Gov. Sarah Palin, who has been criticized for not doing enough to help hard-hit Western Alaska villages, plans to visit the Yukon River today to deliver food donations alongside evangelist Franklin Graham.
Palin made the surprise announcement Thursday as Graham's Christian international relief organization -- Samaritan's Purse -- gathered a mountain of donations in Wasilla. An official with the group said it's buying 44,000 pounds of food for the region.
Palin and Graham's first stop is scheduled for Russian Mission, a village of roughly 335 people on the Yukon River. City clerk Agnes Housler said Thursday that people there could use the help. "With the high cost of living, it's hard to say no," Housler said. "We can't go out hunting and fishing like we used to to get our subsistence food because gas and oil prices are so high."
It's quickly become a familiar tale: Towering fuel costs and poor fishing led to reports of families in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta struggling to afford food this winter. Starting with a letter from an Emmonak man about hard times in his village, the news eventually led to a flood of private donations to the Lower Yukon in recent weeks, not to mention political finger-pointing.
Palin's critics accused the state of being slow to react. They slammed the governor for not visiting the region herself or declaring a disaster. Palin, who sent state officials to villages, responded that the state was looking for solutions and was doing what it legally could to help.
Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, has been organizing food deliveries to many Western Alaska villages and was among Palin's most vocal critics.
"I applaud her for following in the footsteps of what Alaskans and nonprofits and churches have already been doing over the last four to six weeks," he said Thursday. "I think she's setting a great example for the next wave of giving."
Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, has said Palin appeared more interested in the presidential election than Western Alaska last fall.
"Is she finally realizing that our villages are in dire straits?" he said Thursday.
Palin, who will be joined on the trip by Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, wasn't available for comment Thursday. "The state has been doing everything it can -- short of the disaster declaration, which is legally problematic -- to assist western Alaska," Palin's spokesman, Bill McAllister, said in an e-mail. "The state has made food drops, sent at least four teams of multi-agency personnel to identify the eligibility of communities and individuals for existing aid programs and extended the moose-hunting season. The governor's visit puts an exclamation point on that ongoing effort."
GRAHAM NO STRANGER IN ALASKA
Graham spoke at the governor's annual prayer breakfast in 2007 and 2008. He briefly lived in Alaska and visits the state often.
He's head of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association as well as Samaritan's Purse, which built five houses, a church and a youth center in Hooper Bay after a massive fire burned through the village in 2006, according to the group's Soldotna office.
He also sometimes speaks at Anchorage Baptist Temple, where Pastor Jerry Prevo was listed as a member of the Samaritan's Purse board of directors as recently as 2007.
The relief group has four planes it can use to deliver food to the region and is collecting 44-pound "food kits" for families, said Luther Harrison, director of North American operations. On Thursday afternoon, he was in the Wasilla National Guard armory where volunteers were packing food for shipment.
The details of the donations were still being decided Thursday as the group looked to the state and food banks to gauge need in each village, Harrison said.
Graham and Palin will travel on one of the charity's planes, he said.
Ramras said the relief effort he's organizing also was planning to send 5,000 pounds to Russian Mission and Marshall on Thursday.
As for why Samaritan's Purse is visiting those two villages first, Harrison said you have to start somewhere. "All the other areas, their needs, we'll be following up with them as well."
And Palin's role in the trip?
"She will be participating in the actual work of the food drop," wrote McAllister, her state spokesman. "Her goals are to help the specific individuals she will be seeing and to express moral support for all of those in similar circumstances."
It wasn't clear how the trip with Palin and Graham came about.
McAllister referred questions to Samaritan's Purse. Calls to the organization's North Carolina headquarters were referred to an Atlanta public relations agency. A spokeswoman there said Graham might be available today; Palin has scheduled a news conference in Wasilla this morning.
FISH AND GAME 'REVIEWING CONCERNS'
In Russian Mission, where heating fuel is $6.15 a gallon, many locals had just learned Thursday that Palin was on her way and had heard few details about the visit. "We're expecting her ... to meet with the community. We heard that she's bringing some food, and that's about it," said Housler, the city clerk.
Meantime U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and Bureau of Indian Affairs officials were in Bethel on Thursday to talk with regional leaders about the president's stimulus package and possible BIA funding for villages, according to a Begich spokeswoman.
Alaskans received larger-than-usual Permanent Fund dividend checks and a $1,200 "energy rebate" in 2008, but some lower Yukon River villagers say rocketing energy costs quickly consumed the money. Poor commercial fishing last summer compounded the problems in the region.
The Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents 56 Western Alaska communities, has been calling for the state to declare an economic disaster in the area because of poor fishing.
A statement from the governor's office said the Department of Fish and Game is "reviewing concerns" with the commercial king salmon fishery.
Fishermen in the Wade Hampton census area, which includes Russian Mission and Marshall, made about $1,700 per fishing permit in 2008, down from about $4,400 per permit in 2007, according to the state Office of Economic Development.
Find Kyle Hopkins online at adn.com/contact/khopkins or call him at 257-4334.