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Western Region: Bethel, Nome & Wade Hampton census areas.

Jeannie Wooderson measures success in seemingly small ways. "If we create one or two jobs in a village we've done a great job," says the executive director of the non-profit Kuskokwim Economic Development Council. "It does get frustrating in that we're trying so hard, but there are milestones. One thing about living out here is that you have to be creative."

Wooderson and her colleagues at the Lower Kuskokwim, Lower Yukon and Bering Straits economic development councils say they have their work cut out for them trying to foster economic development in the most impoverished area of the state. "Just having safe drinking water, that's something no one (outside the Bush) ever thinks about," says Carl Berger, executive director of the Bethel-based Lower Kuskokwim Economic Development Council.

The council is a regional, non-profit organization that helps pull the pieces of economic development together. Berger says that mission is particularly challenging in an area where basic infrastructure is so lacking. "It's difficult to promote economic development when you don't have such basic things in place," he says. Safe drinking water is just one example.

Still, there's plenty going on in the western region of the state, an area plagued by raging unemployment, high living costs, few wage-paying jobs and a lack of investment capital. Berger, for example, is talking with an Amsterdam fish buyer who's interested in local fish for sales to established European markets.

The Dutch businessman also is considering setting up small, local, state-of-the-art processing facilities to smoke salmon and halibut on a year-around basis. Among other efforts of Berger and the council are launching a Native arts-and-crafts cooperative, meeting with state tourism officials about tourism development and helping individual villages determine what types of businesses they need and could support.

Up the way in Aniak, Wooderson and her colleagues also are starting a Native arts-and-crafts co-op, and they're working to develop a gravel quarry outside of Upper and Lower Kalskag that would supply gravel for regional roadways, runways and construction projects. Villagers in Russian Mission are trying to start a community farm from which to market local produce and berries, while villagers in Stony River hope to open an inn and those in Sleetmute are trying to establish a small coffee shop and overnight lodging.

Light manufacturing is the key to creating sorely-needed, cash-paying jobs along the Seward Peninsula, says Dazee, executive director of the Bering Straits Economic Council. Items that could be marketed include reindeer-hide slippers, vests and billfolds and Alaska food items, such as sourdough mix and berry products.

Other economic development possibilities in the region include opening a small store and guide service in White Mountain, starting a small-machine repair shop in Unalakleet and marketing gravel mined at Cape Nome to the Japanese. Area reindeer herders are working to start slaughter facilities on the peninsula, and a reindeer tanning operation in Shishmaref is up and running.

"We have our work cut out for us," says Berger of the challenges he and his colleagues face. But, he adds, "that's not to say we can't do economic development out here, because I think we can. People out here are pretty upbeat."


The western region of Alaska stretches from the Seward Peninsula down along the Bering Sea Coast and around Norton Sound to include Emmonak, St. Mary's, Nunivak Island and Bethel. Archaeologists generally agree that the area's earliest inhabitants crossed the miles-wide Bering Land Bridge from Asia as long ago as 8,000 to 10,000 years, although some claim the migration began much earlier.

Waves of inhabitants followed, with the ancestors of modern-day Eskimos appearing in the area around 500 A.D. The people were hunter-gatherers with a profound respect for the land and the riches it provided.

In 1728, Vitus Bering became the first Westerner to make contact with area Natives when he discovered the Diomede Islands off Alaska's west coast. Fifty years later, British explorer Capt. James Cook sailed along the coast, followed in the early 1800s by Russian explorers.

By the 1830s, the Russian American Co. had established trading posts at St. Michael and Russian Mission and, later in the century, whaling ships traveled through the area on their way north. The whaling crews, however, brought more than ropes and harpoons with them. They also brought disease and a substance that would forever change the lives of area Natives -- alcohol.

By the late 1800s, missionaries and gold prospectors had fanned out across the region, trying to convert souls and lay claim to the area's rich resources. Directed by Biblical passages, Moravian missionaries established Bethel in 1885. In 1892 educator Sheldon Jackson brought reindeer to the region, introducing what continues to be an important source of food and income for Natives throughout the Seward Peninsula.

Six years later, gold was discovered near Council and present-day Nome, and by 1900, some 20,000 people had descended on Nome, helping establish its lingering reputation as a rough-and-tumble gold mining town. Incorporated in 1901, Nome is Alaska's oldest first-class city.

