Alexander Dolitsky: Economic development, traditional uses can coexist in Alaska



In the mid-1980s, I was employed as a social scientist by the Forestry Sciences Laboratory, a research division of the United States Forest Service in Juneau.

My job assignment was to research subsistence activities in Southeast Alaska. As a result of my research, two major reports were produced and subsequently published by the Alaska-Siberia Research Center, titled: “Harvest, Distribution and Exchange of Subsistence Resources in Southeast Alaska” (1992) and “Politics and Environment in Alaska” (1994).

Certainly, the dilemma of economic development and traditional use of renewable resources is still current and complex in Alaska. These complexities arise due to differences in socio-economic objectives and procedures for industrial development and traditional use of renewable resources.

Economic development tends to place stronger emphasis on quantitative increase of production and utilization of natural resources—resources aimed at enhancing the material well-being of people.

Subsistence, or traditional use of renewable resources, on the other hand, emphasizes management of more qualitative aspects of the human environment and preservation of natural resources, which can add moral quality to human. 

Historically, subsistence had been the domain of economists and nutritionists. Currently, however, subsistence is considered to be a subject for ecologists, biologists, geographers, anthropologists, psychologists, and social scientists. Thus, subsistence became a multidisciplinary field where human-environment relationships are the main focus of study. 

Increasing interest in human-environment interactions is a matter of deep concern to the citizenry, government, and scholars. These concerns are confined primarily to two general areas: (1) economic development and its impact on the natural environment; (2) management programs and/or interrelationships among human activities, public policy alternatives and environmental systems, i.e. how particular commonly owned natural resources are to be utilized. 

These institutional and public concerns are oriented toward subsistence issues which make this field intellectually complex, scientifically debatable, sometimes controversial, and often politically irreconcilable with these various viewpoints. Taking these factors into account, it seems that in order to resolve differences of opinion, which appear to be counterproductive, and to address the research and management problems effectively, it is important at the outset to determine the central characteristics of subsistence. 

I am not attempting to suggest a ‘magic’ concept that should please everyone. My research and intentions, however, had been pertained to society’s decision-making systems and institutions, yet be useful vis-a-vis natural resources problems where private property rights should be in harmony with the determinations of prevailing social institutions.

Indeed, subsistence issues are particularly important in Alaska because the economy of rural communities is largely subsistence-based or mixed. To many residents in Alaska, subsistence also means a lifestyle, a set of sociocultural values, and self-respect for formerly totally independent people. Subsistence activities in rural Alaska not only strengthen the family unit, but also provide traditional foods necessary for an adequate diet and meaningful work for rural populations. It fills the human needs for self-reliance, self-realization and self-fulfillment.

Internationally, subsistence refers to those economic activities (e.g., hunting, fishing, gathering, farming, herding, crafting, trading, tool-making, transportation, skill training, storage, energy development, and so on) which are relatively self-contained within a community or region and are not conducted for profit-maximization, but aim primarily for present consumption, and are governed by traditional patterns rather than market conditions or immediate needs. 

Taking these social and economic factors into consideration, in 1978, the State of Alaska’s subsistence law was passed, which essentially defined subsistence uses for all Alaskan residents as: “The customary and traditional uses of wild, renewable resources for direct personal or family consumption, such as food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools, or transportation; for the making and selling of handicraft articles out of nonedible by-products of fish and wildlife taken for personal or family consumption; and for the customary trade, barter, or sharing for personal or family consumption” [AS 16.05.940 (30)]. 

Then, in 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which provided for “… the customary and traditional uses by rural Alaska residents of wild, renewable resources for direct personal or family consumption such as food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools, or transportation … “ (Title VIII: Sec. 803). In 1986, the Alaska Legislature amended its 1978 law to provide for a rural resident subsistence preference in order to comply with ANILCA. 

Unfortunately, ANILCA does not provide a clear, unambiguous definition of subsistence users or subsistence uses. ANILCA requires a priority for subsistence uses on federal lands, which comprise about 60% of Alaska’s land. Under section 805(d) of ANILCA, however, the State of Alaska retains management authority over the fish and wildlife on ‘public’ (federally managed) lands in Alaska as long as it has programs which comply with Title VIII. Otherwise, fish and wildlife management on public lands reverts to federal agencies. 

In December 1989, the Alaska Supreme Court found that the rural subsistence preference violated the clause of the Alaska constitution which reserves fish and wildlife resources for ‘the common use’ of all residents of the state. The court declared the state’s law unconstitutional, a ruling which placed Alaska out of compliance with ANILCA. As a result of the Supreme Court ruling, the federal government took over the management of subsistence on federal lands in Alaska. More importantly, protection of rural communities’ traditional fish and wildlife resources may be threatened because now all Alaskans qualify as subsistence user on state lands. 

