Alaska News

State sets POW wolf harvest quota at 9

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-26 16:15

A wolf harvest quota has been set for Game Management Unit 2, which is Prince of Wales Island and surrounding islands. According to a joint news release from the U.S. Forest Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, biologists have set the state harvest at nine wolves.

Nine wolves is half of the maximum allowable harvest, based on a population estimate, announced in June, that showed the number of wolves on Prince of Wales Island and surrounding islands was 89. That’s a steep drop from the previous year’s estimate of 221.

That drop prompted calls to cancel all wolf hunting and trapping in the area. Six conservation groups sent requests to state and federal officials, asking them to help preserve the remaining animals.

Prince of Wales Island. Screen shot, Google Maps.

David Person is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist, who now lives in Vermont. His work in Alaska focused on wolves, and he has helped conservation groups in their work to protect the Prince of Wales Island population.

Person said a legal harvest of nine wolves means an actual take of up to 15, when poaching is taken into account. He said there isn’t a hard and fast number that biologists can point to as a threshold for viability, but Person believes the wolf population for Game Management Unit 2 is too low, partly because of genetics.

“Because it is an island population, it’s mostly isolated,” he said. “So, when you eliminate entire packs, it’s like eliminating an entire salmon run in a stream. You potentially lose the entire genetic stock. So, if you reduce that population, keep bottlenecking it down to very low levels, you end up with very few breeders left and you end up with potential genetic inbreeding and genetic depression.”

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Southeast Region Supervisor Ryan Scott has said that while state biologists agree that the wolf decline in GMU2 is something to keep an eye on, the department isn’t concerned yet about the viability of that population.

But Person said there are examples in other parts of the world where wolf populations dropped, and were not able to rebound. He said state and federal officials have no idea what the viable population is for POW wolves.

“The reality of that, then, is you should be very conservative,” he said. “And a population – I think their latest estimate for the fall last year was 89 wolves, minus 29 reported killed, so that means 60, minus some that were probably not reported and killed, so the population could be 50 or below.”

Person believes many hunters and trappers would not have a problem with a closed season this year, if it helps keep wolves in the ecosystem over the long term.

“Unless you are someone who said, ‘Boy, I would just rather see wolves disappear from this ecosystem,’ well, if there are hunters and trappers that have that viewpoint, well, they’re just wrong. If there are hunters and trappers out who have a conservation bent, which I think is most of them, then they should want a viable population of wolves, as well as a harvestable population of wolves,” he said.

Larry Edwards runs the Sitka Greenpeace office, which is one of the groups that asked for a closed wolf season this year. He said he’s shocked that the department is allowing any harvest. Like Person, he pointed out that more wolves have been taken since last year’s estimate, so it’s unknown how many are left.

“One thing that we do know, from a conversation I had with one of the folks at Fish and Game, is that during their field season this spring, they found only one active den with one pup. That isn’t a good indication, either,” he said. “I think that we’re really in a crisis situation with the wolves on Prince of Wales and I’m totally shocked that Fish and Game would have an open season on them.”

Edwards adds that such a low harvest quota is difficult to manage, because hunters and trappers have two weeks to report their kill, and the quota could be surpassed before anyone knows it.

He said if the federal Office of Subsistence Management also allows a wolf hunt this season, that will add even more pressure to POW wolves.

The Federal Subsistence Board has scheduled a public hearing in Klawock on Prince of Wales Island, to get input regarding a subsistence wolf harvest.

“That will give them five days to make a decision, hopefully before their season starts on Sept. 1st, which is quite a while before the Fish and Game season starts in December,” he said.

Edwards said there are some steps conservation groups can take, such as requesting an emergency Endangered Species Act listing.

The Federal Subsistence Board public hearing starts at 6 p.m. Thursday at the POW Vocational and Technical Education Center in Klawock.

Below is the conservation groups’ request to close the wolf season this year.

Request to FSB for no GMU2 wolf season in 2015__23Jul15

Categories: Alaska News

Bethel preschool re-opens after monumental cleanup effort

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-26 15:42

The M.E. Preschool is open after a week of extensive cleaning. Photo by Dean Swope / KYUK.

The Bethel M.E. preschool is 95-percent back to normal after a week of cleaning up after vandals.

Lower Kuskokwim School District Superintendent Dan Walker says students were back on Monday.

“While it was a very negative event, it was quite heartwarming to see the outpouring of support. It really renewed our faith for the community as a whole coming together when there is something ugly like this that happened. So, we’re quite pleased with that, and we’re really happy we could get back up and running in a week. That was a really monumental effort,” said Walker.

Vandals trashed preschool classrooms and smashed windows in 13 of the Lower Kuskokwim School District’s vehicles earlier this month. Crews had to remove chemicals that were left when fire extinguishers were emptied. After extensive cleaning, preschool staff came in Thursday and worked through Saturday to get classrooms ready. New computers and smart boards will arrive soon.

Walker says the current estimates of damages hovers around $125,000, but it may grow to $150,000. Insurance will cover some, but the district may be on the line for $75,000 to $100,000, says Walker.

Police identified five juveniles ages 10 and 13, and forwarded charges to the department of juvenile justice. Walker says the district will consider adding more security cameras on top of those that helped them find suspects.

“We certainly are going to be looking at adding additional lighting, and taking a look at the campus in general where the district office is located with the schools around it. We’ll be looking at areas that might be vulnerable to vandalism,” said Walker.

The local teacher and staff association is making a donation to teachers to replace supplies destroyed by the vandalism. Walker says there have been offers from around the state and even the lower 48 to send supplies.

Categories: Alaska News

Ketchikan prosecutor position to remain vacant

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-26 15:07

The Alaska Legislature has cut funding for every branch of state government, including the Department of Law, which oversees District Attorney offices throughout the state. This means Ketchikan’s D.A.s are taking on a larger workload as they wait to have a vacant position filled.

