Monday, September 22, 2008

Understanding Alaska to Understand Palin

On Sunday, September 21, the following appeared in the Seattle PI newspaper as a guest column. It was intended as a neutral piece addressing how those in Alaska might view the world differently from those residing in the lower 48 states. It inspired considerable on-line reaction from some who viewed it as partisan, either way. Here it is, as it appeared in that paper.

Sarah Palin's ascent to the national stage has political pundits scrambling. Who is she? What does she believe? Is she for real? While her record in public office will provide breadcrumbs for the investigative tracker, a look at Alaska and its people might contribute to an understanding of the woman. Since she has lived in Alaska nearly her entire life, the essence of the place is a part of her being.

Alaska and its people are different. Visitors may not sense the difference unless they move away from their hotels, cruise ship terminals or the airport. But if they reach out, wander the state and engage its people they will sense the differences.

First of all, it's a big place. So is Texas. But Alaska is 2 1/2 times larger. It's twice the size of the original 13 colonies combined. That wide-open space is a factor in how Alaskans view their home.

In other ways it's small. In population it ranks 47th; only three states have fewer residents. And they tend to live in small communities. Only three cities have a population of more than 10,000 and only Anchorage exceeds 100,000. Wasilla, Palin's hometown, is typical at 9,800 (not counting the newly arrived reporters.) Some argue that small towns in Alaska or any other state tend to foster a closeness not found in big city environments.

Alaska is remote from the lower 48 states and, with its great expanses of open space, its small towns are often remote from one another. Many can only be reached by sea or air.

To many on the "outside" Alaska is a land of myths perpetuated by history, television and misinformed writers.

Myth: Alaskans are hardy independent types who don't much care for outsiders.
Reality: There is a frontier independent streak evident with many locals. But they are the friendliest people I've ever met, even when you are clearly an out-of-state tourist. They are courteous drivers. They yield to pedestrians. They stop to help if you appear to have car trouble.

Myth: All the men in Alaska wear wool plaid shirts and drive rusty pickup trucks.
Reality: As for the wool plaid shirts, not so much. Most Alaska residents would not stand out at a Minnesota mall. But it does rain and snow at times and they dress for it.
Old TV shows, such as "Northern Exposure" and "Men in Trees" (neither of which were filmed in Alaska), helped form the image of the rusty Alaska pickup truck. Well, it's not true. There are certainly old trucks around. But the parking lot at the local Safeway displays a robust mix of vehicles. In an informal survey, taken on the road to Homer (population 5,400), only 22 percent of the vehicles were pickup trucks. And most were free of rust or duct tape repairs. Perhaps some were left at home because of gas prices but still, real Alaskans don't all drive trucks.

Myth: It rains or snows all the time.
Reality: It rains and snows some of the time. I suspect that a local will tell you it is what it is. Oh, they appreciate a sunny warm day and, in the summer, they get long, long sunny days. If the weather turns cold or damp, life goes on. I've watched pub patrons enjoying their beverages on the outside deck in parkas, hats and gloves because the rain had stopped and the sun was out. I watched a tai chi class on wet grass enjoying the sun and ignoring the 50-degree temperature. I've watched fishermen crowding a riverbank in their rain gear trying to coax salmon from the waters. I've seen campers parked side by side on the frozen Chena River awaiting the return of mushers during a winter dog sled race.

The residents take the weather they are given, dress for it and live their life without whining.

Myth: They drink black coffee from crockery mugs.
Reality: Some do, but they like good coffee like everyone else. Espresso stands abound; drive-through, walk-up and walk-in stands appear in towns, large and small. I saw three drive-in stands in a four-block area of remote Soldotna, a fishing town on the Kenai Peninsula. And the names reflect the state: The Coffee Boat (housed in an old fishing boat), Latte Landing (on a lake shore) and the Reel Cup (in a fishing resort.)

Myth: They don't respect the environment. They kill their wildlife, dislike wolves and support drilling for oil in ANWR.
Reality: They love and respect their environment, but not in a way easily understood by "outsiders."

They love their wildlife. They love to watch it and they love to eat some of it. By and large they are not looking for trophies to hang on a wall. They are looking for meat for the freezer. Many are subsistence hunters. For them hunting is key to eating. Others are sport hunters. They enjoy hunting but wouldn't starve if they had a bad year. But few are killing for the sake of killing. Hunting is a tradition; a fall ritual passed down through generations.

