Alaska News

House Passes Bill Extending PILT, Alaska’s Village Safe Water Program

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-29 18:20

The U.S. House today passed a farm bill that includes programs for Alaska unrelated to agriculture. The bill continues another year of funding for Payment in Lieu of Taxes, a program that pays municipalities surrounded by federal land to compensate for the loss of tax base. The so-called PILT program sends about $26 million a year to Alaska and is a large portion of the budget for some local governments. The bill also renews Alaska’s Village Safe Water program, which gets some $30 million a year from the federal government.

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The final bill did not include a proposed cut to the food stamp program, which Congressman Don Young says would have hurt thousands of Alaska families. The farm bill passed overwhelmingly in the House and is expected to come up for a final vote in the Senate next week.

Categories: Alaska News

State of the Union Address Irks Alaska’s Delegation

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-29 18:19

President Obama gave his State of the Union address Tuesday night, and the response from Alaska’s U.S. senators was swift and negative, particularly to Obama’s pledge to act without Congress where he can.

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“Going it alone is not a solution and it’s counterproductive in government,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a video rebuttal. “Consensus-building is hard, but 100 percent do-able.”

Sen. Mark Begich, the only Alaska Democrat in Congress, took swipes at the president, too. He says Obama should’ve focused on oil and gas development and he promises he won’t sit idle for what he calls an executive power grab from an Administration that doesn’t get Alaska’s core issues.

Categories: Alaska News

From Paying $1,000 A Month For Health Care To $100

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-29 18:18

A Juneau woman says getting insurance under the Affordable Care Act means she’ll take better care of herself. Prior to January 1st, Bonnie Berg was paying up to $1000 a month for health insurance. Now, she’s paying less than $100.

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Bonnie Berg spent most of her professional career working in social services. She always had insurance through her job and when she retired in August 2010, she kept it through COBRA.

“I was paying about a $1000 a month, and about $250 each quarter for my basic meds. So in other words, it was costing me $13,000 a year just for the dead basics,” she explains.

After 18 months on COBRA, Berg switched to a catastrophic plan, which cost $526 each month. She paid close to $900 every quarter for two asthma medications. Her deductible was $5,000.

Bonnie Berg. Photo by Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau.

In the 40 months since retirement, Berg went to the doctor only twice. “I wasn’t willing to pay for any tests on my own. I wasn’t willing to do anything the doctor really wanted me to do, unless I was having an episode,” Berg says. “I probably allowed myself the worse medical care of my life at the time I was paying huge prices.”

When the Affordable Care Act became law, Berg wanted to be on a health plan as soon as she could, though she will qualify for Medicare in eight months. “This is going to save me $4- or $5,000 just in eight months. If anything happens, it’s going to save me a lot more than that,” she says.

Berg tried to navigate healthcare.gov on her own in mid-October, but didn’t get anywhere. Then she found someone to help.

“That makes a huge difference. You really need to do a hook-up with a navigator who has done this for a few people now or an agent with Enroll Alaska. It’s free. They know exactly what questions to ask. They put it all in in the correct format and tell you what to do next,” Berg says.

Berg now pays $90 a month for health insurance. Her deductible is $250 and her maximum out of pocket is $500.

Enroll Alaska’s Chief Operating Officer Tyann Boiling says Berg’s case is not rare:

“We get a lot of very, very happy people that are getting health insurance for the first time or they’re getting health insurance that’s affordable to them for the first time.”

Boling says about 80 percent of people signing up with Enroll Alaska receive financial assistance.

Juneau’s United Way Navigator Crystal Bourland says people are also happy to find their plans include free preventative services, like cholesterol screenings, colonoscopies, and immunizations, ”Regardless of which plan they choose they can still go to the doctor to get preventative and wellness checks. Just some of those added protections that exist under the Affordable Care Act, I think, is usually pretty surprising for people.”

Despite the positives, Enroll Alaska’s Boling says the health brokerage firm has made 1,100 enrollments, but she thinks that should be at least 15,000 by now. She blames the early troubles with the healthcare.gov website, “We lost two full months of enrolling people and those were critical months. That’s where the momentum was and we couldn’t get people enrolled. I think that we lost a lot of people and we lost them for good.”

Bonnie Berg was not one of those people. She worked with an agent for more than a month before she successfully enrolled in mid-December. Now, she says, she’s ready to take better care of herself:

“I’m going to be putting some thought into my health which is a good thing for anybody to do.”

