The Most Remote Place in the US Applies for Federal Funds for Air Service

Once again, it’s Small Community Air Service Development (SCASD) week over on BNET and I’ve been digging in to the applications for this year’s federal grants. There’s one in particular that stands out, and I decided to write about it over here on Cranky because it’s just too awesome. The tiny town of Diomede in Alaska wants $1.25 million to sustain weekly helicopter service to Nome. This is an incredible story about one of the most remote places in the entire United States.

Never heard of Diomede? There’s no reason you should have heard of it. Its 117 residents (down from 143 just two years ago) live on the edge of the barren, steep-sloped rocky island of Little Diomede which is 25 miles off the coast of Alaska in the Bering Strait. Not cool enough? Unlike Sarah Palin, the residents of Diomede actually can see Russia from their houses. Russia is only two miles away on Big Diomede. The International Dateline runs right in between, so they can literally see tomorrow. Amazing, right? Here’s the map:

Map of Diomede

But the location only tells half the story. The residents on this island are primarily natives and very little cash exchanges hands. It’s a subsistence economy where residents rely on hunting and fishing for the most part. They’ve lived there for thousands of years and at one point, used to freely connect with their now-Russian relatives across the strait on a regular basis. The Russians turned Big Diomede into a military installation and the residents there were moved to the mainland, so the Little Diomede people no longer see their kin. This truly is the most isolated place imaginable in the US.

The island itself is just a big rock (2.8 sq miles) with steep cliffs that juts out from the water. There is no running water (except in the school), no sewer, and not even roads. So why would you live there? Because your family has lived there for ages. It’s home. Here’s a shot of the island in winter, or summer, or who the heck knows. . . .

Diomede

Do I even need to explain that an airport doesn’t exist here? Even if it did, the weather is so frequently awful with high winds and low clouds that flights are adventurous at best. But the people on this island still need to live and as part of the US, need to be connected in to the country. That happens today via a weekly helicopter flight that brings the mail in, when the weather is good. Evergreen Helicopters used to use a larger helicopter but it had problems and now the company uses one that doesn’t carry passengers. So how do people get on and off the island?

If it’s an emergency, the Coast Guard or Alaska National Guard can come evacuate someone 130 miles away to the nearest hospital in Nome, but other than that, it’s almost all by boat. But even that’s problematic. The crossing is treacherous and there is no harbor on Diomede so people have to wait for hours at times just to get on and off a boat. What kind of boats do they use? As one local put it, “Our community only has one skin boat now, but the skin is not very good. We have to replace the old skin with new walrus hide.”

In the winter, things are a bit different. When the sea freezes over, there are usually a couple of months a year when they can build an ice runway to get 9 seat airplanes in and out a couple of times. But this last year, the ice never got thick enough so no runway was built. You can see why Diomede is looking for some help here.

But what kind of help could a SCASD grant provide? Well, as mentioned, there is a heliport on the island and Diomede wants a weekly flight to Nome on a four-seat helicopter to reconnect it with the rest of the world. It needs $1.25 million over three years to make this happen. The city isn’t eligible for the traditional Essential Air Service program but it is hopeful to get into a program that will provide funds through an alternative EAS subsidy after the SCASD funds dry up.

I’ve been very critical of the EAS program in the past, but this seems like a case where it should be put to work. There is no other option for Diomede, and since it’s part of the US, we should be doing what we can to re-connect them with the rest of the country. A single weekly helicopter flight hardly seems excessive. If SCASD is the only way to make that happen at this point, then it’s what we have to do. Yes, I realize the subsidy is about $3,500 per resident per year, but this is one case where I support the expense.

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46 Comments on "The Most Remote Place in the US Applies for Federal Funds for Air Service"

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Oliver
Guest

Why doesn’t Alaska build them a bridge?

By the way, how did they manage for thousands of years without the helicopter? And what changed?

