The debate over whether to attack Syria is extremely fluid right now. President Barack Obama, in a national address Tuesday night, called on Congress to delay a vote authorizing the use of force. Alaska’s delegation has all weighed in against that action.
The State has committed to a formal working relationship with a major Japanese financial institution that wants to develop natural gas projects.
Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan signed the memorandum of understanding with the Japan Bank for International Cooperation on Wednesday during a trip to Tokyo.
The deal is basically an act of financial diplomacy. It establishes that both parties have a mutual interest in getting Alaska natural gas to Japanese markets, and that there’s a potential for the two to work together on financing a gas pipeline or an export facility.
In a phone call from Japan, Sullivan said the agreement is about more than just this one bank. It’s also a good signal to other investors about the viability of Alaska projects.
“It is a big deal,” Sullivan said. “It boosts the credibility of Alaska’s gas commercialization efforts.”
Alaska has pursued a major natural gas project for years, but development has regularly stalled out for cost reasons and disagreements between major stakeholders.
It may become easier for independent energy producers to provide power to the grid. The Regulatory Commission of Alaska has agreed to review out-of-date statutes that some say are holding up renewable energy projects.
The University of Alaska Anchorage has a new athletic director, naming Keith Hackett to lead the department.
After a tumultuous past several months, Vice Chancellor of Administrative Services Bill Spindle believes Hackett is the right person to help heal the program.
“Keith is a guy that has a tremendous reputation in the athletic world for being a relationship builder, someone who knows the business; who works well with people both inside the university and outside,” Spindle said. “And that’s what we’re looking for.”
Hackett replaces Steve Cobb, who was fired in May after questions arose about his handling of a 2011 incident where former hockey coach Dave Shyiak struck a player with a stick during practice.
Hackett comes to UAA with 36 years of higher-education experience, serving the last nine years as the senior associate athletic director for internal affairs at the University of Nevada.
He is expected to start work on Oct. 1.
The demand for rental housing is on the rise, but because of a lack of university-level programs, there aren’t many people prepared to manage properties.
To help remedy that problem, the University of Alaska Anchorage is putting the final touches on the new undergraduate Weidner Program for Property Management and Real Estate.
As the size of rental properties grow, so does the demand for a pool of college graduates who have the necessary education and experience to manage them.
Unfortunately, according to Dean Weidner, the head of Weidner Apartment Homes – which manages a number of properties in Alaska and around the U.S., there aren’t many people who fit that description, so his company, and others like it, have had to make due.
“What we wound up with was maybe taking a restaurant waitress or somebody freshly out of school who we thought might be doing a good job at leasing and sort of throw it on the wall and hoped that it worked out for both parties,” Weidner said.
But, he says the rate of failure was high.
“As we grew, particularly, and we started having properties 100, 200 and 300 units, the business changes from about a $200,000 business a year to a many millions per year,” Weidner said. “So, all of a sudden you’ve got a large, sophisticated business that requires some sophisticated thinking, and analysis and action – and that’s where the college graduate really comes in.”
So, 10 years ago Weidner donated $1 million to UAA’s College of Business and Public Policy to begin developing a real estate and property management program.
Then in 2009, Weidner made an additional contribution of $3 million to really get the ball rolling.
Much of that money went toward the endowment of the Weidner Chair, which, according to the Dean of the College of Business and Public Policy Rashmi Prasad, will play a crucial role in the development of the program and its students.
“The Weidner Chair’s role really is to help, almost to be an architect for the program; to make sure it’s connected to industry very well; to make sure that students are inspired and appreciate the opportunities in this field to counteract any preconceptions they may have or misconceptions they may have,” Prasad said.
At a recent event in UAA’s Rasmusen Hall – where the Business college is housed – Prasad announced lifelong Alaskan Andrew Romerdahl as the first-ever Weidner Chair.
Part of Romerdahl’s duties will be to attract new students and keep them there. He says the job placement statistics for recent graduates of similar programs around the U.S. are impressive, and should make the program an easy sell to prospective students.
“You’re talking 95, 97, 98 percent; almost every student that is passing through there is landing a job directly out of the program,” Romerdahl said. “So, that’s the part that’s really exciting for me.”
