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Social media, satellite TV, Amazon Prime: Is Alaska losing its frontier mojo?

The Grewink Glacier near Homer, Alaska, July 17, 2017. Many long-time residents said that the sense of “only in Alaska” exceptionalism underlying this place for generations is fading with improvements in communications and transport.
The Grewink Glacier near Homer, Alaska, July 17, 2017. Many long-time residents said that the sense of “only in Alaska” exceptionalism underlying this place for generations is fading with improvements in communications and transport. NYT

For years, pet owners in this Anchorage suburb of big homes and lawns have fretted over snares set in the local parks by fur-trappers going after fox, lynx and rabbits. But in a quiet revolution this spring, dog lovers got the upper hand, and after a series of public meetings where few trappers showed up to fight back, trapping was banned by the borough council. The suburbs had won.

“That part of old Alaska is moving further out into the bush,” said Mike Albright, 44, a business owner who was lounging at a park with his three dogs on a recent afternoon. “It’s a good thing.”

Alaska will always be different, if only by its size, climate and the grandeur of its open spaces. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s recent votes against repeal of the Affordable Care Act in Congress also reinforced the perception that people here are go-it-alone independent thinkers, shaped by their far remove from the more settled, politically divided Lower 48.

But many longtime residents, writers and business people here said that the sense of “only in Alaska” exceptionalism underlying this place and its identity for generations is fading. Improvements in communications and transport are shrinking the sense of physical distance. High-speed internet is reaching tiny villages, opening communities and families to greater connection with the outside world for everything including social media and commerce.

“The world is flat and getting flatter,” said Rick Zerkel, a pilot in Anchorage and president of an airfreight company, Lynden Air Cargo, that ships goods around the state. Zerkel said he remembers not so many years ago spending $75 for a 10-minute phone call back home to his wife when he flew to a remote part of Alaska for work. Now, satellite, cable and microwave based communications — aiming to reach the tiniest island and inland settlements in the next few years — are making talk cheap and distance irrelevant.

Demographic changes are also reshaping the state, especially in Anchorage, the largest city. Three of the most ethnically diverse public high schools in the nation are in Anchorage, a district where about 100 different languages are spoken by students. Newcomers from Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa, drawn by tourism and service jobs, have reshaped city neighborhoods and created a wave of fusion food restaurants serving everything from banh mi burgers to Alaskan halibut po-boys.

“Anchorage doesn’t look that much different than Seattle,” said Chad R. Farrell, a sociology professor at the University of Alaska, referring to the new demographic tide. But, he added, not all Alaskans are comfortable with that idea.

Dan Fischer, an artist in the fishing and tourism town of Homer, a five-hour drive south of here, saw a more ambivalent culture change in his corner of the state with the arrival of Amazon Prime and free shipping.

He and other artists long depended on tourists for a living in selling art, and local supply shops for the materials to make that art. Amazon upended all that he said, by connecting artists with new supply lines and buyers around world. About 70 percent of Fischer’s art lamps, made from local beach stones, now ship out through Amazon, he said, up from zero less than two years ago. Homer as an art colony, he said, is not the same.

“We gained access, but lost some of our uniqueness,” Fischer said.

ALASKA_CONNECTED_3
Dan Fischer’s art hangs in his home in Homer, Alaska, July 17, 2017. Fischer saw a more ambivalent culture change with the arrival of Amazon Prime and free shipping, allowing local artists to connect with buyers around the world. “We gained access, but lost some of our uniqueness,” Fischer said. Ruth Fremson NYT

Economic contraction is part of the new ethos, too. Alaska is in its second year of recession as an economy tied to oil has sputtered with declining production and prices. More jobs have been lost than in any downturn in three decades, according to state figures, and the unemployment rate is the highest in the nation at 6.8 percent, according to state figures.

Charles Wohlforth, an author and columnist who has written about the state for decades, said the old oil economy propped up the sense by many Alaskans that life was inherently different here, through the blue-collar jobs it created by the thousands and the taxes oil companies paid. The state Legislature has been considering new taxes to replace lost revenue from the oil decline, and those taxes look a lot like the ones people pay in the rest of the country.

“We’re going to be kind of a regular place,” Wohlforth said. And it won’t, he said, look like the hip, thriving cities of the East and West Coasts.

“We’re actually going to look like the middle of the country, which is kind of a declining blue-collar area that has lost its main economic reason to exist and bounces along with whatever we can manage,” he said.

There are young people still coming to Alaska with a gleam in their eye. ... Smaller would not necessarily be worse — in some ways it might be better.

Victor Fischer, who helped lead the drive for Alaskan statehood in 1959

Victor Fischer, who came here in 1950 and helped lead the drive for Alaskan statehood in 1959, says the gloomy talk of lost distinctions and decline is wrong. The next chapter of Alaska will be unquestionably different, said Fischer, 93. With fewer oil jobs, there might even be something like a return, he said, to the old smaller, tougher state where great jobs didn’t grow on trees, he said. But young people looking for a place with fewer boundaries will still come, he said, and in that there is hope.

“There are young people still coming to Alaska with a gleam in their eye,” said Fischer, who is no relation to Dan Fischer, the artist. “They come because Alaska is still a frontier, because they care about the environment, climate change and polar bears,” he said. “Smaller would not necessarily be worse — in some ways it might be better.”

Either way, the politics are changing, with hardening divisions that could shake the old traditions of the go-it-alone Alaska epitomized by Murkowski and Gov. Bill Walker, the nation’s only independent, party-unaffiliated governor. Five months after President Donald Trump won the state with 51 percent of the vote, Anchorage voters shifted left in elections to the local Assembly, and put the first two openly gay candidates in city history into office, according to the Victory Fund, a group that tracks and supports gay politicians.

People in both parties have said they intend in coming elections to strongly go after native Alaskan voters in rural areas, who have supported both Republicans and Democrats in the past.

Out-of-the-way places that were in the past more likely to fight over the idea of whether or not to have a traffic light have also been pulled into the fray.

For example, Homer, population 5,600, divided into angry camps this year after the Town Council adopted a resolution that some residents said was aimed at making the place a “sanctuary city.” Politics spilled into the arts, too, when the Homer Council on the Arts, in putting together its budget, heard from some donors who said that Trump’s election had changed their giving.

“’We’re giving to the ACLU instead,’” said Sallie Rediske, the group’s president and chair, quoting one donor.

Albright, the park visitor who was sitting with his three dogs (a Yorkie, a Westie and Pomeranian-poodle crossbreed), said new Alaska and old might not quite have settled their differences, either. For many Alaskans, rules are meant to be broken, he said, and despite the ban on trapping, you still see some traps.

“Some people are probably just going to keep doing it,” he said, “because it’s still Alaska.”

Alaska is in its second year of recession as an economy tied to oil has sputtered with declining production and prices. The unemployment rate is the highest in the nation at 6.8 percent.

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