Alaska News

Haines Artists Collaborate On Sixth Percent For Art Mosaic

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-02-23 17:41

Sharon Svenson works on the “Taking Flight” mosaic.

Alaska’s Percent for Art in Public Places statute mandates that one percent of construction costs for public buildings are set aside to pay for art installations.

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An artist couple in Haines has found success with the program by creating mosaic murals for schools. Sharon and John Svenson created their first Percent for Art mural back in 2008 for Haines School. Since then, they’ve built mosaics for a pool in Juneau and schools in Juneau and Valdez.

Now, they’re working on their sixth Percent for Art project – a mosaic for the Valley Pathways School in Palmer.

“The sound of it is important,” Sharon Svenson said as she cut strips of bright green glass for a 14-by-4-foot mural she and her husband John are making. They started in January and they’re partway done.

“We’re calling it Taking Flight,” John said. “It’s a bunch of ravens on this big panel, and behind the ravens are circular shapes, which could be suns. And in the middle we’ve taken a bunch of strips of colors, and then twisted it and given it this radical swirl.”

Black shards of glass form ravens against bright yellow, pink and green patterned background. The glass is shipped up in sheets from Oregon. The Svensons cut and smooth it into the shapes they need.

Sharon demonstrates how she grinds a square of glass into a circle. She holds up the little green circle that took about two minutes to make. So many tiny pieces go into such a large mosaic. It takes a long time.

The Svensons work about five hours each day for about four months on each project. They meticulously cut, smooth and glue colored glass onto a huge piece of plywood. This kind of work has been their main job for the past few years.

“We take the ideas back and forth, back and forth,” Sharon said. “And then he can actually put it on paper better than I can.”

“I’ll go out and drop the wall size on a sheet of paper and just start drawing on it,” John said. “And you get the cartoon all drawn, then we prepare the plywood. Then you start cutting glass up. Basically you transfer it from the cartoon to the plywood piece by piece.”

Sharon has been a mosaic artist, or mosaicist, for about 15 years.

“It’s colorful. It’s the depth of the color and the sparkle. It’s shiny. It’s beautiful,” she said.

These Percent for Art projects are some of the largest mosaics she’s ever made. She says it is slow work. But when the project is finished, she says it’s “thrilling.”

“It’s awesome, it’s totally awesome,” Sharon said. “I still go into Haines School and go ‘Wow did I do that?’”

Before these projects, John worked primarily as a painter. John and Sharon started working together because the mosaics are too huge for just one artist. They say they’re a pretty good team, they don’t conflict much over creative visions.

The Svensons run a gallery called Extreme Dreams where they sell their artwork. John says usually you just hope your pieces will sell. But with these, there’s more certainty and stability, which is why they keep applying for the projects.

“They pay well,” Sharon said.

“When you’re bound by contract, it’s pretty serious stuff,” John said. “But you know in the end you’re gonna get paid for it.”

The Svensons charge $500 per square foot for their mosaics. The projects usually total between $30,000-$60,000.

“I would say if we could pocket a third of what we’re charging that’s pretty good,” John said. “We’re working in a really expensive medium.”

Once the mosaic is done, the Svensons transport it to the school and install it.

“We never breathe a sigh of relief until it’s on the wall,” John said. “And that’s the high moment of the whole thing. Like, ‘yes we’re absolutely done.’ It’s darn tense.”

Sharon says after all the hours of cutting glass and laying out tiles, they’re glad to see the project done. And they get to watch the excitement of the students when they see the murals for the first time.

“In Valdez they sort of did a double take,” John said. “Little hands would go up, they’re pointing at things in it. The principal later said the reaction has been ‘way cool.’”

Sharon and John plan to keep working on one percent program commissions. They have two more in Juneau already booked, which will keep them busy for the rest of the year.

One day, Sharon hopes she’ll have the time to make a mural like this for their own home.

Categories: Alaska News

‘Youth Speak Out’ Event invites suggests on improving the community

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-02-23 17:26

Suggestions on the Youth Wall at the Northway Mall. Hillman/KSKA

The NAACP and Global Block are trying to get youth to speak up about their needs and what they want from the Anchorage community. They hosted an event Saturday at the Northway Mall.  Though icy streets and sidewalks kept the crowds small, forty youth posted ideas on a wall. They said they wanted things like more activities, youth centers, go karts, places to feel safe, and a clean environment.

University student Joycelyn Weaver says kids need more things to do in order to keep them off the streets, but they also just need adults to listen to them.

“I feel like sometimes when we speak to adults about what we think, it’s not all the way taken seriously. And it could be the way that we’re approaching it. I think it’s just finding the right adult to listen to you and hear your problems. It’s important because once that one adult hears you, they tell other adults and it becomes like a gang of adults who are willing to do something and make a difference.”

George Martinez with the Global Block Foundation helped coordinate the event. ”So what we were able to do is have some local artists, local DJs to create this celebratory environment really about framing the opportunity for young people’s voices to be heard and they can leave a mark on the city with their suggestions.”

