Come to the Muckraker’s Ball!

5 12 2008

muckrakers-ball

If you’re not busy on Saturday night, or even if you are, make plans to attend the 2008 Muckraker’s Ball & Award Ceremony!  No, alas, I had nothing to do with putting together this fabulous event, even though I’d love to take credit, and the name does seem fitting….

Each year Cook Inlet Keeper, an organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the Cook Inlet watershed and the life within it, chooses one deserving Alaskan who has spoken truth to power, and works to hold the government and corporations accountable for their actions.  Isn’t that a nice concept?   To this individual Cook Inlet Keeper bestows the honorary title  of “Muckraker of the Year.”  This year, the recipient is the amazing and incomparable Dr. Ricki Ott, “whose groundbreaking work has played a vital role shining a necessary light on the politicians, bureaucrats, and Exxon Corporation executives who have labored to cover up and ignore the devastation of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.”

Believe it or not, we are approaching the 20th anniversary of that event whose after effects are still being felt by residents of the Sound, fisherman, wildlife, and all who hold to that area as a symbol of wildness and beauty.

Dr. Ott will be signing copies of her new book, “Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.”

And who is up to emceeing this festive and auspicious event?  None other than Air American radio personality and Alaska blogger, Shannyn Moore!   It will no doubt be loads of fun, and promotes the good work of one of my most favorite organizations.

And to share a small bit of the spirit of Prince William Sound, the site of the Exxon disaster, I’ve added some pictures to the Flickr stream that you’ll find at the bottom of the sidebar.  Enjoy.

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Where’s Sarah? The Return of a Classic.

1 12 2008

wheres-sarah1

Back in 2006, the members of the Alaska State Legislature were doing their jobs in the place they were supposed to be doing their jobs, also known as the state capitol, Juneau. The governor, however, didn’t like Juneau much. She preferred to do her job from Wasilla and Anchorage, while collecting per diem payments and living in her own home. I know that the rest of the Legislature who live in the Anchorage area would probably love to do their jobs from home while collecting per diem payments. It’s hard to be away from your family for that long. Juneau can only be reached by plane. It can be difficult. But I’m guessing it would be frowned upon if they did it.

Double-standard aside, Sarah Palin was absent from her place of employment a lot. As a sign of protest, legislators from both sides of the aisle took to wearing a unique fashion accessory. They appeared at the Legislative session wearing buttons that said, “Where’s Sarah?” They realized that it was, in fact, impossible to be effective as a governor if you are not actually present.

This astute political observation couldn’t be more relevant today. Today, Sarah Palin is not in her office. She is not dealing with the affairs of state. She is not working on the gas pipeline, or the dropout rate, or trying to figure out why our gas prices are more expensive than anywhere else in the country. She’s not playing catch-up from all the work she missed while on the campaign trail, and she’s not trying to figure out what to do to keep Alaskans warm this winter. She’s not figuring out what to do about the budget which was finalized when oil was in the $60/barrel range, not the $45/barrel it is now.

So, where’s Sarah? She is on the stump for Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss. She flew out to a private fundraiser last night, and is making four campaign stops in Georgia today. This travel comes on the heels of two months of campaigning out of state, and a recent trip to Florida for the Republican Governors’ conference. Yes, this is only two days (plus travel prep, speech prep, flying time, jet lag, etc.), but once again the Governor has missed the point. It’s what got her in the turkey video. She was unable to step outside the situation and ask herself, “How will this look to OTHERS?” How will it look that after months away trying to run the state from my Blackberry, and a return to a politically divided Alaska with lots of domestic problems that have been on the back burner, that I’m heading off to do more partisan political grandstanding for a controversial Republican candidate on the other side of the continent?” Because, if she had asked the question, the answer would have been, “Bad.”

I was glad to see the Democratic Party in Alaska stand up and say something today. This came from the Alaska Democratic Party:

Anchorage – While Gov. Sarah Palin is out of state again, this time in Georgia campaigning for incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss on the eve of the runoff election, Alaska faces challenges including a lack of leadership from the Governor.

