Forging Connections in Tyonek: The vital role of access roads in Rural Alaska

The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service takes us to the Alaskan village of Tyonek, where the significance of access roads extends far beyond mere connectivity.

While Tyonek, Alaska, is only a 15 to 30-minute plane ride from Anchorage, the state’s largest city, there are no roads directly linking the town to any urban centers. Despite covering a distance less than 50 miles, a round-trip flight from Anchorage to Tyonek costs around $260, on average. Harsh winters further compound these challenges, sometimes resulting in several days without airplanes.

“Sometimes there are no airplanes through the winter,” explains local farmer Tonya Kaloa. “Tyonek could see anywhere between 4 to 9 days of no airplanes, and so, subsistence is a big important resource for us.”

Considering that aerial transportation is both costly and unreliable, it accentuates the community’s need for less costly and more reliable forms of transportation — like access roads — which provide Tyonek’s rural community with direct connections to activities that fulfill a variety of subsistence needs.

“Having access roads means being able to hunt, get to older fish camps where people have these historic sites where we once lived, and grasping a lot of the subsistence needs for our community,” Kaloa said.

Alaska’s web of access roads serve as conduits for preserving traditions and sustaining a way of life deeply rooted in the Alaskan landscape. Having those access roads is very important — especially when considering the pronounced challenges of extreme winter weather conditions that so many Alaskans face in near isolation.

In the push to carve out and maintain access roads, the National Resource Conservancy Service (NRCS) has emerged as a major ally for the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District. Their collaboration goes beyond logistical support, also encompassing engineering advice, technical expertise, and a shared commitment to sustainable development.

Access roads, in this context, become a testament to human-habitat coexistence, carefully navigating the delicate balance between meeting human needs and preserving the natural environment.

“Access roads are a way for humans and the habitat to coexist,” explains Laurie Stuart, Executive Director of the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District. “It ensures that the impact on that habitat is as narrow as possible.”

The emphasis of the NRCS collaboration is on predetermined roads that minimize environmental impact, allowing the community to navigate their traditional routes with minimal disruption.

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