ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alan Dick heard the same words repeated over and over by Alaska Natives as he campaigned across a sprawling state House district heavily dependent on federal funding.
Hard times were coming to the region, decades after they were predicted by Native elders, old-timers told the 65-year-old Republican.
"Everybody intuitively knows that," Dick said as he prepared to launch his freshman term in Juneau. "The days of pouring federal dollars into the bush are over."
A newcomer to Alaska politics, Dick billed himself as a fiscal conservative during his campaign, when he flew his small plane around the remote, often Native communities scattered over a region larger than California.
And people heard him in the 214,000-square-mile House District 6, which has slightly more than 10,700 registered voters. In a surprise upset, the retired educator defeated Democratic Rep. Woodie Salmon — an Alaska Native from the village of Chalkyitsik — in last month's election.
Dick is a nonnative, but he points out he's been married 41 years to Helen Dick, an Athabascan woman who is fluent in her native language and is considered a culture-bearer. The couple, who live in remote wilderness upriver of tiny Lime Village, have five children, 14 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Originally from Medfield, Mass., Dick moved to Alaska in 1966 and has lived in Alaska's Interior ever since. He said he knows the struggles and expense of living in a sparse setting. He's lived off the land himself and spent years working in village schools in Alaska's Interior, where many communities are impoverished and jobs are hard to come by.
"I do believe we need to support villages, but everything we do needs to be in the direction of helping people become more self-sufficient," he said.
Dick emphasizes he doesn't have all the answers to attain that goal, saying he's a piece of the puzzle, not the whole picture. But he notes that some communities are looking at sustainable, alternative energy sources for heat and electricity to save on their astronomical fuel bills. That's a good start, according to Dick, who said his views are similar to the tea party stance, although he stops short of full alliance.
The town of Tok is among those on the forefront of energy freedom, heating the local school with a new high-efficiency boiler fueled by wood from fire-hazard spruce forests surrounding the primarily nonnative community, which is vulnerable to summer wildfires.
The project was paid by a $3.2 million state renewable-energy grant and $750,000 in other state funds, said school district director Scott MacManus. The heating system, operating for a couple months, is expected to save the school district as much as $125,000 a year on its energy bill, which can run as high as $400,000 annually. The district plans to add equipment to the system next year to produce most of the school's electricity, for a total annual savings of up to $250,000.
The project has created jobs in the town of 1,500. The state also is saving on the cost of burning unsalvageable trees culled in forest-thinning efforts. And the boiler is working well, even when temperatures plunged close to 50 below.
"This is a complete win-win for the community," MacManus said.
"I'd like to take Tok and just clone that all over the state where it would work," he said.
Education is another big issue for Dick, a House Majority Caucus member who will take over as chairman of the Education Committee when the legislative session convenes Jan. 18. He believes that the state's "horrendous" school dropout rate can be countered by finding ways to make education relevant to specific communities.1 comment on this story
Dick also will sit on the resources committee and the committee on regional affairs and health and social services. These also touch on areas he feels passionate about, he said, including better development of the state's bountiful resources despite the "environmental religion" of activists.
Dick also wants to see healthier villages, which have a disproportionate rate of suicide. Millions in federal funds have created programs to tackle this and other rural ills, but Dick believes there hasn't been enough accountability to see what works and what doesn't. That needs to change, he said.
He said he's excited to get going — laughing at the mention that his life is about to change, at least for a few months.
"I might have to wear a necktie," Dick said.