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What Will Alaska’s Future Look Like?

Alaska is the last frontier, but energy development and climate change promise to change the face of our wildest state in your lifetime. Here's how.
Backpacker_Magazine_DenaliDenali, National Park Service

Alaska is a place for pioneers, and no more so than today as the state faces this century’s biggest challenges—energy development and climate change. Just as they did 30 years ago when the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System jump-started their oil economy, residents of the Last Frontier are surveying their options and reinventing themselves.

Resource extraction still dominates the state, but citizens and politicians are now engaging in open discussions about how new mining, drilling, and pipeline projects will impact the environment. Damage from melting permafrost is proving that rising temperatures affect people and jobs as well as polar bears. Backpackers should pay attention to Alaska, and not only because its peaks and glaciers inspire those epic daydreams and once-in-a-lifetime trips. After all, the 49th state’s immense wealth in energy and wilderness ensures that any decisions made up north will eventually flow down a pipeline or river valley and spill into the Lower 48.

Finite Resources

Oil has been good to Alaska, where the petroleum industry contributes 80 percent of the state’s revenues and supports about a third of its work force.

Since the pipeline opened in 1977, average personal income here has risen 500 percent. There’s no income or sales tax, and every October each resident receives a dividend check—last year’s was $1,107—from a $39 billion rainy-day fund. But oil production is slowing, and state officials are considering what comes next.
As in the past, some Alaskans are seeking the next windfall underground. Tapping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil has long been a polarizing national issue, but it’s just one of many resource-extraction proposals stirring up controversy in Alaska. Governor Sarah Palin wants to build a 3,600-mile pipeline to carry natural gas from the North Slope to Canadian and Midwest markets. Because the project would follow the existing oil pipeline and highways, it has not raised significant opposition.

More controversial is the Pebble prospect, a copper and gold mine near the headwaters of valuable sockeye salmon fisheries in Bristol Bay. Mineral companies are determined to open the mine by 2009, despite opposition from native Alaskans, environmentalists, and fisheries. Similar resistance from native communities to new leases for offshore oil drilling in the Beaufort Sea resulted in a court order in July to stop exploratory drilling.

These debates underscore the fact that residents are beginning to question the consequences of energy extraction, and perhaps recognize the modern limits of the pioneer spirit that built their state.

Warming Trends

Alaskans are watching climate change from a closer vantage point than most Americans, as eroding roads, sinking buildings, and massive forest fires impact daily life from North Slope villages to suburban Anchorage. The damage will only get worse, according to a June 2007 study by the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research. Thawing permafrost could add $3 to $6 billion to infrastructure costs by 2030, a 10 to 20 percent increase in the state’s construction budget. This prediction has prompted the state’s conservative politicians to make their first real moves to address climate change. In July, Alaska’s two U.S. senators signed on to support the bipartisan Low Carbon Economy Act of 2007, which would set up a carbon-trading system and allocate money for infrastructure repairs. This action followed a unanimous vote in April 2006 by the state House to create a commission to help communities impacted by global warming. Alaska has so far declined to join the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative, a consortium of six U.S. states and two Canadian provinces committed to greenhouse gas reduction, because state officials fear any cuts could threaten their oil-dependent economy.

Robert Thompson, an Inupiat chief, wilderness guide, and ANWR resident, welcomes the progress he sees, but warns that all Americans need to stay informed and involved. “No one knows what happens up here,” he says, “but they should, because someday it’s going to happen in Minnesota and Montana.”

Park à la Carte
How the cruise industry is changing Alaska tourism

Last year, visitation to Alaska’s national parks jumped 5 percent even as it declined elsewhere. Why? Sixty percent of the state’s 1.6 million park visitors in 2006 came in on cruise ships. Glacier Bay and other coastal parks are the main attractions, but more than half of Denali’s visitors are ship vacationers who arrive by train and tour the park on private buses, says park public affairs officer Kris Fister. This boost in cruise tourism spurred the park to conduct a 3-year evaluation of its vehicle quota.

Meanwhile, backcountry visitation in Denali has declined in recent years, says Fister. The shuttle buses that access trailheads are carrying fewer riders. To improve backcountry services, the park has proposed a $15 wilderness fee for 2008. Ron Peck, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, admits that cruise tourism is big and growing, but he says Alaska’s wilderness is even bigger. “Hikers should be more concerned about seeing bears than other people.”

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