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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: 11 min 52 sec ago

Bill Could Slash Salaries For Alaska Ferry Workers

Wed, 2014-03-05 20:01

For nearly 40 years, ferry workers who are Alaska residents have gotten a cost-of-living adjustment, allowing them to be paid more than those who don’t live in the state. Now, a bill getting rid of that salary bonus is moving through the Legislature. And the way it’s advanced has raised hackles.

Because it stretches from the Aleutian Islands to Bellingham, Washington, the Alaska Marine Highway is one of the few arms of the state that employs outsiders. It’s also the only branch of state government that sets its minimum salary on Seattle’s cost of living, instead using Anchorage or Juneau as a base. The idea is that in-state workers should have a cost-of-living differential added on. That difference can end up being $10,000 or more.

A bill moving through the State Senate would strip that provision.

Bill sponsor Fred Dyson, an Eagle River Republican, says the legislation is not about the difference between Alaska workers and Washington workers — it’s about getting ferry workers in line with the rest of state government.

“My view is it brings more fairness and consistency into those contracts,” says Dyson.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, doesn’t agree. He’s got a few problems with it. For one, he sees it as an attack on Alaska hire.

“The effect of the bill is it gives everyone that works for the marine transportation system that lives in Alaska a pay cut and keeps the salary the same for those living in Seattle,” says Wielechowski.

Wielechowski is also unhappy with how the bill’s moving forward.

The bill comes as the marine transportation unions are negotiating their contracts for the next three years. If the bill passes before an agreement is reached, Alaskan workers could lose $8 million in wages, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Because the bill affects so many people’s paychecks, dozens of ferry workers came to testify before the State Affairs Committee last week. There was a nine-page list of names of people who called in to oppose the legislation. Only four got to speak before testimony was closed to the public.

Wielechowski says he’s never been a part of a committee where that’s happened.

“I think it makes the public cynical when we don’t even give them the right to have two minutes to tell us how they feel about a bill that’s in front of us,” says Wielechowski.

Dyson, who chairs the committee, says closing testimony was a matter of pragmatism. The committee has 30 other bills it’s assigned to hear before the session wraps up, and he says people had the opportunity to offer written testimony or call in if they were not heard.

“We got a lot of work to do, and I doubt if any new information has come out,” says Dyson. “So, we got to limit it somewhere.”

For their part, the ferry workers who showed up were disappointed that they didn’t get to speak, because they have an even bigger concern about process.

Ben Goldrich represents the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, and he says cost-of-living adjustments have traditionally been fodder for the bargaining table.

“It’s very strange to be up on the Hill talking about an issue that normally we would be dealing with in negotiations,” says Goldrich.

Goldrich worries that the Parnell administration is using the bill as leverage. The way the bill is written, it would go into effect immediately after being signed into law. That could put pressure on unions to accept a deal before that date to avoid losing the cost-of-living differential during the upcoming contract period.

“If somebody from the Department of Administration were to shop a bill on the Hill, that might constitute what we call an unfair labor practice,” says Goldrich.

The Department of Administration addressed the role compensation played in the Alaska Marine Highway budget during presentations to the Legislature this year. Dyson says that the administration also spoke with him about the cost-of-living differential.

Andy Mills, a special assistant in the Department of Administration, says that does not constitute an unfair labor practice. He says legislators are within their rights to bring labor bills forward, and that the leaders of both chambers have encouraged the Department of Administration to address the cost-of-living differential as a way of tightening the Marine Highway budget in a year where the state is looking at a $2 billion deficit.

“Collectively bargaining agreements is separate and apart from legislative changes to statute,” says Mills.

But Mills says yes, the legislation could affect the bargaining timeline.

“This probably adds pressure to get an agreement before a certain timeline, and we’re having those discussions at the negotiating table and hoping to reach a balanced and neutral agreements with the units,” says Mills.

Mills adds that if the bill passes and an agreement has not been reached, the Department of Administration would be more likely to negotiate for a wage freeze as opposed to an immediate salary cut.

The current union contract expires in June.

The bill was moved out of the State Affairs committee Tuesday, and it got a referral to the Finance Committee on Wednesday.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature Considers Changing Autopsies In Rural Alaska

Wed, 2014-03-05 18:20

When a person dies under suspicious or unusual circumstances, the state has an obligation to make sure that evidence is processed and that they can protect the victim and their family.

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In rural Alaska, that means sending the body to the medical examiners office in Anchorage. If the legislature acts on a bill, part of that examination could take place locally.

The state covers some of the costs, but family members often end up paying large sums to funeral homes to prepare the body and transport it. Bodies are sent to anchorage for autopsies. They often end up paying $500 so-called taxi fees to move the body between the Medical Examiner’s office and funeral homes. That’s added to the freight costs of shipping a casket back to a village. Bethel Representative Bob Herron is sponsoring legislation to make it easier on families when they have to navigate those choices in a time of grief.

“They’re making this decision under duress, because you want to start this grieving process right away. You wan to know why the family member died, and that takes time, but sometimes it’s needless. That’s what this is about, it’s about having a process that is fair,” said Herron.

Herron wants better explanation of the costs and options for taking care of a body so a family doesn’t end up paying for some service they don’t want. Testimony in Juneau from AVCP indicated that funeral homes were “holding bodies hostage” as families scrambled to find money for embalming or caskets.