The governor hunts. That fact does not turn Alaskan heads. Lots of people hunt in Alaska because there is lots of game to hunt in Alaska. It is not conducted like a Wild West buffalo hunt. The state values the resource and manages the hunt. Bottom line, hunting is no big deal in Alaska.

As for wolf hunting, an activity Palin's state administration supports, opinions vary. In Anchorage, the largest city, you will find more support for wolves and less support for hunting most anything. But the typical small town sees wolves as an overprotected predator that threatens the rest of Alaska's wildlife heritage. In the lower 48, Palin's views on wolf hunting might be viewed as extreme. Not so in her home state.

Then there is the question of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Alaska argument, not supported by all residents, might go like this:
First, we need the energy resource. It's there; drill now.
Second, it's good for the economy. Locals enjoy the lowest per capita taxes in the nation because of the taxes generated by the existing energy operations.
Third, it's safe. The existing pipeline has been operating for decades with little environmental impact. Drilling for and transporting oil can be done safely. The Exxon Valdez was an anomaly (they might not use that word). Post-oil-spill safety improvements have eliminated the risk of similar spills.
Finally, get over it. The Arctic region is huge. The drilling operation will impact only a pinprick-sized area of the state.

Alaska is Alaska.

Palin is from Alaska. Some of her views may seem out of place in Washington, D.C., salons but are less so in her home state. To understand the woman, it helps to understand the lens through which she views the nation. That lens was ground and colored by a life in Alaska.

As the presidential race moves to the wire, voters will learn more about the governor. And in doing so they will learn more about the other 680,000 residents who call Alaska home. We may all be better off for the experience.

Stephen Dennis is a Bellevue-based writer who has traveled extensively in Alaska.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Palin and the Wolf

In the rush to figure out who John McCain’s running mate, Governor Palin, really is Senator Obama’s operatives have been scouring her public record in Alaska. One alleged position that hit the news wires came as no surprise to the residents of her home state but seemed to shock east coast commentators.

“Palin supports wolf hunting from airplanes.”

In Washington D. C., were wolves do not run free, wolf lovers were aghast. In Alaska the love-hate relationship with wolves is older than the fifty year old state itself. Correspondence from 1941, before America went to war, illustrates that the idea of wolf hunting from the air is not a new or discredited idea.

“I have been wondering whether wolves can be killed in mentionable numbers by ground strafing with regular Army equipment and, if this can be done, whether you will consider having some of your fliers attempt it when conditions are right,” asked J. Sidney Rood, the General Reindeer Supervisor for Alaska in a January 1941 letter to the Commanding Officer of Ladd Field in Fairbanks, Alaska. In his Department of the Interior post, Rood was frustrated by the dramatic decline in the Alaska reindeer population during the 1930’s and placed much of the blame for that decline on marauding wolf packs. The wolves “…have killed at least 200,000 reindeer since 1934.” Rood stated. Something had to be done and aerial strafing seemed to be an innovative approach.

According to Department of Interior reports, wolves had been reported on the reindeer ranges since reindeer were introduced to Alaska in 1892. Single wolves or a single family occasionally would be spotted but the threat was not viewed as serious.

But Alaska reindeer populations began serious decline during the 1930’s. Alarm spread slowly at first. Government reindeer managers either didn’t notice the decline or assumed it was only a temporary situation. In May of 1933 the superintendent for the Northwestern District of the Reindeer Service wired his boss indicating that the Barrow area was facing a serious invasion by wolves. He noted that over 100 “deer” had been killed. In 1934 the Kuskokwim Unit Manager requested permission to use poison to stem the growing wolf threat. Shaktoolik, Point Hope and Newhalen stations all reported heavy losses to wolves during 1934.

By 1935 reindeer stations across Alaska were sounding the alarm. Plans were proposed to bring in professional hunters and trappers to stem the wolf tide and to educate the native population on herd management. But depression era belt tightening limited the resources available to fund the effort.

While there may have been other factors at work in the decline of the reindeer population, attention focused on the wolf. Reindeer populations were declining and the wolf populations were increasing. Logic suggested a connection between the two. The wolves had to go.

