As the winter cold approaches, I'm seeing skyrocketing energy costs already taking their toll on people in village Alaska. During travels throughout my Southwestern district, I see it in people's eyes. They tell me the number of dollars it's going to take to fill their fuel barrel, and I know they're not exaggerating when some say they flat out don't have that kind of money.
A few people have told me that their $3,200 check might be their opportunity to make the move to Anchorage.
A recent letter to the governor from Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich and schools Superintendent Carol Comeau warns of just this scenario. They write about the urgent need for the state to address a growing rural exodus, pointing to the dramatic increase of 400 Alaska Native students in the Anchorage School District in 2008.
It's obvious that the huge spike in living costs is the main reason many families in rural Alaska are making the painful decision to uproot and move to Anchorage, the Mat-Su and the Kenai. In a typical village in my district, a gallon of fuel oil can cost $8, electricity might be 90 cents a kWh, and a gallon of milk is around $11. In much of urban Alaska, natural gas prices are the equivalent of $1.60-a-gallon diesel, electricity is 10-11 cents per kWh, and the cost of food and other goods isn't forced through the roof by soaring airfreight and barge charges.
I'm confident the Legislature will continue putting money into the state's weatherization programs, the renewable energy fund, big projects like the Susitna Dam and so on. I will also be pushing to create a fuel subsidy program and expand the Power Cost Equalization and Low Income Home Energy Assistance programs. No question this could help many.
But it's the short term that worries me. Can we do enough quickly enough to stem the outflow of rural residents? I'm doing everything possible to put this dilemma front and center before the Legislature. I believe that the preservation of our state's great diversity depends on it.
As we approach Alaska's 50th year of statehood, we need to pause and consider what the next 50 years will look like. Nobody wants Alaska to end up being a couple of big cities overlooking the remnants of fishing camps and ghost villages scattered throughout what was once rural Alaska. I know I sure don't.
Bryce Edgmon represents House District 37 in Southwest Alaska. His district encompasses Bristol Bay, the Aleutians and the Pribilof Islands.
By REP. BRYCE EDGMON