Martinez says the event was a continuation of the conversation started with the school district earlier this month on how to help young people of color succeed. He says they will host similar events in the future.

Categories: Alaska News

ANSEP builds bridges for middle schoolers to science education

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-02-23 17:12

Helpers add weights to test the strength of the ANSEP student bridges. Keto/KAKM

Middle School students from around the state are participating in the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program at UAA this year. Forty-eight students from the Lower Yukon and Northwest Arctic Borough completed the two-week residential program on Friday but their learning doesn’t stop there.

A group of middle schoolers crowd around two balsa wood bridge models. A box hangs from each one and two helpers are slowly adding weights to see how much the structures can hold. Each falls into the box with a clunk until suddenly they go too far. The bridges splinter simultaneous sending bits of wood into the gasping crowd. They all cheer at the spectacle.

“And that’s a good example of why we wear safety glasses,” says program director Josephine Mattison. 

The students are testing their final engineering projects to measure the strength of different design types. Most of the bridges held five to ten times more than the students anticipated.

Jaye Chandler from Scammon Bay, Pius Hoover II from Emmonak, and Emily Harry from Alakauk were on the winning team. Their bridge held 187 pounds including the 15 pound box that held the weights. They say they liked planning the bridge.

“Map out the designs, like a blueprint,” they advise.

But Pius and Jaye say the camp was about more than just the final project.

“Meeting new people,” says Pius.

“Meeting the new people, building the computer, and making the bridge,” chimes in Jaye. Emily nods and grins in agreement.

Yeah, you heard that right. They built computers, too, by putting together wires, motherboards, and chips. They get to keep their new equipment, but in return they have to promise to finish Algebra I before starting high school. An Urban Institute evaluation of the program shows that so far, 77 percent of middle school participants have followed through.

Mattison says ANSEP aims to spark the kids’ interest in math and science early, then keep them interested during high school.

“And so we want students to commit to that higher level math track to better prepare them for those higher level math and science classes at high school, which will better help them enter university prepared.”

Wilma Destor with the Lower Kuskokwim School District says the program is motivating her students to stay active with math and science. She says they’ve gone on to the high school accelerated program and participated in statewide science competitions.

“When they get home they inspire other students. They become leaders in their school and in their classroom. And they say ‘Hey, you need to do this. We need to perform well in class because we want you to participate in the ANSEP program because it’s a very, very good program.’”

And what do the kids say they want to do and be in the future?

“Go to college and become a teacher,” says Mary Ford from Hooper Bay.

“A civil engineer,” says Pius.

“Probably get a job. Like a high paying job,” says Lanny Oktoyak from Emmonak. What kind of high paying job? “Maybe an engineer.”

The ANSEP Middle School Program started in 2012. They’re running five sessions this school year and three more in the summer.


Categories: Alaska News

With School Choice Resolution, Legislature Revisits Voucher Question

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-02-23 17:08

With a crowd of charter school students in the gallery, the Alaska State House used a school choice resolution as a proxy for a debate on vouchers on Monday. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

The resolution was offered by Wasilla Republican Lynn Gattis, and it designates the last week in January as Alaska School Choice Week. The motion specifically recognizes such options as traditional public schools, private schools, charter schools, and home education.

“This truly comes down to a parents right to how they choose to educate their child,” said Gattis.

Resolutions do not create statutes or carry real legislative weight — they’re mostly a way for lawmakers to express their feelings on a matter. But because legislation that would allow public funding to go to private schools has been introduced in the past, the discussion over school choice week took on added significance.

Rep. Andy Josephson, an Anchorage Democrat, objected to the resolution because of its connection with National School Choice Week. He said that because of its funders, the movement struck him as less grassroots and more astroturf.

“The National School School Choice Week is actually very corporate. It is very pro-voucher. It’s generally — generally – anti-labor,” said Josephson. “It absolutely has an objective at least partially to privatize education.”

Josephson pointed to financial support from the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice and from the Walton family, who owns the Wal-Mart chain.

Anchorage Democrat Max Gruenberg had some concerns that a line in the resolution about “providing children with multiple educational options” could be read as the Legislature supporting school vouchers.

“That basically could be read and would be read, if this resolution is read carefully, with this Legislature getting into areas that have significant constitutional questions,” said Gruenberg.

But Majority Leader Charisse Millett, an Anchorage Republican, pushed back on these interpretations of the resolution, arguing that the opposition was reading text that was not there.

“I guess I might have a different copy of the resolution,” said Millett. “I think I’m pretty sure I’m looking at the right one. But nowhere in my resolution, Mr. Speaker, do I see wording of constitutional amendments, or vouchers, or religious schools, or anything of that nature.”

The resolution ultimately passed 21 to 14, with all members of Democratic minority opposing the motion, along with Kodiak Republican Louise Stutes.

