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The interior.

Alaska's Interior brings to mind many images -- vast, timbered wilderness; small, scattered communities; massive mountain ranges; mighty, meandering rivers; the wondrous aurora borealis ... and glittering gold. The treasures lay buried for centuries beneath the permafrost of the Tanana Valley, until white men in the late 1800s began scratching the earth's surface and wading streams in search of the precious metal.

Scattered discoveries were made at sites such as Fortymile and at Birch Creek. Then, in July 1902, Italian prospector Felix Pedro discovered gold just north of present-day Fairbanks, setting off a stampede that gave birth to the town and helped establish it as the financial, commercial and transportation hub of the Interior.

Most of those who came in search of Fairbanks gold were experienced prospectors, accustomed to life in the Far North. As a result, Fairbanks soon became an established, thriving community.

Ninety years after Pedro came down from the hills with news of his find, claims still are being selected and discoveries of gold still are being made in and around Fairbanks. In the first nine months of 1991, for example, 1,927 new mining claims were filed in the Fairbanks Recording District, a 22 percent increase over the same period in 1990.

By far the largest gold operation proposed for development is the Fort Knox project on Gilmore Dome north of town. A preliminary feasibility study suggests there is enough gold there to justify building one of the nation's largest open-pit mines, a project that could cost $200 million and, when fully operational, employ up to 250 people. According to the study, the mine could yield as much as 4.3 million ounces of gold during a 12-year period; more conservative estimates put the amount at 3.2 million ounces.

Based on current data, it's believed that building the mine would keep from 400 to 600 construction workers busy for almost two years. "A lot of the money that will be pumped into the Fairbanks economy will come in the form of construction jobs," says Leslye Korvola, manager of the Fairbanks North Star Borough's Community Research Center.

The Fort Knox project would inject new money into the community at a time when state revenues are declining, leaving local governments to make up the difference. And although the project would increase the number of people involved in mining by two or three times current levels, Korvola points out that those workers still would represent less than 2 percent of the borough's total work force.

Ron Ricketts, executive director of the Fairbanks Industrial Development Corp., says $60 million to $70 million a year for labor, power and support services will flow back into the Fairbanks economy if Fort Knox is built. And with increased vocational training expected to be made available, most of those hired to work at the mine likely would come from the Fairbanks labor force.


The vast Interior encompasses some 165,000 square miles, an area slightly larger than the entire state of California. Although the region covers almost one-third of Alaska's land mass, it is home to less than 17 percent of the state's population. The Interior is, in many ways, what many people think of when they think of Alaska -- a huge expanse of wilderness teeming with wildlife and largely inhabited by self-sufficient Native Alaskans and homesteaders who live, hunt, fish and trap in some of the state's most remote nooks and crannies.

In general terms, the Interior is bounded on the east by the Canadian border, on the south by the glacier-hung Alaska Range, to the west by the Yukon and Koyukuk rivers and by the transitional zone of the Bering Sea coastal region, and on the north by the Brooks Range, which serves as a shield against harsh arctic weather. The Arctic Circle sweeps down into the region.

The Interior is characterized by treeless tundra, coniferous forests, low rolling hills, braided streams and ponds, marshes, swamps and waterways galore. The highlands are well-drained and nearly devoid of plant life. The lower hillsides are covered with thick forests of black and white spruce, paper birch, quaking aspen and black cottonwood.

In addition to gentle hills and jagged mountain ranges, the Interior is home to 5 of the state's 10 longest rivers, including the mighty Yukon. Some 1,400 miles of the state's longest river flow through the Interior, with another 475 miles traveling through Canada.

Also found in the Interior are the Porcupine (555 miles), Koyukuk (554 miles), Tanana (531 miles) and Birch Creek (314 miles) rivers, as well as the headwaters of the Kuskokwim River, which at 540 miles is the state's fourth longest river. Spring floods in low-lying areas are common.

The Interior's most obvious -- and most visited -- geographic landmark is 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, the highest point in North America.


Artifacts found in the Interior's Tanana Basin date back 8,000 to 11,000 years. The area's subsequent history revolves around the ways of the Athabascans. Believed to have numbered more than 6,700 by the late 19th century, these hunter-gatherers had little or no formal tribal organization.

By the 1870s, white men had entered the Interior looking for furs and gold. Many of them were able to survive in the harsh and unfamiliar environment only because Athabascan Natives helped them.