Palin will stump for Chambliss, the draft-evading incumbent Republican who waged a notoriously misleading campaign against a decorated war hero, at rallies Monday in Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah and Perry, Georgia. Palin has been back in Alaska at work for only a few days since running for vice president. “Alaskans need our Governor here earning her salary and working on key problems facing Alaska families,” said Alaska Democratic Party Chair Patti Higgins. Alaska is facing significant challenges, Higgins said, including:

  • Oil prices have dropped dramatically to about $45/bbl from the peak of $144/bbl in July, which threatens the state budget.

  • Alaskans are paying some of the highest prices for gas in the nation, averaging $2.87 per gallon, while the national average is $1.91.

  • The state’s oil production continues to decline, due to falling prices and mature fields.

  • The global credit crunch and falling natural gas prices threaten the Alaska gas line.

  • The State is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to take care of public education as shown by the high drop out rates and the low graduation rates.

  • Many Medicare patients cannot find doctors.

  • There is continued flight from rural villages.

  • Alaska faces the prospect of reduced federal dollars from Washington, D.C.

“Alaska’s challenges are significant, and there is much that needs to be done right now. Our Governor should remember that her primary job is to work on behalf of the citizens of Alaska, not engage in partisan politics in other states,” Higgins said.”Governing is more than creating photo ops. We’d like a commitment that the Governor is working, not just scheduling media appearances.”

Why the press conference? Is this one-day stump that egregious? Isn’t she going to be on the east coast anyway to join other governors as they meet with President Elect Obama on Tuesday? What’s the big deal? I’ll answer that question as my mother would. “Sarah, you’re really pushing it.” And she is. And each time she pushes, more and more Alaskans will push back, and her popularity will continue to slide, and she will continue to play “gotcha” with herself. In honor of the governor’s flight to Georgia, I have resurrected the “Where’s Sarah?” button. I have tried in vain to find an image of the original button, but have hopefully captured the spirit in this new incarnation of an old favorite. To get one, or several dozen, click HERE. And don’t worry Legislators, my customer list is strictly confidential…your secret is safe with me!





Would You Rather Freeze to Death, or Be a Socialist?

28 11 2008

On Thanksgiving weekend, when Americans are thinking of all they have to be grateful for, many are also burdened with worries about the future. Matters as fundamental as keeping warm are very real for thousands of Alaskans living in rural villages where the price of heating oil hovers around $10/gallon. The costs associated with flying heating oil out to rural communities that are off the road system is astronomical. Many communities are experiencing theft of heating oil by neighbors desperate to keep warm, and others in coastal communities are scouring the shore for driftwood to burn. These things are incomprehensible to most Americans, but are a stark reality in Alaska. Many families are abandoning the native subsistence lifestyle that their families have been living for thousands of years, and moving to Alaska’s urban centers because they feel they have no choice. This is causing a whole host of other challenges for the rural communities that are losing residents, and for the urban centers coping with the influx of rural Alaskans coping with culture shock.

For the past three years, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez has been donating free heating oil to Alaska villages, and economically depressed communities in 23 states across the country. This has the effect you might imagine in Alaska. Some are deeply grateful. Those are usually the cold people. Others are furious at the gesture from this unapologetic socialist, and either accept the gift begrudgingly, or have outright refused to take it. Those in the latter category are starting to rethink their position facing the hard reality of the coming winter, and the fact that some rural families will be spending in excess of 40% of their income on heating fuel.

I am unsure if the irony of the socialist free fuel dilemma is lost on Alaskans. While some state leaders are squawking that

a) Chavez is a Socialist

b) Socialists are evil

Therefore we should reject them and all they stand for.

They seem to be OK with the fact that

a) Sarah Palin also gave away money for free fuel to all Alaskans in the form of an energy rebate check.

b) This sounds awfully…..socialist

c) Sarah Palin was openly railing against socialism and all things socialist across the country on the campaign trail.

Many say, “We shall forget this comparison because we don’t like cognitive dissonance and we shall not ever admit that a socialist idea has any merit at all, nor that any Alaskan might think we need to be doing the same thing as Hugo Chavez. Humph.”