During the last Legislature, Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican from the Mat-Su, introduced a constitutional amendment that would have allowed state funding to go to private educational institutions. The legislation made it through hearings in the Senate, but did not have enough support to be scheduled for a vote on the floor.

Dunleavy has no plans at this time to reintroduce that amendment.

Categories: Alaska News

Walker Files Bill Creating Marijuana Control Board

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-02-23 16:55

Just one day before marijuana possession becomes legal in Alaska, Gov. Bill Walker has filed legislation to create a marijuana control board.

The board would handle the regulation and licensing of marijuana retailers. It would be independent of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, but the groups would share the same staff within the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development.

Advocates for the marijuana industry have asked that the two substances be regulated separately to reduce potential industry conflicts.

The governor filed the bill on Monday. Walker has already included $1.5 million in his budget for the cost of regulating marijuana.

Marijuana possession becomes legal on February 24, because of an initiative passed by voters in 2014. Under the ballot measure’s implementation timeline, marijuana retailers are not expected have licenses until 2016.

Categories: Alaska News

Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska OKs Same-Sex Marriage

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-02-23 16:17

Southeast Alaska’s largest tribal organization has authorized its courts to perform same-sex marriages.

The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska announced its new policy Monday.

It defines legal marriage to be with another person, regardless of gender.

President Richard Peterson, in a press release, said the council is, quote, “exercising our self-determination and sovereign authority and making sure that we provide for equal treatment of our tribal citizens.”

Old rules allowed tribal courts to conduct marriages, though it wasn’t a regular practice. The council’s new policy is expected to encourage its courts to perform same-and opposite-sex marriages.

Its directive also includes divorces.

The council said its action adds to a growing list of tribes amending or adopting rules to recognize gender equality.

Freedom to Marry, based in New York City, lists nine tribal governments in the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest and Oklahoma that OK’d same-sex marriages during the past half-dozen years.

President Evan Wolfson said he’s sure there are more.

“Members of the tribes know what it’s like to experience discrimination,” Wolfson said. “They know what it’s like to be shoved outside, to be looked down on.”

“And I think what tribal authorities are saying is that, out of that history, we know it’s important that we not commit the same kinds of discrimination, that we not isolate people, is that we not harm them.”

The central council claims a membership of nearly 30,000 Tlingit and Haida Indians in and outside Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

DEC, Coast Guard Respond To Statter Harbor Oil Spill

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-02-23 16:13

State environmental officials and the U.S. Coast Guard are investigating an oil spill at Statter Harbor in Juneau’s Auke Bay.

Sarah Moore is a spill prevention coordinator with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. She says people first noticed a rainbow sheen and heavy, black oil in the harbor sometime Sunday.

“It looks to be some kind of a used motor oil is our best guess at (this) time, and we’re still trying to identify the source,” she says.

The Coast Guard notified DEC of the spill after receiving a report around 7:30 last night. By the time officials arrived, Moore says it was too dark to start cleanup.

She says the sheen was originally estimated at 500 feet by 1,000 feet in size, but it’s hard to tell how much oil spilled. By this morning, she says the heavier oil was mostly collected in the corners of the floats in Statter Harbor.

Moore says a variety of tools are being deployed to soak up the spill.

“We have the sorbent material, which is referred to often as diapers. And it’s that white, thick material that collects just the oil and not water, and so we’ve been using that in a lot of the corners,” Moore says. “We’ve also been using something that’s called snare, which looks a lot like a high school cheerleader’s pompom… And then we’ve also been using just some regular containment boom to keep it in as small an area as possible.”

Moore says the oil most likely came from a vessel. DEC and the Coast Guard are investigating the exact cause.

She says there have been no reports of impacts to wildlife.

Categories: Alaska News

As Budgets Shrink, State Eyes Cuts to Film Incentives

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-02-23 10:16

For the last seven years, Alaska’s offered financial incentives to draw filmmakers and TV crews to the state. But as lawmakers scramble to fill a widening gap in the budget, Alaska’s film tax credit program is on the chopping block.

Governor Bill Walker has proposed eliminating three positions from the Alaska Film Office. Without auditors and accountants to help review information from production companies, the program would essentially go on hiatus.

It’s currently set to expire in 2018. Until then, the Film Office has permission to give out up to $200 million worth of tax vouchers to producers who spend enough on local labor and other expenses. Their credits can be sold to other companies looking to reduce their state tax bill.

So far, about 10 percent of the credits have been handed out. But rather than leave the door open on the rest, Senator Bill Stoltze of Chugiak has introduced a bill to cut the incentive program altogether.

In testimony to the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, Stoltze said the state can’t afford to do otherwise.

“It’s not like there’s $170 [million] or $180 million just sitting there,” Stoltze said. “[But] it’s further exposure to our treasury as tax credits and subsidies are approved. I don’t think it’s sustainable.”

