Alaska News

Iron Dog Racers Depart Nome

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:30

Early Thursday, pairs of snow machines began zipping out of Nome to continue the second leg of the 2014 Iron Dog Snow Machine Race.

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Nome is the halfway mark of the 2,031-mile Iron Dog, known as the longest, toughest snow machine race in the world.

First to leave at exactly 8 a.m. this morning was team number 10, Chris Olds and Nome’s own Mike Morgan. Teams were heading out of town throughout the day based on their arrival and wrench times.

Thirty-one of the original 38 teams made it to Nome. This year was predicted to be on of the toughest races on record with open water and areas of no snow. Kevin Kastner, Iron Dog Executive Director, says the hype concerning this year’s rough conditions actually worked to the competitors’ advantage. The concern upped the racers’ caution, keeping most of them in the race.

“Really, the caution and all the concern, I think, in the end allowed most of these teams to get to Nome,” Kastner said. “Was the fact that they were so worried, were so cautious, there was so much hype, they throttled back just a little bit and I think that’s what allowed them to actually survive to this point.”

Kastner says though there’s no typical Iron Dog, on average one-third or more of the racers do not make it to Nome. This year beat those odds. And though only half-way through the race, Kastner says already it’s one of the better Iron Dog’s he’s seen.

“Given the rough conditions, given the caution, given the number of competitors and strong teams and the relatively minimal damage that we’ve seen, by all accounts it’s a great race this year,” Kastner said. “And it’s clean. The sportsmanship is fantastic. I think it’s one of our better years even though it’s a tough one.”

So far 28 teams remain in the running. 10 teams have scratched. And only one will finish first in Fairbanks on Saturday.

Categories: Alaska News

First Section Of Denali National Park Road Remains Open

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:29

The first section of the road into Denali National Park is open. The 90-mile road is usually closed beyond the park entrance area during the winter, but as of this past weekend, it’s being kept plowed to mile 12 at the Mountain Vista rest area.

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Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Police Nab $400K In Drugs

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:28

A California man faces federal charges after Anchorage police arrested him trying to retrieve cocaine and heroin that had been shipped to a motel.

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Twenty-seven-year-old Markee Allen is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Anchorage on Friday on drug possession and distribution charges.

Police say employees at the downtown Motel 6 called, saying Allen had boxes delivered after he checked out Wednesday. Federal charging documents say Allen checked back into the motel and tried to retrieve the packages.

Officers contacted him, and canine units indicated the packages held drugs. Police got a search warrant for the packages, and say they found a kilogram of cocaine and a half-kilogram of heroin.

Police say it has a street value of $400,000.

Categories: Alaska News

Trial Delayed In Coast Guard Shooting Case

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:27

The trial of a Kodiak man charged in the fatal shooting of two men at a Coast Guard station has been postponed.

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James Wells’ trial was to have started Monday, but has been postponed until March 31.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis says the trial in Anchorage will likely take several weeks.

Federal prosecutors will not seek the death penalty if Wells is convicted.

Wells is charged in the shootings of Coast Guardsmen Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins and retired Chief Petty Officer Richard Belisle in April 2012.

The 62-year-old Wells faces six felony charges: two counts each of first-degree murder, murder of a U.S. officer and use of a firearm in a violent crime. He has pleaded innocent to all the charges.

Categories: Alaska News

Salty Dog Rally Swaggers To Southeast This Summer

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:26

The Salty Dog yacht rally is coming to Alaska this summer. Wrangell is the official end point of the rally and will be the hub of boats and merriment for four days in June.

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Former commercial fisherman and Salty Dog Rally Alaska founder Dawny Pack says this event is a long time coming.

“This is Dawny, aka Naknek Sea gal, and it’s a 15 years plus dream. All my years out of Southside, Naknek, Bristol Bay, Egegik, Clark’s Point and running downhill, we always loved breezing by Wrangell and the great, fabulous Wrangell Narrows. Since I’ve converted, about 18 years ago, to the yachting white boat from commercial, it’s been a dream to get all these yahoos to come up to Alaska,” Pack said.

Pack says yachters from around North America will join together for this epic trip up the Inside Passage.

And by around North America, she means—around—North America.

“Oh my gosh. God only knows, because they’re boats. They go around the world everywhere, right? So, we’ve got Florida, some in Mexico, some in California, Oregon, Washington…one guy is in New York. So, he needs to hurry up and get around. He’ll come over on either Seven Star or United Yacht Transport—one of the transport companies out of Fort Lauderdale over to Vancouver. So, they’ll just cruise through the Panama Canal and just flop over here,” Pack said.

All the boats will…flop up to Seattle, where the rally begins on June fourth.

