Bethel Census Area: heart and soul of Western Alaska.

Author:Barbour, Tracy
Position:Regional Focus


The Bethel Census Area stretches across nearly 42,000 square miles in Western Alaska, has more than 30 villages, and is one of the state's most highly populated rural regions. The City of Bethel is about 40 miles inland from the Bering Sea-400 air miles west of Anchorage. Bethel is the regional hub for transportation, retail trade, and medical and government services for 56 surrounding Alaska Native communities. It is also the main port on the 700-mile-long Kuskokwim River in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, a large coastal plain Yup'ik Eskimos have inhabited for thousands of years. The old Bethel town site was on the other side of the meandering and shifting Kuskokwim River.


Terrestrial broadband services came online for Bethel and 64 other communities in the Y-K and Bristol Bay region Jan. 12, when General Communications Inc. (GCI) flipped the switch on its TERRA-Southwest project, an $88 million terrestrial broadband "middle mile" project. GCI wholly owned subsidiary, United Utilities Inc. used federal broadband stimulus funding provided by the United States Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service for project construction. History was made Jan. 12 when Alaska Governor Sean Parnell hosted the first live terrestrial videoconference between Juneau and Bethel with Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. President and CEO Gene Peltola. After a two-week test phase, services were to be available to 9,000 households and nearly 750 public, nonprofit and private community institutions, including regional health care providers, school districts and Alaska Native organizations, according to GCI, opening up a new world of opportunity for the region.


Goods coming into the Bethel area often travel by multiple forms of transportation, including barge, air, truck--even four wheeler, hovercraft and dog sleds--before reaching final destinations. Building materials for outlying villages might be barged to Bethel, trucked from the city dock to the airport, flown by small cargo plane to the village airport and then transported by a four wheeler and trailer to a project worksite.


Barges are a crucial component of Bethel's transportation system. Getting goods in and out of the remote area can be a logistical challenge, and barging equipment, containers and even houses down the river is often the most feasible solution. Each summer, more than a dozen ocean-going barges from Seattle and Anchorage carry building materials, fuel, bulk food and other supplies to Bethel's port. Much of this freight remains in Bethel; the rest is transferred to small barges that deliver items to the surrounding villages.

Bethel operates the only medium-draft port for ocean-going vessels in Western Alaska. The maximum ship/ barge length for the port is 400 feet. The Port of Bethel is the receiving and transshipment center for petroleum products and barged freight for the Y-K Delta. The Kuskokwim area's commercial salmon industry also relies on the port for most of its infrastructure and processing needs. The Bethel port serves more communities and delivers more goods than any other mainland port in Western Alaska.

The port's cargo dock is a nine-acre facility used for off loading, storing and distributing cargo destined for Bethel and other communities in the Y-K Delta, none of which are connected to any other community by road or rail. The city's general cargo dock and staging area are critical to the shipment of freight to the region.

Bethel also maintains a small boat harbor that consists of several floating docks, a turning channel and a passage-way...

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