This isn’t the first time Stoltze has made that argument — or attempted to repeal the tax credits. Despite recent changes, Stoltze and other lawmakers have still questioned whether the program creates jobs for Alaskan crew members.

According to the Film Office, about 90 residents worked on shows or films that qualified for incentives last year. By comparison, those productions had 60 employees come from out of state. It’s not clear how many hours they worked or how long their jobs lasted.

Stoltze said that film production has clear financial rewards for Alaska’s service industry, like hotels and caterers.

“There are Alaskans that have participated and benefited,” he said. “But it’s up to you as policymakers to determine whether this is the most appropriate way to spend scarce resources.”

The Labor and Commerce Committee will be taking public testimony on the bill on Feb. 24.

Categories: Alaska News

Ketchikan Child Allegedly Caged, Bound By Grandparents

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-02-23 10:12

On Tuesday, Ketchikan police officers did a welfare check at a Woodside Drive home after getting a tip that a little girl was allegedly restrained at night by her grandparents.

Deputy Chief Josh Dossett said officers arrived at the home and found the girl, approximately 5 years old, in what he described as an improvised cage.

“It was a large-size clothes hamper put on its side with a gate,” he said. “The gate was wire-tied to the front of the hamper.”

Dossett said officers found that the girl’s legs also were restrained, using tape and straps.

Police called the state Office of Children’s Services, and that agency sent case workers to remove the girl from the residence.

While there, police located what they say was a marijuana grow operation. Dossett said they obtained a warrant, and seized about 54 marijuana plants, plus processed marijuana.

“I don’t have the amount of just the processed,” he said. “The total on the marijuana on the plants and the (processed) I believe was about 3 pounds.”

Police charged 46-year-old Eric Riley and 52-year-old Penny Riley with fourth-degree misconduct of a controlled substance and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Dossett said information about the child’s restraint has been sent to the District Attorney’s office for review and possible additional charges.

Categories: Alaska News

Board of Fisheries Nominee Withdraws

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-20 17:28

Governor Bill Walker’s nominee to the Board of Fisheries has withdrawn his name from consideration.

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A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader John Coghill’s office confirmed the withdrawal of Dr. Roland Maw but couldn’t provide additional details.

Maw went through the first half of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Resources Committee Monday.

His confirmation has been mired in talk of the tension between commercial and sport fishing interests in the state. Maw’s nomination saw strong support from many commercial fishermen and wariness from many charter groups.

Maw could not be reached for comment.

Walker will now have two seats on the Board of Fisheries to fill by April 1.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Man Indicted On Sex Trafficking, Sexual Assault, Weapons Misconduct Charges

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-20 17:27

An Anchorage man was indicted by a Grand jury this week on multiple charges involving sex trafficking, sexual assault and weapons misconduct.

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Xavier Lanell Cook Benson is facing 12 counts related to what law enforcement officials allege in a written release, was a brutal and exploitative sex trafficking and prostitution operation in Anchorage, Juneau, Kenai and Fairbanks. 

Adam Alexander is an attorney with the state’s office of special prosecutions. He says Benson will have to meet a high bar to get out on bail.

“He would have to post a hundred thousand dollars cash on the performance bond,” Alexander said. ”He would have to secure the assistance of a bail bondsman on the cash corporate appearance bond and he would have to propose a third party custodian to the court for the court’s approval.”

Alexander says investigations such as this that involve Anchorage police and the FBI are complex and often long term.

“The commercial sex trade is, in many cases, fueled by physical and emotional exploitation,” Alexander said. ”And people often times, and I’m not speaking to Mr. Benson here specifically, but people often times, who operate prostitution enterprises, target vulnerable people and at the same time are becoming increasingly sophisticated.”

If convicted, Benson faces up to 60 years in prison.

Categories: Alaska News

After Providers Lobby, Walker Reverses Cuts To Homeless Programs

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-20 17:26

The Glory Hole, Juneau’s emergency homeless shelter and soup kitchen, is temporarily closed due to a burst pipe and flood Sunday night. (Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO)

Advocates for the homeless in Alaska are rejoicing after Gov. Bill Walker released an updated budget proposal that restores funding for housing and homelessness services statewide.

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The governor had initially zeroed out the funding in light of the state’s multibillion dollar shortfall. But the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness leaned on the administration to restore it.

It’s mid-morning at The Glory Hole, Juneau’s emergency homeless shelter and soup kitchen.

Ralph Jackson and his girlfriend are sipping coffee, and waiting for lunch to be served in a couple hours. Jackson says they’ve been homeless for about nine months, ever since they got kicked out of an apartment in Petersburg for what he says was a trumped up noise violation. He says The Glory Hole is the first place to really help them out.

“They’re giving us some insight, you know, as to what kind of jobs we can get, and housing especially,” he says.

Jackson says he plans to apply for a dishwashing job at a Juneau restaurant. And he says he and his girlfriend hope to get into subsidized housing.

