Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 1, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-01 17:16

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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House OKs Timber Payments, But Alaskans Can’t Count on It

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

A federal revenue sharing program called Secure Rural Schools has been a million-dollar boon to some Alaska cities and boroughs, mostly in Southeast. Despite the name, the money doesn’t just go to schools, and these days it’s not at all secure. But, a two-year extension of Secure Rural Schools has advanced in Congress.

Proposal Would Reject Pay Increases For Public Employees

The Associated Press

The Senate Finance Committee has included in its version of the state budget language rejecting pay raises included in contracts for more than a dozen units for the upcoming fiscal year.

Legislature Votes To End School Bond Reimbursements, But Uncertainty Lingers For Anchorage

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The Legislature has passed a bill that would put its school bond reimbursement program on hiatus. The big question is whether it will affect Anchorage’s $60 million bonding proposition.

Medicaid Expansion Bill Clears First Hurdle

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Governor Walker’s Medicaid Expansion bill has passed its first committee in the House. HB 148 was approved by the House Health and Social Services Committee Tuesday with a 6 to 1 vote.

Study Says Terrestrial Foods Can’t Replace Polar Bears’ Energy-Dense Diet

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

As sea ice continues to retreat and polar bears spend more time on shore, one question lingers…can the world’s largest species of bears survive on land-based food? A new study says, “no.”

NOAA Report Shows Slight Increase In Cook Inlet Beluga Population

Shaylon Cochran, KDLL – Kenai

A new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a slight increase in the Cook Inlet Beluga whale population. But, the genetically distinct whales haven’t bounced back as fast as scientists hoped.

Youth Courts of Alaska Students Train to be Leaders

Kayla Desroches, KMXT – Kodiak

Judges in Alaska have the option to send minors to youth court for sentencing, where the bailiffs, attorneys, and judges are also their peers. Branches from across Alaska flew into Kodiak last week for the 20th Annual United Youth Courts of Alaska Conference.

Avalanche Fatality Blamed On Underestimation Of Slide Potential, Insufficient Safety Gear

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A report on a fatal avalanche near Cantwell last month says the victim and other snow machiners underestimated the snow slide potential.

How A Juneau Kid Turned His Passion Into A Profession

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

Jon Devore started skiing and skydiving as a kid growing up in Juneau. Now, he skydives, speedrides and performs Hollywood stunts for a living.

Ski, Biathlon Championships in White Mountain Earn Western, Interior Athletes Trip to Arctic Winter Games

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

Five western Alaska athletes will make their way to Greenland next year—after earning spots on Team Alaska for the 2016 Arctic Winter Games at the Western Interior Cross-country Ski and Biathlon championships.

Categories: Alaska News

House OKs Timber Payments, But Alaskans Can’t Count on It

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-01 15:51

A federal revenue-sharing program called Secure Rural Schools has been a million-dollar boon to some Alaska cities and boroughs, mostly in Southeast. Despite the name, the money doesn’t just go to schools, and these days it’s not at all secure. But a two-year extension of Secure Rural Schools has advanced in Congress.

The extension was tacked onto a bill on an unrelated subject, Medicare funding, the so-called “Doc fix” bill. The U.S. House passed the bill last week. The Senate is likely to take it up next week.

National Association of Counties spokesman Brian Namey says municipalities and school districts in 41 states depend on their SRS money not only for education, but also for roads and emergency services. Namey says that creates a broad base of support and he’s optimistic.

“Our allies on Capitol Hill are hearing this call from boroughs across Alaska and counties across the country that these programs need to be reauthorized and fully funded,” Namey said.

Secure Rural Schools grew out of a 1908 law that gave local governments 25 percent of federal timber receipts from nearby forests. But then in the 1990s, the national timber harvest declined dramatically, so Congress created a new program to base payments on what a community’s harvest used to be. Last year, Alaska communities got $14 million from it, but the program expired at the end of the fiscal year.

Its extension seems to have hitched a good ride with the Medicare Doc-fix bill. The vote in the House was overwhelming, President Obama supports it, and senators are under a lot of pressure to pass it. But opposition is growing, particularly from deficit hawks. The free-market advocacy group Club for Growth, for instance, wants to stop the Doc Fix, and it’s warning lawmakers their vote on the bill will be part of their annual scorecard. Club for Growth spokesman Doug Sachtleben  says the bill is an expensive package.

“The issue for us was not only do you lump a lot of stuff together in one bill but you do it without off-setting 100 plus billion dollars,” he said.

Club for Growth doesn’t have a position on Secure Rural Schools itself, but Sachtleben is skeptical of the House approach.

“If it’s worthwhile, important issue, it ought to have the merit to be debated by senators, instead of being put into a bill predominantly intended to be a Medicare reimbursement rate bill,” said Sachtleben.

In Alaska, borough managers like Steve Giesbrecht of Petersburg aren’t sure they can rely on Secure Rural Schools money. Petersburg, with a population of just over 3,000, is one of a handful of Alaska communities that have reaped more than $1 million a year from SRS. Giesbrecht says he’s not counting on it continuing.

What we heard when we were in DC related to Secure Rural Schools was secure rural school is going to go away. We may get an extension or two in a wind-down, but there’s just not a lot of support for it.

Giesbrecht say the borough has saved much of its SRS money in a schools saving account, so losing the payments won’t cause an immediate crisis. But at the same time, the state is slashing its spending, and another federal program that funds local governments, PILT, or Payment-in-Lieu of taxes, is in jeopardy. Giesbrecht says he’s working to launch a community dialog on the tough choices ahead for Petersburg.

KFSK News Director Joe Viechnicki contributed to this report from Petersburg.


