After President Barack Obama announced a plan to designate most of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, Alaska lawmakers seized a chance to meet his Interior Secretary on their own turf.
A team of nine legislators took a break from session work in Juneau to travel to Kotzebue this week to confront Sally Jewell about those actions. But while the meeting was hyped, neither the delegation nor the Secretary described it as a showdown.
The meeting location was kept secret from the public, so secret that Sally Jewell herself reportedly was delayed half an hour. Once the Interior Secretary arrived, a team made of nine legislators and North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower proceeded to air their grievances over how the Obama Administration is managing Alaska. But despite the delegation’s fury leading up to the event.
“There were no fireworks,” Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Mat-Su Republican who previously lived in Kotzebue, said. He says he left the meeting unsatisfied.
At a Monday night press conference at the Nullagvik Hotel, Dunleavy described the conversation as polite, but said nothing was really accomplished and that Alaska lawmakers might have better luck dealing with the state’s congressional delegation if they want to see more land opened to drilling.
“What’s the definition of insanity?” Dunleavy said. “Doing the same thing over and over again.”
“So, we have to have a discussion with them and come up with a game plan that is a little different from what we’ve been doing in the past.”
Over the course of the press conference, legislators used variations of the word “frustrated” about a dozen times. They stressed the importance of developing more oil in the state, because most of Alaska’s tax revenue comes from its production.
While some, like Senate President and Anchorage Republican Kevin Meyer described it as a “good dialogue,” Majority Leader Charisse Millett noted the meeting got “heated” at points. When Jewell gave a justification for the administration’s wilderness plan, the Anchorage Republican confronted her about so-called “legacy wells” that were drilled by the federal government but never cleaned up. Millett was not placated by the response.
“I understand she wants to hit the reset button. She said it several times. Hitting the reset button with Alaskans would mean that she would have to and the federal government would have to sit down and listen to us,” Millett said. “Not just come up and give us platitudes, and pat us on the head.”
At a press conference held outside, with snowmachiners racing in the background, Jewell pushed back when asked if the meeting was a “showdown.”
“A showdown?” responded Jewell. “I think there is a lot of pain being felt in Alaska because of oil prices. I may be an easy target, but the reality is oil prices have fallen dramatically and that’s impacted the state’s budget.”
Jewell said she understood the state’s economic position, but that low oil prices could be a “shorter term phenomenon.”
And in the long term she said, “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not going to solve dependence of a state on a commodity price.”
The proposal to designate 12 million acres of Arctic refuge land as wilderness would have to be approved by Congress, unless the president takes an executive action and treats the land as a monument under the Antiquities Act. While Jewell said there were no plans to use that authority, she was firm on the Administration’s position on the refuge.
“We believe the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is – I mean it is – one of the most intact ecosystems in the world, and we think keeping it that way is very important,” Jewell said. “We do know that oil and gas development has impacts. It has impacts on wildlife, it has impacts on water quality and air quality. And we believe the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is too special to develop.”
Jewell added that she hopes to see better cooperation between the state and federal governments in the future, and that in her meeting with legislators she suggested creating a task force to improve communication.
Beyond filing lawsuits and requesting meetings with administration officials, there’s little Alaska’s legislative or executive branches can do to influence President Barack Obama’s approach to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But as chair of the Energy Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski has some level of oversight over the Department of the Interior. Murkowski says Secretary Sally Jewell will appear before her twice in the coming weeks.
“She will be before my energy committee on the Tuesday next, as she presents the budget,” Murkowski said. “And then I will have her in front of my Interior appropriations subcommittee on March 4, so I’m going to have plenty of opportunity to engage with her.”
Murkowski notes she is in a position to affect the Department of Interior’s budget.
“If budgets are reduced and people lose their jobs, that is an outcome. Right now, what people in this region seem to be concerned about is losing their land. A job is transitory,” Murkowski said. “This Secretary is going to have this job for just two more years, this President is going to have this job for less than two years, but the land – the land – that’s what I’m here to protect. This is what we need to be fighting for. I’m not going to be fighting for some short-term job for a bureaucrat.”
In response, Jewell says she is “hopeful” that there will not be retaliatory cuts, and notes the Department provides aerial mapping of Alaska and monitors earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the state.
A trial got underway today in Anchorage in a lawsuit challenging the state regulation that restricts abortions for low income women.
State Superior Court judge John Suddock will decide on Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest’s complaint against the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Brigett Amiri delivered opening statements for the plaintiffs. Amiri said the state’s law puts a burden on the fundamental human right of reproduction, and that it violates equal protection and privacy clauses of the Alaska Constitution.
“Women living in poverty overall have poorer physical and mental health, and if those women are denied access to a medically necessary abortion, because they cannot afford to pay for it, the consequences would be devastating,” Amiri said. ”The state Medicaid program was designed specifically to prevent this type of suffering by ensuring access to medical care for those who can’t afford to pay out of pocket.”
State attorney Dario Borghesan told the court that a prior state supreme court case has helped the state determine where to draw the line on paying for procedures.
