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Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 58 min 59 sec ago

With Lower Oil Prices, State Expecting Major Deficits

Wed, 2014-12-10 19:30

The Alaska Department of Revenue has drastically revised its financial forecast to account for lower oil prices, anticipating multi-billion-dollar deficits.

Oil revenue is expected to drop by more than half. The department’s fall report projects the state will bring in $2 billion in oil revenue this fiscal year, compared to nearly $5 billion in the previous year. The Department of Revenue made that calculation based on an average oil price of $76 per barrel. Brent crude oil is currently valued at $65 per barrel.

The Department of Revenue does expect oil production to increase slightly over the next two years, and projects that it will remain above a half million barrels per day over the next three years. Production is expected to decrease by 22,000 barrels this fiscal year.

The new numbers indicate the state is facing a major deficit. When lawmakers passed their budget this spring, they planned for a gap of $1.4 billion. The deficit for that same budget has now ballooned to $3.5 billion.

A similarly large deficit is expected for the coming fiscal year. Last week, Gov. Bill Walker released the budget his predecessor, Republican Sean Parnell, without endorsement. Parnell’s $5.5 billion proposal would result in a $3.3 billion deficit if accepted unchanged at projected oil prices.

The state currently has $15 billion in savings.

Categories: Alaska News

Police: Felon Killed Prosecutor in Jealous Rage

Wed, 2014-12-10 16:23

Police in the country’s northernmost community say a convicted felon shot and killed a state assistant prosecutor in a jealous rage over a woman.

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Murder charges were filed Wednesday in Barrow against 47-year-old Ronald Fischer in the death of 48-year-old assistant district attorney Brian Sullivan.

North Slope Borough police say Sullivan was killed Monday night in the Barrow home of a woman who had a past relationship with Fischer.

Investigators say Sullivan was unarmed and seated on a couch when he was struck twice with blasts from a 20-gauge shotgun fired by Fischer.

They say security video from a nearby store shows Fischer entering the home.

Online court records did not list a lawyer for Fischer. Attorney Robert Campbell represented him this year in a felony case, but says he won’t be handling Fischer’s murder charge.

Sullivan was an Army veteran and former Washington state House representative.

Categories: Alaska News

New Report Questions Susitna-Watana Economics; AEA Responds

Wed, 2014-12-10 16:21

A new fiscal analysis of the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project questions the Alaska Energy Authority’s estimates regarding how much the 735-foot tall dam would cost the State of Alaska, if built.

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On Monday, economist Gregg Erickson released his analysis of the financial picture of the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project.  The report was commissioned by Trout Unlimited, a conservation group that opposes the project.  Erickson has worked for the University of Alaska Anchorage, a Washington D.C. think-tank, and in multiple roles for the State of Alaska.  He says that, from his perspective, Susitna-Watana doesn’t pencil out.

“There is no market test that this proposed project meets.  There’s every evidence that they’ve underestimated the cost and overestimated the demand.  It doesn’t seem at all likely that the project could be built without very, very large amounts of state subsidy.”

Gregg Erickson says that the Alaska Energy Authority and it’s predecessor, the Alaska Power Authority, have a history of projects going over budget, including Bradley Lake and the Healy Clean Coal Plant.

Wayne Dyok, Project Manager for Susitna-Watana, maintains that AEA believes its $5.2 billion dollar estimate is reasonable for construction of the proposed dam.  He says that claim is backed up by a third-party review.

“We want to make sure that our cost estimates are right on the money, and that’s why we requested an independent cost estimate.  They came in around ten percent of one another.”

One of the issues cited in Erickson’s report is the fact that that independent analysis has not been made public.  Wayne Dyok says that AEA plans to release a feasibility report next month that will include the methodology for estimating the cost of Susitna-Watana as well as information regarding the third-party analysis.

Beyond cost estimates, Gregg Erickson’s report calls AEA’s expectation that it will be able to borrow money at an interest rate of five percent “exceedingly optimistic.”

“There’s so much risk involved in this project that, unless the state wants to backstop this project…there’s no way you could borrow at five percent right now or in the foreseeable future.”

Wayne Dyok says that the five percent figure factors in money from the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service program, which could pay for up to half of the Susitna-Watana project.

“Right now, the Rural Utilities Services funding is less than four percent, so when you blend that with other funding you end up with five percent financing.”

According to Gregg Erickson, the federal money also comes with the condition that the state not only provide a backstop against cost overrun, but also guarantee that the project is finished once it begins.

Like Trout Unlimited, who commissioned the highly-critical report by Erickson, the Talkeetna-based Susitna River Coalition is opposed to the building of Susitna-Watana.  Mike Wood is the Coalition’s president.  He was handing out copies of the report at Mat-Su legislative offices on Monday afternoon.  Wood says Erickson’s analysis gives strength to opposition arguments based not just on conservation, but also on cost.

“What it really comes down to is economics.  All along, that should have been the first question…the state was asking itself.  What is this going to cost?  It never should have gotten to the environmental part.”

Beyond Gregg Erickson’s report, another potential concern for AEA is state funding to continue studies for Susitna-Watana.  In the last five years, the state has spent over $190 million on the project.  According to AEA, about $90 million more is still needed to complete federally required field studies in the area.  Last year, the project received $20 million.  The proposed budget left by Governor Parnell for the next fiscal year also contained just $20 million for Susitna-Watana.  If that number doesn’t go up significantly, it could mean additional delays for the project.  Wayne Dyok says AEA plans to work with Governor Walker and legislators to keep Susitna moving forward.

“…Our goal is to work with the [Walker] administration, and ultimately the legislature, to come up with the right number for the coming year.”