Categories: Alaska News

Candidates for open ASD School Board Seat G bring financial experiences, different priorities

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-01 15:31

School Board Seat G candidates Starr Marsett (L) and Elisa Snelling (R).

Three school board seats are on Anchorage’s ballot this spring. Elisa Snelling and Starr Marsett are competing for Seat G, which is being vacated by Natasha Von Imhof. The two candidates both bring passion but with very different focuses.

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Starr Marsett ran for school board in 2012, and she lost. Her response?

“What it did was let me know that I needed to get more involved, get more ready for being able to do it the next time.”

So Marsett joined committees — the Capital Improvement Advisory Committee, the Special Education Advisory Committee, the Multicultural Educational Concerns Advisory Committee. And through those groups she visited many of Anchorage’s schools and learned about some of the major issues. She also substitute taught for three years.

“And that kind of opened my eyes to what was going on in the classrooms. I saw classrooms — there was one classroom I subbed in, there were 20 students and they gave that teacher all of the behavioral challenged students for that grade. And no support.”

Marsett says these experiences and raising her special needs grandson prompted her to speak up in support of the teachers and the students. She says she sees problems in the schools and problems with the budget, and wants to use her 16 years of experience with finance to help solve them.

The district can’t just cut the most recently added programs, like literacy coaches, Marsett says. “No, let’s look at the programs that aren’t working. Let’s do a strategic plan, let’s do an analysis and not just cut the last thing. Let’s cut the thing that’s not working.”

Marsett’s opponent, Elisa Snelling, also comes to the race with a financial background. She’s been an accountant for 20 years and served as treasurer for the German charter school for three years.

“Somewhere about 20, 25 years ago I decided to give up letters for numbers. I love balancing numbers. It is a passion. I will go home sick to my stomach if something doesn’t work until I find it. So I’ve always watched the budget.”

Snelling says she wants the whole community to participate in the district’s finances by holding more budget meetings at night and making the documents more available online.

Snelling says her children’s success at Rilke Shule inspires her to push for easy access to charter and alternative school programs for all of Anchorage’s students. She says she wants to embed charter and alternative programs into neighborhood schools.

“Parents can decide. They can take a look at their neighborhood school and say ‘My kid might like the Japanese immersion program or the Montessori program.’ They might be okay with the regular program. But I think that parents and students should have options that they don’t have to drive across town for.”

Snelling, who lives in Eagle River, says she’s running to make a difference for the long term. “I’ve got the energy, I’ve got the excitement, I’ve got the drive. I’ve got the kids to push me. I’ve got all of the incentive in the world to make it just go all the way.”

Anchorage voters will make the final decision on April 7 at the ballot box.

Categories: Alaska News

Study Says Terrestrial Foods Can’t Replace Polar Bears’ Energy-Dense Diet

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-01 09:01

Polar bears forced ashore when the sea ice melts in summer may eat vegetation, berries, goose eggs, and even some adult geese. But, because of limited availability and or low nutritional quality, these foods cannot offset lost access to lipid-rich seals caused by melting sea ice. (Photo © BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International)

As sea ice continues to retreat and polar bears spend more time on shore, one question lingers – can the world’s largest species of bears survive on land-based food? A new study says, “no.”

Arctic sea ice this year covered about half a million square miles less than average and started its retreat two weeks earlier than normal. And the earlier the ice retreats, the earlier polar bears will come ashore, which means they are spending more time on land.

“It’s changed by about a week a decade in Western Hudson Bay,” Karyn Rode, a research wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and the lead author on the study, said.

A polar bear’s normal diet consists entirely of fatty, energy-dense foods like seals and the occasional whale carcass. But, Rode says as bears spend more time on land, some have been observed eating terrestrial food.

“The observations of polar bears eating bird eggs have been limited to 30 or fewer individuals,” she said. “And polar bear populations are between 900 and 2000 individuals, so it’s a really small proportion of any population that’s eating some of these higher quality terrestrial foods.”

Other foods like berries and other vegetation are also available. But, according to Steven Amstrup – the chief scientist at Polar Bears International and a co-author of the study – those foods provide little nutritional value to the bears.

“We know that in the human case. You have a lot more nutritional benefit if you eat a big hunk of steak than if you eat a few sprigs of celery,” he said. “They may take up the same amount of room in your gut, but the nutritional contribution to your welfare is very different.”

Some Polar bears in the Arctic can swim in excess of 200 miles. (Photo by Mike Lockhart/USGS)

Another factor that comes into play is competition with other predators for a limited supply of food – particularly with Arctic grizzly bears.

Amstrup says the grizzly bears would likely be at a distinct advantage because they have spent millennia adapting to those conditions.

“And so they are poised to take advantage of the foods that are already there and are evolved to do so,” Amstrup said. “Polar bears on the other hand would be, if they were forced ashore and attempting to take advantage of the terrestrial foods, they would be learning how to do it.”

Karyn Rode says the difference in body size also puts polar bears at a disadvantage on shore.

“You have to keep in mind that for grizzly bears, those that live in the Arctic are the smallest of their species and they occur at the lowest density,” Rode said. “And studies show that those populations are limited by food availability. So polar bears are entering that kind of environment, where the bears that occupied the habitat are half their size.”

Rode says the Western Hudson Bay polar bear population is where the most terrestrial feeding has been observed. And their research shows the bears have lower survival rates in the years where they spend more time on shore.

She says the new, terrestrial diet likely can’t replace the fat-rich foods on which the bears would otherwise thrive.

