A bill that would require a longer probationary period for teachers has attracted opposition from labor organizations, who say it’s an attack on job security.
Right now, public school teachers must be employed by a district for three years before they can earn tenure. During that period, teachers can be let go without cause. But after that, school districts must notify teachers and put them on an improvement plan before choosing not to renew their contracts, barring extreme circumstances.
Rep. Tammie Wilson, a Fairbanks Republican, would like to see that probationary period expanded to five years. At a committee hearing for her bill, she
“The reason I brought the bill forward was because I was approached by many superintendents and principals throughout Alaska, who believe that if they had more time to evaluate a teacher, they would have better results,” said Wilson.
Representatives from the Mat-Su School District offered support for the bill, describing the process of terminating a tenured teacher as “relatively impossible.”
Wilson also said her intent is to give teachers more time to develop their skills before districts have to decide whether to keep them on and grant them tenure, or terminate them.
“We want to be fair to the teacher and make sure that they have had time to get their feet on the ground and be effective,” said Wilson. “I don’t think this is about keeping ineffective teachers longer. I think it’s actually giving them more time what they really are capable of.”
But teachers’ unions from across the state questioned that logic. They called in to say that the bill isn’t about accommodating educators, but rather an attack on job security.
Joe Boyle is the president of the Mat-Su Education Association, and he says the change would make it harder for the state to attract teachers.
“For five years, you’ll have no job protection,” testified Boyle. “If an administrator needs to make room for a friend of family member, you’re gone. If you ask too many questions as a staff meeting, you’re done.”
The bill is being held in committee for more testimony.
The executive in charge of Shell’s troubled Arctic drilling program is stepping down.
David Lawrence was Shell’s vice president for North American exploration. He’s been with the company for almost 30 years. Now, a spokesman says he’s leaving “by mutual consent.”
Shell won’t say whether Lawrence’s departure has anything to do with the 2012 drilling season. But it’s only been a week since the Department of the Interior released its review of Shell’s Arctic program. Interior’s investigators said Shell wasn’t fully prepared for the logistical challenges it faced in the Arctic.
Lawrence made headlines a year ago when he told a Dow Jones reporter that drilling in the Arctic would be “relatively easy.” He said the oil Shell is pursuing in the Alaskan Arctic is located in shallow, low-pressure areas that were simpler to access than other deposits.
A Shell spokesman declined to comment on Lawrence’s departure.
The recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act had many applauding its new protections for LGBT victims and illegal immigrants.
All three members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation supported the bill.
One of the reauthorization’s new, more controversial provisions – granting tribal courts jurisdiction over non natives for domestic violence crimes committed in Indian Country – has reopened a long-simmering debate about tribal power in Alaska.
Myron Naneng is the president of the Association of Village Council Presidents. He says tribes in the Lower 48 are celebrating the new authority they’ve won.
But not in Alaska because, Naneng says, the state does not recognize tribal powers.
“It’s the state’s position that anyone who moves through the villages who’s not a tribal member should not be handled by a local tribal court. But we move into urban areas ourselves, and we’re subject to state courts,” Naneng said.
The federal government still recognizes Alaska tribes, even though most relinquished aboriginal rights and territory, known as Indian Country, when Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Residents in Metlakata opted out of ANCSA. Metlakatla is the only reservation in the state, and the only federally recognized Indian County in Alaska.
Senator Lisa Murkowski inserted an amendment in the Violence Against Women Act that, she says, was clearly designed to ensure Metlakatla’s increased court jurisdiction.
“It was very clear that it was designed to be implemented in Indian Country. In Alaska, the only Indian Country, the only reservation, is Metlakatla. So I wanted to make sure that Metlakatla was going to be treated similarly to all other reservations, to all other land in Indian Country,” Murkowski said.
But there’s been push back from Naneng and others who say more should have been done to make sure the new provision applied to all Alaska tribes.
Senator Murkowski says the Violence Against Women Act was not the place to hash out territorial disputes. And to the tribes who were looking to gain increased rights, she says that conversation can be had at a later time.
“I think there are some who saw this as an opportunity to gain an inch, and then build on it from there,” Murkowski said.
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the state’s lack of Indian County in 1998. Senator Murksowski says Congress would need to amend the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to create Indian Country.
John Havelock was the Alaska Attorney General when the Native Claims Settlement Act passed. He says the Act was described as an alternative to what at the time was considered failing reservation system and was not designed to take away tribal authority.
“There was not any side discussion of tribal authority. In fact I think a lot of people assumed that the village corporation system would replace any tribal jurisdiction. But when you think about it and look at it, you say, well wait a minute,” Havelock said.
Mike Geraghty is the current Attorney General for Alaska.
“The state’s position is that we’re in favor of the law as it currently exists and the jurisdiction the tribal courts already have,” Geraghty said.
Geraghty says state courts have jurisdiction over the entire state.
“These people, whether they’re members or not members of a tribe, are also citizens of the State of Alaska. They have Constitutional rights under the state constitution,” Geraghty said.