Jokes aside, if they approve this service, I assume anyone can book a flight on that helicopter, not just the residents of that forsaken island? (and get the subsidized fare)

james
Guest

I was read about Diomede on some travel sites a while back. If I recall correctly if you want to visit they charge you $200 or something like that to cover your “footpring” and infrastructure needs. Not sure if that’s related to transportation or charging them to just be there (if it’s legal) but I’d have to dig up the article.

Basically put: For such a small community tourists are more of a burden to them than an economic benefit.

Ed
Guest

A bridge would cost a whole lot more than subsidized air service.

Bob
Guest

You are not talking about a bridge across a creek. This is over open ocean with hundreds of feet of water and 100 foot high ocean waves and hundred mph winds. I don’t know if it is even possible and certainly not economically feasible.

Living remotely is not easy or cheap.Gas can reach $10 a gallon. A trip to the hardware store could cost $1,000.
.

Simon Get
Guest

That photo is amazing, i really would like to go to Diomede, it looks like it’s on a different planet.

Brian
Guest
Really? Really?…..Really? Your support for this grant is arbitrary, especially when put in context of your earlier criticisms of these grant applications. This program, which I think is a poor use of taxpayer funds generally, should be used to stimulate ongoing future service to an undeserved region. The government should be demonstrating that service to the subsidized region is actually viable (read: profitable). Here, however, taxpayers are subsidizing a dying town. Clearly, no carrier will serve this region in the future without a subsidy. The people who choose to live in this town made a conscious, intentional choice to isolate… Read more »
Scott Laird
Guest
One hopes you meant to type “should be used to stimulate ongoing future service to an undeRserved region” (not undeserved). The people who live in this town have done so long before any political borders existed anywhere in North America. They lived there before the land was claimed by Russia and sold to the United States. Their land now being part of the US through no fault of their own, they have a right to maintain their existence with a reasonable amount of connection to the national transportation grid, for which the federal government is responsible for funding if private… Read more »
Dan
Guest

Cranky,

Thanks for the post. It really is interesting. But yes, I agree with the commenters who says this shouldn’t be supported, at least in the spirit of EAS/SCASD. Brian is right — the funds should be used to stimulate new service that can hopefully be a going concern on their own. This service will never be that, and therefore should its request should be rejected.

David SF eastbay
Member

Brett now that JetBlue will be starting nonstop service from Long Beach to Anchorage, you can pay them a visit next summer….LOL.

I’m surprised the feds don’t claim Eminent domain and move them out to a more populated place. Or have the military fly in every couple of weeks or so to check up on them and bring mail and/or supplies.

Nick Barnard
Member

Eh we should just give the island to the Russians. While we’re at it we should give Point Roberts Washington to the Canadians, and I think the Cubans would like Puerto Rico.

JamesK
Guest
Ah, but where would the Vancouverites go to get cheap gas and cigarettes? I remember Diomede from Michael Palin’s “Full Circle” in the 90s, when he circumnavigated the Pacific Rim, starting at Little Diomede. He missed his connection to Russia and ended up taking an Alaska Airlines flight to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (remember when?). Months later, after covering all that distance, he couldn’t get back to Little Diomede even with assistance from the US Coast Guard due to weather. Little Diomede and Big Diomede were briefly famous in the 80s when an American long-distance swimmer swam from the United States (Little Diomede)… Read more »
Bill from DC
Guest
what the hell is a skin boat? regardless, i’m guessing that i wouldn’t want to be on one for 130 miles in the northern bering sea! i think the funding issue is misplaced. should it be paid for by EAS or SCASD? probably not. however, this is something that certainly should be done to provide basic emergency support for US citizens that are otherwise stranded from the country and the modern world. along those lines, it should probably be funded by some arm of the state of alaska, the national guard or something along those lines. i agree that this… Read more »
Andrew
Guest

You’re a little late – the SCASD awards were announced Tuesday… Diomede, which applied for what would be nearly one-fifth of the awarded funds, didn’t win. They had a most remote chance, anyway. They could have improved their chances with a professionally prepared proposal, there’s was quite difficult to follow and lacked several pertinent details.