“We’re on a waiting list, and it’s six months to a year… all we can do is just wait,” he says.

In the meantime, Jackson says they’re grateful for The Glory Hole’s services. In addition to help finding jobs and housing, the shelter offers free meals and a warm, dry place to hang out when it’s cold and wet.

Executive Director Mariya Lovischuk says those services would have taken a $96,000 hit under Gov. Walker’s original state spending plan. She says that’s about a fifth of the shelter’s budget.

“If we did not have that funding it would be really, really devastating, because we already operate on a very bare bones budget,” Lovishchuk says. “And I think we do utilize all of the funding sources that are available to us really, really efficiently.”

The governor’s amended fiscal year 2016 budget funds the state’s basic homeless assistance program at $7.7 million. In recent years, that program has covered operating expenses for nearly 40 service providers statewide and helped thousands of homeless individuals and families. The updated budget also includes $1.5 million for special needs housing grants, aimed at helping nonprofits and developers build affordable housing for low income Alaskans.

Sue Steinacher is director of NEST, the Nome Emergency Shelter Team, which gets about two-thirds of its funding from the state.

“At a time where the state’s economic troubles are making life harder for others, it’s really critical that we provide that safety net,” says Steinacher.

Under the initial budget proposal, Steinacher says there was a real possibility the shelter would have closed.

“Given that the governor has put this money back… I feel much more confident about next winter and the shelter having enough operating funds,” she says.

Scott Ciambor co-chairs the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. He says members mobilized to make sure Walker’s office knew the importance of the funds to homelessness programs across the state.

“It’s not something that the coalition has had to advocate for in the past. So there was some scrambling, as you would imagine,” Ciambor says.

He says their message was simple: In a state where affordable housing is hard to develop and doesn’t exist at all in some communities, many people rely on shelters.

“It’s everything from, you know, the chronic homeless population that have been kind of living this lifestyle for a long time,” he says. “But it’s also a lot of families, who just typically need some rental assistance to make sure that they don’t become homeless.”

In a release, Walker’s Budget Director Pat Pitney said taking the homeless money out “was an unintended consequence of submitting a stripped-down capital budget.” She called putting it back in “a cost-effective way to address issues that could be costly for our communities,” including money spent on law enforcement and social services.

Ciambor says the coalition also met with lawmakers in recent weeks. As the legislature continues to craft the final budget for next fiscal year, he says it’s an opportunity for the group to talk about the importance of homeless services statewide.

KNOM’s Matthew Smith contributed to this report.

Categories: Alaska News

Iron Dog Snowmachine Race Primed For Big Lake Start

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-20 17:25

The Iron Dog snowmachine race gets underway this weekend, and there are some changes to the race route, which takes riders from Big Lake to Nome and then to Fairbanks.

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Iron Dog executive director Kevin Kastner says the course had to be altered between the villages of Galena and Koyukuk.

“Because of the open water on the Yukon,” Kastner said. “There’s a lot of theories as to why. Both weather conditions and also just post flood, seems to be affecting how the river freezes there. It’s about two and half miles we had to go around. It seems its only adding about 9 or 10 miles to the overall distance to the trail.”

Kastner says volunteers have marked the new route for racers. He says snow along the west coast this week has improved overland trail conditions there, but the sea ice remains unsafe.

“Our plans are to go overland,” Kastner said. “So avoiding the sea ice at all costs.”

Kastner says trail conditions are rough on the west side of the Alaska Range with minimal snow and there’s concern about snow machines overheating. The Iron Dog has a ceremonial start in Anchorage tomorrow, and a restart in Big Lake Sunday.

There are 37 teams in the pro class event. Among them are several past champions, and 2 women. Also of note, dog musher Sonny Lindner of Fairbanks is competing.

Categories: Alaska News

AK: Tracking Halibut

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-20 17:24

(Photo by Amanda Compton)

Pacific halibut are one of Alaska’s most valuable fish, but we know surprisingly little about what happens to the species during an important time in their life – their spawning period.

Amanda Compton caught up with a study in Glacier Bay focused on just how halibut spawn using a special type of tracking equipment.

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What would you do if you lived hundreds of feet below the ocean surface? Where would you eat? When would you sleep? Where would you procreate? Julie Nielson is a PhD student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“I’m studying the movement of halibut in Glacier Bay,” Nielson said. “We’re trying to figure out if halibut leave Glacier Bay during the winter on spawning migrations and if they do, do they return the following summer?”

Fisheries are managed under certain assumptions that determine whether a fisherman can support a family, if a consumer can buy a fish at the local grocery and how much tourist traffic enters the state. Halibut are managed as if they spawn every year and move freely, without preference to localized areas. But are these assumptions true?

To try and answer this question Nielson attached 25 fish in Glacier Bay with satellite tags in the summer of 2013.

Nielson said the tags hold clues to figure out where fish go on spawning migrations, and finding them is a lot like detective work.

