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Medred: I love salmon, too. Here's my story

Craig Medred
Nobody asked me to write a cuddly story about salmon for the recent Salmon Project, but maybe it's for the best. After all, there are much greater woes facing Alaska, and to look at them through a narrow lens accomplishes nothing. Loren Holmes photo

Somehow no one asked me to write one of those warm and cuddly essays for The Salmon Project. Maybe they just knew how I feel about what has become of first-person reportage in America in the new millennium where stimulation of one's ego is all the rage.

The self-important wastage of personal pronouns in the journalism of our day gets old fast. The simplest of observations seem to have been sacrificed on the altar of "I" saw, "I" heard, "I" smelled, "I" witnessed, "I" yadda, yadda, yadda.

But my distaste for that crap is unlikely why the Project avoided this reporter. More likely some of the people involved sensed what I might write.

Excuse me now for engaging in a bit of the self-involved navel gazing of our day, but it is pertinent to what is to eventually follow. (Translation: I am going to now write too much about myself, but I, I, I think it actually has some bearing on this narrative.)

Too much about myself

I came to Alaska in 1973 before construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline, a sizable benchmark in Alaska history, because I loved fish, or at least the killing of them, and I loved the wild, though not necessarily in that order. I left behind the University of Minnesota, and the fields and forests of a fast changing state where I'd grown up killing things. Our family -- with the exception of my mother, who couldn't bear to kill anything -- was very good at this.

We didn't exactly live what Alaskans call a "subsistence lifestyle," but we were close to it; a lot closer, probably, than I ever cared to think. My father thought himself an American Indian. What the hell he actually was is anyone's guess.

The family tree looks like an alder thicket. My paternal grandfather split from the rest of the Medred clan sometime early in the 1900s to become a semi-professional baseball player for a heavy equipment manufacturer in Pennsylvania, which eventually ended him a job as a shop foreman. He never talked about his family.

After his death, my mother tracked the Medreds back to Austria, where the trail then ran cold. If I had to hypothesize, I'd guess Medred is a variation on Medved -- the old style cursive "v" and "r" being easy to foul up. Medved is an old Eastern European name meaning "bear." There are Ukrainians, Belarusians, Slovaks, Czechs, Slovenes, Croatians and Jews, primarily Ashkenazi Jews, in the Medved tree.

If you believe ancestry defines destiny -- some in this state do; I don't -- maybe having a name that means "bear" explains the desire to kill and eat salmon. Or maybe that comes from the nomadic, eat-whatever-is-available-to-survive other side of the family. My maternal grandfather was a Martin out of the Taylors, tracing back to Zachary Taylor, the 12th president of the United States, or so some in the family said. From all I could tell, they were just a bunch of humans very efficiently dispersing across the continent of North America and breeding like rabbits.

Grandpa Martin had a sixth-grade education. He rode the rails during the Great Depression. He worked with bootleggers in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul. He married my grandmother, a hottie in her day, who was the daughter of Swedish immigrants to the Dakotas. Grandma's native language was Swedish. Grandpa confessed only on his death bed that Grandma was his second wife. It was never resolved as to whether the first marriage was legally dissolved. About the only thing all of these people had in a common was a deep sense of curiosity about almost everything and some pretty good survival instincts.

Living off the land

Those things served well a young crossbreed largely gone feral who dropped out of university in 1973 and split for the wilds of Alaska because he'd come to detest civilization. He figured to live off the bounty of the land in Alaska. And for his first summer in the north, he did.

I ate so damn many snowshoe hares and grayling that summer that I've hardly eaten any since. The mere sight of a snowshoe now is enough to kill my appetite, but in their day they were a lot better than going hungry. For very little money spent on lead pellets, you can kill dozens with a .17 caliber, air-powered handgun, and I did. Trapping would have been even more efficient, but I was young and bored and enjoyed sneaking around in the woods. I still do, whether hunting or not. It was a good thing the hare cycle, which goes up and down on a 10-year rotation, was up when I arrived in Alaska, too, because Fairbanks was not an easy place to find work in the pre-pipeline days.

I remember waiting in line at the local job center for day jobs on occasion and feeling lucky to end up scrubbing the grills at the Elks Lodge or performing yard work and odd jobs for some elderly woman who told endless stories about her husband. He was a notable Alaskan whose name I don't remember because at 22 or 23 years of age, you don't want to listen to this sort of thing. You just want the elderly woman to be quiet and to be done and to get paid. I'd take my money and retreat to the hills and woods around Fairbanks to camp. If the job had paid especially well and I felt flush, I might celebrate by buying a four-pack of Guinness in the little bottles. Beer has never tasted as good as it did then.