The deadline to apply for a plan that starts in March is February 15. Open enrollment ends March 31 and won’t begin again until November.

Categories: Alaska News

Senate Panel Hears Bill On Elementary School Reading Programs

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-29 18:17

With education being a hot issue this legislative session, some politicians are looking at the basics of learning in their effort to improve student outcomes. Today, the Senate Education Committee held its first hearing on a bill that would establish a reading program targeted at kindergarteners through third graders.

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Gary Stevens chairs that committee, and he’s sponsoring the bill. The goal is to reach struggling students early, instead of playing a difficult and costly game of catch-up.

“You would think everyone who’s an adult out there with a job can read, but it appears that’s not always the case,
says Stevens. “There are people struggling somewhere along the way, they didn’t pick up that ability, and have never since.”

The bill is based on a literacy law that’s on the books in Colorado, and it would require school districts to conduct reading assessments to identify students who are behind. Those students would be given extra support in getting up to grade level.

During the hearing, Stevens said that many Alaska school districts are already taking those steps with their students, but acknowledged that it could be a challenge for smaller districts to comply with the legislation.
The Department of Education is reserving judgment on the bill.

“Is it the absolute right direction? I think it’d be interesting to hear from districts,” says Les Morse, a deputy commissioner with the department. “But there are some very good and important approaches to reading instruction that are embedded within this legislation.”

If approved, the reading program is expected to cost the state $200,000.

According to a report released this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Alaska is in the bottom ten states for childhood reading proficiency. About three-quarters of Alaska students are not reading at grade level, which is slightly up from a decade ago.

Categories: Alaska News

Richardson Highway Opens North Of Mile 19

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-29 18:16

The Alaska Department of Transportation opened up a section of the Richardson Highway today. DOT cleared avalanches from the road north of mile 19, but the highway is still closed between Miles 12 and 19.

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Categories: Alaska News

Can You Guess When The Road To Valdez Will Reopen?

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-29 18:15

Nobody knows when the Richardson Highway is going to reopen, but the Valdez Parks and Recreation Department is hoping everyone has a fun time guessing.

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They’ve started a Nenana Classic-style contest to see who can accurately predict when the highway closure will end.  They hope it will be a fun distraction as residents wait for the highway to reopen.

The person who guesses the closest time will win a prize package worth $100.

Categories: Alaska News

Nauman May Be the Only Woman in this Year’s Quest, But She’s One Tough Rookie

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-29 18:13

Mandy Nauman is the only woman racing in this year’s Yukon Quest. Credit Trail Breaker Kennel / https://www.facebook.com/trailbreakerAK.

Not everyone who signs up for the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race actually gets a dog team to the start line.  When sign-ups opened last fall, at least two women added their names to the roster, but one dropped out two weeks ago.  That leaves one woman in a field of 18 mushers.

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“I’m pretty tough!” says Mandy Nauman.  “I think I’m tough, but who knows.  Once I get on that Quest Trail I might not be that tough!”

The Fairbanks musher has been training dogs from Veteran Brent Sass’s Wild and Free kennel based in Eureka, AK for the last eight years. For Nauman, the Yukon Quest has been dream in the making for nearly a decade.

In a recent email, Mandy Nauman says that “if [she] can inspire one little girl to follow her dreams, then [she’s] done [her] job” as a female musher, but beyond that, Nauman isn’t likely to focus on being the only woman to race a dog team in the Yukon Quest this year.  “I am a rookie… very much a rookie.” she laughs.

It’s clear she’s nervous about the race, but driving a dog team in the Quest has been a long-time goal for the 32-year-old Minnesota native.  “I’ve been running dogs for about eight years but I’ve gotten pretty serious about it in the last three years,” says Nauman.

She wasn’t the only women to sign up for the race, but after a recent withdrawal, she’s the only woman who will start this year.  “My goal is to finish,” she says.  “I don’t really care where I finish.  Granted, I don’t want to be last, but if I am last and I finish then I’m fine with that.”

She can’t exactly explain what it is about sled dogs that gets her fired up, but she caught the mushing bug at Vermillion Community College in Ely, Minnesota years ago.

“One of the classes I had to take was a dog mushing class,” explains Nauman. “I played softball for the college, and my coach was also the instructor so he had taken me out on a sled a couple times.  And I had been to Alaska a couple summers before. I worked in Denali, so I knew about dog mushing and I was just like ‘I’m going back to Alaska,’ so, I dropped out of college and moved here to Fairbanks.”