This new program may look similar to a previous program that was housed within the College of Business and Public Policy’s finance department, but according to Professor Terry Fields, there are a number of differences.
“You’re gonna see a brand new curriculum and it’s been switched under a management degree, which was felt to be a more appropriate degree to house it under,” Fields said. “The largest thing you’re gonna see is the designation attainment now and the new curriculum that’s developed under that program.”
The department hopes to graduate between 25 and 30 students per year; and the first ones could receive their degrees as soon as 2015.
The tallest peak in North America is not as tall as previously thought. That’s according to new data from a federal and state effort to provide more detailed topographical maps of Alaska. Denali was measured at 20,237 feet – 83 feet shorter than maps indicate today.
Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell made the announcement at a meeting of map collectors gathered in Fairbanks this week. In a media release, Treadwell says “The good news is: Denali is still the tallest peak in North America.”
Denali’s updated height was recorded with radar technology which also revealed that an entire ridgeline of Mt. Dickey in Denali National Park was missing from previous maps.
Denali National Park is the end point of an epic horse pack trip. Gunter Wamser of Germany and Sonja Endlweber of Austria recently spent a week riding through Denali, the last leg of a horse packing journey Wamser began two decades ago in Argentina.
About 250 Panhandle business, government and nonprofit leaders will gather in Sitka Sept. 17-19. It’s the annual meeting of the Southeast Conference, one of the region’s larger organizations.
This year’s meeting will look toward the sea.
That’s according to Shelly Wright, executive director of the Southeast Conference, which is headquartered in Juneau.
“We’re really focusing on the maritime industry in Southeast Alaska, the seafood industry, some of the transportation industry pieces (and) workforce development,” she says. “(We’re) trying to get back to the small business and how we can grow as a region by growing our businesses.”
The organization has been in the middle of a number of efforts to reinvigorate the region’s logging and wood-processing industry.
Wright says the conference will announce plans at the meeting for its own effort.
“To try to manage the Tongass in the way that’s going to create a universal strategy for habitat as well as resource development.”
Q: “And isn’t that something that the Forest Service is already doing?”
A: “We would like to show them a better way.”
The Southeast Conference meeting will include the release of their annual economic roundup at the meeting. (Click to read the conference agenda.)
And a variety of speakers and panelists will talk about mining, transportation and vocational training.
“It really is a one-stop shopping event where you have access to leadership throughout the region and state,” says Robert Venables of Haines, the organization’s energy coordinator.
“We have agency participation and the communities all have an opportunity just to do lessons learned and share experiences of what they’ve been accomplishing, what they hope to accomplish and how we’re doing,” he says.
Yakutat, for example, is trying to be the first Alaska community to use wave power to generate electricity. The conference will get an update from Columbia Power Technologies, a Lower-48 company working on the project.
Venables says a variety of speakers will provide updates on hydropower, biomass and other energy projects throughout the region.
(We have so much surrounding us with wave, water, wood and wind. Those are the technologies that we really need to tap into,” he says.
Conference attendees will tour the Blue Lake Dam expansion project, Sitka’s brewery and the shipbuilding company Allen Marine.
Wright says a panel will also showcase locals.
“We’ve got some entrepreneurs in Sitka that are going to be presenting their business, how they started and how they succeeded in Sitka,” Wright says.
The Southeast Conference will also hold its annual board election. Six of 13 seats are up for grabs.
A 14-foot-long dinosaur sculpture affectionately called Bertie is missing from the Matanuska Valley museum The artwork was stolen from the museum during a break-in this summer and it’s owners want it back. No questions asked.
Members of the Anchorage Tea Party and Libertarian groups have filed an application to put a ballot measure before voters that would prevent the municipality from deducting union dues directly from employee paychecks.
Glen Biegel is a conservative am radio talk show show host in Anchorage who who signed onto the application for the ballot measure.
“The essence of the proposal is that the city should not be responsible for collecting the unions’ dues,” Biegel said. “That if people want to pay their union dues that that should be done through them writing their own checks.”
Biegel says he’s a Tea Party member and he supports recent labor relations changes in states like Wisconsin.
