Bush Economics: Demand and Supply in a Remote Alaskan Village

September in Tanana, Alaska is a busy time, since the long – eight months long – winter is just around the bend. Located on the banks of the Yukon River, about 130 miles west of Fairbanks, this little town of 250 people is on its own. That’s okay: they’re used to it. Originally a Koyukon Athabaskan village settled where the Tanana River flows into the Yukon, it’s about as isolated as it’s possible to get in North America. There are no roads connecting the village to the rest of the state; the only way in or out is either by the river, a 20-mile trip by sled dog in the winter to the nearest road or by bush plane. The villagers and outlying homesteaders, now a mix of Athabaskans and whites, either grew up here or chose to move here precisely because it is out in the bush.

That’s also why The Discovery Channel chose to make Tanana the subject of a reality show called Yukon Men. For three years, their camera crews have recorded the daily lives of the villagers, focusing (as these types of shows do) on a few key individuals: a white man originally from Boston who came to Tanana 40 years ago to make a fresh start; an Athabaskan family led by a man who carries on the family tradition of timbering the thick forest in the area; a white sled dog breeder who has been married to an Athabaskan woman for more than 30 years, carrying on his business with the help of his adult daughter and son. By and large, it’s a show that avoids either manufactured drama and conflict on the one hand or back-to-nature romanticism on the other. These are just normal, everyday people who just happen to hunt, fish, trap, mine silver in a small way, cut timber and go about their lives.

Sure, there’s gunfire and blood: local residents go hunting, shoot bear and moose and butcher the animals. Fathers try to teach their sons life lessons about work and responsibility. Neighbors occasionally squabble, but usually in the low-key way made necessary in circumstances where not only does everyone know everyone else, but often depend upon each other. The producers seem to be content to simply document a way of life in which the participants seem to neither know nor care what name an NFL team chooses to use and are more concerned with the salmon run than transgender rights. In other words, it’s a show that can be watched by an entire family without the adults having to keep a tight grip on the remote control’s “mute” button or be ready to change the channel at any time – except for the commercials, of course.

So it was a bit of a shock when a stark, real-world lesson in economics became a central feature of the show this year. The shock isn’t that economics happens even in a remote Alaskan village – “economics” is just what happens when people do stuff together – but how The Discovery Channel chose to treat it. More accurately, how they chose not to slant, teach, preach or otherwise twist the facts or try to “guide” viewers towards an acceptable (read “left-leaning”) conclusion.

In 2014, during the third season of Yukon Men, the village was told that the State of Alaska had determined to build a single-lane gravel road from Manley Hot Springs, the closest town on the road grid, to the south bank of the Yukon River just six miles upstream from Tanana, which is on the north bank. The road isn’t exactly going to plough right through downtown Tanana, but it will cause a dramatic change for the area. On the one hand, it will reduce the freight costs for fuel and goods that the residents need, but it will make it much easier for outsiders to come in, and who will compete for the fish and game that the locals need for their semi-subsistence way of life. Villagers are about evenly split between acceptance and opposition but, in the end, their opinions don’t really matter: the road is going through, with a completion date estimated by the end of 2015.

Even before the road has been finished, however, its effects are already being felt. One of the Tanana residents is James Roberts, an Athabascan man in his 30s with two young sons. Roberts is a logger: his father was a logger and he hopes his sons will be, too. As a specialist, he provides an important service in the village. In the weeks running up to winter, locals have two basic needs: gathering enough food to last themselves and their sled dogs through the eight-month winter and laying in enough firewood to keep their homes heated during that time. Since they live right on the Yukon River, once of the resources available to them is the annual white salmon run that occurs in September, just before winter sets in. This run, called the “pulse,” only lasts about 24 hours, but during that time it’s possible to catch hundreds, even more than a thousand, of these large, valuable fish. They can be quickly smoked and preserved for human and dog consumption. The most efficient way to catch these salmon is through the use of “fish wheels,”  which are just large revolving nets set on a raft near the bank of the river; as the salmon swim upstream, some of them are caught up in the net and scooped up into a holding pen for later processing. Of course, fish wheels have to be built, maintained, towed into position  and then monitored during the pulse, so there’s a lot of investment of time and resources in owning one. Roberts doesn’t have a fish wheel; instead, he concentrates on cutting timber for firewood – another equipment-, work- and time-intensive activity – and trades his firewood for fish. Economics!

Only, this year, the market forces for firewood are about to become dramatically skewed. Remember that new road being built to connect Tanana to the outside world? In the episode of Yukon Men titled “Winter Takes All” (season 3, episode 8, originally broadcast October 21, 2014), Roberts decides to see what the road crew, now gone for the winter, has done with all the trees that they’ve been cutting down for the road’s right-of-way. He crosses the river in his johnboat, taking his two young sons with him, and comes upon a stretch of cleared land. First there is a camera shot of the man’s face, obviously struggling to control his shock. Then, an aerial shot (a drone cam, perhaps?), which shows thousands upon thousands of logs, de-limbed and neatly stacked into hundreds and hundreds of cords of ready-to-split firewood. The road crews, working for the State of Alaska, have done in a few weeks what would have taken Roberts at least a couple of years of work to accomplish. Worse, it’s only the beginning: next year another 19 miles’ worth of cordwood will be available. It’s a lifetime supply of wood – and a lifetime’s career for one man – sitting practically at the doorstep of the only market in the area.

The program’s narrator states the obvious:  Roberts’ own stock of laboriously cut firewood has become instantly devalued by this sudden glut on the market. Worse, this is happening just as he was preparing to trade that wood for the fish he needs to help feed his family through the winter. Will the state just give the firewood to the villagers? If so, what will happen to Roberts? Then, for a miracle, the episode ends, with the questions left unanswered.

They will remain unanswered, at least by The Discovery Channel, since this was the season’s final episode. It’s almost as if the producers are leaving viewers with a home-study final exam in Economics 101. What will happen next? What are the market forces at work? Should the state just leave the wood to rot to keep Roberts in business? (He’s probably not a major donor to anyone’s campaign, so good luck there.) If they give the firewood away to the villagers, should the state compensate Roberts for his lost business? For that matter, pay him for his lost livelihood for the next five or ten years? Is this a case of a greedy capitalist with a captive market (that’s Roberts, who wears a knit cap pulled over his ears, not a silk top hat) being given his comeuppance? Or is the state once again interfering with the free market? Can you say, “unintended consequences”? More to the point, will high school social science teachers across the nation grab copies of this program and show it to their classes as a real-world example of economics and market forces? That’s probably too much to ask, but it’s a nice fantasy.

The producers of Yukon Men should be praised with loud voices for their show – not only three seasons’ worth of good television, but for the restraint they’ve shown with this particular episode. Of course, instead, they should probably be placed in some sort of political Witness Protection Program, since once the media elite discover that they’ve thrown away a perfectly good chance to bang the drum of Marxist economics, they’ll be banished to the wilderness. At least they’ll have good company out there.

 

 

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