By Michelle Theriault Boots
2:47 PM AKDT, July 26, 2011
In rural Alaska, a post office is more than a place to pick up mail.
It can be the lifeline of a place, as well as its social core, says Cynthia Erickson, who runs the Tanana Community Store and grew up in Ruby.
“The post office is the heart and soul of a village,” she said.
The U.S. Postal Service announced Tuesday that it is studying whether to close 36 mostly rural Alaska post offices, part of a national downsizing effort.
The list, which includes places like Circle, Koyukuk, White Mountain and Bettles, immediately drew fire from Alaska’s congressional delegation and rural residents.
“In many off-the-road-system communities, the Post Office is the only place where prescriptions are delivered, businesses can receive and send inventory and banking is conducted,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement.
"This is necessity, not convenience, in terms of Alaska's way of life."
The locations on the list will not necessarily close. A number of options, including reduced service or partnership with private stores, are on the table, according to U.S. Postal Service authorities. But cuts in some form will be necessary.
“As we see volume drop off we have to do things differently,” said Patrick Donahue, the Postmaster General.
Village residents said potential closures could be devastating,
Some 17 out of the 36 post offices listed are in Alaska Rep. Alan Dick’s home district, which includes Interior villages from Bettles to Shageluk.
Rep. Dick, who hadn’t heard of the Postal Service study until evening Tuesday because he was rafting down the Yukon River, said from the Shageluk mayor’s office that he was shocked by the news. Postal closures, he said, could be the death blow for some communities.
“To be honest, it’s the end of the village,” he said.
Rep. Dick is from Lime Village, which lost its own post service in 2007. Now, residents must privately charter a monthly flight from McGrath to bring in mail. The charter flight costs $700.
The village, he said, has gone from 50 residents to 19.
The loss of regular mail service has been hard on Lime Village, says Rick Breckheimer, who works for the traditional council of Lime Village and has lived in the area for more than 30 years.
“It’s like they’re trying to kill the Bush,” he said.
The list is an initial draft based on data collected about office hours, mail volumes and foot traffic.
That data doesn’t accurately depict the importance of post offices to small communities, says Donna Esmailka of Kaltag, one village on the list.
“If they were thinking about shutting down the (village post offices), that’s the one thing we depend on,” she said. “It would make sense if they were going to shut down maybe one or two post offices in bigger places, where if they leave one open people still have somewhere to go.
“We’d have to rely on the airlines,” she said. “And prices with them are outrageous.”
The idea that local shopkeepers might take on the duties of the post office isn’t a solution, Dick said.
“What storekeeper wants to deal with the US postal services paperwork?” he said.
While Dick, a Republican, considers himself a fiscal conservative, he says post service to rural Alaska is no place to cut.
“Of all the services the federal government offers there’s none more important than the Postal Service,” Dick said.
Cynthia Erickson has vivid memories of taking snowmachines to the Ruby postal office on cold days as a kid where people were "packed in like sardines" waiting for the mail plane to come with the promise of magazines, groceries and letters inside.
To her, the idea of villages without post offices is hard to imagine.
"To me, it's just sad, because it's so much of our world," she said.
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