As Black Gold Tarnishes, Alaskans Eye New Currency in Them There Hills

Oil is no longer the bankroll it once was. As some people wring their hands about it, a few thoughtful outdoorists think they have a way to ensure the 800-mile Trans-Alaska pipeline remains the state’s economic backbone.

By Lindsay Warner June 19, 2018

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is 800 miles long. Built mostly between 1974 and 1977, it stretches from the Arctic Sea to the Pacific, uniting the towns of Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, crossing three mountain ranges and 34 major waterways along the way. At its peak in 1988, the 48-inch diameter pipe transported 2.1 million barrels of oil per day. But in 2016, the pipeline moved only 189,000,000 barrels, a significant decrease from its heyday.

Some might consider that a good thing; the construction of the 800-mile pipeline and its job to funnel fossil fuels through—and out of—the state has always had its critics. But there’s no getting around the fact that most of Alaska’s state budget is funded by oil taxes and royalties. Given recent rock-bottom oil prices and decreased production, the state now faces a budget deficit of $2.7 billion. Black gold is no longer the cash cow it once was for the 49th state.

Black gold is no longer the cash cow it once was for the 49th state.

A section of the pipeline and proposed Trans-Alaska Trail about 20 miles north of the pilot segment terminus. ​

But to Alaska state representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, of Sitka, Alaska, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline represents far more than a reminder of an industry in decline. To 29-year-old Kreiss-Tomkins, it’s an opportunity—and one that he, quite literally, stumbled upon. During the summer of 2011, Kreiss-Tomkins freelanced for Alaska Public Radio. While on assignment in the town of Black Rapids, about 200 miles north of Valdez, Kreiss-Tomkins went out for a run. Along the way, he came across a gravel track. That gravel track, which extended beyond view toward the Alaska Range looming above, was the “service pad”—or right-of-way access—for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. It runs along the entire 800-mile pipeline.

“Struck by its potential, ​​I ​started pursuing the idea of the Trans-Alaska Trail in earnest ​after the 2014 elections,” says Kreiss-Tomkins. “Any 800-mile trail project is ambitious. But the poetry of the idea then, as now, is that a usable trail already exists. The service pad follows the full length of the pipeline and offers a surface suitable for hiking, biking, skiing, and more.”

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline right-of-way was built as a means of servicing the pipe, but Kreiss-Tomkins—a competitive ultrarunner and climber—sees it as a means of connecting Alaska through outdoor recreation. He envisions uniting sections of the trail via a series of backcountry huts, linking together the towns that traverse the pipeline via recreational pursuits. He imagines a long-distance trail—like the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) or the Appalachian Trail (AT)—that would allow tourists to travel across the interior without hiring a bush plane or being limited to cruise ships or group itineraries. And in doing so, he wonders: “Could this icon of Alaska’s oil industry also provide a one-of-a-kind route through the spectacular, rugged terrain of America’s largest state?”

“It’s a uniquely Alaskan approach,” says Nat Haslett, who, along with Nate Sievert, has been tasked with securing the permits and planning documents to help make the Trans-Alaska Trail a reality. “The pipeline has long been reviled and seen as the antithesis to outdoor recreation, but by turning it into a corridor for recreation, we see the two uses as being compatible.”

He imagines a long-distance trail—like the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) or the Appalachian Trail (AT)—that would allow tourists to travel across the interior without hiring a bush plane or being limited to cruise ships or group itineraries.

Click to enlarge.

Haslett and Sievert have been helping to smooth the way for the Trans-Alaska Trail for the past three years; the idea has been on Kreiss-Tomkins’ mind since 2001. And while sections of the trail are already open to the public on a case-by-case basis, there’s still plenty of work to be done. But if they’re successful in opening up the trail for public recreation, the first pilot section will stretch 66  miles, from the Little Tonsina River to Valdez, where the pipeline terminates.