That’s when she met seven-time finisher Brent Sass.  The two worked together at Chena Hot Springs and they’ve been friends ever since.

“When I first started getting into long distance mushing, Brent was the guy I’ was working with,” she says, “so I’ve know his dogs for eight years.  I love them!  They’re part of my family and I couldn’t imagine anybody else’s dogs, honestly.”

She spent the fall training up twelve dogs from Wild and Free Mushing for this year’s race.  Like her, many of those dogs are also rookies.   “I have four dogs that are under the age of three right now.” She’s not fazed by their inexperience.  By the time she gets to the start line, she says her team will also include a few veteran dogs.  “A lot of these dogs have been on that trail which is going to be huge, so they’re going to teach me the trail and teach me a lot of things,” she says. “Like to be tough and they’ll teach me to be patient and take my time and not stress out about the little things and just do what I do best and that’s take care of the dogs.”

Nauman laughs when she tries to explain what her family thinks of her lifestyle. “They think i’m crazy!”  But she laughs when she admits that they could be right. “Yeah, I mean you might have to be a little bit crazy.  But in all seriousness, they one hundred percent support me,” she smiles.  “I’ve been doing it for eight years I think they just figure it is time that it happens.  I say I’m only going to do it once, I think [my boyfriend] Matt will only let me do it once.” She’s quick to add that long-time boyfriend, Matt Austin fully supports her.  “I think if I say I want to do it again, I think he’ll tell me to go find another boyfriend!” she chuckles.

Because this may be Nauman’s first and only run down the Yukon Quest trail, she says finishing in Whitehorse is her only option. “I know it’s going to be the hardest thing I ever do but you know with Wild and Free… you don’t quit when you’re running Wild and Free dogs,” she says in a serious voice. “So, I’m just going to keep that in the back of my head and chug along and I am going to do it!  I’m going to do it!”

Mandy Nauman and her dog team  will line out at the start of the 31st annual Yukon Quest International Sled dog race in downtown Fairbanks Saturday.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 29, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-29 17:59

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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Planned Parenthood Suing Over Abortion Funding Reg

The Associated Press

Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest says it is suing over regulations in Alaska that would further define what constitutes a “medically necessary” abortion for purposes of receiving Medicaid funding.

Fire Destroys Fairbanks Apartment Building

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Fire destroyed an apartment building in Fairbanks this morning. The blaze caused multiple injuries and two residents were unaccounted for as of this morning.

Judiciary Committee Explores Omnibus Crime Bill

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Criminal justice reform may be coming to Alaska. After spending the summer collecting more information on efforts in other parts of the country, the Senate Judiciary Committee has started holding hearings again on their omnibus crime bill.

Bill Aims To Arm VPSOs As Danger Levels Rise

Zachariah Hughes, KNOM – Nome

A legislative committee discussed a proposal yesterday to allow arming village public safety officers in rural Alaska.

House Passes Bill Extending PILT, Alaska’s Village Safe Water Program

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

The  U.S. House today passed a farm bill that includes programs for Alaska unrelated to agriculture. The bill continues another year of funding for Payment in Lieu of Taxes, a program that pays municipalities surrounded by federal land to compensate for the loss of tax base. The so-called PILT program sends about $26 million a year to Alaska and is a large portion of the budget for some local governments. The bill also renews Alaska’s Village Safe Water program, which gets some $30 million a year from the federal government.

State of the Union Address Irks Alaska’s Delegation

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

President Obama gave his State of the Union address last night, and the response from Alaska’s U.S. senators was swift and negative, particularly to Obama’s pledge to act without Congress where he can.

From Paying $1,000 A Month For Health Care To $100

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

A Juneau woman says getting insurance under the Affordable Care Act means she’ll take better care of herself.  Prior to January 1st, Bonnie Berg was paying up to $1000 a month for health insurance. Now, she’s paying less than $100.

Senate Panel Hears Bill On Elementary School Reading Programs

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

With education being a hot issue this legislative session, some politicians are looking at the basics of learning in their effort to improve student outcomes. Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee held its first hearing on a bill that would establish a reading program targeted at kindergarten through third grade.

Richardson Highway Opens North Of Mile 19

Tony Gorman, KCHU – Valdez

The Alaska Department of Transportation opened up a section of the Richardson Highway today. DOT cleared avalanches from the road north of mile 19, but the highway is still closed between Miles 12 and 19.

Can You Guess When The Road To Valdez Will Reopen?

