For anyone living in Southeast Alaska the importance of the Alaska Marine Highway is obvious. After all, it is the only ‘road’ connecting 15 of our rural communities to the outside world. Island communities in Southeast Alaska are dependent on air and water to transport people, vehicles, and goods, including basic commodities such as food and petroleum products. Barriers to efficient transportation lead to higher fuel and grocery prices, making the cost of living considerably higher.
The Alaska Marine Highway system is more than just a convenience. For many residents, ferry service is essential and budget cuts present a formidable challenge to rural communities and the region.
In response to the state’s proposed multi-million dollar budget cut to the Alaska Marine Highway, a group of students are putting their concerns on paper.
Located on Kupreanof Island, Kake is a vibrant and isolated rural community with 600 residents. Shopping in Kake is limited. A single grocery store supplies residents with day to day essentials.
Adam Davis is a lifelong resident of Kake and the Community and Economic Development Specialist for the Organized Village of Kake.
“The store bought selection of food in Kake is limited, the quality is not the best and, it is definitely expensive. There is no place to buy organic food here and getting goods and services, heavy equipment, appliances, and supplies can be a logistical nightmare that takes up two weeks on the barge from Juneau.”
Kake is an eight hour ride on the Taku ferry from Juneau and many residents have come to depend on consistent and affordable ferry service.
“The ferry service needs to continue to be funded and scheduling needs to be reworked so that it can service the coastal communities that it was designed to serve. By cutting off our communities from accessing stores in Juneau, we indirectly increase our state deficit because we are decreasing in-state business and forcing rural residents to spend their dollars out of state by sourcing more from the lower 48. Taking away our connection to the region also takes away our economic opportunities and further isolates our rural communities.”
Evelyn Willburn is the principal for students K-8 and assistant principal of 9-12. Adam Davis and Willburn worked together to encourage students to write letters of support. Willburn felt compelled to involve students because of how essential the ferry is to the school system, the students, and their families.
“The ferry is important to our students and families in many different ways. They use it for sports travel, for medical appointments, they use it to visit family members, to buy groceries- in lots and lots of other ways the ferry is important.”
Last week, Kake’s High School basketball team joined teams from across Southeast at a tournament in Sitka. Athletes and their families used the ferry system to go to and from the tournament. Residents and the school system also depend on the ferry system for exploring new opportunities to engage and connect our communities across the region.
“We are starting to explore the possibility of having our students take swimming lessons in Petersburg for summer school but, we would very much need services from the ferry in order to do that.”
So, what did the students have to say?
Here is a sample of letters collected by Kake kindergarten, elementary, and middle school students. The original letters have been sent to legislators to encourage state officials to keep rural Southeast Alaskan communities in mind when they consider cutting funding for the Alaska Marine Highway.
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