Looking Back On Climate Change, Alcohol, Crime, And #MeToo

Dec 31, 2018

The main player remains climate change. The year begins with the warmest winter on record. It feels like breakup, but much more dangerous and without the return of sunlight. The river is riddled with holes all winter. Volunteers marking the holes run out of reflective tape. On New Year's Eve, Mark Kasiyulie leaves Bethel on a snowmachine with five family members and drives into a marked hole on the river. His family survives, but he does not. 

Bethel’s sled dog races are delayed. The first race takes place in January, and the Kuskokwim 300 turns into two out-and-back loops to the Bogus Creek checkpoint because of dangerous open holes on the river. “Three Pete” wins it anyway, becoming “4-Pete”. Here’s Pete Kaiser at the finish line:

“It was extremely tough; probably one of the toughest, if not toughest race, I have ever done. Just ice, and it’s slick, and it’s hard to keep the sled upright.”  

The next winter is much colder and the first local race takes place this month.

Summer storms take big chunks out of the coastline and along rivers. Some villages continue to sink as the permafrost melts. In Napakiak, the river’s edge closes in on the school. 

“When you go out the end of the building over here,” says Valentine Jimmy, the school's custodian, “you’re pretty much at the river right now.”

A national assessment shows huge impacts from climate change in rural Alaska as GCI’s tower ices up, disrupting emergency communications, and Bethel’s main roads heave. Construction finally begins at Mertarvik to provide a new home for Newtok before it erodes away. Quinhagak, in a race to dig out an ancient house site before it’s washed away, opens a repository of one of the world’s largest collections of Yup’ik artifacts.

“I think the biggest reason I am doing this, or we’re doing this, is for our future generations,” says Warren Jones, the president of Qanirtuuq Inc., Quinhagak’s village corporation.

The other big story from last year is Bethel’s attempt to cope with fallout from legal alcohol sales. AC, the first to open a liquor store, comes under fire when its license is up for renewal. The city protests the license, and the community turns out to tell its story to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. 

“As I look back on that vote and the last two years, seeing the devastation of our people and the hurt of our people, it’s made me, I didn’t fathom that when I cast that vote,” says Danielle Craven, who voted to legalize alcohol sales. “The location where the AC is is horrible. It truly is in the poorest part of our community.”

AC Liquor Store loses its license, closes, and the number of inebriates in the streets and traveling to nearby villages goes down. In November, the community decides to continue allowing alcohol sales, voting against a Local Option ban. BNC's Bethel Spirits sells wine and beer only. That liquor license is later transferred to the Sea Lion Corporation, and a marijuana shop plans to come to Bethel.

Another big story was the region’s efforts to improve public safety: Bethel gets a new police chief; Marshall requests a disaster declaration due to absence of law enforcement; and Anna Bill, a village police officer in Mountain Village desperate for resources to cope with an escalating rate of suicide, invites KYUK into her life. The resulting stories raise the issues statewide, and Anna Bill receives an award from the Alaska Federation of Natives. 

“First of all, I want to say what an honor it is to be here being presented with the Shirley Demientieff Award,” said Bill.

Governor Walker comes to the region to announce a policy giving villages and tribes information so that they will know if someone they are hiring has a criminal record.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommends major changes in rural aviation after a crash on the Quinhagak – Togiak route.

Also this year, The Me Too movement hits the region when Alaska House District 38 Representative Zach Fansler is accused of assaulting a woman and resigns, leading to Tiffany Zulkosky’s appointment. She heads to Juneau to represent the region.

“This is my day one, so there’s a lot to catch up on,” says Zulkosky as she heads to her new office in Juneau. Zulkosky wins re-election and will be back working at the legislature in the new year.

Peter Evon is named the new head of ONC. 

Donlin Gold gained key federal and state permits to build a huge gold mine upstream from Crooked Creek. Opposition has strengthened, and concerns are rising about whether it would, or even could, be safe.  

“Even though if it’s a lifetime job,” says Stephen Peter, a resident of Crooked Creek, “there’s got to be a lot of worries from the day it opens and from the day that it ends, and there’s something in between that will go wrong.”            

In fish news, the numbers of commercial chum salmon buyers on the Yukon grows to three, and escapement on the Kuskokwim reaches its goal after big sacrifices due to tough conservation measures.

Ravn cargo employees heist school computers. A million air miles are apparently stolen by Bethel Family Clinic Executive Director LaTesia Guinn just before she resigns. 

Calista sues board member Col. Wayne Don and is sued back. The corporation issues its first dividends to those shareholders born after the 1971 enrolment deadline.

"So the number of shareholders have more than doubled since just a year ago,” says Calista Communications Director Thom Leonard. 

Data released this year indicates that surrounding villages are growing faster than Bethel.

Last but not least, two deaths left their mark on the Y-K Delta region. The first was John Active; his stories entranced KYUK listeners and viewers from the beginning. The second was educator Mary Pete; she brought rural views of fish, game, and subsistence to the negotiating table. Later, she led the local UAF campus in providing academic tools to help the region grow and thrive.

According to testimony given at Bethel City Council meeting when the group recognized Pete’s contributions to the community: “There’s a farseeing person. Now there’s a person who cares about every single person in the, not just in Bethel, not just in the region, but worldwide.”