The state ferry Columbia will not be returning to service in Southeast Alaska this week as expected.
A problem with one of the newly-installed engines on the 418-foot ship means the Columbia will remain in Bellingham awaiting a replacement part.
“When it was leaving the shipyard in Portland and transiting toward Bellingham, they experienced an unexpected mechanical issue with the port engine and for that we have to wait for a part to be shipped in actually from Finland to deal with the repair of the damage done to the engine before it can return to service,” Alaska Department of Transportation spokesman Jeremy Woodrow explains. “So that will delay it a few days for that. We’ve also had to revise the schedule for the LeConte, the Malaspina and the Fairweather moving out for the next week.”
The Columbia was in a Portland shipyard for nearly nine months having its engines, propellers and lifeboats replaced. Woodrow says a faulty part caused problems after the ship sailed from Portland.
“There was a part that didn’t work properly after it was installed in the brand new engine,” Woodrow said. “They were able to catch it in time before it made major damage to the whole engine but because the part is built and made in Finland, we have to wait I think it takes four days or longer for it to actually get to the U.S.”
Woodrow describes the problematic part as a gear-driven pump. That will be replaced in Bellingham before the Columbia returns to service.
The new scheduled return date is now Wednesday, June 18. The ship was originally scheduled to be back in service in April but more time was needed to complete the engine replacement.
Conservation groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. seeking a decision on the status of wolf populations in Southeast Alaska.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Boat Company have sued Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hoping for a quicker decision on whether the Alexander Archipelago wolf should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service is already far overdue in making its 12-month finding for the Alexander Archipelago wolf,” Larry Edwards, a forest campaigner with Greenpeace in Sitka,
said. “That should have been made within 12 months of the time that we filed the petition in August of 2011.”
“So we’re far past that and it’s time to prod some best action on making that final decision.”
The federal agency issued a decision, what’s called a 90-day finding, back in March. That decision means Fish and Wildlife will do further review of wolf populations and determine if listing is warranted. That review is dependent on funding for the federal agency and could take several years.
The petitioners argue that the region’s wolf numbers are declining in Southeast and are vulnerable to hunting and trapping pressure along with loss of habitat from logging on the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest. Edwards says the timing of the agency’s decision is important because of expected decisions on U.S. Forest Service timber sales planned on Prince of Wales Island, Mitkof Island near Petersburg along with Etolin Island, Wrangell Island and a sale planned near Ketchikan.
A spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska said the agency had no comment on the litigation.
The state of Alaska says wolves are not at risk in the region and state officials were disappointed with this year’s decision to perform a population review.
Back in March, Tongass National Forest supervisor Forrest Cole said his federal agency would work collaboratively with the Fish and Wildlife Service on their review. Cole noted there are no reliable estimates of wolf numbers in Southeast but said government agencies would work to develop a reliable method for estimating those numbers.
The estimated value of this year’s Togiak Herring catch is about half last years, largely because of the price.
Last year the fleet was offered $100 a ton and was later awarded an adjustment beyond that.
This year, the offer has not been disclosed, but the Fish and Game Department is using an estimate of $50 a ton. The fishery fell a little short of quota and processors shut down completely a couple of days before the opening was over.
After receiving a phone call from a man threatening to shoot a pedestrian, Ketchikan police closed off a section of Schoenbar Road and evacuated the Recreation Center early Tuesday morning while trying to negotiate the man’s surrender.
Deputy Chief of Police Josh Dossett says no one was injured during the Tuesday morning incident. He says 30-year-old Mathew Martinez called police at approximately 4 a.m. with the threat.
Dosset describes what happened in front of the Schoenbar Road home:
“Officers responded to the area where we thought he was. We were able to see the male outside his residence. At the time he didn’t have a firearm. He was arguing with another male. Plain-clothes officers tried to approach him. He ran back in the residence. Officers backed away. He then came in and out of the residence a couple of times with firearms. We blocked off Schoenbar above and below the residence. We evacuated people from both the Recreation Center and those at the TSAS (Tongass School of Arts and Sciences) and Ketchikan Charter School, possibly. At that point, he finally came out the residence with his wife. He did not have a weapon. One of my sergeants who’s a negotiator made contact with him with a cover team. He began talking to him for several minutes. Was able to approach the subject, get close enough that he could get ahold of him, at which time the cover team also contacted him. He was taken into custody without an incident, uninjured. Officers served a search warrant on the residents and recovered four firearms – four rifles.”