The Yukon River town St. Michael also benefited from the gold rush -- in this case the rush to the Interior -- by serving as a major shipping center for those hauling supplies and equipment farther inland. Aniak, the largest community of the middle Yukon area, also has a gold-tinted history, having played a major role during the placer gold rush of 1900-1901.

In June 1942, Nome became the site of a massive military build up after military experts thought it likely that the Japanese would attack Alaska's mainland. The air base established in anticipation of the World War II assault that never came now serves as Nome's airport.


Together the Nome, Wade Hampton and Bethel census areas encompass the Seward Peninsula in mid-northwest Alaska, reach around Norton Sound, run down the spine of the Nulato Hills and follow the mighty Yukon River into the vast Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Also part of this western Alaskan region are the communities of Nome and Bethel, as well as Little Diomede Island off the coast of Nome, St. Lawrence Island and, across from Bethel, Nelson and Nunivak islands.

Those who call the Seward Peninsula home tell of its unique beauty. The Alaska Geographic publication Alaska's Seward Peninsula notes: "The Seward Peninsula isn't much to look at really. There are no spectacular mountains, no sheer coastline indented with stark fiords. The region lacks the towering forests of southeastern Alaska. No, the Seward Peninsula isn't flamboyant, just solid and steady."

The peninsula stretches about 200 miles from east to west and some 120 miles north to south. The city of Nome hangs from its underbelly, with the peninsula's northernmost point peeking just above the Arctic Circle.

The peninsula's Cape Prince of Wales is the westernmost point on the North American mainland, with the Diomede Islands anchored some 25 miles off the coast in the Bering Sea. Little Diomede is part of the United States; Big Diomede, three miles farther and across the International Dateline, belongs to the former Soviet Union.

Lakes, coastal uplands and small mountains are typical of the Seward Peninsula's southern half, while lowlands occupy the northern reaches. Four small mountain groups, rivers, hot springs and, surprising though it may sound, sand dunes also are found on the peninsula, as is permafrost.

Traveling south, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta spans some 250 miles up and down the coast and reaches roughly 200 miles inland. It is, for the most part, a seemingly endless expanse of flat, treeless, soggy wetlands, where, at least from the air, solid ground seems at a premium.

The state's largest river, the Yukon, meanders through the region, as does the Kuskokwim and tributaries of the two rivers. The Andreafsky River, designated a wild and scenic waterway, also flows through the region. The marshy flatlands provide prime habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds. Along the Kuskokwim, forest growth begins about 100 miles inland where stands of spruce, birch and poplar mingle with scrub growth. Nelson and Nunivak islands lie offshore.


The Seward Peninsula's climate is a combination of maritime and continental conditions. The short summer months take on the relatively mild characteristics of a maritime zone, and the winter months result in the more extreme temperatures and light precipitation patterns found in continental zones.

The Bering and Chukchi seas are ice-free from late June or July to November, resulting in more moderate weather and increased humidity. Come winter, wind chills of -100 degrees at Shishmaref and Wales will cause instant frostbite to exposed skin. Snowfall can be expected from early October through late April.

The weather also varies widely across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where subarctic conditions may be found at Alakanuk and a combination of maritime and continental conditions are typical at Aniak. In general, the region's first freeze can be expected in early September, with the last freezing day somewhere around the end of May. Because spring breakup often creates huge ice jams along the region's rivers, flooding is a constant threat to communities situated along meandering riverbanks.

Conditions in Nome include:

* Average summer temperature range is 39 degrees to 56 degrees F.

* Average summer temperature range is -3 degrees to 14 degrees F.

* Extreme temperatures are -46 degrees to 86 degrees F.

* Average annual precipitation is 16.4 inches (includes 54 inches of snow).

Conditions in Bethel include:

* Average summer temperature range is 39 degrees to 62 degrees F.

* Average winter temperature range is -3 degrees to 20 degrees F.

* Extreme temperatures are -46 degrees to 86 degrees F.

* Average annual precipitation is 16 inches (includes 50 inches of snow).


Government, and local government in particular, accounts for the vast majority of Western Alaska's wage-paying jobs. According to 1991 figures from the Alaska Department of Labor, federal, state and local governments accounted for 68 percent of the jobs in the Wade Hampton area, 53 percent in the Bethel area and 47 percent in the Nome area.