From there, the group will head up the Northwest coast, stopping in Anacortes, Sidney, False Bay, Campbell River, Port McNeill, Cape Caution, Bella Bella, Green Inlet and Prince Rupert.

The rallyers will first set foot on Alaskan soil two weeks later in Ketchikan on June 15.

Then, they’ll bring their boats and, Pack says, their personalities to Wrangell, arriving two days later.

Wrangell is the official end point of the rally. But—just the beginning of the festivities, according to Wrangell’s Economic Development Director Carol Rushmore.

“So, we’re working with the tribe to do a Chief Shakes tribal house tour and performance, and then also do a traditional foods dinner. So hopefully that will work out. There’s going to be a golf tournament with a barbeque dinner and some entertainment offered. The charter guys will be offering different types of tour trips and we’ll get them signed up for some of those things. Bonnie Demerjian has offered to lead a bird walk. There are some other activities that we’re looking at trying to do spaced throughout the four days that they’re going to be here,” Rushmore said.

Rumor has it there’s also a poker night and pub crawl in the works.

With about 16 boats already registered for the rally and hopefully double that as the final count, that’s gonna be lot of people visiting these small communities looking for good times and good memories. And that’s good for Wrangell’s economy.

Carol Rushmore says the cost of the special activities are either being donated or paid for by the yachters themselves.

“So, it’s providing us a great deal of recognition in other parts of the country, through the yachting community itself about what we’ll have to offer here and what we’ll be able to provide. Plus they will be here for over a four-day period, visiting downtown, taking tours, doing the things that visitors do while they’re here,” Rushmore said.

Chamber of Commerce office manager Cyni Waddington says she hopes the rallyers will support local businesses while they are in town.

“The Chamber is one of the sponsors for the event because we’re hoping that having all these people come to town will promote our economy,” Waddington said.

She says it’s good timing for the rally as fourth of July prep will be in full swing, with food booths, activities, and of course, royalty raffle tickets.

Rally founder Dawny Pack says that’s why she chose Wrangell for the big party.

In exchange for being a welcoming community, she hopes the rally will bring money and recognition.

“The town has just been so supportive so we’re very happy to breeze by and make Wrangell our official hub. There’s a lot of boots on the ground, a ton of support, a ton of encouragement in the lower 48 and through Southeast Alaska, and it’s just been a long, long dream that’s finally coming to fruition,” Pack said.

So, put your sea legs on, the Salty Dog Rally Alaska arrives in Wrangell on June 17.

There will be an optional extra salty leg to Petersburg and Juneau from the 21st to the 24th for those who want to keep on yachting.

For more information or to enter a yacht, go to saltydograllyalaska.com.

Categories: Alaska News

U-Med Access Route Design Dependent On Wetlands Permits

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 17:52

A poster delineates the wetlands throughout the U-Med area. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

Earlier this week DOWL HKM engineering and the Alaska Department of Transportation held an open house at East High School, presenting the preferred U-Med Access route.

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The new road is the most direct and would connect Elmore to Bragaw near the western edge of the Alaska Pacific University campus, bordering the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Stewart Osgood is the president of DOWL HKM. He says now that the alignment is selected, the firm will submit an application to the Army Corps of Engineers to get a permit to fill in the wetlands the road will go through.

“We typically classify wetlands into relative ecological values,” Osgood said. “And so, working with the Corps, we’ll identify the wetlands that are the most valuable, avoid them and try to stay on uplands or on lower-quality wetlands with our alignment.”

The chosen route has $1 million set aside for environmental mitigation – which is the largest amount of the four potential routes. Osgood says those funds could be used on a variety of things during the construction and design process.

A poster outlines the preliminary cost estimates for each road option. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

“The mitigation number that we have here is to both change the alignment of the roadway, potentially to bridge over small sections of wetlands, and also to, in the end, if we are unable to avoid wetlands, we pay into fee in lieu of mitigation, into a wetlands bank that allows land to be purchased elsewhere that can go into conservation easements or some sort of trust to allow them to be preserved forever,” Osgood said.

A number of residents attended the meeting and voiced their dissent that the road would proceed without adequately considering the effect it could have on surrounding areas.

“We believe that before any construction is done whatsoever, that it’s imperative that the public know the true cost, the true total cost, and that includes the social, the environmental, the safety costs – period,” Dr. Peter Mjos, a past president of the Rogers Park Community Council, said.

He said residents have had limited opportunities for discussion and input since the legislature approved funding for the road last year.

“We’ve been placed in a position where we must simply look at mitigation efforts, and we are not comfortable with that,” Mjos said.

If the company is successful in securing permits needed for the wetlands area, work on the road could begin within a year. DOWL HKM expects the road to open in late 2015.