I was not alone in this respect in the Alaska at the time. Down toward Talkeetna, the vestiges of the hippy movement were invading the area around Chase, thinking to settle in. There were actually some women there. Up north, the population was weighted toward crazy young men. We networked a bit, although it wasn't called that then. Somebody had a friend who had a friend who'd built a cabin at the end of the trail at end of a road somewhere north of Cleary Summit, 25 miles or so outside of Fairbanks.

I lived there for a time from fall into winter. Simple survival reminded me what it was like to cut firewood with a handsaw. It's a bitch. And I learned about starting the woodstove in the morning when it was 40 degrees below zero outside and not much warmer in the cabin. You wanted the fire makings handy to get flames going fast.

As a young man with a high school diploma and several years of university behind him, it was an adventure to live like this. And I had the skill set that might well have allowed me to go on living this way for a long if I had wanted, but I didn't want that.

Not that I knew it at the time.

Realization and civilization

Realization came more in fits and starts. A friend got a full-time job and then an apartment in town. Mark had a big heart. He invited several of us to move in. He worked. We looked for work. He helped support us; he brought home the food from the airport cafeteria that was supposed to have been thrown away.

When he moved up in the world from the cafeteria to assistant manager at the only McDonald's restaurant in Fairbanks at the time, he continued to bring home the food that was earmarked for the garbage. We welcomed it. It was that kind of life. We were recyclers before there was recycling. This was not by choice but by necessity.

Eventually, I went back to school at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, primarily because one could borrow money cheap to go to school in those days. All the other young men finally gave up on Alaska and retreated south. Pretty soon there were only two of us left in Mark's apartment. And somehow, I don't remember how, Mark landed a job as a maintenance man at Fairview Manor, the apartment complex in which we lived. Fairview Manor, leftover military housing later converted to apartments, has now been torn down, but in its day it was by far the biggest rental housing complex in Fairbanks and somewhat notorious. The police visited regularly.

Mark helped me land a job there as a maintenance man. At the time, it was a dream gig. I maneuvered my way onto the night shift because no one else wanted it. About all there was to do was check the boilers to make sure nothing shut down at night at 50 degrees below zero, and then maybe do a little hallway painting or some other make-work. There was supposed to be a full shift's worth of activity piled up, but there was never more than a few hours. I spent the night studying or napping in the boiler room. Nobody really gave a damn about what I did as long as I kept the boilers working, and I was diligent about that.

Fairbanks was a cold place in the early 1970s. The temperature would regularly drop to 50 below and stay there for days. The city would be blanketed in ice fog so thick it was hard to see, and all sorts of things -- including people -- would start breaking in the cold. No one was going to freeze to death on my shift, though, by God. I did my job.

And that job changed my life. I no longer needed to borrow money for school. I paid down my debt. I got a degree. I started off on a profession, if you can call journalism that, and I built a life.

By now, of course, you're wondering what any of this has to do with salmon, and if you're not, you should be. So I'll get to it.

A salmon story

That life I built has taken me all over Alaska as a reporter, first for radio and TV, then for various newspapers, and now for an online news operation. Long before anyone had heard the words "Pebble Mine," I spent days with boots on the ground tromping the ground above and around that mineral deposit not knowing what lurked beneath. I paddled a canoe along the Yukon River from Eagle to near Circle, through the heart of the country Interior writer Dan O'Neill has aptly described as "A Land Gone Lonesome." It is empty country, though not as empty as the vast swath of nothing across the heart of the Interior from McGrath on the Kuskokwim River to Ruby on the Yukon.

Once that was the gold-rich and thriving "Inland Empire." I've ridden a snowmachine along for days on the Iditarod Trail through that country. It is so desolate and empty today that but for a few spindly spruce trees in the highlands and some cottonwood stands down along the creeks, you might think you were on another planet, a planet lacking other human life.

Over the years, I have watched communities along the Iditarod shrink and begin to die. And I have watched communities in other parts of the state grow.