In Indian Country, tribal courts have sole jurisdiction within the designated boundaries and state courts have none.
“I’m not in favor of disrupting that balance, and creating, you know 229 checkerboard, 229 tribal court jurisdictions. Where the physical boundaries would be, who knows,” Geraghty said.
Because there are not defined borders like the reservation system has. Geraghty says the state cooperates with tribal courts on issues under the Indian Child Welfare Act and child support cases. It also recognizes and enforces protective orders from certain tribal courts.
Senator Murkowski says the state needs to be pushed on the issue of tribal jurisdiction that the state has for too long feared relinquishing any authority to the tribes.
She says she’s introducing a plan that would “cross deputize” village public safety officers. It would allow them to hand out punishments throughout a village.
“Fines, or forfeiture, or fines, or community service, or even banishment, and it gives them that authority. This is something we’ve tried to get the state to come around on. I think we’ve made huge progress ,” Murkowski said.
The plan is being reviewed by both tribal leaders and state officials.
And in Murkowski’s eyes, it gives the state a chance to see there is nothing to fear in granting tribes more authority.
Anchorage Assembly member Paul Honeman is trying to slow down the process to pass a controversial Anchorage ordinance that would limit unions. He introduced a resolution at a work session at city hall Friday.
Honeman proposed a resolution that would postpone action on the ordinance for six months. He says there are still too many questions about the overhaul of labor law to move forward.
Honeman’s resolution can be adopted by the Assembly with 6 votes. It’s essentially a directive to the Assembly.
“It gives us the time, the Assembly, the administration, labor organizations and outside labor interest groups, to set down in a collaborative manner, in a work committee or task force or whatever you want to call it, and literally pick apart this ordinance,” Honeman said. “I mean you hear one side, you schedule a week letter, you hear another side, and each of the assembly members still have lists of questions coming through.”
Although a new version of the ordinance was presented at the work session, several members expressed concern that the document did not incorporate some changes that members were expecting to see. The proposed ordinance was announced on February 8th by Mayor Dan Sullivan. It would limit union longevity and performance pay, benefits, and eliminate binding arbitration along with strikes. It would also allow some municipal jobs to be contracted out. Sullivan says the changes are needed to keep costs down, and the ordinance must be rushed because of upcoming union negotiations. Unions leaders representing 2,200 or so municipal employees offered a one year wage freeze in exchange for tabling of the ordinance, but the Sullivan administration turned them down. Honeman plans to introduce his resolution at Tuesday’s regular Assembly meeting, the same meeting at which the ordinance is scheduled for action.
The U.S. Arctic Research Commission is in Bethel for their 100th meeting. The Commission is an independent federal agency that helps plan arctic research goals on the national level.
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Dozens of dance groups will be performing this weekend in Bethel at the annual Cama-I Dance Festival. One of them will be a student group from the village of Quinhagak. The students had to receive special permission from their elders to Dance, after it was banned in the village for decades.
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Muir is one of the most renowned naturalists of the last two centuries. President Theodore Roosevelt turned to Muir when planning America’s first National Parks. In the late 1800s, Muir decided to journey to the far north. And the first stop on his great Alaskan expedition was Wrangell Island in the Inside Passage. KSTK’s Shady Grove Oliver traces the history of Muir in Wrangell from his first steps on the island to his continued influence today.
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This week we’re heading to a city- the capitol city to be more specific: Juneau. Ricardo Worl is CEO for Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority.
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Instead of the usual businesswear worn in the Alaska State Capitol, many female legislators are wearing kuspuks, the traditional and comfortable Inupiat-Yupik garment not often seen in boardrooms. It’s also being adopted by some men in the capitol.
On this particular Friday, Senate Secretary Liz Clark’s kuspuk is getting a lot of attention.
“Somebody told me the fabric is called Fairy Frost so it’s sort of a turquoise blue and it’s got the Fairy Frost trim with some red ric-rak over top. It also has the multi-colored cat heads lining the hood and the pocket. It’s more a dress length with a ruffle. It feels like a mumu to wear so it couldn’t be more comfortable.”
Clark owns five kuspuks. She and other legislative staff easily joined what’s become a tradition among legislators, who started wearing kuspuks to work on Friday about a decade ago.
Anchorage Senator Lesil McGuire credits the idea to former representative Mary Kapsner, an Alaska Native from Bethel.
“Back when she was in the House of Representatives serving, she had an aide named Katie Real and they started wearing kuspuks every Friday.”
When Real passed away from an illness, Kapsnor and other women in the House of Representatives continued wearing kuspuks to honor her legacy.
Kuspuk Friday soon spread to the Senate where now it’s part of the Friday uniform for the pages. The Senate Secretaries, the Sergeant-At-Arms, and her assistant also take part in the tradition. Three of these kuspuk-clad individuals on the Senate floor are men. Senate McGuire would like to see every more males embrace kuspuk Friday.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is get more masculine fabrics introduced. Our assistant Sergeant-At-Arms Andy Higgins has come out with a really bold black one with some gold piping so it would be nice to get the Senate President and the Majority Leader wearing a kuspuk as well.”
