Visitors, newcomers can be as valuable as longtime residents

Posted: Sunday, July 29, 2001

Alaskans are on that proverbial slippery slope when it comes to their attitudes about nonresidents.

Judging by recent comments, we don't want them catching "our" fish. We don't want them hunting "our" wildlife. We don't want them taking "our" jobs. We get testy when they drive on "our" roads. We want them to leave enough money to help fill our tills, but we don't want them to stay too long.

Heaven forbid if they offer an opinion about an Alaska issue that doesn't fit the majority's way of thinking. We certainly don't want any Outsider telling us how to do things. We'd rather re-invent the wheel (along with everything else) than listen to what might be sound advice or a new way of looking at an old problem. We're reluctant to learn from the mistakes of others; let us make our own. Never mind that those mistakes have been made elsewhere and we could learn from them.

How and when did residents of the Last Frontier get so parochial?

Of all places on Earth, this should be the one where new ideas flourish and newcomers are welcomed with open arms. Let them be stuck in their ruts elsewhere, Alaskans should be mired in the mud only during breakup. The rest of the time we should be soaring with the eagles -- looked on with envy by the rest of the world because we've found better ways to do things.

We seem to have forgotten that a good portion of us at one time were the newcomers. We came for a short vacation and never left. Our military service brought us here, and we couldn't wait to make Alaska our permanent home. We were searching for an adventure and were swept off our feet -- by Alaska; the love affair continues 10, 20, 30 or more years later. We came to make some money on the pipeline, grew up and decided Alaska was a great place to raise a family. We came for a summer of fishing and got hooked ourselves. The stories are legion and an integral part of the state's history.

You can tell by our accents we weren't all born and raised here. Southern drawls mix with the fast clip of Northeasterners. Etched in our memories are the plains of the Midwest, the swamps of Louisiana, the ruggedness of the Rocky Mountains, lobsters from Maine, the clouds and rain of the Pacific Northwest. Our past, no matter where it was lived, doesn't make us less eligible for the greatest of all Alaska traditions -- a permanent fund dividend check.

So, why would we withhold the opportunities we were afforded from others seeking the same things we were?

If some Alaskans had their way, we would divide the state into an us-vs.-them kind of place. Signs of "Residents Only" would go over our favorite fishing holes, camping spots and hiking trails. There would be separate roads for visitors and residents, so residents would never have to get stuck behind a long line of motor homes. We would graciously give newcomers all those low-paying jobs; all the rest would be reserved for Alaskans only.

Most of us would be horrified about discrimination based on race, age, sex or religion. But if we could find a way to keep those nonresidents from enjoying what we enjoy, well, it sounds like we wouldn't hesitate to give it a try.

It gets tricky defining a nonresident on the Kenai Peninsula, though, since a lot of our visitors are Alaskans from other parts of the state. Could we keep an Anchorage or Fairbanks visitor from fishing on the Kenai River? Do we make everyone who doesn't live on the peninsula at least nine months out of the year wear some kind of badge identifying them as a nonresident?

Maybe we also want to have color-coded badges for residents that would show how long they've lived here. The longer the length of residency, the more privileges one receives. It would go right along with that other great Alaska tradition in which the determining factor on who wins an argument is who has lived here the longest.

If most of us had been treated the way at least some of us want to treat newcomers and visitors, most of wouldn't be here today. Alaska wouldn't be the state it is today. Who knows, that person hogging your favorite fishing spot might hold the answers to some of Alaska's stickiest problems -- even if he doesn't know how to fish.

Alaskans need to lighten up and learn to share. Just because someone hasn't lived in the most beautiful place on earth and experienced a decade of Alaska winters (and summers) doesn't make them a second-class citizen.

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