What I have learned from watching for decades, and from my own experience, is that jobs mean something. Jobs change people's lives. Jobs give people a stake in society. Alaskans with jobs and debt have long joked about how "he (or she) who dies with the most toys wins." Those toys make it easier to survive in Alaska. Those toys make it easier to enjoy Alaska. But what people seldom think about is how possessions influence society, about how possessions change behavior. Some Canadian anthropologists long ago did a study of a what happened when a mine was built near small, dysfunctional community in a remote northern corner of that neighboring country. They made a chart of the possessions people came to own -- TV, refrigerator, freezer, automobile, house -- and tracked it against run-ins with the law.

There was a direct correlation. The more stuff people owned, the more likely they were to modify their behavior. They quit getting into fights that might get them thrown in jail. Their binge drinking morphed into social drinking.

Some like to bash the American consumer economy, myself included at times. Lord knows we all own too much crap. We're profligates. Look around. How much stuff do you see that you need -- really, really need? Not much.

Blame this on evolution if you want. All animals try to get fat. This is just our way of trying to get fat. We're like the wolves that engage in surplus killing just because they can. Thankfully, we're collectively smarter than the wolves. When it comes to natural resources, at least, we developed the concept of conservation to avoid killing too much, although as someone in the Project pointed out we do sometimes overdo it on a personal basis. It's hard not to. Dipnet season at the Kenai River is like a free day at the supermarket where someone has said you can take up 25 salmon from the seafood case. It's natural to go for the whole 25 even if you're only going to eat 10 over the course of the winter.

You'd think differently if you had to pay. That is yet another display of how economics shape our behavior. If you work hard to earn money acquire things, those things take on greater value. Some of the misbehavior plaguing rural Alaska these days -- and there is a lot of it, from alcohol abuse to sexual assault -- can be traced back to people with little value invested in much of anything, or people looking to find a way to make money to acquire things of value. It's a two-edged sword, and not a good one that draws people to bootlegging alcohol or peddling drugs. It's easy to understand.

There aren't lot of good business opportunities in the rural parts of the state. And when you have little or nothing to lose, the rules of civilized society really don't mean much. If you are a young man, in particular, it's easy to decide you're just going to make your own rules. Or, maybe, adopt the rules of the "gangsta" generation of inner-city urban America you've seen celebrated in popular culture. If society seems to be pushing you down, it's almost instinctive to try and push back. And what's the downside? At worst, you get busted and sent to the "men's house," which is how some of the young men in Western Alaska have described jail to me. Jail, to some of them, doesn't look so bad. The meals are served regularly, and you don't have to worry about keeping the place warm.

The Salmon Project, of course, didn't get into any of this. Forget about the economics of Alaska. The Project largely avoided the economics of salmon, except to suggest that maybe the fish should be valued by some higher standard -- whatever that might be -- because the Project was all about "saving" the salmon. It never came out and said that but the premise was pretty clear. Salmon are threatened by civilization -- never mind how well they are doing in the Pacific Northwest at the moment -- and the only way to save them is to turn Alaska into one big national park.

And if we save the salmon, all will be well and good and everyone in Alaska will be happy. Only they won't. The fact of the matter is the economics of salmon don't work so well for this state. A lot of the very best jobs related to salmon go south. Limited entry created a system that allowed the best commercial fishermen to make a living over the course of a summer. If you can visit Alaska when the weather's nice and make enough money to survive the entire year, why would you want to stay in this cold, dark and remote land through the winter months?

The way things change

I make this observation not as some member of the old-timers gang. I'll confess that when I got here 41 years ago I was a fire-breathing environmentalist who would happily have blown up heavy equipment to save the wilderness. I hated the late Bob Atwood, publisher of The Anchorage Times, who wanted to create an economy to bring jobs to Alaska. And I came to loathe Gov. Wally Hickel, a businessman who felt the same way. It is a little ironic that I'd think the opposite of him when he opposed the Vietnam War while Secretary of the Interior in the Nixon administration only to get fired and write the 1971 book "Who Owns America." It read in some ways like a greenish, socialist manifesto.

What a shock it was to arrive in Alaska and discover that it had been Hickel who'd ordered bulldozers north from Fairbanks to try to open a road to Prudhoe Bay in an effort to jump-start the development of oil fields there. As an environmentalist, I -- like all environmentalists -- considered the resulting scar across the tundra known as the Hickel Highway as an insult to the planet.

Now I see myself looking at the world of Alaska differently, and I can see what Hickel saw. People can't survive here -- Alaska, in reality, can't function as a state -- without an economy. Surviving on federal handouts, which can't last because of the shape of the national economy, won't work. And even if it did, it's not healthy.