During his campaign, Governor Walker made it clear that he intends to take a close look at the state budget, and that some projects may end up on the cutting room floor.  Whether Susitna-Watana is one of those remains to be seen.  Walker has expressed support for hydro projects, and told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in August that he would support Susitna-Watana if it meant stabilizing energy costs in the Interior.

In the meantime, the Alaska Energy Authority is considering long-term financial options.  Wayne Dyok says the AEA board of directors will meet later this month to discuss the fiscal outlook.

Categories: Alaska News

Medicaid Expansion, Child Welfare Top Priorities For New DHSS Commissioner

Wed, 2014-12-10 16:19

Valerie Davidson. (Photo by Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage)

Valerie Davidson has been one of the biggest advocates in the state for Medicaid Expansion. Now implementing that expansion is one of her top priorities as Alaska’s new Commissioner of Health and Social Services. Another focus for Davidson will be child welfare- she just served on the U.S. Attorney General’s advisory committee on Native children exposed to violence.

Davidson started in the job December first. She says when she accepted the appointment she consulted her two daughters and her mom.

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Categories: Alaska News

Avalanche Survivor Says He’s Shaken, Humbled After Ordeal Near Rainbow Ridge

Wed, 2014-12-10 16:18

The Fairbanks man who was buried in an avalanche near Isabel Pass Saturday and lived to tell about it says he’s learned that even an experienced backcountry skier can get into trouble in a rugged area like the Eastern Alaska Range. He says unusual winter weather is making it more unpredictable.

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Three days after digging himself out from under a mountainside of snow, 63-year-old Michael Hopper speaks quietly and calmly about the near-death encounter that’s shaken his confidence and taken two of his closest friends.

“I’m going back to the drawing board, is what this experience has taught me. And as I learn more about what actually happened during in the accident,” he said.

Happy memory: Michael Hopper slices through powder on a telemark turn down a slope in the Eastern Alaska Range near Black Rapids with his canine companion Rowdy back in 2010.
(Credit Mike Hopper)

Hopper has spent nearly 20 years as a backcountry skier – a form of crosscountry skiing done in remote locales like Rainbow Ridge, just this side of Isabel Pass in the rugged Eastern Alaska Range. That’s where the avalanche buried him and his friend, Erik Peterson, and his beloved dog Rowdy.

Their bodies remain buried while experts await safer conditions to recover them.

Hopper has also taken advanced avalanche-training. So by anyone’s estimation, he’s an able, if not expert, backcountry skier.

He says he knew the potential for peril, so a few years he built a cabin, in case he got into trouble.

“The Eastern Alaska Range is a tough place, he said. “It’s cold and windy and tricky, and you need a place to retreat to.”

Hopper says after all that time he’s came to love the area. So a few years ago, he and his wife Annie built the Lodge at Black Rapids, about 15 miles north of Rainbow Ridge, where they spend part of their time when he’s not at his psychology practice in Fairbanks.

He says he and his companions were itching to get going Saturday for the first real outing of the season, after the area finally got some measureable snowfall.

“So part of what happened this year was we were anxious to get going. We didn’t ski all of last year. So that was some of what was motivating me and Erik,” he said.

Hopper says he wanted to get back into an area, because he hadn’t been able to ski there since early last year, due to the odd weather that set in last winter, starting with rainfall just after the holidays.

“Then in January, it rained. And I went back up into that valley, attempted to go the next day, or a couple of days afterwards, and the entire valley, every spine that came down, had avalanched. It was like glaciers just carved down. It was impassable.”

Hopper says he now realizes that backcountry skiers now need to take into account the changing climate when traversing that area.

“I think if you talk to most Alaskans, it’s pretty evident that it’s much more erratic,” he said. “We’re getting rain. We never had that.”

He says as bad as the events of Saturday night were, they could’ve been worse.

“See, my son was supposed to go skiing with me on this trip. It was his 20th birthday,” he said. “Fortunately, he had a curling competition, which they won. And that’s one thing I’m eternally grateful for.”

Hopper says because of that, from now on, before heading out on another backcountry ski trip he’ll think of his son, Huckleberry.

“I’ll go in with the idea that, ‘Is this a condition that I would take my son in?’ And if I hold true to that, it won’t guarantee it, but it’ll back me off things that I might take a risk on my own.”

A memorial service for the family of Erik Peterson will be held Saturday at the Black Rapids Lodge. The Hoppers have set up an account at Mount McKinley Bank for donations to help defray the Peterson family’s expenses. More information is available on the Lodge’s Facebook page.

Editor’s note: This text was revised to clarify that Saturday’s event at the Black Rapids Lodge is a memorial service.

Categories: Alaska News

Eek Fisherman Catches Silver Salmon in December

Wed, 2014-12-10 16:17

Most fisherman have at least one story of, ‘the one that got away.’ Eek resident Floyd Roehl has a story with a different outcome from a recent trip up the Eek River.

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On an ice fishing trip last Friday, Roehl says he caught a couple of pikes, then dropped his jigging line into a hole hoping for a third pike. But he got something else.

“I felt something really jerk hard [on the line] and I was thinking, ‘Holy cow I got a big pike!’ I pulled it up and I looked at it and it was a silver salmon. I was just surprised and I said ‘Holy cow look what I got!’” said Roehl

A silver salmon that was caught by Floyd Roehl. (Photo courtesy of Floyd Roehl)

Roehl said the silver salmon was turned pink by the freshwater, but was in good condition, only fatter. The majority of silver salmon swim up the Kuskokwim to spawn in August, but United States Fish and Wildlife Biologist Lewis Coggins says some run late.