Dossett says during the phone call, Martinez told police he would shoot anyone who walked by the house, and when police responded, he would return fire.
“Technically it’s called ‘suicide by cop.’ Force us to shoot him and kill him,” Dossett said.
Dossett says Martinez appeared overwhelmed by things happening in his life. Though uninjured, Martinez was taken to the hospital for evaluation and then transported to the Ketchikan Correctional Center.
Martinez is being charged with 3rd degree assault, making terrorist threats, weapons misconduct, and violations of conditions of release. He was to be arraigned Tuesday. His arraignment was rescheduled for Wednesday.
A grand jury has indicted Anthony Pouesi on a manslaughter charge in the death of another person at the Harbor View Bar last month.
Pouesi is alleged to have punched Adams once during an argument outside the Harbor View Bar on May 22. Adams then fell and hit his head on the ground, causing injuries that later proved fatal.
The grand jury that indicted Pouesi on the manslaughter charge heard testimony from police and witnesses, according to court documents.
Manslaughter is a class A felony. Pouesi is also facing a misdemeanor charge for allegedly misidentifying himself to police after the incident.
His felony trial is set to take place the week of July 14 in Unalaska.
As the Bering Sea’s largest fishery opened on Tuesday, pollock fishermen were looking forward to a strong B season. They were also wading through a tide of criticism from rural users, who believe the industry’s catching too much salmon.
Brent Paine represents more than 70 pollock trawlers for United Catcher Boats.
“I think a lot of the cooperatives are going to start early — like right now or this week — because of their concern for Chinook salmon bycatch,” Paine said. “That tends to increase in the later part of the B season.”
On top of that, many vessels will be using excluder nets to let salmon escape. And Paine says they’ll all participate in the rolling hotspot closure program — avoiding areas where other trawlers have run into high concentrations of salmon.
But those tactics aren’t enough to relieve tension between commercial and subsistence fishermen. It came to a head last week, when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council met in Nome.
“It was probably one of the toughest meetings I’ve attended in 20 years,” Paine said.
The council heard hours of testimony from western Alaskans. Many of them are facing closures and restrictions on fishing this summer because of poor salmon returns. And many were upset that commercial fishermen haven’t been asked to cut back on bycatch in the same way.
Ben Stevens is a Koyukon Athabascan. As KNOM reported, Stevens traveled almost 500 miles from the Upper Yukon to speak at the council meeting.
“I would like to demand of you some courage to help us stem this tide,” Steven said. “Because it’s happening to us. The fact of the matter is the fish are going away and we need help. You guys are it.”
The North Pacific council agreed to take a closer look at a few options for reducing bycatch. They may expand the incentive-based program for avoiding salmon in the trawl fleet, and they may adjust the hard cap on salmon taken as bycatch.
The council isn’t expected to revisit the issue until late in the year — after the pollock B season ends in October.
KNOM’s Matthew Smith contributed to this report.
The University of Alaska Board of Regents agreed last week to fund a $4 million design project to re-purpose an already existing building on the UAF campus by September, 2015 when the first students begin studies in a new veterinary medicine program. But, the new program is on a list of recommended budget cuts.
Last December, UAF signed an agreement with Colorado State University to establish a professional veterinary medicine program. Chancellor Brian Rogers says the industry calls for up to 20 new vets in Alaska each year, but that the new program will only train half as many.
“We know for the last several years, when students came to us, interested in veterinarian medicine, our advice to them was to move out of state, establish residency in a state with a vet school, at least then you’ll have a one in ten chance of getting in,” Rogers said.
The program is only partially funded by money from the state. It was on list of high priority items the legislature signed off on in 2013. But this year, it did not receive a second round of state funding. Chancellor Rogers says he plans to ask again next year.
“I don’t expect to get it, but we will internally reallocate in order to cover what the legislature didn’t fund,” he said.