“Reputable, or whatever you want to do, people in private business are holding a body until they get payment. It’s apparently a fact of life,” said Herron.

Another change would require the state to pay for embalming if required by regulation for transportation on air carriers. A next step would be finding a way to use the region’s telemedicine facilities to do autopsies or pre autopsies remotely.

“Where you can bring the body to Bethel, generally that’s what happens anyway, and they can put it in the morgue, and set up a time to visit with the medical examiner via teleconference. And the doctor or PA can take the camera and walk through it. After the first hearing, I’m real hopeful,” said Herron.

Herron is proposing a pilot project in the region, but there’s nothing in the bill to establish one. Another part of the bill would allow local officials to be able to issue death certificates in some cases instead of having it done in Anchorage. The house bill is currently in the Health and Social Services committee.

Categories: Alaska News

Mandatory 24-Hour Rest Playing Into Race Strategy

Wed, 2014-03-05 18:19

Nome Musher Aaron Burmeister has the Iditarod lead. He pulled into the remote checkpoint of Cripple at 3:25 this afternoon. Jeff King followed 40 minutes later. A number of mushers appear to be taking their 24 hour lay overs in Takotna, including Aliy Zirkle, Robert Sorlie and Dallas and Mitch Seavey.

A dozen mushers have scratched, many with bruised bodies and battered sleds from the rough and snowless trail into Nikolai.

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Iditarod teams are making their way across the Interior region where the trail is soft, smooth and covered in snow – a far cry from the rough and rocky trail that took many mushers out of the race earlier this week.

Four-time champion Martin Buser is one of only a few mushers to have completed his mandatory 24-hour rest. He blew through McGrath this morning on what he calls an unorthodox race plan.

“More bigger better faster!” Buser said. “No, I’m, just going to go out here and take a camp and just camp my way to Nome!”

Pete Kaiser. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

Buser’s energetic dogs trotted quickly out of the checkpoint after a quick stop for water.  They blew through Takotna where 26-year-old Pete Kaiser of Bethel decided to take his 24-hour rest.

“It was one of the plans I had.  I was set up t do it other places also, but I decided to do it here,” Kaiser said. “It was hard to pass up and I didn’t really see it as a benefit to this team to go any farther.”

Kaiser has run the race four times, but eight of Kaiser’s dogs are rookies to the Iditarod trail.

This is a young team this year that I am driving and they look pretty good now and I just figured let’s stop while the look good and just see how the rest of the race goes,” Kaiser said.

Most of the teams coming into Takotna are still large. Most mushers left the start line with 16 dogs. There’s currently only one team among the top-30 that is running fewer than 13 dogs.

Curt Perano, the Kiwi musher, says he’s surprised considering how rough the first 200 miles of trail were.

“I would have thought we would have had a lot of shoulders and wrists but the funny thing is even though we hate it, the dogs just love that sort of stuff,” Perano said. “They just love that windy fast trail I mean you can see they just dig in harder and you ask them to stop and they just want to keep going and their attitudes!”

With just over 300 miles behind them teams will still have to contend with the Interior, where temperatures are forecast to dip below zero tonight.  The Yukon River also lies ahead before teams reach the Bering Sea Coast.

Categories: Alaska News

UAA Panel Discussing Pros, Cons Of Pot Legalization

Wed, 2014-03-05 18:18

Tonight the University of Alaska Anchorage will feature a panel discussion on the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana. Last night we brought you the perspective of a legalization advocate and this evening we offer the opposing side. Dean Guaneli is a retired assistant attorney general for Alaska. Guaneli says there is confusion over the current law regulating marijuana here. He says because of the privacy clause in the state constitution, a 1976 decision by the Alaska Supreme court made it impossible for the state to enforce the law for small amounts in one’s home. But he says in 2006, the legislature clearly re-criminalized marijuana.

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Categories: Alaska News

Infusion Suite Opens At Ketchikan Hospital

Wed, 2014-03-05 18:17

Chemotherapy patients at PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center have a brand-new infusion suite for their treatments. The center opened last week with a special ceremony, and the first patients tried it out on last week.

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Cancer patients in Ketchikan were receiving chemotherapy treatment before the new suite opened, but the location and the space provided wasn’t ideal. Infusion therapy nurse Deb Davis said it was part of the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, “Which meant anything going on in the Intensive Care Unity, whatever was going on there, you were part of it, whether you liked it or not. It also was down at the far end, hard for some people to find, and to have to walk that far from the elevators.”

In contrast, the new infusion suite is 15 steps from the elevator; it’s a private space dedicated to chemotherapy patients. It has new chairs, plants, a coffee pot, and it’s bigger. Davis said the hospital now can treat four patients at the same time, rather than the previous maximum of three. There’s also a new consulting area.

“If a physician wanted to see a patient, have a conversation with a patient, there was no privacy to do that,” she said. “Now we have a separate space on one side that we can close off, and the physician can actually see that patient, talk to that patient, have whatever conversation they need or the exam they need in privacy, which they couldn’t do before. So that’s nice.”

Davis said the $200,000 needed to renovate the space into a chemotherapy infusion suite was raised through individual donations, some state funding and the annual Solestice shoe auction.