Eagle River Senator Anna Fairclough served with Mary Kapsner. Most Fridays, Fairclough can be seen wearing a kuspuk. While she enjoys the functional purposes of the garment, like the big pockets, Fairclough says Kuspuk Friday means something more.
“It’s the solidarity per se with the women around Alaska that we know where our roots are at. We know there are traditional values in all cultures across Alaska that need to be respected and it’s our way of embracing that.”
While a kuspuk is a traditional Alaska Native garment, Senator McGuire notes most of those wearing kuspuks on Friday in the Capitol Building are not Native.
“Non-Native Alaskans take pride in celebrating the Alaskan Native Heritage and I think that’s something that I have really enjoyed seeing grow in this building in my thirteen years here. It’s something that I would not say was immediately a part of the culture but it’s certainly become a part of it.”
Wrangell Representative Peggy Wilson owns four kuspuks.
“I love wearing it because it’s so much more comfortable than anything else I wear.”
Freshman Representative Harriot Drummond of Anchorage borrowed a kuspuk from a friend for Kuspuk Fridays. She says it fits her normal, outside-the-capitol style.
“I like wearing hoodies in my off hours and this is an appropriate type of hoodie to wear to work.”
In the usual sea of dark suits and stiff collars in a state capitol, Kuspuk Friday adds a touch of fun, color, and comfort to the work week. It’s also a symbol of Alaska’s diversity of cultures and people.
Over the course of his administration, Gov. Sean Parnell has made an overhaul of the state’s oil tax system a top priority. In previous legislative sessions, his efforts to bring down the overall tax rate on oil companies has been stymied by the Senate. But this week, that body passed an amended version of his plan.
On Thursday, he sat down with APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez to discuss the status of the bill.
What does success look like to you, and do you have any metrics in terms of a hard number of barrels you’d like to see go through the pipeline? And at what point do you say this bill is successful? And when do you say it needs to be revisited?
I think it’s highly speculative question in terms of eliciting a highly speculative answer. But success to me is an Alaskan comeback, an Alaskan comeback on oil production.
The reason I want to see an Alaskan comeback is that I want to see more opportunity for Alaskans from oil. I think there is plenty more oil to be had. I want to see us be competitive and get it for Alaskans.
So a metric for me, I think it’s going to take three to five years before we start seeing new production. But we should see significant investment begin to ramp up in that time frame and I think we need only look to the North Sea and the UK from their recent tax changes and they are now having billions of British pounds sterling being invested in the North Sea for their changes. My recollection is it’s been several years since that occurred.
And so it doesn’t sound like there’s a specific measure then?
No, because this system, every tax regime should be built to last. Unfortunately we found that the current system is not, especially at these high oil prices. We’re missing out. So the bottom line is, it’s got to be competitive across a long time frame and we should start seeing things change in the near term, like three to five years. That way we’re not stuck long term without savings and little to no production.
Is turning things around bending the decline curve, stopping decline, or ramping up production?
For me, it’s maximizing that asset that’s in the ground for Alaskans. So you had senators talking about how there are 9 billion barrels of proven reserves. And stating, what is the problem?
Well, the problem is, companies won’t invest in getting those 9 billion barrels of oil across the next 30 years without a tax regime that makes sense for them to get it. That means Alaskans oil remains locked in the ground, something that minimizes Alaskan opportunity. Like the Senate majority that voted for the bill, I want to maximize opportunities for Alaskans.
Some legislators have said they want to see a fiscal plan with this proposal and also a scenario for what happens if we don’t get [increased production]. Are we going to get that as this bill is being considered?
So, at the beginning of session I met with majority leaderships in the finance committees and with the presiding officers. And I told them I want to be engaged with them on a five-year fiscal plan.
Because, number one, even if no change is made, that means we have to rein in spending even harder given declining production. But part of the principle or result of tax change, is that in the near term, we’re going to need to use our savings to get us through to more production.
So I’m working with House and Senate leadership, engaged in discussions with them in a five year fiscal plan. You saw the first stages of that with Scott Goldsmith speaking up in Senate Finance. I anticipate arriving at a place where we’ll rein in spending, we’ll used budget reserves to get us through to that point of new production.
One of the [Senate] amendments has to do with a three-year sunset … Is that something you would consider?
No, it’s an incredibly stupid idea, and let me tell you why.
When companies plan to invest hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of dollars, they need to recover that capital over 20 years, say. They plug in the tax regime across that time, if there’s a sunset on a tax regime that’s out there three years, five years, seven years, not only do they have the uncertainty of each year’s legislative session where the law could change, they then know that the law will be changed in three or five or seven years. that will chill investment.
But with the sunset, there’s the possibility of renewal.
But it’s about uncertainty. They will not invest where there is legal uncertainty that they could ever recover their investment. So a sunset provision would chill investment in Alaska until that sunset is resolved with another tax regime. It would be worse than the current system.
