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

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

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-09-29 18:23

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

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

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

Small-scale Hydro Project Proposed for Talkeetna River

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-09-26 18:17



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The proposal for a massive hydroelectric project on the Susitna river is moving forward. The project has generated a lot of opposition in Talkeetna, the closest community to the dam site. Now a private company is proposing a second, smaller hydro project on the Talkeetna river.

The company is Northwest Power Service, Incorporated.  Brent Smith is heading up the Alaska operation, and says that this is the first time that NPSI is proposing building a dam, though it has considerable experience in hydropower.

“Most all of the projects that Northwest Power Service has been involved with in the past is to retrofit existing, federally owned dams in the Lower 48, where we go in and there’s already an existing dam that does not have power generation on it,” he said. “So, what we do is go through a licensing process to retrofit that dam and put power on it.”

The dam that NPSI is proposing would generate 75 megawatts of power, far less than that proposed by Susitna-Watana.  It would also have a much smaller footprint than the Susitna project, with a height of 370 feet.

Brent Smith says he believes that there is room in Alaska for the diversification of the power grid.  He adds that the location of the Talkeetna dam proposal has a lot to do with proximity to the electrical intertie between Anchorage and Fairbanks.  The site is not set in stone, however.

“I’m not going to say, today, that it’s in Talkeetna. I don’t know that, for sure,” Smith said. “What we want to do is take a look at that opportunity, but I am in favor of more of a diversified generation out there, not just one or two very large projects.”

Brent Smith says that he sees the Talkeetna proposal as a way to start a larger conversation about other power sources.  He is a proponent of methods that reduce reliance on fossil fuels.  In Smith’s eyes, the conversation that is part of any hydro project’s public process could help reveal the best option for the Railbelt.

“My hopes would be that we could spend a fair amount of the time, or the majority of the time, talking about, ‘Is there an opportunity for renewables in the State of Alaska, or are we just going to default to natural gas and diesel?’”

Mike Wood is the chair of the Susitna River Coalition, a Talkeetna-based group that opposes the construction of the Susitna-Watana hydro project.  He says that just because hydropower does not use fossil fuel to generate electricity does not necessarily mean it’s sustainable at large scales.

“Overall, this state truly needs to define what good, sustainable hydro is at any level, and the conversation needs to be had, beginning with our state legislature,” Wood said.

Wood says that the proposal put forth by Brent Smith and NPSI, while smaller than Susitna-Watana, still relies on the method of damming a river in order to spin turbines.

“If he wants to start the conversation…about smaller hydro, I would say personally, I believe he could have started it with a more progressive type of hydropower creator.”

Part of the Susitna River Coalition’s reason for opposing the damming of the Susitna River has to do with fish and other environmental concerns.  Mike Wood says there are other methods to consider for smaller hydro than, as he puts it, blocking up the river with concrete.

“It’s lake taps; it’s in higher places where anadromous fish haven’t been going.  It isn’t ruining a world class salmon river…Trading resources is not what we want to do, here.”

In the end, Mike Wood says the Talkeetna dam proposal will not divert the Susitna River Coalition’s efforts in opposing the Susitna-Watana Project.

The proposal for the Talkeetna dam is in the very early phases.

On Thursday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission sent back NPSI’s permit request, citing a lack of technical details for the proposed structure.  Brent Smith says that he is planning on speaking with local community councils, and is open to the prospect of public meetings to discuss non-fossil fuel energy, whether it be in the form of a dam or some other means of generating electricity.



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Categories: Alaska News

Seismologist Says It’s Time to Talk About Earthquake Early Warning

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-09-26 18:15

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Thursday’s 6.2 earthquake in Southcentral Alaska struck without warning. Because that’s what earthquakes do here in Alaska. But state seismologist Michael West says it’s time for Alaskans to discuss the possibility of an earthquake early warning system.

“You can think about it as throwing a rock in a pond and the waves ripple out at some speed, but it’s not instantaneous,” he says. “If you can detect those ripples before they get to you, like with sensors very close to the source, you can very easily have seconds, in some cases, maybe a minute or two of forewarning. “

The warning time would vary, depending on the location and type of earthquake. West says for a quake like the one Anchorage felt yesterday, the warning would likely only be a few seconds.

“If the 1964 earthquake, or something comparable were to occur going forward, an earthquake early warning could easily be able to provide tens of seconds before the strongest shaking.

So what can you do in tens of second? It’s probably not enough time to evacuate a building, but West says it could be enough for an automated shut down of a natural gas pipeline.

“Stoplights,” he says. “Turn all the stop lights red to bring all traffic to a halt, in advance.”

It could, he says, alert a surgeon just picking up a scalpel.

Japan’s early warning system stopped bullet trains and forced open elevator doors during the massive 2011 earthquake. Switzerland and Mexico also have warning systems. California is building one, but West says there’s nothing in development for Alaska.  To get such a system, he says the state would need more seismic stations.

“The reason for that is very simple: The closer you have a sensor to the start of the earthquake, the epicenter, the more quickly you can detect it,” he says.