Categories: Alaska News

Geese in Petroleum Reserve Find New Habitat Amid Melting Sea Ice

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 11:18

The U.S. Geological Survey says melting Beaufort sea ice is creating new habitat for geese on the North Slope. That could have implications for conservation inside the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

For animals that live on Arctic ice, like polar bears and walruses, rising sea temperatures usually mean a disappearing home.

Black brant geese molt on the North Slope’s Teshekpuk Lake. Photo by Tyler Lewis, USGS.

But John Pearce, a biologist for the US Geological Survey in Anchorage, says that’s not always the case.

“We really don’t know how all the different species of wildlife are going to respond to changes in the Arctic as a result of warming climates and diminishing sea ice,” he says. “But folks often say there’s likely going to be winners and losers.”

The winners in this round: black brant geese. They spend their winters on the Pacific coast and in the Aleutian Islands, and summer in the high Arctic.

On the North Slope, the brant frequents inland waters like Teshekpuk Lake, which feeds a wetlands system in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

A year ago, the Bureau of Land Management put together its first-ever unified plan for managing both wildlife and resources in the petroleum reserve. They drew a line around the Teshekpuk area and closed most of it to oil and gas development.

Some of it is technically open, but the BLM wouldn’t lease it without extra consideration for the waterfowl and caribou that live there.

In the meantime, the U.S. Geological Survey is watching to see how animals are using the wetlands. And John Pearce, their biologist, says he’s noticed changes.

Black brant are now flocking to a part of the Teshekpuk area where there didn’t use to be food for them. That’s changing as sea ice melts off and saltwater creeps further inland.

“And that’s causing more coastal flooding of these low-lying habitats, killing off the plants that are more used to fresh water and creating environments where salt water-loving plants can grow,” Pearce says.

Those environments are new coastal salt marshes, full of plants that the geese like to eat. The plants are growing faster than the black brant can crop them, meaning other species of goose and Arctic shorebird are also moving into the new marshes.

These areas used to be home to caribou. Pearce says there’s more than enough fresh water and grazing habitat for them further inland on the Teshekpuk parcel.

And there’s more than enough new marsh for the birds along the coastline. Pearce says they haven’t filled it all up yet. Right now, many of the geese are staying at Teshekpuk Lake like they always have, or splitting their time between the lake and the coast.

It’s not clear what’ll happen next. Pearce says he and other biologists have a lot of questions going forward:

“If the storm surges continue to come inland, are these areas just going to be permanently flooded? Or as the permafrost continues to thaw underneath these habitats, are they going to sort of sink out of reach of the brant?” he asks. “And is there sort of a march of this habitat inland, or do we reach a point at which it can’t extend any further inland?”

All those dynamics — short- and long-term — are important to the Bureau of Land Management. They need data about where wildlife are, and where they’re going, to make decisions about where it’s safe to drill and build.

Stacy McIntosh is the acting manager of the BLM’s Arctic field office, based in Fairbanks. She says they can’t draw any major conclusions from the new information just yet.

But McIntosh says she’s taking it as a good sign that melting sea ice off the North Slope is creating habitat for a change.

“There was an unsurety as to what climate change may be doing to this area,” she says, “whether or not it was going to respond positively or negatively.”

One thing is sure — oil and gas leasing around Teshekpuk is never going to be popular with conservation groups, which have so far kept it undeveloped. The closest it’s come was in 2006, when the Bush administration tried to open it for sale and lost the case to the Audubon Society and others in federal appeals court.

Categories: Alaska News

Search Crews Find Missing Nunapitchuk Man Deceased

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 11:14

Search and rescue crews have found the body of Wassillie Berlin. Searchers found him deceased on the trail between Atmautluak and Bethel. The Nunapitchuk man was reported missing by his brother on Saturday. Crews had found his snowmachine earlier.

Trooper spokesperson Megan Peters says an autopsy hasn’t been done and Berlin will be transported to Anchorage. Next of kin have been notified.

She says the indication is that his snowmachine ran out of gas about 5 miles outside of Atmauthluak. He attempted to walk the rest of the way. He was found between the two communities.

A trooper dispatch says that while the investigation is currently ongoing, there is no foul play suspected.

Categories: Alaska News

Bush Pilots Hit Hard By New Interpretation Of Tax Law

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

Alaska air taxi operators say the IRS has re-interpreted tax law for their industry, hitting some Bush pilots with tax bills of up to a million dollars. Alaska’s federal lawmakers are asking the revenue office to back off until they get some answers about what the rules are. The unexpected burden is driving some air carriers into debt or out of business entirely.

