Population Planning


"My grandfather used to say before the white man came, the game was plentiful..... The more white man come, the more people, the more population we have, the less game we gonna have here. And we'll be just like the lower United States... Actually, about 50 to 30 years from now, nobody is going to hunt no games around here, I don't think... Alaska will be so populated there will be no more place to hunt. If we don't preserve things, like if we don't stop the white man coming into our lands. I don't know, if this certain village here will make a law, but if we are together as a region. Not just Togiak. Let's see, Togiak, Dillingham, Goodnews, Bethel, or all over Alaska. If we stick together. Make a law to stay out of certain area. That's it. No white man can get in there. That's Eskimo land. If we keep that way, I think we preserve the land, we preserve the vegetation, preserve the game itself."
Peter Abraham, Togiak, 19742

Village people, like Peter Abraham of Togiak, are becoming painfully aware of the basic relationship between numbers of people and the abundance of fish and wildlife which Alaska's public policy makers have been either unable or unwilling to accept. But the time has come when Alaska has to come to terms with its growing population.

State policy makers must ask what benefits there are to what people if Alaska's population continues to grow? And it has to be asked: What will be lost, what people will be adversely affected if the State's population continues to grow indefinitely? Other states have learned the hard way that more people, bigger cities, more towns can bring more conflicts and undesirable changes than benefits. Being largely undeveloped, Alaska still has a chance to foresee the costs and benefits of larger urban and rural populations and then make policy decisions and establish some population objectives on the basis of what will be of most benefit to present Alaskans.

"The guy who is caught in the crunch is going to be the true subsistence user."

In our region, as elsewhere in Alaska, population issues are directly linked to subsistence issues. In fact, when Governor Jay Hammond was still a fisherman from Naknek he summed up the entire subsistence problem in rural areas as a population problem. He said:

"The problem as I see it, quite frankly, boils down simply to one thing—Alaska's problem currently is that we have too many people. Alaska is really over populated at this stage in time from these crucial standpoints. From the economic point of view we have the highest (I believe) unemployment rate in the nation. Obviously there are too many people impacting the fish and game resources of the State to sustain currently the subsistence needs of the people in the State, as well as an ever increasing sport hunting and fishing industry... What do we do about it?.. . If we go ahead with the normal industrialization development procedures along the lines that other states have progressed we're going to substantially increase the population in Alaska. Without a question, the guy who is caught in the crunch is going to be the true subsistence user."2

The main reason that this relationship between population and subsistence living has been overlooked in the past is the popularity of the "myth of never—ending abundance."

Because Alaska is vast, people have viewed it as a great cornucopia, forever providing great herds of caribou, flocks of migrating ducks and geese that darken the sky, and schools of fish that choke the spawning streams. In fact much of Alaska and vast stretches of the Yukon-Kuskokwim region have very sparse fish and game populations. At the Federal-State Land Use Planning Commission's 1974 Subsistence Conference in Juneau wildlife biologist, Dr. Robert Weedon, began his discussion of subsistence by emphasizing

"...that the ability of the land to produce fish and game is very limited. When the sun shines on Alaska it allows all of the biological processes of life to go on, and it's that kind of limitation of sunlight, as you know around here, that set some severe upper ceilings as to how many meals we can get out of the country. It's very hard to estimate what this number of meals might be, but if you think back a couple of hundred years, there was a group of people around who had some chance to reach an equilibrium with the long term ability of the land to produce meals, and there were probably something like seventy to seventy-five thousand people here, Alaskan Natives. Most of them lived along the coast.., and it was this very reliable resource from the sea, and swimming upstream plus the supplementary resources that could be garnered from the countryside that allowed people to survive. My point is then that total biological productivity in Alaska for whoever wants to take advantage of it, for whatever beneficial purpose it's used, is limited.. . There are very few things we can do economically to increase that basic ceiling that nature has put on this hungry country of ours...."2

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is a hungry country. There is a very definite limit to the amount of fish and game the land and waters can support. Therefore there is a very definite limit to the utilization of these subsistence resources—a limit to the number of meals that can be taken from the land. The more people competing for the fish and game, the more pressure there will be on the subsistence resource populations and the harder it will be for a family that depends on subsistence hunting and fishing to live from the land.

