State officials have rolled out their plan to terminate direct management of state parks in Sitka, including two of the most historic sites in Alaska.
At a meeting of the Parks Citizen Advisory Board in Sitka on Tuesday morning, regional directors outlined their plan to find new management for the area parks and if no one steps forward, to put the parks into so-called “passive management.”
With the elimination of the position for Park Specialist, it’s unclear who will be responsible for the care and keeping of Sitka’s state parks. Which is why Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation had to come up with a plan. It goes like this. Option 1: Develop requests for proposals, or RFPS.
“Particularly for Halibut Point State Recreation Site, for an individual or a business to submit to the state a proposal to operate the park and receive the revenues that are currently charged there for the picnic shelters.”
Clair LeClair is the Division’s Operations Manager. She says the state is also seeking new managers for Old Sitka, Caste Hill, and the boat launch. And if no one steps forward? There’s option 2.
“So if we’re not able to attract viable proposals, particularly for Halibut Point, but any of the other sites as well, then we’re definitely going to look to other government agencies or nonprofits in the Sitka area.”
And for those areas without takers? They will go into passive management.
“Close the outhouses, so shutter them or board up the doors, so people can’t use them, because obviously if no one is there to maintain them, they’re not really safe or sanitary for the public to use.”
She stresses the public will still be able to access the lands. Municipal Administrator Mark Gorman said the city has not been formally approached by the state to take over Halibut Point.
When asked by KCAW whether the city would submit an RFP, Gorman said, “I don’t think we have a mandate from the citizens to expand services in this area right now. If anything, they want city hall to tighten it’s belt.”
“I think under the circumstances that we’re going to try to do the best we can.”
Board member AnneMarie LePalm was at the meeting and hopes that whatever the arrangement, it’s temporary.
“At some point if funding does improve statewide, then we would hope that state parks would hire again to have someone locally to manage the parks.”
The closure is written into the budget before the Governor, which reduces funding for state parks by half a million dollars.
Instead of spreading that cut evenly around the state, the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation proposed in March to end operations in Sitka and Valdez, and also eliminate one ranger position in the Wood-Tikchik Park near Dillingham.
If approved, these changes would go into affect July 1st of this year.
Anchorage Hospitals Compete for New ER Beds
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
The state will only allow a limited number of new emergency room beds in Anchorage in the next decade. And two big hospitals in the city are competing for the right to build them with very different visions for the best way to expand emergency care.
Marijuana OK’d At State’s First Pot Convention, But Only for Display
Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage
Anchorage has cleared the way for Alaska’s first large-scale marijuana convention this weekend. But not without strings attached.
4 Found Dead In South Anchorage Home
Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage
Anchorage police say they consider the deaths of four people found inside a home in South Anchorage as suspicious.
Man Survives More Than An Hour Adrift After Skiff Capsizes
Matt Martin, KDLG – Dillingham
A 22-year-old man from Goodnews Bay was rescued Friday night after what may have been more than an hour alone in the open water. Rough seas swamped his skiff on a solo trip home from camping, and he says he’s lucky to be alive.
Sitka Parks Feel the Strain of Fiscal Belt Tightening
Emily Kwong, KCAW – Sitka
State officials have rolled out their plan to terminate direct management of state parks in Sitka, including two of the most historic sites in Alaska.
Budget Cuts Sideline Taku Ferry July Through Sept.
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
Most state ferries will sail their scheduled routes this summer. That means thousands of passengers will not need to be rebooked- or sent refunds. But one ship is getting sidelined.
Sow With 3 Cubs Stands Her Ground On Juneau Trail
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
U.S. Forest Service officials are concerned about a stressed out mama bear near the Mendenhall Glacier.
Re-Introduced Wood Bison Faring Well
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Wood Bison transplanted by the state to the western interior this spring appear to be adapting to the wild. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game flew a group of Canadian stock bison cows and young animals to the village of Shageluk in March. To date, most of the animals have fared well.
Ancient Buzz Saw Shark Fossil Returns to Alaska
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
A unique fossil rock from Atigun Gorge is back in the state after a 29-year detour in Washington, D.C. The rock bears the imprint of teeth from an animal that has not been seen on Earth for about 250 million years.
U.S. Forest Service officials are concerned about a stressed out mama bear near the Mendenhall Glacier.
John Neary, director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, says the sow is becoming more aggressive toward hikers, mountain bikers and off-leash dogs.
“She doesn’t move off. She’ll stand her ground on the trail. She’ll even approach hikers, wanting them to move back away from her,” he says.
Neary says the black bear and her three cubs have been seen most often on East Glacier Trail, which is being closed temporarily to give the animals some space. He says the cubs are a little more than a year old, and could strike off on their own soon.
In 2013, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game tagged the mother bear, called “Bear 103″ by wildlife officials.
“The radio collar data plus our own observations show her using much of this area – Dredge Lakes, the backside of the Steep Creek area, the Steep Creek Trail by the meadows, the Trail of Time. She could be sighted anywhere along this zone.”
He says the Forest Service will look at reopening the East Glacier Trail in about a week. In the meantime, Neary says trail users should be extra cautious, and keep those dogs on a leash.
Wood bison transplanted by the state to the western interior this spring appear to be adapting to the wild. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game flew a group of Canadian stock bison cows and young animals to the village of Shageluk in March. To date, most of the animals have fared well.
For the first time since Wood bison went extinct in Alaska over a century ago, the big furry animals are back. The herd of 100 bison flown into Shageluk and released into the surrounding Yukon and Innoko River country are being closely monitored by state biologists.
Department of Fish and Game spokeswoman Cathie Harms says that means breaking into smaller groups and spreading out, eating wild grasses and giving birth to calves.