Ketchikan District Attorney Stephen West sits behind his desk loaded with case files on the third floor of the Ketchikan Courthouse.

One of Ketchikan’s District Attorneys, Joseph Kovac, left Ketchikan’s state prosecuting team at the end of June. His position remains unfilled while the state grapples with a huge budget deficit. This means a 50 percent increase in workload for each of the two remaining attorneys in the office.

“We cover Ketchikan, Prince of Wales Island, Metlakatla, that southern part here.”

That’s District Attorney Stephen West. He’s worked in Ketchikan’s D.A. office for nearly 30 years, and he says most of that time, they’ve had three attorney positions to cover the area, which includes four separate courts. West says he isn’t sure if or when they’ll get that third person back.

West says they’ve worked with only two people before, but when that happened, West said they’d had a lighter case load. Another time, West says they were down to only one person.

“There was a period of time that I was here all by myself around 1990 for probably about eight or nine months … I worked weekends and stuff.”

Now with two people, West says he takes cases out of Craig, assistant D.A. Ben Hoffmeister takes all the misdemeanors, and they split the felonies. Even then, scheduling gets messy.

“Ben was in trial earlier this month doing a felony case that lasted most of the week. I had to do a misdemeanor trial, so we were both in trial but we also had to cover courts and a couple of other courts, so we had to be in two or three places at the same time.”

This increased workload doesn’t just mean more hours. It means more cases are settled out of court that could have been either taken to trial or prosecuted for more jail time or higher fines.

Alaska Department of Law Criminal Division Director John Skidmore says the problem with settling more cases for less time or for lesser penalties is a fear for public safety.

“Having lived in many communities throughout Alaska and been a prosecutor in those communities, I’ve always wanted to make the community a better or safer place. For those reasons it’s very difficult to turn down or walk away from a case that you think is righteous because you have sufficient evidence to support that this particular person broke the law.”

Skidmore says state funding for the Department of Law has steadily declined over the last few years, and took a significant cut of 11% after the last legislative session. That department directly funds the D.A.’s office and their personnel. With about 85% of the office’s budget going toward salaries, the cuts resulted in lost jobs.

“Specifically for the criminal division, we ended up having to reduce our personnel by 11 positions. Within the Department of Law or within the criminal division, our service that we provide is primarily prosecution.”

Skidmore says Ketchikan didn’t technically lose a job, but it may take longer to fill that vacant position, because that empty spot was budgeted under what is called a “vacancy factor.” This means the Legislature and Law Department expected someone to be leaving, and allocated less money for salaries because of that.

“The position down in Ketchikan is not a position that was deleted from the budget. It is a position that is currently vacant due to vacancy factor. Do I anticipate on filling that position? The answer is yes. Can I tell you the exact timing of that as of today? No, I cannot.”

Categories: Alaska News

State ferries to increase cancellation fees

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-26 11:50

A picture of the state ferry Fairweather by Issac Taylor is posted at the Petersburg terminal in 2013. Ticket-holders will soon pay more to cancel tickets. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The Alaska Marine Highway System will soon charge more for canceling reservations.

The fee increase begins Oct. 1, the same day the winter ferry schedule begins. That schedule, which reflects state budget cuts, was made public today.

The new fees range from 5 to 40 percent of a ticket’s value, depending on the time until travel begins. Those booking more than a month in advance and canceling within a day face no fees.

Current policy charges a 15 percent fee for cancellations made within two weeks of sailing.

A ferry press release says no-shows and canceled tickets cost the system money. The closer a cancellation to sailing, the harder it is to resell that ticket.

Categories: Alaska News

Final Sitka landslide victim recovered

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-26 08:52

Sitka building official William Stortz. (KCAW file photo)

Search crews have recovered the final victim of the Aug. 18 Sitka landslide.

The body of 62-year-old William Stortz was found Tuesday afternoon.

Heavy equipment operators had been working at several locations identified by search dogs. A road was built up to the observation area at the south end of the slide, and a plywood boardwalk installed to improve the mobility of search crews on the ground. Searchers were under pressure to take advantage of two days of good weather before more rain arrives Thursday.

Now that all the victims have been found, city officials estimate at least another 30 days of work to clear Kramer Avenue.

Municipal administrator Mark Gorman was a longtime friend of William Stortz, who served as Sitka’s building official since 2011. In a press release, Gorman writes “William was hard-working, intelligent and a very kind man. Our family knew him and he was well-respected throughout Sitka.”

Stortz died in the Aug. 18 slide along with brothers Elmer and Ulises Diaz, who were painting a new house in the Kramer subdivision.

Catholic services for the Diaz brothers have been scheduled for 6 p.m. this Friday at Grace Harbor Church, which served as the unofficial headquarters of the recovery operation. A memorial for William Stortz will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Odess Theater on the Sitka Fine Arts Campus.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Tuesday, August 25, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-08-25 17:46

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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Walker hopes to reframe the president’s perspective

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Anchorage

President Obama’s visit to Alaska is now less than a week away, and Gov. Bill Walker today told reporters his agenda for the presidential visit.

Gov. Walker continues to fight land into trust for Alaska tribes

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

Governor Walker is continuing the state’s appeal of a case that clears a path for Alaska tribes to put land into trust. Lawyers for the state filed an opening brief late Monday to appeal a ruling that overturns the so-called “Alaska exemption.”

Anchorage law firm intervenes on behalf of state in anti-Medicaid lawsuit

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

An Anchorage law firm is helping the state fight the Legislative Council’s lawsuit aimed at stopping Medicaid expansion.

Vets vent about poor VA care during listening sessions in Fairbanks, Kenai

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Alaska military veterans testified yesterday at listening sessions in Kenai and Fairbanks about problems accessing federally funded health care benefits.

Comrades fondly remember Iraq War veteran ‘Eskimo Joe’

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

Earlier this month, a Juneau man died at Lemon Creek Correctional Center 12 hours after being booked on non-criminal charges.