Categories: Alaska News

As Legislature Passes Gasline Bill, Feud With Governor Continues

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-03-31 17:57

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski (left), and Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, participate in a press conference related to passage of House Bill 132. March 31, 2015. The bill, introduced on March 2nd by Chennault and other House Majority leaders, limits the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation’s powers on the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline. It was strongly criticized at the time by Gov. Bill walker, who was adamant it would weaken the state’s position in pipeline negotiations. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The Alaska Legislature has passed a bill meant to keep Gov. Bill Walker from spending money on an alternate gasline proposal. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports the action is part of an ongoing power struggle between Republican leadership and the governor over the state’s most high-profile megaproject.

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It’s the legislative equivalent of two Semi trucks playing chicken. The governor has said he would veto the bill; the Legislature nearly has the number to override him; and no one’s really sure who will win.

For days, Gov. Bill Walker and Republican leadership have been in talks over what terms would be needed to stop House Bill 132 from coming to a vote. But on Tuesday, after an hour of closed-door caucus meetings and plenty of scurrying by legislative staff, the bill hit the Senate floor. No compromise had been reached. Sen. Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, carried the legislation, saying it’s a matter of the Legislature asserting itself.

“This basically just underscores the past two what we did on gas pipeline projects, and substantiates that we are the policy body — the equal branch of government that establishes policy and appropriation authority,” said Giessel.

The bill itself is basically an affirmation of a bill passed by the Legislature last year, which sets the state up to partner with Exxon, BP, and ConocoPhillips on a project to get North Slope gas to market at a cost of at least $45 billion. The bill that passed on Tuesday prevents the governor from exploring a competing plan, by taking a smaller gasline project, known as the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline, and morphing it into a big one.

While supporters of the bill argued that the bill was needed to protect the bigger project — known as AKLNG — opponents worried it would weaken the state’s bargaining position.

“I’m really hesitant to tie our chief executives hands at the negotiating table,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican.

Anchorage Democrat Bill Wielechowski argued the bill had not been thoroughly vetted, and that it was being rushed through the Legislature. Because law requires the bill to be transmitted to the governor by April 1 to allow time during the regular session for a veto override vote, the bill received only one committee hearing before being scheduled for Senate floor. The producers had not been invited to testify on it.

Wielechowski also worried that the conflict between the Legislature and governor could jeopardize the construction of any project.

“Us voting on this I think sends a bad message — that we’re fighting amongst ourselves,” said Wielechowski. “And I think that’s very dangerous.”

The bill passed 13 to 7, with Stedman joining the Legislature’s six Democrats in opposition.

That number leaves the bill’s fate uncertain. The Legislature needs a two-thirds vote to override the governor’s promised veto. If all of the lawmakers who voted against the bill in the House and Senate maintain their objection, leadership falls short of the 40 votes it needs.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, who sponsored the bill, addressed the matter in a post-vote press conference.

“The numbers are what they are. I would have loved to have had 18 or 19 votes on the Senate side, and I’d have loved to have 30 on the House side. But as we get into the process more and more — if he does veto it — then we’ll be working with the members that not only that voted yes, but certainly talking to the members that voted no,” said Chenault. “It’s a high hurdle. It should be a high hurdle.”

Chenault and Senate President Kevin Meyer plan to continue negotiations with Walker. They stressed that the sticking point is the money the Legislature has already appropriated for the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline project.

“He has the ability to spend $180 million on a backup plan that none of us know anything about,” said Meyer.

The governor declined an interview request, but his press secretary wrote in an e-mail that his position on HB132 had not changed.

In a written statement, Exxon expressed support for the intent of the bill.

“ExxonMobil has consistently said the Alaska LNG project, with alignment among all resource owners, is the most viable option for commercializing Alaska’s vast natural gas reserves,” wrote spokesperson Aaron Stryk. “An expansion of the Alaska stand-alone pipeline project will create confusion and uncertainty with federal regulators, potential buyers and the public about the state’s intention to fully support and participate in the Alaska LNG project.

The other producers were more muted in their response to the bill. A BP spokesperson wrote that the company is “committed to an Alaska LNG project that includes the State of Alaska as an equal participant and co-investor in the project,” while a spokesperson for ConocoPhillips wrote that they remain focused on work with the current project but did not specifically address the bill.

Categories: Alaska News

Kuskokwim Working Group Asks For Limited Setnet Openers

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-03-31 17:57

The Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group put together a list of recommendations for early season chinook salmon management. Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK.

A few months before the king salmon begin to enter the river, the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group met to set recommendations for an early season of conservation.

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The state hasn’t finalized its summer management plan or made any sort of fishing schedule. They do, however, plan start off conservatively with the goal of bringing enough of the river’s weakened king salmon run up the river to spawn, on order to meet escapement goals.

The working group Friday recommended beginning the season closed, starting very early—May first. In addition, they recommended that managers limit 4-inch set net fishing just four days a week for 12 hours at a time. Working group member Bev Hoffman made the case for two 12-hours days each for set net fishing, but members voted it down.

“There were people targeting king salmon 24/7,” said Hoffman. “That’s why I put in two days.”

Many fishermen used set nets last year, and over a hundred were clustered near Bethel. While managers intended them to provide some fresh whitefish for the dinner table, some fishermen proved effective at catching large amounts of king salmon with the small nets. The 2015 forecast is again projected to be a weak run, estimated at 96 to 163-thousand fish, well below the average run of 240-thousand fish. Two of three weir-based projects with goals missed their escapement goal last year. If the run comes in on the low end, there are no extra fish for harvest, although some will be caught incidentally.

Also new this year, is a requirement that the set nets to be entirely within 100 feet the high water mark on shore. That’s intended to keep the nets out of the channel where king salmon swim. Greg Roczicka of Bethel said adding that language is a big deal.