Meanwhile, 14 other bison have died including 9 that fell through rotting river ice in recent weeks. The animals were transplanted prior to calving, as way to anchor the species to the area, and Harms says some ice casualties were expected.
Harms says another five bison perished due to unknown causes.
The state is preparing to move a group of full grown bull bison to the Shageluk area this summer.
Wood bison are the largest land mammals in the western hemisphere and Harms says moving the 2 thousand pound bulls may require anesticizing or otherwise drugging the animals. The move is scheduled for later this month or early June, just prior to the summer breeding season. The Wood Bison reintroduction in the Shageluk area is the culmination of a long running effort to restore the animals to Interior Alaska.
A unique fossil rock from Atigun Gorge is back in the state after a 29-year detour in Washington, DC. The rock bears the imprint of teeth from an animal that has not been seen on Earth for about 250 million years. The story behind the rock and it’s current status as centerpiece of a Seward art exhibit is almost as fascinating as the prehistoric creature who imprinted it.
Scientists call it a Helocoprion, but some call it a buzz saw shark. That’s because of the odd placement of teeth in the animal’s lower jaw. They’re in the middle of the animal’s mouth, in a single line, curved like the edge of a scimitar.
“This is a real monster, and there’s nothing alive like it today, that has this crazy grouping of teeth that it keeps its whole life. But it was successful, it lived for 8 million years, as a species,” explains Leif Tapanila, an expert in the workings of the dental gear on (the long-gone) animals that flourished millennia ago. The helocoprion may have gone extinct 250 million years ago, but one day in 1986, grad student Richard Glenn stumbled upon a strange rock on a mapping expedition to the Brooks Range.
“I didn’t know what it was. And I didn’t know if it was important enough that it should be found, recorded, saved, preserved, or if we’d find more. So I left it up there where I found it, for a day, and then I went back up after my advisor came and told me that maybe I should go back and get it.”
The young Glenn gave the rock to his instructor.
“He’d never seen one before either, so he sent it away to a paleontologist colleague of his, and that’s how it got identified, and then he sent it away and it never came home. ”
It would be almost 30 years before Glenn saw his fossil find again.
Enter artist Ray Troll, long known for his imaginative paintings of sea life, and, it turns out, an ancient shark enthusiast. Troll and the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward have partnered on an art exhibit, featuring Troll’s depictions of ancient sharks, and in February of this year, Troll and Richard Glenn crossed paths at a Sea Life Center event. The subject of buzz saw sharks came up, Troll says, and he heard about the fossil find.
“I was pretty excited though. maybe I better follow this up. It would be pretty wonderful to have one from Alaska, especially since this buzz saw shark show was coming.”
“I knew a few folks back at the Smithsonian. I’d met Dave Bohoska, the collections manager before, so I made a special plea with him to find it.”
It took weeks, but finally, a FedEx package showed up with the precious rock inside. Now, gathered around a table, Glenn, Troll and Tapanilla look lovingly at the centerpiece
Glenn, who now works for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, and Tapanilla, with the University of Idaho, spoke Wednesday [today] at a Geological Society of America meeting at UA Anchorage. Troll joined them for a special presentation of the fossil rock, which now heads to Seward on loan until September. But Glenn says, he’d like the rock to stay in Alaska.
“My dream is to put it on a loan, semi permanent in nature that brings it as close to home as where I found it. And there’s a nice museum about 40 miles west of where this was found that would be a great exhibit for a rocks, fossils of the Brooks Range.”
“So stay tuned,” he laughs.
Ray Troll’s art exhibit “Buzz Saw Sharks of Long Ago” will be at the Alaska Sea Life Center through September 7.
Hooligan fishing is a tradition for many people in the Upper Lynn Canal. But this spring, those who fish in the Chilkoot had disappointing results. Researchers say the mysterious fish seem to have turned right instead of left into the Taiya, near Skagway, instead of the Chilkoot. And there’s no way to know exactly why.
“I didn’t catch any on the Chilkoot side, but I caught some at Jones Point,” said lifelong Haines resident Sonny Williams. “I caught ten gallons and that was it.”
Williams says he usually catches 20 to 30 gallons of hooligan each spring. The small herring-like fish is traditionally used for oil and smoking. He says the only other times he’s seen the run this low in the Chilkoot is when the lake has been frozen.
“It was a lot lower than the previous four years that we have data on,” said Meredith Pochardt, executive director of Takshanuk Watershed Council.
Takshanuk is the only group that monitors hooligan in the Upper Lynn Canal. They’ve monitored the runs in the Chilkoot from 2010-2012 and in 2014. This year, they estimate the run was about 300,000. Last year, it was between three and four million. In 2011, it was about 12 million.
“There was a lot of excitement in Lutak Inlet, predators, whales, eagles, the like. But they never really materialized up in the [Chilkoot] River, the predators didn’t even,” said Brad Ryan, director for Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition. He and Pochardt say it seems like the Chilkat ran hard, but Chilkoot was quiet.
Despite the low run, they aren’t worried hooligan are declining.
“The hypothesis of hooligan in Northern Lynn Canal is they’re one population, and they just pick a river to run to based on some environmental cue that we don’t understand at this point,” Ryan said. “So they may run to Berner’s Bay, they may run to the Chilkat, they may run to the Chilkoot. Or on occasion, they run to the Taiya.”
That’s what Ryan and Pochardt think happened this year.
Rachel Ford is program manager of the Taiya Watershed Council in Skagway. On May 5th, she drives out to Dyea to check on the hooligan run.
“We’re just looking out at the flats for the Taiya River here,” she says. “The tide’s pretty low. And we can see a ton of seagulls out on the flats. Last week they were all over the place, just because the hooligan run was so big.”
Now it looks like it’s mostly dead ones washed up on the shore. But then, as we head back to the car, the gulls that were sitting on the shore dive into the water in a great big flock, snapping up hooligan.