El Nino, ‘The Blob’ prime Alaska for another warm winter

Robert Hannon, KUAC – Fairbanks

Alaskans can expect warmer, drier days this coming winter. That, according to the National Weather Service, is drawing on new tools and techniques to peer into the future.

Quitting meth: two teens tell their story

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Last spring, for our series “The Blind Spot” we spoke with two young women we’re calling Madison and Kylie — those aren’t their real names since one of them is a minor. They were both battling addictions to methanphedimine.

Categories: Alaska News

Comrades fondly remember Iraq War veteran ‘Eskimo Joe’

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-08-25 17:32

Earlier this month, 49-year-old Joseph Murphy died at Juneau’s prison 12 hours after being booked on noncriminal charges.

Among other things, Murphy was an Iraq War veteran. His squad commander says it changed him forever. I spoke to some of the men Murphy served with.

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Joseph Murphy (from left, first man kneeling) served in the Iraq War. The squad was led by Ed Irizarry (standing to the left above Murphy). Mike Mercer (far right) was a gunner with Murphy. (Photo courtesy Ed Irizarry)

Mike Mercer joined the Alaska Army National Guard in the summer of 2001.

“That’s where I met Murphy,” he says.

Mercer and Spc. Joseph Murphy both lived in Juneau.

“Murphy taught me how to march. Murphy taught me all the really basic stuff – how to shine my boots, how to stand at the position of attention, the position of parade rest,” Mercer says.

One weekend each month, they saw each other for training. Then in 2005, Mercer and Murphy and many others in the Alaska National Guard were sent to war for one year.

“When we went to Iraq, we all got different little nicknames and Murphy got Eskimo Joe,” Mercer says.

Murphy’s wife of many years could not be reached for comment. According to a paid obituary in the Juneau Empire, Murphy was born in Anchorage, but grew up in Emmonak.

Mercer and Murphy were both gunners, each conducting patrols from a gun turret of a Humvee.

“Murph just worked harder than everybody else it seemed like, just because he was always giving as much as he could give. He definitely took care of the guy to his left and to his right. If somebody needed more water, if somebody needed somebody to talk to, if somebody needed some help with anything, Murph was really supportive of people,” Mercer says.

Ed Irizarry says Murphy put his life in jeopardy looking out for others. Murphy was part of the squad Irizarry led in Iraq. During patrols, “we encountered other vehicles that were blocking roads that were suspicious. Could be a car bomb,” Irizarry says.

Irizarry recalls times when, “I was going to walk up to it and Murphy, you know, ‘No, I’ll go do it sergeant.’ He takes off running and he comes back and he says, ‘All clear.’ So what do you tell a man that has just went out there and could give his life for you? What do you tell that guy? A thank you doesn’t seem to be enough.”

Irizarry was deeply sad when he heard Murphy died, “Joe was living with a lot of demons as the rest of us are.”

He mentions a specific car bombing in Iraq, but doesn’t give details.

“He had to witness something a human should never have to see. And I think that damaged him. You take a 40-year-old man who’s never seen anything like that in his life. And he’s got such a big heart, family oriented, do anything for anyone, happy-go-lucky, and then he sees that hell. That changes a man,” Irizarry says.

Irizarry lives in Ketchikan and retired from the military after 22 years, including time in four combat zones.

He says Murphy experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and sought help. More than 40 percent of National Guard members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have symptoms of PTSD, according to the National Center for PTSD.

Murphy’s obituary says he also battled depression and struggled with substance abuse. But Irizarry wants Murphy to be remembered as the funny, kind man he was.

“You could crack a joke on him or tease him about something and he would laugh so hard at himself and just never got upset. He’d just kind of shake his head, ‘OK, you got me.’ So he was just like a young kid and you couldn’t help but fall in love with him,” Irizarry says.

Mike Mercer also experienced symptoms of PTSD, although he’s never been clinically diagnosed. Before Iraq, Mercer says he was a people person. When he returned to Juneau in 2006, he was apprehensive of large groups. He had bad dreams. He couldn’t watch July Fourth fireworks and had trouble driving close to other cars.

“All of us have had problems here and there. Some stuff fades, some stuff doesn’t,” Mercer says.

The last time Mercer saw Murphy was about five years ago at Fred Meyer.

“It doesn’t matter how long we go without seeing each other. Could’ve been another 10 years before I saw Murph, we’d still embrace each other as if we’d just seen other yesterday,” he says.

When you serve in war together, Mercer says, you’re brothers.

“It’s just a bond. You can’t break that. Time ain’t going to break it. I guess even the death of one of your brothers can’t break that either. Murph will always be my brother,” Mercer says.

Murphy was in the emergency room of Bartlett Regional Hospital the night of Aug. 13. Juneau Police transferred him to Lemon Creek Correctional Center on a 12-hour protective hold. A police spokesman says alcohol was a factor. Murphy died in a holding cell the next morning of an apparent heart attack.

The obituary says Murphy will be buried in Emmonak.

Categories: Alaska News

El Nino, ‘The Blob’ prime Alaska for another warm winter

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-08-25 17:31

“The Blob” is a mass of unusually warm seawater off the Pacific coast. (Graphic courtesy of American Geophysical Union)

Alaskans can expect warmer, drier days this coming winter. That, according to the National Weather Service, is drawing on new tools and techniques to peer into the future.

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Rick Thoman is the Alaska region’s Climate Science and Services Manager at the National Weather Service. He says over the last three years advances in modeling are giving meteorologists more confidence to say what the future looks like. Based on those techniques, he says Alaska will see a significantly warmer winter this year.

“We’ve got a very strong El Nino in progress. We also have very warm sea surface temperatures continuing in the Gulf of Alaska. We’ve got less sea ice than the long-term normal. All of those things really add up to give us a leg up on warmer than average temperatures.”