“There are quite a few examples where coho salmon will be found spawning late into November and even into December,” said Coggins.

Coggins said the areas that support later salmon runs are springs or upwellings in the river, these places tend to stay warmer than other areas. He also said there haven’t been enough studies around the Eek River to know for sure why the silver was running so late.

Roehl said his friends and family members were extremely surprised, having never seen a freshly caught silver or coho salmon in December.

Having not fished for salmon during the summer, Roehl and his wife plan to make salmon soup for a memorable meal over a story that many would consider a ‘fish tale’.

Categories: Alaska News

After Lobbying Effort, Haines Distillery Opens Newly Legal Tasting Room

Wed, 2014-12-10 16:17

Tasting room manager Macky Cassidy opens a bottle of champagne for a cocktail.

Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines is the only craft distillery in Southeast. When the business started, distilleries in the state were not allowed to sell their spirits on-site. But a law passed earlier this year removes that restriction.

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“I just can’t believe we made it happen,” Heather Shade, co-owner and distiller atPort Chilkoot Distillery said. “I thought it would take at least another year.”

Shade helped lead the lobbying effort to change Alaska’s distillery laws. She coordinated with the four other Alaska distilleries, along with tourism groups and local chambers of commerce.

This Haines distillery is the only one in Southeast, and one of five throughout Alaska.

When Shade and her husband Sean Copeland starting making vodka, gin and whiskey in 2013, they knew their business’s growth had a major legal roadblock. Distilleries in Alaska were not allowed to sell their spirits on-site. So Shade and Copeland set a goal: they would lobby to change the law in the next three years. It only took one.

House Bill 309 passed earlier this year. A few weeks after the law went into effect, Port Chilkoot Distillery opened its newly legal tasting room.

“Every step of the way when we were testifying in the committees and working with people to explain importance of this bill, it kind of felt like it was just going to die every step of the way,” Shade said. “And so when it passed unanimously through the Senate floor two days before the end of the legislative session, it just kind of felt surreal.”

Now, distilleries in Alaska can sell limited amounts of their own products on location. Just like wineries and breweries, like Haines Brewing Company, have done for years. Shade thinks the change in Alaska’s distillery laws is a result of a growing state and nation-wide craft distillery industry. Three years ago, there was only one distillery in Alaska. Now there are five.

Shade says the main reason they wanted a tasting room is so they could participate in the tourism industry. This past summer, visitors would come to the distillery and ask for tours. After seeing and smelling what they were making, many people wanted a taste.

“I just had to tell them, ‘I’m sorry, Alaska state law only allows to produce. We can’t sell you anything.’”

To actually try some Icy Strait Vodka or 50 Fathoms Gin, tourists would have to go to a local bar or liquor store.

“I think the laws restricting us from having on-site tasting room was the biggest hurdle in our industry,” Shade said.

Last year, Port Chilkoot and other Alaska distilleries started reaching out to their local senators and representatives. Shade invited Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins to the distillery.

Soon after, Anchorage Representative Chris Tuck introduced House Bill 309, which Kreiss-Tomkins co-sponsored.

Shade formed the Distiller’s Guild of Alaska and coordinated the distilleries to give feedback on the proposed bill, which needed some tweaking.

Shade says there was some push-back against the bill, because it’s helping an industry that creates alcohol. Rates of alcohol abuse are especially high in Alaska.

But HB 309 puts restrictions on how many bottles and drinks distilleries can sell per person in the tasting room and what hours they can be open. They aren’t allowed to have live entertainment or bar seating.

House Bill 309 was signed into law in July. In October, the new law went into effect. And, on October 31, Port Chilkoot Distillery opened its tasting room.

On a recent busy Thursday night, tasting room manager Macky Cassidy mixed drinks for a crowd of customers from a menu she created.

Cassidy is the distillery’s first employee. She’s part-time, but that could change once the tourists come to town. For now, most of the customers are locals.

“The Haines 75 has been popular [tonight],” Cassidy said. “That’s the one with champagne and cranberry and vodka. And then the Hot Apple Toddys have been popular because it’s kind of chilly.”

“There’s something fun about being able to go to the place something’s made and try it there,” said Haines resident Jedidiah Blum-Evitts, who was drinking his go-to cocktail — a gin martini.

Lindsey Moore was standing nearby drinking the Haines 75. She’s visited distilleries in the Seattle-area before, but this one is different.

“You walk in and automatically know three-quarters of the group that’s here if not the entire group,” Moore said. “And you run into people and get to have conversations with them. So that’s what kind of makes it Haines to me, it’s got a small-town feel to it which I enjoy.”

Cassidy hopes the tasting room will help infuse a “cocktail culture” in the beer-loving town of Haines.

And Shade says, the tasting room will make her and her husband’s investment into this distillery pay off sooner than they expected.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: December 10, 2014

Wed, 2014-12-10 16:16

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

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Police: Felon Killed Prosecutor in Jealous Rage

The Associated Press

Police in Barrow say a convicted felon shot and killed a state assistant prosecutor in a jealous rage over a woman.

Senate Gives Fishermen 3-Year Reprieve from EPA Regs

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

The U.S. Senate today passed a Coast Guard bill that includes a three-year moratorium on vessel discharge regulations for boats 79 feet and smaller. The House is expected to pass it this week, too. If the moratorium doesn’t pass by Dec. 19, Alaska’s fishing fleet will have to comply with new regulations the industry claims are unworkable. An effort to permanently kill the regulations failed to get through.

New Report Questions Susitna-Watana Economics; AEA Responds

Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna

A new fiscal analysis of the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project questions the Alaska Energy Authority’s estimates regarding how much the 735-foot tall dam would cost the State of Alaska, if built.

