Gas tops $5 a gallon in some rural villages

Cost may force subsistence hunters and fishermen to pare back their trips

Posted: Thursday, May 20, 2004

ANCHORAGE - So you think your gasoline is expensive? Some rural Alaskans are paying as much as $5 per gallon, with $6 a gallon on the horizon.

"We don't even want to talk about that," said Joyce John, a clerk at Midnight Sun Native Store in Arctic Village, in far northeastern Alaska. "Might as well raise a dog team."

The high prices in isolated villages stem from the cost of delivering fuel by airplane.

One of the major fuel carriers, Fairbanks-based Everts Air Fuel, uses cargo planes to transport as much as 4,500 gallons at a time, corporate administrator Karen Wing said. Other companies deliver fuel in 55-gallon drums, landing on airstrips too short for bigger planes.

The cost may force subsistence hunters and fishermen to pare back their trips. Electric bills will rise because most power comes from diesel generators. And some villages may struggle to buy a year's worth of heating oil, because of the high price and because state financial aid has expired.

Although rural Alaska is not likely to collapse under the weight of higher fuel costs, "it creates a snowball effect out there," said Jim McMillan of the Alaska Energy Authority.

In communities such as Arctic Village, Nikolai, Togiak and Tok, residents say there's no use in complaining.

"It's really going to hurt us," said Brenda Gilbert of Arctic Village. "But we've survived this long; we'll survive."

The Energy Department reported Wednesday that the average gasoline price nationwide was almost $2.02 per gallon. Anchorage-area stations straddled that mark, according to the price-tracking Web site, with prices ranging from $1.93 to $2.09.

But an informal survey of rural Alaska communities shows prices well above that and climbing. Arctic Village shared honors with the Kuskokwim River community of Nikolai for peak prices at $5 a gallon. In Shungnak, on the Kobuk River east of Kotzebue, gasoline jumped from $3.25 to $4.45 overnight.

Residents of the northwest Arctic village of Noatak are paying $4.25 a gallon, tribal administrator Herbert Walton said, "but it looks like it's probably going to go over $5 next month."

Subsistence hunters have no choice but to pay the higher price, said Jim Magdanz of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kotzebue. For species such as bearded seal, typically harvested 30 to 40 miles offshore, "you've just got to put a drum of gas in the boat and go," he said. "I think people will pay the price, because that food is important to them."

In Nikolai, Winchell Ticknor said expensive gas may curtail his hunting and fishing, perhaps keeping him closer to home. But there's no question he will go out, even at $5 a gallon.

"You've got to have moose, and you've got to have fish," he said. "You've got to do that if you want to survive the winter."

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