Tony Gorman, KCHU – Valdez

Nobody knows when the Richardson Highway is going to reopen, but the Valdez Parks and Recreation Department is hoping everyone has a fun time guessing.

They’ve started a Nenana Classic-style contest to see who can accurately predict when the highway closure will end.  They hope it will be a fun distraction as residents wait for the highway to reopen.

The person who guesses the closest time will win a prize package worth $100.

Baranof Goat Study Unlocks Clues To Island’s Paleo Past

Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka

A study to help establish goat hunting guidelines on Baranof Island has revealed much more than how to manage the goat population. It has sparked a mystery. And it’s offered clues to what the island looked like before there were hunters.

Nauman May Be The Only Woman In This Year’s Yukon Quest, But She’s One Tough Rookie

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

There’s only one woman in the Yukon Quest field of 18 mushers.

Fairbanks Musher Mandy Nauman has been training dogs for the last eight years.

Categories: Alaska News

Officials Unsure When Richardson Highway Will Reopen

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-29 12:14

The state Transportation Department now says they don’t know when the flooded highway through Keystone Canyon outside of Valdez will be passable again.

Water dammed up behind an avalanche continues to go down slowly and a video camera is being installed to monitor it.

They hope to have avalanche areas above that cleared soon but caution anyone traveling that part of the Richardson Highway once it is re-operned to beware of the danger of more avalanches and watch out for flaggers.

Categories: Alaska News

Vote on Anchorage Labor Law Set for November Ballot

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-29 00:52

A tense moment last year at public hearing about when to hold a vote on a controversial labor ordinance.

The Anchorage Assembly finally set a date for a vote on a referendum that would repeal a controversial labor law Tuesday night. It won’t happen until fall.

Voters will finally be able to cast ballots on a referendum that would repeal a controversial labor law, but not any time soon. That was the decision of the Anchorage Assembly Tuesday night.

“The body ended up setting another date for the referendum which will be with the regular municipal election in November,” Assembly Chair Ernie Hall said.

The Assembly voted in October to put the referendum on the April Municipal Election ballot, but Mayor Dan Sullivan vetoed their decision.

Then the date for a vote was up in the air because of two court cases surrounding the labor law, one which went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Assembly passed the law, also known as ‘the responsible labor act’ or AO-37, last March despite protests. It takes away municipal workers right to strike and restricts collective bargaining rights.

It would affect more than 2,000 city employees. The labor law will be suspended until after the vote. Some Assembly members, including Dick Traini, argued that the city charter required a vote be held within 75 days of the most recent court decision.

Traini was not pleased that the vote was being put off until November.

“It’s a mistake by the body,” he said. “The six that decided to ignore the 22,000 people that requested the vote on AO-37. You know when those people signed their names they anticipated voting expeditiously on that thing. And you know it’s not going to help the people that want to keep AO-37 because those 22,000 people are going to grow. In November, they will repeal that critter.”

The Assembly voted 6-5 to put the referendum on the November ballot. Those in favor argued there would be higher voter turnout. Chris Birch, Jennifer Johnston, Ernie Hall, Adam Trombley, Amy Demboski, and Bill Starr voted for it. Critics said it was a move to slow down momentum for the repeal.  Traini, Tim Steele, Elvi Gray-Jackson, Paul Honeman, and Patrick Flynn voted against.

Another ordinance was introduced at Tuesday’s meeting that would change the entire municipal election from April to November. That would not go into effect until 2017. Public testimony will be taken on that issue on Feb. 25.

Categories: Alaska News

Begich Pledges To Restore Veteran Benefits

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:28

Veterans and military members in Alaska and around the country have been outraged at Congress since December, when lawmakers passed a budget that would trim their retirement benefits, starting in 2015.

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All three members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation voted for that budget, even though they oppose the military pension decrease.

Photo by Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC.

Senator Mark Begich today stood with a group of veterans before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing and pledged to restore the nearly $6 billion decrease.

At first, the cut doesn’t sound like much. It would drop a retiree’s cost-of-living adjustment one point below the inflation rate until the veteran reaches age 62. But some enlistees retire and start collecting their pensions while still in their 30s, so this COLA cut could mean diminished benefits for two and a half decades.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says for some individuals, it adds up to an $80,000 sacrifice.

“But I think most importantly it’s a broken promise,” Rieckhoff said. “This is America breaking their promise to men and women in uniform, and it’s unprecedented.”