It is obvious that subsistence hunting and fishing, which is legally defined as traditional and customary use of resources, is often conflicting with the reality of subsistence practices in Alaska. There is nothing traditional, for example, in using rifles and powerboats. Wildlife and water resources are often also abused under the “umbrella” of the subsistence uses or users for whom subsistence mode of life is definitely not a matter of physical survival but rather recreational and/or commercial activities.

In spite of irreconcilable philosophical differences, our effort should be directed towards a common goal, i.e., the optimal and sensible utilization of the earth’s resources to achieve the highest quality of spiritual and economic life. Indeed, differences between traditionalism and development are irreconcilable in principle; for example, wilderness preservation and timber cutting, subsistence way of life and the modern mode of production.

These differences, however, can be minimized if there is a clear understanding and cooperation among those whose main interests lie on either side. Developers must consider rights and requirements for environmental values, the conservation of which is important for scientific, recreational and historical reasons. On the other side, those concerned with conservation must be equally ready to recognize the political, social and economic forces behind the development and be prepared to compromise and give necessary assistance when it is needed.

Traditionalists should realize that the process of economic development is a part of social evolution and cultural change through which nations seek to improve their well-being. The process of exploration of natural resources cannot be overlooked or stopped and, therefore, it should be rationally developed and efficiently utilized, bearing moral responsibility for the preservation of its own natural resources.

In short, if the population of Alaska would grow and prosper, then economic development in Alaska must grow and prosper as well.

Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1976; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enroled in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. Dolitsky visited Alaska for the first time in 1981, while conducting field research for graduate school at Brown. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; Social Studies Instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center (see from 1990 to present. He has conducted about 30 field studies in various areas of the former Soviet Union (including Siberia), Central Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the United States (including Alaska). Dolitsky has been a lecturer on the World Discoverer, Spirit of Oceanus, andClipper Odyssey vessels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. He was the Project Manager for the WWII Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease Memorial, which was erected in Fairbanks in 2006. He has published extensively in the fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, and ethnography. His more recent publications include Fairy Tales and Myths of the Bering Strait Chukchi, Ancient Tales of Kamchatka; Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos of Siberia; Old Russia in Modern America: Russian Old Believers in Alaska; Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway During WWII; Spirit of the Siberian Tiger: Folktales of the Russian Far East; Living Wisdom of the Far North: Tales and Legends from Chukotka and Alaska; Pipeline to Russia; The Alaska-Siberia Air Route in WWII; and Old Russia in Modern America: Living Traditions of the Russian Old Believers; Ancient Tales of Chukotka, and Ancient Tales of Kamchatka.

A few more of Dolitsky’s past MRAK columns:

Read: Russian Old Believers in Alaska live lives reflecting bygone centuries

Read: Russian saying: Beat your friends so your enemies fear you

Read: Neo-Marxism and utopian Socialism in America

Read: Old believers preserving faith in the New World

Read: Duke Ellington and the effects of Cold War in Soviet Union on intellectual curiosity

Read: United we stand, divided we fall with race, ethnicity in America

Read: For American schools to succeed, they need this ingredient

Read: Nationalism in America, Alaska, around the world

Read: The case of the ‘delicious salad’

Read: White privilege is a troubling perspective

Read: Beware of activists who manipulate history for their own agenda

Read: Alaska Day remembrance of Russian transfer

Read: American leftism is true picture of true hypocrisy

Read: History does not repeat itself

Read: The only Ford Mustang in Kiev

Read: What is greed? Depends on the generation


  1. “In short, if the population of Alaska would grow and prosper, then economic development in Alaska must grow and prosper as well”. Or, we can continue to send the wealth from our natural resources out of state.

  2. The reality that there is very little truely “subsistencc” lifestyle in Alaska anymore. And, the only way the economy will grow is if the railroad is extended to the west coast of Alaska. Mineral development is the best chance of Alaska having a more diverse economy. Without a railroad to carry the ore, or concentrate, to market, those mining opportunities will no be developed. The ability to move fuel, goods, and building materials west is absolutely necessary to grow the state. Roads won’t get the job done because a truck moves goods at 3-4 times the cost of rail and road maintenance in Alaska is astronomically high compared to rail. The annual maintenance of the Red Dog 52 mile road is about $1 million per mile. If the railroad was extended to Red Dog from Fairbanks, the port site and road would not need to be maintained and the rail could extend down to Kotzebue and Nome. The future of Alaska depends on rail expansion.


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