This week, the dream of a new hospital came true for the communities near Barrow. Thousands of people will soon be served by a state-of-the-art facility. The equipment in that facility, combined with the technology that lets doctors far away see images taken in the nation's most northern community, will be life-changing for the generation who is to be served by the new Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital.
The hospital is a testament to the fact that life is constantly changing. Some of the leaders who helped build the hospital noted that as children, you could not leave a glass of water on the counter overnight because in the morning, it would be shattered, its contents having frozen solid in the night. Now, that same person will be served by a $160 million facility where water flows from taps into ultra-modern sink basins and hot air generated by natural gas is pumped out of vents in the walls. That is an extraordinary shift in one generation.
Listening to those who spoke at the ceremonial opening, it was obvious this hospital did not come together easily. Decades worth of work, fundraising, politicking and endless reams of paperwork went into the construction of the hospital. It is extraordinary in that the communities of the North Slope, their various political and economic entities, and their many leaders came together with a united voice to speak for what they wanted and needed.
The results are inspiring. Where past generations were born and died in the tiny rooms of the 1970s-constructed hospital, today's patients will find themselves served by the best we have to offer from a health care perspective. The communities overcame economic struggles, political differences and even gender barriers to facilitate this hospital's construction. It can be applauded on so many levels, and the lessons it teaches are many.
Across the state, in Bristol Bay, the communities are struggling to speak with a similarly united voice. With the development of the Pebble Prospect looming on the horizon, some in the region are hungry for the jobs so they can stay in their communities. Without them, schools have closed, children have moved away, communities are dwindling because people cannot provide for their families. Dozens of passionate people told the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, their deepest fears and struggles at a recent meeting in Iliamna, one of the villages closest to the mine site.
It was less about politics and more about personal struggles in the stuffy community center packed with people on Tuesday. One man told how he had given up drinking since he got a job with the Pebble Partnership. A young mother said the job she had has allowed her to support her two children and stay off welfare, which is important to her. A grandmother told McCarthy how she missed the sound of children playing in her community, where the school had closed. Others spoke, however, about their connection to the fish and the land and how worried they were that even a glass of clean drinking water would be a memory if large-scale mines like the proposed Pebble mine were allowed to develop. It was deeply personal, and one has to wonder how the Boston administrator felt about being told such passionate details of the lives of individuals.
And while the meeting was almost entirely polite and respectful, the undercurrent of conflict was obvious. The interesting thing was that when people spoke, no matter what side of the table they were sitting on, they spoke of many commonalities. No one in that room wants to see the environment hurt. While jobs are good, without the subsistence fishing and hunting opportunities, it would take a lot of expensive store-bought food to keep families from being hungry. The people of Bristol Bay cannot afford to lose their subsistence practices on either a cultural or a financial level, no matter how many good-paying jobs resource development in the region provides.
What is interesting is that this commonality -- a perspective that could unite these people and allow them to speak as one -- is being swept under the rug of immediate need driven by families and communities desperate for economic stability. Within communities, rifts have been formed, feelings hurt, families who have for generations worked together to survive are now struggling to be stay civil in the same room. That is tragic.
Like the Arctic leaders whose lives have changed dramatically from the days when a glass froze solid and their existence was dependent on scavenging for driftwood, so will the changes come to Bristol Bay. Who knows what those changes will look like, what form they will take. But one thing is for sure, the destructive power of dividing over an issue when your voice is already diminished in the face of outside interests and large groups eager to speak for Alaskans is extreme. Leaders in the Bristol Bay region need to find a way to unite their people, support those in fear of losing their communities and share their resources so everyone can speak together to protect that which unites them -- a cultural and practical dependence on a healthy environment.
The North Slope communities have shown how a united, consistent voice over time allows for great accomplishments and success. Hopefully, Bristol Bay will find a way to speak with a similar united voice. It's the only way to be heard.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.
This article originally appeared in the Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.