And what may be good news for those who shovel their own driveways, Thoman does not see much snow in the late winter, after New Year.

“There is a tilt toward drier than average winters during these moderate and strong El Nino events.”

Thoman adds it only takes one or two significant weather events to dump enough snow for mushers and skiers.

With the warmer temperatures expect more days of freezing rain. Thoman says the conditions that turns roads into ice-rinks have been increasing over the last five year. But he says that increase seems to be part of a cycle. In the 1920s and 1960s there were also significant periods of freezing rain.

With increasingly robust tools and techniques, Thoman predicts within a few years, forecasters should be able to say how stormy a season is likely to be.

Categories: Alaska News

Life Beyond Addiction: The Story of Two Young Women Making It, Together

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-08-25 17:30

Kylie and Madison show off their matching necklaces which read “You are my anchor.” (Hillman/KSKA)

Last spring, for our series “The Blind Spot” we spoke with a young couple we’re calling Madison and Kylie. Those aren’t their real names since one of them is a minor. They were both battling addictions to methanphedimines. To escape, they moved to Wasilla to get away from their friends and families who were still using. Being around them makes staying sober a thousand times harder, they said.

Since then, Madison and Kylie have lost their housing in the Valley and have moved back to Anchorage. They came into KSKA to talk about how they’re doing now. Initially they were staying with Kylie’s dad, who was still using meth…

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Transcript:

Kylie: And we did see some of our old friends, but it wasn’t as bad I thought it would be.
Madison: We basically ignored them though… Even though it’s not good being around them. It was actually really hard for us being with her dad because we knew what they were doing in the back room and so we’re just out there, in the living room.
K: We were just alone all the time. We didn’t really see him even though we were living with him.
Anne: How did you keep resisting [using drugs]?
M: By looking at all the people who were in the house.
K: And how far we’ve seen them fall.
M: Like how crappy they were compared to how awesome we were basically.
A: Did you start job searching? Apartment searching?
M: We didn’t want to start job searching at that point until we had a stable place to live because we knew we weren’t going to stay with her dad for very long and we didn’t really want to. It’s really hard to get a job when you don’t have a stable place to live because it just is not.
A: So how did you end up finding a stable place to stay?
K: We actually ended up moving back in with my cousins, which we had stayed on and off with them when we were trying to get sober before we actually did stay sober.
A: How does it feel being around someone about your own age who is clean?
K: I really like being around my cousin all the time. It’s like a good environment. He helps us a lot more than most people do. He’s there for us more than most people are.
M: He really wants us to do good.
K: It’s really nice having that as an influence.
M: He’s like a parent.
K: It’s really nice having him around.
M: He has a car and he’s always like OK. And he checks in on us if he’s at work and we’re supposed to be at work. He calls just to make sure we’re awake and whatnot. He’s very motherly. And I say motherly because he’s so gay, also. Not fatherly but motherly.
A: Is it nice to live with someone else who is gay, too?

Kylie and Madison joke about their shoes. (Hillman/KSKA)

K: Yeah, it make it’s a lot easier.
M: Yeah, because you can just relate on a different level, even though he’s a gay guy.
K: There’s like jokes you can make with him that you can’t make with other people. They’d be like, ‘How do you not get offended at that because you’re making fun of gay people?’ It’s okay with us because we know we’re all joking and not being serious.
A: You have a stable place to live. You have positive influences in your life. Are you working?
K: I work in the 5th Avenue Mall. I like the environment with everybody. I like being able to help people and feel like I’m actually helping somebody with their day, even if it’s something small like selling shoes to them.
M: Well, I actually recently lost my job because I was late one time. But I’m trying to get a job just anywhere. I don’t even care where. I just want a job. Actually, I want a job at the Teen Center, which is where I worked before I went to Wasilla.
A: What about school?
K: We’re kind of like in between schools right now. I’m hoping to maybe go to S.A.V.E.
A: How are you two doing? Last time we talked you talked about how you get annoyed with each other when you’re on drugs but you’re better when you’re off.
K: We still fight.
M: She’s still annoying some times.
K: So are you… We’re actually planning our wedding in two months. She doesn’t do very much of the planning.
M: Well that’s what my best friend is for. They’re planning away and I’m like ‘thank god!’
K: She tried telling me she was going to wear jeans to the wedding. And I told her I would turn around in the aisle.
M: I said black skinny jeans, that’s classy, right?
A: So why marriage? I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times before. You guys are real young.
K: Yeah, a lot of people have given us their two cents on why we shouldn’t get married.
M: We’ve been together for like a really long time.
A: Like a year.
K: A year and a half. But we’ve been through a lot more than most people would in like 20, 30 years of marriage. We’ve put each other through a lot more, too. We know we can get through it all.
M: We’ve actually come really far.
K: Than how we used to be. And talking things out.
M: I feel like we’ve come to a whole different level of ourselves.
K: I really like what we do. I really like the way we are now. Like drinking and all the things most kids our age do is not entertaining at all to us anymore. Like the most entertaining thing we tried to do is we tried to go geocaching. And we’ll like go home and eat a lot of candy and watch horror movies and stuff.
M: We do old people stuff. We do stuff that like older people do and people think they’re boring.
K: I don’t know, I think it’s really fun.

You can listen to their previous interview here.

Categories: Alaska News

Vets vent about poor VA care during listening sessions in Fairbanks, Kenai

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-08-25 16:45

Alaska military veterans testified yesterday at listening sessions in Kenai and Fairbanks about problems accessing federally funded health care benefits. Interior veterans shared concerns specific to the Veterans Choice Act, as well as more general issues about working with the Veterans Administration.

Alaska U.S. Senator and Veteran’s Affairs Committee member Dan Sullivan organized the in state listening sessions in light of what he describes as Alaska specific problems with Veterans Choice Act passed last year.