Alaska has more veterans per capita than any other state, and they’re relatively young.  More than a quarter of them have served since 2001. It’s no surprise, then, that Alaska’s congressional delegation is getting an earful. Sen. Begich says he’s heard from more than 800 Alaskans objecting to the cut.

“I can tell you, the calls to me office are coming in 2-to-1, 3-to-1 over the next most popular issue, healthcare,” Begich said. “So this issue has taken front and center.”

Begich defends his vote for the budget containing the COLA cut, saying it was necessary to prevent another government shutdown. More than a dozen bills have been introduced to rollback the COLA cut. It’s a popular position in Congress, and Begich, running for re-election this year, sides with the veterans.

“When these heroes signed up and made the military a career, it’s what they were promised and what they expected, and they should expect no less now,” Begich said.

He isn’t proposing a specific way to pay for the rollback but says finding the money – $6 billion over 10 years – won’t be too difficult.

Some lawmakers are proposing to take it out of the Defense budget – exactly what the Pentagon fears. Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that something must be done to rein in personnel costs, which he says are unsustainably high. He says military compensation has been climbing since the 1990s and is now higher on average when compared to equivalent civilian jobs. Winnefeld says the growing cost threatens the Defense Department’s ability to prepare the troops.

“In the end, we believe the most important way we keep faith with the fantastic young men and women who volunteer to defend our nation is to only send them into combat with the best possible training and equipment we can provide,” Winnefeld said. “Controlling compensation growth in a tough budget environment will help us do just that.”

But even he says he can’t support the COLA cut that Congress passed.

Winnefeld says such a change should include a grandfather clause to exempt current retirees and service members.

Categories: Alaska News

USDA Under Secretary Patrice Kunesh Visits Bethel Region

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:27

Patrice Kunesh, Under Secretary of the USDA Rural Development, visited the Bethel region Tuesday to see some of the department’s projects in action.

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Kunesh and an entourage from D.C. and Anchorage toured the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, met with the Association of Village Council Presidents and stopped into Meyers Farm.

KYUK Acting General Manager, Shane Iverson, receives the grant from Patrice Kunesh with Jim Norlund looking on. Photo by Dean Swope.

Farmer Tim Meyers has grown so much local produce on the tundra in Bethel that he is exporting to Anchorage and Bristol Bay.

Kunesh says the USDA is committed to making sure locally grown foods support the community both economically and nutritionally.

“One of the things we’ve seen in some of the harshest conditions is folks just not getting good fresh food,” Kunesh says. “It compromises health, it compromises vitality.”

Jim Norlund is the USDA Rural Development Alaska State Director and was acting as tour guide.

“As Alaskans, we’re pretty good at providing protein as we have wild fish and game in our freezers but what’s really missing from a lot of rural Alaska is the access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Norlund says.

Kunesh also visited two villages: housing projects in Quinihagak and conservation projects in Kwethluk.

While in Bethel, Kunesh announced a $718,656 grant to Bethel Broadcasting, Inc. which runs KYUK. The money will expand two digital channels into eight free TV channels.

Long-time KYUK Engineer, Joe Seibert, says the grant will also buy digital production equipment to help archive 40 years of video, some of which is still on reel to reel.

“One of our main missions is to document and preserve information about the local culture and area and we have over 3,000 hours of video tape that’s slowly going bad because video has a shelf life to it. It will break down over time,” Seibert says.

The Bethel visit is part of a three-day Alaska tour. Kunesh will be in Anchorage Wednesday and Juneau Thursday.

Categories: Alaska News

Drug Court Could Offer Jail Alternative

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:26

A Fairbanks substance abuse counselor is pushing for the state to consider an alternative to jail for drug offenders. The effort is in response to a steady stream of young heroin addicts, some of whom end up in jail.

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Categories: Alaska News

Temperature Records Fall Across Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:25

UPDATE: Alyeska Resort’s Chair 6, Tram, Ted’s Express, Quad, and Magic Carpets will reopen Thursday, 1/30/14 at 1:00 p.m.

Temperature records fell across the state yesterday. With highs in the 40s, 50s and 60s, much of the state is experiencing weather that feels more like May or June than January.

Photo by Stefanie Flynn, The Bake Shop.

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Port Alsworth, on Lake Clark, was the warmest spot in the state Monday at 62 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded in Alaska in January. Nome hit 51 degrees, the highest mid winter temperature recorded there.

Rick Thoman is Climate Program Manager for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. He says a big high pressure system has been stuck over most of the state.

“It’s lasted almost 10 days now so this has provided a lot of time for warm air to be moved north, to melt snow in places that normally have snow this time of year and produce lots of temperature extremes,” Thoman said.