The ballot measure, Beigal says, would serve as an alternative for voters to another proposed ballot measure concerning Ordinance 37. The controversial ordinance, which was passed by the Assembly in March, limits performance pay, benefits, and strikes and allows some municipal jobs to be contracted out.
Russ Millette, who has been involved with the Alaska Republican Party and nearly became it’s chairman last year, also signed onto the initiative application. He says he doesn’t like, what he calls, “forced unionism.”
“If people want to joint a union, they totally have a right to do that under our legal system; and I support that right,” Millette said. ”What they don’t have the right to do is require them to pay union dues and take that as an automatic deduction for the right to work.”
“I’m against forced unionism.”
The application for the ballot measure was submitted last week. City attorneys are reviewing it. The municipal election is scheduled for April 1.
A rash of small plane crashes late this summer in Alaska has pushed the number of crash related fatalities past last year’s total, according to National Transportation Safety Board Alaska Region chief Clint Johnson.
In comparing Thursday’s date with Sept. 10 of last year, Johnson says the actual number of light plane crashes is down.
“In 2012, we had a total of 98 accidents; in 2013, on September 10, we had a total of 85,” Johnson said. “However, that’s where the similarities change.”
“Last year, in September 2012, we had 10 fatalities and, unfortunately, this year, we have 32 fatalities, which is pretty surprising.”
He says an investigation into the most recent crash, on Monday, continues.
The crash of an experimental home-built airplane took the life of Big Lake pilot Kenneth M. Whedbee, and seriously injured passenger Jason Scott.
Johnson says late summer and fall tends to have more fatal plane crashes.
“Obviously, during the latter part of August September, historically for our office has always been a busy season,” he said. “However, this year, it seems to be a little busier in years past – no doubt about it.”
He says it is too early to tell if there are determining factors related to all the crashes.
“Keep in mind that all of these investigations; these most recent accidents here are still very much in progress, whereas they’re still in the very preliminary stages,” Johnson said. “So, it’s way too early to look and see if there are any similarities between any of the accidents.”
NTSB keeps records on the number of crashes and fatalities on a calendar that runs Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.
Johnson says a crash in Soldotna in July took 10 lives, another at Merrill Field in Anchorage recently took two more, while a plane crash on Sept. 5 killed one man.
Other light plane accidents ended without fatalities.
Two men walked eight miles to safety after their plane went down near Nondalton earlier this month, and three men were rescued after their helicopter iced up and was weathered in on Mt. Mageik at Katmai National Park.
A pilot and passenger survived a crash into a lake near Talkeetna over the weekend.
The Chukchi Sea has one of the highest rates of sea ice loss in the Arctic, but the polar bears there don’t appear to be suffering as a result.
A new study from the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service shows the Chukchi Sea bears are just as healthy as they were 20 years ago. The bears still face a grim long term future, but the new research shows there will be a lot of nuance along the way in how climate change plays out for polar bears in the Arctic.
U.S Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Eric Regehr has studied more than 250 polar bears on the Chukchi Sea ice since 2008, but some are more memorable than others. Like the massive male he captured this spring.
“There’s always a sense of mystery when we weigh the bear, we have a tripod and a chain hoist and we start hoisting the bear up off the ground and everyone’s watching the scale, especially if it’s a big bear, watching it go up and up and up and you know this guy, the legs of the tripod are flexing and everybody’s watching with bated breath,” Regehr said.
The final number?
“1,390 pounds, which is a whole lot of bear, by any standard,” Regehr said.
A new record, in fact, for a polar bear captured and released in Alaska.
The previous record was set in 2010, with another bear Regehr caught during his study. Regehr didn’t know what to expect in 2008 when he began looking at the health of Chukchi polar bears.
But since then, Regehr has measured, weighed and taken samples from a lot of fat bears. His study shows bears in the region are doing as well- or even better-than they were 20 years ago.
“So, despite some significant sea ice loss in the Chukchi Sea region, bears have maintained their size, they’ve maintained their body condition, which means their fatness and their level of reproduction,” Regehr said.
It’s a different story for polar bears off Alaska’s north coast, in the Southern Beaufort Sea. According to research from the U.S. Geological Survey, sea ice retreat is clearly making it harder for those bears to find food.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife study shows male bears in the Chukchi Sea weigh on average more than 100 pounds more than their counterparts in the Southern Beaufort Sea.