The project is not part of the city-owned hospital’s multi-million-dollar grand renovation, which will be paid for mostly through local voter-approved bonds and state funding.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was in town to attend the opening of the chemotherapy suite, and in a separate interview said she’s pleased with the investment Ketchikan is making in its hospital.

“I think it’s really credit to this community that given what you’re faced with from a budget perspective, that this community has made a commitment to say this is a public health service that we want to make sure is provided,” she said. “Not only the infusion center, but all that you’re doing with the hospital. I think it speaks volumes.”

Pre-construction work is starting on the first phase of the hospital’s larger renovation plan. That phase will cost an estimated $62 million, and will include an upgrade of the 50-year-old surgery suite, plus a larger clinic and additional parking.

(Maria Dudzak contributed to this report.)

Categories: Alaska News

Nome Business Owners Prepare For Iditarod Influx

Wed, 2014-03-05 18:16

Mushers are racing towards Nome. And so are the tourists. A small business owner is gearing up to capitalize on the influx.

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Some say Nome’s population doubles during Iditarod. Though that’s an exaggeration, for small business owner Erin Forton, it’s kind of true.

“I try to have about double the amount of supplies on hand,” Forton said. “I know that we go through about five pounds of espresso every two or three days, and last year during Iditarod, we went through five pounds of espresso beans every day.”

Forton owns Bering Tea Company, Nome’s only coffeehouse. The shop sells organic, fair-trade foods and Alaskan roasted coffee. It has become a favorite place for people who want to step out of the cold and grab a warm drink while waiting for mushers to cross the finish line.

But preparation begins long before the race even starts, all the way back in January. Forton began placing orders after the New Year for what she calls “tourist-type items:” things like t-shirts and mugs and other paraphernalia for people to take home.

When the town swells with Iditarod fans, Forton will fly in extra help, and offer extended hours.

“Last year was our first year that we were open through Iditarod, and we ended up staying here, open an awake until 3am, because we didn’t want to close when there were customers in,” Forton said.

Across Nome, the Iditarod rush brings a short-term revenue boost to small businesses. Forton says, for Bering Tea, she’s turning it into a long-term advantage.

“Most of the added revenue from this Iditarod is going to go towards making the building more efficient and more self-sufficient,” Forton said. “Things like better insulation and lower energy use lights. Things that will make it even cheaper to run.”

But the best part of Iditarod, Forton says, is the new faces and the stories they bring.

“I love meeting all the new people and hearing their stories. And sometimes they come up on a whim and sometimes it’s been their 25-year goal to see the finish of the Iditarod,” Forton said. “It’s really cool to see the differences that people have in stories and how they came here and why they came here.”

And this constant stream of people, Forton says, carries another upside. She can run the shop while the customers keep her up on the race details.

Categories: Alaska News

Trapper Creek Man Survives Snowmachine Crash Thanks to His Dog

Wed, 2014-03-05 18:16

Dogs are an integral part of many people’s lives in Alaska, and one Trapper Creek man has even more reason to be grateful to his four-legged companion after she kept him warm during a night injured and stranded in the cold, then found the help that resulted in his rescue.

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While it was neighbors, State Troopers, local EMS, and a LifeMed helicopter that made sure Otis Orth got safely to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, the hero of the day is his two-year-old Golden Retriever, Amber.  Without her, Orth, a resident of Trapper Creek, says he probably would not have survived his ordeal.

Amber with Trooper Lucas Hegg. Amber stayed with her owner, Otis Orth, 52, to keep him warm and led help to him on Monday. Photo courtesy Alaska State Troopers.

Orth was driving his snowmachine from his homestead near mile 17 of the Petersville Road on Sunday when he hit a hollow snow drift.  His machine bucked, throwing him nearly 50 feet away. The snowmachine then kept going for about forty yards, stopping in a thicket.  At first, Otis Orth says he could not move at all.

“I was laying on my left side with my left arm sticking out behind me, my right arm sticking out in front of me, and I couldn’t move,” he said.

Eventually, Orth was able to roll onto his back.  After awhile, he heard snowmachines.  Because he had sunken into the snow, however, Orth couldn’t be seen from the trail.  He says at that time he was nearly unable to speak to send his dog to try to find them.  Since it was Sunday afternoon, Orth says that most of the trail users over the weekend had left, meaning he was going to have to spend the night, unable to move, in the freezing conditions.

“My dog kinda just lay across my belly on my right side.  I just kept my mind occupied watching the stars and stuff,” Orth said.

On Monday morning, Otis Orth says he would occasionally hear snowmachines, and would try to send Amber to find them, but she refused to go more than about 40 yards from him.  In the early afternoon, Orth says he knew he was running out of chances, when he heard engines one more time.

“I heard a couple snowmachines coming.  They weren’t very far away, so I psyched Amber up ‘Go get ‘em, girl!  Go see who’s out there!’” Orth said.

This time, Amber ran all the way into the trail, and was noticed by Tom Taylor and his brother, who were out riding.  Taylor says that the dog approached and followed multiple times.  He says he didn’t want the dog to follow in case she lived in one of the nearby cabins.  Eventually, he says his brother prevailed on him to stop and check out what was going on, since Amber was obviously agitated.  They dismounted, but Amber was no longer coming toward them.  Instead, she was just sitting.  Tom and Maynard Taylor decided to take a closer look.