In May, UAF’s Planning and Budget Committee added the vet program to a list of possible budget reductions. According to the report, cutting the program could save up to $400,000, but the committee notes in the report that eliminating the program means UAF will lose tuition revenue. The report also says the program could make UAF more competitive. Chancellor Rogers told the Board of Regents the program has an instructional focus, but faculty at CSU and UAF are already cooperating on research.
“CSU does some wonderful animal based research, much of which ends up in human health as well and the collaboration we’re already seeing, as their faculty get to know our faculty, we’re seeing opportunities for joint research proposals to NIH and our focus is on the instructional program and I didn’t expect to see the research benefits, but we’re already beginning to see them,” Rogers said.
Veterinary medicine classes are slated to begin in the fall of 2015. The Planning and Budget Committee is currently taking feedback on the report outlining recommended funding reductions.
A Bethel man is facing charges for driving a boat under the influence of alcohol. Wildlife Troopers on Sunday night heard a report of a boat that was being driven erratically in Aniak Slough.
They approached the boat and arrested 44-year-old Norman Japhet. Troopers say Japhet had five people in the skiff at the time. He faces four reckless endangerment charges, DUI, and endangering the welfare of a minor.
The cost of a new engineering building on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus continues to rise as officials struggle to find ways to pay for its construction. The Board of Regents agreed last week to add $5 million to the project.
The Board of Regents agreed to increase the spending limit for a new engineering building at UAF from $75 million to more than $80 million. UAF Vice Chancellor Pat Pitney told the Board the added money will keep the project going through next April.
“In April, we would have to decommission the project and slow it down,” Pitney said. ”Decommissioning and demobilizing alone would be over three million dollars. So, we would lose three million dollars.”
Pitney says the possible loss is due construction cost inflation and delaying the building project further.
Last fall the Board of Regents approved the sale of $10 million in revenue bonds to help fund construction, but UAF held off on the sale while they waited to find out how much money the legislature would appropriate for the project.
Legislators only funded 15 percent of a $33 million request. UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers says selling the bonds now will extend the project even further – until next July.
“If we were to extend it, then it would provide us with some useable space,” Rogers said. ”So it would not be an unusable building at that point. We would be able to use at least one of the floors.”
Some board members voiced concerns that even with the added bond money, the building still won’t be complete. But Rogers says UAF is trying to be strategic with a limited amount of money.
“If we shut down the project in April, then the legislature if they choose not to fund it, they’re not shutting the project down, we’ve already shut the project down,” Rogers said. “If we keep the project going until July, then a decision by the legislature not to fund us, is a decision to shut down the project and we think that might tilt the balance somewhat.”
The project still requires more than $28 million. It’s unclear whether state money will be available for the engineering building in 2016. That will have to wait until the legislators convene for another session next year.
The National Weather Service in Nome is switching to an automated digital voice for its weather forecasts, one of the final forecasting stations in the country to cease having local forecasters read and record the weather.
From home radios to VHFs, in summer fish camps and during long winter nights at home, local forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service office in Nome were heard across western Alaska. Their marine forecasts were also regularly heard on Nome radio stations.
But this week, the voices of those forecasters will be replaced by “Tom,” one of several voices available for the automated weather system that, after being installed in nearly every other weather outpost in the nation, is coming to Nome.
“On our NOAA Weather Radio, we have routinely, every day, for all those years, read the local forecast and the regional forecast and [the] marine forecast. And [now] we’re going to be switching over to a digitized forecast,” said Jerry Steiger, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Nome.
The voice of “Tom,” as well as a female voice named “Donna” and a Spanish language voice named “Javier,” were developed for NOAA using the Speechify text-to-speech system. The National Weather Service began implementing the text-to-speech voices nationwide back in 2002. Samples of “Tom’s” voice and other synthetic voices available with NOAA’s new automated system can be found on NOAA’s website.
Steiger said Nome and Kodiak are the only two weather stations left in Alaska that still have weather service employees read the weather every day; both stations will be switching over in the coming days. A weather service technician was in Nome Tuesday to make the final preparations for “Tom” to take over the forecast in Nome.
Steiger said it’s a small change, but one he didn’t necessarily want, and one he had even avoided to keep people reading the forecast.