The late Gov. Jay Hammond, a man revered by environmentalists, was the 49th state's anti-Hickel. But Hammond saw this issue of economics, too. Newcomers to the state likely don't know, and some old-timers would like to forget, that Hammond poured a big pile of state money into trying to create an agricultural industry in this state. It turned out to be one of the state's great boondoggles. To say it didn't work is an understatement, and if it had -- if the state had succeeded and expanded the effort to convert all of what had been classified as potential agricultural land into actual farms -- the environmental impact would have far exceeded that brought by oil development on the North Slope or any Alaska mining project.

These are not easy things to write about for a reporter who some residents of Southeast Alaska wanted dead when he worked for the Juneau Empire during the Alaska lands battle of the late 1970s because they thought him embedded with the environmental movement. I wasn't. I was a reporter doing his job, and the evidence in that case at that time made that the plans for logging the Tongass National Forest were of such a scale that there was no way they were going to be met without salmon runs suffering, and suffering mightily. I wrote about that a lot.

Many in the logging industry loathed me. The Alaska Loggers Association at one point threw me off one of their press junkets because they thought I was contaminating other reporters' thinking with the questions I asked. The members of the Alaska Miners Association didn't much like me either.

Nor the editors of Atwood's once infamous and now-dead Times, who were nothing but pro-development. That ain't me. I'm happy to say I worked with another reporter on a series of stories that eventually led to the state creating the Kenai River Special Management Area under the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation in an effort to preserve one of the state's great salmon streams. I'm not one for charging ahead and the environment be damned, but I'm no Luddite either. Humans can't go back to living off the land like they did in the 17th century and be happy. We've moved on.

Technology is the essence of human existence on this planet. Technology is our past and our only hope for the future. Saving the salmon is a great and commendable idea, but the discussion of how to do that needs to change. The simplistic idea that the only way is to preserve every square inch of Alaska needs to go away. Alaskans need to find ways to protect the salmon and still allow for other economic growth, not to mention finding ways to maximize the economic value of the salmon themselves.

The economics of salmon

It's economic craziness to continue debating how many Kenai River king salmon should be allowed to end up in the setnets of commercial fishermen along Cook Inlet to be sold for dollars on the pound when those fish are worth hundreds of dollars per pound to the tourism business, and the technology is out there to allow commercial fishermen to catch millions of dollars worth of sockeye salmon -- their money fish -- and let the kings pass unharmed. If the Project wanted to talk about real salmon issues in Alaska, it could have started there. Or maybe with an examination of how it came to be that the three largest salmon processors in the world are based not in Alaska, where the fish are, but in Seattle.

Karl Marx long ago observed that everything is economics. That observation actually circles back to the reality of evolutionary biology pointed out here earlier -- all animals want to get fat. Alaskans got fat during the pipeline years. We got our share, maybe more than our share, of what oil companies pulled out of the ground after a lot of hard work on their part. Now the oil is running out. We should have been thinking about how to get fat off natural gas, the other big resource on the North Slope, a long time ago, but somewhere along the line we got preoccupied with being greedy.

It's a dangerous spin-off from the idea of getting fat. It blinded us to the idea we might want to spend today -- a concept Hammond at least understood -- to have a brighter future. You can't reap forever. You must sometimes sow to reap.

We should have been long ago thinking about how to use that gas and some of the oil that is left to create an Alaska petrochemical industry capable of producing carbon-fiber in this state, because carbon-fiber is poised to become the steel of the future. It's in airplanes and high-tech bicycles now. It will be in your car tomorrow. It will be in almost everything in the future. Alaska is behind the curve on this one, but it is behind the curve on so many things. We've been spending too much time thinking about yesterday when we should be worrying about tomorrow.

Blame the subsistence section of the Alaska Lands Act if you want, which has for decades now helped shaped the utopian view of Alaska where people can live off the land in contented happiness. If everything falls apart, we'll just go back to living off the land as happy survivalists, right?

Maybe a few thousand could, maybe even a few tens of thousands. But if all the resources are tied up in supporting that lifestyle, what happens to the other hundreds of thousands of Alaskans wild resources won't support? The commercial salmon fishing business should give you a clue. Commercial fishing and limited entry pretty much screwed rural Alaska. The end of open access to the salmon fishery killed the only natural economic opportunity for young people growing up out there. If dad was lucky enough to get a permit when the limited entry was instituted in 1973, the kids could later fight over it. If Dad was making do mainly as a subsistence fisherman in the 1960s and early '70s, as a lot of rural Alaskans were then, there was no permit, and no future.