“People are not going to be setting out up here or around Napaskiak or the choke points that were there before, they will not be able to target anywhere close to the level [of kings] they did last year with the requirement of 100 feet from the bank,” said Roczicka.

Working group members asked about the feasibility of enforcing a set net schedule. Bill Raften coordinates law enforcement efforts for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“I think from the enforcement side, we certainly can do it, but I also see an awful lot of nets being seized. There’s going to be of in and out [of the river]. It’s going to be a lot of work, that’s not a problem. Everyone is going to have be really careful to make sure they follow those regulations,” said Raften.

The group did not make any recommendation on when or how the first six inch drift gillnet openings might happen. They discussed having openers concurrently on multiple parts of the river instead the usual rolling openings. They voted to recommend allowing the use of fish wheels throughout the summer. The state can also offer dip net fishing during king salmon closures.

There is still uncertainly about who will be managing the fishery day-to-day this summer. The Federal Subsistence Board will respond in mid April to several requests from village governments asking for federal staff to take over the Chinook run and other salmon fisheries.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Democrats Offer ‘Emergency Fix’ For Alaska’s Oil Tax System

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-03-31 17:57

Sen. Bill Wielechowski and Rep. Les Gara present their proposed oil tax fix. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

With just three weeks left in the legislative session, a pair of Anchorage Democrats are offering what they describe as an “emergency fix” to Alaska’s oil tax system.

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Sen. Bill Wielechowski and Rep. Les Gara say they would like to see the tax floor raised from 4 percent to 12.5 percent and certain credits ended in order to bring in more revenue
to the state.

The state’s oil tax structure has been debated exhaustively ever since the TransAlaska pipeline came online. Last year, a referendum to repeal the tax legislation pushed by former Gov. Sean Parnell failed narrowly.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Wielechowski argued that adjusting the oil tax system was fundamentally different from efforts to weaken marijuana legislation, noting that the state Constitution has separate rules for referenda and initiatives. He added that the current regime has been given enough time since the referendum to work.

“It’s a failed system. It’s something that needs to be fixed. And I would respectfully say it’s apples and oranges,” Wielechowski said.

Last week, Gov. Bill Walker told the Associated Press that he has no current plans to revisit the oil production tax.

Categories: Alaska News

Yup’ik Fishermen Case Likely Headed for Alaska Supreme Court, Federal Court

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-03-31 17:57

The Alaska Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court’s decision that Yup’ik fishermen who fished for King salmon during a state closure should be convicted. The decision was issued Friday.

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The Attorney for the Yup’ik Fishermen is James Davis with the Northern Justice Project. He says the court asked the wrong question.

Salmon strips drying on a rack in Bethel, 2015. Photo by Daysha Eaton

“The court asked ‘should the Yup’ik fishers be allowed to be allowed to catch any fish when there are not fish to be caught?’ and therefore got the wrong answer which is, ‘no they shouldn’t be allowed to catch any fish,” said Davis.

In 2012, dozens of Yup’ik Alaska Native fishermen living a subsistence lifestyle were charged with violating the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s emergency orders when they fished for king salmon on the Kuskokwim River. Thirteen defendants are appealing.

The defendants moved for dismissal of the charges, asserting that their fishing for king salmon was a religious activity, and that they were entitled to a religious exemption from the emergency orders under the free exercise clause of the Alaska Constitution.

Davis says there are two right questions he asked the court to consider and they ignored:

“If there were no king salmon to be caught by the Yup’ik fishers, why did the state open up the fishery to allow 20,000 king salmon to be caught the very next week after citing the Yup’ik fishers for catching any king salmon? And the second question which the court ignored as if it hadn’t been asked is, if there were declining runs of  king salmon on the river over the last few years, why did the state continually vote for high salmon bi-catch by the pollock fleet?, which the court of appeals effectively ignored,” said Davis.

Davis says he plans to appeal the case to the Alaska Supreme Court. Myron Naneng is President of the Association of Village Council Presidents, the regional tribal non-profit. He says their organization is pleased the case will be appealed but they are also considering taking the case to federal court.

“We should have gone to the federal court in the first place because the feds did not do their responsibility under title 8 of ANILCA section 807 where they’re required to give priority to rural Alaska and they’re supposed to have federal management first instead of requiring the state of Alaska to issue citations like they did in 2012. That’s something that we’re gong to be looking into,” said Naneng.

Federal managers took over the Chinook fishery in 2014 and have requests to take over management again this season. Naneng cites a case from the 1970’s upon which Attorney Davis’s case for the fishermen was built: Frank versus the State of Alaska, in which a judge ruled an Athabascan man from the Minto area could take moose out of season for a funeral potlatch, on religious grounds.

“When there’s a death in families, there’s a law in the state of Alaska that currently exists where families can go harvest a moose for religious purposes. And we feel that being able to harvest salmon for food as well as for the well being of, to feed our families that’s part of our life and has been our livelihood,” said Naneng.

Naneng and Davis reason that the Yup’ik Alaska Native fishermen’s spiritual connection to the salmon as their primary food source, should be reason enough for the exemption.
Laura Fox is the Assistant Attorney General with the state who argued the case before the Court of Appeals. She says the decision is sound.

“It will allow the state to continue to protect threatened fisheries by enforcing fishing restrictions when necessary, when there’s a shortage like there was on the Kuskokwim in 2012,” said Fox.

The District Court said the state’s responsibility to protect the declining species of fish outweighed the men’s claim of religious rights. The Court of Appeals decision affirms the lower court’s decision.

Categories: Alaska News

ADF&G Online Store Streamlines Permitting Process

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-03-31 17:57

Getting your fishing and hunting licenses just got a whole lot easier. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has launched its new online store, streamlining the permitting process for many prospective anglers and hunters.