“The Choice Act, ironically, is in many ways based on the model of Alaska — meaning, to allow veterans to access health care outside the VA system: Native health centers, other centers, and to provide flexibility. The irony is, that when it was implemented, it started to cut off funding for those very programs in Alaska,” Sen. Sullivan says.

Alaska Native Veteran’s Association President Benno Cleveland (foreground) speaks at VA listening session. Credit Dan Bross / KUAC

Sullivan and a team of Veterans Administration officials, heard from numerous Interior vets, many of whom, like Marine and Army vet William Fisher lamented general problems with the VA healthcare system, like basic inability to even reach the agency. Fisher says he spent the last week trying to get through.

“I was on the phone for approximately one to one-and-a-half hours each time,” he says. “I purposely chose to call in the morning once, lunch time, and in the evening — different times. They’re always swamped. When you get through, half the time you get hung up on. The other half the time the people you talk to can’t give you a straight answer.”

Fisher says the situation has left him with unpaid medical bills.

“I have a bill now that’s about a year old. I still get these nasty letters. Now they say in the next seven days, if I don’t respond, it’s going to a collections agency.”

Others like John Taylor of Salcha, pointed to issues specifically related to the new Choice Act Program.

“The main difference is, if you want to speak to a doctor, if you want to have a blood test, if you have to have a procedure like a colonoscopy — you have to have it approved by Choice first. If you don’t get it approved or the approval doesn’t go through, they will cancel you.”

Alaska Native Veteran’s Association President Benno Cleveland addressed a basic communication gap between Alaska veterans and the VA.

“We have many — a tremendous amount — of veterans who are out in the villages. Not only do we have Native veterans out there we have other vets out there from all walks of life and all walks of cultures. And we speak English, but we don’t speak your English. Our English is a little different and has different meanings. So when we tap into the VA and everything else, it’s frustrating not only on the veterans, but it’s also frustrating on the VA.”

Cleveland suggested funding training some Alaska veterans to help others navigate the system. Recently appointed VA health undersecretary David Shulkin assured the veterans their concerns are being heard.

“We’re not committed to the old way of the VA doing things. I am committed to fixing this to make sure that this works for you and for veterans around the country.”

The Alaska listening sessions were held in anticipation of a formal Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee field hearing on the Choice Act happening Tuesday in Eagle River.

Categories: Alaska News

Walker Hopes to Reframe POTUS Perspective

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-08-25 16:39

Gov. Bill Walker (File photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

President Obama’s visit to Alaska is now less than a week away, and he’s not the only one with an agenda for his stay in the 49th state.

“It’s an exciting time for Alaska. We don’t have a lot of presidents who stop here unless they’re low of fuel,” Gov. Bill Walker said today, at a press conference outlining his goals for the presential visit.

For the White House, climate change is the theme of the visit. The president plans to spotlight Alaska’s melting and erosion as signs that climate change is real, and to bolster support for his carbon-reducing energy policies.

Walker hopes to draw the president’s eye to a few other matters.

“We have an opportunity with this trip to tell our own story,” Walker said.

The governor wants Obama to see Alaska’s need for more oil development — to refill the pipeline and fund state government. Walker says Obama’s decision to let Shell drill in the Chukchi Sea suggests the president does not intend to use evidence of Alaska’s warming as a reason to block future oil development.

“I don’t think so. If I he had taken a different position on offshore I’d be more concerned about that,” Walker said. “The fact that he’s said yes to offshore — so I’m not as concerned he’s going to say that.”

When Obama tours Alaska towns struggling with climate change, Walker says he hopes the president sees how expensive it is for the state to mitigate the damage.

“I’ll be talking to him about, you know, we can’t be limited from access to our resources, from the financial standpoint, and be expected to relocate villages at the same time,” Walker said. “So that’ll be the discussion we have.”

Walker says the White House has assured him the president doesn’t plan any surprise announcements during the trip, and he intends to ask about that again this week.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage law firm intervenes on behalf of state in anti-Medicaid lawsuit

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-08-25 14:01

An Anchorage law firm is helping the state fight the Legislative Council’s lawsuit aimed at stopping Medicaid expansion. Ray Brown, an attorney with the Anchorage based law firm Dillon & Findley reached out to Governor Bill Walker’s office late last week. Brown says he was upset when he learned the Legislative Council was paying at least $450,000 to a Washington, D.C.,-based law firm to argue the case.

“I was greatly offended by it and I talked to my partners and we agreed that given the current budgetary crisis in Alaska, the state could ill afford to hire a private law firm to go up against this national firm. And we agreed to do it pro bono, we’ve litigated against large national law firms on numerous occasions.”

Attorney’s for the Legislative Council filed the lawsuit in Anchorage Superior Court yesterday. They’re asking a judge to stop the state from starting to offer Medicaid benefits to up to 40,000 new Alaskans as planned on September 1st.

The new group of new beneficiaries are mostly childless adults living in poverty. Brown says his law firm feels very strongly that providing health insurance to Alaskans is the right thing to do.

“If you’re going to be a law firm working pro bono it should be for a good cause and I can’t think of anyone better than providing Medicaid to those who are in the most need in this state. So we feel very strongly about it and we’re willing to dedicate our efforts in that regard to whatever extent it takes.”

Brown says his firm will have as many as five lawyers working with a team of state attorneys on the case.

The Legislative Council’s lawsuit contends the expansion population is an optional group that cannot be covered unless approved by the Legislature. In court filings, the Council argues the state could face “irreparable fiscal injury” if Medicaid expansion starts next week.

The first court hearing in the case has been scheduled for the afternoon of August 27th.

Categories: Alaska News

BC minister: Tulsequah Chief Mine leak should be fixed

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-08-25 10:18

B.C. Mines Minister Bill Bennett answers reporters’ questions Monday after touring the Taku River area. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

British Columbia’s top mine official says the province needs to address pollution pouring out of an abandoned tunnel east of Juneau.