In that same amendment, there’s a community revenue sharing component with clearer language on how much could be appropriated. The current bill doesn’t have that in there. How do you feel about the state of revenue sharing?
Revenue sharing was originally and currently factored into the progressivity calculations. Because those are going away, we had said let’s just use the corporate income tax account as the accounting mechanism for it. I’m committed to revenue sharing, it will continue at current levels. And the legislature right now has essentially made that same commitment.
You’ve said this [Senate] bill fits with your guiding principles [for an oil tax package]. Are there any changes you’d like to see in the House version?
I have not had enough time to think about any changes. I think any bill can be improved and I’d be happy to get back to you on any changes we plan to advocate for. Given the change that occurred on the floor last night, I had a cursory briefing on what happened and the effects financially on it. But we’re going to look more closely to see if we can make it any better, just like I know the House of Representatives will. “
Gov. Sarah Palin was the one who brought ACES into being. She’s been quiet on this issue in public. Have you been in touch with your predecessor?
I have not. And I’ll speak for myself. ACES was modeled on $60-80 a barrel oil and there was very little discussion about higher price oil situations like we’ve been in recently. And given the history now of what we know happens under ACES, we have five years of history to look at with investment running to Texas and North Dakota and their production turning upwards and ours not. Because of that, change is required at this point in our history and that’s why I’m moving to change it.
The most persistent opposition to the legislation has been from Democrats in the minority in both chambers. And without the numbers to get any of their alternatives heard, they’re using a public relations strategy of sorts. And they have put more effort in making public records requests of your office and talking a lot about transparency. They’ve been saying they haven’t gotten the answers they want [on the oil tax issue]. How do you respond to that?
I think it’s just more political gamesmanship. It’s designed to distract us from the goal of maximizing Alaskans opportunity. And here’s what I mean. They’ve asked for information. The legislature has their consultants. The administration has their consultants. Between our two sets of consultants, there have been, 21 presentations from these experts in these committees where they can be asked out in the open for information.
So the notion that individual legislators, 60 of them, should be able to make their own individual requests when they have their own is the height of political gamesmanship. It’s not reality.
Are you alluding to [Democrats’] claim that you’ve been keeping consultants on lock that you have previously hired?
Yeah, welcome to the world where they pay for their consultants as legislators and the administration pays for our consultants, and then they both go to the committee table in the open-air public hearing to get evaluated.
In this case, they’ve had 21 different opportunities to ask consultants questions. So, again, I think it’s political gamesmanship. I’d rather see them focus constructively on creating opportunities for new production and new jobs for Alaskans.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think Sen. [Charlie] Huggins said it best when he told about meeting that young Alaskan man working in North Dakota. It was a very personal story about a young man who had to leave the state to find a job in the oil patch, which is what he wanted to do. And when that young man looked Sen. Huggins in the face and said, and you fix it so I can work in Alaska? That’s what strikes home for me.
This is about creating opportunity for him. I’ve already had — and Sen. Huggins has already had — a wonderful life of opportunity here in Alaska. Sen. [Pete] Kelly referenced it. This is for our kids and our grandkids. This change, brining about new production, will create an economy here for generations now. And I’m not willing to sacrifice that without a fight. And Alaskans deserve more than political spin and a pr campaign has been mentioned. They deserve serious work. And I think they’re getting it, they got it from this Senate and I think they’re getting it from the House as well.
The Elia Salafie Memorial Sled Dog Race and K300 Camp Out Race are happening this weekend.
The three-day Salafie Memorial race starts this Friday and is put on by the Bethel Sprint Musher’s Club.
Organizer John Simon says the race is named in honor of the late Elia Salafie, a Bethel musher who ran a Bethel sprint kennel in the 60’s.
He says even though many mushers today may not know who Salafie was, it is still important to honor him and his contribution to local mushing; he was instrumental in organizing sprint races over forty years ago.
This year’s course starts across from the small boat harbor in Bethel and goes upriver to Joe Pete’s fish camp and then along the wood cutting trail toward the bluffs behind Napaskiak and then back to Bethel.
The first two days mushers sprint 25 miles, and on Sunday the course is extended to 30 miles.
John Simon called this year’s course “challenging.”
The purse has been raised this year to at total of $25,000—with the winner taking home $4,500.
14 teams or less are expected to race this year.
Also this weekend is the K300’s annual Camp Out Race.
The race starts at 11 am Saturday with a noncompetitive start up the Gweek 45 miles to a camping spot where teams, friends and fans are welcome to camp out for the night.
The real race starts 11 am on Sunday with the dash back home toward Bethel.
The total purse is $8,250 this year.
The K300 Junior Classic is also coming up on Wednesday March 27th.
The House gets its first stab at the Senate’s oil tax package Friday.
The bill, which gets rid of a mechanism that raises the tax rate on oil as the price per barrel goes up, will be taken up in the resources committee. Co-chair Eric Feige, a Chickaloon Republican, says their goal with the bill is to bring Alaska’s oil tax rate down without undercutting states like Texas and North Dakota.
