APRN Alaska News
The shout went up as a lineup of state and borough officials brandishing golden shovels and wearing hard hats posed for videos, as cameras snapped and kids from kindergarten to eighth grade cheered them on.
The excitement is part of any new school project, but what’s not typical about this groundbreaking for the new Fronteras Charter School in Wasilla, is the financial plan. The funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program, not from the state or Matanuska Susitna Borough.
Fronteras principal Jennifer Schmidt -Huchins greeted the children:
“I have to tell the kiddos what an outstanding job you are doing. Kindergarteners, it is your first day, and here you are standing in a gravel pit. Not unlike our current playground. .. (laughter). Good job!”
Attending the groundbreaking was their first-day-of-school assignment. Fronteras serves grades K through 8, and it’s success, and growth, prompted the plans for a new building. Currently, the 270 students are crammed into a church and into portables, and that arrangement is no longer working for the school.
Mat Su School District Superintendent Deena Paramo joined in with a Spanish language greeting.
“Estan listos? Uno mas, estamos listos? ” The crowd cheers. “Muy bien.”
Paramo says a collaboration by national, state and borough agencies made a new and permanent home for Fronteras possible:
“It was funded with public monies. Other places around the United States have built schools in this manner. It is a lot of work, as anyone know who has applied for a loan, especially with the federal government. But we are just excited, and it is a buen dia.”
Jim Nordlund, USDA Rural Development director says the new Fronteras building is the first publicly financed school in the state.
“And it is also the first charter school that our agency has funded in the state of Alaska. So we are very proud of this day.”
Representative Jim Clover says Fronteras has established the Mat-Su as the leader in charter schools. Colver was a Mat-Su Assemblyman when the plan to use a USDA loan to construct a new school was first put forward. The 12.1-acre site the school will be built on was donated by the Borough, which applied for the the $6.9 million loan for the school. Fronteras will be responsible for paying it back.
An August 2016, date has been set for the opening of the new Fronteras. As if on a deadline, backhoes and belly-dumps were at work moving earth, even as the groundbreaking ceremony was underway.
Two Kasilof men died when their plane clipped some trees and crashed just beyond the Cook Inlet bluff Saturday night.
Investigators are trying to discover the cause of a plane crash Saturday night in Kasilof that killed two local men.
Pilot Brian Nolan, age 69, and 57-year-old Peter Lahndt, both of Kasilof, died when Nolan’s Cessna 180 crashed into a stand of trees about 150 feet from Cohoe Loop Road, just inland from the bluff over Cook Inlet near the mouth of the Kasilof River. The plane immediately burst into flames. The crash was not survivable, according to an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
The plane went down around 8:11 p.m. Saturday at Mile 3.2 South Cohoe Loop Road, near Powder Keg Avenue. Dan Brown lives across the street and a little to the south of the crash site. He heard the plane throttle up, then crash a second or so later.
“Right after I heard him gun it I heard the impact on the ground,” he says. “And so I knew it had crashed. It was just really, really quick. In fact at that time I was on the telephone. I said, ‘A plane just crashed I gotta go.’”
Brown and two of his daughters jumped in his car and were at the crash site within about two minutes, where they could already see smoke rising from the trees.
“When I got there you could tell where the plane had clipped some spruce trees and where it had to have flipped over because it went into the round tail first from the direction is was coming from. So it hit trees, broke the tops of the trees off and then hit going backwards.”
The plane was already on fire and the heat was too intense for Brown to get up to the wreckage.
“I couldn’t get close enough to it. I felt real bad about it (that) I couldn’t get in there. I couldn’t hear anything from them, there was no noise from anybody in the plane. I went around both sides of it trying to get into it and I couldn’t, it was too hot.”
Within about 45 seconds the flames got even more intense.
“That fuel really got going and then the whole thing was engulfed in flames and you couldn’t be within about 20 feet of it.”
He made about a 50-foot circle around the plane, looking to see if anyone had been thrown from the wreckage. By that time the plane’s tires burst into flames, and Brown started hearing explosions.
Brown: “I’m pretty sure they had quite a bit of ammunition on board. It sounded like a war down there.”
He told his daughters to get back to the road while he made another wider loop around the plane, looking for survivors. As he did something hit him in the leg. It was smoldering and left a black mark, but didn’t penetrate the skin. Brown decided he’d better get back to the road, too.
Central Emergency Services and Alaska State Troopers from Soldotna responded to several reports of the downed plane and fire. Traffic on South Cohoe Loop was restricted until about 10:30 p.m. CES has the fire extinguished by about 8:50 p.m.
Brown said he didn’t think there was much danger of a wildfire taking off.
“The grass is all green green, so it didn’t grow from there. The only thing that burned from it was the spruce trees that we have here, you have the lower branches on the trees that are kind of dead and the upper ones are green. It went up the trees and burned all the dead branches off but it didn’t go beyond that.”
NTSB was contacted Saturday night and a team arrived on the scene around 1 a.m. Sunday. An investigator said Sunday that a witness reported the plane having a loss of engine power before it clipped some treetops and went down. Brown said he didn’t hear anything like that, just the whine of the engine throttling up and then the crash, but that’s not to say something mechanical didn’t happen.
Whatever the cause of the crash, Brown said he wishes there was something he could have done to save to the pilot and passenger.
“I was trying to think how could I have done any better and I don’t know how I could have done any better. The only way I would have even had a remote chance is to be standing right there with a fire extinguisher when it hit the ground, maybe. But there was too much fire to put out with a fire extinguisher, and I would have had to have gloves and something to rip into the plane. There was no way to open it up. It was all upside down, and too much fire.”
The crash is still under investigation.
Alaska and the future of Arctic policy are seeing increased international attention as the U.S. holds the chairmanship for the Arctic Council and foreign ministers prepare to meet in Anchorage later this month—joined by President Obama, who’s planning a visit to Kotzebue and Dillingham.