It would also require fast data communication lines and a way to deliver useful messages to residents without inducing panic.  West says the cost would likely run to the tens of millions.

“Let me be honest. Some of this is expensive, and we need to decide whether or not that’s a priority for us or not. I think that’s a very logical, very reasonable discussion to have,” he said. “My concern is we’re not really talking about it very much.”

West was in Washington, DC this week to rally support for permanent seismic monitors in northern and western Alaska. They’re important for the Alaska Earthquake Center’s ongoing data collection, but West says they’d also be a good first step toward an early warning system.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Housing Conference Gets Underway Monday

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-09-26 18:14

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Two of the country’s foremost experts in the fight against chronic homelessness highlight the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness annual conference, which gets underway Monday in Juneau.

Categories: Alaska News

Biologists Trying to Rescue Orphaned Cubs

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-09-26 18:10



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State Fish and Game biologists are in Galena trying to capture 3 orphaned bear cubs.  The state initiated the effort after the cubs mother was reported killed by a local resident. The state is also working to find the animals a new home.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: September 26, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-09-26 18:07

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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Judge Rules in Favor of State on Merged Campaigns

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

Parnell Asks Military Official To Resign

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN-Anchorage
Weeks after firing the adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard, Gov. Sean Parnell has asked an official at the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to resign.

Small-scale Hydro Project Proposed for Talkeetna River

Phillip Manning, KTNA-Talkeetna
The proposal for a massive hydroelectric project on the Susitna river is moving forward. The project has generated a lot of opposition in Talkeetna, the closest community to the dam site. Now a private company is proposing a second, smaller hydro project on the Talkeetna river.

Seismologist Says It’s Time to Talk About Earthquake Early Warning

Liz Ruskin, APRN-Washington
Thursday’s 6.2 earthquake in Southcentral Alaska struck without warning. Because that’s what earthquakes do here in Alaska. But state seismologist Michael West says now is the time for Alaskans to discuss the possibility of building an earthquake early warning system.

Housing Conference Gets Underway Monday

Casey Kelly, KTOO-Juneau
Two of the country’s foremost experts in the fight against chronic homelessness highlight the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness annual conference, which gets underway Monday in Juneau.

Biologists Trying to Rescue Orphaned Cubs

Dan Bross, KUAC-Fairbanks
State Fish and Game biologists are in Galena trying to capture three orphaned bear cubs.  The state initiated the effort after the cubs mother was reported killed by a local resident.  The state is also working to find the animals a new home.

AK: Learning to Dance

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA-Anchorage
Greg Nothstine didn’t learn traditional Inupiaq dance as a kid growing up in Nome. He was in his 30′s when he started studying the dance traditions of his family elders, who lived in Wales, Alaska. Now his Anchorage dance group is part of a renaissance in Alaska Native traditional dancing.

300 Villages: Coffman Cove

Ashley Snyder, KSKA – Anchorage
This week, we’re heading to Coffman Cove, on the east side of Prince of Wales Island. Heather Hedges works for the city of Coffman Cove.

Categories: Alaska News

300 Villages: Coffman Cove

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-09-26 12:56

This week, we’re heading to Coffman Cove, in Southeast Alaska. Heather Hedges is the tourism coordinator for the city of Coffman Cove.

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Categories: Alaska News

AK: Alaska Native Dancing Tradition

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-09-26 12:11

Greg Nothstine is second from left. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage)

Over the past several decades, there’s been a renaissance in Alaska Native traditional dancing. KNBA’s Joaqlin Estus recently visited with one of the founders of an Inupiaq dance group in Anchorage, who told her about his personal journey toward tradition

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“Hey, I forgot your name. Allison. Allison! Good to see you again.”

Greg Nothstine hesitates to say he’s a dance group leader, but he is a founder of Kingikimiut, which means “people of the high bluff,” after the original name of Wales, a village in northwest Alaska.

King Island is about 45 miles from Wales. Nothstine says long before he thought about forming a dance group, the late Paul Tiulana, of the King Island dance group, would call on him to dance at performances in Anchorage:

“He would look at me and say, ‘Ungwunm. This is a Wales song. You got to claim it. Come out here.’ He said, ‘Anytime you recognize a song from your village,’ – course I didn’t know it was from my village at the time – ‘you’re supposed to come up and claim it. You supposed to dance. That’s protocol. If you don’t claim it, you’ll lose it.’”

Nothstine is named after his grandfather, which in the Inupiaq view means his grandfather’s soul is supporting him, almost as a reincarnation. The family didn’t know where his grandfather was buried, though, until Nothstine was in his early 30s. He says a visit to the grave inspired him. He asked Tiulana if he could practice with the King Island dancers:

“He just smiled at me and he said ‘when I was a boy, we used to travel to your Mom’s village of Wales. And I was maybe two-three years old and I used to get in the bow of the kayak and that was a real fun time for us kids. We’d go to your Mom’s village. We’d go to the Qargi. The women were graceful. The men were real powerful singers and drummers. Wow, that was a real wonderful time. Hey, I bet, you know what, if you go ask those elders who are still alive back in your Mom’s village, maybe they still remember some songs,’” Nothstine said.