Ken
Guest

Andrew: “They could have improved their chances with a professionally prepared proposal, there?s was quite difficult to follow and lacked several pertinent details.”

Did you volunteer to help them prepare their proposal, Andrew? If so, you should probably learn the proper use of the comma and of the apostrophe. There’s a difference between “there’s” and “theirs.” Just sayin’ … !

cahilldot
Member

move the inhabitants to another place it would be cheaper???

aliquot
Guest

well, maybe instead of repairing the pothole on your street we should move YOU.

Court
Guest
Brett, I’m with you 100% on this. I think the problem people have with the idea is that there’s no economic basis for it. But this is not an economic problem, it’s a humanitarian problem. What is the government doing for them so they can continue to live on their home land? Whether or not to pay $3,500 a year would be an easy decision for us to make if it came down to staying on our ancestral homeland or not. The problem is, there is no monetary economy there. They can’t pay that themselves because they probably don’t even… Read more »
Steve Keifer
Guest

Absolutely we should fund this. We should give them DirecTV and internet access too!

Brian
Guest
Court, You’re analysis, insofar as whether this is an economic issue, is correct. If these people really wanted regular flight service to where they live, as distinguished from the ability to live in their “homeland,” there is an easy solution. They simply need to privately earn or raise the money to be able to provide that service. The reality is that not enough people care about regular travel to make it an economically feasible reality. This inability to provide REGULAR service does not impact the ability of those residents to stay there or their ability to charter flights as needed… Read more »
travelnate
Guest

The problem here is the helicopter used by Evergreen was old & they retired it – and they COULD use it to fly back and forth. The current helicopter being used doesn’t have the ability to carry passengers nor does Evergreen have one available to make that long trek, hence the grant.

A skin boat is one used by native Alaskans, because wooden boats just don’t cut it in some parts of the state. So they use the waterproof hides of walrus and other sea mammals as the “skin” of the boat.

Gary Leff
Guest

I guess I just wonder whether a weekly helicopter is even the most welfar-enhancing thing that $3500 per resident could buy, if we’re going to tug at the heart strings shouldn’t we at least compare to how the same dollars could be spent in other ways to improve the lives of the people living there? And if we don’t know what those might be I’d say we’re really not in any sort of position to make a judgment either way…

Jason A
Guest
This seems to be a suitable use of the EAS program, but I don’t really think any of the EAS or related programs are really necessary or a good use of money. What did people do 60 or 80 years ago before we had airplanes? If all commercial air service in the whole country were suddenly stopped everyone would complain, especially people who travel every weekend for fun or people involved with big business sh*t, but in the end, we would all survive. Especially considering how isolated they have always been, I don’t really think that they need air service… Read more »
Mike C.
Guest
MMM…No, no, and no. What it boils down to is these people choose to live in an isolated environment which disconnects them from the rest of the U.S., not to mention the world. With the financial constraints this country has, why should my tax dollars pay for someone to live so remotely? I think a little bit of personal responsibility is needed here by the whole community. I can understand if the community was producing some sort of product or mining for minerals or oil drilling,,,,,,, If I and 116 other people decide to live in the middle of the… Read more »
travelnate
Guest
Mike C, Unfortunately when the US purchased Alaska from Russia, with it came hundreds of Indian Tribes that live in our remote state. As more and more “white men” settled in the State, so did our lifestyles and our demands they modify their lives to suit those around them. I think this is also a case where the sale split this community – many used to have ties with the bigger Diomede island, which is Russian territory. I think this would be the least we can do for these natives living on that island, or should we expect all natives… Read more »
Jason A
Guest

Well, if the natives want to keep living there, they are free to stay. And if they want to leave, they are free to leave as well.
The issue is that you can’t have both their native way of life and remote location with modern services and our new way of life, so spending taxpayer money to try having both the old and new really won’t work.

Gravy
Guest

@Jason A: Wow, do you have it backwards. The US decided to make this land part of the US and separate this community from its ties to its neighbors.