Seward hit 61 degrees on Monday. It was 57 in Homer. Even the Brooks Range has seen temperatures in the 40s.

The length of the warm spell is noteworthy. Thoman says you have to go back to the late 1970s or early 80s to find anything similar.

Photo by Stefanie Flynn, The Bake Shop.

“This is one of those dramatic excursions that kind of get weather people excited,” Thoman said.

In Girdwood, home to Alyeska Ski Resort, this ‘dramatic excursion’ from normal winter elicits a different reaction.

“I just looked up the mountain and it’s frightful right now,” Stefanie Flynn, who co-owns The Bake Shop, a popular restaurant at the base of Alyeska, said.

The ski resort will be closed until Thursday, due to poor conditions. Flynn says The Bake Shop will stay open, but business has been slow.

“We see very unhappy, sad looking customers, but we also see that of course the numbers are lacking, we don’t get as many people into our restaurant for lunch or breakfast so we do see the impact here, especially on the weekends,” Flynn said.

Photo by Stefanie Flynn, The Bake Shop.

Flynn says the raspberries in her yard are leafing out. She’s hoping winter will return quickly with a healthy dump of snow. But Rick Thoman, from the National Weather Service says that’s not likely any time soon. He says the warm temperatures will begin to moderate, but snow isn’t in the forecast for at least the next few weeks.

“It really does not appear that we will see significant snowfall over most of Alaska so that places that have lost their snow cover or have a serious ice cover on their snow are not likely to get much relief from that,” Thoman said. “And really at this point, in the next two weeks we don’t see temperatures dramatically below normal most anywhere in Alaska.”

A recent Facebook post offered what may be the shortest and most accurate way to describe the unusual weather- June-uary.

Categories: Alaska News

Warm Winter Brings Open Water To Y-K Delta

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:24

Kuskokwim River at Bethel on January 25, 2014. Photo by Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel.

Record warm temperatures have depleted Alaska’s snowpack and melted river ice. And residents of the YK Delta have noticed more open water in recent weeks. It’s not technically breakup, but in many places, it sure looks and feels like it.

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George Bright Senior is a VPSO in Goodnews Bay. He woke up Monday morning and saw open water.

“I mean it’s like springtime, said Bright. “Open water.”

He says Goodnews Bay and all three rivers that combine and empty into Goodnews Bay are open.

“The news has spread, so we might have some people going out seal hunting, going upriver and seining for trout, stuff like that,” said Bright.

James Charles lives in Tuntutuliak. He says there’s open water in front of Tuntutuliak slough from Helemik point on down to the mouth of the river.

“See it usually freezes by this time and has been frozen by December or January. But this time it’s open all the way,” said Charles.

He says people are not traveling by snowmachine on the river, but are going on a tundra trail instead. He says high tides are leading to extensive overflow in some low areas.

Scott Lindsey is a hydrologist for the Alaska Pacific River Forecast Center. He says the warm temperatures and rain are certainly unusual, but the Kuskokwim as a whole is not immediately at risk of breaking up.

“In order to really get breakup going, we’d have to have either a big rainfall even like we had several years ago, or temperatures where you had above freezing at higher elevations. There’s still lot of snow up in the mountains. In order to start breakup to really push down the river, you’d have to have a push of snowmelt coming from the mountains, and I don’t anticipate that’s going happen now,” said Lindsey.

Bethel can expect above normal temperatures through out the week, with highs above freezing through Friday.

Categories: Alaska News

Biofuel Could Help Lessen Rural Energy Costs

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:23

The community of Tok hosts a thick, growing forest of spruce trees, and a thinning, shrinking population of people and businesses. Like elsewhere in rural Alaska, high-energy costs and a lack of jobs are causing people to leave. But the trees may be the solution to bringing people back.

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Categories: Alaska News

NIOSH Tackling Fishing Industry Injuries

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:22

For more than 20 years, NIOSH has been working to prevent accidental deaths in the fishing industry. Now, these safety experts are tackling injuries – the kind fishermen are used to getting every season.

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In her time at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Jennifer Lincoln says she’s found a common cause behind the most serious fishing accidents.

“If you ask me what leads to fatalities in the fishing industry, it’s drowning,” Lincoln said. “It’s vessel losses and falls overboard.”

Lincoln directs the Alaska field office for NIOSH.

