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Alaskans question cost of supporting rural outposts

With federal stimulus money going to build infrastructure in tiny, remote communities, many in the state wonder if it's worthwhile.

August 10, 2009|Kim Murphy

TAKOTNA, ALASKA — In a flat, piney river valley deep in the Alaska interior, the village of Takotna is marked by a dozen or so houses, a shop, a tiny post office and a school. Intrepid gold miners ventured here decades ago. A small tribe of Athabascan Indians has hunted and fished the woods and riverbanks for generations.

This summer Takotna, population somewhere between 46 and 61, has become one of the best-known villages in Alaska -- thanks to the $18.7-million airstrip the federal government is funding on the edge of town. The 3,300-foot gravel runway, complete with night lighting, will replace the short one on a wind-swept hill where several planes have crashed.

The cost of keeping rural Alaska afloat has been one of the state's most enduring challenges. Now a place that sees itself as the nation's last frontier, where countless communities depend on bush planes and boats for their food and fuel deliveries, is having to support its outposts in an age of cable television, cellphone networks and the Internet.

And in an era of dwindling public revenue, even Alaskans increasingly wonder how much they can afford to support those who choose to live miles from civilization.

"For decades, Alaskans have numbed themselves to the shock and oddity of the state and federal expenditures that fall all around us. The latest example is . . . a new airfield for the tiny community of Takotna. Why does this sort of expenditure occur?" the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner asked in a recent editorial.

According to the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska, about $1.4 billion a year in state and federal government subsidies, purchases and wages goes to more than 200 far-flung villages in the state -- from the frigid Arctic coastal plain to the soggy, impenetrable tundra of the deep Alaskan interior. Federal dollars help pay for airline service and mail delivery, subsidize electricity rates and fund health clinics, among other things.

This year, more than $42 million of President Obama's federal stimulus package has been earmarked to supply plumbing for remote Alaskan villages that still use portable toilets and haul water in by the barrel.

And $70 million will go to rural airport improvements -- not including Takotna's, which is being funded under a separate government grant.

A year ago, the infamous $398-million "Bridge to Nowhere" federal earmark dogged former Gov. Sarah Palin's Republican vice presidential bid. But no Alaska governor has been able to turn down the federal dole. To do so would be to isolate thousands of citizens so poor they can't afford to move to the cities.

The federal Office of Management and Budget, in a 2004 review, noted that 70% of the residents in 54 remote Alaskan villages were unemployed, and 70% of those in 128 villages made less than $14,800 a year.

"The public health conditions of the developing Third World are still a reality up here," said a recent report by the inspector general for the Denali Commission, which brokers federal aid to the Alaskan bush. The state, the report added, needs better barometers to determine which "micro-settlements" such as Takotna should qualify for public aid.

"While national lore may abstractly decry construction to 'nowhere,' the choices are very real, and very serious, for rural families that must go without what most of America takes for granted," the inspector general's report said.

Takotna's new landing strip has been dubbed an "airport to nowhere" -- although residents who have had to wait hours or even days for medical evacuations or supplies disagree.

"If there's a medical emergency, you basically just have to wait for daylight," said the village administrator, Terry Huffman.

"The state has refused to put lights on [the old] runway. They say it's just too dangerous."

Takotna is 300 miles west of Fairbanks and 18 miles from the tiny town of McGrath, which has a long, lighted runway -- part of a network built across the state by the federal government during the Cold War. But there is no road to McGrath.

The Air Force maintains another good runway 10 miles from Takotna, at a military radar site called Tatalina. But because of security concerns, locals are able only about twice a year to get permission to drive out and use it.

Takotna residents -- nobody agrees on exactly how many there are, and some live here only during the summer -- fly in and out via the old 1,700-foot-long strip on small, four-seat bush planes from McGrath.

Major supplies, including fuel for home heating and the village's power plant, are brought in by barge.

But that only works when the Takotna River is high enough.

Last fall it wasn't, and the town had to race against the onset of snow and ice to haul the fuel in by truck from 33 miles up the river. The last of three loads was flown into Tatalina. The delivery pushed the fuel cost to $6.74 a gallon.

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