The reindeer decline wasn’t imagined. It was real. In 1969, Dean Olson, writing on the history of Alaska reindeer for the University of Alaska, Fairbanks noted that the reindeer population in Alaska declined from about 640,000 in 1932 to only 250,000 in 1940.

Reindeer were important to Alaska in 1941. By Rood’s estimate, over 10,000 people, mostly natives, depended on reindeer for all or part of their food. In addition, cold weather clothing from reindeer hides was important to both the native population and to the U.S. Army. The Army, in anticipation of a growing presence in the north, was contracting with natives for the manufacture of cold weather clothing for their troops. Rood estimated that over 34,000 reindeer hides would be required annually for clothing purposes.

“The Army has preferred reindeer parkas, because reindeer fawn skins are the warmest of light skins,” according to Rood.

If wolves were indeed the problem, why resort to air power to control them? Because, Rood reported, nothing else seemed to work.

Poison was not an option. It posed risks for fox and other animals, valued by the natives. In any case, it was prohibited by the Territorial Law.

Trapping had been tried with little success. First, the natives didn’t have experience trapping wolves. Second, it was a difficult proposition in the best of circumstances. The “…Newhouse No. 114 traps…” were heavy and unsuited to sled travel prompting complaints by the natives. The wolves did not tend to follow trails in the wide open country so trap placement was problematical and drifting snow buried the traps. There were no trees to tie the traps to and the natives apparently lacked the patience to melt snow in sub zero conditions to anchor the traps.

While the Territory was offering a $20 wolf bounty few trappers were taking advantage of the program.

Hunting was a challenge any time. With the herd covering a range almost as large as the state of California, tracking was difficult. Roads were scarce for summer travel and winter hunting was limited by the absence of daylight and the wide open spaces.

Additionally Rood didn’t think “…the guns of the Natives (in the .30-.30 lever action, open-sight class) [were] of the best type and condition for open-country wolf shooting.”

Hunting from the air, however, could overcome many of the problems. Large distances could be covered rapidly and different weapons could be used. Fighter planes, or pursuit planes as they were called in 1941, could tilt the balance against the wolves.

To prove the feasibility of aerial hunting Rood wrote about his own wolf hunting experience during the spring of 1940. Flying from Kotzebue to Selawik at 1500 feet in a small plane they spotted two wolves, contrasted clearly against the snowy backdrop. They proceeded to Selawik and switched to a Curtis Robin, feeling the slower “Robin” presented a superior shooting platform. They retraced their flight pattern and relocated the wolves. According to Rood, they descended from 1500 feet and slowed to about 75 miles per hour. Closing on the wolves they killed them with buckshot from a 12 gauge shotgun.

“Of course, I imagine it is one thing to hunt wolves from a fairly slow ship, using buckshot, but quite a different thing to use a hot pursuit ship employing machine guns, and success with the latter equipment may not be possible,” Rood observed.

Rood had done his homework. He believed he had demonstrated that the wolves were an issue. He had shown how they could be tracked and killed from the air. Using the Army Air Corps “hot pursuit ships” as wolf hunters seemed like a good idea. The army needed practice with ground targets and the wolves needed to be controlled.

How did the Army respond? Rood’s letter made it to the desk of the Post Adjutant, Lt Walseth. There is no record of a response.

We do know the Army Air Corp in Fairbanks at the time was ill equipped to fight anything. Set up as a cold weather test facility their fleet consisted of two early model B-17 bombers, several observation aircraft and a few Curtis P-37 pursuit or fighter planes.

The P-37 was a stretched out version of an older Curtis model, the P-36. To fit a new more powerful engine, the old P-36 design was stretched and the cockpit was pushed back. From the new cockpit position the pilots had a difficult time seeing well enough to land and take off, let alone hunt wolves. The planes were more of a risk to the pilots than the wolves! Only thirteen of the planes were accepted by the Army before the plane was cancelled. Most of the poorly designed planes made it to Alaska!

If the Army took a few shots at the wolves, they didn’t report it. It is more likely that, by the time the request made its way through “channels” Pearl Harbor had been attacked and Alaska was at war.

The wolf debate in Alaska continues to this day. Palin, the proud hunter, is likely well positioned to explain the wolf hunting from a plane controversy should the subject come up.

But, no matter how the U. S. election goes, locals don’t expect the Army or the Air Force to be called in anytime soon.