“Maybe half-way over there I started to see a black object on the snow. There’s no trees over there, this is open swamp,” Orth said. “It turns out it was [Orth's] knee. He had it pulled up toward his body…When I got closer, we saw it was a person.”

The Taylor brothers spoke to Orth, who said he was unable to move.  Maynard got back on his snowmachine and drove to the trailhead, where he called 911.  The Alaska State Troopers and Trapper Creek EMS responded.  In addition, Orth’s neighbors were notified and began bringing anything that might help him warm up, from heat pads to hair dryers.  The group stayed with him until a LifeMed helicopter arrived at about 4:00 pm.  He is being treated at Providence for his injuries as well as frostbite to his left foot.

Otis Orth says that he doesn’t think he could have made it another night.  During the phone interview in his hospital room, he thanked the pilot, Troopers, EMTs, neighbors, and snowmachiners that decided to stop.  Tom Taylor told Orth who he thinks is really responsible for his surviving the incident.

“I told him–I said, ‘I think your dog saved your life.’”

Categories: Alaska News

After Perfect Season, Kodiak Girls, Set Sight On Regions

Wed, 2014-03-05 18:15

The Kodiak High School girls basketball team wrapped up an undefeated regular season over the weekend. The Lady Bears are ranked number one among large schools in Alaska, and will be looking to advance to the state championship tournament with a good performance at regionals this weekend.

The last time Coach Amy Fogle wrapped up an undefeated season, her team, the Kodiak High School boys, went on to win the state championship in the year 2000.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: March 5, 2014

Wed, 2014-03-05 18:11

Individual news 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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Bill Would Eliminate Ferry Workers’ Cost Of Living Adjustment

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

For almost 40 years, ferry workers who are Alaska residents have gotten a cost-of-living adjustment, allowing them to be paid more than those who don’t live in the state. Now, a bill getting rid of that salary bonus is moving through the Legislature. And the way it’s advanced has raised a few hackles.

Legislature Considers Changing Autopsies In Rural Alaska

Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome

When a person dies under suspicious or unusual circumstances, the state has an obligation to make sure that evidence is processed and that they can protect the victim and their family.  In rural Alaska, that means sending the body to the medical examiner’s office in Anchorage.  If the legislature acts on a bill this year, part of that examination could take place locally.

Burmeister Leads Mushers Into Cripple

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

Nome Musher Aaron Burmeister has the Iditarod lead. He pulled into the remote checkpoint of Cripple at 3:25 this afternoon. Jeff King followed 40 minutes later. A number of mushers appear to be taking their 24 hour lay overs in Takotna, including Aliy Zirkle, Robert Sorlie and Dallas and Mitch Seavey.

UAA Panel Discussing Pros, Cons Of Pot Legalization

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Tonight the University of Alaska Anchorage will feature a panel discussion on the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana. Last night we brought you the perspective of a legalization advocate and this evening we offer the opposing side. Dean Guaneli is a retired assistant attorney general for Alaska. Guaneli says there is confusion over the current law regulating marijuana here. He says because of the privacy clause in the state constitution, a 1976 decision by the Alaska Supreme court made it impossible for the state to enforce the law for small amounts in one’s home. But he says in 2006, the legislature clearly re-criminalized marijuana.

Infusion Suite Opens At Ketchikan Hospital

Leila Kheiry, KRBD – Ketchikan

Chemotherapy patients at PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center have a brand-new infusion suite for their treatments. The center opened last week with a special ceremony, and the first patients tried it out on Tuesday.

Nome Business Owners Prepare For Iditarod Influx

Anna Rose MacArthur, KNOM – Nome

Mushers are racing towards Nome. And so are the tourists. A small business owner is gearing up to capitalize on the influx.

Trapper Creek Man Survives Snowmachine Crash Thanks to His Dog

Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna

Dogs are an integral part of many people’s lives in Alaska, and Otis Orth, from Trapper Creek man has even more reason to be grateful to his four-legged companion.

After Perfect Season, Kodiak Girls, Set Sight On Regions

Brianna Gibbs, KMXT – Kodiak

The Kodiak High School girls basketball team wrapped up an undefeated regular season over the weekend. The Lady Bears are ranked number one among large schools in Alaska, and will be looking to advance to the state championship tournament with a good performance at regionals this weekend.

The last time Coach Amy Fogle wrapped up an undefeated season, her team, the Kodiak High School boys, went on to win the state championship in the year 2000.

Categories: Alaska News

Fresh Snow Sends Drivers’ Slipping

Wed, 2014-03-05 14:27

Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

Several inches of fresh snow coat Anchorage roadways and that’s causing problems for drivers.

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Jennifer Castro is a spokesperson for the Anchorage Police Department. She says police have been responding to accidents since early this morning.

“A lot of the accidents started up around 5 a.m. this morning and as of 11:30 this morning we’ve responded to 71 accidents, five accidents with injuries and 29 vehicles in distress. Now there isn’t just one area that we’re seeing to be a really bad, bad area. These accidents are occurring all over Anchorage,” Castro said. ”The best advice that we offer to people is to just go slow and anticipate adding in some more time to get wherever you need to go.”