The main difference, of course, is that Chavez is providing the fuel to rural communities that have at least a 70% Alaska Native population, and Sarah Palin gave it to everyone, including wealthy Anchorage residents who spent it on…whatever.

Speaking of the $1200 energy rebate check issued by Palin,

Anchorage Rep. Bob Lynn, a Republican, said he doubts the state would cut checks again because oil prices are dropping and the payment was meant to be a one-time measure.

Lynn said it’s not right for Alaska to receive oil from Chavez. “We need to be able to take care of our own. The United States needs to do something about this,” he said.

Still, Lynn added later, “It’s one thing for me to speak philosophical thoughts here in the warmth of my home in Anchorage. It’s another thing to have a wife and kids in danger of freezing to death out there.”

Bingo. It’s time for Alaskans and Americans to stop screaming “Socialist!” like it was a four-letter word and get over the reactionary knee-jerk rejection of an entire political philosophy because of the fear of a label. Fear of freezing should trump fear of a word. We need to address these problems using concepts with long-term solutions, and not be afraid to use what works because of how it sounds. And we need to recognize where the need exists most and focus our efforts there.

It’s going to take some conviction and courage from both sides of the aisle in Alaska to deal with this, especially considering the ironic anti-socialist rhetoric that came from our Governor on the VP campaign trail.

 





I Want a Franken-Mammoth.

20 11 2008

I’m generally not one who likes tinkering with Mother Nature. But living in Alaska brings with it a sense of adventure, and possibility, and the limitless imagination that comes with vast landscapes at your doorstep. Ever since I came to Alaska, I have had a secret fantasy. I want a mammoth. Not personally, but I want Alaska to have a mammoth, or a whole herd of them. I want Jurassic Park, only with herbivores.

In the spirit of this fantasy, I even purchased a clump of mammoth hair that was excavated from the permafrost up by Nome, Alaska, where the old land bridge used to connect this continent to Russia. If Sarah Palin had lived 12,000 years ago, she could have WALKED to Russia from her house.

I bought the clump of hair not to try to create a franken-mammoth in my basement, but just to hold it, and to marvel how much the soft undercoat felt like the musk-ox wool that, in Alaska, is known as qiviut. These creatures got their outerwear from the same place. And unlike cold, hard dinosaur bones, or fossilized impressions of fish in ancient mud, this was the real thing. You could actually know what a mammoth felt like. You knew what color it was. You could see the guard hairs, all crinkly and thick, and the actual sense of a living mammoth was literally within your grasp.

I’ve toyed with fantasies about giving the endangered Siberian tiger a safe place to live in Alaska, and I’ve wondered what would happen if penguins were transplanted here under cover of night, and if they could survive. But the mammoth dream was so much bigger. It was epic.

So when I saw the article in today’s Anchorage Daily News entitled “Regenerating a Mammoth for $10 Million”, the hair stood up on the back of my neck, and my first thought was, “I need another Paypal button.”

Scientists are talking for the first time about the old idea of resurrecting extinct species as if this staple of science fiction is a realistic possibility, saying that a living mammoth could perhaps be regenerated for as little as $10 million.

The same technology could be applied to any other extinct species from which one can obtain hair, horn, hooves, fur or feathers, and which went extinct within the last 60,000 years, the effective age limit for DNA.

Though the stuffed animals in natural history museums are not likely to burst into life again, these old collections are full of items that may contain ancient DNA that can be decoded by the new generation of DNA sequencing machines.

If the genome of an extinct species can be reconstructed, biologists can work out the exact DNA differences with the genome of its nearest living relative. There are talks on how to modify the DNA in an elephant’s egg so that after each round of changes it would progressively resemble the DNA in a mammoth egg. The final-stage egg could then be brought to term in an elephant mother, and mammoths might once again roam the Siberian steppes.

Considering the fact that human hunting was a likely factor in the mammoth’s extinction, it can be argued that we owe them. And while we’re at it, we could pay off our karmic debt to the carrier pigeon, the ivory billed woodpecker, the dodo, and the woolly rhinoceras which also once roamed Alaska.

And while this controversial science offers the possibility of reconstructing a Neanderthal, whose extinction we also had a part in, I’m happy to begin small (or big, depending on how you look at it) with a herd of mammoth taking up residence in ANWR. It might be a great way to keep the area “green” while encouraging tourism and making a ton of money from a renewable resource.

