Villagers say they're facing a fuel crisis

Posted: Tuesday, November 15, 2005

After a disastrous local salmon season, many cash-poor Yakutat residents are wondering how they will pay to heat their homes this winter.

Fishermen have come to the town's diesel-powered utility with the basic message: "Take my house. I can't pay the fuel bill," said Steve Henry, Yakutat's city manager.

The escalating cost of fuel this winter is a double whammy for Yakutat, whose sockeye returns were down 50 percent this year.

But it's not any easier for other Southeast Alaska villages that are struggling to deal with chronic unemployment.

Southeast Alaska Native leaders discussed their village's economic woes and possible solutions at a two-day regional Native summit on their economic and energy crisis. The Juneau summit ends today.

The economic-energy crisis imperils Native culture and the existence of the villages, said Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, in his written welcome to the summit's audience.

The villages need to look beyond the state and federal governments to conquer their malaise, according to Jackie Johnson, a Sealaska Corp. board member.

"Our communities are going through tremendous change ... . We must come up with solutions we can own and control," Johnson said.

Haines, for example, is using its population loss as an opportunity. It is focusing on bringing in retirees to settle there, Johnson said.

The new Point Sophia cruise ship destination in Hoonah has generated about $1.8 million in payroll in 2005, with most of the jobs held by Native shareholders or Hoonah residents.

To resolve the immediate energy crisis, however, Native leaders are looking to the Legislature and the Murkowski administration.

Rural areas pay much higher prices than urban Alaskans for the same fuel, due to their remoteness. Electricity is generally two to three times as expensive in remote areas as it is in Anchorage.

Inevitably, if customers don't pay their bills or general assistance is not available, utilities must shut off power. "That's the fear that I have," Henry said.

In order to deal with the short-term crisis in the villages, "the Legislature and the governor need to fully fund the Power Cost Equalization program," Henry said.

The program allows the state to pay a portion of residents' electric bills if they are served by qualifying utilities that rely on oil heavily.

For now, Yakutat residents are in a "mad rush" to convert to wood heat in order to reduce their reliance on oil, Henry said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com



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