Historically, the Yukon-Kuskokwim region supported between 15,000 and 25,000 people who were widely scattered along the coast and rivers. People traveled in small groups between hunting and fishing sites as the seasons changed. The number of people and their pattern of living maintained a balance with the subsistence resources of the region for some thousands of years. With the coming of white men came a variety of illnesses and infections which killed off perhaps as many as half of the Yupik people. Those who survived began grouping or centralizing around sites chosen for trading posts, missions, and later schools. Today, there are 53 villages in the region with a total of approximately 11,600 Native people and about 1,000 non-Natives. The centralizing of the people into villages has tended to concentrate subsistence hunting and fishing pressure in the vicinity of villages, but at the same time improved transportation methods such as snowmachines and motor boats have made remoter areas more accessible. The net effect of these two factors is that hunting and fishing activities are dispersed over the region more or less as they were before the coming of white men.

Improved equipment such as modern fishing gear and guns which are used in combination with traditional fish traps and harpoons have perhaps made the modern Eskimo hunter more efficient than his ancestors. It has been suggested by some that these new methods for subsistence living have created new pressures on the resources and somehow changed the whole pattern or meaning of subsistence. This theory holds that one hunter can now obtain many times the amount of fish and game that his great grandfather could. However, as long as the purpose of the hunting and fishing is subsistence, the factor determining pressure on fish and game populations is not efficiency of harvest but rather the need for food and how long the supply will last. An Eskimo family of five people today is not likely to be consuming more subsistence foods than an Eskimo family of five consumed 200 years ago. In fact, since most families use some store-bought food, the present day Eskimo is probably using less subsistence resources on a per capita basis than did his ancestors. Since there are still far fewer Yupik people today than there were originally, it can be assumed that the subsistence demands are less today than they were before.

"The number of people (in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region) and their pattern of living maintained a balance with the subsistence resources of the region for some thousands of years."

Some subsistence resources such as salmon and beaver have a definite commercial value and are utilized to obtain some cash. It is in the interests of all the village people that commercial use of fish and game not diminish their availability for subsistence consumption. This is an area of fish and game management in which the Department of Fish and Game should cooperate closely with the village people to maintain a sustained yield of subsistence resources.

Given the built-in limits for consumption of subsistence foods—a man can eat just so many black fish—we would not expect an adverse impact on subsistence resources until the Native population reached its original level. However, an increased Native population (and the birth rate on the Delta is one of the highest in the world) may come in conflict with available subsistence resources in the future.

In considering the impact of increasing rural populations on fish and wildlife resources wildlife biologist Dr. Charles Evans has cautioned that:

"From a very practical standpoint, the land entitlement of the Yupik under the Claims Act will be only a fraction of the lands that were available to them for subsistence before non-Native encroachment. No matter how much preference is given in law, the subsistence base necessary to sustain the Yupik population of that early period simply will not be available. Restraint of population growth among the rural residents of an area is an essential element of maintaining the subsistence life style."

To protect its subsistence resources in the future each village will have to determine how much hunting and fishing can be done right around the village. Then each village will have to find ways to either limit the number of people who live in the village or the number of people who will hunt and fish.

The population threat that does pose a very real and immediate threat to our subsistence resource base is the great number of people immigrating to Alaska and to our region who want to hunt and fish for sport and commercial purposes. The mounting pressure from these sources can be seen in the increased number of hunting and fishing licenses. For example, in 1940 there were 4400 resident sport fishing licenses issued, in 1973 there were 82,000. Over this same span of time the non-resident sport fishing licenses have increased from 52 to 42,000. In 1940 there were 10,000 resident hunting licenses and in 1973 there were 64,000. During this same period of time non-resident big game licenses have gone from 183 to 23,000 while the number of registered guides has jumped from 74 to 972.

Not only has there been a tremendous increase in the size of this user group, but its mobility has expanded. From 1956 to 1973 the number of licensed planes increased from 800 to 3500. And the new planes have a greater range and capacity for carrying sportsmen and their gear out for a weekend jaunt. With the population of Alaska's urban areas booming and tourism expanding at a phenomenal rate, the pressures on subsistence resources from these sources is likely to continue expanding at the same rate. If this is to happen, and it will unless some very specific and well-directed action is taken, demands on subsistence resources ten years from now may be completely overwhelming. In light of these trends, Gordon Watson, Alaska Area Director of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife has made this prediction of future subsistence living.