“As destination trails​ gain popularity around the world, Alaska has every reason to do more with the resources it has to attract outdoor adventurers from around the world. Declining oil revenues render this investment all the more important.”
—Alaska State Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

Valdez: “The Coolest Mountain Town Just Waiting to Become a Mountain Town.”

Of course, capitalizing on Alaska’s outdoor opportunities doesn’t always mean permits and planning docs. Sometimes it means seeing what’s right in front of your nose—and figuring out how to take advantage of it. Take Lee Hart, executive director of the Valdez Adventure Alliance. Hart first came to Valdez in 2011 to do marketing for a heli-ski operator. The winter of 2011–2012 was a record-setting year for snow, and the ski industry was taking full advantage of it.

The pipeline parallels the Dalton Highway through the remote Brooks Range. 163 miles from Prudhoe Bay. (Courtesy of Katie Jenkins and Parker Sutton)

“Things were booming that year,” Hart says. “Lots of skiers were in town because there was a legendary amount of snow falling. It felt like a ski town, and it was easy to fall in love with this place.”

But after the snow melted in the spring, Hart noticed what she says felt like a dampening of that spirit. Businesses that had been putting on live music and events on the weekends stopped making the effort. The skiers went home for the summer, then didn’t return in the same numbers the next year.

“It didn’t feel like Valdez was headed in a good direction,” says Hart, who has worked in the outdoor industry since 1999, including a stint heading up the Outdoor Industry Association’s annual Rendezvous conference. “I felt like it was important to regain that energy; Valdez is the coolest mountain town that’s still waiting to become ‘a mountain town,’” she says. “That’s what made us want to revitalize the mountain-town stoke.”


Finding Stoke in Sports

But with limited funds and a growing deficit, Alaska didn’t have any state money to funnel into towns like Valdez, located a full six hour drive from Fairbanks or Anchorage. So Hart and her team at the Valdez Adventure Alliance—a nonprofit dedicated to conservation, stewardship, and promoting Valdez—started injecting time and energy into marketing all of the town’s natural assets, instead.  Attracting tourists to Valdez in the summertime is relatively easy; the natural geography of nearby Thompson Pass has lured climbers for years. But with a concerted effort from the Adventure Alliance, participation grew.

Now in its fifth year, the Valdez Rock & Flow Fest includes a full line-up of activities, from climbing clinics to yoga and aerial silks lessons. And with a 30 percent growth rate year over year, Hart anticipates a strong future that will continue to bolster Valdez’s bottom line.

Yet it’s somewhat more difficult to attract tourists to northern Alaska in the dead of winter. So in 2016, the Adventure Alliance also took over an ice climbing festival that started in the early 80s.

“Because we have so many waterfalls here in the summertime, we have an epic ice-climbing scene,” Hart says. “This is only the second year we really worked to bring in pros such as Conrad Anker, Katie Bono, Jeff Shapiro and others, but we’re purposely limiting participation to 300  so we can focus on providing the best variety and ice climbing opportunities.”

The last main event in the Valdez Adventure Alliance’s lineup is the Chugach Fat Bike Bash, now in its third year.  The sport of fat-biking was actually born in Alaska, but as Hart says, Valdez was behind the curve. An avid mountain biker herself, Hart looked to Valdez’s natural geography to fix that—and to lend a unique vibe to the festival in Valdez.

“Fat biking is often known as long-distance sufferfest, but Valdez is known for its vert,” Hart says. “We wanted to introduce the vertical element because it represents what Valdez is all about—but also because you could add more adrenaline and excitement to attract a younger crowd.”

Additionally, the festival was designed around all of Valdez’s most picturesque vistas, sending competitors out and around glaciers and icebergs to experience everything the coastal town has to offer. Hart and her team know the area’s assets well; in addition to running outdoor events around Valdez, they also oversee four state parks, including campgrounds, cabins, a 10-mile section of trail, and Worthington Glacier.