“Medicaid does not cover every procedure that optimizes a person’s well being. Medicaid does not cover every procedure that might improve your vision, or every surgery that helps you lose weight. A woman might be genuinely distraught because she can’t have a child, but Medicaid does not cover fertility treatments at all,” Borghesan said. ”So the line that this legislation draws…that Medicaid will cover an abortion if pregnancy poses a serious risk to your health, but not an abortion solely to protect your emotional well being, is consistent with the line that it draws in other areas.”
Borghesan said the court needs to consider how its ruling applies to Medicaid administration, health care services and the need to keep costs down.
Plaintiffs attorneys plan to prove that funding restrictions are contrary to how doctors practice medicine. Under state statute, Medicaid coverage for abortion is only available in cases of extreme illness, in which the woman faces death or failure of a major bodily function. The plaintiffs called to the stand Dr. Aaron Caughey, a specialist in maternal fetal medicine. Under questioning, Dr. Caughey commented on the 23 medical conditions that are defined, by state statute, as the only reasons for a Medicaid abortion.
“Only limiting the idea of medically necessary to the things that are severely impinging on someone’s risk of either major bodily function or death seems really limiting,” Caughey said. “So the idea of waiting until someone is about to die or be injured to intervene doesn’t make any sense.”
State attorneys also examined Rebecca Poedy, chief operating officer with Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, on financial procedures related to cost reimbursement for the abortions the organization provides. Poedy testified that Planned Parenthood has difficulty in collecting payment from many of the women who receive abortions through Planned Parenthood services.
The trail is expected to continue into next week.
Police departments across the state have been taken aback by a state Department of Corrections proposal to end funding for local jails. Sitka is one of several local departments who say the cuts are so deep, it could force their jail to close.
The proposal is only the beginning of budget negotiations between the governor and legislature. But the Department of Corrections says it doesn’t have many options.
(You can find breakdown of funding for the community jails program here.)
Nelson: We’re going to give her a tour of the jail. She’s going to basically see it all. We’re going to give her full access, lock down the inmates, let her walk down the hallway, and see it all…
Jail Supervisor Dave Nelson interrupts a card game and shoos the inmates back into their cells, in preparation for a quick tour. In general, those held at the Sitka jail are allowed to use the hallway between cells, for calisthenics or board games or just to jog back and forth. Otherwise, there isn’t much space.
Once the cell doors slide shut, Nelson leads the way in. “Essentially the cell block is just one big long hallway,” he says. “The males are on this side, and the females are on that side.”
There are four cells on the men’s side, plus a holding tank and segregation cell, all lining the one narrow hallway. There are no windows. A TV mounted at the end of the hall is playing one of the Ice Age movies. Since we’re in here, Nelson and Jail Officer Noah Shepard are taking the opportunity to serve coffee.
The Sitka jail has a total of 17 beds, though Nelson says it could accommodate about 23 people if needed.
“Right now we’ve got four in here,” he says. “[But] up until last week we were running at 13, 14, for about a month straight.”
Alaska doesn’t have the county jail system common in the lower 48. But when the nearest state prison is often at least a flight away – in Sitka’s case, it’s the Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau — community jails like this one serve as temporary holding facilities.
This is where people are held when they’ve been arrested, while waiting to be arraigned; or after arraignment, while bail is set. The jail also houses prisoners in town for court appearances.
Nelson estimates that in 2014 Sitka saw about 500 unique bookings, averaging four to six inmates at any given moment.
The funding for all of this comes from the state. But Governor Bill Walker’s proposed budget, released earlier this month, would end that contract, and zero out state funding for all 15 community jails in Alaska.
Sitka Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt said that proposal came as a shock.
“I don’t think people understood exactly what the ramifications would be,” he said in an interview Monday (2-9-15).
In FY2014, Sitka received $711,262 to fund its jail. That pays for the jail supervisor and four jail officers, plus contracts for inmates’ meals and laundry. Without the state money, Schmitt said, the city simply couldn’t run a jail for anything other than overnight stays.
“There’s a lot of costs that are kind of hidden,” he said, noting that if the state does cut funding for local jails, the responsibility for those prisoners would shift to the Department of Public Safety, and the State Troopers. “What are you going to do with these prisoners? Who’s going to take care of them?…And if you’re going to transport everybody, who’s going to do all that, and, what’s it going to cost?”
“I just think it was not fully considered,” Schmitt said.
But at the Department of Corrections, the question is: what would you rather we cut?
“Let’s start with, how did we arrive at the community jails, because we certainly didn’t start there,” said DOC Commissioner Ron Taylor.
The Department is facing a 5.3% cut this coming year, and, like all state agencies, has been told to prepare for a 25% cut over four years. Much of the DOC’s budget is tied up in its 12 prisons, which together house about 6,000 prisoners.
A 5% cut would be the equivalent of shutting down two of those prisons, Taylor said, but “there’s absolutely no way that we can close two facilities within a six-month or three-month or four-month period of time.”