This has definite possibilities.

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A Tour of the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention – Surprise Troopergate Spottings!

23 10 2008
I went to meet a friend today at the AFN Convention in downtown Anchorage. AFN stands for Alaska Federation of Natives. Every year, Native Alaskans come from all over the state to meet in Anchorage. The event is cultural, social, political, and practical. Today was the opening day, and I was scheduled to meet my friend for lunch. I looked up the program online and discovered that our Governor was due to address the convention at 10:30, so I planned my trip accordingly.

The convention was held in the newly opened Dena’ina Convention Center, and it was the first sizeable event held there. The first actual event held there was the Sarah Palin Welcome Home rally which I attended undercover….but that was hardly sizeable.

The facility is quite impressive, and able to hold many thousands of people.

Beautiful hanging 2-story art featuring Alaskan critters.

Beautiful hanging 2-story art featuring Alaskan critters.

I slipped in a seat just in time to hear Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich deliver a nice address.  He had a big hand in getting the convention center built, and talked about the process of giving it an Alaskan Native name.  He also talked about his six years as Mayor, his past experiences hosting AFN Conventions in his city, “Alaska’s largest native village,” and his travels around the state.  He, of course, is campaigning heavily right now in his attempt to dethrone Ted Stevens, and take the Senate seat that Stevens has held….forever.  He finished up and was met with rousing applause and a standing ovation.  Enthusiasm factor on a scale of 1-10:  8

Then, the recorded announcement from Sarah Palin.  She was flanked by flags, and sat next to a big vase of white roses.  I can’t tell you exactly what she said, but you can probably imagine.  She went on about how Todd and her kids are part Native, and they “cherish their Native heritage” (a point disputed by several Native people I know), and talked about comin’ together, and seekin’ change, and energy costs, and her travels around the state, and her travel to Kuwait, and the Alaska National Guard.   Then there was a reminder of the $1200 energy rebate checks everyone got, and how they came out early this year. (Sounds awful “spread-the-wealth-around” to me…)  There was a strained reference to Native legend, trying to tie something in to a story about the Raven.  Then a folksy story about two frogs stranded in a pail of milk.  One gave up and died, the other kept kicking until the milk turned in to butter and then hopped out.  She learned this story from embattled Attorney General Talis Colberg, who is under pressure to resign becuase of his conduct in the Troopergate fiasco, when he told state employees they didn’t need to comply with legislative subpoenas.   I’m guessing this little fable is meant to let us know that no, he will not be stepping down any time soon…he’s just gonna be kickin’ away until unethical behavior turns in to butter.  As a matter of fact, Sarah told us, Talis Colberg himself will be heading up a sub-cabinet on rural affairs.

By the time she wrapped up her saccharine-sweet, over-rehearsed, cotton-candy slideshow, my teeth hurt.  After it was done, I saw one non-Native woman bouncing, and applauding at about 5 claps per second, and the rest of the vast hall was very very lukewarm.  The applause was “polite.”   Enthusiasm factor on a scale of 1-10:  3.5

Then Lt. Governor Sean Parnell made a “surprise” appearance to present the first Shirley Dementieff Award to a Native woman who demonstrated exemplary public service.  Enthusiasm factor on a scale of 1-10 for Sean Parnell:  2   Enthusiasm factor on a scale of 1-10 for the winner of the award, Rep. Mary Nelson   :  9

Next up, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, appointed to the US Senate Seat by her Father, former Senator Frank Murkowski when he became Governor Frank Murkowski….the one who lost to Sarah Palin in the primary, garnering only 19% of the vote.   Alaskans then passed a law saying that the Governor can no longer appoint a vacant US Senate seat, and then proceeded to re-elect Lisa anyway.  Don’t ask me to explain that one.

