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Yukonomist: Mission Snafu 2034


Attention young Yukoners: your government has an exciting ten-year mission for you.

It won’t be a flash in the pan, like the Alaska Highway. That project took less than a year of planning and construction after Pearl Harbor.

Nor will it be a minor effort like the White Pass railway. That took only three years from when the company was organized to the last spike in 1900.

The bulldozer didn’t exist yet so most of the digging had to be by hand, and the project faced cross-border paperwork and Soapy Smith’s gang. Despite that, no railway that is only 172 kilometres long can be considered a major mission.

Even the original moonshot is not quite in the same league as the Yukon mission we’re talking about. Getting astronauts to the moon took just seven years from President Kennedy’s famous speech to when Neil Armstrong had moondust on his boots.

So what 10-year more-than-a-moonshot has the Yukon government just announced?

As reported in last the Feb. 2 edition of the News, the Yukon government plans to build 36 campsites at Snafu Campground by 2034. Making the mission doubly ambitious are parallel plans to add 41 sites at Tatchun Lake.

I had to check the date. Had I missed February and March and was already reading an April Fool’s Day story?

But no, it’s true. There are lengthy YESAB documents to prove it. Asked why campsites would take a decade to construct, officials told the News the project would avoid peak camping season and happen in stages. They added time is needed to ensure “we get this right.”

Getting it right on risky, first-of-a-kind and highly technical projects is of course important. The BBC’s podcast documentary 13 Minutes to the Moon emphasizes the trade-offs NASA engineers faced between speed and safety.

Nonetheless, I had a hard time thinking of why building 36 campsites at Snafu would take a decade.

Perhaps it was a historical re-enactment in partnership with the department of Tourism and Culture. It would take time for a crew to buy their shovels and supplies in Seattle, walk to the Yukon on the old Ashcroft Trail and build the campsites.

It could be that they are waiting for artificial intelligence to mature. Today, AI is mostly used to make deepfake pornographic videos of pop stars. Maybe by 2034 it will have grown into something that can build campsites.

Or maybe it was a very passive aggressive way for the parks department to tell us they don’t really care about campgrounds. Like when you ask your teenager to shovel the driveway, and they shout down from their bedroom that they’ll do it in July.

Or possibly they outsourced the project to aliens. The aliens will put Snafu Campground in their ship, take it at light speed to their planet, and then bring back the finished product. The project would only take the expected 12 weeks, but the Theory of Relativity would affect perceived timelines. Since the alien construction crew would be travelling at light speed and we would not, it would seem like 10 years to us.

Then I realized: it’s a cry for help.

Deep inside the territorial apparat, some demoralized public servants wanted to call our attention to our government’s extreme clock speed problem. If we didn’t notice multi-year delay sagas about the walk-in clinic or affordable housing at Fifth and Rogers Street, then maybe announcing a 10-year campsite project would get our attention.

Cleverly, those responsible chose Snafu as their example. The word comes from US Army slang when the highway was built: SNAFU means Situation Normal - All Fouled Up.

Oldtimers claim US soldiers used an F-word more vivid than “fouled.”

So does SNAFU apply to project execution at the Yukon government?

Government was never known for being nimble. But it strikes me that something has changed for the worse. Shortly after the pandemic, some public policy wonks opined that rapid government action during COVID-19 showed the path to faster and more responsive administrative action in normal times.

This does not seem to have panned out. The papers over the last six months have been packed with episodes of embarrassingly long timelines and missed deadlines.

The non-construction of affordable housing at Fifth and Rogers has been an issue so long that NDP leader Kate White held a press conference on the vacant lot during the 2021 election. The walk-in clinic was supposed to open in 2022. The edition of the News with the Snafu announcement also had stories about Macaulay Lodge. It shut down in 2019 and we still don’t know when housing construction will start on this prime site. It is now Year 5 of the Dempster Fibre Line project, which was lapped by the Alaskans. Matanuska Telephone started around the same time with Northwestel to build an 800-kilometre fibre line from North Pole, Alaska to the Yukon fibre network. It opened in 2020.

The list goes on.

Yukon government leaders need to put greater effort into delivering projects in the public interest in a timely way. Every year Snafu expansion is delayed, for example, more Yukoners will be excluded from camping and more damage will be done by unauthorized sites. We will regret it if a campfire in an unauthorized site at Snafu flares up into The Big One. Meanwhile, 10 more years of bathroom visits will cement the name of that picturesque camping spot in the middle of Snafu Lake: Toilet Paper Island.

They should also remember that sometimes going slow is more work. How many person hours will be needed for 10 Snafu budget submissions over the next decade? What happens in 2029 when new campground building codes come out and require updating the YESAB submission? In 2031, some project manager will need to delay working on that year’s priorities so they can fill in the Project Snafu - Week 364 Status Report and write some talking points for the minister.

There are well-known practices that successful governments and companies use to manage major projects. This is not a new issue. The Yukon government’s leaders need to up their game, because the one date they can’t push back past 2025 is the day of the next election.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He won the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist.