Alaska News

After Long Delay, Governor Denies Record Request Into National Guard Response

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 23:23

In April, it was reported that Gov. Sean Parnell’s top staffer used his personal e-mail account to communicate with Alaska National Guard whistleblowers about sexual assault response. In an interview with APRN that month, the governor said Chief of Staff Mike Nizich’s correspondence on the National Guard should be a matter of public record.

PARNELL: I spoke with Mr. Nizich and understand that was at the request of the chaplains who wanted to go outside the official channels. However, I’ve asked Mr. Nizich to check his personal e-mail for that and his recollection is that it’s one email, but again that was four years ago, five years ago. I’ve asked him to check for that and move it to the state account, which is protocol to follow. And that will be a part of the public record at that point.

Shortly after that interview, APRN filed a records request to learn how the Office of the Governor handled complaints about the Guard. Four months later, that request has been denied. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez has more.

Alaska regulations give government bodies 10 working days to fulfill a records request, plus another 10 if they need an extension. It took Parnell’s office 86 full working days just to deny one.

The request asked for any e-mails Parnell Chief of Staff Mike Nizich sent to National Guardsmen using his personal account from 2010 on. It also sought interdepartmental correspondence between the governor’s office and the top two officials at the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs: Adjutant General Thomas Katkus and Deputy Commissioner McHugh Pierre. The governor asked both of those men to resign this September, after a scathing federal report concluded the Alaska National Guard mishandled sexual assault reports and was plagued by a lack of trust in leadership.

APRN asked for these documents to find out how the Governor’s Office responded to complaints about the National Guard from its own members: Did they respond efficiently, and did they take complaints seriously?

Since the request was filed in May, APRN put in more than two dozen calls to the governor’s office to find out when the request would be satisfied, many of which went unreturned. The response finally came in as a three-page letter that arrived on Friday, September 26, at 6p.m.

The three-page denial letter, sent by Policy Director Randy Ruaro, brings up three major reasons for rejecting the request. It cites the legal right to privacy, and it makes reference to a recent attack ad by Sen. Mark Begich’s campaign that upset the family members of sexual assault victims. It mentions not wanting to identify victims, even though two victims have already publicly come forward. It also suggests the documents fall under privileges protecting personnel and the communications of clergymen.

The letter notes that a “significant amount of information on the subject of alleged misconduct in the National Guard has already been made public.” To that end, the Governor’s Office also included a 56-page enclosure of news stories on the matter, including some done by APRN, instead of any actual documents.

Gov. Parnell was aware of the request, but not of its denial. After a Monday debate in Juneau, Parnell did not say if he believed records related to the National Guard should be made public, and instead repeatedly referred questions to his policy director before telling a reporter she was not “serious” in her questions.

PARNELL: I’ve known about the request, but I have not reviewed any records. I don’t know what he has done.
CANFIELD: Do you want to release the records?
PARNELL: We will comply with the statute to the best of our abilities and that’s why I suggest you go see and ask Randy Ruaro.

So, that’s what we did. First, Ruaro apologized for the slow response.

“That is a long period, I agree,” Ruaro said in a phone interview.

Ruaro said they were “swamped” with requests and lacked manpower to deal with them. He said there was no political calculation behind the delay, and that there was no effort to avoid potential litigation over the request being processed before Election Day.

As far as the denial itself, Ruaro said he took a “broad view” when he opted to reject the request wholesale instead of partially fulfilling it or releasing redacted documents.

“There’s no exceptions for partial releases of records when it’s coming to identities of victims, their circumstances, personnel records,” said Ruaro. “The statutes don’t just say in those instances that you can release part of a record but not all of it. As I read it, they’re more of a blanket prohibition.”

Parnell’s political rival disagrees with that legal interpretation. Bill Walker, an attorney who is running as an independent candidate for governor, questioned some of the reasons for the denial, specifically the argument that the correspondence with National Guard chaplains who raised concerns about leadership should be excluded.

“They’re trying to apply a privilege that doesn’t apply to them,” said Walker. “Those chaplains are not the clergy for Mike Nizich and Sean Parnell.”

Walker said if he were governor, his interpretation of the public records statute would make transparency a higher priority.

“Certainly the victims’ names would be redacted out, but not necessarily the process would be redacted out,” said Walker of the policy he believes should have been followed.

Walker also suggested the governor is stonewalling, and the point of the delay is “to keep the issue out of the public eye — to not expose the governor’s wrongdoing until after the election.”

The chaplains who notified the Governor’s Office of wrongdoing within the National Guard declined interview requests or did not respond to messages. But their attorney, Wayne Ross is disappointed Parnell is not providing more information about his office’s response to the allegations.

“I think you ought to hold his feet to the fire and get them,” said Ross. “Obviously he said if it would be released and it’s not being released, somebody’s not following his orders — or he’s not being truthful. I would like to believe that somebody is not following his orders.”

While the Governor’s Office did not provide any records, APRN was separately able to obtain three e-mails sent by a National Guard chaplain along with one response sent by Nizich from his personal account.

The e-mails were sent at the beginning of 2012, and the chaplain’s correspondence refers to the sexual assault crisis only broadly. The chaplain does not identify victims, but he does name specific Alaska National Guard leaders and proceeds to excoriate them. The chaplain mentions the “misuse of a government credit card to the tune of over $200,000” and the promotion of a senior officer who ignored the problem of sexual assault in his command. On a third message sent February 3, the chaplain expresses concern that he’s “cluttering up” Nizich’s inbox.

Nizich did not respond until more than two weeks after the chaplain’s third message. The e-mail, sent from Nizich’s personal e-mail account, reads “just so you know I am receiving your messages. I got a call … wanting to me [sic] to send an acknowledgement.”

KTOO’s Jennifer Canfield contributed reporting to this story.

Categories: Alaska News

School Board seeks suggestions for $22 million budget shortfall

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 21:12

Community member giving comments during the meeting at Wendler Middle School.

The Anchorage School Board knows that unless the state funding formula changes, they will have a $22 million budget shortfall next year. They’re asking the community to give suggestions on how to deal with the budget crisis during community listening sessions.

Most of the district’s budget is spent on salaries, said School Board President Eric Croft, so they only real way to reduce it is by cutting positions–up to 220 next year alone. But he said community members do offer creative solutions for saving some money.

“We want to hear ideas for cost savings, big or small. People talk about having People Mover move the students, not busing.” He says suggestions range “all the way to here’s the way garbage collection can be done more efficiently in my high school.”

During the listening session, Kristi Wood suggested getting more parents involved to do things like maintenance work on school buildings.

“I think there’s a potential for having a lot of volunteer support in your parent base. I think you need to ask and you will get a response.”

Wood also suggested spending less money on technology and more on teachers.

ASD explains the budget shortfall during a PowerPoint presentation.

English teacher and parent Janel Walton spoke out against increasing the number of periods in a high school day from 6 to 7. She says each teacher would have to grade for 180 students instead of 150.

“But it hurts the kids. Because what’s going to happen is that you’re going to have teachers start to compromise what they teach in the classroom. Because they know they can’t get it graded in a timely fashion. They know they can’t get it done. It’s just not humanly possible.”

Many community members, like Celia Rozen, also spoke in favor of supporting the highly gifted program.

“People always assume that gifted kids will do okay in school, but they need counselors, they need special classes, they need advanced math,” she said. Gifted children often need help with social issues and with applying to colleges, too.

The School Board will host two more sessions — Tuesday at Alpenglow Elementary and Wednesday at Lake Hood Elementary. Both sessions start at 6 pm.

Categories: Alaska News

Suit Halts Seward Coal Loading

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 17:52

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with plaintiffs in a ruling on September 3, in which the court rejected the defendant’s claim that the coal facility’s state – issued stormwater permit protects it from pollution liability.  The appeals court has sent the matter back to federal district court.

 Since then, the coal facility, which is owned by the Alaska Railroad and operated by Aurora Energy Services, has ceased operations, to avoid risk of violating the Clean Water Act., until the district court makes a decision.

 Although loading coal has ceased, shipping coal has not. Tim Sullivan, spokesman for the Alaska Railroad in Anchorage, says shipments by train from Healy to Seward are on schedule.

“We are the transporter. We move the coal to get it down into Seward.” Sullivan says. “We are continuing to move coal.  We have trains going down to Seward twice this week, and we will continue to move coal into the facility down there. “

 Thompson says two ships are on enroute now to pick up the coal in Seward. But now there is no way to load the coal onto those ships.

Lorali Simon, spokeswoman for AES, says the company is working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation on a compliance order, which could allow AES to resume loading.

 

Senator Mark Begich has urged the state DEC to issue a compliance order, if additional conservation measures are met. And Begich has asked Governor Sean Parnell to intervene on behalf of AES. Governor Parnell has sent a letter back to Begich, saying that DEC is working on the compliance order, contingent on Environmental Protection Agency approval.

The EPA has oversight over permits, although permitting authority is delegated to the Alaska DEC. Begich has also contacted the EPA on the issue.

The pollution charge is one aspect of a lawsuit, filed by the Sierra Club and Alaska Community Action on Toxics. It charges that the coal loading facility has dumped lumps of coal into Resurrection Bay, in violation of the Clean Water Act. The US District Court ruled against the plaintiffs, who then appealed the decision. Three judges of the Ninth Circuit met in Anchorage in August, and overturned the district court ruling on that aspect of the case.

The Alaska Railroad has not been found liable for any Clean Water Act violations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Nome Man Injured After Crane Crushes Truck Cab

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 17:45

A Nome man was seriously injured Sunday in what police are calling an “industrial accident” when the neck of a crane fell on to the cab of a truck he was driving at a local gravel pit.

The cab of the truck crushed by the falling crane. Photo: John Handeland.

Nome Police Chief John Papasodora said emergency responders got the call for an “accident involving injuries with a crane” late Sunday morning.

The crane was operating in the gravel pit just east of the intersection of the Nome-Teller Road and the Dexter Bypass.

Longtime Nome resident Louie Green Sr. says his grandson, 25-year-old Bryce Warnke-Green, was behind the wheel in the truck when the crane tumbled down and crushed the truck’s cab. Green said the weight of the crane caved the corner of the cab down right over the driver’s seat—pushing the roof down nearly to the seat.

Emergency responders medevaced Warnke-Green to Anchorage Sunday afternoon. On Monday Green, Sr. said MRIs done at an Anchorage hospital show his grandson has a “crushed spine” with “bone fragments” showing up in the scan.

Green said his grandson is now on his way to Seattle to seek treatment from specialists at the University of Washington. He said surgery is planned.

The gravel pit property is owned by Bering Straits Native Corporation and was leased to ProWest LLC contractors. ProWest was operating the crane and truck at the time of the incident.

Messages to ProWest in Nome were not returned Monday.

Chief Papasodora said the accident is being investigated and the Operational Safety Hazard Administration has been notified.

The Nome Police Department is investigating the incident as an “industrial accident.” Photo: John Handeland.

Categories: Alaska News

Another Begich Ad Alleges Alaska’s U.S. Senators Co-operate

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 17:44

Sen. Lisa Murkowski keeps trying to shake him off, but Sen. Mark Begich continues to insist they have a good working relationship.

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His latest television ad mentions Murkowski by first name only. It features Margie Brown, former CEO of Cook Inlet Region Inc. Brown says Begich helped expand Alaska’s telecom industry.

“And I like how he works with Lisa,” Brown says.

Brown points out that Alaska is one of the few states with both senators on the Appropriations Committee.

“We can’t afford to lose that. I voted for Lisa. Now I’m voting for Mark,” she says at the end.

Last week, Murkowski very publicly endorsed Begich’s opponent, in a TV ad for Republican Dan Sullivan. This is the second Begich ad featuring an Alaska business person highlighting what they allege is a good relationship between the senators. Begich spokesman Max Croes says there’s nothing wrong with saying that.

“Well the response we had from the first ad was that Alaskans were pretty pleased with the fact that Sen. Murkowski and Sen. Begich work together in Washington,” Croes said.

Murkowski, though, sent a cease-and-desist letter to Begich last month demanding he quit using her name and image in his ads.  The latest ad again shows  a photo of the two senators smiling, standing in Murkowski’s Senate office.

While Murkowski is overtly trying to ditch Begich, Croes says the claim the two senators  make a good team is reflected in their Senate votes:  For the first half of this year, they voted together 80 percent of the time, a figure verified by the independent group Politifact.

Kevin Sweeney, a spokesman for Murkowski’s campaign, says they don’t intend to respond to the latest ad because Murkowski has already made her views known.

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Aleutian Towns Struggle to Retain Safety Officers

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 17:43

Two Aleutian communities are going without local law enforcement after their village public safety officers resigned.

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Akutan’s officer has stepped down for personal reasons. And False Pass lost its VPSO two months ago, when the officer decided to move closer to his family on the East Coast.

Both of those officers were employed by the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, or APIA. They get funding from the state of Alaska to put officers in five communities.

Recruiting officers isn’t difficult, according to APIA public safety coordinator Michael Nemeth. Keeping them is a challenge: It’s rare for an officer to stay in Aleutians or Pribilofs for more than a few years.

Hiring from within the region might help with that, but Nemeth says it’s hard to pull off.

Until the positions are filled, Akutan and False Pass will rely on the Alaska State Troopers for assistance. And if all else fails, Nemeth says he could ”saddle up” himself. He’s a certified VPSO with experience in Nelson Lagoon and St. George.

Categories: Alaska News

Insurer Thinks Affordable Care Act Needs Fix In Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 17:42

The open enrollment period for signing up for health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act begins November 15th. Customers in Alaska who don’t receive subsidies will have to pay dramatically higher rates for next year’s coverage. And one insurer on the exchange, Premera Alaska, says the state needs to implement a new program to ensure future rate increases aren’t as steep. 

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Premera Alaska is raising rates an average of 37 percent. Moda Health, the other insurer on healthcare.gov in Alaska is increasing rates an average of 27 percent. Larry Levitt, a senior vice president with the Kaiser Family Foundation, has been tracking rate increases across the country and says the Alaska rates stand out:

“I don’t think there are any areas where the major insurers are all increasing rates this substantially.”

The vast majority of Alaskans who buy individual plans on healthcare.gov receive subsidies, and that will cushion the impact of the new rates. But thousands of residents pay full price.

Levitt says in the rest of the country, rates are going up an average of eight to 10 percent. So what happened in Alaska?

The law ensures people with pre-existing conditions can buy health insurance. The idea is that enough healthy people will also sign up for coverage to balance out the sick. But Levitt says smaller population states, like Alaska, could have more trouble finding that balance:

“Smaller states will definitely be subject to more volatility. In a small state, even just a couple of very sick people could skew costs a lot, which wouldn’t be true in a bigger state like New York or California.”

According to Premera Alaska, that’s what happened with its members. The company says in the first half of this year, 33 members in Affordable Care Act plans racked up more than $7 million dollars in medical claims. The company has about 7000 people enrolled in ACA plans in Alaska. Premera spokesperson Eric Earling says that math is not sustainable:

“The individual market in Alaska as a whole just isn’t big enough to spread the cost. And what we’re looking at is not a temporary issue. What we’re looking at is long term structural instability for the market for individuals purchasing health care coverage and we think that needs to change.”

That stability in the market used to come from ACHIA- the Alaska Comprehensive Health Insurance Association.

The program allowed Alaskans with pre-existing conditions to buy coverage before the Affordable Care Act. A fee assessed on every health insurance plan in the state helped subsidize the high cost of coverage.

Now, many Alaskans who had insurance through ACHIA are buying plans on healthcare.gov instead, where they can get a better deal. Earling thinks Alaska’s health insurance exchange needs its own version of ACHIA:

“Simply a program that helps spread the cost of individuals with very high medical needs across the entire insured marketplace.”

The federal government has its own version of the idea, called reinsurance, but it runs out after three years. Premera says Alaska needs a long term program, where fees from insurance plans across the market, from individual policies to large group employers, would fund medical care for the most expensive enrollees.

The state of Alaska is considering the idea. The division of insurance has contracted with an outside company to figure out how the program would work and what it would cost. Lori Wing- Heier directs the division:

“I don’t think it’s the hidden savior to this program, to the cost of health care in Alaska.”

Wing-Heier points out that at its peak, ACHIA had about 500 members. Alaska’s health insurance exchange includes 16,000 people. And she worries that means the fees assessed on insurance plans would be much larger than they have been for ACHIA:

“One of our concerns was that the assessment would be so great that those that would be assessed would be upset. I mean if they all of the sudden had an increase of 20 percent of their cost, just to pay the assessment, I would expect I would have people calling me on that.”

Wing-Heier says she should have a better idea whether the plan could work when the analysis is complete by the end of the year. She says the legislature would have to approve the plan. The earliest it could be implemented is 2016.

Larry Levitt with the Kaiser Family Foundation thinks the program could work, but he also says Premera may be too quick to declare the system broken. Experts anticipated more sick people would sign up in the early years of healthcare.gov and the hope is that larger numbers of healthy people will follow. Levitt says Premera is forecasting the future based on less than a year of data:

“If after a couple years there’s not a balanced risk pool, then I think everyone will be looking for some solutions to bring down premiums.”

But Eric Earling from Premera says Alaska can’t afford to take a wait and see approach. He says Premera would need a 71 percent rate increase to break even in 2015. And he worries the individual market in Alaska can’t sustain the type of rate increases that will be necessary in the years ahead if the state doesn’t implement a program to stabilize rates.

This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

‘No Means No’ – UAS Includes Sexual Assault Ed In Freshmen Orientation

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 17:41

Experts often refer to the first several weeks of college for new students as the “red zone” – a time when they’re more likely to be sexually assaulted.

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The University of Alaska system is on a list of 79 post-secondary schools being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for compliance with sexual assault laws or violations.

This year, the federal government updated guidelines requiring colleges to proactively combat sexual assault by talking to students about consent.

Many people have heard the message, “ ‘No’ means no.”

Lori Klein says there are also situations when yes does not mean yes.

Like, “when someone is intoxicated, high, incapacitated or incompetent, you do not have consent no matter what they tell you,” Klein says.

Klein is the student conduct administrator at University of Alaska Southeast. She’s talking to more than a hundred new students during one of their first days on campus.

Klein says consent must be “active, sober, enthusiastic, informed, mutual, honest and verbal.”

“Whether you’re asking someone out for a cup of coffee or you’re asking them to have sex, you need consent that is all of these things.”

Another important message – saying yes to one thing does not mean yes to anything else.

“Consent for holding hands is not consent for a kiss,” Klein says. “Consent for sex once is not consent for sex twice.”

Freshman Nate Hietala says he appreciated Klein’s frank talk about sexual consent.

“It gave all the major points of what consent is rather than somebody just saying, ‘Yes,’ which is what a lot of people think it is. They gave the point that if they’re intoxicated or high or in some other way impaired, such as depression, that it wouldn’t be true consent.”

Hietala hesitates when asked if he already knew that.

“Not really. It was just kind of like, yes is consent,” she says. “But it’s something that I probably would’ve felt if I had been in that situation, but it’s not something I’d really thought about before.”

As a result of updated federal mandates, this is the first time UAS has given a talk on consent at orientation to the entire incoming class.

Faculty and staff were also required to attend training where they learned how to recognize signs of trauma related to sexual assault, how to talk to a student about it and what to do to help.

Senior Barb Dagata went through the sessions. Along with being a student, she also works at UAS. She says she now feels empowered with information she wishes she had before.

“I’ve had some friends who’ve had roommates get involved with bad relationships or just bad situations. And it was hard for me to give any advice to my friend on what she should do with her roommate. And I always felt at a loss for how involved should I be. And after going through the training, I kind of look back and I wish I would’ve said something. I wish I would’ve come to campus and said, ‘Hey, this girl needs some help.’ ”

UAS had one report of sexual assault during the 2012 calendar year. There was another in 2013 and so far, this year, two reports.

“I think that we can say with surety that those numbers are less than the numbers of sexual assaults that actually occur.”

Mandy Cole is direct services manager of AWARE, Juneau’s domestic abuse and sexual assault prevention nonprofit. The organization helped provide training to UAS staff this summer.

Cole says for many reasons sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes.

“And those reasons include fear of what the perpetrator may do if you report. It may include fear of what friends and family will think, fear of the impacts on your academic career,” she says.

During orientation, all incoming students learned about the options available for anybody who’s been sexually assaulted, including medical attention and who to talk to if you want to report the crime.

“For some people, making an official report is important. For others, getting counseling is important. For others, they would rather just talk in a peer group.”

Cole says not all intervention has to end in a report; what’s important is that students are equipped with the information and feel safe reaching out.

Categories: Alaska News

Warm Spell Helps Growers Salvage Harvest After Cool, Soggy Summer

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 17:40

Gardeners and farmers around the Interior have pretty much shut down for the winter after a cool, rainy, and for many, disappointing growing season. Some growers salvaged a decent yield by diversifying their crops – and taking advantage of a late-season warm spell to do some last-minute harvesting.

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Better days: Onions harvested back in 2011 at Rosie Creek Farm await processing. A cool, soggy summer and insect pests reduced the yield of this year’s harvest of onions and other crops. Credit: wecangrowit.blogspot.com

Most years, there’s frost on the pumpkins right about now at the Rosie Creek Farm near Fairbanks. But not so this year. Farm co-owner Mike Emers says there’s definitely frost – but, he adds, “There are no pumpkins this year.”

Emers says pumpkins were among the crops that didn’t do so well this year at Rosie Creek, due to a quirky growing season that challenged both farmers and gardeners with too much rain and cool temperatures. Sometime, very cool.

“Not only was it cooler than normal, and wetter than normal, but we also had unexpected frost events during that time,” he said. “So it would rain, it would clear off, and we had what would be called a killing frost around the 10th or 11th of June.”

Emers says he managed to revive much his winter squash and beans, which usually are his most abundant crops, yielding about 4,000 pounds of squash and a thousand pounds of beans annually.

But a second killer frost in July ended his cultivation of the crops this year. Emers even lost half of his potato crop, which usually does OK in cool, rainy weather but this year were flooded out.

“My numbers aren’t in yet on harvest,” he said, “but I know without the squash and beans, (and) losing half of my potatoes, we’re down. A conservative estimate would be 30 to 40 percent on overall crop yield on the farm, from a normal year.”

But like most farmers, Emers always hedges his bets by planting a variety of vegetables that’ll grow well under different conditions. So he managed to salvage a pretty good yield on other crops, including onions, despite an attack of cutworms, and salad greens, some of which he’s still harvesting, and garlic, which he and one of his workers were processing last week.

“The garlic did fairly well,” he said, “because they like it when it’s moist in the springtime.”

Many other growers around the Interior reported similar results, says Steve Seefeldt. He’s the Cooperative Extension Service’s Fairbanks-area agricultural and horticultural agent.

“Some crops really benefited by the rain, the weather we had this year,” Seefeldt said. “My peas were great this year. Everybody talked about the kale and cabbage. Carrots were terrific. Broccoli did fairly well. The parsley was amazing.”

Other growers, like farmers in the Delta Junction area that cultivate grain and livestock feed, pulled-off respectable harvests due to a relatively warm September. Phil Kaspari, who runs Delta’s Cooperative Extension office, says the warm spell enabled many farmers to get in a second cutting and baling of hay after a growing season that two weeks ago looked like a total bust.

“People have been going as fast as they can through these last couple of weeks of this beautiful weather,” he said. “And, a lot of work has been accomplished, and hopefully we get a little more weather yet that’s favorable for baling. Because there is quite a little bit of second cutting crop still out there yet.”

Kaspari says that’ll help hold down the cost of hay this year. But he says it’ll still probably be somewhere around $400 a ton, at least partly because of some farmers trying to recoup some losses they suffered last year.

Categories: Alaska News

Proposed Film/Photo Regs in Wilderness Areas Come Under Fire

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 17:39

As conservationists celebrate 50 years since the passage of the Wilderness Act, a U.S. Forest Service proposal to make certain wilderness area regulations permanent has brought forth accusations that the agency is infringing on First Amendment rights. Nearly a third of the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska is designated wilderness.

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Aerial view of Tongass National Forest (Photo by Alan Wu/Flickr Creative Commons)

The Forest Service has extended the public comment period on the regulations and chief Tim Tidwell issued a statement saying the regulations do not apply to news gathering activities. Two public media organizations in the Lower 48 disagree and are attempting to organize national opposition.

Forest Service officials say the regulations are based on the Wilderness Act of 1964. Regulations requiring commercial photographers and filmmakers to apply and pay for special use permits have been in effect for four years. Because the regulations expire next month, the Forest Service is proposing making them permanent.

Breaking news situations are exempt from the permitting requirement, however they have to meet the Forest Service’s definition of breaking news. That aside, permits are required and might come with a cost. The Forest Service’s acting wilderness director Liz Close, clarified the regulations to The Oregonian, saying that reporting in support of “wilderness characteristics” would be permitted. The qualification of such reporting is left up to forest supervisors.

And that is particularly troublesome for news people: A government entity determining which stories are worthwhile and don’t require a paid permit, or charging for access on stories that don’t support their mission.

That became the issue for Idaho Public Television a few years ago, shortly after the regulations were implemented. General Manager Ron Pisaneschi says for years their filmmakers were allowed to go into wilderness areas without permits or pre-approval. Filmmakers showed up to document conservation workers in 2010, and were told they needed a permit. They applied and were then told they would have to pay for the permit.

The decision was eventually reversed, but Pisaneschi says it forced the cancellation of the production. In that case, Pisaneschi says the Forest Service official determined it was a commercial use because the filmmakers were not volunteering their time.

“We are licensed as a non-commercial television station by the FCC, the IRS says we are a non-profit entity,” Pisaneschi says. “To make matters even more non-commercial in nature, we are a state agency, we are a state entity, but none of those seem to be sufficient as the guidelines are written currently.”

Pisaneschi says the regulations define news too narrowly, define commercial use too broadly and are open to interpretation.

“It may be fine if the forest is on fire at that given moment, that seems to be an acceptable thing to film,” Pisaneschi says. “But if you’re going to do a long-form documentary about the impact of drought on forest health, that’s not considered breaking news and you would need to get a permit for that.”
Forest Service officials in Alaska did not respond to requests for comment, so it’s unknown how many applications for permits in the state have been submitted and if any have been denied.

Idaho Public Television and Oregon Public Broadcasting have been fighting the regulations for some time now. OPB President and CEO Steve Bass sent out an email Wednesday to public television general managers across the nation – including KTOO’s General Manager Bill Legere – asking them to join the effort.

Bass wrote that the rules are a barrier for public media and create a system where print journalists have unrestricted access to Forest Service wilderness lands, but multimedia journalists must be permitted.

Conservationist and commercial wildlife photographer Adam Andis says the regulations seem less strict than he would have interpreted from the Wilderness Act.

“As a professional photographer I would rather see a stricter limitation that makes it harder for me to take pictures in those areas than to see those wilderness areas lost,” he says.

Andis is on the boards of the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance and the Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association. He says he’s never been required to get a permit for his commercial photography. He said that he’s filmed a documentary in a wilderness area; a Forest Service official agreed to waive the permit fee because it promoted “wilderness character.”

“It’s not necessarily that they’re trying to make value calls on who gets the right to be there and who doesn’t,” Andis says. “Their job is to make sure that there isn’t this mass of people all using this resource in an unsustainable way, so they have to figure out some way to put limits on it.”
Ultimately, there are a few key things that Andis, the conservationist, and Pisaneschi, the public television manager, agree on. Both think that the Forest Service should be more nuanced in their approach to permitting–two people with a camera and backpack will have far less impact on a wilderness area than a full Hollywood crew. Both also agree that allowing the untamed wilderness to be documented and shared promotes the goals of the Wilderness Act.

The biggest difference between the two is that Andis wants the wilderness protected at any cost, even if it means restricting press access, and Pisaneschi sees documenting the wilderness as one of the best ways to protect it.