Salmon, like it or not, don't support all that many people. What are the kids of the Alaska going to do tomorrow if there is no other economy here? An Alaska devoid of oil, mining and timber development -- an Alaska without jobs in processing of those resources -- won't support many people. A Juneau economist, who happened to have a fat state pension on which to retire, once suggested to me that the state could become one big national park; and the population could shrink back to pre-pipeline size to match the job base; and we would be fine. There were about 330,000 people in Alaska in '73, and though things were fine, they weren't all that fine. Take it from someone who was there.

There are more than twice as many people here now. It's hard to imagine the economic carnage that would come with shrinking Alaska back to what it was in the interest of preserving sort of mythical Alaskaland.

The Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act was supposed to have resolved all of this. It set aside an area the size of the state of California in federal parks, preserves and reserves in this state. The Alaska state park system protected another block of land the size of the state of Connecticut. But for some people this apparently wasn't enough. I understand. Many of these people have their own little corner of Alaska they want to remain unchanged forever. They're selfish, though they'd never admit that. They're bad global citizens, though they never even think about that.

I do. Maybe I just think too much.

Alaska shooting itself in the foot?

But I wonder about the day when that oil spill comes gushing through the Bering Strait because we've done such a great job of protecting the American side of the Chukchi Sea from offshore oil development that development has been pushed to the Russian side, where no one cares all that much about environmental protection. I understand the thinking of those committed to the philosophy of "not in my backyard," but as planetary citizens we're all in this together. And in many regards, it would be better to develop resources in the United States, where there are all sorts of environmental protections in place, than in Russia or China or Africa or South America, where there aren't nearly as many such rules.

None of these difficult questions entered the discussion during the writing of the Project. The Project obviously wasn't interested in finding someone to write an essay titled "Save the Alaska salmon, screw the world." Not that such a thought is necessarily bad.

I might be willing to buy into that sort of thinking if there was some real reason to believe that following such a path would work for Alaska over the long term. But look to the east, folks. That haze on the horizon is the burning coal of China. It all contributes to climate change, and equally to ocean acidification.

Where do our salmon swim? In the ocean, and we're seeing now, in the decline of Chinook salmon stocks all across the state, what happens when the ocean turns against our salmon for whatever reason. The disappearance of those big kings of the species is all tied up in climate shifts and water conditions. If Alaska and Alaskans really wanted to do something to save the salmon, we'd be in negotiations to sell the Chinese nice, clean natural gas at a rock-bottom price in exchange for their agreeing to start getting off that dirty coal.

We'd probably even be thinking about using our big, fat, $45 billion Permanent Fund to help finance the infrastructure to get that gas from the North Slope to tidewater to make export happen. But you can rest assured, Alaskans won't even think about risking their annual dividend checks for something like this. We want our government handout, and we want our salmon because, well, because we do. We've succumbed to the petty greed of the moment when what we should be thinking about is how to stay fat in the future. Exactly how many Alaskans do we think are going to be able to survive in the north on only their summer's catch of salmon and a Permanent Fund Dividend check?

Not many.

Ensuring Alaska's salmon survives forever is a great and worthy idea, but it's not the biggest issue facing Alaska today. The salmon, amazingly enough, survived an environmental onslaught when unregulated mining was ripping the state apart in the early 1900s. Salmon are a tough and adaptable species. So are people, but they can't live here without jobs. If someone wants to do something for this state, maybe he or she should pay a bunch of writers to pen essays for an "Economy Project," because an economy is what is needed now in the rural parts of the state, and an economy is what may need saving in the not-too-distant future in the urban parts of the state.

This state has seen busts before. The U.S. Census of 1910 counted more than 64,000 people in the then-Territory of Alaska. Ten years later, almost 15 percent of them were gone and some areas of the state -- such as the earlier mentioned Inland Empire -- never recovered. It has been dying since 1920 and is now all but dead. A slump in the Alaska economy that came after oil prices tanked in the the mid-1980s led to a recession that bordered on a depression. Thousands fled for the Lower 48. Strip malls were left empty around the city. Banks were forced to foreclose on hundreds of homes. It was a bleak time for those who lived through it.

It's a little scary to think that we could get so preoccupied with "saving" the salmon by blocking development across all of Alaska that we might end up in worse shape than the fish.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.