Forecasters expect snow to continue falling overnight with around six inches total accumulation.

Categories: Alaska News

Many Mushers Alter Race Plans After Rough Trail Into Nikolai

Wed, 2014-03-05 13:00

Hans Gatt. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

 

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s rough run through the Dalzell Gorge and into Nikolai, many Iditarod mushers have had to act fast to change their race plans.

It was a late night in McGrath as mushers trickled in to the eighth checkpoint on the trail. A bruised and battered Hans Gatt was in good spirits, but he says rough runs have affected his game plan.

“I’m a little bit behind, but we’ll see after the 24 what’s going,” he said.

Mushers must stop for 24 hours before they get off the Yukon River in Kaltag, roughly 630 miles into the race.  Many have a rough plan for where they will stop, but Gatt hadn’t yet decided by McGrath, 300 miles in.

Schwing: “Are you going to 24 in Takotna?”

Burmeister: “ I don’t know yet.”

Takotna is the next stop.  It can get busy as teams pile in for a long rest.  Some will stop up the line in Ophir.  That will be a new move for Paul Gebhardt, who says he is looking for a change of pace after 16 previous Iditarods.

“I’ve never done this before, so I thought I just try and push it a little bit farther up the trail,” he said.

Paul Gebhardt. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

Gebhardt wants to break his runs up differently. After Takotna, the run between Ophir and Cripple is one of the longest, so a well-rested team will likely fare better. He says where he takes his 24 hour rest really isn’t up to him.

“It doesn’t depend on if I get sleep between now and then or not. That doesn’t matter,” Gebhardt said. “It’s all about what the dog team looks like.”

But others are determined to follow their plans to a tee.

An energetic dog team literally dragged two-time champ Robert Sorlie through McGrath, their tails wagging as they flew by.

“I’m on schedule,” he said.

Mitch Seavey’s dogs weren’t nearly as boisterous, but they were certainly alert as he took off for parts beyond.

Schwing: “Have you had to adjust your plan at all?”

Seavey: “Nope.  Same as I wrote it down.”

The next stretch of trail through the Interior will provide a bit of a respite from the rough-going route as teams drop on to the Kuskokwim and cover some river miles into Takotna.

Categories: Alaska News

Snow in McGrath Offers Relief for Battered Iditarod Mushers

Wed, 2014-03-05 12:17

Jeff King waves to fans as he leaves Willow at the beginning of the 42nd Iditarod. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

The Iditarod trail continued to claim victims through Tuesday. Reports of everything from broken ankles to broken hands came filtering back from Rohn and Nikolai. 

It will take a combination of resilience and persistence for mushers to keep moving down the trail.

Before mushers ever left Willow, four-time champion Jeff King predicted more than a few teams would never make it past Nikolai.

“There will be some race ending circumstances for some of the teams early in the race,” he said.

Aliy Zirkle heads out of Willow at the start of the 2014 Iditarod. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

King was correct. Reports from Rohn include stories of a broken hand, a broken ankle, and numerous tales of broken and battered sleds.  But none of that has stopped Aliy Zirkle.

“It will take a little bit, it will take a broken limb for me to get out of this race, which I can’t, I won’t say won’t happen,” Zirkle said.

Her team seemed nearly unscathed as they passed quickly through McGrath.  In fact they really didn’t want to stop at all.  They pulled hard as Zirkle put her full weight on the sled brake.  They let her stay only long enough to sign out of the check point.

Sonny Lindner arrived first in McGrath, chased by a bright red helicopter.  He says the trail was smooth and soft compared to what teams battled earlier in the day.

“I like this trail better than yesterday’s,” Lindner said.

That’s because there is actually snow on the trail into McGrath. Lindner says it’s purely luck that kept his sled together and his body intact.

“Most of that trail, there was no control, you just had to try and hang on and not hit anything big,” he said.

But Lindner says communication with his team did break down a little bit.

Sonny Lindner. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

“Every time you say ‘easy,’ usually in fall training you do it in fall training to mean ‘slow down,’ but there ‘easy’ meant ‘hey the sled’s going to hit you at 80 miles an hour now, so you better get out of the way, so now they’ll hear it and want to take off,” Lindner said.

He says it will be another day or two before he knows what kind of effect a rough trail had on his team.

“We’ve got to look them over and see after running them over that stuff in the gorge and everything.  I’m sure some soreness is going to show up….right there,” Lindner said.

He points to his own right knee and laughs.  He admits his dogs are far more resilient than his 64-year-old body.

Even if they did make it past Nikolai, there are other mushers showing plenty of signs of wear and tear. Hans Gatt came into McGrath looking tired.  He stayed only long enough to drop his snow hook and run down the street for a drop bag.  Despite the jog, he’s in pain.  He hit his head somewhere along the trail and is now taking ibuprofen for a sore neck.

“It’s just stopping 16 dogs with my head, you know didn’t help,” Gatt said.

Aaron Burmeister also winced as he dropped his hook and tried to pound it into the snow with his foot.  He couldn’t hold his barking, jumping dogs by himself.

Aaron Burmeister. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

He reportedly has a torn ACL, so he can’t put his full weight on the brake. He didn’t say much as he blew through McGrath.

