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Recent news highlights need for rural Alaskans to show their voices matter

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

This week’s news alerts included a note from Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office noting her recent trip to Attu Island to dedicate a permanent memorial to honor the sacrifice of the Attu villagers on the 70th anniversary of Attu being invaded by Japanese troops.

It reminded me of the amazing history of Alaska, the span of realities that exist within a single generation of people. The people of Attu were herded up by the Japanese and eventually taken to Japanese prisoner camps. Half of the village died. The other half would never return to its home as too few remained to sustain the village. They were relocated to Atka.

This massive injustice is just one of many that occurred in rural Alaska, and while this one is easy for politicians to look at because it is on the back of another country, many other crimes against rural Alaskans occurred as a result of ignorance, misunderstanding or neglect by the very people selected to lead them.

This week in the Arctic Sounder, the struggles faced by Arctic communities abound. Kivalina’s school can’t open because there is no safe drinking water to be found. Floods have taken out that village’s water supply, and fixing the problem will take time and money, neither of which is in large supply. Last winter, many villages struggled when severe storms eroded their shorelines, which were unprotected by the typical sea ice that precedes the winter weather patterns. Extreme weather is more and more the norm these days, and reports note that sea ice is now at an all-time low. They describe much of the ice that remains as “a giant slurpy,” far from the solid masses of yesteryear. Scientists predict that is likely to mean more extreme weather patterns on a global scale, and in the Arctic it certainly seems to be so.

At the same time, interest in development in the Arctic is at an all-time high. Shell is moving its drill rigs into position, hoping to start its exploratory drilling this year. Others are on the company’s heels. Ships traveling from foreign countries are pulling up outside Barrow, which is completely unequipped to serve as a U.S. customs port. The conditions that once sheltered this region from a lot of this traffic are receding, and the world is flooding in.

Leaders met this week in Girdwood to discuss the Arctic’s future. They talked about opportunity and challenges, about climate change and planning for the future. Most of all, the scratched their heads about how to get the rest of the nation to pay attention to what is going on in the Arctic. It’s been said many times before, but the United States is way behind the curve on recognizing the importance of its role as an Arctic nation. Rather than being a leader, as a country, we are ridiculously behind the curve.

And last but certainly not least, there is this week’s news that Alaskans rejected the Coastal Zone Initiative, which proponents touted was one of the few ways Alaskans could have a say in issues that dealt with their waters. Opponents argued that the initiative needed work to avoid standing in the way of development, but it’s hard to imagine that a process that was in place for so long and supported by former governors such as Tony Knowles could have been all that bad.

What is perhaps most irksome about all this is that with everything going on in the Arctic these days, only 20 percent of the voters in that area turned out to vote. That’s right in line with the statewide average, mind you, but I would argue that it shouldn’t be.

If rural Alaskans want to be heard by the rest of the state, they are going to have to work harder at it than that. The voters in rural Alaska should be lining up at the polls 10 deep in an effort to demand their voices and needs be respected. The Arctic is one of the areas many might argue most likely to benefit from strong Coastal Zone legislation. Yet this vote didn’t draw anyone out of the ordinary to the polls.

Voter apathy is an epidemic in our nation, in our state, in our communities. But it hurts most of all in places where the rights of the average citizen need all the protection they can get.

Rural Alaska communities have a chance to get it right in October, however -- to show the rest of the state that they are aware of their history, and are not going to sit idle while the rest of the state makes decisions for them. I urge voters to take to the polls in great numbers this fall and be active and informed about the issues they will face in coming months and years. Because no one is going to protect your interests if you aren’t paying attention. Yes, it’s an uphill battle, even for those fighting hard. But positive change is possible. And it’s certainly worth the effort. The alternative is pretty dim.

Carey Restino is news editor of the The Arctic Sounder and The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman, where this commentary was originally published. It is reproduced here with permission.

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