Their commercial fishing experts have been studying fatal accidents since 1991. Using their research, they’ve come up with a slew of mechanical gadgets – like door monitors and emergency winch stops – to make boats safer.

But Lincoln says it’s not clear if there’s a button or sensor out there that can keep fishermen from getting hurt.

“What we don’t know – what we don’t have as much information about – are non-fatal injuries,” Lincoln said.

Injuries aren’t tracked like fatalities – in part, because they are so common. But getting hurt can have big implications for a fisherman, like lost time and wages,” Lincoln said. “If a problem goes untreated at sea for too long, it can lead to more serious ailments.

And that can be painful. Jake Jacobsen has fished in the crab fleet. He can rattle off some gruesome accidents.

“I know guys that have had their foot smashed and bones broken when we were fishing way out west in the Aleutians, and they just stayed on the boat and wrapped it in a plastic bag, and ran the crane until they get to town and have a doctor look at it,” Jacobsen said.

Unalaska’s clinic sees a lot of those patients. That’s why Lincoln, from NIOSH, teamed up with a state epidemiologist to study the local patient load.

Lincoln says they looked through the Unalaska clinic’s medical charts from 2007 to 2008.

“What was interesting to me is that, in that two-year time period, a fisherman came in every other day to the clinic to be treated for a traumatic injury,” Lincoln said.

Most of the time, it was a sprain or contusion. It usually happened while they were catching fish or processing it.

“They were hit by something, or struck by something, or crushed by something,” Lincoln said.

That could be fishing gear, or even a box of frozen fish stored aboard a processing vessel.

Those are pretty basic observations. Lincoln says there are some useful takeaways.

“Sometimes there’s a lot of time that goes by before they’re seen at the clinic,” Lincoln said. “So the people on the vessel need to be properly trained in managing the injury.”

Lincoln is sharing these results with safety officers at fishing companies. Eventually, she wants to be to find the patterns in how fishermen get injured.

That would require a bigger pool of data, which Lincoln says NIOSH can get by teaming up with the state Fishermen’s Fund and the Coast Guard. Once they figure out the underlying causes, NIOSH can start suggesting tools to cut down on accidents.

But they’re never going to be able to eliminate them, says Jake Jacobsen.

He started out as a fisherman and now oversees about 80 crab boats in the Inter-Cooperative Exchange. Jacobsen says ending the derby-style fishery made crabbing safer. But still:

“You get knocked around a bit out there, out on deck,” Jacobsen said.

That leads to lots of small injuries. When accidents happen:

“If they’re little things, fishermen are kind of disinclined to talk about it anyways,” Jacobsen said. “You get over it.”

And even if you can cut down on the risk of accidents, it’s a lot harder to change the culture of fishing — the expectation of long hours, big payoffs, and the battle scars to show for it.

Stephanie Joyce contributed to this report.

Categories: Alaska News

High Tech Trackers Gather Info On Cook Inlet Kings, Reds

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:21

The Alaska Board of Fish will begin deliberations on the Cook Inlet fisheries in Anchorage next week. One of the more difficult issues before the board is the declining King salmon runs and demands by sports fishing interests to shut down the commercial catch of reds to let every precious king into the Kenai River system.

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In Cook Inlet, the  statewide decline of King Salmon has raised the long running Cook Inlet Fish Wars between commercial and sports fishermen to a fever pitch.

Last summer east side setnetters became the latest casualty as their fishery was shut down by a fish board dominated by sports fishermen.

In the middle of that battle, working almost unnoticed was a group of scientists wielding high tech tools.  David Welch’s company “Kintama”  deployed receivers and inserted internal radio tags into two species of Cook Inlet salmon: the  Sockeye reds targeted by commercial fishing fleet and the Chinook Kings treasured by sports fishermen to gather data on where these fish are as they swim to spawning grounds in the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers.

“Well, it’s basically the size of a tube of lipstick,” Welch said.

Last week Welch presented an animated map showing the path the salmon took.  The data he gathered documented in real time how far each tagged fish was from shore and how deep it swam.  Fish biologists have know for a long time that Chinooks prefer the bottom and sockeyes like the surface, but till now they have not had hard data.

On the map, the tagged sockeyes marked in red swam off shore till they got close to the river’s mouth and then they would home in.

“My suspicion is that the sockeye are found even further off shore, but of course we don’t have data beyond where we have the instruments,” Welch said. “But then when they are coming into the Kenai River they move quite quickly into the Kenai.”

That behavior contrasted with the Chinooks who stayed close to shore and tended to hang out there for 20 days before making a dash into the river.