Walker To Begin Reviewing Candidates For National Guard Post

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Since the election, new Gov. Bill Walker has been piecing together his cabinet. But a few positions still remain in question. Key among these is the job of National Guard adjutant general, who also serves as commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Medicaid Expansion, Child Welfare Top Priorities For New DHSS Commissioner

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Valerie Davidson has been one of the biggest advocates in the state for Medicaid Expansion. Now implementing that expansion is one of her top priorities as Alaska’s new Commissioner of Health and Social Services. Another focus for Davidson will be child welfare- she just served on the U.S. Attorney General’s advisory committee on Native children exposed to violence.

Davidson started in the job December first.  She says when she accepted the appointment she consulted her two daughters and her mom.

Avalanche Survivor Says He’s Shaken, Humbled After Ordeal Near Rainbow Ridge

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Fairbanks man who was buried in an avalanche near Isabel Pass Saturday and lived to tell about it says he’s learned that even an experienced backcountry skier can get into trouble in a treacherous area like the Eastern Alaska Range.

Eek Fisherman Catches Silver Salmon in December

Charles Enoch, KYUK – Bethel

An Eek ice fisherman jigging for pike was surprised to hook a silver salmon last week.

After Lobbying Effort, Haines Distillery Opens Newly Legal Tasting Room

Emily Files, KHNS – Haines

Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines is the only craft distillery in Southeast. Distilleries have not been able to sell their spirits on-site. But a law passed earlier this year removes that restriction.

Categories: Alaska News

Walker To Begin Reviewing Candidates For National Guard Post

Wed, 2014-12-10 15:49

Since the election, new Gov. Bill Walker has been piecing together his cabinet. But a few positions still remain in question. Key among these is the job of National Guard adjutant general, who also serves as commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Walker’s Republican predecessor Sean Parnell was in the process of finding a new adjutant general at the time of the election. Parnell had asked then-adjutant general Thomas Katkus to resign in September, because of a devastating federal report on sexual assault and favoritism in the Guard. Second-in-command Mike Bridges was promoted to the position in an acting role.

Bridges remains in the position today, but Walker says he will be reviewing candidates for the job next week and that a decision should be made shortly after.

“It’s in the works,” says Walker. “We expect that probably in the next 30 days.”

Walker says he plans to meet with the investigating team from the National Guard Bureau on Monday. He says they will start by looking at the applicant pool collected by Parnell before he considers soliciting additional names.

“Well, we want to see first what the group was that was brought to us,” says Walker. “We haven’t gone through that yet, and also the process that was used. We want to make sure that it was broad enough to include Alaskans as well.”

Walker has also kept Parnell’s education commissioner, Mike Hanley, and his environmental conservation commissioner, Larry Hartig, in acting roles. At a press availability on Tuesday, Walker said he was “seriously considering keeping both of them” in permanent roles.

Categories: Alaska News

Senate Gives Fishermen 3-Year Reprieve from EPA Regs

Wed, 2014-12-10 10:48

The U.S. Senate today passed a Coast Guard bill that includes a three-year moratorium on vessel discharge regulations for boats under 79 feet. Both Alaska Senators spoke in favor of it. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, argued from the Senate floor for a permanent fix but she said Republicans insisted on a temporary moratorium.

“It’s the best we can do. And I want the American people and the fishermen to know we tried so hard to get this fixed permanently,” Boxer said.

The bill passed the Senate by consent, with no actual vote. It’s awaiting action in the House. The threat of regulation for incidental vessel discharges has been hanging over Alaska’s fishing fleet for years. If the existing moratorium is not renewed by next week., the EPA will begin regulating all kinds of fluids that flow from or over fishing boats, including bilge water, fish hold effluent and deck wash. The regulations the agency drafted say boat owners could comply by obtaining a form, keeping it on board, signing it every year and conducting their own quarterly inspections. Fishermen, though, say the requirements could become more onerous in time. Republican Sen. David Vitter from Louisiana today offered the three-year fix the Senate passed. He didn’t explain why it was preferable to  permanently  lifting the regulation for fishing boats and other commercial vessels . Boxer alleges it’s so  Republicans can use the measure to force senators to pass what she called bad bills in the future. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska says she’ll continue to work for a permanent solution when the new Congress convenes in January “We don’t need to inject this uncertainty of our hard-working fishing families. We need to have a permananet solution,” she said. She says it will require addressing the problematic issue of ballast water, which can transfer non-native marine organisms from one port to another.
Categories: Alaska News

St. Vincent de Paul to build 41 affordable housing units for seniors

Tue, 2014-12-09 17:03

St. Vincent de Paul general manager Dan Austin looks out onto the land where the new senior housing facility will be built. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Juneau nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul and partner agency Seattle-based GMD Development have been awarded $9 million in tax credit financing from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. The award will allow the agencies to build 41 units of affordable housing in the capital city for low income seniors.

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Thomas Smith is 70 years old and lives in St. Vincent de Paul’s transitional housing for people getting out of homelessness. He’s excited about the new senior living facility.

“Because that means within two years, I can move out of this room and move into my own apartment with a kitchen,” Smith says. “I’m really a good cook and I love my kitchen but I don’t have that here. I have to use a communal kitchen across the way.”

Smith has Parkinson’s disease and other medical conditions that necessitate a wheelchair. He takes eight daily medications. Between social security, senior benefits and general assistance, Smith makes about $1,100 a month. He can’t afford Juneau’s housing prices.

“The rents are so high. I would have to give up eating in order to move into, say, an apartment that cost $750 a month,” he says. “The bills I need to pay for and the medications I have to buy that Medicare will not pay for – it’s very difficult to get by from month to month.”

Dan Austin is general manager of St. Vincent de Paul. He says Smith would be one of the first people to move into the new facility. Austin says some people spend up to four years on the waiting list for the organization’s current 24-unit senior housing.

“The only turnovers here are when somebody goes to the nursing home or somebody passes away,” Austin says.

The percentage of Juneau’s population age 65 and older has doubled in the last 10 years. Seniors now make up 10 percent of the city’s overall population. A recent Juneau Senior Housing and Services Market Demand Study found that in next two decades, seniors will make up 20 percent of the city’s population.

Austin sees that growth reflected in St. Vincent de Paul’s shelter.

“Over the last five and 10 years, we’ve seen the percentage of seniors who are homeless looking for some place to live increase exponentially,” he says.

The new facility will be a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units with commercial space on the ground floor. The retail space will house the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. The complex will be built on a lot adjacent to the nonprofit’s current property near the airport.

The target population is low to moderate income seniors. Austin has been working on the project for 10 years and is happy to see it come into fruition. He hopes to break ground late next summer.

“Having worked here for 20 years and watching this organization grow from 10 units of homeless apartments for homeless families to an organization that now owns and manages 124 units throughout this town, what that means to me is, it’s not 124 units, it’s a 124 families that have a decent place to live,” Austin says.

St. Vincent de Paul also plans to renovate two existing housing facilities in Juneau and one in Haines. Once those projects and the senior facility are done, the organization will own and manage about 200 units in the capital city.

Norton Gregory says every unit and every house built in Juneau is a step in the right direction. Gregory sits on the Juneau Affordable Housing Commission. He says the 41 units will target a population the commission sees as one of the most vulnerable.

“We have a lot more seniors that are aging out of the workforce and unfortunately they may not be able to afford to live in our community without these subsidized rental units, so to give them more options is definitely going to make an impact on our community,” Gregory says.

St. Vincent de Paul’s new senior housing facility is expected to be complete by fall of 2016. The project was named the Home Run by a board of directors member who said to Austin, “‘If we get this, man, we hit the home run.’ So that’s what it is. For St. Vincent, it’s a home run.”

Austin says Juneau needs many more home runs.

Categories: Alaska News

New Hoonah Dock Could Boost Tourism Numbers

Tue, 2014-12-09 17:02

Hoonah’s Icy Strait Point tourist attraction will see more visitors once a new cruise ship dock is built. That’s according to officials, who expect it to attract more cruise lines to the town 50 miles west of Juneau.

But critics worry the location will not help the rest of the city.

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The Huna Totem village Native corporation opened Icy Strait Pointback in 2004.

This image from the 2012 Hoonah Berthing Facility Site Alternative Analysis Report shows three possible dock locations. (Courtesy PND Engineers)

Its main attraction is a renovated salmon cannery that houses a museum and gift shops. It’s a base for bus tours, wildlife-watching excursions and a mile-long zipline.

Over the years, tens of thousands of tourists have arrived at the point via cruise ship. But those ships have anchored nearby and brought passengers ashore via small boats called tenders.

That will soon change.

“Having the dock will make a difference,” says Ruth Banaszak, Huna Totem Corp.’s marketing manager.

She says the new dock will allow more and different ships to deliver passengers.

“For instance, Disney can’t tender. The ship that comes to Alaska does not have tender boats on it. So we have talked to Disney about stopping in once we have the dock,” she says.

Disney did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation. Banaszak said another line that only uses tender boats occasionally may also be interested.

Huna Totem, the city of Hoonah and the state recently formed a partnership to oversee the dock’s design and construction. But it hasn’t always been that friendly.

The city of Hoonah wanted another location, closer to town and easier for fishermen and other locals to use. The former mayor and city council members cited a study showing the current site to be too windy in the winter.

“Considering the kind of weather they get there, I’m sure it’s going to take a hell of a beating,” says Bob Prunella, a former interim Hoonah city administrator who lives in Wrangell.

“That spot that the city picked, it’s just more protected because, quite frankly, the ships anchor in a little deeper water right there anyway,” he says.

Other former city officials didn’t return calls asking for comment.

The cruise industry opposed the city-backed site. Officials said it would only use the one now slated for construction. And the state said it would only pay for a site cruise lines would use. Then, elections changed the balance on the city council.

Now, a $23.7 million contract is going to Anchorage-based Turnagain Marine Construction.

The state contributed about $14.5 million, which is passing through the city. Banaszak says the remaining $10 million or so will come from Huna Totem.

“Nothing can be done strictly just by Huna Totem or just by the city, it really is a partnership and everyone working together to do this, because it’s quite a huge opportunity,” she says.

She says construction will begin by March and finish by the end of August. She also says the 400-foot floating pier is large enough to accommodate all ships that sail Southeast.

Former city administrator Prunella says he hopes the site decision will reduce community tensions, even if he doesn’t like the location.

“I think the important thing is, one, they’ll get the dock, and two, maybe there won’t be so much infighting in that little community,” he says.

Huna Totem estimates more than two-thirds of last summer’s 140,000 cruise passengers left their ships to explore Icy Strait Point. It expects about 20 percent more to visit the attraction with the new pier in place.

Categories: Alaska News

Climate Change and Alaska Natives: Food

Tue, 2014-12-09 17:01

Wild foods are important to Alaskans, and especially to rural residents, but subsistence users and scientists say climate change is affecting wildlife populations, access to subsistence resources, and food preservation.

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On its website, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says subsistence hunting and fishing make up a large share of the food supply in rural Alaska - about 375 pounds per person, compared to 22 pounds per person in urban areas.

Stanley Hawley, tribal administrator for Kivalina in Northwest Alaska, said subsistence involves more than putting food on the table.

“Once we get exposed to that livelihood, that way of living, it gets ingrained in our spirit, and in our soul, and in our psyche,” said Hawley.

Leroy Adams is the Housing Coordinator for Kivalina, where one bowhead whale would feed the village for a year.

“And that’s one good thing about Kivalina is the sharing of the food,” said Adams.

According to a health assessment of Kivalina by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, or ANTHC, the ice there in years past was as much as 12 feet thick and provided a stable surface for travel and hunting. But in recent years, the ice has been thinner and sometimes isn’t there when the whales are passing by, headed to rich feeding grounds farther north. Adams said it takes more gasoline, and it’s more dangerous, to travel the distance to the whales in small boats.

“The migration pattern is about 60 to 90 miles out,” said Adams. “Although they haven’t landed a bowhead whale in 10 or 12 years, they still haven’t given up.”

Mike Williams of the Native village of Akiak said access to subsistence foods is changing in western Alaska too. For instance, when the Kuskokwim River froze, then thawed in November, Williams said fishermen were left with no way to empty their fish traps, and his were damaged.

“They busted open,” said Williams. “It’s just not regular checking every day. We just had to wait for a freeze so it could be safe enough to get to our traps.”

Williams said [hunters'] reports of walrus with empty stomachs at a time of year when they need to be piling on the blubber, and salmon runs that don’t meet escapement goals for spawning – also raise concerns about wildlife populations. He said some years when they did catch fish, wet, warm spring weather interfered with food preservation.

“We can’t even dry our fish when it’s raining all the time and it’s moist,” said Williams. “The fish can’t dry after we cut them up, and they spoil.”

Mike Brubaker, director for the ANTHC Center for Climate Change and Health, is launching a program to give hunters in the Bering Strait region test strips to check for germs, viruses and parasites that cause disease in humans. He said one of the pathogens they’re checking for is the parasite toxoplasmosis, which can cause birth defects, and eye and brain damage in vulnerable populations. He said it once occurred only in land mammals, including domestic cats, but that’s changing.

“It’s in about ten percent of caribou that’s been sampled and also in about 50 percent of harbor seals that have been sampled,” said Brubaker. “So somehow these pathogens are moving around the wildlife population  and they’re moving into new sectors of wildlife, like from land mammals to sea mammals.”

Brubaker said the program will allow hunters to check food safety, and provide baseline data on the prevalence of pathogens in wildlife, as well as any changes that may occur as temperatures continue to rise.

Brubaker’s shop has completed health assessments in 20 Northern and Northwest Alaska communities. He said the reports document the effects of thawing permafrost, melting sea ice, and changing river and lake conditions on wildlife populations, access to subsistence resources, and food preservation throughout those regions.

Categories: Alaska News

‘Sandbar Mitchell’ Restoration Takes New Approach

Tue, 2014-12-09 17:00

Restoration of a World War II bomber salvaged from a Tanana River sandbar will benefit from a similar relic in Nome. Some of the parts needed to restore the plane known as “Sandbar Mitchell” will be come from another B-25 that crashed in Nome over 70 years ago.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: December 9, 2014

Tue, 2014-12-09 16:59

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

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Assistant District Attorney Killed In Barrow

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

An assistant district attorney was shot and killed in Barrow last night. Brian Sullivan was killed some time before midnight. Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters says Barrow Police requested State Troopers and the Alaska Bureau of Investigation to take over the investigation.

How Murkowski Played Dealmaker to Get Controversial Lands Package

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

The Senate is expected to pass a major public lands package this week as a rider to the annual defense bill. Sen. Lisa Murkowski was one of the key negotiators on this controversial compromise, which has split advocacy groups on the right and left. APRN’s Liz Ruskin examines what it took to free these bills from Congressional quagmire and reports that Murkowski is planning more of the same when she becomes a committee chairman in the New Year.

Bill to Remove Alaska Exception to VAWA Passes in U.S. Senate

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

A bill to remove the Alaska exception from the Violence Against Women Act cleared the Senate on Tuesday.

Sullivan Announces New Hires for DC Office

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

U.S. Senator-elect Dan Sullivan has chosen Joe Balash as his chief of staff. Balash served in the Parnell Administration as Commissioner of Natural Resources, after Sullivan resigned last year to run for office.

St. Vincent de Paul to Build 41 Affordable Housing Units for Seniors

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

Juneau nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul and partner agency Seattle-based GMD Development have been awarded $9 million in tax credit financing from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. The award will allow the agencies to build 41 units of affordable housing in the capital city for low income seniors.

New Hoonah Dock Could Boost Tourism Numbers

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Hoonah’s Icy Strait Point tourist attraction will see more visitors once a new cruise ship dock is built. That’s according to officials, who expect it to attract more cruise lines to the town 50 miles west of Juneau. But critics worry the location will not help the rest of the city.

Climate Change and Alaska Natives: Food

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

Wild foods are important to Alaskans, and especially to rural residents, but subsistence users and scientists say climate change is affecting wildlife populations, access to subsistence resources, and food preservation.

‘Sandbar Mitchell’ Restoration Takes New Approach

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Restoration of a World War II bomber salvaged from a Tanana River sandbar will benefit from a similar relic in Nome. Some of the parts needed to restore the plane known as “Sandbar Mitchell” will be come from another B-25 that crashed in Nome over 70 years ago.