That said, I will give credit where credit is due. Lisa Murkowski, who sits on the Indian Affairs Committee, knows her stuff, is intelligent, and actually seems to take her job pretty seriously.  There was an obligatory jab at Nancy Pelosi, but other than that, she was on good behavior.  She talked about the fact that milk is $10 a gallon in some areas of Alaska, that stove oil was already being rationed in some communities, that households in rural Alaska spend 40% of their budget on heating costs, that a woman had emailed her saying she was praying for a warm winter.  “Prayer is not, and should not be an energy strategy,” said Murkowski.  She talked about the fact that infant mortality for Native Alaskans is double that of non-Natives, and that 12% of Native deaths are in some way alcohol-related.  She talked about what she had actually been doing.  I sat for a moment marvelling at a woman holding high elected office in the state of Alaska who actually knows what she’s talking about.  Even though I disagree with Murkowski on a LOT of issues, and I have not and probably will not ever vote for her, I enjoyed the experience of not being embarrassed by a member of the Alaska congressional delegation. She was refreshingly un-mockable.  Enthusiasm factor on a scale of 1-10: 7 with a belated and not particularly enthusiastic standing ovation, but a standing ovation nonetheless.

This is the point where I started to feel like a birdwatcher. I should have brought a pair of binoculars, a better camera, and a Troopergate Field Guide so I could have checked off all the different species I saw.

It all started with a casual glance around at the crowd.  Lo and behold, 20 feet in front of me is Attorney General Talis Colberg himself!  He’s talking with someone….who is that?….It’s Palin’s Communications Director Bill McAllister!  AAACK!  Where’s my camera…which pocket??….must document this tete-a-tete!  Well, by the time I got the camera out of my pocket, McAllister had fled the scene.  I snapped a horrible blurry picture.  Then another horrible blurry picture of Talis Colberg….must fix the setting on the camera….  And by the time I fixed the setting, no more Colberg.  I submit these two awful pieces of photographic evidence  so I can check them off in my field guide.  The one of McAllister is like that photo of the Loch Ness Monster.  You’ll just have to believe me.

Bill McAllister is fleeing the interview!

A fleeting glimpse of AG Talis Colberg.

A fleeting glimpse of AG Talis Colberg.

 But wait, there’s more!  Out in the hallway, who should I spy, but Senator Lyman Hoffman of the Legislative Council that voted to release the Troopergate report! *clap clap clap*

Senator Lyman Hoffman of the Legislative Council

Senator Lyman Hoffman of the Legislative Council, and Mike Tibbles, former Palin Chief of Staff and current campaign manager for Ted Stevens.

And finally in this amazing Who’s Who of Troopergate, the former Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, Walt Monegan!  Himself, part Alaska native, he was ready to implement some very important and comprehensive strategies to improve the lives of rural Alaskans, when Sarah Palin decided to give him the axe….you know the story.

Walt Monegan! *snappy salute*

Walt Monegan! *snappy salute*

On the way out, I made a quick pass through the downstairs room where some incredible Native Arts and Crafts were on sale.

   

Good thing I had no money.

On the way out the door, one last Alaskan politician had his chance to make an “impression.”  Ted Stevens had his name and website printed on berry buckets which were stacked by the door.  My companion had to tell me what they were.  Berries, of course, are an important subsistence food, and Ted wanted to be sure his name was toted around all over the state on a useful object.  Quite clever, actually.

Ted Stevens berry bucket.

So Ted Stevens had the last word, even as he sat on the other side of the continent, waiting for a verdict from the jury.  Or so I thought.  Turns out, the last word, in fact, went to Mark Begich.  He was standing outside on the sidewalk talking to people and handing out samples of a traditional Native treat which is known as “Eskimo ice cream”.  Someone asked what kind it was.  The answer?  “Bethel style without the seal oil.”  The original recipe consists of (I believe) snow, berries and seal oil.  Other versions I’ve seen are berries, sugar and Crisco, and now this one which tasted like Cool whip with cranberries and blueberries.

   

I asked Mark how he was holding up, and he said he was doing well.  I didn’t mention the trial, but everyone is thinking it.  I give him credit…he must have a stomach of iron.  If he can handle the last two months, I think the U.S. Senate is going to be a breeze.