“Indeed at present time it is something of a tale of two populations,” Regehr said. “Polar bears in Western Alaska appear to be doing well, despite large sea ice declines; polar bears north of Alaska, don’t appear to be doing as well.”
In the Southern Beaufort Sea there’s a longer history of sea ice loss keeping bears away from their preferred hunting habitats, over the biologically productive waters of the continental shelf. And the Chukchi Sea is full of warm, nutrient rich water that produces a lot of food.
Regehr says bears in the Chukchi may have reduced access to seals, but if so, it’s not affecting their size.
“These animals live in a very productive ecosystem,” he said. “So yes, in the past 25 years, the sea ice has reduced, they have less time on sea ice, but we think they probably have enough time on the sea ice to catch as many seals as they need to survive.”
There’s some evidence the Chukchi Sea is even becoming even more productive as the sea ice retreats, allowing more sunlight in the water to produce a bigger algae bloom that pays dividends up the food chain. That may account for the record setting bears Regehr has encountered. But he says if the ice continues melting at the current rate, polar bears in the Chukchi will face a very different future.
“At some point, the sea ice will have declined far enough that polar bears aren’t able to do what they do,” Regehr said. “They don’t have enough time to spend on the sea ice to catch enough seals to remain fat and healthy and have a lot of cubs.”
Regehr doesn’t know if that will happen in five years, or 50, or longer, but he says he hopes the new study helps tell a more complicated, and more interesting story, about the bears in the meantime.
“We’ve done a very good job getting the message out about polar bears,” he said. “And the simple message that’s gotten out has been as goes the sea ice, so go the polar bears.”
The more complex truth about the species leaves a lot of room for future research on the subject. And that means Regehr and his colleagues will be out on the Chukchi Sea ice studying polar bears for many years to come.
Their research appears in the latest issue of Global Change Biology.
Former state senator Bill Ray has died. He was 91.
Ray represented Juneau in the Alaska Legislature for more than 20 years, during a time when a number of landmark projects were built in the capital city, including the State Office Building and Egan Drive. Ray helped secure a downtown facility for the University of Alaska Southeast, and the university named it in his honor.
A Democrat, Ray was elected to the House of Representatives in 1964. He was elected to the Senate in 1970 and served for 16 years.
Jim Duncan represented Juneau in the House at that time and when Ray retired he ran for his senate seat and won.
“He had a great knowledge and understanding of the budget, spent a lot of time at it and knew it pretty much in detail. And that was what was important for Juneau at that time, because clearly Juneau survived on operating budgets,” Duncan says. “It still does to some extent, and getting a good sound operating budget and keeping positions in Juneau was very critical and Bill played a very critical role in doing that.”
Ray had a good sense of humor and those who knew him well also saw a real soft spot under an often gruff exterior.
That tough side helped him negotiate funding for Juneau projects and fight to keep the capital here.
According to his obituary, Ray and his parents moved to Juneau in 1938, when he was a teenager. He worked as a longshoreman, was in the U.S. Navy then returned to Juneau. He commercial fished, worked at his family’s bar then opened several liquor stores.
He was appointed to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board for a two year term in 1959 by Gov. William Egan, and was later reappointed and elected chairman of the board.
Ray was defeated in his first campaign for the Alaska House in 1962, but the 22 years he served after that are chronicled in a book he wrote then published in 2003, entitled “Liquor, Legislation and Laughter.”
As Duncan puts it, Bill Ray was among the legislators elected shortly after state
Ray died at his home in Sequim, Wash., where he and his wife Nancy moved a number of years ago.
No services are planned.
Alaska Airlines is showing off an aircraft it plans to start using in the state next year. The Bombardier Q-400 is scheduled for use on Fairbanks-Anchorage and Kodiak- Anchorage routes, where the 76-seat twin prop plane will replace or augment current service with larger 737 jets.
Hoonah’s village Native corporation may build its own cruise-ship dock, bypassing a city effort funded by the Legislature.
Huna Totem Corp. executives say it won’t use a berthing facility planned by the city, because cruise lines don’t like the location.