Bethel has seen international leaders on hand last week as the Inuit Circumpolar Council executive council met to plan their next few years of work. Jim Stotts of Barrow is President of ICC-Alaska. He says the indigenous perspective needs to be heard at the high level meetings.
“I don’t think anything can really happen in the arctic without the involvement of the Inuit, the people who are living particularly along the coast, on the arctic coast of North America. We’re the ones who have lived here the longest, who know the most about it. If we’re not included in discussions about the arctic, they’re incomplete discussion as far as I’m concerned,” said Stotts.
The ICC represents indigenous people from Arctic nations. They consult with the United Nations and are a permanent participant to the Arctic Council.
ICC’s goals aim well beyond the president’s visit, with summits on economic development, wildlife management, and education planned for the next few years. Officials say they want to strengthen the ICC’s role within the international sphere.
ICC Chair Okalik Eegeesiak from Nunavut, Canada says another priority that doesn’t see as much publicity is mental health in the Arctic. While there are many efforts going to suicide prevention, she says it’s not enough.
“..but there is no work about post-suicide, and the families that are left behind, and the support system they need. So we want to build those resources up at the community level,” said Eegeesiak.
Vice Chair Hjalmar Dahl is ICC president for Greenland. He emphasized that indigenous leaders need to reach out to all generations across the north and connect them with those that have common goals and interests.
“We are not isolated. We are part of the global community. It’s important for us also to get the youth to gain the knowledge of our work in that area. And that the youth be interested also,” said Dahl.
The executive council took a trip to the nearby village of Oscarville to see a pilot project for coordinated and collaborative community development.
Yupiit Nation tribal members at an event Friday made a last second push for advancing sovereignty in Alaska. A few dozen people at a Yupiit Nation event in Bethel sent a late Friday afternoon letter to Governor Walker asking him to stop the state’s fight against putting lands into trust.
A brief is due in court Monday. Mike Williams of Akiak is the Yupiit Nation chief.
“We are urging, imploring that the Governor drop the appeal on this litigation,” said Williams.
Williams calls Yupiit Nation a consortium of federally recognized tribes. Formed in 1978 with 19 tribes, there were people from eight signed in Friday at the ONC meeting hall. The core of the group, however, is centered in Akiak, Akiachak, Tuluksak, and Kwethluk.
While tribes could see clarity on trust lands, the next steps for tribal governance are elusive after the Calista-led process lost steam and ran out of money. Calista leaders say that the matter is now in the hands of tribes. Their attorney, however, participated Friday. Williams wants to keep momentum.
“We’re making progress towards fixing our lives and savings our lands and ourselves. Nobody is going to save us. The state of Alaska isn’t going to save us. Federal government is going to save us. We are the ones that are going to save us,” said Williams.
At the Calista-led March convention that never reached a quorum, leaders asked tribes to consider resolutions supporting a new regional tribal government or strengthening the Association of Village Council Presidents. Long past the deadline, Calista has heard from just nine tribes, including three that oppose any new changes. With some overlap, six wanted a new tribal government and two wanted to change AVCP. Opponents worry that a new government undermines existing tribes.
Ivan M. Ivan of Akiak urged reaching out and bringing more people up to speed.
“Any questions they have could be answered in this process. However slow it is? Just keep moving forward,” said Ivan.
After a long discussion, Yupiit Nation members wanted to maintain efforts to advance a tribal government structure and to push the issue at this fall’s AVCP convention.
The commercial fishing season in Kotzebue came to a close Friday, and while both the chum salmon run and the payout to fishermen pales in comparison to the gargantuan success of last year, the fishermen at Alaska’s northernmost salmon fishery still have plenty of reason to smile.
“Right now we’re a little over 300,000 harvested, and this was the third best harvest in over 25 years in the Kotzebue fishery,” said Alaska Department of the Fish and Game biologist Jim Menard, fresh from a visit to Kotzebue this week. He was checking in on the small commercial fishery just 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle, saying the payout to fishermen this year would surpass $800,000 by the close of Friday.
Menard said it’s a huge but expected drop-off compared to last year’s harvest of more than 600,000 fish that brought in a nearly $2.9 million combined payout.
“Last year was a once in a generation thing, it was either the greatest all-time run or the second greatest all-time run,” Menard recalled. “It just kept coming and coming. The strength of that run was amazing.”
But last year wasn’t memorable simply due to the fish. “You had three buyers [in Kotzebue], buying as much as they could. It was just an incredible season.”
By comparison, this season Kotzebue has had just one buyer, Copper River Seafoods, and on Friday, Aug. 21, the seafood company’s buyers on the ground announced Friday would be the last day they’re buying fish, ten days before the official closure of Aug. 31.
A single buyer has meant less capacity to buy fish, even though more permits were fished this year than last. The buying bottleneck got to the point where Copper River put fishermen on 1,500-pound limits, and even refused to buy for several days at a time. (Those limits, enforced per permit, also contributed to the high number of permits fished, as idle permits were dusted off for a chance to delivery an additional 1,500 pounds to market.)
In the end, only 29 days were actually fished between the start of the season on July 12 and Friday.
Still, Menard said this year’s run ranks within the top ten for the Kotzebue fishery’s 54-year history. The $800,000 payout is strong, too, even in the face of falling salmon prices.
“Definitely throughout the state it was a big drop in price all over for the value of salmon. The price started out this year at 37 cents per pound and later dropped to 27 cents a pound.”
Despite Copper River Seafoods closing up shop Friday, there may be one final pulse of sales for Kotzebue fishermen: regional nonprofit Maniilaq may buy some salmon before the season formally comes to a close on the last day of August.
Every summer, Homer and the surrounding area are inundated by a transient population that’s come to work for eco-friendly businesses. They’re called WWOOFers, and they spend weeks in different places around the world learning how to live sustainably.
Across Kachemak Bay from Homer, in the small community of Little Tutka, Emma Bauer is setting up kayaks on a beach.
“Today we have a bigger group of guests,” says Bauer. “I think they’re all a big family but it’s seven people. Like the other day we just had a tour of two people. So sometimes the guides and the volunteers outnumber the guests but today we have to take out the majority of our kayaks. So it takes us a little bit longer to get everything ready.”
