Interior villages talk about joining Arctic borough
A handful of northern Interior villages are starting a conversation about annexation. The communities, which are all currently within the boundaries of the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, are hoping the North Slope Borough will be open to the idea of bringing them into the fold.
"I think it's important that our area villages of the upper Koyukuk River weigh all our options and reach out to people," said former Allakaket Chief P.J. Simon. "It doesn't hurt."
Simon said he wrote an email to the borough in October asking them to consider annexing the villages of Allakaket, Alatna, Evansville and Hughes.
"We haven't heard anything back. We got an unofficial email that says, 'Talk to the governor's office,'" he said.
Borough administration confirmed it was not officially pursuing the idea at this point and said the state would have to give the green light on any action.
Close ties from the past
The four villages informally requesting annexation are already part of the Arctic voting district alongside the Northwest Arctic and North Slope boroughs. Redistricting made them the unincorporated outliers of District 40, where they fall just within its southern edge and are the only villages without higher-level regional representation of their interests.
Speaking to the Sounder on Monday — the day before the North Slope Borough was to hold its mayoral runoff election — House District 40 Rep. Dean Westlake (D-Kiana) said annexation "is a worthy question," but that it would have to wait until the borough's "votes are cast and the assembly and mayor are sworn in," before it could receive due consideration.
Like the communities of the Northwest and North Slope, Alatna is Iñupiaq, while Evansville, Hughes and Allakaket are predominantly Athabaskan.
But, despite a handful of differences, Simon said there are shared interests and resources among the communities.
"We've got our friends in Anaktuvuk Pass," he said. "We eat the same caribou that come down. We hunt the same sheep that's in their mountains. We hunt about 30 miles from Anaktuvuk sheep hunting in fall-time. [We also have connections] to a lot of Ambler people."
There are also contemporary historical ties among the communities. In 1974, the Department of Interior issued its environmental statement on the then-proposed Gates of the Arctic National Park. Allakaket and Alatna are both referenced alongside Anaktuvuk Pass, Shungnak and Kobuk as nearby villages with stakes in the project and the region.
"I think from the old stories, in 1971 and 1972, the area got asked to join the North Slope. That's what the old-timers said. I guess, back in the day, Allakaket and our area were hesitant at new things," Simon said. "But in this modern world where there's opportunity — especially if we create opportunities — that might be the best thing to do. We had a leader from Evansville, whose name was the late Phil Anderson, and he was talking about annexation in 1994. So, it's been talked about for a long time."
The Sounder was not able to confirm by deadline that early talks about the formation of the North Slope Borough included Allakaket, but would be interested in speaking with anyone who took part in these conversations.
A future of potential
Simon said he did speak with leaders from each of the four villages before reaching out to the North Slope on their behalf. For him and those he represents, an important part of the request was the understanding that joining a long-established borough would bring the benefits of that history and experience.
"Starting your own borough, there's going to be trials and a lot of things we probably miss. I think it's important that we get into a borough with people who have been there," Simon said. "I think it would [give us] a better understanding of government. Right now, we just have the city government and tribal government, but we would really benefit, I think, from the experience. Also, if we were part of the North Slope Borough, we'd probably have access to jobs and job training, and I think that would be, above all else, beneficial."
It all comes down to a need for infrastructure, he said.
Allakaket and the other villages of the region currently rely on the nonprofit Tanana Chiefs Conference for help, but as Simon explained, "they can only do so much."
"With dwindling revenue from the U.S. government giving to our nonprofit, we don't see any positive things on the go-forward. But, looking at what we have for resource development, or what we have to develop jobs, which would help with financial security or access to better education, that's what we want," said Simon, who serves as a vice chair of Doyon Ltd. and secretary and treasurer of Tanana Chiefs Conference. "We want to be progressive. We want to take care of our Elders as they grow old. But we can't right now with all the budget cuts. We've been nonprofit-dependent for way too long."
The many villages that make up the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area have been talking amongst themselves recently about the possibility of starting their own borough.
"I think we're always open to see what's the best. We hear borough talks from the Yukon-Koyukuk; they want to form a borough. But, the way we see it, when they're talking development, they're talking about the southern villages of the proposed Yukon-Koyukuk Borough, like Nulato," he said. "I think our [northern] villages should maybe reach out to the North Slope Borough and see if they want to meet or talk."
So, while Simon and others have taken part in those discussions, they've come to the conclusion it would probably make more sense to join forces with people who already understand what that looks like.
The fruits of that labor are visible in neighboring villages like Anaktuvuk Pass, Simon said.