“I like it, and I think everyone who’s been here has liked doing the broadcast and giving a voice to the National Weather Service,” he said.
“It’s been my reluctance to let it happen here [that has kept the automated voice from being installed previously]. It was always curious to walk into a store or somewhere, or listen on the radio, and you’d hear your voice, occasionally,” he said. “Obviously, our voices will not be on the radio any more.”
Steiger said the new system has been programmed to accurately pronounce the unique names and places in western Alaska, and has seen field testing elsewhere in the country for more than a decade to make sure it holds up during emergencies. Emergency weather bulletins and other alerts will likewise be automated and delivered by “Tom.”
“The system that they have in place, to be able to do these warnings, can be done very quickly via just automation,” Steiger said. “The technology is there and it’s very reliable technology.”
The National Weather Service has been taking records in Nome since 1907, and Steiger said the Nome station has been broadcasting since the 1960s. He emphasized that, while the people collecting the weather data may no longer be heard on the radio after this week, they will still staffing the weather desk, collecting weather data, launching weather balloons, and more to make sure “Tom” has the right information to broadcast to the rest of the world.
The intersection of 36th and the new Seward Highway in Anchorage is getting a make-over. The state’s Department of Transportation says it’s to make the area safer and less congested.http://www.alaskapublic.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/10-36th-and-Seward.mp3
Everyday about 65,000 cars pass through the intersection of 36th Avenue and the new Seward Highway, most of them are headed north or south. DOT reports that the intersection is the most congested in the state, meaning the most likely to cause delays, and there are about 50 reported accidents there each year.
Since 2012 the department has been working on a plan to fix the problem. Project manager Sean Holland says they’ve narrowed it down to two options for redoing the roads and running the highway above 36th. He says the major issue is that the distance between Tudor and Benson is only about a mile.
“There’s not enough room in there for traffic to weave for entering and exiting traffic from the highway to make a safe and efficient movement.”
That means both potential options will have new types of intersections underneath the highway. Holland says they could be confusing for drivers at first, but mostly locals use it.
“We’re thinking that all of these alternatives are a little bit unconventional, [but] that people will learn them pretty quickly. It will take hopefully one or two times. You know, I think if you take the wrong turn the first time, then the second time you’ll be able to pick it up,” he said.
One major difference between the two plans is that one has left exits and the other has right ones. Neither plan allows drivers to get on the highway at 36th and go north. Holland says it couldn’t be safely done. Vehicles will have to take different routes, like LaTouche or Denali.
“It’s probably going to put some more pressure on those intersections,” he explains. However, “our models show that with the increased efficiency that we’re going to find at Seward and 36th, that those other intersections, we’re going to find, will operate at an acceptable level.”
At the moment the project is only half funded. DOT has $36 million from the state legislature. They’ll need between $50 and $70 million to complete it. Holland says the department would like to start the 2-year construction project in 2016, but it will depend on funding.
They’re accepting public comments during an open house on June 16 at the Loussac Library. They’re looking for input on issues like how the plans will impact bicyclists and pedestrians.
You can find out more about the project here.
U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan is calling on incumbent Mark Begich to sign a pledge to discourage outside groups from running political ads in the race. The pledge would impose a financial penalty on a campaign that benefits from Outside spending. Begich campaign isn’t buying it.
The Gakona High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program may have been saved in the nick of time.
According to Alan LeMaster, who runs a lodge at Gakona Junction, five room reservations made by U.S. Air Force officials for this week have been canceled, he says, because demolition of the research facility has been “put on hold.”
LeMaster told APRN that leaders of the demolition project told him that a “cease and desist” order has been issued for the scheduled demolition.
APRN has not had official confirmation of the order to halt the HAARP demolition, but Carl Grusnick, a public information office with the Air Force Research Lab in New Mexico, says that it is not unusual for large projects to be put on hold temporarily because of delays in negotiations with contractors. Grusnick says the Air Force has completed it’s research at HAARP, which has been slated for closure as of June 10.
And Charles Gulick, with the USAF press office, emailed Tuesday that at this time, he has no word on the order to cease and desist, but that he will have more information in the future.
Meanwhile, Matt Felling a spokesperson with Senator Lisa Murkowski’s office, says an announcement will be made on Monday.