It prefers a different spot, closer to its Icy Strait Point renovated cannery attraction, which brings the ships to town.
CEO Larry Gaffaney posted a letter to shareholders recently saying the corporation will pursue funding and construction of its own pier, without city involvement.
Gaffaney also wrote that the city’s preferred site, called Shaman Point, should be protected for its cultural values. He could not be immediately reached for further comment.
The Legislature several years ago awarded the city a grant – now $15 million – to build a multipurpose dock. Lawmakers said cruise ships would be its main customers.
The state Division of Community and Regional Affairs recently suspended that grant, meaning none of it can be spent.
Director Scott Ruby says the state will take it away entirely, if the city proceeds with its plans.
“Regardless of what the state thinks about whether it’s a good location or a bad location, if the cruise-ship industry is saying ‘We will not use it,’ then there’s a problem there,” Ruby says.
He met with Hoonah officials Thursday. He says there was a good discussion, but no resolution.
Hoonah Interim City Administrator Bob Prunella says his delegation gave the state new research backing its dock location.
“The city feels like it’s (done) lots of study, geo-tech study and wind and waves on all three sites. And this one comes out looking like, by far, a preferred site for an operation like this,” Prunella says.
He says a site preferred by Huna Totem and the cruise lines would face rough winter weather. That could prevent other uses, such as commercial fishing boats or barges.
Prunella remains optimistic, even though there have been no recent meetings with the corporation or the cruise lines.
“We will move forward and see how this pans out. Give it another try, make some more effort. I’d like to see effort on both sides to come to something that everyone can live with,” he says.
Community and Regional Affairs Director Ruby also hopes the parties can come to an agreement. But that has to be soon.
His boss, Commerce Commissioner Susan Bell, recently gave the city of Hoonah notice that it would lose the dock grant if no compromise was reached. The deadline is in a week or so.
Hoonah is 40 air miles west of Juneau. It has around 800 residents, including many Huna Totem shareholders.
Talkeetna’s honorary mayor is recovering in his hometown after a dog attack on Labor Day weekend sent him to the hospital. The attack left Mayor Stubbs, a 16-year-old yellow tabby, with a punctured lung, broken sternum, and a four inch gash in his side, as well as other injuries.
A home-built airplane crashed Monday north of Big Lake. The pilot of the plane was killed; he’s identified as Kenneth Whedbee, 66, of Big Lake.
Helicopters had to be used to get to the site.
A passenger, Jason Scott, 37, survived. The plane’s locator beacon went off Monday and a Life Med helicopter was first to arrive, then an Army National Guard helicopter that had been standing by for a training mission was used to lift the victims out.
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Clint Johnson says the plane was an experimental home-built Zenith 701.
The Air Force and the Coast Guard continue looking for a plane that went missing Monday on a flight from Yakutat to Anchorage.
The pilot is reported to be Alan Foster, 47, of Eagle River.
A Coast Guard H-60 with an Air Force para-rescue jumper on board did four shoreline searches between Icy Bay and Yakutat yesterday.
An Air Force C-130 is expected to join the search Tuesday.
Weather in the area was described as raining, 40 knot winds, three-quarter mile visibility, and ceiling of only about 300feet.
The Anchorage School Board unanimously approved a new contract for teachers on Monday night.
The district saved money in two ways, by not providing benefits for some part-time teachers and by issuing bonuses that do not count toward benefits for other teachers instead of increasing their salaries.
The new contract impacts about 3,500 teachers who are members of the Anchorage Education Association.
It was negotiated over the past six months.
It gives teachers a 1 percent salary increase for the next three years along with $1,500 bonuses in the first and third year.
About 150 part-time teachers will lose benefits. Salaries for all the other teachers will not keep up with inflation and the bonuses will not count toward benefit programs.
For several years now, the district has been wrestling how to deal with the ballooning cost of benefits.
The district’s CFO encouraged the board to approve the contract and school board members expressed overall satisfaction with it.
Board Member Natasha Von Imhoff, although she voted yes, said she had worries about how the district would pay for the additional $24 million the new contract would cost them and noted that that the district can’t afford it without additional funding from the state legislature.