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The new store boasts several new features, including buying and printing your sport fishing and hunting licenses at home.

“When you finish your transaction, you are sent an email with your license attached to it, so you can print it at your convenience whenever you get to a printer,” Michelle Kaelke, the the licensing supervisor at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said.

Previously, when a customer bought a hunting or fishing license online, Fish and Game would process the application and mail the license.

King Salmon and duck stamps will also be printed directly onto licenses purchased online.

Kaelke says another change is allowing customers to purchase more than one license per transaction online.

“So, for your whole family, you can purchase all your fishing and hunting licenses in one transaction,” she said. “And, also, we have hunting and fishing lodges who purchase licenses for their clients, and so now they can purchase all of those licenses in one transaction.”

The new system also allows commercial fishermen to purchase their licenses online, which was not allowed in the past.

Kaelke says there is another major digital update in the works.

“Our next project that we’re working on is going to be selling, or showing your license on a mobile device, rather than any type of paper,” she said.

Though the exact numbers aren’t clear, Kaekle [Kel-Key] says Fish and Game expects substantial savings on everything from labor, to printing, to postage.

Categories: Alaska News

Public Comment Sought For Cooper Landing Bypass

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-03-31 17:57

The state department of transportation released its first draft of a plan to reroute the Sterling Highway around Cooper Landing.

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Officially, we’re looking at a draft supplemental environmental impact statement and draft selection for the Sterling Highway between mileposts 45 and 60. The long-sought-after Cooper Landing Bypass.

“We have four different build alternatives that just take a look at the area and offer different options of how to improve the highway,” says DOT spokesperson Shannon McCarthy.

The cheapest of all those options is of course to do nothing. But this particular stretch of highway has some problems. It’s slow and winding, there are a bunch of hidden driveways to dodge, it’s really busy in the summer and not the comfiest bit of driving for RV’s and semi’s, plus, it doesn’t meet certain federal standards for rural highways anymore.

The four alternatives range in cost from $250 to more than $300 million. One path would take travelers south of Cooper Landing over 3.5 miles of new road, including new bridges over the Kenai river and an additional one over Cooper Creek. Two plans would send the road further north and across Juneau Creek, while a fourth would also carve a path to the north, but avoid Juneau Creek falls and the Resurrection Pass Trail.

“We really do need the public to review this, to weigh in, give us their comments and then we can take that information forward and make a final determination with the federal highway administration,” McCarthy says.

The public comment period is open through May 26th, but in some ways, it’s been open a lot longer than that. The first draft plan for a Cooper Landing Bypass was drawn up in 1982. That was shelved and brought up again in 1994.  And since 2000, this current plan has been slowly put together. The project time line shows a decision on a bypass being made some time next year, with construction beginning as soon as 2018.

Categories: Alaska News

Bill Would End Program Requiring Money For Art In Public Buildings

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-03-31 17:57

State lawmakers are considering a bill that would end a program that dedicates money for art in public buildings.

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Rep. Lynn Gattis applauds after introducing a guest on the House floor, Feb 26, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Rep. Lynn Gattis, a Wasilla Republican, sponsored the bill, which gets rid of a requirement that one percent of funds for public projects, like schools and courthouses, go toward art. It would allow the Alaska Council on the Arts to spend their remaining fund balance over the next five years, but then shut down the program at that point. Gattis said she introduced the legislation because of the state’s $4 billion revenue shortfall.

“In no way am I saying that those artists should not continue their artwork and try to sell it,” Gattis said. “All this says is that the state will no longer be sponsoring them in the same manner.”

The “Percent for Art in Public Places” program was established in 1975, and the public testimony that was offered on Tuesday defended it. Democrats on the committee, like Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka, also argued that the program was needed for the character of the state.

“I think it’s really important that the places we live in and work in don’t look like buildings you could just find in Kansas or Ohio – nothing against Kansas or Ohio,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.

While the size of the program fluctuates with the size of the state’s capital budget, the average annual cost is about $1 million.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: March 31, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-03-31 17:57

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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Feds Move Shell Closer to Chukchi Drilling this Summer

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Shell’s effort to resume exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea has cleared another hurdle. The Interior Department today approved the 2008 Arctic lease sale where Shell spent more than $2 billion to purchase drilling rights.

Gas Line Power Struggle Continues Between Governor, Legislators

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The Alaska Legislature has passed a bill meant to keep Gov. Bill Walker from spending money on an alternate gas line proposal. The action is part of an ongoing power struggle between Republican leadership and the governor over the state’s most high-profile megaproject.

Anchorage Democrats Offer ‘Emergency Fix’ For Alaska’s Oil Tax System

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

With just three weeks left in the legislative session, a pair of Anchorage Democrats are offering what they describe as an “emergency fix” to Alaska’s oil tax system.

Kuskokwim Working Group Asks For Limited Setnet Openers

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

A few months before the king salmon begin to enter the river, the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group met to set recommendations for an early season of conservation.

Yup’ik Fishermen Case Likely Headed for Alaska Supreme Court, Federal Court

Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel

The Alaska Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court’s decision that Yup’ik fishermen who fished for King salmon during a state closure should be convicted. The decision was issued Friday.

ADF&G Online Store Streamlines Permitting Process

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

Getting your fishing and hunting licenses just got a whole lot easier. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has launched its new online store, streamlining the permitting process for many prospective anglers and hunters.

Public Comment Sought For Cooper Landing Bypass

Shaylon Cochran, KDLL – Kenai

The state department of transportation released its first draft of a plan to reroute the Sterling Highway around Cooper Landing.