It’s not that “these people choose to live in an isolated environment which disconnects them from the rest of the U.S”, rather this country decided to choose these people as its most remotely located citizens.

With that decision comes obligations to support connections to the rest of the US.

Gravy
Guest

Sorry, I meant @Mike C.

SAN Greg
Guest

Finally someplace safe from the building of a Wal-Mart.

Nick Barnard
Member

Alas, I bet you can get a delivery from Wal-Mart to Diomede. I think one of the Alaska stores used to have a dedicated delivery service line and webpage. Alas, a quick google search didn’t find it.

David SF eastbay
Member

SAN Greg don’t be to sure, I can see Walmart buying an old cruise ship and turning decks into retail space, using the cabins as employee quarters and sailing the small Alaskan Islands during the summer and heading to all the small Pacific islands in the winter months……LOL

Adams
Guest
Copied form Docket DOT-OST-2009-0260, Initial application of Diomede for EAS. Includes some dispassionate but amazing stories regarding their isolation Dear Mr. Devany: Kawerak, Inc. is the non-profit tribal consortium authorized to compact and provide services on behalf of 20 tribes in the Bering Strait Region of Alaska. Diomede is one of the rural communities that Kaw/erak serves. There is evidence that Diomede has been inhabited for thousands of years. This community has approximately 128 inhabitants, and is located on a small island off the coast of Alaska. It lies 2.5 miles from Russia, 28 miles from the nearest community of… Read more »
Scott
Guest

……… WOW.

Sass Brown
Guest

Isn’t this where Mount Inostranka is located?

Andrew
Guest

if they really wanted to be connected they should just move.

YO
Guest

Wouldn’t it be cheaper to pay the Russians to fly a copter in and out from their side, and move the mail 23,000 miles west?

Mayfly
Guest

Well, gee, suppose your kid fell in love with someone from there and moved to it. Wouldn’t you support that Air Service?

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DCSpotter
Guest

Hey Cranky – interesting post but I have no idea what connection does Sarah Palin has to do with SCASD. BTW – in case you don’t know it… it was Tina Fey saying she can see Russia from her house.

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[…] Missed the big travel stories of the week? And the weird, wacky and insignificant ones? We’ve got your roundup right here…. Remote Alaskan town hopes a grant will keep them connected Even in this age of jet-setting and globe-hopping from one corner of the  world to another, getting around still isn’t that easy for some. In one  of the most remote places in the US, residents of Diomede, Alaska  (population: 117) have applied for a $1.25 million grant to get a weekly helicopter service to (relatively) nearby Nome. It seems life on an  island 25 miles off the coast… Read more »
Gail Dabaluz
Guest
I appreciate this write-up regarding the community of Diomede and its dire transportation issue. While employed with the State of Alaska, I worked with Diomede to apply for the SCASDA grant available through FAA. It was heart-breaking to realize that it was not awarded. There are no words to describe how critically important it is for the residents of Diomede to have the same standard of life many of us take for granted. Having access to commerce, trade and commodities is a luxury in Diomede. In this day and age, you wouldn’t think US citizens live in developing world conditions;… Read more »
jack
Guest

Poor Souls… They must be miserable… How bout we move them to a place where they can all get jobs and PAY taxes, instead of turning them into dependentants.

Or better yet…Since they have survived for thousands of years… We can leave them alone. They are Happy…

BTW.. I cant afford to live where I want to live either.. ( A nice Tropical island)Can I qualify for a grant too… LOL..

Rich Sewell
Guest
An update to the Little Diomede Island transportation situation: They now get once a week helicopter service through a 50% grant matching U.S. DOT program called Air Transportation to Non-Eligible Places (ANTEP), which is available to communities that are ineligible for the regular EAS program. The State of Alaska provides the 50% match. This subsidy is paid to the air carrier (Evergreen Helicopters) to ensure at least break-even. Passengers are charged a seat fare, and anyone can book a seat. To people who have negative comments about subsidized air service to Little Diomede: all the highways, airports, and air traffic… Read more »
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