Alaska News

Sullivan Announces New Hires for DC Office

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-12-09 14:52

U.S. Senator-elect Dan Sullivan has chosen Joe Balash as his chief of staff. Balash served in the Parnell Administration as Commissioner of Natural Resources, after Sullivan resigned last year to run for office. Before that he served as Sullivan’s deputy commissioner. He also worked in the Alaska Legislature for nine years, including a stretch as chief of staff to the Senate president. During the governor’s race this fall, Balash published an opinion piece blasting Bill Walker’s record on gas line issues, so there was no chance of him staying on once Walker took office.

Sullivan also announced that Mike Anderson will be his spokesman in Washington, D.C. Anderson was Sullivan’s campaign spokesman and previously worked for Alaska Congressman Don Young and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Another new hire for the D.C. office is DeLynn Henry who will be Sullivan’s scheduling director. She worked as Sen. Ted Stevens’ scheduler and assistant for 23 years.

Categories: Alaska News

State Attorney Killed In Barrow

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-12-09 11:53

A state attorney was shot and killed in Barrow last night.

Deputy Attorney General for the Department of Law’s Criminal Division Rick Svobodny says Brian Sullivan was killed some time before midnight. Barrow police are leading the investigation.

“It’s a progression, doing one thing to another, the information changes so I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about their investigation until they complete it,” he said.

Svobodny confirmed that Sullivan had worked for the state since the spring of 2012. He had been a military attorney for the Army for 10 years previously.

“When I interviewed him actually for a job he was interested in moving to a rural community because he had served in the military overseas in the middle east and enjoyed being in a place with a different culture so he wanted to experience an Alaska Native community and specifically requested to go to Barrow,” Svobodny said.

Svobodny says he was called at midnight. He says the shooting happened around 11 p.m.

“It was after a sporting event at the local school, because I know one the local police officers saw him there so the time frame was around 11,” Svobodny said.

Svobodny said Sullivan was not shot at the school event but he would not confirm where the shooting had taken place.

Svobodny said Sullivan was 49-years-old at the time of his death and was not currently married.

He said he expects a charging document will be out later Tuesday.

Categories: Alaska News

Op Santa Delivers Presents and Attention To Erosion Threats in Shishmaref

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-12-08 20:26

Since most of Operation Santa is funded through donations and volunteer hours, the monetary cost of Saturday’s event was about $2,000. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.

For the last 58 years the National Guard has brought presents and holiday cheer to remote communities across Alaska as part of Operation Santa Clause. But the festivities over this past weekend also draw attention to the serious environmental challenges rural communities are coping with.

Operation Santa Clause is a massive undertaking, requiring months of coordinating to bring dozens of volunteers, military personnel, presents, and ice-cream to communities hundreds of miles from Joint-Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. To do it, they use a C-130, the same plane paratroopers jump out of during war.

The Clauses doled out gifts to around 300 kids from a cargo-load of about 2,500 pounds. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

There is also a small battalion of volunteers who organize the event every year. They got a later-than-normal start usual this year because of the federal budget sequester, and scrutiny of misconduct within the Alaska Army National Guard. But on  Saturday, partners from the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Anchorage businesses helped guardsmen unload 2,500 pounds of donated cargo from the plane’s giant ramp onto a local fleet of sleds and snowmachines at the runway in Shishmaref.

Among the cargo were enough instruments for a small brass band to play traditional Christmas songs inside the school gym as presents were piled atop tables, and bleachers filled with families.

But it wasn’t the only traditional music performed. After an introduction by the principal, a group of young men flanked by children drummed and sang, bringing up a handful of volunteers in Christmas sweaters and soldiers in fatigues during the invitational dance.

Then Santa and Mrs. Clause debuted, posing for photos while their helpers guided kids to the gift tables.

In addition to toys, there were practical items like 1,000 donated backpacks. 

“The backpacks, from a teacher’s point of view, I love it,” said Donna Bennet, standing in her 3rd grade classroom. “It is very windy up here, and when we try to send thing home at the end of the day we want it get home.”

Boys eagerly grabbed at drums after the adults had taken up their own, and took turns drumming and dancing. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.

Beyond material support and good cheer, Bennett believes bringing the focus of so many people all the way to Shishmaref is a crucial aspect of the event.

“It’s exciting to see all of these people coming into Shishmaref so that they know that we’re up here. We’re up here, we do exist, we do have some issues that we need the outside world to see and to hear about, and if there’s help available for different things we do need up here this is growing the awareness,” she explained.

The biggest issue facing Shishamref is the accelerating pace of coastal erosion threatening the thin barrier island it is built on. With climate change delaying freeze up in the Bering and Chukchi seas, the fall storms slamming the region each year present a danger that weighs heavy for many.

