Native convention opens in Fairbanks

Leaders concerned second-class cities can't afford higher cost of heating oil

Posted: Tuesday, October 18, 2005

FAIRBANKS - Alaska's Native leaders said fiscally debilitating energy costs in rural villages will be a major topic at their annual convention, which started Monday in Fairbanks.

Leaders of the Alaska Federation of Natives are concerned a number of the state's 113 second-class cities will collapse this winter and won't be able to pay for the heating oil needed to survive until spring.

More than 13 villages have already shut down their municipal governments and 39 more have had to cut services such as police and road maintenance this year in order to pay bills, said Kevin Ritchie, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League.

"Many of these cities just stop functioning because they don't have the money to continue," he said.

Diesel oil, which nearly all remote communities depend on to generate electricity and heat, is selling for as much as $6 a gallon wholesale in some villages.

AFN leaders sent a letter at the beginning of October urging Gov. Frank Murkowski to develop a long-term fiscal plan for Alaska that includes access to affordable energy for remote communities.

The governor is expected to talk about energy assistance and development of sustainable economies in rural Alaska during his address to delegates at the convention in Fairbanks, which ends Saturday.

The state's Native leaders will consider other issues such as education, health and rural economic development.

Tribal leaders will also be listening closely to a video address by Sen. Ted Stevens.

Stevens, R-Alaska, has criticized the process in which Alaska's 231 federally recognized tribes received more than $3 billion in federal funding between 1998 and 2003. Alaska's tribes make up nearly half of the 530 federally recognized tribes in the country

Stevens has said tribes should consolidate their requests to improve efficiency and ensure funding levels don't decrease after he retires, but Native leaders have resisted the move.

Delegates will also hear reports on climate change and storm erosion, negotiations to build a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope, and education.

The Alaska Rural Justice and Law Commission will deliver a report on its ongoing work to advise Congress and the Alaska Legislature on rural justice issues.

The convention ends Saturday with delegates voting on a host of resolutions submitted by their peers.

The convention will celebrate Native cultures with a four-day Native arts market and Native dancing and singing.

The convention is expected to attract more than 3,000 people, many from remote areas of the state.

The theme of this year's convention is education, with the title "Follow the Lights: Native Ways of Knowing."

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