A new report shows that what many Alaskans characterize as a land "lock-up" has proven to be an economic boon -- at least in Seward.
The report by the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research was commissioned by the Alaska office of the National Audubon Society. It looks at the changes that have taken place in Seward since the debate over setting aside millions of acres of land in Alaska for conservation purposes began in Congress a quarter of a century ago.
With today's observance of Earth Day, the ISER report offers a new impetus for looking at the connection between our environment and our economy. Seward's story offers concrete evidence that protecting the environment does not have to be at the expense of developing and diversifying the economy, and vice versa.
The passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 led to the establishment of the 669,983-acre Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward.
While today that park is viewed as a premier attraction visited by people from all over the world and an important part of the local economy, Seward residents opposed the creation of the park. They feared it would be a hurdle to economic development, note the report's authors.
In fact, when the the park was under discussion, the Seward City Council passed a resolution opposing its creation. That the tide against the park turned is evidenced by the council's action in 1985 -- it rescinded its 1975 resolution condemning the proposed creation of the park.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time in the park -- which showcases the magnificence of Alaska's geography and wildlife -- that there is now widespread agreement among Seward residents that the park has been good, not just for the visitor industry, but the entire economy and the community as a whole.
Since the park's creation, Seward's employment has grown at an average of 3.7 percent per year; most of that economic growth has been driven by the visitor industry -- with the national park and sport fishing primarily responsible for the steady increase in visitors.
The park has increased Seward's marketability, with the
words "national park" on a map guaranteeing visitors. The park has provided the community with new tourism opportunities and international recognition.
The report's authors note that "... it is difficult to find any Seward resident not willing to sing the praises of the park for the local economy and the community." Among the positive effects of the park, the study lists:
Worker stability with little employee turnover from year to year;
A higher standard of living with more economic opportunities, public services and quality of infrastructure;
A reduced local tax burden with lower property taxes and higher sales and bed tax revenues generated by visitor expenditures.
As might be expected, residents also mentioned some negative effects of the park and growth of the visitor industry. Among them:
Local merchants changed their focus toward selling to tourists.
The economy is more seasonal than in the past.
Rental housing is in short supply in the summer.
Some businesses raise prices in the summer.
There's more traffic congestion in the boat harbor area, there are lines for shopping in summer, there's overuse of some areas and trails; and more people fishing means it's necessary to go further into the bay to catch fish.
And while Seward residents did mention low wages associated with tourism jobs, "these were not characterized as dead-end jobs. In other words, employment opportunities are not viewed negatively," notes the report.
The most significant message from Seward's success with its national park may be this: "The creation of the national interest lands surrounding Seward has not foreclosed natural resource economic development opportunities, and has not led to other significant user conflicts," say the study's authors.
Tourism continues to be one leg of Seward's diverse economy -- which also is supported by the seafood industry and government. The community's success in dealing with a federal "lock-up" of land, however, should challenge Alaskans as they continue to explore ways to develop a stable economy.
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