Those cuts are coming, Taylor said, but not in time for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Taylor ticked off the other main areas of the Department’s budget: there’s the cost of healthcare for prisoners, which he says the DOC has little control over.
Then there’s probation and parole; and reentry programs, which help prisoners readjust to life on the outside. Taylor said he is loath to touch those programs because they reduce recidivism, and bring down costs over all.
That leaves the community jails program. The Department is spending about $10.5-million this year on contracts with jails in fifteen communities, covering more than 150 beds. Taylor said that at any given time, about half those beds are empty.
“[We're not saying] that we want to close jails, because that is obviously not what we want to do,” he said. “I think what we’re talking about is, we need to have the conversation. To say, how can we make those community jails become more effective, and fit more in line with the reentry management system that we are managing?”
Taylor admitted that the Department didn’t consult with local communities before proposing the cut — there simply wasn’t time, he said. The DOC is now reaching out to see what the impact might be.
The answer so far seems to be: quite a big one. Police departments from Sitka to Dillingham to Unalaska to Wrangell have told reporters that the cuts represent nearly all their local jail funding. In Haines, the funding represents 40% of the police department’s entire budget.
Sitka’s Chief Schmitt said the cuts would have major ripple effects.
“I definitely think it’s a big deal for the community of Sitka, to lose the jobs,” Schmitt said. “But also…I think [it's a big deal] from a public safety point of view as well, that we’re going to be moving all these prisoners back and forth on an almost daily basis on airplanes, and housing them God knows where.”
On that last point, one of the inmates in the Sitka jail had a suggestion: maybe a Super 8, he said.
One of four Juneau hikers rescued off a wind-scoured mountain earlier this month says the group was looking for a bit of an adventure, but may have gotten more than they bargained for.
It’s a little more than a week since Matt Callahan and three friends were rescued from a mountain ridge above Thane Road, and he’s laid up at his parents’ house in West Juneau.
He sits up in bed, wearing glasses and an Alaskan Brewing Co. sweatshirt. A plastic frame keeps the sheet from touching his feet, which are swollen and purple, covered in blisters from frostbite.
Callahan says the group started their adventure up West Peak on Saturday, Jan. 31, the first day in probably three weeks without rain in Juneau. Temperatures at sea level were in the 20s and 30s.
“It was a beautiful day, but it was really windy,” Callahan says. “And when we got to the top of the mountain it was calm there, and we decided to just camp there.”
The 27-year-old – born and raised in the capital city – says he’s been winter camping maybe a dozen times or more. He says the group met as members of Juneau Mountain Rescue, and was prepared for the elements with warm coats, boots and sleeping bags.
“We were kind of looking for a little bit of harsher conditions,” says Callahan. “And we definitely got more than we bargained for in that respect.”
He says they knew the forecast called for high winds, but didn’t consider they’d be stronger on Sunday than on Saturday.
“We’d built a snow wall that was probably about 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and the wind ate through it in about an hour,” Callahan says.
About 4:30 Sunday morning, Callahan says the wind ripped up their tent and blew away a bunch of gear, including three sleeping bags and one coat.
At that point they decided to get off the mountain as soon as possible. But the wind was blowing 50 to 60 mph, and they only made it as far as a rock outcropping near their camp, where they took shelter until daylight.
When they tried to move again, Callahan says the wind was blowing probably 80 mph, so they figured it would be better to wait for help.
They huddled behind the rock formation, which he says was about 3 feet tall and 10 feet long.
“We hacked out about a foot of ice, down to the moss below it. But it was still windy in there,” he says. “The wind would whip around the bottom and blow up into it. But it was out of the full strength of the wind.”
Callahan sent their GPS coordinates to Juneau Mountain Rescue by text message, and JMR contacted Alaska State Troopers, the agency in charge of search and rescue.
A U.S. Coast Guard H-60 helicopter crew tried to airlift the hikers Sunday evening, but the wind was so gusty the helicopter was unable to land or get close enough to do a hoist.
A JMR ground team didn’t reach the stranded hikers until Monday morning.
“The high winds definitely was a challenge for us in figuring out a way to get a team there safely,” says Pat Dryer, JMR’s board president, who organized the search.
Dryer says the hikers actually were well prepared and did everything right in planning their trip.
“They left a travel plan with a third party, they were able to communicate to somebody when they did need help, they left with the proper gear, and they knew when to call for help,” Dryer says.
Callahan says he felt relief when JMR arrived, bringing extra clothes and ice tools to make crawling on the ridge more secure.
But he says the most important thing the rescuers brought was food and water, which the group had been without for almost 24 hours. Callahan says the extra nourishment gave them the energy to get off the trail safely.
“I was in a great mood coming down the trail,” says Callahan. “I basically ran down and got to the bottom and hopped in the ambulance to check out my feet and then realized that they were frozen.”
In the rush to gather his gear after the wind blew through their tent, Callahan says he failed to put on his gaiters – waterproof leggings that cover the calf and ankle. His feet got wet after snow got into his boots.