“It’s all the villages on the coast that are dealing with this climate change issue,” said Dennis Davis, originally from Kotzebue but who’s lived in Shishmaref for many years. “It is affecting our culture in a big way as we speak now. The ocean isn’t freezing, you start seeing sick sea animals and fish–that’s our way of life.”

In selecting where to bring Op Santa to each year, the organization’s board works with the state’s Office of Emergency Services to identify communities that have been hard-hit. This year’s site choices, Newtok and Shishmaref, highlight that even without a particular disaster climate change is creating serious and on-going hardship for coastal residents. And unlike an earthquake or a flood, there’s no end or rescue in sight. On top of the ice cream sundaes, Davis is glad Santa’s cadre of volunteers helped bring the community’s needs into sharper focus.

“I just wanna say thank you to them for coming out here and taking the time to see our village, and it puts a lot of smiles on a lot of people’s faces,” Davis said. “It’s stuff like this that our people need to get our voices out there, to let everybody know that we have a problem, we’re not always looking for a handout, and we’re a community that’s basically washing away, and there’s a lot of them that are washing away. You know, we need more action.”

Though it’s December, firm sea-ice hasn’t yet formed in the waters surrounding Shishmaref, hampering subsistence activities. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

Organizers are quick to point out that Operation Santa Clause is not a charity, it is a good will event. And Davis thinks that is the right attitude to begin working together with outside partners, both to boost morale and to get to work addressing climate change.






Categories: Alaska News

Elementary students learn an Hour of Code

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-12-08 17:21

Kindergartners and first graders crowded into the Susitna Elementary computer lab Monday morning. But they’re not playing computer games — they’re learning to write them during an Hour of Code.

Kindergartner Addison Perry peers through her glasses at the computer screen. In the corner is a picture of a video game — blocks and grass patches form a maze.

“I’m moving the red bird,” she explains. “I’m moving it to the green pig.”

Addison is using a simplified version of block coding to control the characters from Angry Birds. She pieces together lines of code that say “move forward” or “turn left.” She has to put the codes in the right order to navigate the little red bird around a corner, but she gets frustrated.

A screenshot of the Angry Birds tutorial from an Hour of Code.

“I don’t know which way he should go. I don’t know it’s left or right. It’s not telling me.”

For the next few minutes we talk about left and right and how it changes depending on the direction you face. We count blocks on the screen and Addison decides what order to place the commands. We’re interrupted by another student with a common complaint.

I’ve been “waiting for like two minutes and it’s still not going,” he says when pointing at the white computer screen with a tiny turning wheel. His is not the first to get stuck that day.

“So what we’re going to do is reload the page,” I explain.

The web page is moving very slowly because millions around the world are trying to access it. The students are participating in the Hour of Code, a week-long event that debuted last year from the organization The project uses hour-long tutorials featuring popular characters like the Angry Birds or Elsa and Anna from Frozen to teach students how to code computer programs. More than 52 million people are participating worldwide from 180 countries.

“There’s children in Africa, South America…” teacher Lucinda Eliason Jensen starts to explain. The kids jump in.



“South Dakota!!”

And nearly 100 schools and libraries are participating in Alaska.  Jensen helped coordinate the project for Susitna Elementary in East Anchorage.

“Coding is becoming one of the fastest growing fields in America, and there’s a shortage of programmers right now. So we decided to jump on the boat and get these kids ready.”

Jensen says the program teaches them math skills, geometry, and spatial relationships. And it’s a chance for parents to get involved both in school and at home.

Marnie Kaler is sitting next to her son Katahdin giving pointers.

“Well, wait. He’s moving forward two times,” she says as she points at the screen. “Do you need to turn him?”

Kaler says she was immediately sucked in. ”Super excited. Super excited. Like this is the coolest program ever.”

Kaler says the program teaches about more than just computers.

“I think that having the ability to code will help him go further. I think having that understanding of sequential type problems will help him go further in math and in other subjects.”

Across the room, Addison is finished writing her code. She clicks on “Run” and hears clicks and cheer. She successfully wrote code to move the red bird around two corners to capture the evil green pig.


Categories: Alaska News

Noble Drilling Fined $12.2 Million For 2012 Incidents

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-12-08 17:20

The conical drilling unit Kulluk sits aground on the southeast shore of Sitkalidak Island about 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City in 2012. )Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)

The Alaska U.S. District Attorney’s Office announced Monday that a plea deal has been reached between the federal government and Noble Drilling for incidents involving the drill ship Noble Discoverer and drill barge Kulluk while under contract with Shell Oil during the 2012 arctic drilling season.

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As part of the agreement, Noble Drilling has agreed to plead guilty to eight felony offenses, and will pay $12.2 million in fines, which are a combination of criminal fines and community service payments.

The charges are a result of a U.S. Coast Guard investigation, following an inspection of the Noble Discoverer in Seward. During the investigation, the Coast Guard found a number of maintenance and record-keeping issues.

