impression that they are all rugged individualists who can take care of themselves and don't need no goldern govamint. That the state is painfully dependent on government is clear only to those who think.

The state is also dependent on salmon, and therein lies some bad news. The salmon market is in a disastrous state, in large part because of salmon-farming in Canada and South America. Do yourself and Alaska a favor, and insist on buying only wild Alaska salmon. It is sooooo much better than those pale, flabby, chemical-laden farm fishies.

Unfortunately, salmon are extraordinarily sensitive to temperature variations. Global warming, as the scientists predicted, is affecting Alaska first and worst. Alaska has warmed by 5.4 degrees in three decades, and by 8 degrees in winter. This has dramatically affected every part of Alaska. The ecologists and conservationists are desperately worried. The sea is rising, the salmon runs are getting earlier, and in the permafrost, the oceans and the geology, the changes are unambiguous and demonstrable. Bark beetles are attacking more forests, parasites are attacking wildlife. The polar bear is an unlikely canary in the mines, but the largest predators on earth are becoming dangerously skinny and have to be killed because they keep moving south.

The temperature variations may sound minor and even welcome in a state that can still haul off and get 80-below on any given winter day, but there is only one degree of difference between freezing and melting. How much a plant reflects and absorbs the sun, the reflection off snow cover, the growth of parasites in herring, a 10-degree warming in the Yukon River, all of this has a combined impact that is incalculable. The trees are getting new diseases, king/Chinook salmon are dying off in the Yukon. And the state is still full of people who think global warming is a commie plot or there is no global warming, or if there is, it will just improve the climate. Classic case of denial.

Seventeen percent of Alaskans are native people, who have lived in this difficult and delicate environment for thousands of years. Subsistence or subsistence slightly mixed with the money economy is still the most common way of life in rural Alaska. Even the berries picked by native women, a critical source of vitamin C, are becoming scarcer. The response of Alaska's Republican right is to slash and burn, subsidize mining and give tax breaks to oil and gas companies for exploration. Cronyism and favors for special interest groups have become the hallmarks of state government. Gov. Frank Murkowski even appointed his own daughter to the U.S. Senate, a staggering example of nepotism.

Any summer visitor to Alaska would assume that tourism must be a goldmine for the state. Great shoals of tourists -- tame as anything, don't even shy away when you touch them --- wander about like musk ox, spending money on everything from moose-kitsch to superb, international hotels. Unfortunately, the industry is vertically integrated and owned by out-of-state cruise lines. The cruise companies bring the tourists, bus them hither and yon, put them up at their own hotels and take them on their own packaged tours, and most Alaskans never see a penny of the money. In many ways, Alaska is a classic colony, exploited for its natural resources by huge corporations from the Lower 48. Forty percent of the world's remaining temperate rainforest is in southeast Alaska -- and only .02 percent of the earth's surface is temperate rainforest. Alaska Republicans seem determined to cut it all down as rapidly as possible -- 70 percent of the old growth has already been not just cut but clear-cut. It makes no economic sense; the timber market is so depressed, they're losing money on every tree they cut. They get $1.75 a tree for 150-year-old timber, according to conservationists around the state.

It is so easy to fall in love with this glorious place, and most of the people are as enchanting as the wildlife --- friendly, hospitable, helpful, tough and resilient.

The struggle in Alaska is ultimately between the short-timers and the long-termers, both in terms of length of residence and of foresight. The military and the oil and gas industry account for most of the population growth, and are both notoriously conservative and transient. You get some dentist from Anchorage who wants to fly out to the bush and shoot a moose for his living-room wall and doesn't care whether the native subsistence culture is affected or not. Alaska still has the mentality that everyone should have a right to do pretty much whatever he or she wants, regardless of the fragility of the ecology. Such a beautiful, magical place deserves much, much better.


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