He and fellow hiker Amy Helm were medevaced to Anchorage with frostbite. He says doctors tell him it could be several weeks before he’ll know if he gets to keep all his toes.
“Eventually the tissue will turn into either nice, healthy toe again. Or it will shrivel up and kind of mummify, and that will have to be removed,” he says.
Callahan says Helm is in similar shape, recovering in Colorado with family. Her husband, Craig, also was on the trip, along with Schuyler Metcalf, neither of whom needed to be medevaced.
If he does lose toes, Callahan says so be it.
“I’m told you don’t really need toes,” he says. “There’s a lot of great mountaineers who don’t have toes. The doctor says they’re just cosmetic, but I’d still like to keep them if I could.”
And even though he got frostbite, Callahan says he’s happy no one in the group suffered hypothermia. He says he kept a positive attitude during the ordeal, and is trying to keep the same spirit through recovery.
If they had it to do over again, Callahan says they probably would’ve camped lower on the mountain. He says he would’ve made sure to put on gaiters. And he says, yes, they could have done a better job checking the forecast. But he adds people need to be prepared for the worst, no matter what the weatherman says.
“We knew it was going to be windy,” he says. “But just having a healthier respect for the wind.”
A new play opened this weekend at Cyrano’s Playhouse in Anchorage from the author of the Vagina Monologues. On stage, the songs and monologues tell the true stories of traumas faced by young women around the world. But behind the scenes, it’s the tale of Anchorage’s young women learning what it means to be an “Emotional Creature.”
Emotional Creature directly discusses some hard topics – sexual abuse, female genital cutting, child labor. And the cast of seven young women doesn’t shy away from discussing the issues.
Mary Rose Rashid plays a Congolese girl who is kidnapped, kept as a sex slave for two years, and escapes. Rashid says playing the role helped her process her own past.
“It really helped me to cope with my trauma to talk about some of the things my character went through because it was like, ‘God those words are true!’ I can’t let anyone take anything away from me unless I give it to them. I’m stronger than that, you know what I mean? It helped me a lot to realize that it is okay. I love being a girl. I am okay with being an emotional creature.”
Many of the cast members say that learning about what happens to women in other countries opened their eyes. But they also thought more about the social forces that impact girls here in the United States.
Hazel De Los Santos plays a middle schooler who is ostracized for talking to an unpopular girl and not looking perfect. De Los Santos says it’s an experience many girls and women can still relate to.
“I know for a fact that everyone still goes through it. They wish they could be this, they wish they could be that. They wish they had a big butt, they wish they had big boobs. They wish they weren’t fat. To be honest, I still go through that,” De Los Santos reflects. “I look in the mirror, and like, and sometimes I say I don’t like what I see. But after playing this part, eventually, [I realized] we’re own beautiful in our own different ways and people need to realize that. I still need to realize that.”
So she and others, like Molly Dieni, have started talking to the people around them about the issues in the play.
“My dad was skeptical, initially, about the play. He sees it very much as a very girly thing, and I kinda shut that down.”
Dieni says it’s not just a girl thing – it’s about treating people equally and teaching everyone about the issues that impact young women. And reminding girls that it’s okay to be a girl.
“Emotional Creature” by Eve Ensler is playing at Cyrano’s until March 8.
Today we meet a pair of Alaskans who run the business Salmon Sisters. Emma and Claire Laukitis were born and raised on the Aleutian Islands near False Pass. Emma says it was quiet and simple upbringing.
“Growing up there was isolated,” she said. “It was really all we knew; we had an awesome childhood there.”
“We were homeschooled for the first eight or nine years of our life. We played outside a lot.”
And when the sisters got a little older their dad started taking them commercial fishing with him in the summers. Claire says they were too young to pull nets, but that didn’t matter.
“Going out on the boat was a big deal,” Claire said. “We were excited to spend time with my dad, and just spend time outside with one another.”
Once they were old enough to go to college Emma traveled to the East Coast and Claire went to Vermont. They studied there until eventually they were accepted into another program; this time in Italy. Claire studied business, while Emma studied art.
“I started designing some screen prints of the fish that we’d catch on the boat,” Emma said. “I always really liked the Japanese-style fish prints, so I started with a rockfish.”
“That was our first design, and I guess it just started grew from there and grew from our reverence for the ocean and what our family does.”
And that was the official beginning of Salmon Sisters. Today the pair sells a large catalog of t-shirts, hoodies, leggings and more. Emma says the Aleutians have always been a rich source of inspiration for her art.
“You know, the quirky people that you find in coastal towns,” Emma said. “And some of the creatures you pull up from the water; they’re pretty spectacular.”
Claire says Salmon Sisters has found success quickly, but it hasn’t been easy, and it’s not paying the bills just yet. On top of running the business, both Claire and Emma still commercial fish for half of the year.
“It’s been tricky,” Claire said. “It’s like standing on top of the crow’s nest holding your cell phone up getting a text to our friend who is running our business in the summer. It’s a challenge.”
Another challenge for the women is staying true to their values. They want Salmon Sisters to be 100 percent Alaska made, even if it means paying more to print their clothing in state.
