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Fuel costs top the list of AFN village worries

Tom Kizzia,Kyle Hopkins

In the Norton Sound village of Koyuk, it takes gas to catch fish and hunt for seals and birds. Melvin Otton, a carpenter and village council president, estimates that fuel costs have doubled in the past year, meaning two or three hunters sometimes pool their money for a single trip.

"You might have to not buy your children a shirt or a pair of pants or shoes, so you can go hunt that one more time," said Otton, who came to Anchorage this week for the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

In Nightmute, where heating fuel costs $8.04 a gallon, there have been sad incidents of families stealing fuel by siphoning it from their neighbors, said Paul Tulik, a 34-year-old council member.

"I just forgive them right away," Tulik said, "because I know they're trying to heat their homes, like I am."

Alarmed about the high price of fuel in rural communities and the potential loss of population to cities, Natives from around the state gathered here Thursday for the convention's first day.

Gov. Sarah Palin addressed the problems in a pre-recorded message, saying she has created a new rural subcabinet to respond to concerns about fuel costs and rural out-migration. Her announcement was received politely but with little visible enthusiasm. It's not the emergency task force sought by AFN, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich and the Anchorage School District, which has seen ballooning numbers of new Native students this fall.

AFN officials met for the first time Tuesday with the new cabinet group, which is headed by Attorney General Talis Colberg. But a draft resolution prepared by the AFN board calls the governor's reaction "not sufficient" and urges creation of a "legislative/administrative task force" to recommend ways to help rural residents stay in villages.

The AFN's several thousand delegates are scheduled to debate and vote on such resolutions Saturday.

HARDSHIP HAS A FACE

On Thursday, personal stories of the hardships circulated through the halls.

Rose Stone said she moved to Anchorage recently from Point Hope, partly for medical reasons, but also to escape high prices. Half a bag of groceries back home cost her $40, she said.

"The groceries are too expensive. The gas is too expensive."

Elim council president Robert Keith said people are doing less to save gas in his village, which had a population of 310 until three families recently moved away.

But hard data on migration trends remains sketchy.

AFN president Julie Kitka said state officials told her this week that 20 rural schools are in danger of closing for having too few students. State officials have not released their head-counts, saying numbers are still preliminary.

And Sheri Buretta, chairwoman of the ANCSA Regional Association, said Native social-service groups in Anchorage are reporting an increase in families "doubling up" in houses here. Buretta told the convention that regional Native corporations are developing programs to help shareholders with the transition.

NO HELP BUT PRAYER

The potential for a bad winter was brought home this month in the Kuskokwim River village of Kwethluk, where village fuel tanks were nearly empty because the winter fuel shipment couldn't get through mounting ice.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who spoke at the convention Thursday, cited an e-mail she'd received from a Kwethluk woman. The family had turned off their heater to stretch their last five gallons of stove oil. They were praying for warm weather -- a statement Murkowski said haunted her.

"Ladies and gentlemen, our energy policy should not be to pray for warm weather," she said.

Last weekend's crisis in Kwethluk has eased slightly, said Kwethluk Inc. executive George Guy, who was here for the convention. He said 40 small-plane flights from Bethel, carrying 150 gallons of fuel each, have built up a three-week supply of fuel. The village is now seeking bids on tanker-plane flights to bring in as much as 74,000 gallons, and plans to truck fuel from Bethel starting in January once an ice road is built on the Kuskokwim.

It's going to be expensive, with fuel already going for more than $6 a gallon in the village, Guy said. He said state officials told Kwethluk the failure to get fuel before freezeup does not constitute an emergency that would free up state financial aid.

Native officials cited studies showing rural residents pay 40 percent of their income for energy, compared with 4 percent paid by urban residents in Alaska.

Some migration to cities, for education or jobs, is a normal course of events, Murkowski said. But no one should be forced to leave.

"If we lose rural Alaska," Murkowski said, "we lose the very essence of what Alaska is all about."

ALSO AT AFN:

• There was no missing the emotion in the room as several hundred Native veterans -- Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard -- paraded through the start of the AFN convention Thursday. They were led by 18 surviving members of the Alaska Territorial Guard, who defended rural Alaska during World War II.

Later in the day, a panel of senior officials discussed problems delivering medical care to veterans who live in rural Alaska. They cited a new law passed by Congress that will allow veterans' medical funds to go to tribal-funded health organizations in rural Alaska.

Gene Peltola, president of the Bethel-based Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, described a pilot program aimed at "bringing services as close to home as possible."

• As AFN delegates watched a taped message from Palin, Walt Monegan, the public safety commissioner she fired in July, stood on the first floor of the convention center talking to a pair of reporters. Monegan is part Alaska Native. An investigation into his dismissal became a flash-point in Palin's vice presidential bid. As he talked, maybe half a dozen people -- including two state troopers -- stopped to say hello or shake his hand.

"What (Palin) is going through now in the national media is toughening her up," Monegan said. "And I think that we're going to see a different Sarah Palin when she returns, because she's going to be a little wiser, a little stronger."

• Eleven Alaskans split roughly $300,000 in awards for innovative business ideas at the conclusion of AFN's Alaska Marketplace annual competition Thursday morning.

One of them was Clint Daniels of Sitka, who won $18,630 to help pay for a meat processing trailer. This will allow Daniels to supply locally raised pork and poultry to Sitka stores and hire about five employees. Daniels said he's thrilled about the AFN award but he's not done raising money: The unit costs $150,000.

Other award-winning business concepts: Tundra Woodworks, a Chevak woodworking shop; The Dugout, a traditional "fast food" restaurant in Nome; Cup'ik Dance Songs of the Tundra, a video production company in Chevak; From Shellfish Subsistence to Sustainable Farming, a shellfish processor in Homer; C Side Lumber Works, a Shaktoolik lumber mill; Forest Firewood, a Bethel firewood company; The Meyers Farm, an organic farm in Bethel; Porcupine River Timber; Kvichak Organic Produce, an Igiugig village greenhouse; and A Cut Above Quilting, a Bethel quilt-making service.

Three won smaller prizes in a "people's choice" contest: Birch Water, a Pilot Station nutritional drink company; Yupikarts.com, an Internet-based village arts and crafts business; and A Cut Above Quilting.

• Native business leaders reminded AFN delegates about the recent growth of Native corporations, which combined are generating billions in annual revenue. With nearly 40,000 employees worldwide and 15,000 employees in Alaska, the corporations are redefining Alaska's economy, said Sheri Buretta, the chairwoman of Chugach Alaska Corp. and president of the association of Native regional corporation executives.

Their shareholders are facing increasing economic challenges, and the corporations have stepped up their charitable work, Buretta said. In 2006, the last year for which data was available, the corporations' charitable donations increased, with funding for shareholder scholarships up 395 percent to $21.2 million, according to the association.

Reporter Elizabeth Bluemink contributed to this story. Contact Tom Kizzia at tkizzia@adn.com. Contact Kyle Hopkins at khopkins@adn.com.


By TOM KIZZIA and KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily news