Every year, over one hundred refugees set foot on American soil for the first time in Alaska. Many are fleeing war or persecution in their home countries, and all of them face a new set of challenges as they adapt to life in Alaska.
With two of Shell’s rigs now crossing the Pacific in hopes of drilling in the Chukchi Sea this summer, officials and energy experts gathered at a forum in Washington this week to review the rewards and challenges ahead for Arctic oil development.
Jan Mares, an energy policy advisor and former Homeland Security official, says the prize is within the industry’s technical reach.
“The U.S oil potential, off-shore in our Arctic, seems to be about 44 billion barrels of oil equivalents, in less than 100 meters of water. That’s actually pretty shallow, by oil and gas development offshore,” he said.
Mares contributed to a report released last week by the National Petroleum Council that says the country must start developing the Arctic now so its oil will be available once shale oil production in the Lower 48 declines. Mares, echoing the report’s findings, says well-control technology has improved greatly since the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Even if it fails, Mares says, equipment would be available to stop the flow of oil.
“The first one that would be the most significant in terms of reducing any possibility is what’s called a subsea shutoff device. I’ll show a picture of that in a minute,” he said. “The second one would be a capping stack.”
Former Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes says the shallow waters of the Chukchi may make some aspects of drilling easier, but in the Arctic it also means more ice scour and it limits the kind of support vessels you can bring in. Hayes emphasized other challenges, too. With all the headlines about the receding ice in the Arctic, Hayes says some don’t realize it’s seasonal. The operating season in Alaska’s far north is short, maybe 90 days.
“And this is something that’s frankly a little hard to digest but we are looking at potentially drilling and potentially producing in a region that is mostly ice-bound most of the year,” said Hayes, who, as the No. 2 at Interior, played a major role in granting Shell’s permits to conduct exploratory drilling three years ago.
He says operators would have to stop drilling before the end of the season “so that if there is a spill, there’s time to address it before the ice comes, because there’s no technology known to be able to clean up a spill effectively in icy water.”
Even with a season that short, Hayes says, there may be interruptions.
“You also have intrusion issues,” he said. “When Shell had their program in the summer of 2012 they had to get off the Chukchi well because a huge iceberg was heading right for it, and they had to move off, lose a week or two, then move back.”
Willie Goodwin, a former mayor of Kotzebue, was the only Alaskan on the panel. Goodwin was unimpressed by talk at the forum about clean-up equipment and technology.
“You know, for me as a hunter, you’ll never convince me that you’re going to clean it up,” he said.
Goodwin’s main message at the forum, hosted by Washington think tank Resources for the Future, was that policymakers should have more meaningful consultation with local Inupiat.
Surveillance video shows a former Bethel city police officer repeatedly slamming a man to the ground in the parking lot of a grocery store during an arrest last summer. The man eventually pleaded guilty to harassing the officer. But with the new evidence, an attorney is trying to bring the case back to court.
The camera is far away, and the video has no sound, but it shows a uniformed police officer repeatedly picking up and dropping a man to the ground in the parking lot of the Alaska Commercial Company store.
A few people pause to watch the event unfold. The officer picks the man up and slams him down at least 9 times. Nobody intervenes, including the other officer at the scene.
According to the video and police documents, the incident took place on July 12th, 2014 just after 9 a.m. A witness, Linda Green, a professor doing research in the area, reported what she saw to police and to the City of Bethel but got no response, so she went to the media. From her home in Arizona, Green says she’s relieved the video has come out to corroborate her reports.
“I’m particularly glad because it hopefully will lead to some consequences for this kind of behavior,” said Green.
The officer was later identified as Andrew Reid.
KYUK requested a copy of the video from the Bethel Police Department on March 13th, about the same time that attorney Sean Brown, who represents Wassillie Gregory, the man being arrested, made the same request.
“I’m glad to have finally obtained the video for Mr. Gregory and it reveals clearly what witnesses had told us had happened that day,” said Brown.
The video was recorded as surveillance for the Alaska Commercial store. A police officer verbally denied KYUK’s request for the video but the department never sent a formal denial. Brown says the video should have been turned over to the Bethel District Attorney’s office.
“I think it is upsetting and disturbing that even as of last week I’ve received written confirmation that the Bethel Police Department had never turned this video over to the District Attorney’s Office so that the officer himself could be investigated by the Bethel DA’s office or so that charges could be considered against the officer for the actions he took against Mr. Gregory that day,” said Brown.
Derek Reimer is a spokesperson for North West Company, the parent company of the AC store where the video was captured. When asked about the chain of events regarding the handling of the surveillance video he said:
“The North West Company has cooperated with the local law enforcement as they requested and we’re hopeful the that the matter will be resolved by them,” said Reimer.
However, an email from an attorney for the company, obtained by KYUK, says the store manager provided the Police Chief with a hard drive containing the video. The email says when the manger requested the return of the hard drive from Bethel Police the video had been deleted. The manager took the hard drive to someone in Bethel who was able to restore the video. It was then turned over to the attorney who shared it with KYUK.
The police record differs from the video and witness accounts. A police report says there was no call for police help, but Officer Reid, on July 12th responded because he observed Wassillie Gregory, a quote, “Indian” male, at 9:18 am as quote, “clearly intoxicated”. The report says that Gregory made verbal threats to Reid and challenged him to a fight. The report says Reid was afraid that Gregory might be grabbing for a weapon.
In an affidavit, Officer Reid says he quote, “kindly tried to assist Gregory into my cruiser for protective custody when he pulled away … ” end quote.
The report says Reid then transported Gregory to the hospital where he was medically cleared and says he didn’t have any injuries other than a cut on his face. But a transcript from the initial court hearing quotes an Alaska State Trooper saying Gregory was at the hospital because of a dislocated shoulder and a possible broken collarbone.
Charges against Gregory of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest were dropped in exchange for him pleading guilty to harassing Reid. Brown, the attorney for Gregory, is pursuing a motion to withdraw the plea because of the new video evidence.
The City of Bethel and the Bethel Police Department referred KYUK to their attorney, Bill Ingaldson, who said he could not comment because of ongoing personnel action involving Reid and possible litigation.
Officer Reid was fired from his job at the Bethel Police Department last month. About the same time, a protective order was issued against him by a court in a domestic matter. He was hired in July, 2012.
Community members gathered outside of the Legislative Information Office in Anchorage Wednesday evening to protest proposed cuts to education funding.
A group of about 60 people, ranging from grade schoolers to grandparents, chanted, “Enough is enough! Enough is enough!”
“Think about our education!” added in third grader Violet Bernoski, who attends Winterberry Charter School.
Violet said she was there to support her teacher. Her classmate, Hatcher Mesknes, chimed in saying “She helps us learn and be able to go to college.”
West High 11th grader Charlie Lowell stood at the back of the crowd with a group of teenagers, surrounded by signs saying “You’ve gone too far” and “Keep your promise.”
“Mostly I’m just really disappointed with the legislature is right now with it’s stance toward education funding. A lot of legislators that Great Alaska Schools and a lot of students were really banking on promised a lot to their constituents and the students and to education in general in the state. And right now what we’re seeing is nothing of the sort that they promised.”
The Senate is currently proposing to cut a variety of programs focused on early learning and literacy. That includes state funding for Parents as Teachers, which prepares first time parents to help get their students ready for school. The Senate is also including cuts to the one-time grant funding promised in last year’s HB 278.
Great Alaska School’s Alyse Galvin helped organize the event.
“We worked hard last year to get that bill, 278. And now we know the governor made some suggestions that that get cut down. And then the legislature took that and ran out of town with it. And frankly, we’re not liking it.”
The Senate plans to vote on the budget at the end of this week. They’re trying to close a $3.5 billion dollar budget gap.
The Senate Finance Committee has included in its version of the state budget language rejecting monetary terms included in contracts for more than a dozen units for the upcoming fiscal year.
The committee also adopted language removing salary increases for employees not covered by unions. Committee co-chair Pete Kelly said that action would require separate legislation. Such legislation was introduced in the House on Wednesday.
Kelly says the move is geared toward saving jobs. The state faces projected multibillion-dollar deficits amid low prices, and departments are facing cuts.
Documents provided at a Wednesday morning hearing showed the removal of the salary increases would save about $57 million in all fund sources.
Sen. Click Bishop, a former state labor commissioner, said afterward that he did not support the amendments.
The Legislature has passed a bill that would put its school bond reimbursement program on hiatus. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that the big question is whether it will affect Anchorage’s $60 million bonding proposition.
Right now, when municipalities bond for school construction costs, the state pays more than half the bill.
“We’re paying nearly $120 million in school bonds in this year alone,” said Thompson.
Rep. Steve Thompson, a Fairbanks Republican, carried a bill that would stop the program for five years, and only bring it back with a reduced reimbursement rate. With Alaska facing a multi-billion-dollar deficit, Thompson said it was not appropriate for the state to automatically take on more financial obligations.
“We are simply trying to control our debt,” said Thompson.
Debate over the bill focused on two things: money and timing. Rep. Sam Kito, a Juneau Democrat, opposed it, saying the legislation could create larger deferred maintenance costs.
“By taking a holiday, these costs aren’t going to go away,” said Kito. “The costs are still going to be there. They’re just going to be delayed, and it’s going to cost us more when we actually get to that point where we have to fund those projects again.”
Anchorage Republican Liz Vazquez said she thought the bill had merit in principle, but that she disliked the process around it. The way the bill is written, it would go into effect retroactively, closing the program to new school bonds issued after January 1 of this year. That would block Anchorage from getting funding for the school bonding proposition being considered in the April 7 election.
“Whether it’s the IRS, whether it’s another governmental agency, I detest any government agency or group that decides retroactively to change its rules,” said Vazquez.
Rep. Lance Pruitt, another Anchorage Republican, sympathized with this point.
“I come from Anchorage, and I will recognize that this is really difficult because some of the individuals in my community are currently making some of these decisions on whether or not to go forward with this bond,” said Pruitt.
But Pruitt then stressed that the state could not delay action on the program, given the revenue shortfall. He compared the state to a bird that kept flying into a window of his home — until it killed itself.
“This is the appropriate time to step back, to reevaluate the program, to come back with one that makes sense, and to stop running into that virtual window,” continued Pruitt with the metaphor.
The House passed the bill with a 23 to 15 vote on Wednesday afternoon. Anchorage Republican Liz Vazquez and Dillingham Democrat Bryce Edgmon joined the minority caucus in opposition to the bill.
But in a complicated procedural move, the provision to retroactively apply the bill to the Anchorage election failed. With a 24 to 14 vote, the House did not reach the two-thirds threshold needed to change the date when the bill goes into effect. Representatives will come back on Thursday to reconsider the bill and once more take up that provision.
If it fails again, the legislation will go into effect 90 days after it is signed into law, and the Anchorage school bonds will be the last ones to be included in the reimbursement program.
The bill has already passed the Senate.
Governor Walker’s Medicaid Expansion bill has passed it’s first committee in the House. HB 148 was approved by the House Health and Social Services Committee Tuesday night with a 6 to 1 vote.
The bill would allow the state to accept at least 145 million dollars in federal funds to provide health insurance to low income, childless adults. The federal government is funding 100% of expansion until the end of 2016, then the match gradually decreases to 90% in 2020.
Four Republican lawmakers voted for it, but not Liz Vazquez. The Anchorage Republican says the committee didn’t hear enough expert testimony on how Medicaid expansion would impact the state budget:
“Yes we have public comments but we have not vetted these issues sufficiently and shame on us for passing a piece of legislation that is basically an octopus.”
Vazquez calls the bill “irresponsible.”
Fairbanks Democrat Adam Wool says nearly 30 states have already expanded Medicaid and seen an economic boost. He says beyond the economic argument, it’s important to give Alaskans who can’t afford insurance peace of mind:
“Someone that came in on Saturday brought up something I hadn’t heard yet and it was empowerment. He mentioned the empowerment you get when you have the security of getting insurance and I can speak to that because I went for many years without insurance.”
Wool says even when he was insured, his deductible was so high, he avoided going to the Doctor. He says his family is now covered under an Affordable Care Act plan.
The bill next goes to the House Finance Committee. The Senate is scheduled to have its first hearing on its version of the Governor’s Medicaid expansion bill Wednesday afternoon.
This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.
A new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a slight increase in the Cook Inlet Beluga whale population. But, the whales haven’t bounced back as fast as scientists hoped when they were placed on the endangered species list in 2008.
The latest survey from June of last year showed 340 Cook Inlet Beluga whales. More than the 312 that were counted during the last survey in 2012, but still not as many as researchers would like to see.
“It hasn’t declined drastically, but it also hasn’t begun to recover, which I think is an issue of concern,” Dr. Rod Hobbs, a research biologist working out of Seattle, said.
You’ll find his name on about two decades’ worth of Cook Inlet Beluga abundance studies. Unsustainable subsistence harvests from the 90’s have been pointed to as the main culprit in the population drop off. And Hobbs says tighter regulations since 2005 seem to have helped curb the decline at least a little.
“The population at the end of the period of unrestricted hunting was around 350 whales and it has not increased from that,” Hobbs said.
He says they expected a rebound after the hunt was closed. But that hasn’t happened. And in fact, a gradual decline has continued, averaging about one percent a year.
“And when we project the population into the future using a fairly complicated population model, it appears there’s a pretty significant risk of that population going extinct,” Hobbs said.
So there are clearly other variables posing a risk to the beluga population. It’s not all due to over hunting. What those other risks are? Well, they’re still working on it. A recovery outline was put together in 2010 as part of the endangered species listing. It named four threats to Belugas: over harvest, killer whales, mass strandings and the big one: anthropogenic noise from coastal development in Cook Inlet. Put another way, noisy stuff humans are doing. That could be making it more difficult for the whales to communicate and, by extension, survive. Hobbs says Cook Inlet is a pretty noisy place to begin with, but it’s only gotten louder the past few years with a dramatic uptick in oil and gas development. NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service have spent several years working on a final recovery plan. It’s going through internal reviews right now, and should be released by this summer.
The United Youth Courts of Alaska is notable for encouraging youth leadership in the legal system and students’ own communities. Branches from across Alaska flew into Kodiak last Thursday for the 20th Annual United Youth Courts of Alaska Conference.
In Alaska, some minors may face their classmates when being sentenced for misdemeanors and crimes. Youth Court students train as attorneys, bailiffs, and judges in order to issue sentences to fellow students who have committed either status offenses, like possession of tobacco, or crimes like theft. Deborah Bitanga is a senior at Kodiak High School and the vice president of the Kodiak Teen Court Bar and the board.
She says community service is one possible sentence.
“We also give them essays, and some creative ones is creating a powerpoint or doing a research about the negative affects of a marijuana or other drugs with the body,” says Bitanga. “Like, for stealing, we could research on how stealing could affect the economy of the town or something like that.”
Youth Court students learn about creative sentencing as part of their training at the Annual Youth Court Conference. They fly to a different location every year, and this time they chose Kodiak.
Students meet for two whole days of speeches and forums designed to inform and educate them about the court system and the young people they sentence.
Among the forums this year are “The Youth Brain,” “Creative Sentence” and “Restorative Justice.”
Darlene Turner is the program manager for Kodiak Teen Court. She says that the key phrase is “restorative” justice as opposed to punitive justice.
“There’s not just the consequences but competency development so that the person is being educated. Not just them, but their parents,” says Turner.
She says youth attorneys communicate with the off enders’ families. One of the forums this year is “Parenting with Love and Limits,” where students learn how to speak with families and suggest solutions like a counseling program.
One of the vital skills Youth Court members take away from lectures is a fine tuned understanding of the offenders and their situations.
And Turner says that it’s very appropriate for young people to sentence their peers.
“Youth listen to youth much better. They speak to each other better,” says Turner. “So a lot of times a youth offender will certainly talk to their attorneys and tell them things that they would never tell you or me.”
Turner says that students also learn to be leaders.
“The more you empower a youth to do something, the more they achieve.”
The Youth Court changes the students on both sides of the case. Eli Heinrich from Kenai is in his fourth year of Youth Court. He says that the greatest benefit is the affect the Court has on the young offenders.
“It’s kind of a system that gives kids a second chance with the record and the effects of what they’ve done wrong,” says Heinrich. “Which is probably the best aspect of youth court. It keeps them out of the adult court, it keeps the misdemeanor off the record.”
Youth Court students had a chance to exchange those thoughts at this weekend’s Conference. Madison Stites from Fairbanks is in 8th grade and has been training for Youth Court for five months.
“The conference is for all of us to come together and see what our experiences are together and how we can improve all of this and make our youth system better,” says Stites.
The conference concluded on Saturday night and the visiting Youth Court groups flew back on Sunday.
A report on a fatal avalanche near Cantwell last month says the victim and other snowmachiners underestimated the snow slide potential. The expert review points to atypical terrain, and blames the deadly accident on failure to recognize a hazard, and insufficient safety gear.
Jon Devore started skiing and skydiving as a kid growing up in Juneau. Now, he skydives, speedrides and performs Hollywood stunts for a living.
In the film “The Unrideables: Alaska Range” a former Juneau kid makes aggressive ski turns, flips and literally flies off snowy cliffs.
Jon Devore started skiing and skydiving in Juneau. Now, he’s turned his passion into a profession by skydiving, speedriding and performing Hollywood stunts for a living.
Unrideables is a documentary on speedriding, a combination of big mountain skiing and high speed parachute flying.
“I have spent my whole life waiting for this moment – an opportunity to pioneer and ski mountains that were previously thought unrideable,” Devore says in the film.
The 39-year-old grew up in Juneau.
“If you didn’t get outside and do something, you’d go crazy living here,” Devore says. “And as a kid, whether it was scuba diving, skiing, kayaking, climbing – I went out and did everything that this beautiful area offers.”
He started skiing Eaglecrest Ski Area at age 5 and, as a young adult, spent summers river raft guiding. His first time skydiving was in Juneau.
“When I was a senior in high school, a guy rolled through the town offering tandem skydiving and I was his first client,” Devore says.
After that, he was hooked. Devore moved to Arizona in 1995 to pursue skydiving full time. He became part of a group that was perfecting, what was at the time, a new style of skydiving – free flying.
“Most people think skydiving is belly to earth falling flat. Well, we were taking it into three dimensions whether we were standing up vertically and having our feet go first, or going head down towards the earth or everything in the middle,” he says.
Devore worked as a skydive coach and competed in world skydiving meets. After a little while, “the world of Hollywood and the stunt world started calling.”
He coordinates, films and performs aerial stunts.
“We did all the wingsuit scenes in Transformers 3 where we were flying our wingsuits through downtown Chicago through all the buildings having the robots chase us.
In “Furious 7,” part of the “The Fast and the Furious” series, Devore is an aerial cameraman forcars that are dropped out of an airplane. He’s the lead actor’s stunt double in the remake of “Point Break,” due to come out in December. The original movie was what first inspired him to skydive.
Devore is the manager of the Red Bull Air Force Team, which performs in about 60 shows a year doing stunts like skydiving into a Seattle Seahawks game or into a concert. In his 20 year career, Devore only recently experienced his first injury – a torn ACL.
But he says he’s had close calls. During a movie shoot in New Zealand, DeVore was supposed to jump out of a helicopter, land on a big mountain, cut his parachute off and ski down. He had been practicing for weeks, but while filming,
“My parachute didn’t open, my lines came out and they tied around my ski boots and bindings, so I basically tied myself up in the sky and my parachute never inflated. It was just being towed like a piece of garbage. And I took that all the way into the ground and impacted at probably 95-100 miles an hour, almost pure free fall speed,” Devore says.
Devore was positive he was going to die. All he could think about was his wife. His curled up his body and hit the ground on his back.
“Two minutes later, I stood up and didn’t have a broken bone, zero injuries, nothing,” Devore says.
The mountain he landed on was part of the Invincible Snowfields.
Despite the close calls, Devore loves what he does and is sticking with it for as long as he can. He has friends in their late 60s and early 70s still skydiving. He says, he may one day bring the sport back to Juneau and, just maybe, change some kid’s life.
Ski, Biathlon Championships in White Mountain Earn Western, Interior Athletes Trip to Arctic Winter Games
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.
Skiers and biathletes from across Western Alaska and the Interior gathered in White Mountain late last week for the event.
Nome’s Bianca Trowbridge won the Biathlon. Trowbridge, and her coach Keith Conger say it took a season of intense training that paid off.
Trowbridge: “At the beginning of the season I had a goal, and it was to make it to Arctic Winter Games, and I worked as much as I could to get there.”
Conger: “Increased her training, 3-4 fold from the past, had a determination that I’ve never had in any other athlete that I’ve ever coached, she was as motivated as I’ve ever seen. Her goal was to be number one in the biathlon, in the state of Alaska, and she achieved that goal, and has a ticket now to go to Greenland as a ski biathlon.”
The teams are part of the Western Interior Ski Biathlon Association, or WISA. Teams from Galena, Manley, Nenana, Gambell and Savoonga, Shishmaref, Koyuk, and Nome competed in White Mountain.
The Arctic Winter Games begin March 6th, 2016 in Nuuk Greenland.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Attorney for the Yup’ik Fishermen is James Davis with the Northern Justice Project. He says the court asked the wrong question.
“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.