She’s a college student from Huntington, West Virginia who has spent the last several weeks working for an eco-friendly lodge and tour company as an all-purpose helper. She assists with kayak tours around the bay, washes dishes, collects seaweed for organic soup, and turns down bedding when guests leave. She’s not paid, but in exchange, she gets to stay in a cabin with an ocean view, nestled in a scenic coastal forest, and do things she otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do.
“I had not traveled much before so this is my first big adventure,” says Bauer. “I had never flown commercially so that was a big thing. So this whole trip was a bunch of firsts for me.”
She’s part of the WWOOF program, which stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Emma is one of the non-traditional WWOOFers doing something aside from farming.
“I thought it would be really neat to learn about sustainable living,” says Bauer. “I’d like to do another WWOOFing experience where I’m farming because here it’s a little different where I’m doing the kayak tours with them but I’m still learning a lot about the environment and things that go on here.”
Most of the WWOOFers here are like Noel Krasomil. He’s been working at Synergy Gardens on the Homer side of the bay. Today, he’s helping out at the farmer’s market booth.
“Today we are selling our wonderful garlic, first of the season harvest braids,” says Krasomil. “We have scapes. We had tomatoes- they’re about out, cucumbers, flowers, everything. Really great stuff all around.”
He says he’s wanted to learn how to farm organically his whole life. For the past three weeks, he’s seen the inner workings of an independent growing operation from every side.
“Oh it’s different every day,” says Krasomil. “It all depends on the needs of the farm. Some days I’ll harvest kale and arugula. I’ll harvest garlic, hang it to dry. I’ll run around town getting beer waste for the compost. I’ll go grab manure. I’ll dig ponds…any number of things, whatever they need me to do.”
“You know, a lot of people think WWOOFers just weed but it’s just way more,” says Lori Jenkins, owner of Synergy Gardens and Noel’s host. “Each person’s going to have different strengths and different weaknesses. So I ask them every day, what do you want to learn today? And then I have my goals of what I need to achieve, as far as whether we’re replanting, what needs irrigating, what needs harvesting, what needs weeding.”
She says she likes to have WWOOFers in residence for at least two weeks, so they get the rhythm of day-to-day operations. That may sound like a very short time, but quick turnover is one of the ideas behind WWOOFing.
It was started in the 1970s by an English secretary named Sue Coppard who lived and worked in London. She wanted to spend more time in the country without leaving her job, so she coordinated with a farm in Sussex to let her come out for the weekend. Thus began Working Weekends on Organic Farms, its first title.
Since the seventies, it’s spread to more than 50 countries, from Ghana to Poland, New Zealand and Bangladesh. In 2010, the most recent year with WWOOFing stats, nearly 12,000 host organizations filled more than 80,000 positions. Many of the WWOOFers jump from farm to farm every few weeks to spend an entire year traveling and working.
Jenkins says having new people in the house every few weeks has taken some adjustment.
“I’m getting used to communal living. And that’s been a shift. I share my bathroom,” says Jenkins.
It’s also not free. She says she’s done the math and it costs her about $500 per month to house, feed, and provide water for her WWOOFers.
Despite the cost, Jenkins says it’s worth it.
“So here, I have an educated college grad, coming to my place, and then they’re often world traveled. It’s not for everybody. But, with the attitude of give and take, I think it’s awesome,” says Jenkins.
It’s like-minded people coming together for a common cause and mutual benefit. And Jenkins asks, really, what’s better than that?
359 years for man convicted of double-homicide, sexual assault of a 2-year-old
A man has been sentenced to 359 years in jail for the beating deaths of an elderly couple and the sexual assault of a 2-year-old child in Anchorage.
Potentially exonerating info leaked in Fairbanks Four case
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Statements undermining murder convictions of the so called “Fairbanks Four” were briefly published in an on line Fairbanks Daily Newsminer article. The web story, which was quickly taken down by the paper today, shares leaked court documents outlining long sealed statements about the 1997 murder of John Hartman.
A year after Roxanne Smart was killed, Chevak still waits for justice
Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel
The community of Chevak, in Southwest Alaska, has been breathing a collective sigh of relief after the arrest of a man in July for the murder of Roxanne Smart.
Search teams race to find 3rd victim before storm sets in
Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka
Search teams in Sitka are racing the clock Friday afternoon, as they work to find the third victim of Tuesday’s landslide before a new storm arrives tonight.
Murkowski hears testimony on the state’s growing prison population
Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage
Alaska has already outgrown the $250-million Goose Creek Correctional Center that opened in 2012. People testifying during a field hearing in Anchorage for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Thursday said it’d be smarter to put some of the money that goes into building and maintaining prisons toward keeping people out of them.
DNR vets competing water applications in Chuitna coal proposal
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
The state Department of Natural Resources held a public hearing in Anchorage today [Friday] to get additional comments on pending applications for water rights to a tributary of the Chuitna River.
AK: Saving a life by leaving it behind
Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau
It’s been a year since Juneau resident Jennifer Fletcher started to publicly present herself as a woman, less than two years since she first started to shed her male identity and rebuild herself as female. But the inner journey to get to that point started long before then.
49 Voices: Gary Hanchett of Bettles
Monica Gokey, KSKA – Anchorage
Gary Hanchett is a do-everything kind of Alaskan — he is the vice mayor of Bettles, the backup postmaster, election chair, tour guide and trapper. He tells us about some of the more notorious residents of Bettles — the mosquitoes.
Statements undermining murder convictions of the so called “Fairbanks Four” were briefly published in an on line Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article. The web story, which was quickly taken down by the paper today, shares leaked court documents outlining long sealed statements about the 1997 murder of John Hartman.