“For example, oil record book entries for the Noble Discoverer report that the oil water separator, or OWS, was used during periods of time when in fact the OWS was inoperable,” Yvonne Lamoureaux, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, said. “In addition, Noble failed to record that the OWS was inoperable and failed to record that its oil content meter, which is part of that required pollution prevention equipment was also non-functional.”

Lamoureaux also says Noble failed to log numerous transfers and storage of machinery space bilge water and waste oil.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis addresses the media on Dec. 8, 2014. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis says Noble will also be placed on corporate probation for four years.

“They will be under supervision from the United States Probation Office, and during the term of their probation, if they have any other violations of law, they could be subject to having probation revoked, which means that they could have additional fines imposed, charges that may not have been brought in this case could then be brought at a future time,” Feldis said.

Additionally, Noble Drilling will enter into an environmental compliance plan, which Feldis says is meant to ensure incidents of this nature don’t happen again.

“After the investigation began, Noble came to us and notified us of changes that were underway within Noble to, of course, remedy these criminal acts,” Feldis said. “And those have continued and the environmental compliance plan required under this agreement will build upon things that Noble has now been doing since this investigation started.”

In a written statement, Noble Drilling says it has already begun enhancing training programs and compliance policies, as well as mechanical and operational upgrades to the Noble Discoverer.

An independent auditor will review the plan and its implementation.

Categories: Alaska News

DOT Releases Bridge Studies

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-12-08 17:19

 A draft socioeconomic review and traffic forecast for the proposed Knik Arm Crossing project was released today [monday] by a trio of independent consulting firms. Cardno Consulting Services, Agnew -Beck and CDM Smith reported on separate forecasts for different aspects of the project.

The findings were presented at joint meeting of two Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions [AMATS] committees in Anchorage.

 According to Bill Reed, with Cardno Consulting, the bridge, assuming it is built, is not expected to have a strong influence on job growth on the Anchorage side, and only minimal influence on the Mat – Su side

“There’s modest net new growth, that’s created by the bridge, but by and large, it’s much more of… it’s opened up kind of different locational options and business options for different industries. The weight of the evidence is there’s no major change to industry sector employment [in Anchorage] Mat Su Borough, with the bridge, for all years basically, employment is expected to grow but with the bridge, 59,500 jobe, 57,300 without the bridge. But overall, no major dramatic increases in employment.”

 Travel demand projections were based on validation of earlier studies and new updates, according to Hugh Miller, with CDM Smith.

Miller outlined three scenarios: no build, build/no toll, and build with toll, and the projected effect on traffic patterns through 2060. That data was used, in part to determine projected toll revenues.

“We use the models to see what happens with different toll rates. So we tried from a dollar to nine dollars. It behaves the way you would expect it to. As price goes up, traffic goes down. As the toll goes up, the revenue goes up, but at a decreasing rate. You can have too high a toll.”

Miller’s presentation showed six point eight million dollars in toll revenues for the year 2019.. that’s the first year the bridge would be in operation. The tolls would be five dollars each way for a passenger car, and would total about 167 point 7 million by 2045, according to the findings.The traffic and toll increases over the years would be based on growth at Point MacKenzie, closest to the Mat Su side of the bridge, since the only alternative for drivers from that area would be the Glenn Highway

The data presented at the meeting is on the state transportation department website. No action was taken at the informational meeting. The reports were funded by the state of Alaska.


Categories: Alaska News

Review Focuses On Socioeconomic Aspects Of Proposed Knik Arm Crossing

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-12-08 17:19

A draft socioeconomic review and traffic forecast for the proposed Knik Arm Crossing project was released Monday by a trio of independent consulting firms.

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Categories: Alaska News

Skier Dies In Alaska Range Avalanche

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-12-08 17:18

A local skier was killed in an avalanche in the Alaska Range over the weekend. The incident happened Saturday evening near Isabel Pass.

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Categories: Alaska News

Fishermen Debate Merits of Possible Southeast Mine

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-12-08 17:17

The Klehini River valley near the Palmer Project north of Haines. (Photo by John S. Hagen)

A Canadian company is exploring copper and zinc deposits at the Palmer Project site north of Haines. It’s not even a proposed project yet – but it’s is already dividing the community of Haines. One group having a hard time forming consensus on the issue is the commercial fishing fleet in the Northern Lynn Canal.

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Vancouver-based Constantine Metal Resources has found promising deposits at the Palmer site in the last few years and joined forces with a Japanese investing company.

The site is about 40 miles north of Haines, near the Canadian border and the Klehini River, which drains into the Chilkat River. The recent developments have people in Haines staking out positions on whether a future mining operation would benefit or hurt the community.

The Lynn Canal Gillnetters is an organized group that met recently in a closed meeting to discuss its position on the Palmer Project. It did not come to an agreement. Fisherman Norm Hughes was at the meeting.

