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Monday, June 28, 2010

Living Off the Land ~ Industry of the North

Alaska is a big state, and it can be hard to comprehend just how big. It is more than twice the size of Texas, and more than a fifth as big as all the lower 48 put together. It has more than 50% of the US coastline. In total, it is 586,412 square miles and has a population of just 698,473. With so few people and so much space, it was nice not only to see true wilderness but to also see how much of Alaska's land is protected. This graphic from The Nature Conservancy shows the conservation management status of Alaska's lands. You can click on it to see the larger version, but the gist of it is that lands that are any shade of green have the highest levels of conservation management in place. This includes about 43% of the state. (Orange lands are undesignated and have no specific conservation mandates.)

My posts mostly featured the beauty and wildlife of Alaska, as seen in many of these protected lands, but I thought it would be appropriate to show some of the other sides as well.

One of the biggest industries in Alaska is tourism. No where is that more apparent than in the towns of southeast Alaska where there are docks for multiple cruise ships. Each ship dwarfs the town beside it and often flood the streets with more tourists than the total year-round population of the town. Many local businesses open and close based on the arrival and departures of the cruise ships, which can have them running some odd hours. Here are two ships that were in port in Ketchikan.

Aside from tourism, and especially in the interior or more remote lands, Alaskans often make their living directly off the land. Many of these issues are controversial, especially when it comes to issues of conservation and native rights. I won't comment too much one way or the other here, but from what I read and heard harvesting - whether it be trees, fish, or oil - is often highly managed and takes many different interests into consideration.

In Homer, we saw this fisherman filleting an impressive 210 pound halibut. It wouldn't be big enough to win one of the popular local fishing derbies, but it still drew congratulations from visitors and locals alike.

For much of our drive along the Alaska Highway we followed the 800-mile long Trans-Alaska Pipeline which carries oil from Prudhoe Bay to the terminus in Valdez, the northern most port that doesn't ever freeze. We saw one tanker filling up when we passed the oil station in Valdez:

It was interesting to see the pipeline up close, too. The big beams under the pipeline as shown in the photo below allow it to shift without breaking, whether minor moves from frost heaves or from something more major like an earthquake.

When in Anchorage I met up with an old friend that now works in the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay, and it was interesting to hear about the strict environmental codes and regulations they have in place up there to minimize their impact. He actually said Prudhoe Bay was the cleanest and one of the most environmentally-friendly towns he had ever seen. It was actually kind of reassuring to hear about all the strict protocols they had for operations on the land-side of the US oil industry. If only such practices and plans had been properly utilized in the Gulf of Mexico.

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