River and Road   2 comments

Alaskans face a world that is hostile to our existence. Far too many people have an opinion about Alaska and her people that is based upon their own presuppositions and prejudices rather than on-the-ground facts about those of us who actually live here.

Like most Alaskans, I agree with Joe Vogler on the environment. We should “leave some”, meaning that we live here for the wilderness, but we recognize that we can’t survive in the wilderness if we don’t have access to communities and to resources.

Gretel Ehrlich wrote in OnEarth Magazine recently about a float down the Kobuk River and presented her opinion that “Alaska’s governor wants to turn this unspoiled wilderness into open-pit mines.”

Let’s get this out of the way at the outset. I admire Ehrlich as a writer. She spins the English language in gossamer threads. Her technique notwithstanding, she either doesn’t know the full story or she deliberately leaves it out. It might help if she spoke to some real Alaskans, but I suspect she spent her Alaska time with some eco-tourism outfit that winters in Guatamala.

The Kobuk River, by the way, flows past Ambler which is a Native village I’m familiar with because I have spent time there and have friends who own Native allotments there. The Kobuk is located above the Arctic Circle on the 67th parallel. It’s right on the edge of the boreal forest known as taiga – the black spruce swamp, the drunken trees.

The vastness of the region is not lost on Ehrlich, but she spins the English language to form lies. She describes flying to Bettles from Fairbanks as taking “hours”. I’ve flown to Bettles. The trip from Fairbanks to Bettles in a light plane is comparable to the trip from Fairbanks to Anchorage in a jet.

She invoked the “Inuit” hunter a few paragraphs in and immediately alienated every Alaskan reader — including Alaska Natives. Inuits are Canadian. Alaska’s Eskimos are grouped into Yupik and Inupiat. It might have been an Inupiaq hunter viewing the scene she imagines from 14,000 years before. The Nunamiut people (sometimes called “riverine Eskimos”) live in the region. They speak Inupiaq (well, a dialect of it), but they consider themselves somewhat different than the coastal dwellers.

Ehrlich also describes the Alaskan “jet set” lifestyle that few Alaskans can afford. Nice that she can afford it, I suppose. I’ve been to Bettles for my job. It’s been nearly a decade since I went to Ambler because the plane fare is prohibitive.

Her description of Bettles as being chaotic and busy made me laugh because the last time I was in Bettles I fell asleep next to the airfield while waiting for our plane. Maybe she was there on mail day. It can get a little chaotic for about an hour on mail day. She said that locals told her that Bettles was gearing up for the proposed 200-mile “road to resources” that would carry “300 to 400 ore trucks a day traveling at speeds of 70 miles an hour.” I’ll deal with that a little later.

She claims the Kobuk area was settled thousands of years ago, but in truth the village of Ambler was settled in 1958. The nearby village of Kobuk was founded in 1899 as a supply point for miners. Together, these two villages hold 400 people and that’s a dwindling population. It’s expensive to live a “subsistence” lifestyle where there are no roads and you have to depend on air travel for your lifeline. Milk is $7 a gallon (as opposed to $3.40 in Fairbanks) and heating oil about the same (as opposed to $3.70 in Fairbanks).

That road Ehrlich is all het up about is barely in the design stage and if it is ever built, it will be a single or 1 ½ lane improved dirt road and it is currently being proposed to run from the west coast of Alaska to the Ambler district, nowhere near Bettles. Trucks will be traveling very slowly and there might be 10 a day at the height of the summer season. Winter travel will likely be by snow machine, since DOT won’t plow.

Ehrlich waxes poetic about the Onion Portage where caribou swim the river every fall to arrive at their wintering grounds, but she apparently doesn’t know that the Inupiat of the Ambler region shoot the caribou in the head as they swim across the Kobuk at the Onion because they’re guaranteed a kill that is less likely when the caribou are able to run at full speed. She also enthuses about how the Inupiat and the Nuamiut have always traded freely with the one another, neglecting their extensive history of warfare with each other and the more southern and interior Athabaskans. She does, however, get it right that there is not a single road anywhere in the Northwest Arctic Borough. Her Arctic Eden is fast emptying of people because of lack of jobs and high costs of everything, primarily because there are no roads.

She waxed poetic about the “Inuit” religion and culture, again apparently unaware that the prophet Mani’ilaq spoke out against that same culture, especially the rampant sexual abuse that was important to Eskimo shamanism, and looked forward to the coming of men with white skin and flying machines. His prophesy had such an impact upon the people of the Kobuk region that when evangelical missionaries (primarily Friends and Baptists) appeared, the entire region converted to Christianity quickly and with almost no instances of force. Whenever I’ve asked people in Ambler if they want to return to the old ways, the women especially say they are still fighting to free their daughters from the legacy of sexual abuse that arises whenever people in the village drink alcohol, so no, they feel that Christianity taught them a better way to live and it is to Christianity, not the Inupiat religion, they return when they stop drinking.