Since April, gubernatorial challengers Byron Mallott and Bill Walker have gone after incumbent Sean Parnell for skipping debates. They hit that point again on Monday, at a candidate forum hosted by the National Congress of American Indians.
Independent candidate Bill Walker didn’t even finish his opening statement before taking a swipe at the governor.
“You know who’s not on the panel with us — Gov. Parnell has chosen not to show,” said Walker. “I think that’s a shame that he chooses not to participate in these processes. Remember that on election day.”
Democrat Byron Mallott went after Parnell, too.
“Bill and I have spent many months on the campaign trail thus far, and it’s almost like we’re the only two candidates,” said Mallott.
Their displeasure with Parnell’s absence was one of a few areas where the competing candidates agreed on Monday. For example, they also told attendees at the National Congress of American Indians that the state needs to make a disaster declaration in response to the high energy prices in rural areas.
Because of the similarities in their platforms, the candidates were asked if they feared splitting the vote in a way that could benefit Parnell. Walker again pivoted back to Parnell’s debate attendance.
“The other guy doesn’t seem to show up, doesn’t seem to pay attention or want to engage with the public,” said Walker. “He’ll come in third, so we’ll be fine.”
Since Walker and Mallott announced their candidacies last year, Parnell has joined them in two candidate forums and skipped four.
His campaign manager, Jerry Gallagher says Parnell will be participating in a “large number” of debates after the primary.
“We don’t obviously want to take anything for granted and we want to respect process, and we’ll do that and then move on to the general,” said Gallagher in a phone interview.
As the incumbent governor, Parnell is expected to easily win the Republican nomination. Two of his three challengers — Gerald Heikes and Brad Snowden — have run for governor before and received less than 1 percent of the vote or were disqualified, respectively. Russ Millette is the best known candidate running against Parnell in the primary. Millette was elected chair of the Alaska Republican Party by a group of libertarian-minded activists, but was quickly ousted by the party’s establishment wing.
Gallagher says there are currently no specific plans to debate those primary candidates, but adds that Parnell will consider campaign events on a case-by-case basis.
The next debate Parnell plans to attend is in August, with at least five more events scheduled after the primary.
For the first time in Alaska, and the United States, a company is flying drones over land for commercial purposes. BP is using Unmanned Aerial Systems to inspect roads, gravel pads, and pipelines on the North Slope. It’s the first time the Federal Aviation Administration has approved drones for this type of use.
Curt Smith, Technology Director for BP, said the four-and-a-half foot long aircraft use cameras and laser systems to map areas and collect data they can’t get from conventional methods.
“So we can’t drive over there [to the pipelines] because it’s tundra, whereas the Puma can fly over it without any damage or without harassing animals because it’s silent and invisible. Because unless you’re staring at it, you wouldn’t notice it’s there.”
Smith said the planes can fly low enough and slow enough to capture high quality data about the thickness of the roads and gravel pads to make sure they are protecting the tundra.
Pilots from AeroVironment control the 9-foot wide Puma AE aircraft. They launch them by hand and have to stay in visual range for safety reasons.
Smith said the project is good for BP because they’re getting better quality data than they would otherwise and saving money, but they’re also breaking new ground for many companies.
“I think the big thing is it’s the trailblazer,” Smith said. “The FAA, AeroVironment, and BP have worked out do how you get the permission. And being first is always difficult because you hit the stumbling blocks, and you say, ‘What am I going to do with that?’ And then you figure it out and you go on. But once that’s figured out, you should be able to leverage that for the next time, right?”
A spokesperson from the FAA says filmmakers are already applying to use the unmanned craft in controlled, low-risk situations like movie sets.
The FAA is required by Congress to allow the use of drones in the Arctic for commercial purposes.
At a wide ranging press conference during day three of the NCAI gathering in Anchorage today, BIA Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn said the concept of taking land into trust for Alaska tribes is a popular one.
“Even though we don’t have a rule in place that allows it, we have applications,” Washburn said.
A recent DC district court decision affirmed the Interior department’s authority to take Alaska tribal lands into trust if tribes request it and the Secretary of Interior approves the request. Washburn said although the decision is being appealed, the court was clear in the assertion. He said the issue is also supported by two other entities.