The statements about the Hartman case were made by Jason Wallace to public defender’s office staff in 2003, when he was facing trial for an unrelated killing. According to what’s in the Newsminer article, Wallace said he and two high school friends randomly attacked 15-year-old John Hartman on a downtown street in October 1997. It corroborates in some details a 2011 confession to the killing by another jailed murderer and former friend, William Holmes. Wallace and Holmes blame the actual beating on the other, saying a group of friends, not the Fairbanks Four, attacked Hartman. Wallace’s attorney, Jason Gazewood was not available to comment.
Three of the four men convicted of the Hartman murder remain jailed: George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent. The fourth, Marvin Roberts, got out on parole earlier this summer.
It’s unclear how the News-Miner got the court documents containing Wallace’s statements about the killing, and why the paper pulled the story. News-Miner editor Rod Boyce did not reply to a request for comment Friday morning. Fairbanks Four advocate April Monroe Frick says she’s disappointed the story was pulled, and posted a copy of it to her blog: “Free the Fairbanks Four.”
“I think this is is an obvious puzzle piece. It’s been apparent from kind of the veiled references for a long time that there were statements by Jason Wallace made to public officials, sworn to be agents of justice, that have been kept secret for a long time. What we now know are the details, which largely corroborate the confession of Holmes.”
Monroe Frick says the release is not likely to affect what happens in actual court. Wallace has appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court to block use of his statements by Fairbanks Four attorneys, as part of their request for post-conviction relief. An evidentiary hearing in the broader case is scheduled for October.
Search teams in Sitka are racing the clock Friday afternoon, as they work to find the third victim of Tuesday’s landslide before a new storm arrives tonight. The National Weather Service is forecasting heavy rain and wind in Sitka this weekend. Officials say the weather will make it unsafe for work crews, as more rain could cause more slides.
Meanwhile, officials today released the names of the two landslide victims whose bodies were recovered on Wednesday and Thursday. They were identified as brothers Elmer and Ulises Diaz, who were working on the house on Kramer Avenue that was destroyed in Tuesday’s landslide.
Teams are still searching for the third missing man, William Stortz, Sitka’s building official.
Deputy Fire Chief Al Stevens, who is running the recovery work, says recovery teams have “a very small window” in which to finish their work, “and it’s rapidly closing.”
“My full intention as the incident commander, is I intend to pull all crews out at approximately 8 o clock tonight. If the rains come sooner, I’m going to pull them out sooner…we’re gonna pull all equipment, all crews out, obviously for safety reasons.”
Stevens says he expects to halt all work through the weekend, until his team can reassess weather conditions.
Trained dogs working with the Juneau-based search team SEADOGS had called attention to a site on Thursday where officials hoped to find William Stortz. But Stevens says that as of this afternoon, dogs had also indicated several other sites, and crews are working at all of them. He says it isn’t easy going:
“As you can imagine, this is a rather deep, with mud, water, logs. And you don’t just come in and scoop a big chunk out and call it good. You have to methodically and meticulously pull one piece out at a time, and we have spotters in there that have to look at what’s happening, and and this is why it’s taking so long.”
The National Weather Service is predicting up to three inches of rain in the next 36 to 48 hours. But, that’s still significantly less intense than the storm on Tuesday, which is estimated to have dropped more than two and a half inches in just six hours at sea level. Much more rain likely fell higher up the mountain where the slide started.
A memorial fund established for the Diaz family has raised over $14,000 by Friday evening.
Alaska has already outgrown the $250-million Goose Creek Correctional Center that opened in 2012. Instead of pouring more money into building and maintaining prisons, people testifying in a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs field hearing in Anchorage on Thursday said it’d be smarter to turn some of the money toward keeping people out of prison.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski chaired the field hearing on “Strengthening Alaska Native Families: Examining Recidivism, Reentry, and Tribal Courts in Alaska,” and heard a range of solutions from the five people invited to testify. First, she shared some information from a report.
“In the Lower 48 back in 2009 for the first time in 38 years it said, 26 states successfully reduced their prison populations but Alaska was not one of those,” said Murkowski. “Alaska was not one that is seeing the rates going down. In marked contrast Alaska has the 11th fastest prison population growth in the entire country.
Murkowski shared another statistic she finds troubling.
“Alaska Natives make up 15 percent of our state’s population, 15 to 17 percent but they constitute about 36 percent of all prisoners in custody,” said Murkowski.
Natasha Singh is General Counsel for the Interior Alaska regional nonprofit Tanana Chiefs Conference. She said Alaska’s law enforcement and judicial system isn’t working.
“The status quo in our villages is unacceptable in any civilized country. It’s unacceptable in America, and in Alaska,” said Singh.
Greg Razo, who serves on the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission and the boards of Alaska Legal Services and the Alaska Native Justice Center agrees, saying “We have seen where a centralized justice system is simply unable to meet the needs of the widespread populations and to understand cultures and the history and the spirit of the people that live in rural Alaska.”
Singh said tribal courts are required to protect constitutional and civil rights, work well, and need to be expanded.
“Today we ask you add to the tools Alaska tribal governments need to strengthen our families, and to address the root causes of substance abuse,” said Singh. “What is needed is federal legislation which recognizes the authority of our tribal governments to deal in the first instance with issues of local domestic violence, sexual assault, and substance abuse.”
Sen. Majority Leader John Coghill, of Fairbanks endorsed tribal courts.
“In the process of time, the Native groups and the tribal groups have begun what I call a pretty decent justice system that I would say is maturing,” said Coghill. “The state has had some struggles how to work with them legally technically,” he added.
Coghill has sponsored two legislative remedies. Senate bill 117 would divert people facing misdemeanor criminal charges to tribal courts.
“They can use restorative justice ways that the state just has a hard time getting to. And I think that’s gonna at the front end keep people from coming into prison,” said Coghill. “While Senate bill 91 will work with ways to reentry, reenter them into society in a better way. But it’s true that a disproportionate of people in our incarceration facilities are not only Native but they’re behavioral health issues and those things just have to be addressed.”
Jeff Jessee, the head of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, said 60% of the prison population has mental and behavioral health issues. As for people relapsing into crime after they leave prison, Jessee said the solutions involve more than the departments of public safety and law.
“You know who are the agencies that really have a huge impact on keeping them out when they leave? It’s Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, it’s the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, it’s the Department of Health and Social Services. It’s our tribal partners,” said Jessee. “Because what we know is that to keep people productive in the community, they need housing, employment and support for recovery.”
The head of the Alaska Native Justice Center, Denise Morris, said the public also has a part to play.
“Another key component that we do at the Alaska Native Justice Center in partnership with a lot of people, we don’t do this alone, is educating the public of the value of giving people a second chance,” said Morris.
Murkowski told the audience of about 30 people the public record for the hearing will remain open for a few weeks if anyone wishes to submit written testimony.
The state Department of Natural Resources held a public hearing in Anchorage on Friday to get additional comments on pending applications for water rights to a tributary of the Chuitna River.
The Chuitna watershed, on the west side of Cook Inlet, has become the focus of a dispute over the use of the water in Middle Creek. The small creek is a salmon stream, and the Chuitna Citizens Coalition has filed for water rights there.
But Pac Rim Coal has plans to use that water in its proposed mining operation in the area, and the company’s water reservation application is pending.
The dispute has been percolating since 2009, when the Citizens Coalition first filed for the water rights, saying the salmon stream must be protected. DNR did not take action on the application. The Coalition sued, and in 2013, a state Superior Court judge ruled that DNR’s refusal to process the application amounted to an unreasonable delay and it violated the coalition’s constitutional right to due process.
Now DNR is under the gun to make a decision on the competing water rights applications.
Friday’s hearing brought together representatives from both conservation and development organizations. DNR’s Brent Goodrum, director of the division of mining, land and water, says the department must consider eight criteria in making the decision, among them economic and environmental factors.
“That’s the crux of the issue here.
DNR must make a decision by October 6.
A man has been sentenced to 359 years in jail for the beating deaths of an elderly couple and the sexual assault of a 2-year-old child.
KTUU reports Jerry Active claimed during Friday’s sentencing that he is innocent and didn’t receive a fair trial.
He was found guilty in April of 10 felony charges, including two counts of first-degree murder and multiple counts of sexual assault.
Active was 24 when accused of the May 25, 2013, beating deaths of 73-year-old Sorn Sreap and her 71-year-old husband, Touch Chea.
Active was also accused of sexually assaulting Sreap, her 2-year-old family member and her 91-year-old mother.
The Associated Press normally doesn’t identify victims of sexual assault, but Sreap’s family appeared in local news media to talk about the case.
British Columbia officials travel to Southeast Alaska next week to discuss concerns about transboundary mines.
B.C. Minister of Mines Bill Bennett and Deputy Minister of the Environment Wes Shoemaker will lead the seven-person delegation. They’ll spend four days in Juneau and Ketchikan.
Meetings with state officials are being led by Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, who chairs the state’s transboundary mine working group. B.C. officials will also meet with tribal, industry, legislative and conservation leaders.
Mine critics are gearing up for the chance to confront Bennett and others about regulations and permits they consider lax.
Heather Hardcastle of Salmon Beyond Borders says the mines could pollute rivers that flow into Alaska and threaten valuable fisheries.
“I do think this issue of upstream development means that we’re taking on the risks and receiving no benefits. It’s uniting all of us on this side to come up with a better relationship with Canada.”
British Columbia officials will also meet with the Southeast Conference, a regional development group, and the Alaska Miners Association.
Association Executive Director Deantha Crockett says she understands critics’ concerns. But she says B.C. mines could be good for Alaskans.
“There’s a lot of contracting that happens with a mining project, a lot of associated trickle-down jobs that happen with the mining projects that we could very well have a part in.”
The itinerary also includes the Greens Creek Mine, near Juneau, which stores waste rock dry, rather than under water behind a dam. Some officials will also travel up the transboundary Taku River to B.C. and Alaska fisheries field camps.
Environmentalists also plan a rally on the Capitol steps at noon Wednesday to share concerns from around the region. The group Inside Passage Waterkeeper collected hundreds of rubber boots to present to the governor as part of its campaign.
The community of Chevak in Southwest Alaska has been breathing a collective sigh of relief after the arrest of a man in July for the murder of Roxanne Smart. The 19-year-old was found stabbed to death in the middle of town last August. But it was a tough year for the tight-knit Cup’ik community as they waited for law enforcement to make an arrest.
Smart’s friend Kerri Tall stands by a memorial beside the old Chevak health clinic where her friend was found.
“At night, it’s not that busy, at night it’s a different story,” said Tall.
Tall explains there’s a midnight curfew for 4-wheelers, the main form of transportation here, so there would have been fewer people around when Roxanne Smart was killed in the middle of the night.
A wooden cross bearing her name leans up against the building supports along with a black and brown stuffed animal puppy, a coffee mug covered in forget-me-nots, and personal notes weighted down with rocks.
Tall says Smart was a quiet woman who loved her new baby and had a soft spot for dogs. And Tall says she can’t think of why anyone would want to hurt her.
She was really shy, quiet. She always had a puppy to play with and she didn’t deserve any of what she received,” said Tall.
What led up to Smart’s murder isn’t clear, but court documents say she was found naked from the waist down and stabbed multiple times in the neck and chest. Alaska State Troopers reportedly arrived soon after and took DNA samples from several suspects.
“To me it was hard on me, I mean she’s my age. I felt like he was out there and I was scared,” said Tall.
Tall didn’t want to sit idle and started a facebook page to keep attention on Smart’s case before it went cold. She and two other women from Chevak kept the page updated with images of their friend, calling it ‘Justice for Roxanne Smart’.
The town had to live for nearly a year with a killer among them while they waited for the lab samples to come back.
Lieutenant Christopher Thompson, the deputy commander of the Alaska Bureau of Investigation who oversees all major crimes investigations, didn’t want to go on tape for this story, but he says investigators went to Chevak three times between August 2014 and July 2015 and identified several people of interest in the case. He says a rape kit was administered. No arrests were made during that time.