“At camp, the conversation returns to the proposed 200-mile industrial mega-road that will cost half a billion dollars to build over thawing tundra and wild rivers: more than 100 crossings of wetlands and rivers in all, some with culverts, others with bridges, in a part of the world where there have never been any roads at all. Acidic water runoff from the mines will pollute the waterways. The road may be built with asbestos-laden soil taken from the colorfully named Helpmejack Hills. In that case, plumes of asbestos dust would rise over the national park and would fly hundreds of miles, affecting the health of all who work on, live near, or travel the road. The governor has already signed a law that forbids anyone from suing the state or the mining companies for health problems—mainly mesothelioma—arising from the road constructed out of a hazardous material.” (Ehrlich)

I love the assumptions – not – that water runoff from the mines (that don’t exist yet) WILL pollute the waterways. Alaska has some of the most stringent mining regulations of any state in the union, adopted in part to preempt federal over-regulation. The assumption is based upon ignorance of those laws and regulations.

Or how about the assumption that roads “may be built with asbestos-laden soil”. Here’s the problem. Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral that the people of the Kobuk region have been in contact with for however many years they’ve lived in the region – be it thousands or mere decades. The villages of Ambler breath it now, although given that 90% of them voluntarily smoke tobacco at an astonishing rate, I think mesothelioma is the least of their worries. According to the DOT engineers that I have spoken with, the naturally-occurring asbestos will be less likely to become “freable” if bound up in road material.

Her assumption that the mines will only be around for about 12 years is also incorrect. One mine might last 12 or 20 years, but the area is heavily mineralized. The road will service mines in the area for decades and the villages along that road will have access to the greater world and the lower prices that come with that access for however long the road is maintained.

“Opinions about the road in the three villages of Ambler, Shungnak, and Kobuk are split. Many younger people endorse the road and the mines because they want and need jobs and money. Twelve thousand years of subsistence living no longer holds them. Their language is nearly gone, and the threads that bind traditional culture together are broken. “We had everything we needed here,” a native friend told me, “before alien people came telling us we didn’t have enough.”” (Ehrlich)

I argue the term “friend”, especially since Ehrlich knows so little about the region that she doesn’t know to capitalize Native. I don’t argue that she might have encountered someone who said that. I would note that the people of the Kobuk region get free health care, Native corporation dividends, the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend, and public assistance payments that make their “subsistence” lifestyles possible. Snow machines, heating oil, cigarettes and alcohol cost money.

“The slaughter of wolves has been weighing heavily on national park visitors and employees. There’s an all-out culling effort by the state’s Department of Fish and Game to keep the declining caribou population up so that sport hunters can kill their quota, though officials can’t say with certainty why the caribou are in decline. As in all western states, money from hunting licenses keeps the department afloat—a conflict of interest, it would seem, with its mission to protect the wildlife. Last winter the agency killed 44 percent of the wolf pack that dens in the Yukon-Charlie Preserve from helicopters. Are they “park wolves” or “state wolves”? Who “owns” the wildlife?” (Ehrlich)

Like so many who do not live near to nature, Ehrlich has no concept of “stewardship” of wildlife or resources. Her belief is that you must lock it up and leave it only assessible by “indigenous” people. She fails to recognize that the Kobuk valley residents harvest far more caribou than sport hunters do. Most actual wildlife biologists with long-term experience in Alaska believe the caribou are in decline because of overgrazing of their habitat. In other words, there are too many caribou. The National Park Service “manages” wildlife by not managing it, which drives the cycle of boom and bust population cycles. But it should also be noted that non-Native Alaskans also need to eat and we are subject to the same high costs and limited employment opportunities as Natives. Intensive management of game resources allows Germany a per-capita harvest of animals through hunting that is greater than Alaska’s per capita harvest. Ehrlich and the National Park Service both disdain the best available science and risk actually destroying the biological diversity of Alaska because of their refusal to allow sensible predator control.

“People have always used this river and continue to do so. The Kuuvanmiut (the people who live on the Kobuk) still have fish camps in the summer months that are overseen by women. The younger men walk to the first tributary north through mountain passes to the Noatak drainage to hunt caribou and Dall sheep. As soon as snow falls, they return and help the women at the camps, where fish are being dried and smoked and berry picking is ongoing. The men hunt nearby until winter comes on strong; then the whole population of a village returns to its winter camp.” (Ehrlich)

First, I asked a friend who was born in Kobuk and raised in Ambler if Kuuvanmiut is the correct word for her people. She speaks the language and could not explain Ehrlich’s use of the term. The younger men do not walk anywhere. They take power boats to get to the Onion and four wheelers for land travel in summer and snow machines in the winter. These days, many are abandoning the Kobuk for Kotz (short of Kotzebue) or Fairbanks or Anchorage because they can no longer afford to live in a remote village where everything must be flown in. In the old days, missionaries flew in supplies in the winter, landing off-airport with little more than lanterns to guide them in, but men like Harley Shields are mostly retired or dead now and Federal Aviation Administration rules increase every year so that there will be no one able to replace them. The subsistence lifestyle Ehrlich admires so much has really been a myth for a number of decades, but it is slowly being strangled by overregulation and the cost of transport, which is mostly driven by the regulations people like Ehrlich advocate for.

There are some real roads being built, which I will post on later, but Ehrlich doesn’t want to see them either, nor does she want to meet the people who advocate for these roads because then she might have to admit that she got it wrong because you can’t really know Alaska until you’ve lived here. Passing through is just not enough.
How could she possibly know what the people of the Kobuk region need based on a few days floating the river?

2 responses to “River and Road

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  1. Great post


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