Claire: “It’s produced in Alaska, designed in Alaska and sold in Alaska. It’s the perfect combination. It’s much more important for us to support the local screen printer in Anchorage.”
Emma: “And I think we’ve all learned that Alaska is just not cheap.”
At the end of the day, both Emma and Claire think Alaskans will also be willing to pay a little more for something close to their hearts. Emma says two sisters who grew up fishing isn’t unique to Alaska, but it’s genuine.
Emma: “I think people just love to be involved in a story. And if there is one that seems legitimate and real and is something they can wear and celebrate that’s a cool thing.”
Claire: “It’s so wonderful, just driving from our house to the radio station we saw three different people with our apparel on. It’s great.”
The bells of the historic Immaculate Conception Cathedral in downtown Fairbanks rang in honor of legendary musher George Attla who died this week as Eureka musher Brent Sass cruised across the finish line to win this year’s Yukon Quest.
Sass has been trying to win the Quest for years. This year, he gave up a 10-hour lead to two-time defending champion Allen Moore, who refused to give up easily.
When Allen Moore blew through the Mile 101 checkpoint, he claimed the lead and gained nearly a half an hour on Brent Sass. After Sass left the checkpoint, he says his team made up much of that time.
“It was funny the way I gauged it, I was watching the poop in the trail,” Sass said. “When I first started, the poop was all frozen and then as I got down the trail a little bit farther, I’d stick my ski pole in the poop every time when I’d go by and it got softer and softer and I knew then I was on his trail before I even saw the headlamp.”
After the two crossed over Rosebud Summit, they ran for more than 40 miles within two minutes of each other all the way to the Two Rivers checkpoint, where they bedded down their teams for a mandatory 8-hour layover. Allen Moore says he was positioned right where he wanted to be.
“As I have told you all along, I just wanted to get to Two Rivers and be close and I am close,” Moore said. “I couldn’t ask for me and now the dogs just have to perform. We’re in the perfect position. We’re in our home turf. They know where the finish line is. If they feel good, we will win.”
With a race as close, both mushers knew they’d have to run behind their sleds and use ski poles to help their teams along. Moore is 57. He joked about what it would be like to race against 35-year-old Sass.
“You’ll see an old guy and a young guy and a young guy really running to the finish line. ‘I’m going to kick your butt you old guys.’ ‘No you’re not you old guy,’” Moore said.
Joking aside, Moore knew the 70-mile run to Fairbanks would be tough.
“If you stop to untangle a tangle the other person will be a quarter mile ahead of you, just to untangle a tangle, the other person will be a quarter of a mile ahead of you, so that’s what it’s going to play down to,” he said.
The two teams left within two minutes of each other. Twenty miles later, Brent Sass caught Moore’s team.
“A plan came together,” he said.
Sass says he took advantage of a road crossing, where spectators gathered to cheer on his dogs. Allen Moore’s kennel is not too far from the trail, so that also worked to Sass’s advantage.
“The dogs, it was just amazing,” Sass said. “I called them up and we flew all the way through two rivers and I had to make sure I toned it back a little bit because I realized we still had like 50 miles to go.”
Sass credits his lead dog Basin, who ran in lead for all but 25 miles of the race.
“He’s an amazing dog, he just defies the odds,” he said.
Sass drove a young team of two-, three- and five-year-olds this year.
“Yeah, the future is real bright,” Sass said. “I got 25 puppies at home that my handlers are training up, so the future is real bright for Wild and Free.”
Allen Moore crossed the finish line just over an hour later. Brent Sass was there to greet him.
“Dogs look good,” Sass told Moore. “Nice race. It’s always a pleasure racing against you.”
Moore seemed a little down his team’s performance.
“I thought it could have been just like it was two years ago, where they really rocked, like Brent’s team did this year,” Moore said. “I thought my team would be that team again, but they just didn’t have it this year.”
There are still 14 teams spread out across nearly 200 miles of trail. They’ll continue to cross the finish line throughout the week.
Instead of Juneau or Anchorage. For two days, the Northwest Arctic Borough is suddenly Alaska’s seat of power, with the governor, the lieutenant governor, the whole congressional delegation, and 10 legislators all descending on the region.
But the most high-profile visitor is Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior and a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet.
While Jewell had long planned to appear at an Alaska Federation of Natives board retreat in Kotzebue, the visit became more political after Obama announced his plan to prohibit drilling in a good swath of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and certain offshore areas.
Many of Alaska’s lawmakers were motivated to come up to the region to confront her on these actions, but Jewell had her own agenda for the visit.
At 9:30 in the morning, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell left the Kotzebue airport in a Cessna Grand Caravan bound for Kivalina. She was traveling to the barrier island to learn about the effects of climate change on the community. In her wake were about half a dozen legislators who ended up piggybacking on her itinerary.
As Jewell had a private meeting with members of the village council, legislators like House Majority Leader Charisse Millett toured the local school. With the current building over capacity and in a location where it is vulnerable to storms and erosion, Kivalina is requesting money for a new building that would be built on dry ground miles outside the community.