The next decade established the region's rich reputation as the site of proven gold fields. The 1886 discovery of gold at Fortymile was followed by the 1894 strike at Birch Creek and the birth of Circle, the Interior's first mining town. Fifty-thousand gold seekers headed for Canada's Klondike after an 1896 discovery of gold, a find that renewed mining interest in Alaska and led to the establishment of many Interior communities, including Ruby, Kantishna, Wiseman, Manley Hot Springs, Livengood, Eagle and Rampart.

Perhaps most significant was the 1902 gold discovery by Felix Pedro just north of present-day Fairbanks. Pedro's find at Discovery Creek, coupled with the arrival of businessman E.T. Barnette, led to the establishment of Fairbanks. Barnette had planned to build a trading post at a different location on the Chena River, but the gold strike and problems navigating the river persuaded him to change sites. Traders, prospectors, trappers and missionaries increasingly began penetrating the Interior and, in many instances, working to convert the Natives to the ways of the 20th century.

Named for Sen. Charles Fairbanks (who later became vice president under Theodore Roosevelt), Fairbanks was never just another boom town. Despite ravages by floods (1905 and 1967) and fire (1906), the town prospered and, in later years, became the home of the state's university, geophysical institute, two military bases and the logistical headquarters for the mid-1970s construction of the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline.

Another historic event was recorded in the Interior town of Nenana, on July 15, 1923. On that day, President Warren G. Harding drove the symbolic golden spike completing construction of the Alaska Railroad.


The continental weather zone of the Interior is characterized by extreme seasonal variations in temperature, low precipitation (10 to 20 inches annually) and stagnant air masses. The Brooks Range to the north protects the region from the harsher arctic weather, while the Alaska Range to the south acts as a shield against maritime conditions along the Gulf of Alaska coast. The climate throughout the Interior also is affected by other, smaller mountain ranges, including the Kuskokwim, Ray Philip Smith and White mountains.

Temperature inversions in Fairbanks often cause severe air pollution, and ice fog occurs at -25 degrees. Both the state's highest and lowest recorded temperatures occurred in the Interior -- 100 degrees at Fort Yukon on June 27, 1915, and -80 degrees at Prospect Creek Camp northeast of Bettles on Jan. 23, 1971. The Interior's first frost usually occurs in September, with the land generally remaining frozen into May.

Conditions in Nenana include:

* Average summer temperature range is 38 degrees to 72 degrees F.

* Average winter temperature range is -18 degrees to 24 degrees F.

* Extreme temperatures are -69 degrees to 98 degrees F.

* Average annual precipitation is 11 inches (includes 48 inches of snow).

Conditions in Fairbanks include:

* Average summer temperature range is 39 degrees to 72 degrees F.

* Average winter temperature range is -22 degrees to 26 degrees F.

* Extreme temperatures are -61 degrees to 99 degrees F.

* Annual average precipitation is 11 inches (includes 70 inches of snow).

Conditions in Fort Yukon include:

* Average summer temperature range is 34 degrees to 72 degrees F.

* Average winter temperature range is -29 degrees to 18 degrees F.

* Extreme temperature are -75 degrees to 100 degrees F.

* Annual average precipitation is 7 inches (includes 45 inches of snow).


When looking at economic and employment activity in the Interior, the focus is primarily on the Fairbanks North Star Borough and, in particular, on Fairbanks. In 1990 federal, state and local governments accounted for 39 percent of the borough's employment, with service and trade industries providing 23 percent and 22 percent, respectively. The retail trade/service sector is expected to provide an additional 350 jobs in 1992, many of them tourism-related.

Important contributors to the Interior's economy include gold mining, the university, two oil refineries in North Pole, the military and Usibelli Coal Mine in Healy, where in 1990, 1.58 million tons of coal were produced. Tourism also is an important industry in the area.

A large portion of employment in Fairbanks and throughout the Interior is highly seasonal -- jobs in construction and fire fighting, for example. Trapping and subsistence activities still make significant contributions to the region's economy. In the Koyukuk River Basin, the economy is largely based on subsistence, guiding and mining.

Some Interior villages are able to capitalize on their locations as a way of shoring up the economy. Bettles, for example, is the gateway to the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and so provides services to travelers.

According to the Alaska Department of Labor, in 1990, the Fairbanks North Star Borough had a labor force of 30,922 workers, with an 8.6 percent unemployment rate. For the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area, the labor force was 2,058 workers, and the unemployment rate was 12.2 percent. For the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, the labor force was 2,891 workers; the unemployment rate was 12.6 percent.