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At issue are excise taxes, those sums you see on an airline ticket receipt, just before the total. On an airliner, the passenger usually pays a tax of 7.5% of the price, plus $4 per flight, and the airline passes it along to the IRS.

Sitka Air service operator Scott Harris thought his Cessna 185 and de Havilland Beaver flights were exempt, because the tax has an exception for small aircraft. But there’s a catch, an exception to the exception. IRS publications say flights in small aircraft are taxable if they’re on an established route, which the IRS defines as a route operated “with some degree of regularity.”

Understanding, or misunderstanding, that term has cost Harris a pile of cash.

“‘Some degree of regularity.’ This is an IRS term that means places you go to frequently, apparently,” he says.

In the summer, Harris is busy, and he does fly repeatedly to a number of destinations – a few communities, certain lodges, favorite spots for sports fishermen. He says he never imagined the excise tax applied to flights like that. He says he spoke to IRS personnel about it years ago and no one told him otherwise. Then, in 2011, he got audited. The IRS found he went to a few destinations with “some degree of regularity” over three years and hit him with a $250,000 bill. Harris says he’s read the regulations and he’s still astounded by the IRS interpretation.

“For us there’s probably two paragraphs that cost me a quarter of a million dollars,” he says. “And they’re so vague! I don’t know how anybody could read these and say, ‘Yep, you’re going to a lodge in Southeast Alaska, you gotta be taxed.’”

He considered appealing, but the IRS said that would open him up to greater scrutiny.

“So the unveiled threat to me was, ‘Yeah, sure appeal. Go ahead. And when we come back to check it again we’re going to look at everything your float planes do, everywhere they go, how often they go there and we’re going to go back seven years.’ So imagine the dollar value in that. It’s insurmountable.”

Soon, he says, IRS enforcement officers were calling, asking for a list of his assets. Harris says that was it for him. He took out a loan and paid the full $250,000.

“We do government work here. We do lots of things. I can’t afford to have my name out there in public as a tax evader, with a tax bill and being levied, so there was no negotiating,” he says,

The IRS responded to questions for this story by emailing links to publications on its website. Alaska’s U.S. senators and Congressman Don Young have written joint letters to the IRS for two years. They say they’ve heard of IRS agents bullying air carriers while refusing them clear
guidance.

In 2012, the IRS did write a memo addressing a few scenarios Bush pilots face, and it draws some interesting distinctions. It says carriers don’t need to collect the tax for sightseeing on a small plane, even if they land for, say, bear-viewing. If the passengers deplane and board a boat to view bears, that’s still not taxable. But if they deplane to fish, the IRS says that’s a taxable flight. At least, it is the way many flight services sell it, by letting customers choose among several locales and offering to go every day. That constitutes “some degree of regularity,” according to the IRS.

Jane Dale of the Alaska Air Carriers Association says even after the 2012 memo, the regulations are too murky for her organization to give much guidance to its members. At one point, half of the audited carriers she knew of had been forced to sell or shut their doors. Dale’s group is urging
the IRS to take a softer approach.

“We would encourage education over audits,” Dale says. “It would likely take less manpower by the agency, and with clear regulations, certainly groups like the Alaska air Carriers association would help education and put that information out.”

Jack Barber, of Alaska Air Taxi on Lake Hood in Anchorage, says his IRS audit eight years ago hit like a thief in the night. He didn’t have the $240,000 the service said he owed. He filed for bankruptcy protection. Last he looked, the bill had climbed to over $800,000. Barber says the battle has cost him his financial security and, he says, his marriage.

“It’s about destroyed my life,” he says.

He says he still isn’t sure when to collect the tax but he’s changed his business. He took down all the brochures that list his flight-seeing rates, lest those be seen as a schedule. And he tries not to fly anywhere with any degree of regularity. The term itself aggravates him.

“It’s an overreach on the IRS’s part. You know, if a comet comes flying by earth once a year, you might think that’s some degree of regularity,” he grumbles.

In a letter to Alaska’s federal lawmakers in December, the acting IRS commissioner said the matter is under review, and he pledged to have results soon.

Categories: Alaska News

Ketchikan Assembly Nixes Draft Letter To Gov. Parnell

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly members had a spirited discussion Tuesday night over a letter that had been submitted by two Assembly members as a suggested response to Gov. Sean Parnell’s comments in the community last week.

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During his visit to Ketchikan, Governor Parnell said the borough’s lawsuit against the state over education funding could have repercussions for the community, specifically related to state funding for local projects. Some people interpreted that as a threat, but Parnell later told The Associated Press that he didn’t intend his comments to be taken that way, and he would not punish Ketchikan for its lawsuit.

