by George Pletnikoff
July 16, 2007
As a kid growing up on St. George Island, one of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, one of the highlights was the occasional, very sporadic, "outings" my parents arranged with the United States Federal Government. Its interesting to me now that I think of this. Anyway, my Dad would walk ever so gently to the office of the then Island Manager, Dan Benson, who oversaw the US Governments operations for the entire commercial fur seal industry, we being a captive work force. I say ever so gently, probably all the while thinking about what he was going to say, what Mr. Benson, as we addressed and referred to him, was going to say and how my Dad would respond. I know this is probably what he did because sometimes I do the same thing. Anyway, he, my Dad, after making plans for a picnic, or "outing" on our small Island, would walk down to Mr. Benson’s office and ask to borrow a truck. Not a pick up, or a van, or some other small vehicle, but a truck with a big dump on the back of it. Probably used to dump the blubber off the fur seal skins he used to blubber, a term referring to scraping the fat off the skin. As a kid, I did not know all of this, so I did not really appreciate what it took for Dad to do this. This Mr. Benson was the judge, jury and carry outer of the sentence for everyone and everything that happened on that small Island, back in the day. And sometimes, Dad would drive this big truck up to the house, all smiles and proud. This because his job as a carpenter during the off fur seal harvesting seasons, did not allow him to drive. So seeing him behind the wheel of a big truck, well, he thought he was cool. And to me, to us, he is. Very cool man.
Anyway, since St. George Island only had a total of 7 miles of road, we would load up our picnic stuff, Mom was a really good one, a good Mom, her name is Eva, and would all climb aboard the dump, still kinda reeking of seal fat, and off we would go. Dad, pressing on the gas peddle while Mom is telling him how to drive. And since the road was only wide enough for one way traffic, if by chance another truck would be coming our way, there were periodic turn offs, places where one truck could pull off the main road and allow the other truck to drive by. It was always, in my youthful mind, a wonder who would use the turn off first, cause, hey, rules of the road. Well, Dillingham was kinda a "turn-off" of sorts for us during this campaign. It is a large community, by Alaska standards, and an industrialized one at that. And the only resource produced and harvested is salmon, three or four species of salmon, but none the less, salmon. We were and are welcome in this fishing community. Boats stopped by and offered us fish and talked with us, smiles and waves. Welcome is heard shouted over the noise of the rushing river, where we were parked, and the loud noise of the boat’s grinding engins. And, in the community, hello’s and hi’s are exchanged. We are welcome.
I wondered, however, how we could address environmental and ecosystem concerns in a community that is so prosperous, or seemingly so, until I remembered my Dad driving. For now, this moment, this outing, all is well. But knowing what I think I know about the overall health of the Bering Sea/Gulf of Alaska (this is a problem for know it alls) I thought, who is going to get to the turn off quicker; the people in the community or the industry which buys and processes the fish? My guess is, the industry. And that concerns me because, honestly, they do not live here. Anywhere along the one way dirt road, when something is coming the opposite direction, like climate change, price of fish on the world markets, or a steep decline in the overall harvestable salmon populations, Pebble mine development or oil and gas drilling in Bristol Bay, they can get off the road and go somewhere else. The Community and its people cannot. Unless of course we are able to inspire a need for good, thoughtful prepariations to the changes. This is where I think our Heritage Zones will offer that turn off for the people. Through good and thoughtful planning, the people might be able to get off the one way road to nowhere and buy time to develop resource and habitat protections. And in so doing, might be able to participate in their management, if such is possible. Dillingham is indeed a good turn off for our mission because it forced us, we on the campaign, to think and think differently about our mission’s purpose.
So, my Dad, all smiles, driving down a one way dirt road on St. George Island, with his sweetheart yelling directions and instructions, smiled and smiled widely, because for him, he did not need a turn off in life, he was living on the main road, proud that the United States Government said, "sure Mr. Pletnikoff, take your family out on a picnic, an outing," on the back of a smelly oily dump truck, on this planet we call Earth.
Until Next Time.