Because low water levels in 1902 prevented businessman E.T. Barnette from traveling farther up the Chena River, Fairbanks became the transportation, administrative and service center of the Interior. In addition to local government offices, the Fairbanks North Star Borough also is based in Fairbanks, as are the regional offices of several federal and state agencies. The regional Native corporation, Doyon Ltd., and the organization representing remote Native villages, Tanana Chiefs Conference, also have their headquarters in Fairbanks.

Fairbanks offers a wide variety of goods and services, including health facilities, the main campus of the University of Alaska and several retail outlets. Despite the closing of Nordstrom in early 1990 (an event covered by the Los Angeles Times), other retail chains, including Fred Meyer, Sears and Carrs Quality Centers, have decided in recent years to open or expand outlets in the Interior city. The growing tourist industry is represented in Fairbanks by restaurants, lodging facilities and tour operators' offices.

In the more northern reaches of the Interior, Fort Yukon serves as a commercial center for people who live along the Yukon Flats, while Nenana serves as a commercial center south of Fairbanks. The Bureau of Land Management and the Federal Aviation Administration have offices in McGrath. Tok, which serves as the main point of entry for Alaska Highway travelers coming into the state, offers a variety of goods and services.


Although the Interior covers an estimated one-third of the state's land mass, less than 17 percent of the state's population reside in this vast and varied region. According to the 1990 census, of the 92,000-plus people living in the Interior, 77,720 of them live in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

Borough officials estimate that military service personnel and their families stationed at either Fort Wainwright or Eielson Air Force Base account for nearly 25 percent of the borough population, a ratio that has reached record proportions since the completed deployment of the 6th Infantry Division (Light) in September 1991. The borough's overall population grew by 44 percent between 1980 and 1990, with the African-American population growing by the largest percentage, possibly because of the increase in the military population.

Median age of Interior residents ranges from 27 to 29, paralleling the state's median age of 29. The majority of the Alaska Natives living in the region are Athabascan Indians, who account for 52 percent of the population in the Yukon-Koyukuk census region. The following 1990 census figures give a snapshot of the region's demographics:

Fairbanks North Star Borough

Includes cities of Fairbanks and North Pole.

* Population: 77,720 (1980: 53,983)

* Median age: 28 years

* Portion of the population under age 18: 31 percent

* Eskimos, Aleuts and American Indians account for 7 percent of the population.

* Median value of a home: $87,300

* Per capita income: $18,507 (1989)

Southeast Fairbanks Census Area

Includes Delta Junction, Fort Greely and Tok, among others.

* Population: 5,913 (1980: 5,676)

* Median age: 29 years

* Portion of the population under age 18: 36 percent

* Eskimos, Aleuts and American Indians account for 13 percent of the population.

* Median value of a home: $54,900

* Per capita income: $12,956 (1989)

Yukon/Koyukuk Census Area

Includes Anderson, Galena, Healy, Huslia, Kaltag, Minto, Nenana, Nulato, Ruby and Tanana, among others.

* Population: 8,478 (1980: 7,873)

* Median age: 29 years

* Portion of the population under age 18: 35 percent

* Eskimos, Aleuts and American Indians account for 56 percent of the population.

* Median value of a home: $31,800

* Per capita income: $13,022 (1989)


The lifestyle of the Interior peoples is, not surprisingly, a reflection of where they live. Those living in the Fairbanks/North Pole area can enjoy a variety of cultural and recreational activities, many of them associated with the University of Alaska.

Fairbanks offers museums, a symphony orchestra and fine restaurants, including, quite possibly, the country's most northern oyster bar. Residents can choose a relatively comfortable lifestyle in town, complete with electricity and running water, or a more remote setting outside town in a wood-heated cabin with a dog lot out back.

Dog mushing, among both amateurs and professionals, is a favorite pastime, and the Fairbanks area boasts miles and miles of meandering trails. Other seasonal outdoor activities include skiing, snowmachining, fishing, river boating, berry picking and gardening. Community activities include a winter carnival and festivities centered around the summer solstice and the Fourth of July.

Many Interior residents are associated with the military. For those living in more remote communities, subsistence activities largely define their way of life.


Unlike communities in many sections of the state, several Interior communities are situated along the road system. Others are connected by TABULAR DATA OMITTED mighty waterways that for centuries have provided a means of getting from one point to another and for delivering supplies.

