Congressman Don Young visited Wrangell as part of his campaign to be re-elected for a 25th term. He addressed Wrangell’s elected assembly on Monday afternoon — from a distance.
“In the first place I don’t like to Zoom, I want you to know that I like to be able to see you and understand your facial expressions,” Alaska’s Republican Congressman said from inside Wrangell’s city hall hooked up to a video conferencing system.
Assembly members and city officials sat in separate rooms as the city has been meeting telephonically due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Asked about federal support for Alaska’s state ferries he said he’d worked to have the Alaska Marine Highway System eligible for federal highway dollars.
But he says the ferries have suffered from a legacy of poor state management. He says he supports giving the marine highway more autonomy — such as making it a public corporation, like the Alaska Railroad.
“People may disagree with this, but the railroad for instance, is a entity by the state, runs very well,” Young said. “It can work. So, we may have to look at a different management concept. But it has to be addressed and that is very vital to Southeast as you know it is your highway and have it shut down and be in the conditions it is right now — it’s not fair to you.”
Efforts to spin-off the marine highway from the Alaska Department of Transportation has been a central goal of a reform effort spearheaded by a committee that’s helped support legislation to change the structure of the ferry network.
Wrangell’s city manager told him the city of 2,400 people has an infrastructure needs list that will cost at least $250 million. Local leaders asked about federal help. Young offered two ideas. One is to invest more in renewable energies.
He called Southeast Alaska “the potential Saudi Arabia of America” for renewable energy especially with hydropower.
“Energy is the key to a free society and an economic strength,” Young said. “And we’re still not using as we should. We have the potential there and if you want to start a potential diversification have cheap energy. And I’ve been telling a lot of people in Alaska, that’s the key to the future in Alaska — it’s not oil and gas.”
His second pitch is to carve up more of the Tongass National Forest and hand the federal forestland back to local governments. It’s an idea Alaska’s Congressional delegation has pushed for decades, and he concedes it faces strong opposition in Washington.
“So I’m trying to get some land transfer to municipalities so you would have a better economic base. But every time I mentioned that I try to get it going, of course, all the Sierra Club and all the rest of them go crazy,” Young said.
Don Young is 87 years old, and was elected to Congress during the Nixon administration. This November he’ll again face Alyse Galvin, an Anchorage independent who lost to him in 2018.