Skagway residents say this is the biggest run they’ve seen in the Taiya in at least ten years. Some say it’s the largest run in 40 years.
So why did the hooligan cross to the other side? Why a big run in the Taiya, and not the Chilkoot? Williams, the hooligan fisherman, thinks he knows. He says he was watching the hooligan as they swam north.
“I watched them come around Battery Point and get right in the river there. And we’re like ok, they’re gonna show up,” Williams said. “They started trickling off and all of a sudden, the pounding at the ferry terminal had a definite effect on them moving out of here.”
Williams says he watched the hooligan turn around near the ferry terminal. A new ferry dock has been under construction since April. The State Department of Transportation says they have not heard any complaints.
Ryan, one of the watershed hooligan monitors, isn’t sure about that theory.
“I understand that there was some talk about the ferry dock, I kind of doubt that,” Ryan said. “I mean they came into Lutak, they came into the Ferebee, the Taiyasanka pretty heavy as well this year.”
But nobody knows for sure. Hooligan are not well-researched like salmon and halibut. Ryan says Alaska Fish and Game doesn’t monitor hooligan because they’re not as economically important as other fish. But they are traditionally important to subsistence fishermen in the Upper Lynn Canal.
Since there’s so little research on hooligan, it’s hard to predict what the little fish will do next spring. Haines locals hope the Chilkoot will see a stronger run. And Skagway locals hope their hooligan luck continues.
Craig Renkert and his wife Barb planned a three-week tour of Southeast Alaska for this summer.
They were looking forward to ferrying through the Inside Passage, celebrating the Fourth of July in Sitka and staying at bed-and-breakfasts along the way.
Then, the couple from Ohio got some bad news.
“When I got the email last Friday, I was very frustrated in that here they were, at the last minute, changing the ferry schedule. Because many of those places I made reservations have 60-day cancellation policies. Now, the trip is less than 60 days away.
Renkert spoke with a reservations agent and was able to change his itinerary, though he’s still juggling shore-side details.
He’d heard of ferry breakdowns and spending cuts affecting the schedule. But the agent didn’t give a reason for the change while rebooking.
“Just because the budget wasn’t planned further in advance seems to be utterly inconsiderate of the locals in the communities, their businesses and the tourists,” he says.
Legislative budget cuts were expected to deeply reduce sailings this summer, especially in Southeast.
Officials estimated the reductions would cancel reservations already booked by about 10,000 people.
But the Walker administration was able to shift $5.5 million in unused money from this year’s fuel fund to next year’s operating budget.
Alaska Marine Highway System spokesman Jeremy Woodrow says that allows other ferries to go ahead with scheduled service.
“The only ship that will be [affected] will be the Taku coming out. The other ships will be sailing as scheduled,” he says.
With the Taku out, sailings to and from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, will be cut from four to two a week. Those sailings also stop in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Kake and Juneau.
Before July, the Taku is filling in on routes of other ferries that need extra time for repairs.
Woodrow says the ship’s time off will be used, in part, for work that’s been delayed.
“Every ship is required to have an overhaul, which is where we do an inspection to make sure it gets its recertification so it’s safe for passenger service. So you have to do that annually. You can’t push it back several months,” he says.
He says reservations staffers are contacting those who booked travel on the Taku beginning in July.
Democratic Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan says cuts leading to the ship’s cancellation show bad budgeting by the Legislature’s Republican majority.
He says Alaskans make up almost a third of those sailing Taku routes. And visitors contribute revenue to the ferry system and port-city businesses.
“The ferry system is the highway for Southeast and coastal Alaska and passenger and vehicle fees are its lifeblood. Because we lack a completed budget, this decision will cost the State of Alaska more than $400,000 of revenue,” he says, in a press release.
Majority budget-writers have said the ferry system is too expensive and something the state cannot afford to maintain at its current service levels.
Renkert, who lived in Anchorage for 18 years, says he’s now one of those visitors.
“I’m spending my money with local B&Bs, not with cruise ships, because I want a local experience. If it’s not available that’s going to make it much more difficult for me to do this trip again in the future and make it difficult for me to recommend it to others,” he says.
His trip is the sort promoted by the ferry system and port communities.
While most of the summer schedule will remain intact, other reductions are likely come October, the start of the winter schedule.
The Walker-Mallott administration will include transboundary mine critics’ concerns in its negotiations with British Columbia.
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott made that announcement after returning from a week of meetings with government, industry and aboriginal leaders in the nearby province.
Southeast environmental, fishing and tribal groups say they’ve been left out of opportunities to question the safety of B.C. mines near Alaska’s border.
Mallott said that will change.
“I would hope we have the most open and transparent processes and involvements with the public possible,” he said, in a teleconferenced press conference.
He said his trip opened doors and increased opportunities to learn about the mines.
At least a half-dozen are planned in watersheds that feed salmon-producing rivers important to Southeast fishermen.
“It’s important for us not just to understand how the government does its business over there, but the involvement and interests and the concerns of stakeholders in British Columbia and the mining industry itself,” Mallott said.
The lieutenant governor met last week with provincial agencies overseeing mining and the environment.
Afterward, Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said he wanted to open more of B.C.’s permitting process to Alaska officials. The state can already comment on environmental certificates and Bennett said that could be expanded.
“We would propose to have Alaska also have access into the second part of a development of a mine, which involves my ministry and the Mines Act here in British Columbia and the permitting for the actual construction of the mine and how water treatment is built,” he said after the meeting.
Mallott said the talks were cordial and officials seemed sincere. But he let them know Alaska is serious about protecting water quality.
“Large mine development along those transboundary watersheds cannot be taken casually by the state of Alaska. And any engagement we have with British Columbia cannot be out of courtesy on their part,” he said.
Gov. Bill Walker earlier this year asked Mallott to lead an internal transboundary waters working group.
The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is among organizations critical of B.C.’s mine plans and the state’s response. Communications Director Daven Hafey said Mallott’s trip is a sign of progress.
“It’s movement. It’s movement in the right direction. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to make sure that what’s happening in B.C. respects Alaska waters and Alaska fish and that there’s very close participation between Alaska and B.C. on any development that occurs in the headwaters of our major salmon rivers,” he said.
During his visit, Mallott invited British Columbia officials to visit Southeast Alaska. Mines Minister Bennett accepted, though details are yet to be worked out.
He made a similar promise earlier this year, but never made the trip.
In the next few weeks, thousands of seafood processors will return to Unalaska for pollock B season. They’ll be earning more money, thanks to the state’s minimum wage hike — but they’ll also be paying more to live.
Added room & board costs are just one way processing plants are hoping to offset the wage increase.
Alyeska and Westward Seafoods have never charged for room & board. But on June 1, president Mark Johanson says that’ll change.
“This has been a very, very hard, soul-searching decision for us,” he says. “We’ve been trying to buck the trend, and make it a reasonable and a good place for people to work. The work is hard and challenging, and we understand that … but because of global competition and pressures, we have had to unfortunately make that decision.”
They’re implementing the state’s maximum room & board charge of $15 a day at their shoreside plants in Unalaska. Johanson says it comes out to about a dollar of every hour’s wages, including overtime. Since the minimum wage also went up a dollar this year, he says the changes are a wash, for now.
“And then, of course, as of Jan. 1, , the minimum wage will increase again by a dollar,” he says “So there is no remedy on room & board — we’ll just need to either eat that cost or find other ways to become more efficient in our operation.”
Johanson’s also worried about the $1 to $4 million cost of adding employee health coverage under the Affordable Care Act. So in the long term, he’s hoping to pare down, and automate more of their processing lines.
That’s going to happen at UniSea, too. Unalaska’s biggest seafood processor has plans to shrink its pollock operations back into one factory in the next few years.
They’re also upping their room & board charge. It’s started at $10 a day for the past couple of years, decreasing the more a processor works. But this spring, facing a $3 million cost bump from minimum wage, president Tom Enlow says they’ve gone to the upper limit, too.
“We’re not really in a position to just take that cost — any cost increase, for that matter — and pass it onto our customers,” he says.
That’s because they’re working with set market prices for seafood, where costs are shared between the harvesters and the processors. Since the wage hike impacts the processors, Enlow says they may want to renegotiate those price formulas down the line.
But for now, room & board is their first line of defense, along with some cuts to staffing. That’s come through the natural attrition Enlow says they see at the start of every season.
“There’s always going to be a certain amount of workers that come up and say ‘Oh, I had no idea I was going to have to work all day,’ and they end up leaving,” he says.
This year, UniSea wanted to see how low they could go. They didn’t rehire for those empty jobs, and went through A season about 80 people short.
“Our crab and cod throughput always suffers when our headcount is down below a certain number, and we certainly saw that take place this year,” he says. “But it’s just all in an effort to try to hold those costs down.”
In pollock B season — which covers 60 percent of the year’s huge quota — they’ll move staff around and focus on producing surimi. Right now, there’s a better market for the imitation crab product than there is for fillets.
Over at Alyeska and Westward, president Mark Johanson says they’re keeping their headcount the same for now. In fact, they’ve had to work harder than normal to recruit to fill those jobs.
With higher wages up against room & board costs, and an improving job market down south, Johanson says it’s not as easy as it once was lure new processors up to Alaska.
Two big hospitals in Anchorage have competing visions for how to expand access to emergency care. Alaska Regional wants to build two freestanding emergency departments on opposite ends of the city, while Providence is hoping to add rooms to specialize in pediatric emergencies on its campus. The decision will ultimately be made by the state health commissioner but the public can weigh in now.
On a busy day, the emergency department at Providence Hospital admits more than 200 patients. There aren’t enough rooms, so some patients are on beds in hallways, with curtains for privacy.
Dr. Daniel Safranek, the department’s medical director, says it’s not ideal.
“It makes the department feel crowded and a little bit chaotic,” Safranek said.
Providence is asking the state to approve 14 more emergency room beds. 10 will be focused on pediatric emergency patients, freeing up other beds for adults. Because of crowding in it’s current ER, Providence says most of those new rooms could be filled as soon as they’re built.
But in Alaska, hospitals need approval from the state to build big new projects. The idea is to prevent hospitals from building too many facilities and then passing the cost onto consumers. The state has decided Anchorage can support 13 new emergency room beds between now and 2022. And Alaska Regional Hospital has it’s own vision of how to best use those beds. CEO Julie Taylor wants to build the first freestanding emergency departments in Alaska, one in South Anchorage and another in Eagle River.
“It’s a model that’s proven in other markets to be more efficient and more effective and also can save lives,” Taylor said.
Freestanding emergency departments offer a higher level of care than urgent care clinics. They operate 24 hours a day, are staffed with emergency medicine physicians and are equipped with cat scans and x-ray machines. Taylor says residents who live in the outlying areas of Anchorage deserve quicker access to emergency care.
“We are at a disadvantage because all of the hospitals are located in a two mile radius of each other,” Taylor said. “So what if we had an earthquake? All the sudden the roads were cut off, everything is in one central area.”
Because freestanding ER’s aren’t attached to a hospital though, they don’t allow access to specialists or surgery or blood transfusions. In the Lower 48, they have been criticized for increasing inappropriate emergency room use and driving up the cost of care. Taylor says that is not Alaska Regional’s intention.