After visiting classrooms, the legislative delegation was brought to the school gym to meet with members of the community, like Eleanor Swan. She’s working a projector that shows violent waves smashing against the town.
“When it flooded here in town in 2004, the water got way high, and they had to move the principal’s house,” Swan said.
Swan is originally from Noatak, but she’s lived in Kivalina for 29 years.
“It changed since I moved. There was more beach when I came here. That’s long gone. We hardly have a beach now.”
Shortly before noon, the secretary showed up, putting her in the same room as Alaska lawmakers. While legislators had made the trip to talk to Jewell about drilling restrictions on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they gave her wide berth in the gymnasium. She sat alone until Millie Hawley, the leader of the village council, noted the empty seats next to her.
”Where’s her staff?” Hawley asked. “She looks so lonely.” “Nobody sits next to me,” Jewell said. “I’m used to it.”
After a prayer was said in a mix of Inupiat and English that implored for the survival of Kivalina, Jewell spoke.
She kept her comments strictly to climate change. She did not bring up offshore drilling, or any other controversial issue that has made her a target for Alaska lawmakers. Instead, she asked to hear about how changing weather patterns were affecting the community’s ability to get caribou, whale, and seal.
“For the elders that are willing to open, I would be very interested in hearing about the changes you’ve seen on the landscape, how that’s impacted your subsistence, where you’d like to see things go for the future.”
Jewell then heard from residents who expressed concern about the rate at which village land was disappearing, and how declining sea ice and harsher storms have hurt the community.
There were no big announcements about funding for Kivalina projects or money for relocation costs — just a general commitment that the federal government would work with them.
About halfway through the meeting, the legislative delegation left without approaching Jewell. They had their own plane to catch, and a meeting to finally confront Jewell scheduled for later in the day.
Alaska Native dog mushing great George Attla has died. The sprint champion known as “The Huslia Hustler” died of cancer on Sunday at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. He was 81. Attla’s impact spanned from success in racing to helping village kids connect with mushing.
House Republicans expressed skepticism over Governor Bill Walker’s plan to expand Medicaid in a hearing Monday morning.
The subcommittee hearing of the House Health and Social Services Committee was the first chance for lawmakers to publicly question Health Commissioner Valerie Davidson on the subject.
Medicaid expansion is a complicated topic. Davidson and lawmakers dug into the details, like reimbursement rates in Alaska and efforts to combat Medicaid fraud.
An hour and a half into the hearing, subcommittee chair Dan Saddler, a Republican from Eagle River, was ready to ask a bigger picture question:
“Given the federal government’s debt load, that’s also projected to increase tremendously over future decades…. does it cause you any concern or to question the wisdom of expanding Medicaid?”
The federal government would cover Medicaid expansion at 100% until the end of next year, then that match gradually decreases to 90% in 2020. The money would pay for health coverage for mostly childless adults who are near or below the federal poverty level.
Davidson said they are mostly the working poor and she told Saddler she didn’t have a problem accepting federal funds to give them access to health care.
She pointed out that federal highway funds have a similarly generous match rate.
“We can build roads,” she said. “We can build all kinds of opportunities, but if we don’t have Alaskans who are healthy enough to participate in that economy, then we have done ourselves a disservice and so I am comfortable moving forward with expansion just as I am comfortable driving on roads that have the potholes replaced at those corresponding matches.”
Several other Republican lawmakers on the subcommittee were focused on the opposite argument, that the federal government would pull back on its promise to provide at least 90 percent funding for Medicaid expansion.
They wanted assurances that Davidson would drop Medicaid expansion if the federal match ever fell below 90 percent.
When Davidson told lawmakers that was the plan, Representative Lance Pruitt, a Republican from Anchorage, said ending expansion was unrealistic:
“We’ll have to have a discussion about are we also willing to take up the additional 90 or so million [dollars] after 2020 and have an honest discussion, because I don’t think we’re going to introduce something and ever strip it away whether we make legislation, whether we make law, whether we make regulation, it doesn’t matter, you’re not going to take away health care from Alaskans.”
Representative Bryce Edgmon, a Democrat from Dillingham, was frustrated the hearing didn’t focus more on the benefits of expansion- how it could reduce the state’s high rate of substance abuse, and help poor Alaskans access preventative medicine.
Edgmon doesn’t think it makes sense to spend so much time focused on whether the federal match rate will remain:
“The issue of whether the federal government pulls out and can’t hold their end of the bargain – I say this tongue and cheek – we have bigger issues in Alaska given that one third of our spending in this state is dependent of federal spending…on a whole range of programs we depend on the federal government.”
The budget Walker sent to lawmakers includes a line approving the receipt of federal Medicaid funds.
Representative Mark Neuman, a Republican from Big Lake, asked the administration to submit a separate bill on Medicaid expansion so it would be subject to the normal legislative process. The Governor’s office is not considering that option.
A statewide group is fighting a proposed change in Alaska’s judge selection process pushed by a Fairbanks Senator.