Tall walks past the bustling corporation store to her Auntie’s house which is kitty corner to the old health clinic where Smart’s body was found. Her Auntie, Etta Tall, says Roxanne was a regular at her ‘teen nights’ where she did positive activities with young people.
“She was with my youth group in the beginning. She did the fry bread power day, we had fry bread power day, and she was so happy. If I would ever do a program, she would always want to be there to help out. She was that kind of a person,” said Tall.
On July 23rd investigators returned to Chevak to interview Samuel Atchak, one of the original people of interest. Investigators say the 19-year-old admitted to placing Smart in a “choke hold” that night with his arms until she blacked out and to raping her. But he denied stabbing or killing Smart. The next day, while he was being arrested and charged for assault and sexual assault, an affidavit says Atchak admitted to stabbing and murdering Smart that night. Tall says that changed the dynamic in Chevak.
“I think it’s like a relief and a release. When I first heard about it, it was very thick here, the atmosphere was different. But now I come back I can feel like a relief here in Chevak,” said Tall.
Larry Barker is the superintendent of the Kashunamiut school district in Chevak.
“My biggest question is why it took 11 months for the DNA testing to take place,” said Barker.
He says everyone in the village wonders what took so long.
“Because it did leave the village with concerns and lots of questions. You know, no arrests were taking place and the whole village was wondering what was going on and you know, probably a little scared,” said Barker.
Troopers says it took 11 months to charge the suspect because they were waiting on DNA samples that were first sent to the state crime lab and then to another out-of-state lab, for further analysis.
Senator Berta Gardner has called for an audit of Alaska’s crime lab, citing a huge backlog, specifically of rape kits.
Lieutenant Thompson, with the Troopers, says the last lab report came back June 25th, which gave investigators enough evidence to confront the Atchak in July. Troopers say more details will come out in court.
Atchak was arraigned in Bethel Superior Court August 4th. He pleaded not guilty. His case will be back in court in October.
At a site near the Southwest Alaska village of Quinhagak archeologists are racing against time to uncover Yup’ik artifacts before the effects of climate change cause them to erode into the sea. The old village continues to reveal artifacts that give a glimpse into the daily lives of Yup’ik people hundreds of years ago.
The crowning artifact found this season, says Rick Knecht, the lead archeologist and a professor from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, is a mask — half human, half walrus — in nearly perfect condition. It’s wrapped in several layers of plastic as Knecht keeps the mask damp and cool in a refrigerator at base camp.
“It’s got amazingly lifelike contours with the cheek bones, and the nose, and the forehead and so on. Beautifully carved out of wood, and as you can see it’s got two little conical tusks that represent that transformation into a walrus. And these are in fact made out of walrus ivory. It’s got a little beard here, and half of it are human hairs and then on the other half are sea mammal hairs, maybe walrus whiskers,” said Knecht.
Knecht says the mask could have been a used by a Shaman. He unearthed it, about five miles outside Quinhagak, on the edge of the Bering Sea, where archeologists have spent the six field seasons scraping dirt from the remains of a 500-year old Alaska Native sod house. Today’s discovery of a wooden bowl gives another clue about how Yup’ik people lived.
“On the bottom of the bentwood bowl is an ownership mark left by the person who carved that and these ownership marks were inherited between families. We have about six or seven ownership marks we see consistently throughout this site, which we believe was a very large sod house divided up into compartments which were domestic spaces for women and children,” said Knecht.
His team has found tens of thousands of household items, jewelry and weapons, among other things. The dig is composed of what’s left of an entire village at the site of the ancient community of Arolik.
The objects look much younger than the centuries they’ve endured. That’s because they’ve been encased in permafrost. Wood and leather items can survive for hundreds of years. The oldest objects date as far back as seven hundred years.
Unseasonably warm temperatures at the dig site– nearly 80 degrees- create another set of variables for the crew to deal with. Conditions that Knecht say are driving the crew to work as fast as possible before more washes away.
In the early 1600s, right around the time that Shakespeare was publishing plays and poems in England, Knecht says, these people were crafting art too: carving intricate ivory jewelry and weaving baskets. Then, in the middle of the 17thCentury, says Knecht, their communal, sod house was attacked and burned.
Carlotta Hillerdal is a co-investigator with Knecht on the project. Back at the dig, she points to a burnt orange streak running along the dark soil of the dig’s dirt wall.
“This site was abandoned around 1640. So that’s where we have the kind of orange and black soil that you see in the wall over there that we dug. That’s the roof of the last phase of the structure that stood here that was burnt down and abandoned,” said Hillerdal.
The evidence at the site corresponds with local Yup’ik lore about the ‘bow and arrow wars,’ a time of fighting between tribes during an earlier climate change that strained resources.
Those are stories that Yup’ik elder Annie Cleveland knows. She says, when she was a girl, she remembers walking on the beach just outside of her village and finding old spears and human remains along the shore.
“When my grandmother and I used to walk down the beach to get some driftwood or pick berries we used to find spear-anek (spears) and maybe a human bone and skull and we used to put the bones back up there and dig a little bit and cover them,” said Cleveland.
That spot where she and her grandmother kept reburying things has turned into the dig called Nunalleq, meaning ‘old village’. Cleveland says the project is bringing to life history for Yup’ik people in her village and giving them a sense of pride. The Native corporation in Quinhagak eventually wants to develop eco-tourism around the site, but rapid erosion has made getting artifacts out the priority.
As they dig, researchers are finding that the village is larger than expected. With the new discoveries they’ve tacked on another season of fieldwork to unearth more history before it’s too late.
The archeologists will ship the artifacts to Scotland for study and preservation before they return them to the region. Tribal leaders say they will eventually display them either in Bethel or Quinhagak.
Archeologist, Rick Knecht will give a talk about the Quinhagak Archeology dig on Thursday from noon to 1 p.m. in room 118 at the Kuskokwim Campus of UAF in Bethel.