“One from the secretarial commission on trust reform, which was set up at the department of Interior and it’s a blue ribbon panel of outside independent experts, who said we think this would be a good idea,” Washburn said. ”We also heard from the Indian Law and Order Commission which set a whole chapter on Alaska because they were looking at issues for Indian Law and Order all over the country but the issues in Alaska are very serious and so they set aside chapter two.”
Trust status for Native lands would allow more tribal authority and jurisdiction over certain criminal behavior on those trust lands. The Indian Law and Order Commission sees it as a way to better address the high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in Alaska Native communities.
Washburn said there have been applications from Interior and Southeast Alaska tribes.
The National Archives in Anchorage is closing its doors to researchers in less than two weeks, despite impassioned pleas by historians and researchers. But they aren’t the only ones who use the stacks of historical records. http://www.alaskapublic.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/10-NARA-closing.mp3
Playwright Peter Porco sits in the white-walled research room of the National Archives in Anchorage. He’s searching through stacks of old papers from Adak in the 1940s.
“I mean here’s another one, hand-written,” he says as he holds up an old work memo. “I’m gonna take a picture of this because I just think it’s so neat… oh wow! A cigarette burn.” He’s quickly distracted by the pale green paper with a memo about chow passes. “We got a cigarette burn in a piece of paper! I mean that’s so silly… but now you really get a picture of this guy sitting at a desk…”
Porco is looking for information for his series of plays on life in the Aleutians during World War II. He says the archives do more than just store history, they inspire creativity. “I’m trying to get as a clear a picture of what it’s like to live and be there at that time.”
The National Archives and Records Administration officials say they’re closing the facility’s doors because of low numbers of visitors — only 352 per year on average since 2009. More than half of the reference requests are written. Closing the facility and transferring about 75 percent of the holdings to Seattle will save NARA about $500,000 per year.
At the request of the state’s Congressional delegation, the other 25 percent of the records will go to the state archives in Juneau. Among them are most of the territorial court records that are held at NARA. They include everything from civil and criminal court dockets to coroner’s inquests.
Kip Knudsen with the governor’s office says they looked into many options for keeping all of the records in Alaska, like moving them to the archives in Juneau. “I have a feeling that’s probably outside our budget desires, but we looked at all options. The federal employees were not really very enthusiastic about all of them, quite frankly, and they were even a little bit resistant to leaving the territorial court records.”
Knudsen says the governor’s office even did a survey of all of the state agencies to see how they would be impacted by the Archives closing. He says it will be an inconvenience, but it’s not devastating.
Other organizations in the state, like the Alaska Federation of Natives, say moving the Archives is more than just an inconvenience. The Archives include everything from village census records from before statehood to histories of fur seal hunts in the Pribilof Islands.
“Well it’s going to create a huge void and vacuum in the native community,” says Nicole Borromeo, AFN’s general counsel. “I’ve personally been down to the archives, doing research, and the information there is just phenomenal. It’s a living history. And to have that removed from our community is going to leave an impact.”
Borromeo says her organization is still working with Alaska’s Congressional delegation to try to get more records to stay.
NARA plans to eventually make all of the records available online. But the agency does not have any money set aside to digitize Alaska’s history. They are accepting recommendations for what should be prioritized until the end of the month. State Historian Jo Antonson says she prefers the records stay in Alaska, but digitization could work if Alaskans participate in the process.
“It’s so important for Alaskans to speak up, speak out, about what records they need to have access to,” she says. “And after the list is compiled we need to keep vigilant to make sure that plans become action to make things digitized and become available.”
NARA is considering having citizen archivists, like Peter Porco, help with the process.
Back in the research room he leans over the table with his digital camera and portable scanner, capturing what he can. But he says it doesn’t work for everything.
“This is a 1941-43 blueprint or something,” he says referring to his find from earlier in the day. “It filled the entire table plus and no, there’s no way you’re going to digitize that.”
He has until June 20th to try.
The state says it will cost as much as $400 million to build a controversial proposed mining road to Ambler. But some opponents of the road think that figure is too low.
A conference call about federal polices on Alaska lands became part of the ongoing debate about a proposed mining road to Ambler, with the total cost of the road officially projected to be as high as $400 million—a number that’s interesting as much for what it leaves in as out.