But Dr. Safranek, at Providence hospital, is skeptical of the concept. He says many patients who visit freestanding ER’s would be better served in an urgent care clinic. And he says in a true emergency a patient is going to need to be transferred to a hospital.
“And more than likely when you’re transferred, you’re going to end up in the emergency department of that hospital, because that’s where you can get services quickly,” Safranek said. “So you end up delaying care for the sickest patients.”
Dr. Safranek doesn’t think freestanding ER’s deserve to be measured against traditional ER beds as Commissioner Valerie Davidson weighs her decision.
The state disagrees. And it will be up to the Office of Rate Review in the Division of Health and Social Services to make a recommendation to the commissioner, says Executive Director Jared Kosin.
“We’ll look at what the trend patterns are for access,” Kosin said. “And we’ll do our analysis and ultimately it will be up to the commissioner to listen to the public, look at the proposals and make a decision.”
Kosin says he expects Commissioner Davidson to issue a decision by the end of July. She could decide to split the ER beds between the two hospitals. A public hearing on the issue will be held next Monday May 18th from 4-7 pm at the Loussac Library.
This story is part of a partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.
Royal Dutch Shell’s drilling plans for the Arctic have hit a snag in Seattle. Shell is planning to dock oil rigs at the Port of Seattle before they head north to drill in the Chukchi Sea.
The city council and mayor have come out against that deal. And that got the attention of a group of Alaskans, who showed up to tell Seattle’s leaders to get out of the way.
The resolution the council passed doesn’t really have any teeth, but it was enough of a statement that several Alaska Native leaders traveled for days from remote areas in the Arctic to oppose it.
They say they desperately need the jobs and revenue that drilling will bring to their communities.
“We left our homes at a critical time. We have come off the ice from whaling to speak to you,”
John Hobson Jr. came from Wainright AK, about 70 miles east of where the Arctic offshore drilling will take place, said.
He said the journey at this time was “a huge imposition.”
“But we felt it is important to our long-term livelihood that you understand that there are people involved who want the same things you have: flush toilets, good health care, quality schools for our children,” Hobson said.
Shell has just received conditional approval from the U.S. interior Department, getting them one step closer to a sure bet that their Arctic drilling plan can go ahead off the Alaskan coast this summer.
Fairbanks Memorial Hospital could lose its accreditation after being flagged for inadequately documenting some of its sterilization procedures.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that an independent commission says it found three instances since January in which surgical implements like screws or plates may have come in contact with an unsterilized surface.
The equipment was then quickly “flash” sterilized.
But there’s no record of required follow-up tests. The commission says that poses an “immediate risk to life and safety.”
The hospital must pass follow-up reviews, including a surprise inspection. If it fails, it will lose its accreditation.
Hospital Foundation President Jeff Cook says new procedures went into place Friday to prevent future problems.
Hospital leaders say they have been trying to minimize the use of the quick sterilization technique.
Anchorage has cleared the way for Alaska’s first large-scale marijuana convention this weekend. But not without a few strings attached. While the city’s Assembly voted to allow marijuana on site, it cannot be consumed there.
The vote to allow vendors to display marijuana at this weekend’s NW Cannabis Classic expo in the Dena’ina Center passed unanimously.
Organizers told the Assembly that having actual plants and product on-hand is important for educating attendees.
“We’ve got trimming and manicuring workshops,” said Corey Wray of Pacific Sun West, the promotion company promoting the event. “It’s hard to sit there and trim and manicure a bud with no bud. You’re effectively cutting space.”
Wray said the plants are also to help patrons learn about clones, demonstrate how to properly harvest, and use tertiary products like fertilizer.
It’s the biggest event for the burgeoning marijuana industry held in a public building, and raised new questions and concerns for the Municipality. Wray and his business partner testified to the Assembly they have bought an insurance policy that can cover multiple layers of liability, since it was unclear until Tuesday night’s decision what degree marijuana would be present–if at all.
Assembly Member Patrick Flynn pushed for a designated smoking area on the building’s patio.
“It’s a little naive,” Flynn said, “that we can’t provide any venue whatsoever for consumption. And I’m trying to create a very narrowly crafted, personal use facility on the grounds that is private, out of sight of minors, and therefore appropriate.”
But the rest of the Assembly didn’t agree. In part because of concerns raised that vague statutes on consumption could open the city up to legal liability if something goes wrong, as has happened with a pending case involving the Dena’ina Center.
“I would remind the body that a gentleman fell to his death from the escalator,” said Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler, “and one of the allegations is that he was over-served, i.e. he over consumed.” Wheeler’s opinion is that it is still too early in the state and municipality’s process of developing rules regulating marijuana for the city to take on the risk.
A similar event scheduled for April in the Egan Center was canceled after the Mayor’s Office banned displays of marijuana in buildings owned by the city.
The NW Cannabis Classic is slated to bring more than $100,000 into Anchorage during the three day convention. according to Wray.
The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said Tuesday morning the FCC is ready to investigate how a company partly owned by Fairbanks-based Doyon won licenses to use the wireless spectrum while claiming it was entitled to billions of dollars in discounts. Critics say Doyon’s big corporate partner, Dish Network, is taking advantage of a program meant to help small businesses. Doyon says the program worked exactly as intended.
When the FCC wants to sell licenses to use the public airwaves it holds a spectrum auction. Spectrum is the real estate the wireless industry is built on. Dish Network, a big satellite TV company, did well at a spectrum auction that concluded early this year. Dish holds an 85 percent stake in two companies that placed the winning bids on many of the licenses sold at that auction.
Combined, the Dish-owned companies bid more than $13 billion. But the companies say they only have to pay $10 billion, because they qualify as small enterprises – or “designated entities” as they’re called in FCC rules — and thus entitled to a 25 percent discount.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai told a Senate panel it’s outrageous.