“We were split down the fence like most issues in the Chilkat Valley, whether it’s fishermen talking about specific issues or it’s the community talking about issues. I’d like to hear more from the mine,” Hughes said.

Will Prisciandaro attend the meeting. He belongs to the Lynn Canal Gillnetters and is also the Haines representative on the board for United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters or USAG. He opposes having a mine near the Chilkat River because of potential effects on the watershed and salmon habitat. However, he thinks if the company keeps finding promising deposits, the mine will move ahead anyway. He says fishermen need to watch the project’s progression, even if it’s not yet in the permitting phase for a mining operation so that they don’t miss the opportunity to express their opposition and concerns.

“I don’t believe it’s too early to start talking about it,” Prisciandaro said. “There are not as many permits being applied for right now because it’s in the exploration phase, not a development or mining phase. But it’s definitely something we should keep an eye on.”

Bill Thomas is a long-time Haines fisherman and was also at the recent meeting. He’s less concerned about a potential mine at this stage of the process when there’s so few details about what that operation would look like.

“You know, Chicken Little is still alive,” Thomas said. “We can’t react to something we don’t know about.”

He says talk about acidic runoff or tailing damn breaches – like the recent Mount Polly disaster in British Columbia – aren’t relevant at this stage and only create fear. Alaska and U.S. environmental regulations are not like Canadian mining regulations, he says.

“People try to compare us with the Canadians,” Thomas said. “Wrong. Canadians are less stringent on their restrictions. We’re very strict.”

Prisciandaro says even if some fishermen support the development of a mine, he would think they would want to advocate for the protection and safety of the watershed and salmon for the area’s biggest source of income – commercial fishing. Haines has nearly 180 skippers and crew who commercial fish. The industry landed $11.5 million in seafood in Haines in 2012 and that meant about $326,000 in fish tax to the borough.

Prisciandaro says if the Palmer Project becomes a mining operation, he wants fishermen to have input in the design.

“We want to get them to consider the best interest of the fish and valley, to protect water quality and use best management practices to limit any impacts if the mine does go forward, Prisciandaro said.

Thomas, meanwhile says as resources extractor themselves, fishermen shouldn’t squeeze out other industries, especially one that promises local jobs.

“We don’t want to be labeled as against other people to extract what they think is right,” Thomas said. “We get to extract salmon and we sometimes over harvest and we don’t get criticized for it when they don’t meet their escapement goals. We have more impact on the resource than some resources extractors like logging or mining or what. So that’s why I’m just going to sit back and see what happens.”

The struggle to either welcome or oppose an incoming industry isn’t new for small communities, says Meredith Pochardt. She’s the executive director of the local Takshanuk Watershed Council. The council does not have a stance on the Palmer Project, but she says it’s a discussion that the entire community is going to have to have at some point, if the project keeps developing.

“As a community, whenever you’re looking at any development potential it doesn’t really matter what it is, it’s important to look at the social, economic and environmental impacts and both sides of that positive, negative, what it will actually means for the community to have this proposed development,” Pochardt. “And with fish it fits all three of those.”

Prisciandaro says if Lynn Canal Gillnetters is able to come to an agreement on a stance about the Palmer Project, USAG will also likely weigh in. The issue is on the agenda for discussion at the next USAG board meeting. Other state fishing organizations may also become involved, if the local fishing fleet takes a stand either way and asks for support as the project continues to move toward development.

Categories: Alaska News

Nine Months In, Orthodox Bishop Takes Stock

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-12-08 17:16

Bishop David of Alaska visited Sitka for St. Michael’s Feast Day in November, 2014. (KCAW photo/Rachel Waldholz)

When David Mahaffey was installed as the Orthodox Bishop of Alaska in a a ceremony in Sitka this past February, he became the 16th leader of America’s oldest Orthodox diocese.

Bishop David has now been on the job for nine months. He returned to Sitka this fall.

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Under the Julian calendar, St. Michael’s Feast falls in late November. It was a natural time to return to Sitka, and to St. Michael’s Cathedral, where David Mahaffey became Bishop David of Alaska last spring.

But traveling is nothing unusual for this bishop. He leaves his Anchorage home almost every weekend to visit his far-flung flock.

“We go back to the words spoken by, many many years ago in the early church by St. Ignatius of Antioch,” he said. “‘Where the bishop is, there is the Church.’”

In Alaska, that can be uniquely difficult.

“There’s three challenges in Alaska: distance, distance and distance,” he said. “And did I mention, distance is a challenge.”

Bishop David served as administrator of the diocese for about year before being installed in his new role. He says that for the most part, his job is simply continuing what the church has always done.

“By and large, for me, anyway, the Diocese of Alaska is very much a very traditional, well-oiled Orthodox machine,” he said. “The bishop just has to take his hand on the tiller and keep it in the right direction.”

But he would like to see the Orthodox Church play a larger role in dealing with some of the big issues facing Alaska, including the state’s high rates of suicide, alcoholism and domestic violence.