Categories: Alaska News

Black Bear Party-Crashes A Ketchikan XC Meet

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 17:38

A black bear was in first place for a short time during one of the races at the Region V Cross Country meet Saturday in Ketchikan. Teams from around Southeast Alaska faced off for the chance to compete in the state championship. But the event took a chaotic turn when the first race was interrupted by a bear.

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The first heat of runners to circle the course at Ward Lake was made up of girls from 1, 2 and 3A schools – those are the smaller ones, like Wrangell, Hoonah, Petersberg, Klawock.

“Runners set?” an announcer says. A gunshot and cheers ring out.

The fastest of these runners is Taylee Nyquest – the only girl on the Thorne Bay cross country team. I followed her coach, Sheila Nyquest, who also happens to be her mom, to the 2-mile marker.

“Oh my legs are shakin’. I just get so nervous for her,” Nyquest says. “I get excited for all of them. We are at 12 minutes at the 2 miles mark. If she did three of these it would be 18 of these.”

Then Taylee came into site.

“Taylee you’re doin’ awesome! You’re at 12-12, just over 6 minutes. Just book it. Your pace is awesome! Go, go, go like the wind!” her mom cheers.

Taylee yelled something back, which we weren’t able to make out.

“There’s a black bear!”

She said: ‘there’s a black bear.’ You can hear someone who was standing on the beach at another part of Ward Lake yell back to her. When I listen back to the tape of her mom and I talking, I can hear Taylee yelling: it’s in a tree! It went into the forest!

ACT 4: There’s a black bear on the trail up there. Is she ok? What happened? She had to stop, there’s a black bear on the trail?

Thorne Bay School principal Rob O’Neal saw everything from underneath one of the Ward Lake shelters. He even managed to get a blurry picture of the bear on his phone.

“Right here, there’s some rocks and the bear’s right there. And then Taylee came through and then boom, the bear shot off. She stops…” O’Neal remembers.

And then he and other coaches stopped the rest of the girls right before the two-mile mark because of the bear. They walked back to where all the teams were gathered. But once the bear cleared out, Taylee kept running. She was the only one to finish the race.

“Go Taylee! Push, push, push! Go Taylee!”

“I was just running and the bear was coming up from the water, and I didn’t want to keep going,” Taylee explains. “So it climbed up into the tree and I yelled back and waited and it went into the forest on the other side so I just kept going.”

Taylee wasn’t as worried about the bear as she was about her time.

“To be honest, what was going through my head when I had to stop was what could have my time been if I didn’t have to stop?”

A committee of coaches and athletic directors decided the 1, 2, and 3A girls would re-run the race, since it was interrupted before the end. Madison James and Marissa Yliniemi from Metlakatla High School were not thrilled about that.

“We were running we were in the mojo of it. Then all of a sudden they were like, there’s a bear! And it’s like, are you kidding me? I was doing good! I felt like I did not want to run again. There’s been bears [before] but they’ve never been actually on the course to the point where we had to stop the race.”

Since Taylee finished the course the first time, she didn’t have to run it again.

Ketchikan High School Activities Director Ed Klein said in the approximately 7 years he’s been here, there has never been a bear situation at an athletic competition. He says the cross country trails are marked, but not cleared of bears before the race.

“But it might be something we’ll have to put on our list,” Klein laughs.

Thorne Bay Coach Nyquest says she’s tried to prepare her five-person cross country team for encounters with wildlife.

“We run on logging roads, so we’re in the wilderness quite a bit. Tell the kids to make a lot of noise. But we’ve never had an issue.”

Despite the unexpected visitor, Taylee qualified for state. She was disappointed about the impact the bear had on her time – she was about a minute slower than usual – but she tried to take a positive perspective.

“In practice we always say, run like there’s a bear chasing you. I was like, well perfect opportunity!”

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: September 29, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 17:33

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn

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Begich Touts Positive Relationship with Murkowski in Campaign Ad

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski keeps trying to shake him off, but Sen. Mark Begich continues to insist they have a good working relationship.

Aleutian Towns Struggle To Retain Safety Officers

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

Two Aleutian communities are going without local law enforcement after their village public safety officers resigned.

Insurer: Affordable Care Act Needs A Fix In Alaska

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

The open enrollment period for signing up for health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act begins November 15th. Customers in Alaska who don’t receive subsidies will have to pay dramatically higher rates for next year’s coverage. And one insurer on the exchange, Premera Alaska, says the state needs to implement a new program to ensure future rate increases aren’t as steep.

‘No Means No’ – UAS Includes Sexual Assault Ed In Freshmen Orientation

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

Experts often refer to the first several weeks of college for new students as the “red zone” – a time when they’re more likely to be sexually assaulted. The University of Alaska system is on a list of 79 post-secondary schools being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for compliance with sexual assault laws or violations. This year, the federal government updated guidelines requiring colleges to proactively combat sexual assault by talking to students about consent.

Warm Spell Helps Growers Salvage Harvest After Cool, Soggy Summer

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

Gardeners and farmers around the Interior have pretty much shut down for the winter after a cool, rainy, and for many, disappointing growing season. Some growers salvaged a decent yield by diversifying their crops – and taking advantage of a late-season warm spell to do some last-minute harvesting.

Proposed Film/Photo Regs in Wilderness Areas Come Under Fire

Jennifer Canfield, KTOO – Juneau

As conservationists celebrate 50 years since the passage of the Wilderness Act, a U.S. Forest Service proposal to make certain wilderness area regulations permanent has brought forth accusations that the agency is infringing on First Amendment rights. Nearly a third of the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska is designated wilderness.

Black Bear Party-Crashes A Ketchikan XC Meet

Emily Files, KRBD – Ketchikan

A black bear was in first place for a short time during one of the races at the Region V Cross Country meet Saturday in Ketchikan. Teams from around Southeast Alaska faced off for the chance to compete in the state championship. But the event took a chaotic turn when the first race was interrupted by a bear.