Mines Minister Bill Bennett got an up-close look at what’s left of B.C.’sTulsequah Chief Mine on Monday. It’s leaking acidic water into a river on the Canadian side of the border that flows into the salmon-rich Taku River. That waterway empties into the ocean near the capital city.

Bennett says scientists say the discharge is not harmful to fish. But he’s not proud of what he saw.

“I think B.C. is going to have to find a way to rectify it sooner than later and I think it is a most legitimate criticism of us by those folks in Alaska who don’t like it,” he says.

The zinc, copper and gold mine last operated in the 1950s. Current owner Chieftain Metals Corp. has permits, but not full financing.

The mine was part of a Monday helicopter tour of the Taku River with Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotton.

Bennett is taking a conciliatory tone as he meets with regulators, policymakers and critics of transboundary mining this week in Juneau and Ketchikan.

He says he’ll work toward agreements during such talks. But it won’t be easy.

“There are many, many things that have been said that are not correct that we’re going to need to correct before we can have a rational discussion, and even a rational debate, about what needs to happen,” Bennett says.

That includes a recent reportrecommending methods for storing waste rock from mining and ore processing.

He says it includes underwater storage behind dams. Environmental groups say it requires dry storage, which they say poses less risk to the environment.

Bennett’s tour includes Admiralty Island’s Greens Creek Mine, which uses dry tailings storage.

Categories: Alaska News

Gov. Walker continues to fight land into trust for Alaska tribes

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-08-25 08:22

Governor Walker’s attorney general filed a brief to continue the state’s litigation against tribal trust lands.

Governor Walker is continuing the state’s appeal of a case that clears a path for Alaska tribes to put land into trust. Lawyers for the state filed an opening brief late Monday to appeal a ruling that overturns the so-called “Alaska exemption.”

Trust status would reshape tribal sovereignty by creating Indian country in Alaska. Tribes would enjoy broad jurisdictional power in a status likened to reservations. It also limits the power of the state. Under new rules developed by the Department of the Interior, tribes could put lands they own into trust, including land they’ve purchased or lands transferred to tribes by Native Corporations.

Walker has faced pressure from tribes to drop the lawsuit he inherited from the Parnell administration. He delayed action for seven months, but recently fly around the state to meet face-to-face with tribal leaders in the five communities involved in the suit: Akiachak, Tuluksak, Chalkyitsik, Barrow, and Haines.

The state argues that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act specifically prohibits the creation of trust land in Alaska and that the court incorrectly interpreted earlier laws in the 2013 ruling.

After a court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs two years ago, the Department of the Interior announced new rules in 2014 to allow tribes to put land into trust. Alaska Native leaders say that change, after years of litigation, brings them one step closer to self-determination. The state currently has one reservation for the Metlakatla tribe.

While Attorney General Craig Richards stated in a press release that the state’s position continues to develop with tribes, “a change of that magnitude requires thorough and deliberative dialogue that can’t occur in just a matter of months.”

Lawyers for the tribes are due to respond by September 23rd in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Monday, August 24, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-08-24 17:42

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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Walker plans to recommend TransCanada buy-out in gas project

Associated Press

Gov. Bill Walker says he plans to recommend to legislators that the state buy out TransCanada Corp.’s position in the major liquefied natural gas project that Alaska is pursuing.

As national media hone in on Alaska, ICC plots its course

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

Alaska and the future of Arctic policy are seeing increased international attention as the U.S. holds the chairmanship for the Arctic Council and foreign ministers prepare to meet in Anchorage later this month—joined by President Obama.

The devil’s in the details: How to keep a presidential visit secure

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The White House released more details today on President Obama’s visit to Alaska next week. The President will spend Monday in Anchorage, Tuesday in the Seward area and Wednesday in Dillingham and Kotzebue.

Calling from Alaska jails? It’s complicated.

Madelyn Beck, KRBD – Ketchikan

When someone gets arrested, often the first thing they’ll want to do is make a call. If it’s to a lawyer or legal aid, no problem. However, if it’s to friends, family or an employer, it’s more complicated.

Parents feel sticker shock at rising price of high school activity fees

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

Classes in Juneau just started Thursday, but some high school activities have been underway for weeks. This school year, the district has drastically cut funding for activities and athletics, leaving some parents paying hundreds of dollars more for their kid to participate.

New science shows Sitka geologically separate from rest of Alaska

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Sitka sits on a different chunk of the Earth’s crust than the rest of Alaska. Decades of scientific research have led to a report and map showing where the faults lie. The new information expands scientists’ understanding of what’s going on beneath Alaska’s surface.

‘It’s Good to Be Here’ — Working at the Brother Francis Shelter

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Guests at Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage keep the place running. They clean the floors and lay out the mats. They wash the blankets and monitor the doors. They’re supported by a cadre of staff who try to keep the place organized and safe.

Categories: Alaska News

Walker plans to recommend TransCanada buy-out in gas project

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-08-24 17:36

The proposed pipeline route for the Alaska LNG Project, a consortium of oil companies (Image courtesy of the Alaska LNG Project).

Gov. Bill Walker says he plans to recommend to legislators that the state buy out TransCanada Corp.’s position in the major liquefied natural gas project that Alaska is pursuing.

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Under an agreement that predates Walker’s administration, TransCanada would hold the state’s interest in the pipeline and gas treatment plant, with the state having an option to buy back a portion of that interest. It’s been cast as a way for the state to not have to bear as much in upfront costs as it would without TransCanada involved.

But the agreement also allows the state to terminate the partnership, though the state would have to reimburse TransCanada for its development costs.

Walker said the pipeline is an important piece, and the state needs to be more involved in that.

Categories: Alaska News

Keeping a president safe on the road: the devil’s in the details

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-08-24 17:34

How do you keep a president safe? It’s a complicated job. Photo: WhiteHouse.gov

The White House released more details today on President Obama’s visit to Alaska next week. The President will spend Monday in Anchorage, Tuesday in the Seward area and Wednesday in Dillingham and Kotzebue.