“We have to be here for the needs of the people,” he said. “I can’t be saved without you, and you can’t be saved without me…that is an underlying principle of everything we do as Orthodox Christians. We understand that  we need to bring our neighbor along with us if we are going to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We can’t do it alone.”

The bishop said he thinks the Orthodox perspective has something to add to traditional clinical approaches when it comes to issues like addiction or depression.

“In Orthodoxy, we don’t look at people, we never like to use the word ‘individual,’” he said. “It isolates you, it makes you nobody but yourself.”

That sense of community is one piece of it. Another is a sense of purpose.

“The role of the Church is to show the person, God made you for a reason, and you might have to spend your whole life figuring out what that is,” he said. “Do you think that I, 20, 30 years ago, if someone would have said to me, you know someday you’re going to be the bishop in Alaska, I would have laughed at you. Because I’m from Pennsylvania, and I liked Pennsylvania just fine, but this is what I felt called to do…”

“And so my goal is always to find that person, and help direct them, to say to them, you have a purpose in life, and  your job, if you will,  is to find out what that is.”

As for Bishop David himself, he says that though his calling was unexpected, so far it suits him. As an east coaster transplanted to the last frontier, he’s surprised by how much time he spends on planes, and how little in cars; he’s learned never to schedule distant events back to back in case the weather intervenes. And he’s learning to recognize the different tunes used for hymns in Alaska’s distinct regions.

But, he says, at the end of the day, orthodoxy, is, well, orthodox, no matter where you go.

“Same liturgy,” he said. “Done in Russia, done in the Middle East…and of course, here in Alaska.”

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: December 8, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-12-08 17:15

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

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Noble Drilling Fined $12.2 Million For 2012 Incidents

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

The Alaska U.S. District Attorney’s Office announced Monday that a plea deal has been reached between the federal government and Noble Drilling for incidents involving the drill ship Noble Discoverer and drill barge Kulluk while under contract with Shell Oil during the 2012 Arctic drilling season.

Review Focuses On Socioeconomic Aspects Of Proposed Knik Arm Crossing

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

A draft socioeconomic review and traffic forecast for the proposed Knik Arm Crossing project was released Monday by a trio of independent consulting firms.

Alaskans March In Anchorage To Support Justice For All

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The shooting and choking deaths of unarmed black men that ended with no charges for the officers involved has ignited anger across the country over justice and fair treatment for all people. And in Anchorage on Saturday, a large group of residents took part in a march sponsored by the NAACP youth council that had a decidedly peaceful and hopeful tone.

Skier Dies In Alaska Range Avalanche

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

A local skier was killed in an avalanche in the Alaska Range over the weekend. The incident happened Saturday evening near Isabel Pass.

Fishermen Debate Merits of Possible Southeast Mine

Margaret Friedenauer, KHNS – Haines

A Canadian company is exploring copper and zinc deposits at the Palmer Project site north of Haines. It’s not even a proposed project yet – but it’s is already dividing the community of Haines. One group having a hard time forming consensus on the issue is the commercial fishing fleet in the Northern Lynn Canal.

Nine Months In, Orthodox Bishop Takes Stock

Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka

When David Mahaffey was installed as the Orthodox Bishop of Alaska in a ceremony in Sitka this past February, he became the 16th leader of America’s oldest Orthodox diocese.

Bishop David has now been on the job for nine months. He returned to Sitka this fall.

Operation Santa Claus Draws Attention To Rural Alaska’s Environmental Challenges

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

For the last 58 years, the National Guard has brought presents and holiday cheer to remote communities across Alaska as part of Operation Santa Claus. But, the festivities over the weekend also draw attention to the serious environmental challenges rural communities are coping with.


Categories: Alaska News

FAA Proposes Nome Beacon Decommissioning

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-12-08 11:45

The Federal Aviation Administration is conducting a study on a navigational beacon at the Nome Airport, with the intention of decommissioning the technology.

The beacon – dubbed the “Gold” non-directional beacon, in a nod to Nome’s gold rush past – is a radio transmitter that provides a bearing for pilots flying into Nome.

According to the FAA, the major reason behind the study – and the proposed decommissioning – is that the technology is outdated.

Dale Richards with the FAA’s Western Service Center says newer GPS technology provides a more accurate picture for pilots than older radio beacons. He also explains that decommissioning the “Gold” beacon in Nome will have little to no impact on airport operations – as there are already several newer navigation tools in place.

However, the FAA is still seeking public comment on the proposal. Comments must be submitted before December 31.

Categories: Alaska News

Nome Schools Superintendent Steve Gast Resigns

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-12-08 11:44

ast will depart Nome at the end of this semester—December 31. (Photo by Jenn Ruckel, KNOM – Nome)

Hopes of calmly winding down the fall semester have now been dashed, as the Nome Board of Education is about to get busy searching for a new superintendent.