“What was once a well-intentioned program designed to help small businesses has become a playpen for corporate giants,” he said at a Senate Appropriation Subcommittee Hearing. “The FCC’s recent … spectrum auction is a shocking case in point.”
Commissioner Pai says the FCC should reform its “designated entity” program so this never happen again. And he says, the Commission should reject the discounts if it finds Dish didn’t comply with the rules.
“To be frank, I’m appalled that a corporate giant has attempted to use small business discounts to rip off American taxpayers to the tune of $3.3 billion,” he said.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told senators he agrees with Pai on this. Before the next auction he said he hopes to update the discount program.
“I was around when it was created in 1993,” Wheeler told the senators. “It has the right kind of philosophy, and it’s a mandate from the Congress that we need to make sure that there are opportunities created for small businesses. And the problem is that the world has changed a lot since then and our rules haven’t.”
Monday was the deadline for filing petitions objecting to the last auction. Seven objections are now pending against the two Dish-owned companies, SNR and Northstar Wireless. Now that the deadline has passed, the case is finally in the FCC’s hands, Wheeler said.
Northstar is 15 percent owned by Doyon Limited, the Alaska Native Corporation for the Interior region, and Doyon says it controls Northstar. Allen Todd, Doyon’s general counsel, says Northstar followed the rules. Todd also says the ownership percentage of Northstar is similar to that of past FCC bidders that received the “designated entity” discount.
“In Washington, occasionally success gets punished as much as doing something wrong and I suspect that the success in this case is what’s attracted a lot of attention,” he said.
Todd says there was no ripoff of the taxpayer at the auction. One of the goals of the designated entity program is to increase competition. Analysts had predicted the auction would attract no more than $20 billion in bids. Instead, it drew double that. The Doyon attorney says the “designated entities” helped bring in more bidders and more money.
“So we can certainly focus on $3.3 billion in bidding credits that were awarded,” Todd said in a telephone interview, “or we can focus on the U.S. Treasury, net of bidding credits, receiving an additional $23 billion in proceeds.”
The Senate Commerce Committee is also investigating the bid discounts.
With No Budget Deal In Sight, Lawmakers Hold Brief Technical Session
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
When the Alaska State Legislature voted to take a recess, they set May 12 as the date they would reconvene in Juneau. But with no deal on a budget or Medicaid expansion, most lawmakers remained in Anchorage or in their home districts Tuesday.
Walker Administration Says Medicaid System Is On The Mend
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
The state’s troubled Medicaid payment system has seen improvements in recent months, according to Walker administration officials.
FCC Investigates Bid Discounts for Doyon-Owned Firm
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.
The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said Tuesday morning the FCC is ready to investigate how a company partly owned by Fairbanks-based Doyon won licenses to use the wireless spectrum, while claiming it was entitled to billions of dollars in discounts. Critics say Doyon’s big corporate partner, Dish Network, is taking advantage of a program meant to help small businesses.
Climbers Heli-Rescued After Slide in the Alaska Range
Philip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna
The National Park Service reports that two Idaho climbers have been rescued after an avalanche on Mt. Dickey in the Alaska Range.
Coalition Uses A Data-Driven Approach To Find Behavioral Health Solutions
Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage
Anchorage high school students who feel like their teachers really care about them are 50 percent less likely to drink. Young women in Alaska attempt suicide at twice the rate of young men. Those are just a few statistics being used to develop behavioral health solutions for Anchorage’s youth.
Sitka Gets Creative To Pay For Its Dam
Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka
State and local officials — including Gov. Bill Walker — gathered in Sitka on Friday to formally dedicate the Blue Lake dam. The largest public works project in Sitka history, it’s projected to meet the city’s electricity needs for the next thirty years.
Treat Your Soil With A Little TLC, Reap The Benefits During Harvest
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Alaska’s farm produce vendors prepping for the busy summer season. Some use the organic label, others don’t, but what exactly is it that makes a vegetable organic?
‘TV Doesn’t Do It Justice': First Cruise Ship Visitors Arrive in Skagway
Emily Files, KHNS – Haines
Skagway’s modern gold rush – the cruise ship season – has begun. The town of around 1,000 people expects almost 800,000 cruise ship passengers this summer. And the first 2,000 of those passengers had the chance to explore town on Tuesday. The Celebrity Solstice sailed north from Vancouver, with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway.
The state’s troubled Medicaid payment system has seen improvements in recent months, according to Walker administration officials.
Healthcare Services Director Margaret Brodie briefed legislators on the state’s progress with the system at House Finance committee hearings today and yesterday. The update comes as Gov. Bill Walker has asked lawmakers to accept federal dollars to expand the state’s Medicaid program.
Out of the 500 defects found in the Xerox-built system, fewer than 100 remain. Brodie also said claims were being processed with greater than 90 percent accuracy. She said the system is not perfect, but it is improving dramatically and can handle more claims.
“The amount of work that remains is still significant, yet from October 2014 to the present, we have made significant progress.”
The problems with the payment system have caused Republican lawmakers to describe Medicaid as “broken,” and a number have said they do not support expansion of the program until the system is reformed.
Brodie’s presentation did not convince some Republican members of the House Finance committee that the system had been sufficiently repaired. Rep. Lance Pruitt, an Anchorage Republican, said he does not feel the improvements go far enough.
“We seem to be a little bit more comfortable that the same thing, at that point in time, we had an issue with.”
The committee will continue to hold hearings on Medicaid throughout the week.
When the Alaska State Legislature voted to take a recess, they set May 12 as the date they would reconvene in Juneau. But with no deal on a budget or Medicaid expansion, most lawmakers remained in Anchorage or in their home districts on Tuesday. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports from a sleepy Capitol, as the threat of government shutdown looms.