Not surprisingly, Fairbanks is particularly well-connected. The George Parks, Steese, Elliott and Richardson highways converge in Fairbanks, with the Taylor, Denali and Dalton highways criss-crossing other parts of the Interior. (The Dalton Highway previously was known as the North Slope Haul Road.)

Fairbanks is the northern terminus of the Alaska Railroad, which connects the city with Nenana, Denali National Park and Anchorage to the south. Regularly scheduled air service between Fairbanks and Seattle began in 1940. Jet and charter services also connect Fairbanks with Anchorage, the North Slope and smaller communities scattered throughout the Interior, as well as Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon Territory.

Fairbanks also is served by two international air carriers and, in recent years, has seen its international air-cargo operations increase. Nenana serves as a major river-boat port as well as a crossroads town -- the Nenana and Tanana rivers pass through, as do the Parks Highway and the Alaska Railroad.

At least eight radio stations broadcast from Fairbanks, with others operating in North Pole, Nenana, College, McGrath and Galena. Fairbanks also has three local television stations; another broadcasts from North Pole. The Fairbanks Daily NewsMiner is the region's predominant newspaper. Others are All Alaska Weekly of Fairbanks, The Delta Paper of Delta Junction, Valley Courier of Healy and Mukluk News of Tok.


Several national parks, preserves and landmarks are located in the Interior, the granddaddy of them all being 20,320-foot Mount McKinley and the surrounding Denali National Park and Preserve and Denali State Park. Several national wildlife refuges, including part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also are found across the vast Interior, as are several state park and recreation areas.

Canoeing, kayaking, hiking, mountain climbing, hunting, fishing, dog mushing, wildlife viewing and birding are all popular pastimes in the region, with birding being particularly good throughout the Yukon, Tanana and Porcupine river basins. Circle and Chena hot springs outside Fairbanks can provide facilities to soothe tired muscles as well as spirits. Other activities range from panning for gold to attending the World Eskimo and Indian Olympics, Fairbanks' Golden Days or the Tanana Valley Fair.

Visitors to the Interior enjoy northern lights viewing in the fall and winter, summer solstice festivities, tours of the University of Alaska Museum and Geophysical Institute, and days spent meandering through historic Alaskaland and the Dog Musher's Museum in Fairbanks. Lodges and outfitters throughout the Interior also provide goods and services for those wishing to visit more remote locations.


The Interior's communities primarily are small villages scattered across the region. Following is a list of the boroughs, major cities and villages that have populations of 200 or more people, with forms of government and tax rates:

* Fairbanks North Star Borough: Second-class borough; mayor/council government; no sales or special taxes

* City of Fairbanks: Home-rule city; manager and mayor/council government; no sales tax; 8 percent hotel/motel tax; 5 percent alcohol tax

* North Pole: Home-rule city; mayor/council government; 3 percent sales tax; no special taxes

* Denali Borough: Home-rule borough; mayor/council government; no sales tax; 4 percent bed tax

Communities Outside Borough Boundaries

* Anderson: Second-class city; mayor/council government; no sales tax; 6 percent cable television tax

* Delta Junction: Second-class city; mayor/council government; no sales or special taxes

* Eagle: Second-class city; mayor/council government; no sales or special taxes

* Fort Yukon: Second-class city; manager and mayor/council government; 3 percent sales tax; no special taxes

* Galena: First-class city; manager and mayor/council government; 3 percent sales tax and 6 percent liquor tax

* Grayling: Second-class city; manager and mayor/council government; no sales or special taxes

* Healy: Unincorporated

* Holy Cross: Second-class city; manager and mayor/council government; no sales or special taxes

* Huslia: Second-class city; mayor/council government; no sales or special taxes

* Kaltag: Second-class city; mayor/council government; no sales or special taxes

* McGrath: Second-class city; mayor/council government; no sales or special taxes

* Nenana: Home-rule city; mayor/council government; 3 percent sales tax; no special taxes

* Nulato: Second-class city; mayor/council government; no sales or special taxes

* Tanana: First-class city; mayor/council government; 2 percent sales tax; no special taxes

* Tok: Unincorporated


As is true throughout Alaska, the state and federal governments are the Interior's primary landowners, with various governmental agencies responsible for managing the lands. The National Park Service, for example, is responsible for managing much of the land held by the federal government in the Interior. Much of the remaining land is in Native hands, with the Native corporation, Doyon Ltd., a principal landowner. Local governments and private parties own land in and around established communities.
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Title Annotation:Know Alaska; business opportunities
Author:Hill, Robin Mackey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:May 1, 1992
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