Schwing: “Are you feeling alright Aaron?”

Burmeister: “Oh, I’ll be alright.”

Burmeister took a few minutes to limp down his line of barking, jumping dogs and look them over before he eased himself back on the runners, grit his teeth and dropped down onto the Kuskokwim River.

Mushers are required to take a 24-hour rest somewhere along the trail before they get off the Yukon River in Kaltag. Many stop in Takotna, but a few might lay over early in McGrath depending on the state of their bodies and their equipment.  Still others may opt to stop in smaller, quieter checkpoints like Ophir and Cripple.

Categories: Alaska News

Sonny Lindner Takes Iditarod Lead

Wed, 2014-03-05 07:23

Sonny Lindner. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

Sonny Lindner took the lead in the 2014 Iditarod early Wednesday morning and was heading towards Cripple. He left Ophir almost two hours ahead of Aaron Burmeister. Lindner was racing with 16 dogs. Burmeister had 13 dogs.

Nicolas Petit was in third. Jeff King and Joar Leifseth Ulsom trailed Petit. All three were in Ophir at 6:00 a.m.

Martin Buser and Kelly Maixner were two mushers who had taken their required 24-hour break by Wednesday morning and were out of Nikolai.

Katherine Keith continued to lead the rookie field. She had reached Tokotna Wednesday morning.

Categories: Alaska News

Petit First Out of Taknota, Heads Iditarod Field

Tue, 2014-03-04 23:03

Nicolas Petit. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

Nicolas Petit took the Iditarod lead Tuesday evening when he was the first to dart out of Taknota about 8:35 p.m. He spent just a few minutes in Taknota and headed towards Ophir.

Petit was trailed by Aliy Zirkle, Aaron Burmeister and Robert Sorlie. All three had reached Taknota by about 9:30 p.m.

Last year’s winner Mitch Seavey and his son, Dallas, who won the year before, were running minutes apart and were out of McGrath. Dallas was in 5th place and Mitch was in 6th place.

Martin Buser, who had lead the field in the early going, was in Nikolai Tuesday night.
The mushers found unforgiving parts of the trail and by Tuesday night, 10 had scratched or withdrawn from the race.

Categories: Alaska News

Iditarod Leaders Leave Nikolai

Tue, 2014-03-04 18:40

Sonny Lindner. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

The Iditarod race leaders left the checkpoint of Nikolai around midday Tuesday. Sonny Lindner, Hugh Neff, Aliy Zirkle and Nicolas Petit pulled out of Nikolai within an hour of each other. But five mushers, including DeeDee Jonrowe and Jake Berkowitz scratched Tuesday, because of broken equipment that was damaged on the extremely rough trail out of Rainy Pass.

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Categories: Alaska News

Burned Bald Eagles Draw Federal Scrutiny In Adak

Tue, 2014-03-04 18:40

A burnt eagle spreads its wings. Photo courtesy Susie Silook, wife of Keith Hamilton.

It’s common practice to burn trash in the Aleutians, to keep landfills from overflowing. But it’s not that simple in Adak, where flaming waste has killed or injured at least ten bald eagles in the last few months. It’s now the subject of a federal investigation.

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It’s common practice to burn trash in the Aleutians to keep landfills from overflowing. But it’s not that simple in Adak, where flaming waste has killed or injured at least ten bald eagles in the last few months. Now it’s now the subject of a federal investigation.

Bald eagles are born to hunt — but they’re also excellent scavengers. If there’s food around that’s easy to get, eagles will go after it. And there’s no easier target for an eagle than the dump.

Keith Hamilton found that out first-hand when he started a job with Adak’s public works crew. Part of his job was to burn trash:

“I noticed right away in November when I started working there that there was birds being burnt and I found a few dead eagles out there, and I complained right away about it.”
When bald eagles get hurt or killed, Adak’s municipal employees are supposed to contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service right away.

That’s because bald eagles are protected under federal law. The penalties are steep — possible jail time, and fines of up to $250,000. If it’s an organization that’s at fault, the fine could go all the way up to a half a million dollars.

Hamilton says he asked his supervisor in Adak to report the eagles – but he also says those requests were brushed aside.

And that didn’t sit well with him.

“You know, animals have souls. If you would see those birds out there — limping around the fire, eating garbage with no feathers. And they couldn’t leave the fire pit, they were just trapped there. If anybody really looked at them, they would feel bad.”
When Hamilton came across three eagles at the dump in December – scorched, but alive — he didn’t bother calling his boss or the authorities. He called an Anchorage bird sanctuary.

“All I was trying to do in December was just quietly send off some birds to the hospital get treatment.”
But it didn’t stay quiet. The rescue attracted the attention of the Anchorage Daily News. And one of their reporters reached out to Adak’s city manager, Layton Lockett.

Lockett says that that phone call was the first he’d heard about bald eagles getting burned or killed at his town’s dump.

“Up until these series of events, we had never had a problem to my knowledge or to my employees’ knowledge as well.”

Lockett says Adak took steps to fix it. They quit burning trash for most of the winter and buried it instead. And the city started to build a $25,000 enclosure for the burn pit.

But it wasn’t quite done before public works employees decided to burn trash there again at the end of February. Hamilton was there, and he noticed eagles all around the edge of the fire.