After government, services and retail trade provide the most jobs. Other important industries include transportation, health care, commercial fishing and, in the Nome region, mining. Seasonal work, including construction and fire fighting, also provides a few temporary jobs.

The economies of communities in Western Alaska are very closely tied to subsistence, and the importance of this non-cash economy cannot be overstated. Various surveys estimate that between 45 percent and 70 percent of area residents rely on subsistence hunting and fishing.

Government transfer payments, including welfare, Social Security and dividend checks, also are a vital source of cash for area residents. Still, residents here fall well below the state average in terms of per capita earning, with the Wade Hampton and Bethel regions occupying the last two spots on a statewide ranking. The state's 1989 per capita average was $20,609; averages in the Wade Hampton and Bethel regions were $9,548 and $12,820, respectively.

Unemployment in Western Alaska is rampant. Figures from the state Department of Labor put the rates for 1991 at 7.3 percent for the Bethel region, 11.2 percent for the Nome area and 10.6 percent in the Wade Hampton area. The department admits these numbers are misleading, however, because not counted as unemployed are people who have not sought work during the past four weeks, perhaps because they know there are no jobs available.


Nome, Bethel and, to a lesser degree, Aniak, serve as regional hubs for residents of Western Alaska. Fuel, food and limited supplies of clothing and hardware are available in most other villages.

Clinging to the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula and with a population of 3,500, Nome serves as the transportation, commercial and service center for peninsula residents, many of whom live in 16 scattered villages. Restaurants, lodging, gift shops, groceries, clothing and household goods, as well as the peninsula's only bank, can be found in Nome.

A small hospital and a long-term care facility are located in Nome, as is a branch of the University of Alaska. The peninsula's reindeer-herding industry is centered in Nome, and several state and federal agencies have offices there.

In what is commonly referred to as the Middle Kuskokwim region, Aniak, with 540 residents, serves as the center of most commercial activity. People from surrounding villages flying to Bethel or Anchorage must pass through Aniak, which rests on the south bank of the Kuskokwim River, about 90 miles northeast of Bethel.

An Alaska Commercial store and two small stores offer a variety of goods, including food, clothing, household goods and hardware. Restaurants and lodging are available, as are engine-repair facilities. State and federal agencies, city and traditional tribal governments have offices in Aniak.

Bethel is 80 miles inland from the coast on the bank of the Kuskokwim and about 400 miles west of Anchorage. With a population of 4,674, it is the regional hub and major shipping point for 56 rural villages sprinkled across the delta. Bethel's airport is among the busiest in the state. The state's only river port capable of receiving oceangoing barges, Bethel serves as an important transportation center.

As in other commercial centers, Bethel has restaurants, lodging and shops offering food, clothing, household goods, hardware and specialty items. Native crafts, including ivory carving, grass baskets, beadwork, yoyos and clothing, are marketed.

Guide and major repair services are available, as are regional health and education facilities. A bank; state, federal and regional agencies; and the state court system all have offices in Bethel.


According to 1990 census figures, approximately 28,000 people live in the Nome, Wade Hampton and Bethel census regions. The vast majority -- as high as 92 percent in the Wade Hampton census region -- are Yupik Eskimos scattered throughout small, largely isolated villages.

Several villages in the region grew dramatically during the 1950s, as those living in more remote communities moved to comply with school enrollment regulations or to be closer to goods and services. Between 1950 and 1990, for example, the population of Chevak grew from 230 to 598, while Kotlik grew from just 44 residents to 461. Bethel's population nearly doubled between 1950 and 1960, and again during the following decade.

Western Alaska continues to have a very young and rapidly-growing population. The median age for those in the Wade Hampton and Bethel census regions is 21 and 25 years, respectively, compared with a statewide median age of 29. As a result, the entire area has a very large school-age population compared to the rest of the state.

Native residents in the Nome area are represented by Bering Straits Native Corp., while those in the Wade Hampton and Bethel regions belong to Calista Corp. There also are several Native village corporations in the area.

According to a 1991 report published by Calista, birth rates in the Bethel and Wade Hampton areas are significantly higher than those in the rest of the state and in the Lower 48. Death rates, particularly those caused by accidents, also are significantly higher.

The following 1990 census information provides a glimpse of the region's demographics:

Bethel Census Region

(Includes Akiachak, Aniak, Kwethluk, Quinhagak, Toksook Bay and others.)