Everyone has a story to tell, but it may not be the story you’d expect. An Anchorage non-profit called StoryWorks is helping teenagers find their stories, and this summer they focused on students who arrived in the state as refugees.
A group of students and their story-telling mentor lounge on couches at UAA telling each other about their lives.
“Did you learn something from that day?” Rosey Robards asks 17-year-old Furaha Sefania.
Sixteen-year-old Olive Mtoni interjects in Swahili, translating for her new friend. Both girls are originally from the Congo, but Mtoni’s family fled the war-torn nation to Rwanda before she was born. Sefania’s went to Mozambique. They met for the first time at East High in Anchorage late last year. But that’s not the story Sefania has chosen to share…
“Wakati nilikuwa nacheza mpira na rafiki zangu, na mdogo…” Sefania tells her story.
She’s talking about a time when she was 12 years old and playing soccer with her friends back in Mozambique. Her little sister calls her to come eat and she refuses to go. When she finally heads home two hours later, the food is gone. Her sister laughs because she received extra, and her mother admonishes her – if you like soccer so much, than you can eat it! Sefania says she learned to listen to her mother. So why tell this story?
“Niliona tu, tuongee.” She just thought of it when chatting.
And that’s the whole point – stories are just moments to help people understand each other. That’s why 11-year-old Khalil Edais participated in the program. He was born in Anchorage but he loves storytelling and wanted to learn about the other kids.
“A lot of the kids have stories to tell, so this is like a big camp for them because they have big stories from their countries that they told here, so it’s pretty big for me to come here.”
Edais learned about a girl who climbed a tree, was distracted by a monkey, and ended up at the hospital getting shards of wood pulled from her arm. A boy told about the disappointment of leaving home for a cold place but eventually making new friends.
Jessica Kovarik, the program director of Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services, says these stories can help the community understand people from other nations.
“We really wanted to give the youth an opportunity to have some voice and to learn to tell their stories and recognize how powerful their stories are and how much they have to share with the community.”
Twelve-year-old Iqlas Dubed shares the story of her first bee sting – just a month ago, near the Campbell Creek Science Center.
“Then I ran around, ran around, ran around. Then came, I was out of breath, so I was just like ‘It hurts! It hurts!’ And the bee was still on my hijab so I took it off.”
The sting taught her what goes around, comes around. She laughed at other kids who were stung on previous days, then was hurt herself. But telling the story taught her “Don’t be scared to tell others. Other people that you don’t know.”
She said she feels kind of brave now.
Search crews have recovered two bodies from the Kramer Avenue landslide in Sitka. One man remains missing but search dogs have alerted to a third location on the south side of the slide, where work focused Thursday afternoon. Officials hoped to recover all three bodies before heavy rain predicted Friday.
Search crews were finally able to get to work in earnest late Wednesday and Thursday, after a day in which officials kept work on the site to a minimum out of fear of more landslides.
Crews found the first body at about 7:15 p.m. Wednesday evening, and recovered the second body just before 1 p.m. Thursday, both on the north side of the slide. Both bodies were first found by dogs with the Juneau-based search team SEADOGS.
By Thursday afternoon, dogs had identified a third site, where crews hoped to find the body of 62-year-old William Stortz, Sitka’s building official. Stortz was inspecting drainage in the subdivision at the time of the landslide with two other men who managed to escape. Stortz and brothers Elmer and Ulises Diaz, ages 26 and 25, had been missing since the Tuesday morning slide.
Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell was at the Kramer Avenue site for most of the day Wednesday. She said it was a relief to the families to have some closure.
“Obviously it’s good to know what’s happened to your loved one, and we can move on from hoping and wishing to just being able to grieve.”
The area around Kramer Avenue remains unstable. The slide moved downhill another 2 feet overnight. The city has posted firefighters at each end of the slide with airhorns, to signal an evacuation if any additional movement is detected. But McConnell said crews were just happy to be able to work.
“It’s a huge relief, and I know so many of the volunteers and people working have been frustrated because they couldn’t do anything initially, so it’s just been a relief to be able to get in there and get to work and get going.”
Sunshine broke through for much of the day, Wednesday. As the clouds lifted it was possible to see the path of the landslide above Kramer Avenue, where it cut a swath down the hillside. A team of geologists brought in to assess the slide estimated that it started about 1400 feet up Harbor Mountain, or about 1000 feet above Kramer Avenue, where it wiped out one home and damaged another.
Searchers hoped to recover all three bodies before more rain predicted for Friday. The National Weather Service is predicting two to three inches of rain Friday night, and gusty winds. But meteorologist Joel Curtis said this storm will be less intense, with a limited risk of more slides.
“What’s different about this event is that it’s going to be spread out over much more time than the event that caused our mudslides and landslides around here.”
Officials have identified at least six landslides around Sitka caused by Tuesday’s heavy rains, including slides on the Blue Lake Road that are blocking access to Sitka’s main hydroelectric dam; and washouts on the Green Lake Road, on the way to the city’s other dam.
Second body recovered from slide, crews hone in on the third
Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka
Search crews have recovered two bodies from the Kramer Avenue landslide in Sitka. One man remains missing but search dogs have alerted to a third location on the south side of the slide, where work focused this afternoon.
To stand a fighting chance, anti-Medicaid lawsuit needs to show irreparable harm
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
Medicaid expansion is set to roll out in Alaska September 1st. It would offer health coverage to 40,000 very low-income adults who don’t have children. The lawmakers suing to stop expansion will ask a judge for a preliminary injunction. That would prohibit the state from implementing the program before the issue is decided in court. Both sides of the lawsuit have specific points they need to prove to win the case.
NOAA: whale deaths in the Gulf are three times the average
A federal agency has announced plans for a more intense investigation into what caused the deaths of 30 large whales in the western Gulf of Alaska since May.
As fur seal numbers in the Aleutians decline, one population is curiously thriving
John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska
A team of scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service is on an isolated island in the Aleutian chain. Or, to be more precise, they’re a bit north of the chain. They’re researching an exploding population of fur seals on tiny Bogoslof Island.
