Offering Community-Sensitive Solutions
I am Koyukon Athabascan. The middle Yukon River area in Northwest Alaska is my home, my family, and my community. When RESPEC asked me to work with them, I discovered we shared a high sense of responsibility to reach out and incorporate rural and Alaska Native voices in the planning process—and we have done our best to achieve that. We wanted the plan to reflect where they have come from, where they are, and where they want to be. – Joy Huntington, President & Principal Consultant | Uqaqti Consulting, LLC
Recently, the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (AK DOT&PF) contracted RESPEC to study Northwest Alaska’s transportation needs. Our Community Design Solutions team weighed ancestry, safety, and access against climate and cost. This rural region – larger than California – is threatened by environmental factors out of the residents’ control, affecting their very existence.
“Transportation plans look different in Alaska than in more developed communities,” says Pat Cotter, RESPEC’s Infrastructure Business Development Director and Planning Services Manager, who has a long history with the AK DOT&PF. “RESPEC is seeking to maintain people’s indigenous culture. How many planners get that opportunity?”
RESPEC evaluated issues and looked for gaps in the region’s transportation network. Then, we factored in economic drivers, population changes, and changing aircraft fleets. RESPEC submitted a report with options to promote community resiliency: protect existing structures, mitigate catastrophic damage, or move communities out of vulnerable areas.
RESPEC relied on the theme of resilience as a guide for this report, highlighting that rural communities are “truly at the mercy of nature.” Whether rural and Alaska Native people stay to battle the elements or decide to move, their ability to adapt and RESPEC’s sensitivity to their hardship must prevail.
“Alaska Natives are facing a real existential crisis,” Pat says. “It’s their ancestral home, and they can’t stay unless they pay a lot.”
As coasts erode, barges can’t dock, limiting food and fuel deliveries. As rivers defrost earlier each season, people can’t travel on the ice between towns, preventing mail delivery. Schools and healthcare clinics can’t stay open without enough people in the towns. Without reliable, safe transportation – be it from airplanes, boats, or snow machines – communities go vacant. Making these updates can be expensive, and communities need criteria.
We know that our solutions must respect communities’ values, livelihoods, and histories—and they do. RESPEC’s report gives Alaska DOT&PF a way to try to make these difficult decisions.