“Managing state parks was not part of original intent, but the state budget shortfall meant they had to close some state parks. Ours was on the hit list., so it seemed in our mission to do what we could to keep them open,” Hart says.


The Politics: An Office of Outdoor Recreation

While bolstering the state with outdoor recreational opportunities and festivals is one way to add to Alaska’s bottom line—and every opportunity to get people outside helps—it’s also essential to get decision-makers at the state level involved. The Outdoor Industry Association’s State and Local Policy Manager, Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, has worked with numerous other states looking to capitalize on the value of outdoor recreation.

“Compared to national resource dependence or extraction in  Alaska, outdoor recreation hasn’t traditionally been seen as that important,” he notes. “Against the backdrop of a $2 billion-plus budget deficit, there’s a need to diversify Alaska’s economy beyond extraction. We’re proposing an office of outdoor recreation in Alaska so it’s someone’s job to think critically about the role outdoor recreation can play in growing Alaska’s economy.”

Residents of Alaska’s sole congressional district spend $4.39 billion on outdoor recreation each year. And according to OIA’s Outdoor Recreation Economy report, the state pulls in $2.91 billion from out-of-state visitors.
Download the full Alaska Outdoor Recreation Economy report.

Successfully lobbying for an office of outdoor recreation means getting stakeholders across the state involved—from hikers and bikers, to sportsmen, air taxi operators, urban planners, tourism industry professionals and elected officials. Getting outdoors allies together in a state as geographically diverse as Alaska is hard, but in 2016, the Valdez Adventure Alliance and the Outdoor Industry Association co-hosted a coalition-building conference titled Confluence. Seventy-five people attended the first Confluence in 2016 to assess the potential economic value of outdoor recreation in Alaska. By the end of 2017—and two Confluence conferences later—Rep. Kreiss-Tomkins presented HCR 25—a bill requesting that Alaska Governor Bill Walker create an Office of Outdoor Recreation. Sixty-five stakeholders were behind the creation of the bill, offering a diversity of voices testifying that outdoor recreation is a valid economic sector, and should be treated as such.

Read more about OIA’s efforts and successes in developing offices of outdoor recreation around the country.


Economic Growth Built on the Beauty of Valdez

According to research by OIA, Alaska’s outdoor industry already generates $7.3 billion in consumer spending and supports 72,000 jobs. The state is “blessed with amazing natural resources, and with more than 80 percent of Alaskans reporting taking part in outdoor activities, it’s got a higher rate of recreation than any other state in the U.S.,” says O’Brien-Feeney.

“But to think about outdoor recreation as part of the economy is something new.”

It’s not a new concept to many people already living there—particularly those who moved there for the state’s geography and opportunities for outdoor adventure. Twin brothers Lee and Lucas Brown co-founded mobile marketing analytics company Tune in Washington—then moved their HQ from Seattle to Valdez. Geeks in the Woods now offers a kind of tech homesteading experience to software engineers looking to get out of their cubicals.

Alaska also inspires even short-term visitors to explore more, says commercial photographer Zachary Sheldon. Sheldon offers photography classes designed to help visitors capture some of Valdez’s epic vistas, but due to popular demand—and a request from the Valdez visitors’ center— those photography classes soon morphed into land-based tours of Valdez, offered under through Alaska Guide Co. After he started offering the tours, “clients kept asking what else there was to do in Valdez other than fishing, kayaking, and glacier cruises,” Sheldon said. “We have tons of rock-climbing routes and year-round ice climbing, so this year I decided to get my insurance and launch climbing tours as well.” He’ll launch in May—just one more voice and one more bottom line to lend support to an Alaska built on outdoor recreation—not just oil.

Meanwhile, Haslett, Sievert and Kreiss-Tomkins continue working on their plan to turn the pipeline service pad into a resource for outdoorists. “As destination trails​ gain popularity around the world, Alaska has every reason to do more with the resources it has to attract outdoor adventurers from around the world,” Kreiss-Tomkins says. “Declining oil revenues render this investment all the more important.”