More than half the residents of Wales died in the 1918 influenza epidemic, though, so it wasn’t clear how many Wales elders would knew traditional songs. But Nothstine and his mother and a friend traveled there with a borrowed video camera. Enough elders did know songs. The group used the videos to learn, and the group grew. Nothstine vividly remembers their first performance, at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics in Fairbanks some twenty years ago.

(Photo by Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage)

“I was really singing my heart out. My aunt was sitting next to me. And I must have miscued. It’s real easy, youo miscue and you keep singing the other stanza. And she looks to me. She grabs my shoulder and my arm and says real loud, ‘Not. Like. That!’ It’s right in front of everybody. And I’m trying to drum at the same time,” Nothstine said.

He says the group finished their performance as gracefully as they could:

“You have a couple of those experiences, and some people will say ‘never again, never again, never again.’ But we said ‘Okay, well, that’s the price of admission for reclaiming your songs.’ You just have to wade through some of these unknown areas and pitfalls and just keep going,” he said.

Nothstine says Kingikimiiut now regularly performs at different events – they’ll soon perform at an elder’s birthday party. He says he’d like to see dance groups become an even bigger part of community life:

“There were songs that were used to be sung when married couples got married, when someone was successful at a hunt, or built a new boat, or a baby was born, or some significant aspect of life that happened that happened to a whole bunch of people that they wanted to keep in memory, we don’t do that as much anymore,” he said.

(Photo by Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage)

Heidi Senungatuk was a professional violinist with the Anchorage Symphony and other orchestras, and always wanted to learn more about the music of her father’s people, who are from Wales. She’s now a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology. Senungetuk says dance group members enjoy the music, dancing, and sense of community – and are making a statement.

“People are trying to say, ‘We are here. We’re still here. And it’s okay to be who we are,’ rather than what so many people have experienced in Alaska, which is ‘you’re not good enough as a Native person’ or the whole colonial thought, which is, ‘get out of the way, we need your land,’” Senungatuk said.

At the rehearsal, Nothstine told the 30-some participants it was the last practice before his daughter Raven left for college at Dartmouth. He and his mother and his two children danced the seal hunting dance together, a family favorite.

Categories: Alaska News

Fire at Nome Multiplex Injures 2, Displaces at Least 20

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-09-26 09:04

Fire tore through a Nome eight-unit multiplex Thursday night, displacing more than 20 people and gutting the building with flames that refused to subside after more than an hour of active firefighting.

Nome emergency dispatchers say they received calls starting at 7:07 p.m. reporting “black smoke and fire” coming from the apartment at the corner of East 3rd Avenue and Moore Way.

Flames licked the southwest face of the L-shaped multiplex as smoke billowed from the second- and first-story windows. Within minutes the vinyl siding of the southwest face boiled away; a deep black gash belched cinders and smoke on the building’s side.

Brian Volk, a teacher at Nome’s NACTEC technical school, lives in the building with his girlfriend and three children. He said he saw the smoke “around 7:15” and came outside to “group of people already watching.”

Firefighters with the Nome Volunteer Fire Department arrived on scene at 7:10 with five fire trucks, dispatchers said; EMTs with the Nome Volunteer Ambulance Department arrived at 7:16 with two ambulances and within minutes transported two people to Norton Sound Regional Hospital for “minor smoke inhalation,” EMTs on the scene said.

Fire crews did an immediate sweep, evacuating the building with no further injuries as persistent flames leapt toward the roof. Power cables connected to the building crackled in the heat of the fire; dispatchers cut power to the building around 7:25 as crews used a bolt cutter to sever two power lines running from the building.

Firefighters on one truck’s turntable ladder attempted to vent the flames using a chainsaw where the roof met the wall as fire crews with hoses continued to douse the blaze from the building’s western face.

More volunteer firefighters arrived, brining reserve oxygen tanks as fire crews began to enter the building just after 8:03 p.m., but efforts to knock the fire down forced them out again; a half hour later, flames were still visible on the roof.

Just minutes before 9 p.m., flames were no longer visible and firefighters were able to venture inside once again, tossing smoldering debris out of the building’s windows.

The Bering Straits Native Corporation owns the building. Vice President Jerald Brown said at the scene said the building houses families and BSNC employees.

Brian Stockman, manager at the BSNC-owned hotel the Aurora Inn (located mere yards away from the scene of the blaze) said the inn was offering rooms to all who were displaced. As of 9:30 p.m. Stockman said the hotel had opened  10 rooms to house “about 20 to 25 people, including children.”

Though formal donations have not yet been organized, Stockman said donations of clothes and other items for children were welcome. He said the hotel was providing food, diapers, and clothes.

Bethanna Bennett with the Alaska Red Cross in Anchorage said late Thursday night that volunteers were on the scene in Nome, but information on their efforts was unavailable Thursday.

Photos and video: David Dodman, KNOM.

Categories: Alaska News

Parnell Asks Military Official To Resign

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-09-25 19:10

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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