Bill Would End Program Requiring Money For Art In Public Buildings

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

State lawmakers are considering a bill that would end a program that dedicates money for art in public buildings.

Official Day Of Remembrance for Good Friday Earthquake Becoming Law Across Alaska

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

Lawmakers are passing bills to recognize March 27th as the official Remembrance Day of the Good Friday Earthquake that struck Alaska 51 years ago. In the Legislature, House Bill 35 is awaiting Governor Bill Walker’s signature. Independently, the Anchorage Assembly passed its own local version last week. Both efforts came about because of the same man.

Categories: Alaska News

Official Day of Remembrance for Good Friday Earthquake Becoming Law Across Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-03-31 17:27

View of a building destroyed in Anchorage, Alaska after the March 27, 1964 earthquake. (Photo: Doyle and Gloria Bushman papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage)

Law Makers are passing bills to recognize March 27th as the official Rembembrance Day of the Good Friday Earthquake that struck Alaska 51 years ago. In the Legislature, House Bill 35 is awaiting Governor Bill Walker’s signature. Independently, the Anchorage Assembly passed its own local version last week.

Both efforts came about because of the same man.

Chuck Volanti was only 24-years-old when Alaska was hit by the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America.

“I was working at the Alaska Air National Guard during the time of the quake,” Volanti said by phone. “That evening is an evening that I will never forget.”

Volanti was part of a four-man unit in the Air National Guard. Weeks after the quake, the crew was on a humanitarian mission to Valdez. As they flew out ahead of bad weather the plane went down, killing three guardsmen, as well as Adjutant General Thomas Carol, who was with them. Volanti was not on board, and is the only survivor from the office.

The seed for the Remembrance Day resolutions was planted when he visited Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson in 2013.

“I wanted to put a wreath at the wall of honor, in memory of fallen comrades,” said Volanti.

In March of 2014, Governor Sean Parnell signed into law a bill recognizing March 27th as the 50th anniversary of the disaster. But as Volanti puts it, that was “law for a day,” and he felt that the deceased, as well as the survivors, deserved something more lasting. So he brought the issue back up with House Republican Charisse Millett of Anchorage.

“This legislation honors these people, it remembers these people,” Volanti said. “So in a subsequent conversation with Representative Millet I said ‘This is a date that should be, now and forever, remembered.’ And I said ‘Representative Millet would you kindly consider sponsoring a bill?’ which she did do.”

The bill passed both the House and Senate unanimously. But Volanti didn’t stop there. He mentioned the issue to Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, who helped get a local version in front of the Assembly. Flags will fly at half-mast, and clergy in Anchorage and elsewhere have agreed to toll their bells to mark the date each year. They are symbolic steps that Assembly chair Dick Traini believes will carry forward the lessons learned after the quake.

“So the purpose of this is to just remind Alaskans about what happened in the past, and what will happen again,” Traini said by phone. “Because there will be another earthquake–it’s a matter of when it happens, not if.”

Traini hopes the official remembrance will help remind residents to take steps to prepare, like having a three day supply of food and water at home.

And though Volanti and his wife now live outside of Alaska, his work commemorating the quake isn’t over, even half a century later.

“One of the last things I have left to do is see some kind of a memorial…placed in Valdez in honor of this flight crew,” Volanti said. “Like I say, to me these men were more like family than a formal military command.”

The Anchorage resolution passed unanimously last week in the Assembly.


Categories: Alaska News

Feds Move Shell Closer to Chukchi Drilling this Summer

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-03-31 15:32

Shell’s effort to resume exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea has cleared another hurdle. The Interior Department today approved the 2008 Arctic lease sale where Shell spent more than $2 billion to purchase drilling rights.

A court challenge forced the government to re-examine the environmental impact of the sale. That’s why the feds are announcing their approval now of an auction that actually took place seven years ago.

The decision clears the way for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to officially consider Shell’s off-shore drilling plan. Shell hopes to send two rigs to the Chukchi this summer, with each serving as the relief rig for the other, in case of a blowout.

Shell drilled two partial wells in Arctic waters in 2012, in a season beset by problems. Company spokeswoman Megan Baldino says the affirmation of the lease sale means Shell can proceed with its plans for Arctic drilling, but it isn’t the final green light.

“Of course, that is all contingent on getting all the permits, legal certainty, then our own determination that we’re prepared to do it safely and responsibly,” she said.

In a written statement announcing the decision, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the Arctic “an important component of the Administration’s national energy strategy” and says they are taking a balanced approach.

Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe, who filed the environmental challenge against the lease sale, says he’s disappointed in what he describes as a rushed process.

“But Interior still has time to make better decisions when evaluating Shell’s drilling plan. And we sincerely hope that it says no to that plan,” he said.

Grafe says he’ll continue to watch the regulatory process, which will include a public comment period on Shell’s exploration plan. He says each of his clients, mostly environmental groups since the Native Village of Point Hope dropped out of the lawsuit, will have to evaluate whether to continue.

Meanwhile, Shell has two drilling rigs underway from Asia, the Polar Pioneer and the Noble Discoverer, a drill ship it also used in 2012. The rigs are heading into the North Pacific. A Greenpeace ship is in pursuit, with activists on board, blogging photos.

Categories: Alaska News

“Leave Alaska,” Assault on Property Leaves Sudanese Immigrants in Spenard Concerned

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-03-30 17:51

An incident over the weekend alarmed members of an immigrant community in Anchorage. However, officials are stopping short of labeling it a hate crime.

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On Sunday morning a vehicle outside a multi-family home was found with deflated tires and covered with hateful messages written in washable orange marker.

