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Alaskans Excited Over President Obama’s Visit

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President Barack Obama crossed the Arctic Circle on Wednesday in a first by a sitting U.S. president, telling residents in a far-flung Alaska village that their plight should be the world’s wake-up call on global warming.

Alaska, a state of only 700,000 people, is conservative and backed Obama’s opponents in 2008 and 2012, but the president’s celebrity appeal overshadowed the political misgivings of many as he travelled the vast state. Everywhere he went, residents made signs, crowded into restaurants and pulled over on roadsides to catch a glimpse.

Obama came to Alaska with no grand policy pronouncements or promises of massive federal aid. Instead, he sought to use the changes to Alaska’s breathtaking landscape to put pressure on leaders in the U.S. and abroad to cut greenhouse gas emissions, as he works to secure a global climate treaty that he hopes will form a cornerstone of his environmental legacy.

The White House said Obama would use the visit to draw public attention to those consequences and the risks to Alaska’s tiny coastal communities, some of which could be forced to relocate because of climate change. A number have already chosen to move but have no funds to do so.

Alaska Natives have joined the president in sounding the alarm on climate change. Yet the obstacles they confront daily in rural Alaska extend far deeper, raising questions about whether the federal government has done enough to help.

Alaska officials say well over $2 billion in federal and state funds have been spent over the last 50 years to bring indoor plumbing to rural Alaska, but the challenge is finding money to build water and sewer systems in nearly three dozen village that still lack them.

Alaska has no state sales tax or income tax, leaving it particularly reliant on oil-and-gas revenues to pay for critical services such as road repairs and state troopers. The state’s second-largest sector is the federal government, which provided Alaska $2.5 billion in revenues in fiscal year 2014, or about 15 percent of the state total. Attempts to diversify the economy, whether by expanding tourism, boosting trade or growing the fishing sector, have so far failed to take root.

 

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North America’s Tallest Peak Renamed As Denali

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President Barrack Obama announced on Sunday that Mount McKinley was being renamed Denali, using his executive power to restore an Alaska Native name with deep cultural significance to the tallest mountain in North America.

The move came on the eve of Mr. Obama’s trip to Alaska, where he will spend three days promoting aggressive action to combat climate change, and is part of a series of steps he will make there meant to address the concerns of Alaska Native tribes.

It is the latest bid by the president to fulfill his 2008 campaign promise to improve relations between the federal government and the nation’s Native American tribes, an important political constituency that has a long history of grievances against the government.

Denali’s name has long been seen as one such slight, regarded as an example of cultural imperialism in which a Native American name with historical roots was replaced by an American one having little to do with the place.

The central Alaska mountain has officially been called Mount McKinley for almost a century. The peak, at more than 20,000 feet, plays a central role in the origins of the Koyukon Athabascans, a group that has lived in Alaska for thousands of years.

The peak was named Mount McKinley in 1896 after a gold prospector exploring the region heard that Ohioan William McKinley, a champion of the gold standard, had won the Republican nomination for president.

But Alaska natives had long before called the mountain Denali. In 1975, the state of Alaska officially designated the mountain as Denali, and has since been pressing the federal government to do the same.

Alaskans had been blocked in Congress by Ohio politicians, who wanted to stick with McKinley as a lasting tribute to the 25th U.S. president, who served from 1897 until his assassination in 1901. He had never visited Alaska in his presidential term.

Mr. Obama’s trip there starting on Monday will be his first major visit to the state, and he will become the first sitting American president to visit the Alaskan Arctic.

The White House also announced on Sunday that Mr. Obama was expanding government support for programs to allow Alaska Natives to be more involved in developing their own natural resources.

Mr. Obama has stepped up his engagement with Native Americans since June last year, when he visited Cannon Ball, N.D., in the ancestral lands of Chief Sitting Bull and took part in a powwow to honor American Indians who have served in America’s foreign wars. That was the first visit by a sitting president in 15 years to land under tribal jurisdiction.

 

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