Tags scheduled to release in February popped off as expected and began transmitting their locations to satellites.

“I was pretty much glued to the computer for weeks after that date,” Nielson said. “The idea was: If the halibut have gone on a spawning migration, their tags would pop off outside the Park.”

(Photo by Amanda Compton)

All of these tags transmitted locations within the Bay.

“I did not expect that at all; I thought we were going to find some that were out in the Gulf,” she said.

To find out more than just where the tags surfaced, Nielson had a critical priority – she needed to physically recover the tags. So she asked for help.

There was a $500 reward for finding a tag and she made maps of their locations to within 100 meters.

People kayaked, ran, took skiffs and one guy even flew over to a spot where a tag was located.  But a whole other set of tags were set to release in the summer of 2014.

Nielsen’s PhD advisor had been out with her just days before the summer tag release date.

“My name is Andy Seitz. I’m a professor of fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The last 4 days we’ve been out on the research vessel tracking halibut so we can hopefully recover these satellite tags when they pop up and float to the surface of the ocean.”

For the summer tag recovery trip Nielsen had rented a special tag locating device as Professor Seitz explains.

“And it’s called – a goniometer,” he said, laughing. “It’s a glorified radio direction finder, and so it uses the differential reception of radio waves and a directional antenna to calculate the position and distance of the transmitting tag. “

(Photo by Amanda Compton)

On June 30th Nielson and two colleagues headed north into the Bay to be poised to retrieve the tags. Shortly after 4 p.m. the goniometer began picking up a satellite tag signal.

Thomas: “25! Nice.”

Julie: “OK, 30 degrees.”

Julie: “It’s gonna be a white float on it, so hopefully it will stand out.”

Thomas: “We’ve got 8 eyes.”

Radio:” Ishkeen we have a tag number for you: 131078…”

A tag had surfaced, and successfully communicated to a satellite, allowing the Parks Service to access the location of the tag’s transmission.

Radio: “…41 seconds north. Hopefully there’ll be more.”

Tim: “OK, so we’re about 6 miles away from it.”

Amanda: “Julie, how are you feeling right now?”

Julie: “I’m very excited. It’s a, it’s a treasure hunt.“

The bobbing white Styrofoam head of the tag was spotted on the east side of the Bay.

Thomas: “You guys got it? Starboard starboard starboard!”

Tim: “There it is.”

Julie: “Nice!”

The rest of the trip brought more success: over half of the tags scheduled to release were retrieved.

These days Nielsen can be found in her office, fittingly located above a coffee shop: the rest of her work involves long hours at her computer.

“There’s going to be a lot of pain involved,” Nielson said. “We have the detailed data sets for 11 tags. That’s almost half the tags. That’s an incredible number.”

Nielson’s findings suggest a majority of the fish prefer the comforts of Glacier Bay, either remaining inside of it or leaving and returning, one to within 1 kilometer of where it was tagged. She’s currently working on a movement model that she hopes will indicate where the fish that left the Bay actually went.

The model would ideally assist researchers in mapping the movement of other species besides halibut, like sable fish and Pacific cod.

Categories: Alaska News

300 Villages: Douglas

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-20 17:23

This week, we’re heading to Douglas- a former gold mining town that’s now part of the Juneau Borough but still maintains it’s unique character. Ed Schoenfeld is News Director for CoastAlaska. He’s also a musician who’s written half a dozen songs about his community.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: February 20, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-20 17:22

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at and on Twitter @aprn.

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Arctic Drilling Regs Require Relief Rig; Shell Sees ‘Critical’ Flexibility

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

The Department of Interior today released proposed new Arctic-specific drilling standards for offshore oil exploration. They would require an Arctic operator to have a well cap at hand, but more controversially, a rig on standby that can drill a relief well within 45 days if there’s a blowout.

University of Alaska Board Of Regents Approves 5% Tuition Increase

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

The University of Alaska Board of Regents on Friday voted 8-2 in favor of a 5 percent tuition increase, in an effort to gain ground on the University’s budget shortfall.

Board of Fisheries Nominee Withdraws

Shady Grove Oliver, KBBI – Homer

Governor Bill Walker’s nominee to the Board of Fisheries has withdrawn his name from consideration.

Anchorage Man Indicted On Sex Trafficking, Sexual Assault, Weapons Misconduct Charges

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

An Anchorage man was indicted by a Grand jury this week on multiple charges involving sex trafficking, sexual assault and weapons misconduct. Xavier Lanell Cook Benson is facing 12 counts related to what law enforcement officials allege  in a written release, was a brutal and exploitative sex trafficking and prostitution operation in Anchorage, Juneau, Kenai and Fairbanks.

After Providers Lobby, Walker Reverses Cuts To Homeless Programs

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Advocates for the homeless in Alaska are rejoicing after Gov. Bill Walker this week released an updated budget proposal that restores funding for housing and homelessness services statewide.

