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USDA Sponsored Forums In Alaska Draw Substantial Public Interest

We wrapped up the final of four USDA-led jobs forums Monday in Anchorage.  As in Fairbanks, Kotzebue and Juneau, area leaders joined with Alaskans from all walks to life to provide input on what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to job creation and retention, especially in rural Alaska.

As a former lawmaker, and a current member of an electric cooperative board, I was impressed to hear how so many state residents feel that reliable, affordable electricity is one of the most important keys to establishing the economic stability necessary to promote job growth.  It’s no wonder when some communities have to pay as much s $10 per gallon for fuel oil to heat their homes and generate electricity. Additionally, rural Alaskans want what many in urban areas take for granted: broadband  Internet access, and the ability to fully participate in commercial and educational activities on the world wide web.  Alaskans produce a wide range of products, from art to food items, that buyers in the “lower 48” and around the world want, but in order to get them to market, the seller needs access to broadband.  USDA is working on that, having just announced a package of loans and grant to extend broadband to communities in the Bethel and Dillingham region.  Natural resource development is the life blood of Alaska’s economy and each of the forums stressed the importance skill training for the jobs of the future.   Alaskans want Alaskans to get the jobs that may come from a gas pipeline or other large development project.

In Juneau, surrounded by the nation’s largest national forest, we talked about the need for a new forest economy, one that moves beyond the old growth harvesting of the past, and into a new era of renewable energy production. My staff is working with officials in Washington, D.C., both in Rural Development and in the Forest Service, to make this new economy a reality.   Rich and pristine ocean waters which currently provide fishing industry jobs can also host of an emerging mariculture industry, particularly oyster farming.   Mining gave birth to Juneau’s economy and there is still strong support for a responsible mining industry.

In Fairbanks, I was joined by Senator Mark Begich in announcing $49 million in water and sewer projects for rural Alaska.  These projects will improve health conditions in many rural communities, stretching all the way from Saxman and Kodiak Island to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and from Kotzebue to Fort Yukon.  Those projects will create local construction jobs and improve the infrastructure in many rural communities.   Local food systems were also a big topic of discussion in Fairbanks.  Contrary to popular stereotypes it is possible produce healthy foods grown in soil over permafrost.

In Kotzebue, it was minus 32 degrees outside, but we had a warm reception inside the local Tech Center.  This forum, the only one in the United States held above the Arctic Circle, was broadcast region-wide by KOTZ radio and was moderated by National Native News pioneer Nellie Moore.   Kotzebue is a coastal community and on the leading edge of the effects of climate change.  While melting arctic sea ice is a major concern, the community see opportunities as global shipping lanes open before their eyes.

The Obama Administration is serious about creating an environment that supports job creation and the four forums we held across this state lay a groundwork for regional coordination, with the Forest Service, the Farm Service Agency, the Denali Commission, the State of Alaska, Native corporations and local governments, along with many others.  Over the next year, working with our partners, we intend to support micro-lending activities in rural areas, fund needed community facilities and encourage the expansion of renewable energy development through our Rural Energy for America program.  There’s a lot to accomplish, and we’re just getting started.

FSA Executive Director Danny Consenstein and I will hand deliver our report on these four meetings to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Washington, D.C. later this month.  We know that they will set the framework for job development later this year, and for years to come.

Job Forum Alaska
Alaska Rural Development State Director Jim Nordlund addresses the Jobs Forum in Anchorage on February 1. Head table, Seated, (L to R) Brynn Keith, Alaska Department of Labor; Greg Cashen, Alaska Workforce Investment Board; Mark Allred, Denali Commission; Danny Consenstein, FSA State Executive Director; Vince Beltrami, President, Alaska AFL-CIO; Chris Rose, Renewable Energy for Alaska Program (REAP); Arthur Keyes, Glacier Valley Farms; Wes Lannen, USDA Rural Development Telecommunications General Field Representative

Job forum Alaska
Pictured at the Alaska USDA Jobs Forum in Kotzebue, Alaska are (L to R): Dean Westlake, Northwest Arctic Borough Assembly Member; Danny Consenstein, Executive Director, Alaska Farm Service Agency;
Jim Nordlund, State Director, USDA Rural Development; and radio host Nellie Moore

Job forum Alaska
A large crowd came out in temperatures of -35 to discuss job creation ideas during a USDA-sponsored Jobs Forum in Kotzebue, Alaska, located above the Arctic Circle.

Jim Nordlund, State Director, USDA Rural Development-Alaska