Debby Bock is a friend of the five men who live together in the building, all of whom are refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan. Bock came over Sunday, and was shocked by what she saw.

“There was writing on every single window and every single side of both of the cars,” Bock said. “Things that said, ‘Not welcome,’ ‘Go home,’ ‘Take a hike,’ ‘Leave Alaska,’ ‘Go away.'”

The men called the Anchorage Police Department to file a report. But both they and Bock were surprised that the Department is treating the incident as a vandalism case, and could not spare an officer to respond in person.

“I called the police again,” Bock said, “and the dispatcher told me that they had taken a report over the phone, but no one was going to come out, and no one was going to take pictures.”

Community members in Spenard, where the incident took place, have made efforts in the last day to show support with men living at the residence targeted. But the men feel unsafe after what happened, according to Bock, and some are wondering if the assault on property constitutes a hate crime.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which monitors hate crimes, has not seen evidence that would involve the organization in the case.

“At this time the FBI is not investigating this as a hate crime. We are not a part of the investigation,” said Staci Feger-Pellessier, a communications specialist with the Bureau’s Anchorage division.

No comment was available from the Public Affairs office at the Anchorage Police Department, which was closed in observation of Seward’s Day.

Categories: Alaska News

Haines Pot Grower Proposes Cannabis Exchange In Light Of New Law

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-03-30 17:45

Dean “Bear” Lari grows six marijuana plants.

In Haines, the borough assembly has decided to wait until the state finalizes legislation before taking any action on local rules on marijuana use and sales. But some residents aren’t waiting on the legislature.

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Dean Lari’s phone has been ringing constantly since he posted an ad on the Haines community website titled “Cannabis Exchange.” In it, he says, “with Measure 2 we now have a great and legal way to exchange marijuana strains.”

Lari sees the Cannabis Exchange as a way to get pot growers and smokers together to share experiences.

“I just saw this as a way to break the ice and say ‘hey people we don’t have to hide indoors, we don’t have to look when the cops drive by, we don’t have to spray air freshener when they open the door.’”

Lari, who goes by the nickname ‘Bear,’ grows six plants in his own home. You can tell when you walk in the door — the smell of marijuana permeates the place. Lari’s son is in the kitchen, trimming one of the plants. Lari shows me the small, brightly lit room where he grows a strain of pot called “Querkle.”

“I average about maybe three quarters of an ounce or maybe an ounce of usable pot[per plant.]” he says.

Lari says he smokes about an ounce of pot a week for medicinal reasons. He also uses it in smoothies. With six plants, Lari says he’s only able to provide pot for himself and one other medical marijuana user.

Lari thinks a cannabis exchange could help inform people who have negative views of marijuana.

“I want people that don’t smoke, people that don’t get high that are scared — come and see with your own two eyes,” he said. “You could take a drink, take a bite or take a hit. You’re not gonna die from it. But then you could speak from experience.”

Lari says there wouldn’t be any money involved with exchange.

“If you bring a couple of nugs, I’m gonna give you a couple of nugs. We’re just trading pot, we’re just exchanging pot.”

What about people who don’t have pot? “I’ll give you a nug,” Lari says. “I don’t mind sharing a joint with you.”

Lari says he’s consulted a lawyer to make sure this kind of exchange is legal. Juneau District Attorney James Scott said in an email that he can’t answer whether the exchange would be legal until the close of the legislative session. Haines Police Chief Bill Musser didn’t comment on the legality of it, but referred KHNS to the state statute.

“I’m not waiting for the legislature, I can assure you of that,” Lari said. “Because what I want to do has nothing to do with retail sales, it has nothing to do with wholesale growing. I’m community-oriented, non-profit.”

Lari sees a cannabis exchange as a precursor to something bigger. He wants to start a community garden where people pay for plots to grow their own marijuana plants.

Lari calls Haines the “pot-smokingest town” he knows. He says the approximately 63 percent of Haines voters that supported Measure 2 shows that.

“That means that every single person in this community has somebody in their circle of people they love that are smoking pot.”

Lari says in the week since he posted the cannabis exchange ad, the response has been “huge” and “unbelievable.” He says he’s heard from a number of people who are interested in learning more about growing their own marijuana plants.

Categories: Alaska News

Homer Takes First Step Toward Deep Water Dock Expansion

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-03-30 17:45

The City of Homer is taking its first step towards a long planned expansion of the city’s deep water dock. Earlier this month, the Homer City Council chose to award R&M Consultants of Anchorage the contract for a study to evaluate the project’s merits.

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Categories: Alaska News

Army Corps Of Engineers Preps For Summer Season

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-03-30 17:45

The Army Corp of Engineers are gearing up for the summer season of projects around the state.

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Chris Tew is the Chief of Contracting. He says the focus of their work has changed from building new facilities to remodeling existing military infrastructure, weatherizing and bringing aging structures up to code. Resource restrictions mean most of their projects this year will be military rather than in remote coastal areas, but he says climate change has meant a lot of work for the Corp in the past decade, especially in Northern and Western Alaska.

“It is a big deal for Alaska,” Tew said. “Climate change is certainly impacting our program and the citizens who live out in these remote areas.”

Tew says one such project will be at Cape Lisburne on the northwest coast where erosion is encroaching on an Air Force airfield and needs to be fixed. He says it will take around 20 million dollars and expects the design and bid process to conclude this summer with work starting in 2016.

Arctic infrastructure is a big priority as the Corp continues studying the rapidly growing need for larger and deeper port facilities at Nome and possibly Port Clarence.
Bruce Sexauer is the Chief of Civil Works for the Corp, he says as oil, gas and other resource extraction ramps up, bigger port facilities are necessary.