The governor had initially zeroed out the funding in light of the state’s multibillion dollar shortfall. But the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness leaned on the administration to restore it.

New Prelim ASD Budget Reinstates Middle School Model

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

The Anchorage School Board unanimously passed next year’s $784 million preliminary budget at their meeting last night. It includes money for giving equal planning time to all middle school teachers and supplements the language immersion programs. But until the state legislature passes its budget, this one could still change.

Iron Dog Snowmachine Race Primed For Big Lake Start

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Iron Dog snowmachine race gets underway this weekend, and there are some changes to the race route, which takes riders from Big Lake to Nome and then to Fairbanks.

AK: Tracking Halibut

Amanda Compton, APRN Contributor

Pacific halibut are one of Alaska’s most valuable fish. But we know surprisingly little about what happens to the species during an important time in their life – their spawning period. Amanda Compton caught up with a study in Glacier Bay focused on just how halibut spawn using a special type of tracking equipment.

300 Villages: Douglas

This week, we’re heading to Douglas- a former gold mining town that’s now part of the Juneau Borough but still maintains its unique character. Ed Schoenfeld is News Director for CoastAlaska. He’s also a musician who’s written half a dozen songs about his community.

Categories: Alaska News

Arctic Drilling Regs Require Relief Rig; Shell Sees ‘Critical’ Flexibility

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-20 16:15

The Department of Interior today released proposed new Arctic-specific drilling standards for offshore oil exploration. They would require an Arctic operator to have a well cap at hand, but more controversially, a rig on standby that can drill a relief well within 45 days if there’s a blowout.

The idea for drilling standards suitable for harsh Arctic conditions was spurred by Shell’s calamitous 2012 season, which featured multiple equipment failures and a floating rig run aground. Brian Salerno, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, says the standards are similar to the permit conditions imposed on Shell during that season, with some additions.

“There’s a lot of commonality with what is proposed in this rule with what was done by Shell, and what is currently being discussed with Shell,” he said.

Shell is the only company now planning to drill on the outer continental shelf off Alaska, and it hopes to return to the Arctic this summer. The new rules would apply to future exploratory drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. They won’t be final in time for this summer’s drilling season, but Salerno says many of the features will be part of Shell’s permit conditions this year.

Shell spokeswoman Megan Baldino says the company supports regulations that promote safety, as long as they’re clear and well reasoned.

“Regarding the relief rig requirement, DOI is clear the use of equivalent compliance measures may be approved, and we think that flexibility is really critical,” she said. “It’s going to encourage the development of new innovative technology for Arctic operations that are both economic and environmentally sound. That’s really important.”

Shell has said that having a relief rig on standby would cost $250 million a year.

The requirement to have a relief well drilled within 45 days after an incident would allow the company to park a rig in Dutch Harbor, an estimated 20 days away from Shell’s farther lease areas. Or, the rules would allow what Shell has proposed for the Chukchi this year: Two working rigs, each serving as the standby for the other.

The rules also say a company may be able to avoid having a relief rig at all, if it can show that other technology provides the same protection.

Marilyn Heiman, who works on Arctic Ocean protection for the Pew Charitable Trusts, says she likes the proposed standards, especially the time limits.

“The big differences are the requirement to have a capping stack in place within 24 hours, a requirement to have a containment system within seven days and the requirement to have a relief rig readily available to drill a relief well,” said Heiman, who was the Alaska policy advisor in President Clinton’s Interior Department. (By “readily available” she means near enough to have a relief well in 45 days, rather than a delay that could be nearly a year-long, due to ice.)

The rules don’t set end dates for drilling, but they say it has to stop before seasonal ice returns, and they require the operators to conduct ice tracking and forecasting to predict when that will be.

Heiman says the 2010 Gulf spill proved a relief drilling rig is indispensible.

“Because if the capping stack doesn’t work, or if the containment system doesn’t work, we know in the Deep Water Horizon, they needed a relief well to actually control the blowout. So, I think that’s a critical piece of this,” she said.

Other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Oceana, praise the draft rules but say Arctic drilling remains too risky. Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she’s reserving judgment until it’s clear the rules won’t deter investment.




Categories: Alaska News

University of Alaska Board Of Regents Approves 5% Tuition Increase

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-20 13:11

The University of Alaska Board of Regents voted 8-2 in favor of a 5 percent tuition hike for the 2015-16 academic year.

UA President Pat Gamble says this will total out to about $5 million more revenue for the university system.

The Board previously voted down a similar measure in September 2014, but opted to revisit the issue in light of an anticipated drop in state funding.

This is a developing story. Check  back for more.

Categories: Alaska News

Independent Power Producers Seek Utility Regulations Change

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-20 12:48

 Some Alaska alternative energy producers may benefit from new rules the Regulatory Commission of Alaska is considering. But other independents say the state’s power statutes are so antiquated they should be completely revised.  