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Federal Grants Boost Services at Aleutian-Pribilof Clinics

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 15:52

Community health centers in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands will get at least $600,000 in federal grant money for new services this year. The grants are aimed in part at helping new patients who enrolled in health plans under the Affordable Care Act.

But there aren’t many of those in the Aleutian Islands. Instead, providers will use the money for the patients they already have.

Jennifer Harrison oversees clinics from Whittier to Adak as executive director of Eastern Aleutian Tribes. She estimates they only had about 11 patients sign up for new health plans on the federal marketplace.

“They’re probably people that were under the self-pay category and that have gotten insurance now. That would be my guess,” Harrison says. “Because we’ve kind of already been seeing everybody in all the communities, so I don’t think it’s necessarily bringing in a new person through the door. It’s just helping that person pay for the services.”

So Harrison’s organization will use their $196,000-dollar grant to contract with a traveling optometrist and physical therapist. They’ll also set up a fund to pay to send people to residential drug and alcohol treatment centers, which right now, Harrison says isn’t happening:

“It’s really this weird gap in services throughout the state — it’s not something the Indian Health Service really supports in a big way, and it’s been really hard for people to get substance abuse treatment,” Harrison says. “Because often, they don’t have a job because of the substance abuse, so then they don’t have the insurance, so there’s nobody to help pay for it.”

Most of Eastern Aleutian Tribes’ patients are insured by the Indian Health Service. Harrison says they can make referrals for detox programs, but until now, they haven’t been able to cover the programs’ costs.

The federal grants will also pay for a mid-level provider on the Pribilof island of St. George for the first time. The Aleutian-Pribilof Islands Association is getting a $190,000 grant to help out the clinic there.

Like at Eastern Aleutian Tribes, APIA health administrator Jessica Mata-Rukovishnikoff also says the money will mainly serve current patients — increasing “access to a higher level of service.” But she does say most of St. George’s hundred or so residents enrolled in federal health plans. APIA got another grant to make that happen.

As enrollments go, Unalaska is the outlier in the region — the town’s clinic didn’t have any patients sign up for federal health care. Most of Iliuliuk Family & Health Services’ clients use commercial insurance, or pay out of pocket. Clinic director Eileen Conlon-Scott says those patients haven’t been able to afford to enroll in federal health plans.

“Well, if we could get them on the insurance rolls, our revenues would go up,” Scott says. “But understandably, they don’t have $500 a month to pay in insurance.”

So she says her clinic will use their federal grant like everyone else. They’re getting between $200,000 and $400,000 to pay for new medical equipment and new visiting specialists. It’ll mean more care for the people they’re already treating — and for now, it’ll be at the same price as before.

For the full list of grant recipients in Alaska, click here.

Categories: Alaska News

Why Was Interior Alaska Green During The Last Ice Age?

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 10:29

The snow-capturing peaks of the Alaska Range, including 17,400 foot Mount Foraker, left, and 20,320 foot Mount McKinley. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

During our planet’s most recent cold period, a slab of ice smothered Manhattan. Canada looked like Antarctica but with no protruding mountains. When the last glacial maximum peaked about 20,000 years ago, most of the continent — from the Arctic Ocean to the Missouri River — slept under a blanket of white.

Alaska was different. Anchorage and the rest of Southcentral, Southeast, and the Alaska Peninsula were under ice, but interior Alaska was green. Why, when blue ice buried North America, was Fairbanks ice-free?

First, another question: how do we know what the planet looked like 20,000 years ago? Answer: curious people who spot rock aprons draped over mountainsides and see tongues of extinct glaciers. The same types squint at cylinders of muck pulled from lake bottoms and envision maple and oak parklands where tundra ponds sit today.

One of these people, Dan Mann, offered an answer to the question of why central Alaska did not, in the literal sense, participate in the ice age (and despite its latitude has never been glaciated). When he’s not floating northern rivers and finding the remains of ancient creatures poking from riverbanks, Mann teaches a class at the University of Alaska called Ice Age Alaska.

Twenty thousand years ago, a time Mann calls “very recent,” Alaska was not the giant peninsula it is now. Because so much water was locked in glacier ice, sea level was 400 feet lower. That exposed the wide plain known as the Bering Land Bridge between western Alaska and Siberia. With Bering Strait closed, what is now Interior Alaska was much farther from ocean moisture. That “incredibly continental” climate featured warm, dry summers and less snow in winter.

The Interior now features monolithic granite tors (which glaciers would have sheared away) because of a combination of ice-age conditions, Mann said. Some of these conditions persist today, like mid-latitude interception of moist, warm air from the tropics, which provides less moisture for high-latitude places.

Two 19th-century physicists, Rudolf Clausius and Benoit Clapeyron, first explained another of the enduring features that keeps the Interior dry. Because air can’t hold as much moisture as it travels upslope and cools, rain and snow tend to unload on the south side of the Alaska Range. The north side stays dryer. An example of this: while rain and snow on Alaska’s southern coast is measured in feet, Yukon Flats can receive less than six inches of precipitation a year.

The Alaska Range was just as grand during the ice age as it is today. Because of this band of mountains frowning across the middle of Alaska, Tanana was a grassland while a mile of ice squashed Talkeetna, Toronto and almost everywhere in between.

“The Alaska Range is a fantastic barrier,” Mann said.

Since the late 1970s, the director of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has supported the writing and free distribution of this column to news media outlets. 2014 is Ned Rozell’s 20th year as a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

Categories: Alaska News

Biologists Capture Orphaned Black Bear Cubs in Galena

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 09:17

Three orphaned bear cubs are safely in captivity after being captured by state biologists over the weekend in Galena.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game spokeswoman Cathie Harms says the biologists caught the black bears using baited live traps. 