* Population: 13,656 (1980: 10,999) * Bethel's population: 4,674 * Aniak's population: 540 * Median age: 25 years * Proportion of population under age 18: 39 percent * Eskimos, Aleuts and American Indians account for 83 percent of the population. * Median value of a home: $51,900 * Per capita income: $12,820 (1989)

Nome Census Region

(Includes Gambell, Koyuk, St. Michael, Savoonga, Shishmaref, Unalakleet and others.)

* Population: 8,288 (1980: 6,537) * Median age: 26 years * Proportion of population under age 18: 38 percent * Eskimos, Aleuts and American Indians account for 74 percent of the population. * Median value of a home: $56,700 * Per capita income: $15,103 (1989)

Wade Hampton Census Region

(Includes Alakanuk, Chevak, Emmonak, Hooper Bay, Mountain Village, St. Mary's and others.)

* Population: 5,791 (1980: 4,665) * Median age: 21 years * Proportion of population under age 18: 46 percent * Eskimos, Aleuts and American Indians account for 93 percent of the population. * Median value of a home: $42,400 * Per capita income: $9,548 (1989)


The opening lines of Calista Corp.'s 1991 report paint a bleak picture of life throughout much of Western Alaska. "Amidst a prosperous nation lies an impoverished region whose aboriginal inhabitants still live in ways that other Americans experience only in their worst nightmares.

"Requiring an individual to reside in a village within the Calista region would be a cruel and unusual punishment to many. It would condemn that person to a life of extreme poverty plagued by chronic unemployment, health problems, alcoholism, domestic violence and suicidal behavior, among other things."

The report goes on to point out that the region has the worst health problems in the state, the highest levels of social problems and the highest unemployment coupled with the lowest per capita income of anywhere in Alaska.

Subsistence defines Western Alaska residents' way of life -- particularly in smaller, remote villages -- and is as much a social and cultural activity as it is an economic necessity. Participation generally is required by all family members and often involves moving to spring and summer camps.

Reindeer herding is still practiced along the Seward Peninsula, as is whale and walrus hunting. The hunting of waterfowl also is important, especially across the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta. Adherence to a subsistence lifestyle, however, often poses a direct conflict for those who work -- or would like to work -- at wage-paying jobs, because subsistence activities are time consuming and often require travel.

In addition to their commitment to subsistence, Western Alaska's residents follow traditional leadership patterns and customary laws. They strive to maintain the Yupik language. In recent years, however, traditional ways have run head-on with a lifestyle that includes corporate meetings, discussions in English over land ownership, contemporary cable television and the desire for store-bought clothes and electric appliances.


Besides subsistence activities, residents throughout Western Alaska enjoy Eskimo and square dancing, sled-dog and snowmachine races, bingo, basketball, hunting for artifacts and socializing with each other. Religious activities, sponsored by the Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Moravian, Pentecostal and Covenant churches, also are part of village life.


Transportation across Western Alaska is, almost exclusively, either by air or water. Weather permitting, regularly-scheduled daily flights deliver mail and supplies to remote villages and carry travelers to other regional villages and beyond. Bethel's airport is among the busiest in the state. From Nome's airport, travelers fly across the Bering Sea to what was previously the Soviet Far East.

Bethel is the only river port in Alaska capable of receiving oceangoing barges and so is an important transhipment point for villages throughout the delta. St. Michael, on the Norton Sound coast, is the closest deep water port for the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and so is an important transfer point for freight shipped to villages from Seattle on ocean barges.

Only during ice-free summer months, barges transport heavy equipment and cargo to Western Alaska villages. Because Nome has a causeway but no deep-water port, delivery of goods to that regional hub is more expensive and more difficult.

Throughout the delta, the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers serve as major thoroughfares much of the year. Boaters ply their waters in the summer and, come winter, dog teams and snowmachines travel along icy highways. Winter snowmachine trails also connect clusters of neighboring villages.

With the exception of village streets and an 18-mile stretch between St. Mary's and Mountain Village, the region's only true roads lead in and out of Nome. The Nome-Teller Road (72 miles), Nome-Taylor Road (86 miles) and the Nome-Council Road (72 miles) are maintained only in the summer and have played an important role in the development of area mineral resources.

Radio stations provide an important communication link in rural Alaska and are often used to transmit personal, business or emergency messages. The Alaska Blue Book lists six radio stations broadcasting out of Western Alaska, one of them public. It also lists one television station, a public station broadcasting out of Bethel.