“Justice Not Politics Alaska” director Heather Arnett says the group is opposed to Republican Pete Kelly’s resolution, which proposes doubling the number of public members appointed by the governor, to the Judicial Council, which selects state judge candidates.
“It introduces a major political influence into how judges become judges in Alaska,” she said.
Senator Kelly’s resolution proposes increasing the number of governor appointed and legislatively confirmed public members on the judicial council from 3 to 6. Kelly was unavailable to comment, but an opinion piece on his website, points out that the judicial council is also made up of 3 Alaska Bar Association appointed attorneys, who are not subject to gubernatorial or legislative approval. He calls the arrangement “lawyers choosing lawyers to referee other lawyers.”
Kelly’s SJR 3 requires passage by 2/3 of the House and Senate, and would then have to go before voters.
Members of Justice Not Politics Alaska include former State Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti.
Karen Simmons, KUAC-Fairbanks
Works of a famous Fairbanks artist are on display for the first time.
Drawings and paintings by Bill Berry are hanging in the University of Alaska Fairbanks Rasmussen Library.
The long-archived works re-surfaced at the request of the late artist’s family.
It’s just in the planning stage, but the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation is working towards a new $250-million health care center.
They say the current facility, which serves people from 58 YK Delta communities, needs to be updated and needs more room to keep up with a growing population.
Gov. Bill Walker has introduced legislation clarifying the powers of the attorney general when settling litigation related to Alaska’s oil and gas resources.
The two-page bill was offered Friday, and it requires the attorney general to confirm that a settlement is narrow in scope and in compliance with existing law.
The catalyst for the bill was a lawsuit that Walker brought as a private citizen. The suit challenged a settlement between the State of Alaska and Exxon to develop natural gas reserves at Point Thomson. Since the start of the legislative session, Republicans in the majority have criticized Walker for keeping the litigation active, instead of offering a legislative remedy. Walker dropped the suit on Friday, in conjunction with the filing of his bill.
The Alaska House of Representatives has passed legislation outlining the state’s Arctic policy.
The bill lays out the state’s values concerning the Arctic, and provides a general sense of direction for how lawmakers would like to see it developed. It acknowledges the “risks of a changing climate,” but also declares that the Legislature is “optimistic” that a “new era of economic and resource development” could benefit Alaska.
The bill offered on Friday also recognized the importance of the state’s indigenous cultures and the value of preserving them, but it did not specifically mention the state’s Native languages. Sitka Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins and Ketchikan Independent Dan Ortiz offered an amendment to specifically mention language in the bill, noting the declining numbers of speakers.
“They feel that a huge part of their culture is imperiled,” said Kreiss-Tomkins. “I think it’s very important for us in a policy sense and also as an institution to recognize that the Native language are of an immeasurable cultural value to the state and who we are as a people.”
While one objection was raised that the amendment was redundantly, the measure was ultimately adopted unanimously.
An amendment offered by Eagle River Republican Lora Reinbold that would have stripped language supporting ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty failed 9 to 25. Reinbold argued that participation in that treaty would cede some of the nation’s sovereignty.
The Arctic policy bill passed 32 to 2, with North Pole Republican Tammie Wilson and Wasilla Republican Lynn Gattis voting against it.
The legislation will now be considered by the Senate.
The U.S Army Corps of Engineers is set to unveil its first steps toward expanding deep-water Arctic ports, and Corps officials say the main focus will be expanding the existing Port of Nome.
“The report is making the recommendation for Nome, for construction at Nome at this time, basically due to its highly developed area, having a good runway, good hospital, already strong support that’s already there,” Bruce Sexauer, chief of the Alaska Army Corps’ civil works branch, said.
Sexauer stresses the choice is provisional until public comment and other evaluations are complete.
The Corps eventually hopes a system of deeper ports will be developed throughout Western Alaska.
Sexauer points to increased traffic in the Bering Strait, and growing resource extraction in the Arctic—including potential oil and gas development in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas—as necessitating the Arctic ports, starting with Nome.
“This port will be able to provide support for those types of activities that are going on out there closer up in the Arctic,” Sexauer said. ”This will provide them with a closer area where they can bring in their resupply ships and offload crews closer up in the Arctic.”
The Army Corps of Engineers will be in Nome Tuesday to meet with Nome’s Port Commission. The full report will be released to the public by the end of next week.
The Haines Borough Police Department and dispatch services could face a dramatic funding loss under Gov. Bill Walker’s proposed budget. It would eliminate funding the state Department of Corrections, or DOC, gives each year to law enforcement in 15 small communities. That funding is meant to help communities run local jails, but in Haines it supports more than that.
The Alaska DOC contracts with Haines police to operate a three-cell, six-bed jail. Under that contract, the DOC gave the Haines Police Department about $392,000 this year.
That money is meant to help run the local jail, where people who are arrested are held for short periods of time. But the state allotment funds more than just the jail. It made up 40 percent of the police department and dispatch’s entire budgets this year.