Despite his clarification, the proposed letter of response, drafted by Assembly Members Agnes Moran and Glen Thompson, strongly questioned Parnell’s statements, and claimed that his comments diminished the borough’s trust in the state.

The letter was submitted as an agenda item, which made the draft public before the full Assembly could vote on it.

That was a major point of discussion when the Assembly did meet to talk the issue over.

Assembly Member Alan Bailey said, “I believe it is nothing less than crass, and truly an embarrassment.”

Bailey, who has not supported moving forward with the lawsuit, went on to say that the letter, and how it was submitted, did not serve the best interest of the community. He questioned the adversarial approach, and said the governor and the state need to know that the letter does not represent the opinion of the Assembly as a whole.

“Therefore, I am recommending an amended motion to condemn the tone and content of this draft letter, and to censure the writers of this document responsible for what I believe are actions which are not in the best interest of the community,” he said.

Assembly Member Moran was absent from the meeting, but Thompson was there. He defended the letter, and the method used to propose it. He said the only way to submit such a letter is publicly, because otherwise it would violate the Open Meetings Act. Thompson added that he tried to withdraw the item later, because members of the public told him it was too strongly worded, not because he changed his mind.

“I still stand behind what was said in that letter,” he said. “I think the governor abused his power as the chief executive when he threatened retaliation against citizens exercising their constitutional rights to challenge a statute in court. I think it was an egregious abuse of power that rises to the level of tyranny, and I will not go quietly into the night and I will not grovel before my government.”

Thompson said he never expected the letter to pass an Assembly vote, he just wanted to put it out there for discussion.

Other Assembly members noted that in the past, official responses from the Assembly went through a different process, where the manager asks during a meeting whether the Assembly wants to respond, and then is given direction.

Mayor Dave Kiffer said, “The writers of this letter knew that the minute they put it in the agenda, whether that’s our procedure or not, it would be out there. It wouldn’t have to pass; it wouldn’t have to get any support. It was out there. You could have gone and said, ‘Look, we want to respond to the governor. What do you all think?’”

Kiffer noted, though, that censuring Moran and Thompson seemed too strong of a response, as well. Bailey agreed to remove that part of his amendment, and it eventually passed 4-2, with Thompson and Assembly Member Mike Painter voting no.

Assembly Member Bill Rotecki proposed a second amendment directing the mayor to write a letter to Governor Parnell, clarifying that the draft letter in the agenda item did not reflect the opinion of the Assembly. That passed 5-1 with Thompson voting no.

After that long discussion, the Assembly talked about the annual Legislative Liaison Fly-In, and whether to cancel it. There was concern that the lawsuit issue would taint all discussions with legislators. But the Assembly eventually agreed to maintain the fly-in, and limit participation and discussion to only items that were approved during last fall’s community capital project process.

You can listen to last week’s interview with Gov. Sean Parnell here.

Categories: Alaska News

YK Delta Teen Smoking Rate Well Above National Average

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

A Mayo Clinic study of teen smoking rates in the Yukon Kuskokwim delta region found young people there use tobacco at high rates. Nearly 30 percent of 11 to 14 year olds and 63 percent of high school students use tobacco, compared to less than 20 percent of teens nationally. Dr. Christi Patten is the lead author of the YK Delta study. She says focus groups with kids in the region helped them design the intervention program for the youth, but the results were not good.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Senate Opposes Creation Of Beringia International Park

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

The Alaska Senate has unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Beringia International Park – an idea agreed upon in 1991 by then-Presidents Bush and Gorbachev.

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Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Childcare Workers See Higher Wages

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

Juneau childcare workers are getting paid more and staying in their jobs longer than they were just a few years ago. That’s according to an organization that runs a pilot program designed to improve access to childcare in the Capital City.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Supreme Court Decides Pipeline Worth Billions, Not Millions

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:15

Photo courtesy of the Department of Natural Resources.

The State Supreme Court reaffirmed on Wednesday that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is worth $10 billion.

Oil companies had argued that the pipeline should only be assessed at $850 million, and they based that number on the tariffs collected. At that lower value, the property taxes they pay to cities like Fairbanks and Valdez would be dramatically reduced.

The Supreme Court found that tariff income isn’t the only value derived from the pipeline. Its worth also comes from its ability to transport the billions of barrels of oil from the North Slope.

While the decision only concerns the 2006 assessment, oil companies have made similar arguments over the pipeline’s for other tax years.

Categories: Alaska News

Murkowski Continues To Push For King Cove Road

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:01

Murkowski addresses the Alaska State Legislature on Wednesday, February 19, 2014. (Skip Gray/360North)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has promised to continue fighting for a road connecting King Cove to Cold Bay.