“I think our objective will be to place Alaska pretty close to the center of the competition, probably a little bit above the middle, if you will.”
The bill was first introduced by Gov. Sean Parnell, and the current version puts the base tax on oil at 35 percent while offsetting that with a $5 per barrel credit. But the governor’s original bill established a 25 percent flat tax. The difference between them comes to about $300 million in state revenue every year at forecast levels of production.
Feige offered support for the governor’s draft early in the session, calling it a “great starting point.” But he says that his committee is unlikely to bring the tax rate down to that level.
“Is it going to go all the way back to 25 percent? Probably not,” says Feige. “I don’t think there’s the support in the legislature to bring the base rate back down there. In the end, we’ve got to get get 21 votes in the House, keep 11 votes in the Senate. So we’ll proceed accordingly.”
The bill that moved out of the Senate on Wednesday got the minimum votes needed to pass, and key supporters have said that they don’t want the House to implement deeper cuts.
As the bill progresses through the House, one item that municipalities are expected to pay attention to is the treatment of the state’s community revenue sharing fund. That money is used to supplement city and borough operating budgets, and it comes as piece of the progressive tax feature the bill plans to wipe out.
The new bill doesn’t tie any percentage of oil tax revenue to the fund. It just allows the legislature to appropriate money to the fund at their discretion. Feige says he doesn’t have a problem with that policy, and he describes it as an accounting change that shouldn’t affect the program.
“But do we need to specifically say that the source of that revenue sharing money is coming from a particular place in our revenue stream? No, it’s just going to come out of general fund,” says Feige. “So, I don’t see anything untoward with the way SB21 has addressed that.”
An amendment that would have applied more specific guidelines for replenishing the community revenue sharing fund failed narrowly in the Senate on Wednesday night.
The resources committee has hearings scheduled through all of next week. The plan is to take testimony from the major oil producers on Tuesday, followed by smaller companies on Wednesday, and then offer changes to the bill later in the week.
A bill reworking the state’s oil tax structure has cleared a major hurdle, passing the Senate late Wednesday night on an 11-9 vote. The package would effectively lower taxes on producers with the hope of getting more oil in the pipeline. But without firm commitments to ramp up production, opinion on the legislation was split almost down the middle.
If you had to tally the debate in numbers, a few would come to mind. Thirteen: The number of amendments offered. Forty: How many minutes the longest speech lasted. Six-billion: The number of dollars Alaska could forego in state revenue over the next five years if the bill passed. Ninety-thousand: The number of extra barrels that would need to be produced every day to offset that loss.
For hours, senators went back and forth on whether that could happen. Supporters of the bill characterized it as a necessary risk that would make the state more competitive.
”It’s time to act. Alaskans – Alaskans’ future needs to be secured,” Anchorage Republican Sen. Anna Fairclough said. “Our generation, the next generation depends on that.”
Other members of the majority caucus rolled out personal stories of Alaskans leaving for the promised lands of North Dakota and Texas, and they spoke of a need to pass a healthy economy on to their children.
But they were reluctant to give specific numbers on the amount of oil they expect to see produced under the proposed tax regime, or give a hard timeframe for when the state should see changes to the production decline.
Meanwhile, opponents of the bill gave wonky treatises focused on the history of Alaska’s tax system and the factors contributing to declining oil production. Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican, warned that a big hit to the state’s treasury could affect the state’s bond ratings and ability to secure low-interest loans for capital projects. Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat, listed the number of times oil companies have misled the state on oil taxes.
“This is a bad bill that should be voted down. It’s a giveaway, it’s a crapshoot, it’s a far, far cry from our best work and what we’re capable of doing. I’ve watched each committee negotiate against themselves, waiting for some positive word form the oil industry. The words never came,” French said.
The bill that passed is a significant reworking of the state’s tax code. Right now, Alaska has a windfall profits tax that requires producers to pay more when oil prices are high. This measure gets rid of that, while adding a higher base tax that’s offset by a $5 per barrel tax credit.
Just one amendment was made to the legislation. A measure setting the base tax rate on oil at 35 percent passed with the support of 11 members of the majority. An earlier version of the legislation would have kicked that tax rate down by a couple of percentage points after 2016. That would have meant an extra $300 million in state revenue lost at forecasted levels of oil production.
In a late-night press conference following the Senate floor session, Anchorage Democrat Johnny Ellis suggested that amendment was needed to appease Click Bishop, a Fairbanks Republican who was seen as a swing vote.
“They didn’t have the 11 votes until amendment number one passed,” Ellis said.
Majority leadership denied that this was the case.
For his part, Gov. Sean Parnell is happy with the bill. The original legislation came out of his office, and lowering the state’s oil tax rate has been a consistent priority of his administration. He says he expects the legislation to start working shortly after it’s put in place.
“We should start turning things around in the near term, like three to five years, and that way we are not stuck without savings and little to no production,” Parnell said.
The bill will now be considered by the House. The first stop is Resources. Rep. Eric Feige, a Chickaloon Republican who co-chairs the committee, says that he shares the governor’s goal of making Alaska’s tax rate more competitive. When asked if the narrow margin of the Senate vote would affect his committee’s work, he said it would not.