“This isn’t a place where they will be shipping a large amount of oil or other resources out of, rather this port facility is there to provide support to those vessels, say if one gets in trouble or needing to send supplies out to the oil wells or whatnot,” Sexauer  said. “This is a very supportive activity. If something bad were to happen, be able to do search and rescue more efficiently from Nome than down from say either Dutch or Kodiak.”

Sexauer says Kodiak and Dutch Harbor will always be important facilities in the winter when the arctic is impassable and it will be years before the port expansion plan is approved and authorized by Congress for funding. But the increase in activity in the arctic continues to build.

“The vessels that are waiting off of Nome,” Sexauer  said. “They started with just a few vessels a year, up to dozens, then up to over a hundred vessels a year that would need to wait or anchor off of Nome to come in and use the facilities there.”

Civil works projects need state and local investment, so Nome port expansion and building any infrastruction at Port Clarence would need a mix of hard to come by funds, but Corp Contract Chief Chris Tew says if the U.S. Navy moves forward with their stated goal of taking the military lead in the arctic in the next 15 years, some of that infrastructure funding mix would come from DOD.

“Yes, that would absolutely have to happen. Those are decisions that need to be made fairly quickly in order to get things teed up in order to do that within the next decade or so but I do think it’s possible,” Tew said. “Whether we want it to happen or not, it is happening and it’s not only going to happen within the coastal waters of Alaska but there are other nations that are going to work in the arctic and our ability to put infrastructure in place so this stuff is done as safely as possible seems to be in everyone’s best interest.”

Tew says other projects such as ongoing toxins clean up at former defense sites will continue across the state this summer at Northeast Cape on St Lawrence Island, the Susitna Gunnery Range in the Mat Su Valley and Umiat test well nine on the north slope.

Categories: Alaska News

Strong King Salmon Catch Means Early Closure For Southeast Trollers

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-03-30 17:45

Southeast Alaska’s commercial salmon trollers are heading back into port now that the winter season has closed. Thanks to strong catches of king salmon on the outer coast near Sitka.

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Troll caught winter king salmon (Photo courtesy of Matt Lichtenstein)

The season was closed at midnight on Wednesday, March 25th. That’s the earliest closure on record by just over two weeks. “And the previous record for closing early was set 10 years ago, April 9th 2005,” Pattie Skannes, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s troll management biologist for Southeast.

The fishery opened in October. The season remains open until the fleet catches 43 to 47-thousand non-Alaska hatchery king salmon, or until the end of April, whichever comes first. It’s the seventh time since 2003 that the season has closed early. The department said the catch had topped 44-thousand non-Alaska hatchery fish the day before announcing the closure and expected to reach the upper end of that range once all the fish were landed.

Skannes said the number of trollers out fishing this winter has been above average for many weeks of the season. “So far we have 397 permits that have fished,” she said. “Catch rates have been well above average during most weeks. And price per pound is currently $8.73 and it’s down after being over 10 dollars a pound for several weeks. And this year’s prices are very similar to last years.”

Nearly three-quarters of the catch during the winter season came from district 113 on the outer coast near Sitka. Another 11 percent of the region’s harvest came out from Yakutat bay this season.
Spring troll fisheries targeting kings returning to Southeast Alaska’s hatcheries will be opening in mid April, May and June.

Meetings for those fisheries are planned around the region in April. The first is in Sitka April 2nd at 1:30 in the conference room at the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association.

Categories: Alaska News

‘There’s Nothing Left to Cut’: Fairbanks Assembly Gives School District $800K Boost

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-03-30 17:45

The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly approved a measure that allows the area school district to keep $800,000 that it would’ve been required to give back to the borough. Assembly members say the action was a small step toward helping the district cope with personnel and program cuts that district officials have proposed to deal with an $11 million state funding shortfall.

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Assemblywoman Diane Hutchison sponsored the measure, along with Presiding Officer Karl Kassel, to waive a provision in the borough code that requires the district to give back $800,000 at the end of each school year to go into a fund that helps pay for school maintenance.

Hutchison says it was a small but earnest gesture to help the district at a time when it’s struggling to deal with state funding cuts due to both plummeting oil revenues and falling enrollment.

“We felt this was certainly a time when the school district could use this extra 800,000,” Hutchison said.

The Assembly clearly didn’t need any encouragement before approving the measure with all eight members voting in favor. Assemblyman Lance Roberts was not present.

But several members of the public along with a few district employees, like North Pole Middle School teacher Vanessa Jackson, took the opportunity anyway to again testify about the urgent need to help the district at a time of severe fiscal contraction.

“There’s nothing left to cut at the school district without impacting the students in some negative way or the other,” Jackson said.

Laura Volmert, who has two middle-schoolers in the district, says although it’s a relatively small amount, the $800,000 would encourage district workers and parents before the Assembly begins work on the recommended budget that the district school board approved Wednesday.

“I feel like the borough Assembly has an opportunity right now to really show its support for education,” Volmert said. “I feel like this is the first opportunity that you have to show your support. There will be other opportunities down the line.”

The Assembly won’t finish work on the district’s recommended $274.9 million spending plan until mid-May, after the Legislature passes a state budget and the governor completes his review.

Also Thursday, the Assembly approved a measure that ratifies a new contract for about 50 unionized borough managers and supervisors.

The three-year contract with members of the Alaska State Employees Association and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sets an annual cost of living increase starting next year that’ll range from 1 to 2 percent, and annual merit increases of 1.9 percent through 2018.

The borough estimates those provisions will cost between $23,900 and $140,300 next year.

The borough estimates the contract’s health plan provisions will cost between $309,500 and $1.2 million in 2016.

Categories: Alaska News