In her annual address before the State Legislature on Wednesday, Murkowski described the Interior Department’s decision to block the project as “heartless and wrong.” She says it’s an extreme case of federal overreach.

“Now the King Cove decision is more than a road,” said Murkowski. “I think we all recognize, it is more than a road. It is emblematic as to how the federal government believes that it has to somehow protect Alaska from Alaskans.”

The 10-mile gravel road would run through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and it’s long been a source of contention between the federal government and Alaska supporters of the project. King Cove residents say having a connection to a nearby airport is a matter of public safety, while the Interior Department and environmental groups believe the road would damage bird habitat and set a bad precedent for refuges.

Murkowski has made construction of the road a major priority for her office. She’s repeatedly called for the Interior Department to agree to a land swap that would allow the project to go through. And last year, she escorted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to King Cove to show her how difficult it is to medevac people from the remote community.

Murkowski got applause from state lawmakers when she said she plans to keep the pressure on.

“I have been told to get past this issue. Let’s just get past this issue. Let me tell you: That is not going happen,” said Murkowski. “In addition to my role as mediator, and ambassador, and all that, I can also be a hell-raiser. And I am going to be a hell-raiser on this. I am going to channel my inner Ted Stevens, and we are going to get this road.”

After her address to the Legislature, Murkowski told reporters that she’s thinking about putting holds on future nominations by President Barack Obama until the road issue is addressed.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: February 19, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:00

Individual news 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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Court Reaffirms Trans-Alaska Pipeline Value

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The State Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is worth $10 billion.

Oil companies had argued that the pipeline should only be assessed at $850 million, and they based that number on the tariffs collected. At that lower value, the property taxes they pay to cities like Fairbanks and Valdez would be dramatically reduced.

The Supreme Court found that tariff income isn’t the only value derived from the pipeline. Its worth also comes from its ability to transport the billions of barrels of oil from the North Slope.

While the decision only concerns the 2006 assessment, oil companies have made similar arguments over the pipeline for other tax years.

Bush Pilots Hit Hard After New Interpretation Of Tax Law

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Alaska air taxi operators say the IRS has re-interpreted tax law for their industry, hitting some Bush pilots with tax bills of up to a million dollars. Alaska’s federal lawmakers are asking the revenue office to back off until they get some answers about what the rules are. The unexpected burden is driving some air carriers into debt or out of business entirely.

Murkowski Continues To Push For King Cove Road

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has promised to continue fighting for a road connecting King Cove to Cold Bay.

Ketchikan Assembly Nixes Draft Letter To Gov. Parnell

Leila Kheiry, KRBD – Ketchikan

Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly members had a spirited discussion Tuesday night over a letter that had been submitted by two Assembly members as a suggested response to Gov. Sean Parnell’s comments in the community last week.

YK Delta Teen Smoking Rate Well Above National Average

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

A Mayo Clinic study of teen smoking rates in the Yukon Kuskokwim delta region found young people there use tobacco at high rates. Nearly 30 percent of 11 to 14 year olds and 63 percent of high school students use tobacco, compared to less than 20 percent of teens nationally. Dr. Christi Patten is the lead author of the YK Delta study. She says focus groups with kids in the region helped them design the intervention program for the youth, but the results were not good.

Alaska Senate Opposes Creation Of Beringia International Park

Mike Mason, KDLG – Dillingham

The Alaska Senate has unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Beringia International Park – an idea agreed upon in 1991 by then-Presidents Bush and Gorbachev.

Juneau Childcare Workers See Higher Wages

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Juneau childcare workers are getting paid more and staying in their jobs longer than they were just a few years ago. That’s according to an organization that runs a pilot program designed to improve access to childcare in the Capital City.

Categories: Alaska News

Air Taxi Services Say IRS Overreach is Crushing

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 17:52

Alaska air taxi operators say the IRS has re-interpreted tax law for their industry, hitting some Bush pilots with tax bills of up to a million dollars. Alaska’s federal lawmakers are asking the revenue office to back off until they get some answers about what the rules are. In the meantime, the unexpected burden is driving some air carriers into debt, or out of business entirely.

At issue are excise taxes, those sums you see on an airline ticket receipt, just before the total. On an airliner, the passenger usually pays a tax of 7.5% of the price, plus $4 per flight, and the airline passes it along to the IRS.

Sitka Air service operator Scott Harris thought his Cessna 185 and de Havilland Beaver flights were exempt, because the tax has an exception for small aircraft. But there’s a catch, an exception to the exception. IRS publications say flights in small aircraft ARE taxable if they’re on an established route, which the IRS defines as a route operated “with some degree of regularity.”  Understanding, or misunderstanding, that term has cost Harris a pile of cash.