“I had a bad feeling. They made me leave the dump. I came back the next day, looked around and I started spotting more eagles that were injured.”
At one point, Hamilton was stopped by an Adak police officer, who allegedly told Hamilton he’d be breaking federal law if he picked up a bald eagle – even if he was just trying to help it.

That’s not true, according to Ryan Noel. He’s a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“In fact, the Fish and Wildlife Service would encourage a person who finds an eagle that’s in distress to take careful measures to try and save it.”

But they can’t be sure that everything in Adak has happened by the books. Noel says that’s why the Fish and Wildlife sent an agent and a biologist to the island this week to investigate.

“We look to see if there was any intent to do any harm, and to determine if there was in fact. And then obviously would refer that information on to the US attorney’s office. And they would determine if there was any grounds for prosecution.”

While they’re in Adak, the Fish and Wildlife team will also be a resource to city officials, who are looking into safe options for keeping eagles out of the dump. With the right federal permits, Adak could use lights and sirens to try to spook the birds away.

For now, the city’s focused on the renovated burn pit at the dump. They’re going to ask the federal investigators to check and make sure it’s up to their standards.

And until then, Adak isn’t going to burn any more of its trash.

And as for Keith Hamilton – the city worker who started all this? It depends on who you ask: Hamilton says he was fired for his activities at the dump, while the city of Adak says he was just put on a temporary leave.

Either way, Hamilton’s not going back to his old job. And he feels he did the right thing:

“We have so many eagles over here. I think people just overlook them, thinking, ‘Oh, well. One dead eagle. We’ve got plenty more.’ But they were suffering. I would do it for any animal, or human.”
Even if that animal is a notorious scavenger.

Categories: Alaska News

Should Humpbacks Lose Endangered Status?

Tue, 2014-03-04 18:40

A humpback prepares to dive in lower Cook Inlet. The state wants to take the whales off the Endangered Species List. Photo by DeWaine Tollefsrud, Creative Commons.

State officials want the federal government to remove some protections for Southeast and Southcentral humpback whales. But a noted researcher says it’s too early to do that.

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Whalers killed so many humpbacks in the 19th and 20th centuries that many worried they might become extinct.

Harvests ended in the mid-1960s when an international treaty took effect. Then, populations began to grow as governments adopted protective policies.

“This is a success story. This is one species that no longer needs the protection of the endangered species act and we should celebrate that,” says Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the state’s Division of Wildlife Conservation.

He says humpbacks will stay safe, even if they lose the act’s protections.

“Even if you delisted the species, at the end of the day, they’d still be adequately protected under existing whaling agreements and existing Marine Mammal Protection Act regulations.”

He says humpbacks are numerous in waters from Cook Inlet to southern Southeast, the population the state wants delisted.

Read the state’s delisting petition.

They still die of disease and old age, when hit by ships or tangled in fishing gear. But he says rapid population growth, which the state estimates at 7 percent, means there are plenty to replace them.

University of Alaska marine biologist Jan Straley says it’s not that easy.

“Just to say you’re going to delist the central stock is almost a simplistic way of saying these whales are one big group. But really, when they come to Alaska, they aren’t.”

Learn more about humpback whales and how they’re tracked.

Straley says breaking up Alaska humpbacks into eastern or western populations does not reflect their full life cycle.

Most Southeast whales winter in Hawaiian waters, though some swim to Mexico. But when they return in the summer, they split up and head to specific parts of the coast.

As that cycle repeats, they develop hereditary differences.

“You could basically wipe out a whole genetic lineage of whales if something happened catastrophically. I’m not saying that’s going to happen, but it’s a risk of ignoring that part of the structure of the population,” she says.

She agrees humpback numbers have grown. But she says the most-frequently-used estimate is based on old research. So there’s no way of knowing for sure what’s happening now.

Read our report on increasing humpback-human interactions.

The petition to remove the whales from Endangered Species Act listings was submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service, also called NOAA Fisheries.

That agency has 90 days to decide whether it’s worth considering the petition. If it does, spokeswoman Julie Speegle says a full review will take about a year.

“We look at factors that may cause the population to have difficulty in the future, like ocean acidification, lack of food, that type of thing,” she says.

Studies suggest a more-acidic ocean could hurt krill, small shrimp-like organisms humpbacks eat.

If the petition is approved, this population will continue to be covered by the federal Marine Mammals Protection Act. That prohibits hunting, requires habitat protections and sets a safe distance for whale-watching tours.

So what more does the species act do?

NOAA Fisheries’ Jon Kurland says it reviews any federally-funded work that could affect the whales.

“We do consultations on things as simple as coastal construction projects, revamping a port or harbor, driving piles for a wharf to broader-scale activities like seismic exploration for oil and gas,” he says.

The Hawaii Fishermen’s Alliance, which works where whales spend the winter, filed its own humpback delisting petition last April. That’s going through the review process now.

NOAA Fisheries’ Speegle says it covers all North Pacific humpbacks, a larger population.

“The central North Pacific stock, which the state of Alaska is now petitioning us to designate as a distinct population segment, would be a subcategory of that. So we’ll have to look, do some checking internally here and see how these two petitions dovetail,” she says.