On Friday, the Citizens Advisory Commission on Federal Areas–CAFCA– met in Anchorage for one of it’s three meetings each year. The Ambler Road project was discussed due to plans which call for a portion of the road to pass through the Gates of the Arctic National ark.
Mark Davis, a deputy director with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA—which is handling the project for the state—gave an overall cost prediction for the project.
“I gave you the potential estimates of this road,” Davis told the CACFA members, “which would be first brought in as a pioneer road and then maybe expanded, so between $190 million and $300 million.”
That’s optimistic. And other AIDEA representatives are quick clarify that is a very rough estimate, one which will likely be revised once the EIS study is completed. Maryelen Tuttle works for Dowl HKM, the company contracted to manage the road project, and says a more conservative range is $200-$400. And that’s just for construction—it doesn’t include all the preliminary studies or permitting, which has so far cost the state just under $13 million, and could be as high as $60 million by the time ground is broken.
“The idea that the road costs $100-$300 million dollars is totally, totally fallacious,” Ron Yarnell, a wilderness lodge owner near the road’s proposed route, told board members.
“The bridges on this road are huge. I mean, the bridges on this job alone are gonna be $100-$200 million dollars,” Yarnell continued.
Yarnell also questions AIDEA’s claim that the industrial road will be closed down and remediated once operations have stopped in the mining district the road would service. It was a point picked up by Jill Yordy, a researcher with the Northern Center in Fairbanks, too.
“Today it was mentioned that the road could possibly be reclaimed, and yet I’ve heard no mention about the cost of reclaiming the road. And who would pay for those—who’s shoulders would that financial burden fall on?” Yordy asked. “If it is going to be AIDEA or the private entity that pays for and maintains the road then those costs should be included in the road proposal and considered from the beginning.”
In his response to the public’s testimony, Davis explained that costs for road reclamation will be figured during the EIS process. After the meeting Tuttle clarified that the eventual financing model will use tolls to collect repayment from the road’s private users. Reclamation, as well as maintenance and preliminary costs, will be built into how much the tolls charge.
Investigations into feasibility and design options for the Ambler Road have a phased funding structure, meaning appropriations happen year-to-year depending on which phase development is in. So far the project has spent just under $13 million, though the cost for preliminary work could get up to $60 million before ground is broken.
Alaska is not alone in its conflicts with the federal government over land management. Leaders in some Lower 48 western states want Alaska to join an effort to gain control of federal lands within their borders.
“All of the states need to dialogue with one another and to expand the conversation so that we have a coalition of states that have a voice in Washington,” says Kathleen Clarke, director of Utah’s Public Land Policy Coordination office.
Clarke, a former National Director of the Bureau of Land Management, was in Fairbanks Friday at the invitation of Alaska’s Citizen’s Advisory Commission on Federal Areas. Clarke says Alaska has a lot in common with Utah and other western states.
“What we perceive to be overreach of federal government, and the challenge of getting some balance in that management that respects local citizens, tradition, culture, economics and all of those things that contribute to a good quality of life,” she said.
Clarke provided the state commission with an update on an American Lands Council initiative supported by Utah and several other states, aimed at getting some BLM property turned over to them.
“If we work together and transfer title and ownership, it would free the federal government of a whole lot of burden and expense, as well as allowing the western states to, for example, contribute to the issue of national energy security, so I think there’s a lot of positive that could come,” she said.
Clarke said the effort does not target national parks, refuges or other wilderness areas. Clarke and fellow land transfer advocate Montana State Senator Jennifer Fielder cited economic studies that show states making money by managing BLM lands for resource development.
Citizen’s Advisory Commission on Federal Areas Chair, Alaska State Representative Wes Keller says the commission regularly hears about federal overreach from Alaskans, and emphasized the broader issue is not unique. “We have a tendency, I think, in Alaska to think we’re the only one, but other western states are experiencing the same thing, so I see it as just a sharing of information and getting together with other states,” he said.
Keller was clear that the state of Alaska isn’t formally supporting land transfer at this point, and the commission is just gathering information.
Wells Fargo is donating sacred land to the village of Eklutna.