“’Some degree of regularity.’ This is an IRS term that means places you go to frequently, apparently,” he says.

In the summer, Harris is busy, and he does fly repeatedly to a number of destinations – a few communities, certain lodges, favorite spots for sports fishermen. He says he never imagined the excise tax applied to flights like that. He says he spoke to IRS personnel about it years ago and no one told him otherwise. Then, in 2011, he got audited. The IRS found he went to a few destinations with “some degree of regularity” over three years and hit him with a $250,000 bill. Harris says he’s read the regulations and he’s still astounded by the IRS interpretation.

“For us there’s probably two paragraphs that cost me a quarter of a million dollars,” he says. “And they’re so vague! I don’t know how anybody could read these and say, ‘Yep, you’re going to a lodge in Southeast Alaska, you gotta be taxed.’”

He considered appealing, but the IRS said that would open him up to greater scrutiny.

“So the unveiled threat to me was, ‘Yeah, sure appeal. Go ahead. And when we come back to check it again we’re going to look at everything your float planes do, everywhere they go, how often they go there and we’re going to go back seven years.’ So imagine the dollar value in that. It’s insurmountable.”

Soon, he says, IRS enforcement officers were calling, asking for a list of his assets. Harris says that was it for him. He took out a loan and paid the full $250,000.

“We do government work here. We do lots of things. I can’t afford to have my name out there in public as a tax evader, with a tax bill and being levied, so there was no negotiating,” he says,

The IRS responded to questions for this story by emailing links to publications on its website. Alaska’s U.S. senators and Congressman Don Young have written joint letters to the IRS for two years. They say they’ve heard of IRS agents bullying air carriers while refusing them clear guidance.

In 2012, the IRS did write a memo addressing a few scenarios Bush pilots face, and it draws some interesting distinctions. It says carriers don’t need to collect the tax for sightseeing on a small plane, even if they land for, say, bear-viewing. If the passengers deplane and board a boat to view bears, that’s still not taxable. But if they deplane to fish, the IRS says that’s a taxable flight. At least, it is the way many flight services sell it, by letting customers choose among several locales and offering to go every day. That constitutes “some degree of regularity,” according to the IRS.

Jane Dale of the Alaska Air Carriers Association says even after the 2012 memo, the regulations are too murky for her organization to give much guidance to its members. At one point, half of the audited carriers she knew of had been forced to sell or shut their doors. Dale’s group is urging the IRS to take a softer approach.

“We would encourage education over audits, Dale says. “It would likely take less manpower by the agency, and with clear regulations, certainly groups like the Alaska air Carriers association would help education and put that information out.”

Jack Barber, of Alaska Air Taxi on Lake Hood in Anchorage, says his IRS audit eight years ago hit like a thief in the night. He didn’t have the $240,000 the service said he owed. He filed for bankruptcy protection. Last he looked, the bill had climbed to over $800,000 dollars. Barber says the battle has cost him his financial security and, he says, his marriage.

“It’s about destroyed my life,” he says.

He says he still isn’t sure when to collect the tax but he’s changed his business. He took down all the brochures that list his flight-seeing rates, lest those be seen as a schedule. And he tries not to fly anywhere with any degree of regularity. The term itself aggravates him.

“It’s an overreach on the IRS’s part. You know, if a comet comes flying by earth once a year, you might think that’s some degree of regularity,” he grumbles.

In a letter to Alaska’s federal lawmakers in December, the acting IRS commissioner said the matter is under review, and he pledged to have results soon.

Categories: Alaska News

Bill Would Standardize Grievance Process For Mental Health Patients

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 17:39

A bill that would standardize the grievance process for mental health patients is moving through the State Legislature.

Rep. Pete Higgins, a Republican from Fairbanks, is sponsoring the bill. He says that mental health patients do not currently have a guarantee that providers will adequately address their complaints.

“Our corrections people have more rights than our mental health patients do. And that’s not correct,” says Higgins.
“That’s not right.”

The bill reforms the way grievances are handled in a number of ways. It would set up a 24-hour crisis line for patients and establish an administrative appeal process. Mental health facilities would be required to employ patient advocates and to use the same type of complaint forms. The bill also establishes that patients who have been treated in a locked facility for more than three days have a right to see family and friends.

Higgins says that while many treatment facilities believe their individual grievance policies are sufficient, his office is a aware of cases where medical facilities have been neglectful of complaints. A 2011 report from the Disability Law Center describes two patients at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute who were allegedly restrained inappropriately and filed grievances about the incidents. Neither complaint was addressed on schedule, and both grievance responses were missing information.

“My argument is we’ve already seen the fault of that,” says Higgins. “We’ve already seen where people have fallen through the cracks.”

