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Begich Highlights Help for Rural Alaska

Speech includes first Alaska Native recommended to run Denali Commission

The federal government in recent months has taken numerous steps to improve the lives of rural Alaskans, from the infusion of millions of dollars into health and public safety improvements to recognition of the Alaska Territorial Guard, but there are still enormous needs which Congress will be focused on in the coming months, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich told the Alaska Federation of Natives Oct. 24.

Begich also announced the first Alaska Native to run the Denali Commission.  Pending a formal appointment by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, engineer Joel Neimeyer, a Yupik Eskimo who is a shareholder in the Calista and Akiak village corporations, has been cleared for appointment as the Commission's federal co-chair. Currently detailed by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to the Rasmuson Foundation, Neimeyer has worked in more than 100 Alaska rural villages on issues from economic development to the dental health aide program.

"Joel knows rural Alaska and is well respected across our state. He knows how to get things done," Begich said. "Our challenge will be to continue to demonstrate to members of Congress the enormous value of the commission's work, from affordable energy to health care facilities."

Begich's speech was his first as a U.S. Senator, after addressing the convention every year as mayor of Anchorage. He said he was grateful to be back in the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center, one of his proudest achievements, as it was built and named for Anchorage's first people during his time as mayor.

Begich said his first ten months in the Senate have been exciting and humbling, and he was eager to share some of the major accomplishments including his support for providing retirement benefits to the Alaska Territorial Guard members who served in World War II. Earlier this month, the Senate approved Begich's amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 restoring the payments that were suspended earlier this year.

"One of my most rewarding moments so far is making sure the two dozen brave members of the Alaska Territorial Guard - all distinguished Alaska Native elders - finally get the recognition they earned for their courageous service to this nation more than a half century ago," Begich said.

Begich also highlighted the success of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for rural Alaska. The legislation, signed by President Obama in February, is bringing $1.5 billion dollars of investment to Alaska, saving or creating 8,000 jobs over two years. Begich hit some of the projects in rural Alaska including:

·         $152 million for a new Norton Sound hospital.
·         $3.2 million to Emmonak for a new landfill to better contain village waste.
·         Nearly $450,000 to the Native Village of Barrow to reduce violent crimes against women.
·         $100,000 to Metlakatla Indian Housing Authority to upgrade homes for local elders.
·         $10 million to improve the King Salmon airport.
·         $250,000 to combat youth violence in Kake.

The recent Congressional activity regarding the Native American 8(a) program which is so important to Alaska Native corporations was touched on by Begich. He told the convention that working with Sen. Murkowski and Rep. Young; they fended off a misguided effort to short-change Alaska's participation in the program by highlighting the 30,000 jobs created by corporations and the $4 billion flowing into shareholders' communities.

"Ever with our success this year, I don't think we can rest on this issue. We must work together to demonstrate how the 8(a) program continues to benefit Alaskans," Begich said.

Climate change is another major issue facing all Alaskans, Begich said. From eroding roads and villages to changing weather patterns and new species of fish in our waters, Alaska is ground-zero for climate change. Begich said to address the changes, he has introduced a package of Arctic legislation known as the "Inuvikput" package after the Inupiaq expression "the place where we live."

"These seven bills proactively address the policy implications we will face with resource development, marine safety, transportation, and health as Alaska's Arctic changes before our eyes," Begich said.

Begich reiterated his support for a review by the Obama administration of federal subsistence management in Alaska, saying it is sorely needed.

"The federal system was designed to be only temporary, yet it's been with us for 20 years. The Obama administration is committed to revamping that system and I welcome their initiative," Begich said.

In addition to subsistence management in Alaska, Begich said other issues still needing much focus and attention from Congress are energy and rural development. Making energy affordable for rural Alaskans, moving the Alaska natural gas pipeline forward with federal loan guarantees and other provisions in the Senate energy bill, and continuing to fund and develop broadband and infrastructure are key to improving life in rural Alaska.

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