Planning the security for Obama’s visit isn’t easy, according to retired Federal Marshall Marc Otte. For 22 years, the Eagle River resident helped protect foreign dignitaries and federal judges. He told APRN’s Lori Townsend there is no detail too small when advance agents are scouting for a trip for a high level official like the President:

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Marc Otte is the retired chief deputy for the U.S. Marshalls. Now, he writes political espionage thrillers under the pen name Marc Cameron.

Categories: Alaska News

New science shows Sitka geologically separate from rest of Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-08-24 17:33

The U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage recently released this map of Baranof Island in Southeastern Alaska. Click here for a full view. (Image courtesy USGS)

Sitka sits on a different chunk of the Earth’s crust than the rest of Alaska. Decades of scientific research have led to a report and map showing where the faults lie. The new information expands scientists’ understanding of what’s going on beneath Alaska’s surface.

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Fly into Sitka on a reasonably clear day and it’s hard to miss its most prominent chunk of rock.

Mount Edgecumbe volcano rises 3,200 feet above sea level. Neighboring cinder cones from separate eruptions are also impressive.

But it’s only one of Baranof Island’s geologic features. Over the past 40 years, researchers have turned up some less-obvious portions of what’s below Southeast Alaska’s landscape.

“We now know that the geology on Baranof Island and West Chichagof Island does not match the rest of Southeast Alaska,” says Susan Karl, a research geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage.

She and other scientists collaborated to research and create the new Baranof map and accompanying reports.

“We also have spent a lot of time trying to figure it out where it came from, why it came, how it came and when it came from wherever it came from before to where it is now,” she says.

Baranof Island, and part of its northern neighbor Chichagof Island, sit atop their own block of the Earth’s crust.

It’s one of many plates and blocks, as they’re called, in motion around the world. It’s slow going, taking millions and millions of years.

Some crash into each other, others scrape edge-to-edge, and still others just sit there, at least for now.

So, Karl says, parts of what’s now Alaska made its way here from someplace else.

“They’re various pieces of other continents. And we have been working very hard over the years to try to figure out which other continent they are tied to,” she says.

Parts of the Southeast Alaska appear to have come from Siberia, and even the Ural Mountains, way on the other side of Asia. Some moved up the coast from points south.

One of those is Baranof Island.

It sits between two long faults in Chatham Strait to the east and the  Pacific Ocean’s Fairweather Fault to the west. But about half-way up its eastern side, a separate coastal crack, called the Peril Strait Fault, heads west. That fault separates Baranof from just about everything else in the region.

Geologists know this because they’ve charted the island’s bedrock. Among other discoveries, they found a huge chunk of granite and similar rock in a common formation called a batholith. But, Karl says, part of it is missing.

“That batholith is cut in half, or cut off right in the middle, by the Peril Strait Fault. And the other half of it, in those old rocks, they’re not there at all,” she says.

So, where is it?

Geologists compared its makeup with rocks nearby, then father away, then, much farther away. The closest match was about 1,000 miles down the coast, in western British Columbia.

“The best fit that we have is on Vancouver Island,” Karl says.

Geologist Susan Karl points to faults shown on a new geologic map of Baranof Island, in Southeast Alaska. It reflects the discovery that the island’s bedrock is different from that of other parts of the region. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Scientists say Baranof’s last contact with Vancouver happened about 50 million years ago.

Another match may be Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. They’re off British Columbia’s coast, about 300 miles to the southeast of Baranof.

Geologist Karl says that means Sitka — and the whole island — made a slow slide up the Pacific Coast. It’s separate from Juneau or Ketchikan or any other part of Alaska.

That knowledge, along with earlier findings, expands our view of the region’s mineral makeup. Practically, that can show where there might be valuable metals, and it could help us understand where where future earthquakes or even volcanoes, might happen.

“Every time you get new data, it just leads to new questions. You might answer one question, but then you have three more. And it just keeps growing and it’s just endlessly fun,” she says.

All of this is part of a larger picture of the region’s complex natural history.

Karl says the map probably couldn’t have happened a few decades ago.

“We have a lot of new technology and we have a lot of new data that has allowed us to understand some things we never knew about before,” she says.

So next time you fly over Baranof Island, or its general neighborhood, take a look at what lies below. The straits, channels and long inlets may show where a fault lies and the Earth’s crust has moved.

In addition to Karl, the map and report credit Peter Haeussler, Glen Himmelberg, Cathy Zumsteg, Paul Layer, Richard Friedman, Sarah Roeske and Lawrence Snee.

Categories: Alaska News

Calling from Alaska jails? It’s complicated.

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-08-24 17:22

Ketchikan Correctional Center. (Alaska Department of Corrections photo)

When someone gets arrested, often the first thing they’ll want to do is make a call. If it’s to a lawyer or legal aid, no problem. However, if it’s to friends, family or an employer, it’s more complicated.

When an inmate at the Ketchikan Correctional Center wants to place a call, there are some rules. They can call lawyers without cost or much restraint, but calls to family or employers are allowed in 15-minute time slots and on the jail’s terms.

“So what happens is, if an inmate wants to contact family, they give a list of numbers that they want to have on their approved list, and they’re able to call out. And it’s set up and designed to only be landlines.”

That’s KCC’s superintendent, Jessica Mathews. She says this is a way to make sure possible victims are safe from harassment. While local calls around Ketchikan are free, Mathews says inmates families have to pay for long-distance calls to their landlines through Securus, a company contracted through the state.

What happens is an inmate can place one call to a long-distance landline. After that talk, the call’s receiver, maybe a mom or a significant other, gets a bill from Securus for the call and options to open a payable account for future calls.

If they don’t pay or can’t pay, the prisoner can no longer call that number.

