Alaska's politics and policies seem as wild as its hundreds of thousands of untamed acres. This is partly due to the fact that the largest state in the nation comes with a seemingly limitless supply of natural resources, and with them come conflict and controversy. Alaska's politics are thus saddled with a vast array of fiscal and environmental responsibilities, none of which are easily met. As a state that is often overlooked in the political media sector, it caught the public eye in 2008 when former Governor Sarah Palin was nominated for vice president. Since then, Alaska has managed to continue to stay in the limelight.
Gas and mining corporations have enormous influence on public policy in Alaska, but not without rivalry from environmentalists and subsistence advocates. There are ongoing and highly publicized battles over the proposed Pebble Mine project and the Donlin Creek Mine project. If built, they could potentially be the largest copper and gold mines in the world. Supporters of the mines claim they will bring much-needed jobs to local Native populations. Opponents say they will irrevocably pollute the lakes, rivers, and surrounding terrain (not to mention, near Pebble Mine project, vast swaths of Bristol Bay), destroying the large fishing industry and other subsistence ways of life on which local populations rely.
Gaining an increasing amount of national attention is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), 19.2 million remote roadless acres supporting 45 species of land and marine mammals, 36 species of fish, and 180 species of birds. ANWR is in the northeast corner of the state and has been dubbed the Last Great Wilderness. The only way to get there is by small bush plane. Area 1002, 1.5 million acres along the refuge's coastal plain, has long been a subject of controversy, as it is thought to contain a large supply of oil.
From the Iditarod to cabin building, everything in Alaska is steeped in politics. This is inevitable, as there are more politicians per capita than police officers.
More than 75% of Alaska's revenue is derived from oil extraction. The state is also the nation's leader in commercial fishing, but ranks dead last in number of farms and farm products. There is very little manufacturing in the state. Thus the cost of manufactured goods, produce, and other foodstuffs is considerably higher than in other states.
Because Alaska is predominantly comprised of rural villages, thousands of miles from any distribution center, the cost of living is relatively high. In Barrow, for instance, one can expect to pay $10 for a gallon of milk.
The Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) is a sacred check that Alaskans receive once a year, and for many in the Bush it is quite literally a lifesaver. In 1977 the fund was created to receive 25% of Alaska's oil royalty income. It was designed to maintain a state income even after the reserves had been tapped out. Residents receive a check every October in amounts that vary from year to year, but are in the ballpark of $1,200. For many who live in the Bush, this annual check helps heat their homes in the winter. And every bit helps; in recent winters, rural and remote Alaska has seen heating fuel go as high as $10 per gallon.
In Alaska few people disagree that the glaciers and permafrost are melting; it's just a fact. It is what to do about it that has politicians and constituents bickering.
Regardless of anyone's political persuasion, however, things are undeniably changing in Alaska. Icebergs are melting, and unfortunately for polar bears, that's where they live. In 2008 the Interior Department put polar bears on the protected species list, but some environmentalists believe that without addressing the causes of global warming the designation will do little to help.
As ocean temperatures rise, new migrations are starting to take effect. One unfortunate one, however, is the steady northward migration of the Humboldt giant squid. It is a voracious predator that travels in packs and is starting to be found as far north as Sitka. This could pose a serious threat to the salmon population and the fishing industry in general.
Warmer temperatures also mean new economic opportunities. As the Arctic ice melts, the region is becoming more accessible, which means there is greater possibility for more oil and gas exploration.
Many of the indigenous tribes in the Arctic region have already begun to adapt to the changes. Their hunting patterns have adjusted to the new migration times and routes of their game. Unfortunately permafrost, the frozen ground they live upon, is also melting. Centuries-old towns and villages are sinking, and the cost of possible relocation is rising into the billions of dollars. Permafrost that once held the coastline together is disappearing, and groups like the Army Corps of Engineers are scrambling to save villages from falling off into the ocean.
Visitors are often surprised to find that Alaska is filled with talented contemporary artists. Not only do some of the world's foremost artists, writers, and photographers reside in Alaska, there is equal talent found among those whose work never sees the Outside. For many Alaskans the long, dark winter is a great time to hunker down, season their craft, and prepare to sell their wares in the summer at galleries, museums, and theaters all over the state. In summer, weekend outdoor markets are also a great place to find local and Native talent. Look for the Made in Alaska sticker for authenticity.
In a state of renegades, thrill seekers, and aficionados of extreme forms of entertainment, it is no wonder that the biggest sporting event of the year occasionally requires a racer to permanently relinquish feeling in a finger or a foot. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a 1,150-mi-long trek, is by far the most popular sporting event in Alaska. It began in 1973 in homage to the brave souls who ventured to Nome in 1925 to take medicine to villagers struck with one of the worst outbreaks of diphtheria ever recorded. Now more than 100 racers and their packs of canines converge on the ice and snow every year on the first Saturday in March to race from Anchorage to Nome. The sport is not without controversy though; mushers have come under scrutiny, since several groups have made allegations of animal cruelty.
Although Alaskans from all over the state are passionate about their dog mushers, the most popular team sport is hockey. College hockey is big news, as are the Alaska Aces, the state minor-league team that feeds into the NHL's St. Louis Blues.
Fodor's Trip Planning Ideas
- Fodor's 100 Hotel Awards: Check out the winners of 2013
- Weekend Getaways: Fodor's Recommends the Best Weekend Escapes in the US
- Great American Vacation: Find Your Next U.S. Trip with Fodor's
- 80 Degrees: Fodor's Helps You Find Your Best Beach Vacation Spots
- Best of Europe: Fodor's Picks the Best Places to Visit in Europe