Categories: Alaska News

How Murkowski Played Dealmaker to Get Controversial Lands Package

Tue, 2014-12-09 15:48

The 500-page package Sen. Lisa Murkowski helped negotiate has something for everybody – Grazing rights, mining, logging. But also: Legal protections on a million acres of federal land. Many of the 55 bills it draws from are of great interest to a few communities but lack national standing. In a Congress that passes very little legislation, Murkowski and other negotiators had to assemble an irresistible package, then attach it to legislation that was sure to move. Murkowski says they had hundreds of leftover bills to choose from, some dating back years.

“So it was just, let’s take all this stuff in the basket and dump it on the table and then figure out how we can make a package, that has some conservation, it has some development of our public lands so we can work toward jobs and production, and just making sure that it’s good solid policy,” she said.

It was a massive balancing act. It had to protect enough high-value lands without triggering a firestorm of opposition from pro-development forces. And it had to allow substantial development on public lands without angering environmental groups and lawmakers who are sympathetic to them. With Senate natural Resources Chairman Mary Landrieu distracted by what proved to be a losing fight for re-election, Murkowski worked on the package with the leaders of the House natural resources committee.

“Finesse,” Murkowski says. “It took finesse.”

It includes the priorities of powerful Western lawmakers and other items to please lawmakers in states with very little public land in flux. Democratic Sen. Al Franken, of Minnesota, for instance, has a provision to transfer government land to a school district in his home state. It’s barely more than a single acre, but his constituents have been striving to get it for a decade. And, Murkowski says, the package had to satisfy the leaders of the Armed Services committees in both houses, to gain their support and confidence that the package wouldn’t sink the Defense bill.

“There was no way we were going to be able to cram this onto their bill. They needed to be part and parcel of this,” Murkowski says.

Some critics grumble that it’s the result of secretive horse-trading. Murkowski, though, says most of the bills had passed the House or Senate before succumbing to congressional inertia. Opponents on the right have focused on the new wilderness designations, complaining of a land grab. Murkowski points out the legislation also removes the threat of wilderness designation from thousands of acres that were under review.

Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, says he’s pleased the bill transfers 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to the Sealaska corporation, mostly for logging. He’s not happy the bill also puts 150,000 acres of the Tongass off limits to development, but Graham says that’s a ransom he’s willing to pay to save Southeast logging jobs. He says Murkwoski did the best she could.

” I recognize that there’s a lot of people who don’t like parts of the bill, but that’s her job is to try to balance all these things and with a contentious issue like land in the Tongass you’re not going to please everybody,” he said.

When the Senate re-convenes in January, the Republicans will be in charge, and Sen. Murkowski will chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Bentley Johnson, an advocate for public land at the National Wildlife Federation, says he hopes this bill is a forerunner of the kind of work Murkowski can produce as chairman.

“We certainly hope so. We think she’s shown that she can be pragmatic, that she can start with those priorities that there’s a lot of agreement, on both sides of the aisle,” Johnson said.

Other environmental groups condemn the bill, but Johnson calls the compromise a political breakthrough.

“In the past couple congresses, ideology has really taken over and prevented good public lands and natural resources bills from being passed,” he said.

In a polarized Congress, Murkowski is often seen as a moderate, but not when it comes to Alaska resource development. Johnson says if Murkowski pushes hot-button Alaska issues too hard, he predicts she’ll alienate colleagues and produce more stalemate.

“If she tackles, trying to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, right of the bat, that’s really going to divide people. That’s going to bring out the big guns,” he said, adding that he’d say the same about Murkowski’s goal of a road between King Cove and Cold Bay.

Murkowski says she doesn’t intend to use her chairmanship as just a soapbox for ideology.

“What I want to try to do is build something, and build something that is going to be more than a message but build something that is going to be passed and signed into law. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish here. And I think this is kind of the glimpse as to how we’re going to try to proceed,” she said. It will, she acknowledged, require working with lawmakers of both parties and winning presidential support.

The bill easily passed the House last week. In the defense portion, the bill holds military pay increases to a 1 percent cap, trims the housing allowance and adds a $3 pharmacy co-pay.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Bill to Remove Alaska Exception to VAWA Passes in U.S. Senate

Tue, 2014-12-09 15:39
A bill to remove the Alaska exception from the Violence Against Women Act cleared the Senate today. Outgoing Alaska Sen. Mark Begich brought the bill to the Senate floor. It cleared by consent, with no debate and no vote. The Violence Against Women Act of 2013 allows Lower 48 tribes to prosecute non-Indians who commit acts of domestic violence against Indian spouses and partners. But a provision known as Section 910 excluded Alaska tribal courts. Both Begich and Sen. Lisa Murkowski have worked to have it removed. Alaska tribal advocates say the Violence Against Women Act could provide them important tools to combat crime. The state of Alaska, while fighting tribal jurisdiction on multiple fronts, says it is already enforcing domestic violence orders issued by Alaska tribes. It’s  unclear whether the repeal of Sec. 910 can also pass the House this week, before Congress adjourns.
Categories: Alaska News

Sullivan Announces New Hires for DC Office

Tue, 2014-12-09 14:52

U.S. Senator-elect Dan Sullivan has chosen Joe Balash as his chief of staff. Balash served in the Parnell Administration as Commissioner of Natural Resources, after Sullivan resigned last year to run for office. Before that he served as Sullivan’s deputy commissioner. He also worked in the Alaska Legislature for nine years, including a stretch as chief of staff to the Senate president. During the governor’s race this fall, Balash published an opinion piece blasting Bill Walker’s record on gas line issues, so there was no chance of him staying on once Walker took office.