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Another Alaska

7 10 2008

We talk an awful lot about Wasilla these days. Americans now know more about the inner-workings of the city council, the library, the police department, and local churches than they ever imagined they would. We also talk a lot about the North Slope of Alaska with its oil fields, and the larger city centers of Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks. But look at a map of Alaska superimposed on a map of the Lower 48. Most of Alaska, which some call the “real Alaska,” is much larger, and much less known that the parts that make the headlines.

For every person who has lived in “the bush,” there is a different story. But universal is the opinion that bush Alaska has some very real problems, that have not been adequately addressed. The remote location of many bush communities makes many aspects of construction and infrastructure difficult. Communities often do without what the rest of us would consider basic neccessities. Health care and education face unbelievable challenges. The rates of domestic violence, rape, and alcohol abuse are alarming. Alaska State Troopers are too few, underpaid, and often underequipped.  Sadly, our previous Commissioner of Public Saftey, Walt Monegan, was on track with a plan to address some of these issues. You’ll recall that he was fired by Sarah Palin, and his termination has become the focus of the “Troopergate” investigation.

Mudflats reader Josh shares the following story.

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Sarah Palin has stated in one of her now famous blurbs with Katie Couric that she was excited to debate Joe Biden to talk about energy and ideas. Interesting. Maybe if she had been doing that in her own state for the past two years, we wouldn’t have the Mayor of Anchorage, and the Anchorage School District Superintendent writing her office asking for help with a very real problem.

With growing evidence of an Alaska Native exodus from villages to the city, Mayor Mark Begich and Schools Superintendent Carol Comeau sent a letter to Gov. Sarah Palin on Monday asking her to organize an emergency task force to find ways to stem the migration. Anchorage and the state “cannot stand by and tolerate the deterioration of rural Alaska,” the letter read. (continue)

My wife and I have been teaching and living year-round in bush Alaska for the last four years, and recently moved to Anchorage. We left after trying to make changes in an extremely broken system that has been ignored and overlooked by the state and its officials for far too long. Our jobs were threatened, we had no union to go to, and therefore no recourse. Our issue was targeted at education , but the poor state of education in the bush can be easily attributed to a broader problem of isolation, poverty and lack of oversight that no one at the state level is willing to get a handle on.

Anchorage and the state “cannot stand by and tolerate the deterioration of rural Alaska,” the letter said.

The major problem that my wife and I are running into when we tell people our story is that many believe it is the Alaskan Native’s problem as a federally recognized tribe and therefore is no different than the many cases and issues that exist on the lower 48 reservations. This is not the case. Alaskan Native tribes are not a sovereign nation. There is no legal difference in the villages that exist off the road system in Alaska, and a small rural town in Kansas. The only difference is that if a small rural town in Kansas had overwhelmingly high suicide rates, rape cases, domestic violence issues, no infrastructure, no running water, poor electricity, energy bills that exceed thousands each month and no money or jobs to help cover the costs, someone would do something about it!

We became very close with a family in our village that had a child drown in a stell container of raw sewage. Let me say that again. They had a child drown in a steel container of raw sewage. Their child was simply outside playing and since there is no playground equipment for the kids to play on, they play on anything, often things too dangerous for children. In this case it was something commonly referred to as a “honey bucket.” This is a steel container where house sewage is dumped since there is no indoor plumbing.

Many of the problems that face rural Alaska are not solvable in a day, a month, even years. But, when you have a Governor bragging about her reforming ways, it does make you wonder. Why was she so unable to even start real reform in her own state over a two year period?

So as you watch Sarah Palin talking about energy issues, ask yourself one question: If Sarah Palin is so knowledgeable about energy and has had executive experience, why is the Anchorage Daily News running a story like the one above?

Sarah Palin has been in office for almost two years and managed to sell a plane, is under investigation for an abuse of power, and gave people that do not need it (including people no longer in Alaska) $1,200 rather than funding real energy relief for rural Alaskans. The Washington Post has stated in a recent article that in 2002 through lobbyist ties related to Ted Stevens and Don Young she secured $900,000 in upgrades for Wasilla’s infrastructure. There are still many rural villages today without roads, electricity, indoor plumbing, and some even have their sewage leaking into the water supply. Money is needed, but more importantly, someone that is willing to spend the time to start a conversation.