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Resolved: state of emergency exists in rural Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Energy, its production and costs, and related legislation all featured as big issues at this year’s conference of the Alaska Federation of Natives. And woven in with discussions about energy were concerns about the major shift of the Alaska Native populations from traditional villages into towns and cities across the state.

On Oct. 25, the last day of the annual conference of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the organization passed a resolution requesting that the state and federal governments declare a state of emergency for rural villages. AFN lists energy costs, lack of public safety and lack of economic opportunities among the reasons that rural Alaska is suffering. As a result, communities are losing residents at an unprecedented pace as they leave the villages for towns, and leave towns for cities.

Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich and Carol Comeau, Anchorage’s superintendent of schools, have been looking at the increasing numbers of Alaska Native residents coming to the city. Noting that many of the arriving families need services, education and affordable housing, they wrote Gov. Sarah Palin at the end of September to request the formation of an emergency task force. They offered staff and funding to assist in its formation and operation.

Palin responded in a letter that seemed to minimize their concerns about rural energy costs and possible school closures in rural communities as student enrollment in villages decrease. She quoted a study that had concluded that energy costs were not a driving factor of migration and referred to data showing increased school sizes in some communities around the state over a 10-year period, from 1999 to fiscal year 2008. Student numbers from the 2008-2009 school year are indicating that a widespread migration is taking place.

At the AFN conference, delegates received a video message from Palin outlining her plan for a rural subcabinet to address rural concerns. However, AFN is also interested in a more direct approach to the problem.

The first board resolution passed at this year’s convention dealt specifically with the out-migration crisis. The resolution reads, in part: “The governor has rejected a proposal to create an emergency task force with local, state and federal officials to take immediate steps to stop this trend ... and has instead said that her rural subcabinet will address the issue. ... AFN does not view the governor’s response to this problem as sufficient to address the unprecedented out-migration from Alaska’s rural communities.”

Titled “The Energy Crisis in Rural Alaska,” the resolution details costs of living in rural Alaska, where residents pay twice as much as city residents for electricity “but they consume only 40 percent as much power.” It calls for public and private investment for “short-term relief and long-term solutions.” The resolution asserts that a state of emergency already exists in rural Alaska, and that fuel needs to be delivered on a timely basis, and that fuel costs should be capped at urban rates until low-cost alternatives can be developed. The resolution passed without objection.

But AFN isn’t just looking for help from the government. The organization is also “calling on Alaska Natives to mobilize” around the energy crisis in the rural communities, saying that waiting for the government to solve the problem only leads to dependency and dysfunction. To that end, AFN is preparing communities around the state to seek new methods of energy production. Each workshop at this year’s convention featured discussions of alternative energy systems, from geothermal to wind and wave.

Conference participants heard panel discussions and presentations on what is working, what could work and how systems can be adapted to function in Alaska’s harsh climatic conditions. A related resolution called for a comprehensive state energy policy.

Greta Goto, the final speaker at the conference, addressed the overall accomplishments and focus of the convention. She thanked legislators who have worked on both sides of the aisle to assist in meeting concerns of the energy crisis and made suggestions for more steps into the future to address the out-migration and energy costs. She asked all villages to write and request that the Legislature place a cap on rural fuel prices as the first order of business. Included among her suggestions were programs for energy research and training.

“History shows that people will come back; but the question is if some of our talented people are leaving the villages, when will they come back, and for how long will they stay?” Goto asked. As families leave, difficulties for those who stay will increase. But she said her listeners should not give up, and just do it: “If we support each other with a collective voice, and collective reach ... all working together, we can solve this energy crisis.”

Among the many other concerns addressed by AFN through this year’s resolutions were issues of land management, land taxation under ownership transfers to Native entities, renewed ferry service to coastal and riverine communities, wildlife management and subsistence, localized health care for elders, school funding, and a call for a university degree program in Alaska Native languages.

It was estimated that 150,000 people watched the AFN proceedings through television and the Internet. AFN was also broadcast live on the local Native-owned radio station, KNBA.

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