Steve Gast’s letter of resignation was officially submitted—and accepted—by the Nome School Board at last night’s regular meeting. With what he called “mixed emotions,” Gast thanked the board and the community of Nome.

“It is a very bittersweet time. But some things happen, as we know, that you can’t change and when it centers around family, you just have to make some hard decisions, and that’s what I had to do,” said Gast. “I want to publicly thank not just the board, but this [community]. This is a wonderful, wonderful community. There are a lot of sweet and wonderful people and some awesome kids, and I’ve been blessed to have at least four and a half years of being involved with them, and I thank you very, very much for that.”

Returning from a half-hour executive session amid the public board meeting, members unanimously voted to approve Gast’s resignation, effective December 31—each member expressing appreciation for his work and disappointment seeing him leave the district.

But with only about two weeks before semester’s end, President Betsy Brennan said they’ll have to act fast to appoint an interim superintendent before eventually conducting a full search.

“I think we find an interim, somebody to steer the ship for a shorter period of time, and then decide: do we want to do a full-out search? Do we have candidates internally? And then go from there,” said Brennan.

December 15 will be the tentative deadline for internal district staff to express interest in the position. Pulling from within is preferable but demanding, since staff are already stretched thin. Alternatively, the Association of Alaska School Boards can step in to conduct a statewide search.

Brennan said they’ll just have to buckle down to make the switch as smooth as possible. “This will be a transition time but I am confident that our staff can handle this and as a board, we’ll get working!”

In more routine matters at last night’s meeting, the board recognized the Bering Sea Lions Club for their donation toward Nome Schools’ child nutrition program. And celebration of this monetary stimulus was juxtaposed with what could become future financial hurdles: an increasingly bleak outlook on state finances—discussed at last week’s City Council meeting—could spell trouble for educational funding. That, paired with the Superior Court ruling in Ketchikan that Alaskan cities (like Nome) are no longer required to help pay for public education.

There’s no immediate concern for Nome Public Schools, but Gast said those rumblings should “put a shudder through everybody” while deciding how to spend responsibly for the future. Meanwhile, Nome Schools’ state funding budget for this year is based on a population of 700 students. And with enrollment dropping just slightly further than planned, Business Manager Paula Coffman says money might get a little tighter.

And not just for the sake of budgeting, the board wants to explore that enrollment decline. One way was suggested by Barb Amarok.

“I would like to see the school some time connect with the families who sent their children to Mt. Edgecombe High School. I think at one point this year there were 26 Nome children who had left our district and I think we need to address the reasons why,” said Amarok.

Another board meeting will likely be scheduled in December to discuss filling the interim superintendent position.

Categories: Alaska News

Troopers Say Skier Dead in Alaska Avalanche

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-12-08 10:06

Alaska State Troopers say a man died after being caught in an avalanche while skiing.

Troopers say the victim of the avalanche that was reported Saturday evening is tentatively identified as 35-year-old Eric Peterson of Delta Junction.

Troopers say 63-year-old Michael Hopper was skiing with Peterson when they were caught in the avalanche in the Rainbow Mountains near the Richardson Highway.

Hopper told authorities it took him 2-to-3 hours to dig himself out and once he was free, he found Peterson’s glove. He then dug into the snow and found Peterson dead.

According to troopers, Hopper flagged down a passing motorist on the highway and contacted troopers.

Troopers were among responders to the scene, where conditions are unstable with heavy snow.

Conditions will be evaluated before a body recovery is attempted.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaskans March In Anchorage To Support Justice For All

APRN Alaska News - Sat, 2014-12-06 19:44

Supporters of justice for all march through downtown Anchorage

Carrying signs and chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “Black lives matter” a crowd of more than 150 Alaskans marched peacefully through downtown Anchorage Saturday afternoon to draw attention to issues of racial inequality and justice, after the shooting of an unarmed black man in Missouri and the choking death of another black man in New York ended with no charges for the officers involved.

Alaskans march for justice in downtown Anchorage

The group of racially diverse Alaskans left from the parking lot of the NAACP offices around 2:15 Saturday afternoon. The crowd, filling the sidewalk and spread out for more than a block chanted in time to a drum carried by Anchorage resident Cal Williams and waved to drivers who honked, waved and occasionally cheered out their vehicle windows. The group ended up back at the NACCP office parking lot, where hot chocolate was offered to ward off the afternoon chill.

Supporters of justice for all people gather in the NAACP parking lot after a march through downtown Anchorage

Alaskans march peacefully through downtown Anchorage on Saturday afternoon to support equal justice for all.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage DJ Held on $25,000 Bail for Child Pornography Charges

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-12-05 18:20

The state’s request for a $25,000 bail is high, and comes with additional conditions. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.

An Anchorage DJ is charged with five felony counts related to child pornography. The case highlights Alaska law enforcement’s push to keep up with cyber crimes in a rapidly evolving digital environment.

