Whenever we travel, I love reading the local newspapers. Each town and region has its own points of pride and subjects of division and derision from which a visitor or new resident can learn a great deal. Note the organization, relative coverage and topics featured repeatedly in its newspapers. Such news can help to entrench or eclipse assumptions about the place. Clearly, Alaska thinks of itself as different from the rest of the US, as reference to “Outside” and “the Lower 48” indicate. In several ways, this is very true.
What do the Alaska newspapers reveal about life up here? To me, the primary impression from the Anchorage Daily News is one of a fully embraced outdoor lifestyle. By way of example, consider this: the “Outdoors” section of the on-line version (www.adn.com) includes the following permanent sections: Bears, Excursions, Fishing, Iditarod, Mushing, Skiing, Snowmachining, and Wildlife. Readers are invited to submit photographs and there are whole galleries devoted to cabins, the aurora borealis, and “around Alaska.” By contrast, the Houston (Texas) Chronicle (www.chron.com) doesn’t even have an Outdoors section. The only regular outdoor activity addressed is gardening).
Two years ago, somebody or other surveyed Anchorigians regarding their satisfaction in living there. Over 90% said that the setting contributed to their satisfaction. Aside from the obvious fact that Anchorage’s setting, between the Chugach Mountains and the Cook Inlet, is one of the most visually stunning in America, the paper makes clear that residents enjoy its terrain, resources, and weather. Everyone I meet in Alaska is happy to be here. (By contrast, what might the percentage be in many other places? Most people I know in Houston, TX, for example, say they live there “for the job” and plan to leave. Complaining about some aspect of the city is a ‘warm up topic” at just about any gathering.) I must say, it is nice to get away from the whiners!
The business section of the Anchorage Daily News gives a good snapshot of the state’s economic priorities. The permanent sections of the on-line newspaper are: Gas pipeline, oil, aviation, commercial fishing, markets (meaning financial markets), mining, native corporations, tourism, business people, and “inside business.” The only topic that might be unfamiliar to Outsiders is “native corporations.” This term reflects the greatest peacetime transfer of wealth in the US, and maybe the world. It is a rather fascinating story that I encourage you to look up on line, but below is a summary.
When abundant oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, the federal government negotiated the Alaska Native Claims Act of 1971, signed into law by President Nixon, before negotiating oil leases and the construction of the oil pipeline (an engineering marvel you might research, too). 80,000 Alaska natives (at least ¼ native) , in tribes such as the Yupic, Aleut, Tlingit, Haida, and Athabaskan, organized into 12 (now 13) tribal corporations and 200 communities. These entities divided up 149 million acres of land (1/9 of the state), surface rights to 44 million acres, and $462 million. (The tribal land set aside for each group was associated with traditionally occupied locations. Obviously these set-asides more easily designate land for settled tribes than migratory ones. In any case, the map of Alaska is an irregular patchwork quilt of state, federal, native, and private land ownership. Private ownership is a very small minority of parcels). Some tribes occupied and thus received more resource rich tribal lands than others, and some tribal corporations parlayed the 1971 rights into more lucrative businesses than others, but in any case, the native corporations form a highly visible economic presence in Alaska that one doesn’t see in the Lower 48, except in the narrow case of casino businesses. Members of the tribes are shareholders in the tribes’ public corporations, with stockholder rights and provisions, since these businesses abide by the same rules of disclosure as other corporations.
Moving from the South, where segregated hospitals are a shameful past history, I am startled every time I drive past the self-proclaimed “Native Hospital” in Anchorage which provides healthcare to Native Alaskans and other American Indians, only. According to its annual report, this non-profit hospital, established in 1997, is funded partly by the native corporations, and partly by federal subsidies, grants, and insurance. I don’t understand why federal funding of a segregated hospital is OK in Alaska.
In several ways, Alaska values are similar to other low density, outdoorsy states. One shared theme is interest in low government involvement in private affairs. By various measures, Alaska is a more hands-off government than other states. It collects no income tax and most communities charge no sales tax. (Instead, Alaska taps tourists with high bed, cruise, and rental car taxes and high out-of-state fishing and hunting license fees). Up to 24 marijuana plants can be grown at home for personal consumption. Gun laws are liberal. For example, in Alaska, one does not need a license to carry a concealed weapon. Alaska is one of the few states (Texas being another) that has refused to embrace national education standards.
On the other hand, despite the “hands-off” language, Alaska is not a “right to work” state. It also benefits from enormous federal funding. Under Senator Ted Stevens, (now deceased) who sat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, the state was the number one per capita recipient of funding earmarks for many years in a row (other than Washington DC itself). The amount in 2008 was about $360 million. In 2010, the amount Alaska received was twice the per capita national average (we are a low population state). A state with few highways, it doesn’t capitalize on those gazillion dollars doled out to other states, but it isn’t squeamish about other pork barrel contributions. I imagine that our “take” will diminish now that “Uncle Ted” has gone to the Great Beyond and our current senators are more junior.
Despite a strong sense of individualism per person, I also sense an unattractive “payback” mentality among some groups of Alaskans. This may contribute to the contradictory “us vs. them” messages I read in the paper, among letters to the editor. For example, some remote, native villages advocate for advantageous subsistence hunting and fishing rights in one article right next to another about the need for subsidized fuel oil, gasoline and power for an aging, diminishing, and “stuck” population while they hemorrhage the young people to the cities. One village, perched along an eroding bluff, wants the government to pay to move the whole town to a safer location. A number of Alaskans working in fishing, logging, and oil exploration complain that businesses headquartered in Seattle, Japan, and elsewhere pillage the state like a latter day “banana republic.” They seek governmental supports, tariffs and pork barrel receipts while extolling “small government” at the same time. Like Hawaii, Alaska is highly dependent upon shipments of remote goods that it doesn’t produce itself, making it an expensive place to live. Both pride of place and competition prompt a number of businesses to encourage shoppers to "buy Alaskan."
The combination of whiners and “takers” worries me in any part of the country. I wonder whether people “who blame the other guy” while accepting his money may fail to take charge of their own destiny. As they indulge in the facile pleasure of resenting the one who funds their current lifestyle, do they suffer from an eroding sense of self-worth or do they just laugh all the way to the bank? Either way, what will happen when the taps dry up? Alaska is the only state I see publicly discussing a future with lower oil throughput, foretelling both lower employment and state revenues. Government officials are already negotiating with oil companies for changes in corporate taxes. On the other hand, Alaska’s biggest trading partner for its natural resources, such as lumber, seafood, and natural gas is Asia, not the lower 48, so it is following the financial fortunes in the East, too. So in many ways, different though it may be from other states, alert Alaskans may be ahead of the curve in terms of anticipating declining government financing, watching balance of trade payments with the East, and enjoying a life that embraces the natural setting and the skills that such a life entails.
Alaska is a fascinating state, encompassing the highest of the highs, the lowest of the lows, financially, topographically, and by many other measures. Check out your own newspapers with the eyes of an outsider. What do the articles and lack of articles reveal about the knowledge and priorities of your home town? Do they reflect your interests and priorities?