So, if the DOC were to cut the community jails money, the Haines Police Department could lose almost half of its funding. Police Chief Bill Musser says that loss could shut down the jail, and it could also mean downsizing the five-officer, five-dispatcher departments.
“Ultimately the cuts may reduce staffing in both dispatch and in terms of the officers,” Musser said.
Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner Remond Henderson says they’re learning that communities might rely on the state funding more than the DOC realized.
“We are not surprised at the fact that communities are coming forward and saying this will have an impact,” Henderson said. “We did not know what the extent of the impact would be.”
The community jails contracts cost the DOC about $10.5 million this year. Southeast communities that would be affected are Haines, Petersburg, Wrangell, Sitka and Craig. There are two DOC-run corrections facilities in Southeast where inmates can serve out longer sentences – in Juneau and Ketchikan.
Henderson says the governor has charged DOC with a general fund budget reduction of eight percent effective July 1. Zeroing out the community jails funding would take care of about 40 percent of that reduction. Henderson notes they’re also looking at how to cut costs at larger corrections facilities.
One reason the DOC is considering this cut is because a number of community jail beds go empty. Henderson says of the about 157 beds in the 15 jails, only half are filled on average each night. In Haines, that number is even lower. Of the six beds in the Haines jail, Henderson says on average only one is used per day.
Chief Musser says that shows that crime is low in Haines. But the jail is still important.
“We may only occupy one bed, that’s nice in terms of the community, but we still have to be able to hold them there when we do have a problem.”
The Haines jail is classified as a Rural Jail Facility. It serves not only Haines police arrests, but Skagway police, state troopers, federal border agents and Coast Guard.
Musser says the jail held a total of 58 inmates throughout 2014. Inmates can serve up to 14 days in the jail.
“Most of the misdemeanors we get here are usually short, simple sentences,” Musser said. “For instance, anywhere for three upwards to 10 days for a DUI depending on the level of the DUI.”
Not having a local jail could mean people who are sentenced to serve even a short amount of time would go to Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau.
Walker’s proposed budget will likely go through a number of revisions before gaining the state legislature’s approval. The final budget will be decided in May. Meanwhile, Henderson says the DOC is reaching out to communities to see what kind of fallout the funding cuts would cause.
Since the funding makes up 40 percent of the Haines Police Department and dispatch’s budgets, Musser says he’ll work with other police chiefs to voice their opposition to the cuts.
“It’s gonna affect operations and it could affect personnel,” Musser said. “And it may well impact people’s ability to visit or have contact with people in the jail, so they’re gonna spend more money to make their visitations by having to travel. I think it’s gonna increase cost to the state because of travel. But bottom line for us is it may impact our services because we may have to reduce if we have moneys that we’re used to using that are no longer available.”
Musser says if they have to let go police officer or dispatchers because of the funding cut, it wouldn’t just impact the jail. It would impact the police’s community services as whole.
Haines Borough Manager Dave Sosa says this is the largest potential cut to Haines funding he’s seen in Walker’s proposed budget. If it goes through, Sosa says Haines will either have to lose some police services or figure out a way to make up for the funding loss.
The Fairbanks North Star Borough Schools superintendent says the district is facing a budget shortfall of up to $11 million in the coming school year. Karen Gaborik says that will require the district to eliminate more than 60 jobs.
There are three Yukon Quest teams currently running among the top-10 that did not plan on racing with the front-runners when they left Whitehorse.
In fact, none of them were able to complete the race last year, so they returned simply to finish what they started.
When Mike Ellis arrived in Dawson City, he had no idea what his place was.
“Art the beginning of the race I said I thought I’d be lucky to be even in the top-15 with the field and the names that this race had,” he said.
Ellis has started the Quest six times, but he has only finished three.
“This is the first Quest I’ve ever run where I didn’t’ have a schedule written down in my book, where I didn’t have definitive plan of what I was going to do,” Ellis said. “I really just wanted to put my blinders on and just focus on my dog team and I think that’s served me very well so far.”
French Canadian Normand Casavant had a similar attitude headed into the race.
“I just want to have a happy run and I let my dogs go and if I’m having a nice race and a competitive one, that’s life that’s going to give it to me and that’s maybe what’s happened right now,” Casavant said.
Last year, a case of shingles cut Casavant’s race short. He says the experience changed his perspective, but there are some things that never change.
Casavant is known as the singing musher, and that’s what he did when he realized he was running right on the heels of Cody Strathe.
“As we climbed up King Solomon’s Dome, the snow got deeper and deeper and my leaders got really excited to break trail and were just flying,” he said.
Strathe also came to finish what he started last year. In 2014, he had to scratch from the race with just over 100 miles to go. He says the early part of the race was tough, but he was encouraged when what started as a slow slog just outside Dawson City turned into a high point for his team.
“We got up on top and they were busting into drifts and bouncing through and we’d stop and the whole team’s tails would be wagging,” Strathe said.
The top-10 teams are likely to cross the Canada-Alaska border today. They’ve come just over halfway, but there’s still 400 miles of rough trail ahead before they reach the finish in Fairbanks.