At a pre-trial arraignment Friday in Anchorage, James Laplante, who goes by “Jimmy O’Brien” on his KASH 107.5 FM morning show, a judge reviewed charges connected with possession and distribution of sexually explicit images, as well as enticement of a minor.

According to charging documents filed by the State Department of Law, officers with the Anchorage Police Department’s Cyber Crimes division received two tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children about possible activity in the Anchorage area. Following the reports, APD eventually requested warrants to search online services Instagram, Gmail, and KIK–a messenger app–connected to Laplante, as well as IP addresses registered with both his home and work. The state District Attorney’s Office claims more than 1,000 explicit images were also found on an external hard-drive, and that during an interview with law enforcement after his DJ shift, Laplante admitted to storing images on his iPhone 6 Plus and work computer.

In the last 15 years the department’s cyber crimes division has had to become more proactive, said Glen Klinkhart, a retired Anchorage detective who now runs a digital consulting firm.

“APD started leading the forefront here in Alaska to go out there and do these cases,” Klinkhart explained, “whether it’s file sharing of child pornography, or online enticement .”

Finding evidence in online trafficking cases is time consuming. Encryption and constantly changing distribution practices make child pornography a moving target for officials to combat. And given the number of crimes against minors in Alaska, agencies have had to be strategic in picking where and  how to intervene.

“We have a terrible amount of child abuse in the state,” said Klinkhard. “You mix that with technology, and it’s not uncommon that we have so many of these particular cases that come up. It’s a mile wide and a mile deep, and we can only work so much. It’s a target-rich environment, is what we say.”

Bail was set at $25,000 for Laplante, along with conditions that he have no contact with any jueveniles, or use any device that can connect to the internet. His next court appearance is on Tuesday in Anchorage.


Categories: Alaska News

Fire Destroys Kivalina’s Only Store

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-12-05 17:06

A fire destroyed Kivalina’s only store early Friday morning, leaving the Northwest Alaska village of 400 without all the food and supplies that were stored there.

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Colleen Swan with Kivalina’s volunteer fire department says she got the call around 1 o’clock this morning, but when firefighters arrived, the blaze had already engulfed the roof. Nothing could be done to save the store, so responders focused on preventing the fire from spreading to nearby buildings. Troopers are traveling to Kivalina to investigate the cause.

One volunteer firefighter was medevaced after being sprayed with flame retardant, but has since returned home uninjured.

Swan says the village’s entire stock of food and supplies was destroyed, though hardware and non-food items stored separately in a warehouse were not damaged.

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Schools To Replace Controversial Texts With Local History

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-12-05 17:03

Juneau Schools Superintendent Mark Miller reads his decision in the company of three guests – Marcelo Quinto, Charlotte McConnell and Katherine Hope – who attended Native boarding schools as children. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Juneau Schools Superintendent Mark Miller says the district will remove four controversial readers from the elementary school language arts curriculum. He announced his decision at a press conference Thursday at the Zach Gordon Youth Center.

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Back in August, community members raised concerns about texts depicting Alaska Native and Native American tragedies. The readers were called distorted, inaccurate and insensitive. A district committee reviewed the curriculum materials and voted 7-2 to remove them from classrooms.

Superintendent Mark Miller didn’t announce his decision alone – he brought along three Native elders who had all attended Native boarding schools.

Charlotte McConnell was 7 when her mother died and her father sent her and her siblings to boarding school.

She was told by her aunt, “‘You can’t speak no Tlingit, you got to speak English, you’re going to school.’ And so that’s where I got understanding English only.”

McConnell attended schools in Juneau, Seward, Wrangell and Sitka.

The loss of cultural identity at Native boarding schools is one of the experiences depicted in the McGraw-Hill Reading Wonders curriculum. Others were the Trail of Tears and the excavation of Native burial grounds.

Miller says the readers don’t meet the needs of Juneau students, but he thinks it’s positive the curriculum includes instructional time for understanding Native experiences.

“I am calling on the community to come together with the school district to document and tell your truth. Come into our classrooms. Help us teach our children about our local history,” Miller says.

Most copies of the readers will be returned to the publisher, he says, and replaced with materials developed by the district in collaboration with Goldbelt Heritage Foundation and Sealaska Heritage Institute. A few copies will be kept at the district office for students who wish to read them.

He says understanding culture and race is an important part of any student’s education.

“Whether in Ferguson, Mo., Juneau, Alaska, or anywhere in between, difficult conversations and debates need to occur. We are all products of both our own personal experiences as well as those of our ancestors. Academic institutes, by their very nature, are an important forum in which to have these conversations and debates,” Miller says.

Paul Berg is a curriculum developer and cultural specialist at Goldbelt Heritage Foundation. His report on the readers was the formal complaint that led to their removal. He said the texts misrepresented the historical reality and marginalized the experiences of the victims. Berg is pleased with Miller’s decision.