“Friday evening about 8:30 they were able to capture two of the three cubs, knowing that if they hadn’t caught all three, the third one would be more difficult, and it was, it was very trap-shy,” she said. “So, they watched him Saturday and they tried on Saturday and finally on Sunday at 3:30 in the morning, they caught the third cub.”

Harms says the animals, who’s mother is suspected to have been illegally shot earlier this month, were flown to Fairbanks, and will be transported to the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage today.

“We are still evaluating the application of a facility in Colorado who has requested them,” she said. “We are hopeful they will have a home; we won’t know for about another week or so.”

The bear cubs have been roaming around the village since their mother was killed, and had gotten food from people. Harms says the cubs, born this spring, turned out to be bigger than biologists initially thought.

“One of the cubs was close to 50 pounds; they were large for cubs of the year,” Harms said. “That meant they had been eating well. They would have had a slight chance of making it to be wild black bears and growing up, even without their mother because of their size, but once people started feeding them, we knew that even if they did survive, they would be approaching people for food and getting into things.”

“So, they became a nuisance and they had to be removed.”

Alaska Wildlife Troopers are investigating the killing of the cubs mother, which was reported September 13th.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Judge Stops Logging Projects, Pending Review

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 09:10

Four Southeast Alaska logging projects are on hold after a judge found the U.S. Forest Service didn’t fully comply with a prior court order.

Conservationists who sued to stop the Scott Peak, Overlook, Traitors Creek and Soda Nick projects raised concerns with the model for determining sufficiency of deer habitat.

An appeals court in 2011 ordered an explanation for how the models supported decisions to move ahead with the projects. U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline said Friday that the Forest Service failed to comply with that order.

The management plan for the Tongass National Forest was updated in 2008. Beistline said the agency can provide deer modeling analyses based on the 1997 plan under which the projects were approved or revise the approval decisions to apply the 2008 plan.

Categories: Alaska News

Schaeffer Cox Given More Time To File Appellate Brief

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 09:09

Convicted militia leader Schaeffer Cox has been given more time to file an appeal brief with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Cox was convicted in 2012 of nine federal charges, including conspiracy to kill federal law enforcement officers. He was sentenced in January 2013 to serve nearly 26 years in prison and gave his notice of appeal shortly thereafter.

Cox had a rocky relationship with his initial appellate attorney. He was allowed to get a new attorney in May.

The delay, granted last week, gives Cox and his attorney until Dec. 29 to file their opening briefs. Prosecutors will have until Jan. 28 to respond.

Categories: Alaska News

Judge Dismisses Case Against EPA

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 09:08

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over a process that could result in development of the Pebble Mine being restricted or prohibited.

The case was brought by the group behind the mine and the state, who argued that EPA was overstepping its authority. In dismissing the case Friday, U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland said EPA’s initiation of the process was not a final agency action.

EPA has said it won’t decide before Jan. 2 what the next step in that process might be.

EPA faces another lawsuit from Pebble over an agency study that concluded large-scale mining posed significant risk to salmon in the Bristol Bay region. The study provided the basis for EPA invoking the process under the Clean Water Act.

Categories: Alaska News

Judge Rules in Favor of State on Merged Campaigns

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-09-26 18:21

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A judge sided with the state of Alaska Friday in a lawsuit challenging the merged campaigns of two candidates in the governor’s race.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge John Suddock ruled an emergency order issued by Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell that allowed the merger was valid.

The lawsuit was filed last week by Steve Strait, an Alaska Republican Party district chair.

Strait maintained Treadwell erred in his Sept. 2nd order that allowed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Byron Mallott to join campaigns with independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker and run as Walker’s lieutenant governor in the November election.

The new ticket is deemed a stronger challenge to Republican incumbent Governor Sean Parnell.

After Friday’s ruling, Strait and his attorney, Ken Jacobus, said they haven’t decided whether they’ll appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Categories: Alaska News

Parnell Asks Military Official To Resign

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-09-26 18:19

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Weeks after firing the adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard, Gov. Sean Parnell has asked another official at the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to resign.

Deputy Commissioner McHugh Pierre submitted his resignation on Thursday, and will leave the department on October 2. His resignation letter lists his “tremendous accomplishments” at the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, singling out disaster response efforts and the development of a veterans cemetery near Fairbanks. But the letter makes no mention of the Alaska National Guard, which was recently the subject of a scathing federal report.

As deputy commissioner, Pierre communicated with National Guard chaplains who raised concerns about the handling of sexual assault reports. In 2013, Pierre directed the chaplains not to speak with legislators about National Guard matters without first going through the chain of command. In an April interview with APRN, Parnell defended Pierre’s actions, and called the directive “standard operating policy” that “you don’t speak for the business, you don’t speak for the department without first coordinating it with your supervisor.”

On September 4, Parnell released the results of an investigation by the federal National Guard Bureau finding that the Alaska reserve forces mishandled sexual assault cases. The report also described instances of fraud and found the Alaska National Guard was experiencing a crisis of confidence with its leadership. That day, Parnell asked the Adjutant General, Thomas Katkus, to resign.

Sharon Leighow, a spokesperson for Parnell, confirmed that the governor also asked Pierre to step down, but did not give an explanation for his removal and did not mention the Guard in her statement.

“There won’t be any further comment on Mr. Pierre from our office,” Leighow wrote in an e-mail.

Michael O’Hare, a deputy director for the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, will take over the position on an acting basis.

Pierre did not return calls for comment. In his resignation letter, Pierre states he is “looking forward to new challenges and new adventures in the private sector.”

Pierre’s dismissal comes one day after Parnell met with a reform task force led by Brig. Gen. Jon Mott of the Connecticut National Guard to develop a plan for implementing the National Guard Bureau’s recommendations.

Categories: Alaska News
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