Republicans have an overwhelming majority in the House, and in the past they’ve been more sympathetic toward the governor’s oil tax reform efforts than the Senate. If they pass a bill with changes, it would have to be reconciled with the Senate version.
Senator Murkowski has threatened to filibuster the nomination over the Interior Department’s decision to prevent construction of a road from King Cove to Cold Bay. The proposed road would cut through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Secretary Salazar agreed Wednesday night to reevaluate the decision. That was enough to appease Senator Murkowski to allow the committee vote.
Under the agreement, the next Interior Secretary will visit King Cove and meet with local leaders.
“Sally Jewell will have the undeniable privilege of going to King Cove, and I’m going to be with her. We’ll figure when the best time to get in and out safely. It may be that we have to fly into Cold Bay and walk,” Senator Murkowski said Thursday morning.
Residents of King Cove have lobbied for the connector road, arguing that traveling to Cold Bay by sea and air is often unsafe.
A final decision on the road could be months or years away. Interior will reassess the environmental review and include what Senator Murkowski calls the “human component” of the construction project.
The agreement was announced as the hearing began. Not long after, the panel voted 18 to three to move her nomination onto the full Senate.
The three no votes came from Republicans, including Wyoming’s John Barrasso. He said he remains concerned over Ms. Jewell’s work on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association.
“I’ve asked her whether she disagrees with NPCA’s positions. She testified that as vice-chairman she was unaware of the organization’s various positions and thus unable to say which decisions she agrees with. That concerns me,” Senator Barrasso said.
Senator Barrasso told the committee NPCA has sued the government to halt some energy projects on public land.
Senator Murkowski said she’ll take Ms. Jewell “at her word” – that Ms. Jewell will bring people of all stripes together, from the Interior Department and outside, to hash out areas of disagreement.
“She says specifically that she is a convener. I need her to be a convener. We need her to be a convener,” she said.
Senator Murkowski remains uncommitted to voting yes or no on Ms. Jewell’s final roll call vote. She wants firm answers to specific questions.
“I asked a very direct question on whether she’d support putting ANWR into wilderness. And I got the “I believe in balance” type of thing,” she said after the vote.
Seven Republicans voted in favor of moving the nomination onto the full Senate, including Idaho Senator Jim Risch.
Risch noted the quirkiness of the Cabinet confirmation process; every state has its own King Cove, in Idaho, it’s the endangered sage grouse.
A major perk of being Senator is the ability to threaten to filibuster a cabinet pick for a home-state gimme.
“It’s really unfortunate that it takes a nomination like this, and this type of a process in order to get urgency out of a federal agency,” Risch lamented.
Risch pointed out even though he voted to move Ms. Jewell onto the full Senate, he can, and may yet, put a hold on the nominee.
The Senate takes off the next two weeks for recess. It’s expected to debate Ms. Jewell’s confirmation in April.
A large landslide has transformed a mountainside near the Matanuska Glacier. Locals noticed the landslide in mid-February. It left a black streak of rock and debris on the unnamed mountain at least a mile long.
Sheep Mountain lodge owner Zack Steer first heard about the landslide when some friends drove by it on the way to his place. The next week, he was heading to Anchorage and took his camera along. The slide is clearly visible if you look south from around mile 94 of the Glenn Highway.
“It just looks like part of the mountain just fell off and slid down. And when you look closely at it, you just realize it was an avalanche of rock debris. And it just conjures this image in your mind of tumbling rock and dirt and soil and trees and basically just a river of earth moving down the hill and makes you really glad you weren’t there in front of it when it happened,” Steer said.
Russell Riddles feels the same way.
“I mean, if you would have been there, you wouldn’t be here anymore,” he said.
Riddles was driving down the Glenn Highway with his wife when he first spotted it. He is a manger at the Long Rifle Lodge nearby. Riddles says there are some informal moose camps in the area, but he thinks they were spared by the slide:
“One of the local kids hiked up there and said the moose camp one of the neighbor guys uses, it went right to the edge of it, actually knocked down the spruce tree that he hangs some of his stuff off of, but did not actually wipe out his little area he goes to every year,” Riddles said.
The landslide is on state land. The Department of Natural Resources knows about the slide, but doesn’t plan to do any work to investigate it further. But landslide expert Marten Geertsema is very interested in learning more about it. Geertsema is a Geomorphologist with the Province of British Columbia in Canada. From pictures, he says the slide looks like a deep, bedrock failure.
“The deeper landslides tend to have delayed responses to environmental conditions,” Geertsema said. ”So for example if there was a warm summer that could have an influence, or even a very wet summer, those affects are often delayed in these deep-seated landslides.”
Geertsema says slides can also be the result of fatigue that builds up under a slope over centuries or even millennia. But he says large slides like the one off the Glenn Highway are becoming more common around the world. He says there is evidence the increase may be linked to permafrost melt due to global warming:
“I think warming is especially going to be important in places like Alaska and Canada and in high mountain regions around the world. Obviously if you get wetter conditions, that will contribute as well. Like last year Alaska had a tremendously heavy snow pack and that triggered a number of rock avalanches, in the early snow melt season… Lituya was one of them,” Geertsema said.
The landslide that happened off Lituya Mountain in Glacier Bay National Park last June was the largest one ever recorded in North America. It ran for more than five miles down a wide glacier. Geertsema says no one knows how often big landslides occur in Alaska, but it’s valuable to take note when they happen.
“I think it’s important to document them and its important to figure out what the baselines are and how things are changing. These events do have profound effects on the environment,” she said.
Given the vast wilderness areas in Alaska, Geertsema thinks a lot of large landslides in the state probably go undetected.
The new sports complex currently under construction at the University of Alaska Anchorage now has a name – the Alaska Airlines Center. UAA and Alaska Airlines announced the $6.3 million partnership on Thursday.
Though the new athletic facilities will bear the name of the airline, the money is dedicated to helping out with other aspects of UAA’s athletic department.
One-million dollars of the deal will go towards creating a new scholarship endowment for UAA student athletes.
UAA Athletic Director Steve Cobb says there are approximately 200 student athletes at UAA, over 75 percent of whom receive at least partial scholarship support. Once the endowment is fully funded, it will yield approximately $40,000 in new scholarship money annually. Alaskans will have the top priority.
“The way our averages are now, and most of our athletes are on partials, it would be seven additional athletes who would be able to give our average amount of aid to,” Cobb said.
Currently, the average amount of aid the athletic department awards is a little less than a half scholarship.
The remaining $5.3 million is slated to assist with travel costs for the 13 athletic programs at UAA.
According to UAA Vice Chancellor of University Advancement Megan Olson, those costs are as much as three times as much as schools in the Lower 48.
“The travel itself is such a big part of the athletics program budget, the partnership that Alaska Airlines is providing in their sponsorship helps to relieve that burden,” Olson said. “All of our athletes have to travel extraordinary distances in order to compete.”
The athletics department’s travel budget is approximately $1.6 million this year.
The new arena is scheduled to open in the Fall of 2014, and Cobb doesn’t just expect it to give a boost to the athletic department, but to the community as a whole.
“Very soon, everyone is gonna come to the Alaska Airlines Center for one reason or another, whether graduation, a lecture, a concert, a game, or some other event,” he said. “I think in probably two years, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anybody in the state who hasn’t visited that building.”
Cobb also said the new facilities will allow for some growth of the programs, which might even mean the addition of men’s and women’s soccer teams in the future.
“It’s a big decision here anytime you add, because of the tremendous cost of each program, but we also have an obligation to meet the needs of the state,” Cobb said. “So, that’s the first thing you look at, are there unmet needs of the state, and the fact is we are exporting talented, young student athletes that like to play the sport of soccer and they don’t have a chance to stay here.”
The new deal will officially start on July 1 of this year, and includes an option to renew it for an additional five years.
Southcentral Alaska sport fishermen are applauding a move by the state’s Board of Fisheries aimed at ensuring escapement goals for Kenai River late – run Chinook salmon. The Board voted unanimously to approve substitute language for a proposal that would have triggered emergency management measures based on the run’s failure to achieve a specific escapement goal of 15,000 fish.
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The Iditarod Race Marshall is calling the death of a dropped dog in Unalakleet this year one of the worst tragedies in the race’s history. The Iditarod Trail committee has since launched an investigation into what happened. They’re working with the dog’s owner to develop better dog care standards for the future.
Over the last week, Iditarod Race Marshall and Director Mark Nordman, has been in discussions with the race’s head Veterinarian, as well as rookie musher Paige Drobny about what could have been done to prevent the death of Drobny’s dog, Dorado. “Right now, I still stand by our program,” he says. “I stand by my Head Vet. It’s something we have to learn from. Anytime we have something tragic like this, you gotta learn from it.”
When Drobny pulled her team into the Unalakleet checkpoint, more than 700 miles into the race, she knew she had to leave her Dorado behind. “Well, Dorado has been sort of stiff on his front end since Ophir,” she explains. “I had a vet check him over and they couldn’t find anything wrong with him. He started to get stuffer as it went on, so I just decided in Unalakleet he didn’t need to go anymore. He was getting tired.”
Dorado was scheduled to fly back to Anchorage with a group of other dropped dogs, but high winds and blowing snow grounded commercial flights and more than 130 dogs remained in the checkpoint for more than three days. The majority of the dogs were moved inside, but Dorado was among 30 that were not. On the morning of March 15th, Dorado was found buried in drifted snow. Preliminary necropsy results show the dog died from asphyxiation. Since news of the death broke, the Iditarod Trail Committee, or ITC, has faced scrutiny about the organization’s ability to provide quality dog care along more than 900 miles of remote trail between Anchorage and Nome. Some of that scrutiny has come from mushers including Paige Drobny. “I did a great job taking care of my dogs!” Drobny laughs, sheepishly. “You know, the vets that are out there are doing their best but I don’t know them all there was a lot of them.”