“It’s an opportunity to confront some uncomfortable historical facts and historical realities and it’s an opportunity to bring about healing, healing within the Native community but also within the non-Native community,” Berg says.

Freda Westman is Grand President of theAlaska Native Sisterhood. For her, the decision was the only one Miller could’ve made.

“This was not a Native issue; it was an issue for all children. All Alaskans want their children to be educated correctly and be given the information no matter what, but it depicts it truthfully. That’s what history is about,” Westman says.

She’s grateful for all the community members – Native and non-Native – who came together to make sure the materials were removed.

“We have been fighting these battles for a long time. Over 40 years, I’ve been doing this,” Westman says.

She hopes the district and the Alaska Native community will work together more closely from now on.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Juneau School District will be working with Sealaska to develop replacement materials. The district will be working with Sealaska Heritage Institute. 

Categories: Alaska News

Land Conservation Project Preserves Over 1,000 Acres Of Eklutna Land

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-12-05 17:02

Eklutna, Inc. and the Greatland Trust have partnered on a land conservation project that will preserve over 1,000 acres of Eklunta, Inc. owned land for subsistence use.

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The land is a prime area for hunting, berry picking and fishing and contains high quality salmon and migratory bird habitat.

Eklutna CEO Curtis McQueen says the deal helps balance growth and development in the Valley with land conservation and cultural values. He says the land is “conserved for future generations of Eklutna people.”

The lands will remain under Eklutna Inc. ownership for use by shareholders, but public recreation access through permits will continue. Phil Shepherd is executive director of the Greatland Trust.

“We’ve been working with Eklutna four years now on a number of projects throughout their holdings, and they are voluntary agreements that place their lands in conservation status,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd says the conservation agreement, although voluntary, is a legal agreement between a landowner and the land trust that permanently restricts future development and subdivision on the lands.

“The funding comes from a variety of sources, grant funding, and we also get funding from wetland mitigation,” Shepherd said. “We pool all those funds together and use the funds to purchase the conservation easement and then put together a land management fund.”

Shepherd says the land management fund is accessible to both Eklutna and the Trust.

Categories: Alaska News

Santa Steers Blackhawk Sleigh to Newtok

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-12-05 17:01

Operation Santa Claus traveled to Newtok, AK on December 4, 2014. (Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK)

Christmas is still three weeks out, but Santa Claus made an early visit to Newtok Thursday with the help of the Alaska Army and Air National Guard.

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The explanations for why Santa is on a different schedule range from needing reindeer rest to a new global delivery scheme, but in any case he’s with the Alaska Army National Guard as they launch a Blackhawk helicopter loaded with presents to Newtok. 45 minutes later, the payload for Operation Santa Claus is here.

The community of nearly 400 located west of Bethel and is eroding into the Ningaluk River, but for the students lined up in the school gym there was only one thing that matters. The kids chanted “Santa! Santa!”
A long line of kids waited to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus and get a present. Grant Kashatok, the Newtok Principal, explains the excitement’s been building for weeks, but not without some pause.

“We have a lot of skeptics out there. A lot of them are going to say ‘Are you for real?’ That kind of thing,” said Kashatok

Indeed, six year old Nevaeh George and her classmates had a few questions.

“We’re thinking it’s fake,” said George.

That fact may not be confirmed until closer to Christmas. Dina Banez, co-chair of the Operation Santa Claus Board, says the event is only possible with the support of a long list of businesses and non-profits, presumably run by elves.

“Every child from kindergarten to high school, will get a backpack. Inside are school supplies; papers, pens, highlighters, a water bottle, some trinkets along the way,” said Banez.

Plus the presents, and new books. To top it off, Rich Owens, the self-described Chief Ice Cream Tester for Tastee Freez in Anchorage is dishing out ice cream Sundays.

“It’s been intense, it’s been great. We’ve whipped out about 240 in 40 minutes,” said Owens.

The partnership between the Guard and Santa has been going for 58 years. In 1956, St. Marys was the first community to receive a boost from the Alaska Air National Guard. Brigadier General Tim O’Brien is the Commander of the Alaska Air National Guard.

“We have armories in almost all of the outlaying communities across the state. And we’re always looking for more goods folks. But there are your neighbors, these are your friends and neighbors,” said O’Brien.

Monica Kasayuli sat in the bleachers and enjoyed the afternoon with her kids.

“This is the happiest of their lives,” said Kasayuli.

The ice cream and presents are no doubt real. But is Santa in three weeks early? After most of the town had already sat down with Santa this reporter approached Mrs. Claus and her husband on behalf of the curious students.

“Just take your hand right here, shake his hand. What’s that feel like? Is that real?”, she asked. “And his heart’s as big as they come,” said Claus.

Shishmaref was also slated for a visit from Operation Santa Claus this weekend.

Categories: Alaska News