“On a flood tide basically so they probably get away from seals and other predators that are waiting at the river mouth,” Welch said.

Welch’s study is good news for the Cook Inlet drift fishermen because it shows little potential for Chinook interception in their fishery, but the picture for east side setnetters is less clear.

There’s a big problem in Welch’s work. There were no receivers in the mile and a half segment right off the shore where setnets sites are located.

“We can do that but we just didn’t have enough time to build the equipment that’s needed cause that a very tough area,” Welch said. “It’s very shallow, big tides, big waves, so we have to build specialized containers for the receivers so they’ll survive long enough.”

Welch hopes the state will give him the money to capture better fish behavior data to help resolve the allocation battles in Cook Inlet to the benefit of all Human users.

“One of the things we hope we can do is to use the depth data so that the sockeye fishermen can design their nets so they can catch the sockeye while minimizing interceptions of Chinooks,” Welch said. “So hopefully we can put the data on the table so the folks can sit down and figure out what might be done.”

Until now, no one has bothered to ask the salmon what they think of the Fish Wars but there may be a hint in Welch’s study, which found two Kings that wanted no part of it.  They head out as far and as fast as they could.

“We got a call while we were still out tagging that it was caught in Uyak bay in the northern part of Kodiak Island,” Welch said.

The other rogue King headed south where he was found two months later in the mouth of Columbia River.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 28, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 18:01

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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Begich Pushing To Restore Veteran Benefits

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Veterans and military members in Alaska and around the country have been outraged at Congress since December, when lawmakers passed a budget that would trim their retirement benefits, starting in 2015. All three members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation voted for that budget, even though they oppose the military pension decrease. Senator Mark Begich today stood with a group of veterans before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing and pledged to restore the nearly $6 billion decrease.

USDA Under Secretary Patrice Kunesh Visits Bethel Region

Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel

Rural Alaska’s infrastructure is young. Many homes still use honey buckets. A lot of the funding to build the infrastructure comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA funds water and sewer projects, as well as housing, energy, and communications projects and even ones that support growing local food.

Drug Court Could Offer Jail Alternative

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A Fairbanks substance abuse counselor is pushing for the state to consider an alternative to jail for drug offenders. The effort is in response to a steady stream of young heroin addicts, some of whom end up in jail.

Temperature Records Fall Across Alaska

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Temperature records fell across the state yesterday. With highs in the 40s, 50s and 60s, much of the state is experiencing weather that feels more like May or June than January.

Warm Winter Brings Open Water To Y-K Delta

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

Warm temperatures have depleted Alaska’s snowpack and melted river ice.  And residents of the Yukon Kuskokwim delta have noticed more open water in recent weeks.

Biofuel Could Help Lessen Rural Energy Costs

Anne Hillman, APRN – Anchorage

The community of Tok hosts a thick, growing forest of spruce trees, and a thinning, shrinking population of people and businesses. Like elsewhere in rural Alaska, high-energy costs and a lack of jobs are causing people to leave. But the trees may be the solution to bringing people back.

NIOSH Tacking Fishing Industry Injuries

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

For more than 20 years, NIOSH has been working to prevent accidental deaths in the fishing industry. Now, these safety experts are tackling injuries – the kind fishermen are used to getting every season.

Board Of Fish Ponders Low Salmon Run Solutions

Johanna Eurich, APRN Contributor

The Alaska Board of Fish will begin deliberations on the Cook Inlet fisheries in Anchorage next week. One of the more difficult issues before the board is the declining King salmon runs and demands by sports fishing interests to shut down the commercial catch of reds to let every precious king into the Kenai River system.

Categories: Alaska News

9 People Apply For Alaska House Vacancy

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-28 11:53

Nine people have applied to fill the vacancy in the Alaska House left by last week’s resignation of Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat.

The list, released by the Tongass Democrats, includes Ken Alper, a former Kerttula aide who works as an oil and gas analyst for minority Democrats.

Other applicants are Nancy Barnes, James Betts, Sara Hannan, Jesse Kiehl, Sam Kito III, Tim Lamkin, Kim Metcalfe and Catherine Reardon.

All applicants were given a questionnaire to complete by noon on Friday. Tongass Democrats say public interviews of the candidates are planned this weekend, with plans to forward a list of three finalists to the governor.

House Democrats will have to ratify the appointee.

Kerttula last week stepped down as minority leader and resigned to take a fellowship with Stanford University.

Categories: Alaska News

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