"What I'm suggesting is that there is a population potential that will far exceed the ability of the land to support Native populations or whatever population might want to depend on the land... I would like to summarize the (subsistence) problem this way. An Eskimo from Bethel and an Eskimo from Point Barrow started off to find the last moose in the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge. They get there and find a hunter from Fairbanks looking at a pile of smelly moose, with the antlers on the way to Dallas, and that, I believe, is the dimension of the problem as I see it."2

Just as overwhelming as the dimension of the population-subsistence problem is our frustration in trying to cope with it. The Association of Village Council Presidents has urged that the population not be increased by further immigration of large numbers of people to our region. Yet State policies have encouraged Alaska's current population boom which inevitably spills over into the Yukon-Kuskokwim region. Most of the people in our region share the feeling of our Inupiat brother John Schaeffer, Director of the Northwest Alaska Native Association, when he said, "I too get the feeling that nothing will be done. In fact, I'm getting the feeling that the best thing that could happen would be for the State of Alaska to secede and set up a border and a quota on how many people should come to the State."

Regardless of how quickly and diligently the State of Alaska moves to come to terms with its growing population, there is much that our region and the villages can do to formulate their own population objectives.

Different levels and degrees of commercial use will have to be considered. On one level is the trapper who uses some furs himself and sells some in order to have the relatively small amount of cash needed in his trapping lifestyle. On another level is the commercial fisherman who in good years can make substantial profits from his fishing efforts.

  1. On the village level, people should consider whether they want their villages to grow a great deal or remain pretty much the same size. Most villages are not faced with the prospect of any substantial growth at this time. However, as the region is developed there may be population booms in or near some villages. For example, if oil exploration or development is to take place around a village, it will no doubt attract many new people to the village. This could change the character and way of life in the village considerably. When faced with the prospect of growth, a village should carefully consider just how much growth it wants.
  2. On the regional level, our village council presidents in coordination with Calista might decide how much larger they want the region's population to grow, how many more people from the outside they want to move to the area. If they want to limit the number of people coming into the area or at least have this number grow slowly, then development policies should take this into account.

In addition to local and regional population planning, the State of Alaska must deal with the growing population of the entire State. The following are a number of specific steps that the State could take to prevent over-population from foreclosing on our way of life.

  1. First, both the State Legislature and Administration could recognize and keep in mind that the purpose of the State's policies should really be to provide for the well-being of Alaskans and the unique ways of living in Alaska rather than to build Alaska's industries, cities, and institutions just for the sake of growth and greatness; in other words, plan for Alaskans rather than for the people that might be attracted to Alaska in the future.
  2. Secondly, evaluate economic development in relation to its real benefit to Alaskans rather than just in terms of gross revenues and percents of growth which often don't reflect the actual effects of development on Alaskans and which tend to promote the attraction of more industries and people to Alaska. The State economic goal should not be growth of the economy but developing a sustaining economy for Alaskans.
  3. The State should begin immediately to develop population goals and objectives for Alaska. What are optimum population levels for Alaska, for various regions, for the different seasonal periods? How can optimum population levels be maintained or achieved? What are the costs and benefits of various population levels? How can state and local government plan for population problems on a continuing basis?
  4. A fourth area of consideration the State should make is to examine ways in which the adverse impacts of the existing and future population levels in Alaska can be minimized. Such consideration would address questions of availability of fish and game, recreation, transportation, health, education and welfare obligations.
  5. Finally, until the State's population objectives are clearly defined and until effective methods for maintaining optimum levels and minimizing their adverse impacts have been developed, the State should discourage all population growth—both the settlement of new people in Alaska and the increase in numbers of visitors. This implies that until the necessary population planning has been completed the State should discourage tourism and the attraction of new industries and developments in Alaska.

This five-step approach for coming to terms with Alaska's population problems may seem drastic to people in Anchorage or Fairbanks who seek growth for the sake of growth, or who at least accept growth as inevitable. But to Yupik people whose culture maintained a balance between population and the wealth of the land for thousands of years, these steps to control population growth before it controls everyone are not only practical and timely, but also mandatory. Anything short of this five-step approach will promote the continuing erosion of the basis of the Alaskan way of life for both Native and non-Native Alaskans. Failure to act immediately and decisively will certainly continue the cultural extermination of Alaska's original inhabitants such as the Yupik people.

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