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We Build Alaska

Dispatches from Juneau: Reach out and touch grass

It’s spring in Alaska, believe it or not, which means piles of muddy snow are beginning to melt and decaying piles of dogshit are slowly emerging from their winter cocoons like an outtake from a David Cronenberg movie. All around the state, Alaskans are wiping the sleepy gunk out of their eyes, throwing away the piles of empty liquor bottles amassed to maintain sanity during another Siberian winter, and planning their short summers before it comes time to do it all over again.

In another, kinder world, I might have been some young Tom Bodett, getting paid to wax meditatively about how summer in Alaska is “shorter than a snake’s inseam,” a joke I found positively sidesplittingly hilarious when I first read “As Far As You Can Go Without A Passport” at age 12 or 13. Or maybe even some kind of Zoomer Garrison Keillor, doing long, sedating riffs on small Midwestern towns for audiences of NPR bluehairs. Not so, unfortunately – but I am what I’d consider to be the next best thing: a political columnist covering a bill on trapper’s cabins. Perhaps I can finesse that into a deal with Motel 6 – have you heard that they’ll leave the light on for you? Spring is here, and soon summer, whereupon hordes of deathly pale, wild-eyed Alaskans will descend en masse to the hills, valleys, creeks, and trails of Alaska’s wilderness to recreate – and the bill in question intends to make it slightly easier (and safer) to do so.

The House Resources Committee’s House Bill 125 is focused on small trapper’s cabins scattered across the interior. These cabins, which have to be smaller than 400 square feet, are set up on state land by permitted trappers, to allow them to run their traplines with greater ease and safety. Representative Mike Cronk (R – Tok/Northway) mentioned, during the bill’s hearing, that he’d been caught running traplines in weather that approached 60 below, and having a small cabin readily available allowed him to hunker down for a few days while the weather blew over.

Representative Tom McKay (R – Anchorage), chairman of the House Resources Committee, who developed the bill in conjunction with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Alaska Trapper’s Association, intends to streamline and update the permitting process for these cabins. It’s been more than 30 years since the statutes have been updated, McKay said, so it’s past time for the DNR permitting process to be revised. The bill was discussed on Thursday in the House Finance Committee.

Under current statutes, DNR cannot grant permits for existing cabins (with a few very narrow exceptions that are almost never met.) They also cannot renew permits, according to Randall Zarnke (the director of the Alaska Trapper’s Association) which sparked complaints by Alaska trappers. McKay’s bill would close this hole and allow existing cabins to be permitted, instead of forcing trappers to build new ones. It would also allow cabin permits to be renewed, increases the permit fee, and simplifies the language in the statute. The cabins are exclusively limited to trapping and related activities, and construction of the cabin does not preclude land ownership, since the trapper is building on state land.

Finally, the trapper must provide proof to tDNR that they’re actually involved in trapping – this can be as simple as showing a trapping permit from the Department of Fish and Game, or keeping receipts from the sale of furs. HB 125, if passed, has the side benefit of potentially lightening DNR’s workload by permitting existing unauthorized cabins, instead of making the department spend time and money to tear them down, according to Megan Hillgartner, a natural resource specialist with DNR.

In the executive world, Governor Mike Dunleavy (R – Alaska) held a press “discussion,” along with members of legislative leadership. Dunleavy discussed the precarious state of Alaska’s finances, as a state that is funded heavily by commodities – most notably, oil.

“We all realize that we’ve got to do something,” Dunleavy said, referring to the bipartisan cooperation between both branches of the Legislature and the executive office. “We all want to do something.”

But what that “something” was, Dunleavy couldn’t specifically say. Nor, it seemed, could legislative leadership. House Speaker Cathy Tilton (R – Wasilla) made references to long-term fiscal stabilization, and “solving the PFD problem.” Representative Ben Carpenter (R – Nikiski) claimed that Alaska tax and spending policies weren’t adequate to cover the problem of fluctuating oil prices and rising governmental needs, and offered several vehicles to close the economic gap, including reduced spending and increased taxes.

“There is a recognition that we can no longer afford to fight over these issues that have bogged us down, that have kept us from working on the critical issues that we have in this state,” said Senator Bill Wielechowski (D – Anchorage).

Wielechowski’s call for and praise of bipartisanship and cooperation was echoed by several other members of the legislature – but again, there was no real plan attached to the sentiment.

Dunleavy’s spreadsheet, pulled out about halfway through the press session, reflected the price per barrel of oil, current spending, and then predictions for the next several fiscal years. Several different factors – PFD formula, increase to the Base Student Allocation, and others – altered the state’s financial situation, obviously, and the higher the price per barrel of oil, the rosier things looked. But, as Dunleavy said, there isn’t one single factor that will improve the state’s finances. Several things will have to change.

Life is a series of extremes for a petrostate – dizzying highs and staggering lows. The creamy middles, it seems, are fewer and farther between than any of us would like.

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1 year ago

The state of Alaska maintains one can trap on private property without permission.

A nice amendment would be to require permission of property owners before trapping on their property. The postings I have put up on my property have been pulled down….making the current posting law clearly burdensome on the property owner and their dogs.

1 year ago
Reply to  Floridawoman

One can also cut lines down. I’ve done that a few times:)