Alaska officials are looking at other marine mammals they think no longer need endangered species act listings.

Wildlife Conservation’s Doug Vincent-Lang says bowhead whales are a possibility. So is the western population of Steller sea lions.

“That population is currently listed as endangered. But there’s 75,000 to 80,000 of those animals now. And we think at least a downlisting to threatened may be appropriate at this time, if not a complete delisting,” he says.

Removing a marine mammal population from endangered species protections is not unheard of. NOAA Fisheries’ pulled eastern North Pacific gray whales off the list 20 years ago. And last year, it delisted eastern Steller sea lions, which live in Southeast.

Categories: Alaska News

Panel To Discuss Possibility Of Marijuana Legalization

Tue, 2014-03-04 18:40

As Alaskans weigh how to vote on a ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana, the University of Alaska Anchorage is holding a forum on Wednesday evening debating the issue. Tonight we bring you the perspective of one of those panelists. Lance Buchholtz is a retired Midwestern Sheriff who joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition or LEAP in 2013. He is also an ordained minister. He says the war on drugs isn’t working.

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Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Athlete Representing U.S. At Paralympic Winter Games

Tue, 2014-03-04 18:40

Juneau’s Joe Tompkins will represent the United States in the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Tompkins and Andrew Kurka of Palmer are among 26 athletes named to the U.S. Paralympic Alpine Ski Team.

Tompkins has had a successful World Cup career, but has never medaled in the Paralympics.

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Categories: Alaska News

Dust-up in U.S. House Hearing over Bypass Mail

Tue, 2014-03-04 18:31

Rep. Darrell Issa, standing, chats with Alaska Congressman Don Young and Sen. Mark Begich before the hearing.

Alaska’s Bypass Mail system took some punches in Congress today. The chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee, Darrell Issa, is renewing his attack on the postal system that delivers everything from lettuce to lumber in rural Alaska. Alaska’s congressional delegation told him, essentially, to butt out. But Issa, who represents part of southern California, has staged some high-profile fights in his committee, and he seemed to enjoy taking on Sen. Mark Begich, and Congressman Don Young.

Issa is working on a bill he claims will reduce what the Postal Service loses on Bypass Mail, which last year hit $76 million.

“The subsidy means that every six years the American rate payer is buying a Bridge to Nowhere,” he said.

Surely he knew those are fighting words to Young, who was champion of that Ketchikan project. But Young was plenty riled already. Young says Bypass Mail actually saves the Postal Service money — maybe $200 million, he claims — because shippers deliver goods in thousand-pound lots directly to the airlines.

“Bypass mail, people don’t understand it. What it is is the products we were going to ship Parcel Post don’t go through the Post Office,” Young said. “That means you don’t need to build more postal buildings! It means you don’t have to hire any more people!”

He says the Bypass Mail system is working fine, and he accused Issa of meddling.

“There’s a $15 billion debt at the Post office and you’re worried about $70 million? That woulda cost 200? I don’t quite understand that. That’s what you call picking up peanuts when you’ve got a forest fire in your backyard. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Young said.

Issa also wants to allow three more carriers on the mainline routes for Bypass mail, out of Anchorage and Fairbanks. Competition on those routes is limited by a 2002 preference then-Sen. Ted Stevens pushed through that gives most of the mail business to airlines that provide a certain level of passenger service. Issa claims Stevens told him at the time he was trying to use Bypass Mail to subsidize passenger carriers. Young, in a testy exchange with Issa, insisted it was about efficiency.

“And you can’t have efficiency if you don’t haul passengers,” Young said.

“Ok it’s all about passengers,” Issa countered.

“No, it’s about efficiency!” Young said. “If you can’t have passengers you’ll not have efficiency!”

Sen. Begich told the chairman the carrier restrictions are also about safety. Issa wasn’t buying it.

“Are you saying that these other three carriers aren’t safe to carry milk, or vegetables or cans of coke?” Issa asked.

“I’m saying safety is part of the equation,” said Begich.

“What level of safety do you need for a can of coke?” Issa  said.

Begich refused the bait.

“Mr. Chairman I’m not going to go back and forth with you. Maybe you want to. I’ve seen how some of these hearings work … . I’m not going to go back and forth with you over the same argument,” Begich said. He pressed Issa to consider a Senate postal reform bill that he says takes a comprehensive approach to solving the Postal Service’s financial problems, rather than picking on one program.

Young, in a written statement to the committee, suggested Issa has been carrying water for a friend in the airline business. One airline that has fought to participate in the Bypass Mail program is Alaska Central Express. ACE Air Cargo is owned by the Donald R. Swortwood Trust. Mr. Swortwood is based in LaJolla, California and is a frequent contributor to Issa and his leadership PAC. An executive from ACE testified today it would be cheaper if freight-only carriers were allowed to carry a larger share of the mail.

Alaska’s senior U.S. senator, Lisa Murkowski, wasn’t at the hearing, but in written testimony she said the Bypass Mail program helps other federal department save money. It allows the USDA, for example, to more cheaply send emergency food aid to the Bush. She also said the incentive for mail carriers to transport passengers has meant 40 fewer communities in the state qualify for funding under the Essential Air Service program, saving the U.S. government millions of dollars.

Categories: Alaska News

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