Every year, the state spends $100 million on school districts’ utility bills. Back in 2010, the legislature established a loan program to help bring down those costs. The loans would cover energy upgrades to public buildings, and they would be paid back with the money saved on heating fuel. But even though rising energy costs continue to be a problem for districts, APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that schools haven’t used the funds as a fix.
The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) is in charge of managing what’s called the “energy efficiency revolving loan fund.” They can issue up to $250 million dollars in loans to school districts, boroughs, municipalities, and the university system. Given what a big problem energy costs are across the state, you might expect Eric Havelock, who administers the program, to be swamped with applications.
You would be wrong.
“We’ve had a lot of calls and some basic questions,” says Havelock. “But we’ve actually only received two applications.”
Those came from the Cities of Kenai and Seward, and neither one of them ended up going through with the loan. Meanwhile, there’s been no shortage of private property owners turning to AHFC for financing.
“The idea was to bring the same benefits to public buildings that we had brought to residential buildings,” says CEO Bryan Butcher.
Here’s how the program is supposed to work: A public entity decides they want to get an energy upgrade, so they get a building audit where a contractor guarantees a certain percentage of energy savings. AHFC then provides a loan to cover the cost of the audit and any retrofitting that happens. After the upgrades are made, the building owner pays off the loan using the money that would have otherwise gone to heat and electricity. After the loan is paid off, the energy savings can be put toward another part of the budget.
And what happens if those promised savings don’t materialize? Butcher says the contractor is on the hook for the difference.
“You don’t want to borrow money on the assumption that you’re going to be getting a 25 percent energy reduction, find out it’s only five percent, and then say, ‘Uh oh. What are we going to do now?’”
Butcher only took the reins at AHFC this year, after serving as the state’s revenue commissioner. But back in 2010, he handled government relations for AHFC and helped shuttle the loan program through the legislature.
Originally, the loan fund was going to be started with seed money from the federal government as part of the stimulus package. It was a controversial fight, with the $18 million in funding initially being rejected by then-Gov. Sarah Palin and then being re-approved by the legislature. In the end, lawmakers decided to just use the stimulus money for energy audits, and they separately gave AHFC the authority to bond for $250 million whenever they started getting applications in. Because no loans have been made, no bonds have been issued so far.
Given that the state has 5,000 public buildings, Butcher is surprised by the lack of loan applications.
“Okay, we have a program. We feel like it’s set up to work. We know that reducing energy costs by 15 to 30 percent is going to be beneficial for any community. Why isn’t it happening?”
Butcher says it’s not for lack of trying. He says AHFC has done outreach, and they’ve been looking at why school districts aren’t biting.
“We can’t obviously do this program alone,” says Butcher. “We can set the program up, and we can laud the benefits of it, but it takes a lot of different state and municipal agencies working together.”
Bruce Johnson is the head of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, and he says that Butcher is right — that it’s not unfamiliarity with the program that’s kept districts from applying. It’s a question of who can make long-term commitments about a school district’s budget.
“I think that everyone was aware that this was available,” says Johnson. “But I think we looked at who owns the facilities in the State of Alaska, the two entities are local municipalities, where they have a tax base and are either an organized borough or city, and the state owns the rest.”
Because school districts budget only one year ahead, committing to a five-, ten-, or fifteen-year loan isn’t something they can do easily. The decision to get an energy efficiency loan is really up to the state and local governments that own the school buildings.
Johnson says there’s another big reason AHFC hasn’t seen any takers for their loans. In the past, school districts have had success getting state grants to cover energy upgrades. It’s money they don’t have to pay back or worry about affecting their budget a decade out.
But with oil revenues declining and Gov. Sean Parnell implementing a cap on general fund spending, Johnson thinks there may be more interest from districts in the loan program. Johnson says energy upgrades will be a major point of discussion at the Alaska Council of School Administrators’ September conference. Lawmakers have also had regular meetings on the education budget this summer and have identified energy as an area where spending could be reduced.
“It’s a new era in Alaska,” says Johnson. “This next decade is going to be challenging financially. It’s going to impact public education, and as a result we want dollars in the classroom.”
Better that, he thinks, than paying the heat.