The bill is currently being heard in the House Health and Social Services Committee. It has seen bipartisan support, with Democrats and Republicans signing on as co-sponsors.

Categories: Alaska News

Home Depot’s Hiring Initiative Doesn’t Mean Much To Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 11:33

The Home Depot is touting a nationwide initiative seeking 80,000 “new hires” this spring and summer, including 270 in Alaska — but that’s nothing new.

The home improvement retailer is looking to hire 45 seasonal employees in Juneau, 45 in Fairbanks, and 180 in Anchorage.

Juneau’s Home Depot is looking to hire 45 seasonal employees for the spring. Photo by Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau.

State research economist Alyssa Shanks with the Department of Labor says these numbers won’t account for a boost in employment numbers.

“When we look at it on an annual basis and we compare it to the rest of our employment numbers, we probably won’t see too much of an impact, just because relative to employment in those areas, it’s a fairly small number of jobs,” Shanks says.

In 2012, employment in the retail sector in Alaska increased by about 2,000 jobs in the spring and summer months compared to the rest of the year. Home Depot’s 270 seasonal hires account for roughly 14 percent of that increase.

From an employee’s perspective, Shanks says this is still good news.

“Those are a handful of jobs at least in Juneau and in Fairbanks and in Anchorage, compared to the size, that could help a lot of people if they don’t have a job right now and are looking for additional work, so despite the fact that it’s seasonal and, relatively speaking, it’s not a lot of jobs, it could really be helpful to some people,” Shanks says.

Juneau Home Depot store manager Tom Hart says a seasonal job from May to September could turn into a year-round position.

“The best associates that are certainly passionate about customer service, we’re going to try to keep them on board and transition into full-time associates.”

Hart says the store hopes to hire locally. Positions at Juneau’s Home Depot include cashier, freight and customer service associates.

Categories: Alaska News

Dry Well Forces Buccaneer to Abandon West Eagle #1

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 11:28

Buccaneer Energy has experienced another setback in its oil and gas exploration efforts in Alaska.

After spending millions of dollars to begin an onshore project east of Homer, the company is pulling up stakes and abandoning its only well at the site.

It wasn’t long ago that officials with Australia-based Buccaneer Energy were very excited about the company’s prospects at West Eagle. Speaking to investors in a video uploaded to YouTube in November. Buccaneer CEO Curtis Burton said that the geology of the West Eagle very promising, as were the results of 2-D seismic testing conducted at the site.

“We have both oil and gas targets at West Eagle,” Burton said at the time. “If it’s typical to the other structures like it that have been drilled on the peninsula, it will be hydrocarbon-bearing.”

After weeks of drilling, however, Buccaneer officials admitted Monday that the West Eagle prospect has fallen short of their expectations.

In a news release, officials said that after drilling to a level of 3,700 feet, the company did not find the hydrocarbon reserves that had been hoped for. As a result, Buccaneer is calling it quits at West Eagle #1. It will be plugging and abandoning the only well it dug there.

The disappointing results come after Buccaneer spent more than $9.4 million to mobilize at West Eagle. Those costs include more than $1.8 million to improve sections of East End Road and build a camp at the drilling site, plus $3.4 million to prepare and move the Glacier drilling rig from Kenai to Homer.

Buccaneer says the State of Alaska will be on the hook for more than half of that total, thanks to the return of bond funds and expected payment of tax credits through ACES.

In his quarterly report, Burton said Buccaneer has so far recovered $30.5 million from the state through ACES, with another $24.5 million co-invested on its Endeavor jack-up rig through the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.

Burton applauds the tax incentives and investment Buccaneer has received from the State of Alaska but at the same time, says the state’s regulatory agencies have sometimes acted as a hindrance to the company’s plans.

“Those guys can inadvertently … and sometimes overtly cost you time and money in going out and executing a program,” he said. “The state has …. been slow to rule and in other cases, ruled against what we were doing in ways that cost us time and money.”

Officials with Buccaneer Energy did not return telephone calls in time for this story but in Monday’s news release, Burton said the company would now focus its attention on its onshore leases at Tyonek Deep and its onshore operation at Kenai Loop.

Kenai Loop has been one of the company’s few success stories in Alaska but even that project has come under a shadow. Court hearings are scheduled for later this week to settle ownership disputes about the wells between Buccaneer, Cook Inlet Region, Incorporated and the Alaska Mental Health Trust.

In a statement, the Buccaneer board of directors said the failure at West Eagle would force it to seek out additional working capital, which could include the sale of existing assets, in order to make a scheduled payment to the Chicago investment firm Meridian Capital by June 30.

Categories: Alaska News

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