"Look it at this way, if you go to Anaktuvuk, you see everything there in the middle of the Brooks Range. In the middle of bedrock and mountain and windblown snow, they have infrastructure. If you go to Allakaket, which is closer to modern civilization like Fairbanks, we've got a school built in the mid-70s. We've got sub-par communication. We've got hardly any infrastructure," said Simon. "We have heavy equipment from the 1970s still in Allakaket. If you want dinosaurs — if you want a heavy equipment museum, go to Allakaket, Alaska."
He'd like to see the same modernity, support and access for his own community and said he thinks they'll be able to pull their own weight for the borough in return.
"If we have a borough, we'll have to have revenue generators and a lot of responsibility and accountability, of course, but I think we're up to that challenge," he said. "We've got a lot of talented people at home in the upper Koyukuk. Our village corporation is really strong and our vision is to be independent and to try to start an economy - even small-scale - provides a better quality of life that we want."
Benefits both ways?
After the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner first reported on the villages' request for annexation, locals from across borough lines have been talking about what such a move would do for their areas.
Many North Slope residents have been somewhat skeptical about having their resources spread even further with the addition of new communities.
A few dismissed it outright as extremely unlikely to ever happen. Some have said maybe the census area should just incorporate itself into a new borough and follow the lessons laid out by the Slope and Northwest in forging their own path forward.
"The borough has much to accomplish Slope-wide before considering adding several other villages," wrote Qinugan Nayuisan Vilchis in a comment on Facebook.
She continued by saying she'd like to hear of any positive sides to the request and that she couldn't think of any right away. But, she, like many locals who heard about the idea, didn't immediately shut it down; she left it open to consideration.
"As Iñupiaq people we are warm, welcoming, loving, giving, caring, selfless people, but we still haven't accomplished meeting villages' needs that are long overdue to be addressed," she wrote. "Our borough has come a long way and has accomplished great things and it's heartwarming that they see our region as approachable, so let's see how this transpires."
A handful of Anaktuvuk residents said they would be in favor of adding their near neighbors to the borough.
Others supported the idea by saying it bothered them to think about indigenous people being separated by boundaries like borough lines and not working together, hand-in-hand.
Simon sees the upper Koyukuk's abundant mineral resources and nearby Trans-Alaska Pipeline as major assets for the region. While it can be hard to tap into those potential revenue-generators as scattered villages, a borough could help back mineral extraction projects and bring in taxes off the pipeline, he said.
While the minerals make the upper Koyukuk look a bit more like the Northwest, it's the vein of the pipeline that has drawn them to the north.
"I think the North Slope Borough is probably where we'd want to be because if we taxed the haul road all the way to Wiseman, there's 118 miles of pipeline [for which] the taxes go to the state right now," Simon said. "If we form or join a borough and annex Wiseman, along with [the other villages], there's that revenue generator. Then, at some time in the future, there's a lot of mineralized locations in the Brooks Range that can be taxed or tapped into, and even the rare earth elements of the Ray Mountains."
With a bit more organization and support, the upper Koyukuk could realize its full potential, provide a source of additional revenue for a larger borough and reap the benefits of an established structure.
"Annexation requires a big commitment of time and other resources. Before any decision is made to begin work on annexation, a lot of thought should be given to the need for annexation and the method to use," reads the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development's annexation overview.
Department officials could not be immediately contacted by deadline, but based on its web overview, the department's Local Boundary Commission is the place to go for information on formal annexation requests.
The department notes a petition for annexation may be filed by a city, borough, regional education attendance area, the state Legislature, the commissioner of the department, a person "designated by the Local Boundary Commission," or by at least 10 percent of resident registered voters in either the territory wishing to be annexed or by the city, borough, or educational area.
Once the petition is drafted and any required public meetings are held, the boundary commission looks it over. If it's accepted for filing, the public is invited to provide written comments on the proposal.
That leads to additional reviews and comment sessions, and a series of reports on the commission's findings. The department notes it can take up to a year to work through the process "because of the extensive opportunity for public comment." However, there are other ways to annex an area, including a vote of the people and unanimous consent of owners and voters.
At this point, it's important to note there have been no moves to officially begin any type of annexation. That kind of action is still a long way out, if it happens at all, Simon said.
There's still a lot to consider, he explained, including whether or not the Slope is even the best fit.
While the villages have their sights set on their northern neighbors so far, they haven't yet ruled out the Northwest Arctic Borough, either. Simon said they are open to talking with anyone who would consider including them.
"I think our area is ready for growth and eventually, something will be built. I'm not saying tomorrow or five years from now, maybe 15 or 20 years, we'll see that kind of development." After all, he said, "They can say no," adding it just can't hurt to ask. "We're curious also. It's OK to weigh our options and be proactive."
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.