Alaska’s system is actually cheaper than in much of the United States where Securus does not allow free local calls.

But Alaska is one of the few places that doesn’t allow calls from prisons to cellphones. Mathews says that’s how the contract with Securus is written.

“There’s glitches with that and people circumvent the rules for that, but that’s the way the system is set up. In the future, Securus wants to try to include cellphones in that process but right now the contract doesn’t authorize that. “

Alaska Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sherrie Daigle said in a statement that DOC’s procurement team and contract overseers were working on a changing the contract between Alaskan public correctional facilities and Securus, but it may take time.

In that time, no-cellphone policy could disproportionately hurt those who already are having a hard time. A July 2014 Pew Research Survey found that those with lower incomes and those in minority racial groups have a far greater probability of having only cellphones instead of landlines.

Assistant Public Defender Jay Hochberg says many in Ketchikan’s jail are part of that group and couldn’t afford a lawyer without Public Defenders.

“The number in this community runs over 80%. Over 80% of folks will receive a public defender.”

Hochberg also notes that the most KCC inmates haven’t been convicted and are presumed innocent.

“The vast majority of the folks at our local jail are pre-trial. Across the state, I think it’s about 50-50 at the moment, sentenced prisoners vs pre-trial detainees. And all across America, it is slightly more than 50% if you look at all state and local jails together of folks who are in jail not because they’ve been adjudicated or proved as wrongdoers, but because they simply are impoverished or otherwise don’t have access to the cash bail.”

KRBD reached out to Securus, but was unable to talk with a representative. The company did provide links on how to call in the Lower 48 from a prison center to cell phones, but not much else.

Matthews says if people don’t want to pay the calling fees, or don’t want their family to have to pay them, it’s best to just do it the old-fashioned way.

“Generally what we would encourage people to do is to come visit or to write…And they can certainly, you know, their family has access to a landline. There’s always a landline somewhere. So they can certainly do that. And sometimes that’s just the unfortunate consequence of being in custody.”

Matthews says that this system works here in Ketchikan, and she hasn’t had too many complaints, but this could be because there’s a fast turnover, with an average 30-day stay at KCC.

If inmates are convicted, they are usually sent to Juneau or Anchorage. There, they would still have to use Securus and would be under similar calling rules.  They are also often away from home at that point and most calls to family and friends will be charged. The new FCC maximum rates for those calls are at $0.21 per minute for collect and $0.25 per minute for pre-paid or debit calls.

Categories: Alaska News

Parents feel sticker shock at rising price of high school activity fees

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-08-24 17:09

Classes in Juneau are just starting on Thursday, but some high school activities have been underway for weeks. This school year, the district has drastically cut funding for activities and athletics, leaving some parents paying hundreds of dollars more for their kid to participate.

The JDHS swim team practices at Augustus Brown Swimming Pool, Aug. 19, 2015. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Michelle Norman has two kids at Thunder Mountain High School. Her daughter is on the swim and dive team. At the first parent meeting for the activity, she was asked to pay “an activity fee of $600 and approximately $150 travel fee for each meet out of Juneau.”

Last year, Norman paid $275.

She says this higher fee struck her as ridiculous. So Norman did her own research on travel costs to meets in Ketchikan and Sitka, and says the $600 activity fee only makes sense if her daughter qualifies for state competition.

“My daughter has a good chance of qualifying for state and I expect if that happened that I’d contribute more, but I’m not comfortable with paying $600 now for a $200 expense,” Norman says.

According to Juneau School Board policy, individual activity fees for participation and travel must be approved by the activities director and the superintendent. For students who are in financial need, the district has a scholarship fund.

Superintendent Mark Miller says he hasn’t approved any activity fees.

“To my knowledge we do not have actual individual fees,” he says.

Miller doesn’t call the costs put on students or parents “fees.”

“Different sports are going about fundraising in different ways and some are asking for contributions from participants in order to limit or defray the amount of fundraising that they do,” Miller says.

Thunder Mountain High School Activities Director Jake Jacoby says every fall sport does have an activity fee.

“This is an individual fee that varies from activity to activity and it’s very low for activities that have low budget needs and it’s pretty darn high for the more expensive programs,” Jacoby says.

He says $600 for the swim and dive team isn’t the highest. The coaches come up with the fees, and Jacoby approves them, but he hasn’t taken them to the superintendent.

Jacoby says the fees go toward gear and travel, but the cost shouldn’t be coming out of pocket.

“There are fundraising opportunities that need to be provided by the teams in order for students to raise the money,” Jacoby says.

In an email from the swim and dive booster board at Thunder Mountain High School, parents were instructed to “bring your checkbook” to an Aug. 4 meeting. The main fundraising event is selling Christmas trees and parents were asked to think of other ideas.

Due to district budget cuts to activities, Jacoby says everyone – coaches, booster clubs, parents, activities directors – is working through a new process this year.

“I have had conversations with various coaches within the last week about fundraising and funding and we’ll continue to do so as all teams figure out what this means as far as funding all of their own travel,” Jacoby says.

Last school year the district budgeted about $1.5 million for the high school activities program, including staff. About $600,000 of that went toward travel.

For this school year, the district budgeted less than a million dollars for high school activities. Close to $600,000 of that came from the Juneau Assembly, and the majority of it goes toward administrative costs.

Superintendent Miller says in the past, the district covered the majority of travel costs for high school activities.

“Unfortunately we’ve been dipping into the bank in order to cover those costs and our bank account ran dry last year and so this is really the first year that we’ve had to say we can’t go over what we’ve allocated under any circumstance and we can’t allocate what we used to,” Miller says.

The district has set aside $150,000 of the Juneau Assembly money for potential travel to state competitions, travel that teams don’t necessarily budget for because it’s last minute. It’s hard to say if that’s enough money because it depends on how well teams do. There will likely still be fundraising post-postseason.

Categories: Alaska News

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