A Grid of Civic Engagement

The other day at a communal table at The Backdoor, one of Sitka’s venerable coffee shops, I was invited into a most interesting conversation between Bonnie, a widow, retired pulp factory employee and sometimes commercial fisherman, and Steve, a permanent resident four years transplanted from Denver.  “She knows everything,” said Steve, urging me to listen.  I had been leafing through a hundred and twenty years of historic photos that a loving customer had long ago organized into a plastic presentation book and placed on a pile of locally authored books about Sikta.
Bonnie and her husband had both arrived in the late 1950s, built their house before their were roads, water, sanitation or electricity, fished commercially on the side – she still has a permit, but it’s linked to the boat and she’s reluctant to let anybody fish without her on board.  Her husband served on the Assembly, elected many times over after an initial appointment. The Assembly is city council, now the combined government of what is grandly known as the City and Borough of Sitka.  “Thank God, we got that worked out,” says Bonnie.  “They are still struggling with two governments in Ketchikan.”  Twin governments in small compact communities accessible only by air or sea requires coordination and leaks time, talent and dollars.

Having spent a morning looking at Sitka websites trying to puzzle out the remarkable web of local organizations, I comment on the high level of civic engagement, something that is so often missing in rural communities of the lower 48 where people zoom around among WalMarts and big boxes, to the neglect of village economies and cultures.   As geographic isolation seems like a boon to community, I make a comment to that effect and refer to Sikta as “off the grid.”

“Oh, no,” Bonnie corrects me, “We are the grid. In fact, we’re  self sufficient in electricity. It seems that Sitka enjoys two very good hydro projects. Rather than obstruct salmon streams, the “blue dam” and the “green dam” catch glacier melt high above the city.  They came on line in the early 1980s and were locally financed, with bonds guaranteed by the pulp factory. “Pulp factories require electricity, although they recycle a lot of energy as well.”   Electrical generation penciled out nicely and profits were carefully reinvested from the outset.  Bonnie reminds us of the high interest rates which created a fund she associates with Sitka’s sustained well-being.

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