Alaska Environmental Power, which harnesses wind energy, filed a petition with the RCA in August of 2013, asking for changes in current regulations that would facilitate independent producers’ access to the electrical grid. Right now, the price of independent power is too high, and that is blocking the growth of independent power companies, according to Teresa Clemmer, an attorney representing AEP. Clemmer says Alaska ‘s current regulations are discouraging private investment in alternative energy.

“Independent power producers are looking for a fair opportunity to compete. That’s all they want is an ability to sell their power at a competitive price and to increase the development of renewable energy by tapping the market forces that are willing to invest lots of money in Alaska.”

Part of the problem is the costs utilities face in purchasing alternative energy and integrating it into the power grid.

Clemmer says state regulations need to harmonize with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC] rules when it comes to allowing emerging energy producers to use existing power infrastructure. A 1980s era federal law  encourages traditional electric companies to purchase power from non-traditional producers. Federal regulations require utilities to pay competitive prices for independently produced power under the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act. PURPA says utilities must purchase lower-priced althernative power whenever possible.

 Clemmer says, only 3 percent of Alaska’s energy comes from renewable sources, compared with almost 38 percent in the Lower 48, because state regulations have not kept up with the times.

“We just wanted to bring the state law in line with what the rest of the country is doing.”

In 1982, the then Alaska Public Utilities Commission adopted PURPA, which set guidelines for rates and conditions for purchase and interconnection of alternatively produced power by the established utilities. But those guidelines are not enforced, according to Duff Mitchell, executive director of Alaska Independent Power Producers. Mitchell says AEP’s petition to RCA doesn’t go far enough.

“It makes some progress, but it doesn’t remove the barriers to connecting to the grid. The RCA  docket is relatively narrow in scope, and it is asking our state to come away from the dark ages, or pre-PURPA era into a current period where we treat IPP’s and avoided costs and integration costs on the same parity which is already the rule of the land in the lower 48.”

Mitchell is working on a privately funded hydro power project intended to provide power for Juneau when it is complete. He says it’ll connect with the grid at the Snettisham power line eight miles away. Mitchell says Alaska’s system now forces independents to pay multiple fees before their power even reaches consumers, because of each of the six major electric utilities owns a portion of the transmission lines linking Homer and Fairbanks.

“And so it makes it very difficult for an independent power which has inexpensive power to offer, and wants to do a phase two project, and maybe the current utility right next door to them doesn’t need the power, but somebody else further away, let’s say in Fairbanks, does, and yet you have to wheel that power between three other utilities, and so they pancake it, or they extract fees and costs, so that that power is no longer economical.”

Mitchell says, in Alaska, utilities own both generation and transmission of power.. which is counter to FERC rules. He favors a legislative fix to the independent’s problems.  A bill now before the state legislature, HB 78, would seek to address some of Mitchell’s concerns. 

Anchorage’s Chugach Electric has filed comments on the independent producers’  RCA docket, indicating that “individual utility boards… are in the best position to decide whether a particular project offers value to its customers.” Chugach spokesman Phil Steyer says that Chugach already buys power generated by Cook Inlet Regional’s Fire Island wind project. Steyer says his company is backing a different, but related, approach to the problem : unifying the six segments of the grid.

“A unified system operator for the railbelt could establish common rules of the road to include reliability standards and interconnection standards and it could collect through a universal tariff, the cost of operating, maintaining and expanding the existing regional grid.”

Steyer says, under the present system, it is difficult for the management of  electric cooperatives to see beyond their own service areas.  But Mitchell says the transmission lines are mostly state- funded, and should be open to all users. The RCA has accepted Alaska Environmental Power’s petition and Clemmer says at its most recent meeting, [Feb.11] RCA staffers presented language proposing the changes alternative energy producers want. She says the next step is an RCA draft rule and public comment. She says it is likely the RCA will make a decision on the issue by this summer.

Categories: Alaska News

Our Own Geological Era

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-20 12:00

What if what we call the natural world no longer really exists, and we live already in a world of our own creation?  There is growing evidence that human activity has triggered a new geological era.  Scientists are debating whether the evidence we leave behind in the layers of the earth will be plastic, nuclear isotopes, changed biomass indicators, or other things, but they agree that humans have actually changed the planet.  The question is – how do we take responsibility for that, and what can we do from this point on?  It’s a question that means a lot for Alaska, and it’s what we’re talking about on the next Talk of Alaska.

HOST: Steve Heimel, Alaska Public Radio Network


  • Christian Schwagerl, author, “The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How It Shapes Our Planet”
  • Callers statewide


  • Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).
  • Send e-mail to talk [at] alaskapublic [dot] org (comments may be read on air)
  • Call 550-8422 in Anchorage or 1-800-478-8255 if you’re outside Anchorage during the live broadcast

LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, February 24, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.

SUBSCRIBE: Get Talk of Alaska updates automatically by e-mailRSS or podcast.


Categories: Alaska News