Other television programming is available through the Rural Alaska Television Network or, in some communities, from cable television companies. In addition to receiving newspapers from Anchorage and Fairbanks, readers in Western Alaska may turn to The Aniak Paper, Nome Nugget (Alaska's oldest continuously-published newspaper), and Bethel's Tundra Drums.


With the exception of Nome, Western Alaska's tourism industry is largely non-existent, or at best, underdeveloped. The area and its possible visitor attractions -- scenic rivers, wildlife refuges and Native villages -- are remote and often difficult and expensive to reach. And although the larger communities of Bethel, Nome and Aniak offer food and lodging, many of the smaller villages do not.

That, however, may be changing. In a five-year strategic plan issued in 1991, the Kuskokwim Economic Development Council identified tourism development as its number-one goal. Objectives include establishing a regional tourism council, providing technical assistance for those wishing to enter the tourism industry and tripling the number of visitor dollars spent in the region by 1996.

Visitors to Bethel may browse through the gift shop and view displays of Native tools and clothing at the Yugtarvik Regional Museum, which hosts more than 10,000 visitors a day. Yugtarvik means "a place for people's things." The museum and adjoining visitor center offer information on regional events and host Native art classes, photo exhibits and traveling displays.

Exhibits and occasional programs also are offered at the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center. Special events throughout the year in Bethel include sled-dog races, Eskimo dance festivals and a Fourth of July celebration.

When planning a trip to Western Alaska visitors most often include Nome on their itinerary. Among the town's lures are gold rush history, recent designation as a gateway to the former Soviet Far East and the notoriety that comes with being at the end of the Iditarod Trail.

Lower air fares were expected to lure a 2,000-visitor increase during the summer of 1992. In previous years, 10,000 to 12,000 visitors came to Nome to pan for gold, view sled-dog demonstrations on the beach, browse through shops offering Native arts and crafts or thumb through some 6,000 historic photos at the Carrie McClain Museum.

With a little planning, visitors to Nome also can fly to neighboring villages for the night or rent a car and visit nearby hot springs, picnic spots or the Eskimo village of Teller. For the more adventurous, and for those who have made plans well in advance, a trip to the former Soviet Far East may be arranged. Package tours to the cities of Provideniya and Anadyr can include city tours, camping in reindeerhide tents, visiting nearby Native villages and staying with host families.

Annual events in Nome include several sled-dog and snowmachine races; the end of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a basketball tournament and the Bering Sea Ice Golf Classic in March; and the Midnight Sun Festival and softball tournament in June.


Residents of Western Alaska live primarily in small villages scattered across the region. Following is a list of incorporated cities and villages with populations of 500 or more people, their form of government and tax rates.

Bethel Census Region

* Aniak: Second-class city; city manager and mayor/council government

* Bethel: Second-class city; city manager and mayor/council government; 5 percent sales tax

* Kwethluk: Second-class city; mayor/council government

* Quinhagak: Second-class city; mayor/council government; 3 percent sales tax

Nome Census Region

* Gambell: Second-class city; mayor/council government; 3 percent sales tax

* Nome: First-class city; city manager and mayor/council government; 4 percent sales

* Savoonga: Second-class city; mayor/council government; 3 percent sales tax

* Unalakleet: Second-class city; mayor/council government; 3 percent sales tax

Wade Hampton Census Region

* Alakanuk: Second-class city; mayor/council government; 3 percent sales tax

* Chevak: Second-class city; mayor/council government; 2 percent sales tax

* Emmonak: Second-class city; city manager and mayor/council government; 3 percent sales tax

* Hooper Bay: Second-class city; mayor/council government; 2 percent sales tax

* Mountain Village: Second-class city; city manager and mayor/council government; 3 percent sales tax


The greatest percentage of land in Western Alaska is managed by the federal government. At 19.6 million acres, the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is the nation's largest national wildlife refuge and covers much of the Yukon-Kuskokwim region. Also, the National Park System manages the 2.8 million-acre Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on the Seward Peninsula.

Western Alaska includes several thousand acres of land that is publicly held but is managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Among other, smaller landowners are regional and village Native corporations, the state, and private individuals.
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Title Annotation:western Alaska
Author:Hill, Robin Mackey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1992
Previous Article:Quality in Alaska.
Next Article:Seeking cures for health care employment.

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