With just a handful of legislators in the chambers, the House floor session lasted about ten minutes. The Senate lasted just five. Skipping right over the usual prayer and pledge of allegiance, leadership breezed through the agenda of what is known as a technical session — a meeting where a few lawmakers gavel in simply to keep the clock going.
The only real action was a series of floor speeches offered by the minority members in attendance. Sitka Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins bemoaned the gridlock and the risk of a government shutdown if a deal is not reached.
“I don’t think the Washington-D.C.-ification of our politics is a healthy trend,” said Kreiss-Tomkins. “It’s really distressing for me to hear the words ‘government shutdown’ in association with our state government. Normally, that’s something we hear about with the the federal government.”
Meanwhile, Juneau Democrat Sam Kito chided the Legislature for relocating to Anchorage, as the sound of drills working on Capitol renovations interrupted him.
Nobody mentioned anything about progress. The Legislature was supposed to gavel out of its regular session on April 19, but lawmakers have been at an impasse over the budget. With the state facing a multi-billion dollar deficit, lawmakers need a supermajority to balance it with funds from the rainy day account. But House Democrats have said they will not support that without Medicaid expansion and more money for education.
After the session, House Speaker Mike Chenault told reporters that negotiations are ongoing. He said no bargaining points have been settled, and a divide still exists between the Democratic and Republican caucuses.
“Just trying to find out what the minority needs to get out of here, and unfortunately that’s the exact opposite of what the Senate would like to see and what a number of House members would like to see,” said Chenault, a Nikiski Republican. “They don’t want to see the budget increase. And so, it’s a matter of trying to figure out a way to not increase the budget but still get us the three-quarter vote that we need.”
In the meantime, no votes have been taken on any of the three special session agenda items: the budget, Medicaid expansion, and a sexual abuse prevention bill known as Erin’s Law. While the House already passed Erin’s Law in the regular session and continues to hold daily finance hearings, the Senate has held just two meetings since the governor called them into special session.
At an afternoon press conference, Gov. Bill Walker said he was frustrated by the lack of progress made during the special session.
“What I’m saying to the Legislature today is: Please do your job. Do it now,” said Walker. “Give us a budget that’s funded, accept Medicaid expansion, and pass Erin’s Law. Three things. You know, we can’t spend the entire summer working on these and we shouldn’t.”
The next floor sessions are scheduled for Friday and Saturday this week, and are expected to be technical sessions barring any deal between lawmakers.
If a compromise on the budget cannot be brokered, the state government is at risk of shutting down as soon as this summer.
Anchorage high school students who feel like their teachers really care about them are 50% less likely to drink. Young women in Alaska attempt suicide at twice the rate of young men. Those are just a few statistics being used to develop behavioral health solutions for Anchorage’s youth.
The data is captured by tools like the Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Now, a coalition of youth-focused organizations in Anchorage is using that data to create behavioral health solutions. First, they are presenting some of the 67 pages of data to the community and getting their feedback on what they value the most.
“We really want to make sure that our efforts are focused on issues that the community cares about and that it will make a difference,” says Deborah Williams with the Anchorage Youth Development Coalition.
During a series of presentations, community members and youth have highlighted items like raising awareness of mental health issues for younger kids and helping young people deal with feelings like loneliness.
Spirit of Youth executive director Karen Zeman says they want to find out the reasons for the numbers — why do young women tend to feel more sadness, hopelessness and stress than young men? Why is online bullying more likely to lead kids to drink than in-school bullying?
“There have been a lot of wonderful programs in Anchorage for youth, but they haven’t necessarily been evidenced-based,” she says. “So what we’re trying to do is take a step back, figure out what the top priorities are, and then figure out what really will work to move the needle.”
The data already confirm that some things have positive impacts, like young people who feel like they matter to others in their community are nearly 60 percent less likely to consider suicide.
The coalition also includes Healthy Voices, Healthy Choices and is running the project development with funds from the state’s Division of Behavioral Health. They hope to have new programs focused on youth behavioral health by 2016.
Skagway’s modern gold rush – the cruise ship season – has begun. The town of around 1,000 people expects almost 800,000 cruise ship passengers this summer. And the first 2,000 of those passengers had a chance to explore town Tuesday. The Celebrity Solstice sailed north from Vancouver, with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway.
Southeast Alaska residents are reveling in the warm, sunny May weather. But some cruise ship passengers are confused.
“I was gonna say I was expecting more snow, not realizing how temperate it really was,” one passenger said.
“There’s no snow on the ground,” said another. “We expected at least two foot of snow.”
But the snow-less sidewalks aren’t a big deal for Floridian Martin Levenson. Alaska? He says, there’s nothing like it on earth.
“I visited all the other 49 other states and this is the last one,” Levenson said. “Save the best for last.”
This is Levenson’s 19th cruise, but he’s never been to Skagway before. David Freeman and Denise Gunn from Victoria, BC are repeat visitors to Skagway.
“We’ll probably go to the Purple Onion, is it? The Red Onion.”
This is their sixth time here.
“Skagway’s just beautiful, I really enjoy it,” Freeman said. “If Skagway wasn’t on the itinerary I probably wouldn’t do it.”
Freeman and Gunn head to the Red Onion on Broadway, and Eric Hauck from Alberta heads to the…
“Train ride, choo choo,” he says. “Be a kid again.”
“It’s quite an interesting operation to see, moving so many people around,” said Tyler Rose, HR Director at the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. “We haul over 400,000 passengers a year.”
The railroad takes passengers on scenic rides to destinations like Carcross and Fraser. It’s also the biggest summer employer in Skagway, with 175 people working the train, the gift shop, the ticket booth.
“It’s unreal, it really is,” Rose said. “All the people coming in, it’s almost like a homecoming. Employees and friends you get to see, the shops open up. The ships start coming in. I know for the businesses the cash registers start to ring.”