Sullivan also announced that Mike Anderson will be his spokesman in Washington, D.C. Anderson was Sullivan’s campaign spokesman and previously worked for Alaska Congressman Don Young and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Another new hire for the D.C. office is DeLynn Henry who will be Sullivan’s scheduling director. She worked as Sen. Ted Stevens’ scheduler and assistant for 23 years.

Categories: Alaska News

State Attorney Killed In Barrow

Tue, 2014-12-09 11:53

A state attorney was shot and killed in Barrow last night.

Deputy Attorney General for the Department of Law’s Criminal Division Rick Svobodny says Brian Sullivan was killed some time before midnight. Barrow police are leading the investigation.

“It’s a progression, doing one thing to another, the information changes so I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about their investigation until they complete it,” he said.

Svobodny confirmed that Sullivan had worked for the state since the spring of 2012. He had been a military attorney for the Army for 10 years previously.

“When I interviewed him actually for a job he was interested in moving to a rural community because he had served in the military overseas in the middle east and enjoyed being in a place with a different culture so he wanted to experience an Alaska Native community and specifically requested to go to Barrow,” Svobodny said.

Svobodny says he was called at midnight. He says the shooting happened around 11 p.m.

“It was after a sporting event at the local school, because I know one the local police officers saw him there so the time frame was around 11,” Svobodny said.

Svobodny said Sullivan was not shot at the school event but he would not confirm where the shooting had taken place.

Svobodny said Sullivan was 49-years-old at the time of his death and was not currently married.

He said he expects a charging document will be out later Tuesday.

Categories: Alaska News

Op Santa Delivers Presents and Attention To Erosion Threats in Shishmaref

Mon, 2014-12-08 20:26

Since most of Operation Santa is funded through donations and volunteer hours, the monetary cost of Saturday’s event was about $2,000. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.

For the last 58 years the National Guard has brought presents and holiday cheer to remote communities across Alaska as part of Operation Santa Clause. But the festivities over this past weekend also draw attention to the serious environmental challenges rural communities are coping with.

Operation Santa Clause is a massive undertaking, requiring months of coordinating to bring dozens of volunteers, military personnel, presents, and ice-cream to communities hundreds of miles from Joint-Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. To do it, they use a C-130, the same plane paratroopers jump out of during war.

The Clauses doled out gifts to around 300 kids from a cargo-load of about 2,500 pounds. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

There is also a small battalion of volunteers who organize the event every year. They got a later-than-normal start usual this year because of the federal budget sequester, and scrutiny of misconduct within the Alaska Army National Guard. But on  Saturday, partners from the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Anchorage businesses helped guardsmen unload 2,500 pounds of donated cargo from the plane’s giant ramp onto a local fleet of sleds and snowmachines at the runway in Shishmaref.

Among the cargo were enough instruments for a small brass band to play traditional Christmas songs inside the school gym as presents were piled atop tables, and bleachers filled with families.

But it wasn’t the only traditional music performed. After an introduction by the principal, a group of young men flanked by children drummed and sang, bringing up a handful of volunteers in Christmas sweaters and soldiers in fatigues during the invitational dance.

Then Santa and Mrs. Clause debuted, posing for photos while their helpers guided kids to the gift tables.

In addition to toys, there were practical items like 1,000 donated backpacks. 

“The backpacks, from a teacher’s point of view, I love it,” said Donna Bennet, standing in her 3rd grade classroom. “It is very windy up here, and when we try to send thing home at the end of the day we want it get home.”

Boys eagerly grabbed at drums after the adults had taken up their own, and took turns drumming and dancing. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.

Beyond material support and good cheer, Bennett believes bringing the focus of so many people all the way to Shishmaref is a crucial aspect of the event.

“It’s exciting to see all of these people coming into Shishmaref so that they know that we’re up here. We’re up here, we do exist, we do have some issues that we need the outside world to see and to hear about, and if there’s help available for different things we do need up here this is growing the awareness,” she explained.

The biggest issue facing Shishamref is the accelerating pace of coastal erosion threatening the thin barrier island it is built on. With climate change delaying freeze up in the Bering and Chukchi seas, the fall storms slamming the region each year present a danger that weighs heavy for many.

“It’s all the villages on the coast that are dealing with this climate change issue,” said Dennis Davis, originally from Kotzebue but who’s lived in Shishmaref for many years. “It is affecting our culture in a big way as we speak now. The ocean isn’t freezing, you start seeing sick sea animals and fish–that’s our way of life.”

In selecting where to bring Op Santa to each year, the organization’s board works with the state’s Office of Emergency Services to identify communities that have been hard-hit. This year’s site choices, Newtok and Shishmaref, highlight that even without a particular disaster climate change is creating serious and on-going hardship for coastal residents. And unlike an earthquake or a flood, there’s no end or rescue in sight. On top of the ice cream sundaes, Davis is glad Santa’s cadre of volunteers helped bring the community’s needs into sharper focus.

“I just wanna say thank you to them for coming out here and taking the time to see our village, and it puts a lot of smiles on a lot of people’s faces,” Davis said. “It’s stuff like this that our people need to get our voices out there, to let everybody know that we have a problem, we’re not always looking for a handout, and we’re a community that’s basically washing away, and there’s a lot of them that are washing away. You know, we need more action.”

Though it’s December, firm sea-ice hasn’t yet formed in the waters surrounding Shishmaref, hampering subsistence activities. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

Organizers are quick to point out that Operation Santa Clause is not a charity, it is a good will event. And Davis thinks that is the right attitude to begin working together with outside partners, both to boost morale and to get to work addressing climate change.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

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