Visionaries look to the past for rural Alaska's future

AFN AWARDS: Dollars will fund the brightest of entrepreneurs' ideas.

October 23, 2008 

A village on the upper Kuskokwim River has something that might keep a few of its downstream neighbors from migrating out of rural Alaska.

Trees, and lots of them.

A tribe-owned company aspires to turn the trees into firewood and barge their product to Bethel, where heating oil is getting unbearably expensive, said Mark Leary, the Napaimute village official spearheading the project.

Downriver in Bethel, an ambitious farmer named Tim Meyers hopes to expand his vegetable and potato patch to produce enough food to feed 200 families during the winter. This food would be cheaper and more healthy than what is now available at village stores, he says.

This year, many entrepreneurs hailing from the Bush and urban areas are reaching into Alaska's more self-reliant past -- back when oil wasn't cheap and ubiquitous -- to help rural Alaska survive its deepening energy crisis.

Rural Alaskans have long struggled with poverty and scant employment. But recent skyrocketing prices for gasoline and heating fuel are making it more difficult for families to survive in the Bush. Many of them are migrating to cities, school district officials and rural state legislators say.

This year, the Institute of Social and Economic Research at UAA released a study that showed the poorest 20 percent of rural residents were paying 47 percent of their income in energy costs this year. In 2000, that income group spent about 16 percent of their income on energy. In contrast, the poorest residents of Anchorage are paying just under 9 percent of their income on energy.

Forty-two entrepreneurs, including Leary and Meyers, came to Anchorage this week to compete in the Alaska Native Federation's 3rd annual Alaska Marketplace. Today, some of them will win thousands of dollars from the contest's $300,000 award pool to seed their business ideas.

In past years, the contest has highlighted cultural activities and art workshops. But this year, the contest was slanted toward businesses that can help villages survive by reducing their costs for energy, housing and food.

"Frankly, (the Bush is) drowning in energy and shipping costs," said Arliss Sturgulewski, the former state senator chairing the panel of judges who rated the entries on Wednesday.

"All of a sudden, there's an opportunity to go back to the old way of using the resources that are there," Sturgulewski said.

The Alaska Marketplace is modeled after a World Bank program and in recent years, it has attracted the support of some of Alaska's biggest employers, including BP, Conoco Phillips and Shell, and a handful of wealthy Native corporations.

Judges scribbled in their notebooks as the contestants pitched their projects on Wednesday in the crowded atrium of the Conoco Phillips building downtown.

Meyers talked about how he needs capital for a new greenhouse and root cellars.

Leary said the Napaimute company, called Forest Firewood, is looking for funds to purchase a small-scale firewood processor.

Andrew Christopherson, a recent Georgetown University graduate who hails from Anchorage, hawked a plan to develop cheaper and more durable housing for villages, especially in Western Alaska, where several villages need to be relocated because they are crumbling into the sea.

The costs of relocating those villages is in the billions of dollars, but Christopherson said his prototype housing -- made out of refurbished shipping containers -- could bring down the costs a bit.

"Anchorage gets hundreds of shipping containers every week that are sent back empty. Why not buy them?" he asked.

At $100,000, his proposed rural house would cost about a third of the cost of a prefabricated home that has to be shipped to the Bush, according to Christopherson. He's working with local engineers who are donating their time to the project and he'd use an AFN award to complete the designs, he said.

The winners of this week's contest will be announced today at 11:25 a.m. at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center, on the first morning of the AFN convention that will end on Saturday.

In the past two years, the contest has awarded $1.2 million to rural entrepreneurs, according to AFN officials.

This year's 42 finalists were picked from a pool of 138 applicants.

Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at or call 257-4317.

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