One of those businesses is the BBQ Shack, owned by Bob Gibson.
“We do caribou burgers, and elk and buffalo burgers,” he says. “And my baby back ribs, the meat’ll just fall right off the bone.”
Gibson just sold a couple burgers to Laura Everitt and her husband. They’re from England, and it’s their first time in Alaska.
“We’ve traveled and we’ve done Juneau and Ketchikan. And Skagway is so beautiful. It’s so pretty. The buildings are stunning.”
Laura says they wanted to come to Alaska because they watch TV shows that take place here. Like the Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers.
“We’ve seen it television, but it just does not do it justice,” she says. “It really doesn’t. It’s beautiful.”
Laura says they’re also enjoying learning about the history of Skagway, the gold rush days.
Those days are re-enacted in the Days of ’98 show. Allison Graham, who plays Belle Davenport, recites some lines:
“A man named JD Stuart strolled into town with 28 hundred dollars worth of gold dust in his poke. Jeff’s men were still riled up from the fourth. I guess they must’ve felt untouchable because they lured poor JD into Jeff’s parlor and right into a trap.”
Graham says it’s a mostly true story.
“It’s a vaudeville-style show all about Soapy Smith and the events the led to his tragic demise at a shoot out down on the pier on July 8th, 1898.”
Down the block from the Days of ’98 show, is a much different business, but one that’s commonly found in cruise ship ports: a jewelry store.
“This is amethyst,” Jennifer Ozuzun says as she takes a sparkly necklace out of a display case “You can see it’s still in rock form, so it hasn’t been cut and polished.”
Ozuzun and her jeweler husband, Murat, own The Local Jeweler shop. Is she excited about the start of the season?
“Uh, can you tell?” she laughs. “I’m really excited, I waited seven months for this. And having your own [store], it’s our baby so it’s a big deal.”
Ozuzun says she’s been back and forth between Skagway for 8 years. Her friend Letishia Moore, who works at the Milano jewelry store, says she feels drawn to Skagway.
And apparently, so do the cruise ships. According to the Skagway Visitors’ Bureau, there will be 402 port calls this summer.
After a month of discussion, the Sitka Assembly on Monday night settled on a modest electric rate increase. Residential rates will go up by about 6 percent in the coming year, to pay for debt service on the Blue Lake dam.
And when it comes to figuring out how a town of 9,000 pays off a $150-million hydroelectric dam, city staff are getting creative.
First, some quick history.
In an effort to find a sustainable source of electricity, Sitka decided to raise its Blue Lake dam by 83 feet. The goal was to power the island’s homes and businesses using Southeast Alaska’s most reliable and renewable resource – namely, the rain.
The catch? Those 83 feet cost roughly $150-million. Originally, the state was supposed to kick in about half of that. Long story short, it didn’t. So in the end, this city of 9,000 people borrowed about $100-million to finish the project.
And now, we have to pay back those bonds.
These bonds, by the way, are called revenue bonds. That’s because they’re backed by the revenue stream coming into the Electric Fund. Specifically, the loan agreement states that the fund must maintain a cash flow that’s 125-percent of the cost of debt service.
But Sitka had a mild winter, and oil prices are down. People used less electricity and more oil heat. The result? The Electric Department ended up with about $2.5-million less revenue than expected.
So now the city has to make up that gap.
Assembly members had two possible paths. Door number one: get that revenue through a rate increase. That would have meant raising electric rates by about 23-percent. For a household using, say, 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity each month, that would have been a $28 hike on their monthly utility bill.
The assembly didn’t go for that choice.
Instead, they chose door number two. This option was a little more complicated. Essentially, the city is tapping the Southeast Alaska Economic Development Fund to shore up the Electric Fund.
That transfer counts as revenue, so it satisfies the bond requirements. And the city plans to use the money to install more efficient electric heating systems in several city-owned buildings currently heated with oil. That will have the dual impact of cutting the city’s fuel costs while generating more revenue for the Electric Fund. The old oil heating systems will stay in place, to create flexibility if the city ever needs that electric capacity in the future.
The end result of all those maneuvers is a smaller rate hike. For that same household using about 1,000 kilowatt-hours a month, the increase will be about 6-percent, or $8 a month.
That’s the choice the assembly went for, by a vote of 4-3. Mayor Mim McConnell voted in favor, joined by assembly members Michelle Putz, Ben Miyasato and Tristan Guevin.
Guevin said he’d like to take it one year at a time.
“Let’s use that money to cushion the blow for individuals and families,” he said. “And then if next year and the following years we get to the point where we need to raise rates to meet our bond covenant, than I think as a body we need to do that. As a community we need to understand that that’s what we’re committed to.”
But Aaron Swanson and Matt Hunter voted against that option, saying they’d prefer to raise rates all at once. Swanson said that he expects the smaller rate increase will result in more, and more frequent increases, going forward. Hunter said it’s just putting off the inevitable.
“It’s using our savings, our economic development savings, to artificially delay our rate increase to what it needs to be to truly make the fund sustainable,” Hunter said. “I see forty dollars, or thirty dollars a month, I understand that’s tough for people. But it’s what it costs to live here.”
Meanwhile, Steven Eisenbeisz voted no as a protest against any rate increases. He opposed both rate hikes – the large and the small.
“If this is going to be crippling, that would have been devastating,” he said, adding that he feels the city may be leaving better options on the table.”
“I fully understand that something does have to happen in order to pay for the dam. Are we necessarily getting there in the correct route? That’s the debatable question.”
What would Eisenbeisz like to see Sitka do instead?
“As I said, I don’t think every option has been explored, and I don’t have anything off the top of my head that I would say will be the magic bullet for this one.”
And in the absence of that magic bullet, the assembly says this will have to do.