Race logistics along the Iditarod trail are complicated. Nearly all of the checkpoints are accessible only by air. It’s difficult to move more than 40 veterinarians around so they can see dog teams repeatedly. “I don’t know even if I saw one vet twice and because it’s my first year,” she says. “I didn’t know any of those vets and I didn’t get to develop a relationship with any of them.”
With the exception of the Head Veterinarian, all race vets are also volunteers. They do have to apply for the position and they must be licensed. They also attend a series of trainings and workshops hosted by the ITC prior to the race. Mark Nordman says paying vets may not make a difference. “I wouldn’t say paid veterinarians would be any better,” he says. “In my opinion they would not be better because these people are here for the passion of the even t and the dogs.”
But Drobny says there are ways to improve vet care on the trail. She dropped six of her 16 starting dogs in this year’s Iditarod. Prior to the race start, she lined up a handler to pick up those dogs when they arrived back in Anchorage, but they were hard to track down. Currently there is no standard system to track dropped dogs as they are transferred between checkpoints. Drobny thinks the race should implement a system much like that used by shipping companies like Fedex. “As soon as that dog gets on a plane, it gets scanned and all the information like when it was last fed or when it gets meds, all that information would be with that scan so that everyone would have that information and it could get lost,” explains Drobny.
The ITC released a list of three major changes they will implement to improve care for dropped dogs. They plan to build boxes to house dogs in the larger hub checkpoints of McGrath and Unalakleet. They will arrange for more frequent flights out of checkpoints. Veterinarians will also patrol dropped dog lots more frequently in the future. Drobny calls the changes “positive” and Mark Nordman agrees. “If you’re not trying to improve. Than you shouldn’t hold a position in any venue that we deal with,” says Nordman. “We see that our care of the dogs has improved as far as what we’ve learned from the dogs. It just continues. It’s just an evolving process.”
Nordman has been involved with the race in some capacity since 1983. In 30 years, he’s never seen a an incident like this. “It was the biggest hit I’ve ever had in all my involvement with Iditarod,” he says. “Whether it was the five times racing that I did. Once the events start, my position oversees all things Iditarod and it was a huge hit. A lot of emotions, a lot of emotions for everyone involved and they’re still feeling that.”
Drobny acknowledges that her dog’s death is likely one of the worst tragedies in the Iditarod’s 41 year history. She says she and husband and fellow musher Cody Strathe haven’t decided if they’ll enter another Iditarod. “We were just saying it might be nice next year for both of us to run the race together with Dorado’s ashes and take him back out on the trail. And go to those dog drops and see those changes implemented would be a cool thing for the two of us to do.”
The ITC will continue to look into ways to further improve dog care. Further necropsy results for Dorado are due out within the next 30 days.
The Iditarod is over, but there’s still racing left to be done this season. The Kobuk 440 out of Kotzebue is scheduled to start April 11. One musher is taking the long route to reach the race. Chuck Schaeffer, formerly of Kotzebue and now living in Willow, is driving his dogs from Nenana to Kotzebue for the race, alone. Schaeffer did the trip last year as a way to save the expense of flying his dogs north for the race. But this year, he’s taking time to stop and talk with young people in villages along the trail about personal responsibility and self pride.
After the Municipality of Anchorage sued designers of the botched Port of Anchorage expansion project earlier this month, the designers faulted the construction. But one construction company involved is defending their work.
Kirkland, Washington-based MKB Constructors was a sub-contractor under Integrated Concepts and Research Corporation, or ICRC. ICRC is being sued by the Municipality of Anchorage, along with CH2M Hill Alaska, and PND Engineers. MKB Construction’s main job was to drive sheet piles into the floor of Cook Inlet, creating part of the base for the new port.
Andy Romine was the on-site Project Manager for MKB. He defends his company’s construction work and takes issue with the construction companies being referred to as inexperienced.
“They even talk about it a little bit in the lawsuit,” Romine said. “They want to say that it was an inexperienced contractor that caused part of the problem and I just don’t agree with that.”
Romine says he had worked on six similar projects and his crew were union employees from the local pile drivers and operators unions. There were multiple problems with the project, which used a patented ‘open cell sheet pile’ design. Everyone agrees that some sheets of metal, driven into the ground crumpled and separated during construction.
In a previous story a spokesman for Anchorage-based PND Engineers defended their design and faulted incorrect installation by construction contractors, saying they should have used a barge from the water side, which is a method that had been proven successful, but Romine says that’s not true.
“There’s one common thing that everybody’s saying — the engineer says it, CH2M Hill said it, MKB said it. When we built the project off of the land-based work platforms, which were the anticipated method of construction included in the contract documents, it didn’t work. Who is responsible? Everybody probably has an opinion, but there’s one thing that everybody agrees on, that that’s not the way to do that project at the Port of Anchorage,” Romine said.
The administration of Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan has led the push to get the Municipality reimbursed for its losses.
- Letter to Ernie Hall (PDF)