Flint Hills refinery asks for loosened cleanup standards
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Flint Hills continues to push for a less stringent standard for removal of a spilled chemical from groundwater at the company’s shuttered North Pole refinery.
Transforming teaching: Nanwalek School received Apple tech grant
Shady Grove Oliver, KBBI – Homer
For students and teachers in the village of Nanwalek, this academic year will likely be very different from years past. They are the recipients of a technology grant from Apple that could change the face of education in the village entirely.
Storyworks: Refugees share their journeys
Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage
Everyone has a story to tell, but it may not be the story you’d expect. An Anchorage non-profit called StoryWorks is helping teenagers find their stories, and this summer they focused on students who arrived in the state as refugees.
For students and teachers in the village of Nanwalek, this academic year will likely be very different from years past. They are the recipients of a technology grant from Apple that could change the face of education in the village entirely.
Sally Ash is sitting in her large classroom at Nanwalek School. She grew up in Nanwalek and is now a Sug’stun language teacher.
“I think it gives them a background of who they are, where they come from, and the knowledge that’s sitting right here where they’re living. It enriches their life as they get older too, how to live and get along in the world but do it the right way,” says Ash.
She says it’s intertwined with values and culture.
“There’s a lot of studies being done that [say] if you know more than one language, it makes you smarter. And not only if a speaker wants to go outside of Nanwalek or somewhere else and become a rocket scientist, they could. Or, if they want to stay home and they just want to stay home and be a subsistence [person] or help out with the fish here or things like that, they could. They have a choice so they’re not stuck with one thing,” says Ash.
Like all of the teachers in the school, for years, she’s made due with aging instructional materials like her yellowing, dog eared dictionary, and too few copies of important textbooks. But now, one wall of her classroom is filled with a Smart Board, an interactive piece of technology that takes the place of the traditional chalkboard.
“I was so scared when we first got it. I was like, how is it going to benefit in my class? How am I going to use it?”
But school principal Nancy Kleine says Apple isn’t leaving anything to chance.
She was contacted by Apple last year to apply for the special grant program. Apple started the program to bring technology into schools in low income areas in response to President Obama’s ConnectEd initiative.
Nanwalek was the only school selected in the state of Alaska, and one of only 114 total in the country. As a result, it’s receiving an iPad for each one of its 80 students and every teacher and aide. In addition, all teachers are getting MacBooks. There are now Apple TVs in every instructional area, an iMac for the front desk, storage carts for the student’s pads and charging stations for every classroom.
“They’ve given us 17 days of professional development,” says Kleine. “They’ve given us three years of support. They’ve had team after team come out to test the infrastructure and work with us to develop a strategic plan so it really will be successful for our instruction.”
They’ve also provided funding for teachers to purchase apps specific tos their classes and subject areas. Kleine says that’s the key- it’s about more than just technology. It’s about changing the whole learning environment at all levels.
“We really have a lot of hope for this. With the students and the parents and the community being partners, I think we’re truly going to be able to transform teaching at Nanwalek school,” says Kleine.
Sally Ash already has big plans for her students and their new gadgets this year, both in the classroom and in the village as a whole, starting with the old books.
“The pages are really torn, well used books, that we want to put on the board so the kids will be able to see. And, we’ll be able to record the elders. And, we can take our iPad out and take pictures of things, identify them and write the name, and that sounds exciting to me too,” says Ash.
She also wants to set up regional speaking sessions with other schools in the Prince William Sound area using a video program.
“It really makes me happy,” says Ash. “I get really emotional because it’s one of my passions is that the kids- I want them to learn Sug’stun. And to hear them, is just a joy to my ears and my heart. Thank you very much, Quyana.”
And, like Sally Ash, Principal Kleine says she thinks this grant could have lasting benefits for the entire community far into the future.
“I just think this is an opportunity for these kids to grow and one of the things I’m really hoping that it does is that they will want to come to school and be engaged and be partners in this learning and attendance will grow,” says Kleine. “We are just totally launched for one of the most fabulous years you can possibly imagine.”
Northern fur seals have been declining for decades in their stronghold on St. Paul Island in Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, but their numbers are taking off on Bogoslof Island, a couple hundred miles to the south.
A team of scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service has been camped out on isolated, mile-long Bogoslof, just north of the Aleutian chain, trying to piece together why.
Bogoslof is the top of a 6,000-foot volcanic cone about 50 miles west of Dutch Harbor. Only the top 300 feet of the cone rise above the Bering Sea.
“We first saw breeding animals there in the ’80s,” Mike Williams with the National Marine Fisheries Service said. “Now we’re looking at a large portion of the Alaska population is on Bogoslof, where there weren’t any in the ’80s.”
For centuries, most of the world’s population of northern fur seals has bred in the Pribilof Islands. Russian navigator Gavriil Pribylov even located the then-uninhabited islands in 1786 by following the barks of fur seals through the fog.
Commercial hunting of fur seals stopped in the 1980s, but the big St. Paul population continued to fall.
“We’re concerned about the decline, so we want to keep track of what’s happening with this increasing population versus the populations in the Pribilofs and be able to at least have some idea of how their populations are moving,” Williams said.
Williams said why the Bogoslof population is increasing is “the million-dollar question.”
“I wish we knew,” he says.
A half-million or more fur seals haul out onto the Pribilofs each summer. Many of them head down into the Aleutians other times of the year.
Scientist Bruce Wright with the Aleutian-Pribilof Islands Association, the federally recognized tribal organization of the Aleut people, said nobody knows why the Pribilof populations keep plummeting.
Only a small subsistence harvest of about 2,000 animals a year is taken. Wright said declining populations have made getting food harder in the Pribilofs.
“People out there have less access to that marine mammal, which they use for a food resource, so they’re suffering from that,” Wright said.
Scientists have lots of educated guesses but few answers about the decline – from the impacts of fisheries to climate change.
Toxic food to blame?
Wright has a hypothesis of his own: toxic food.
Blooms of harmful algae can cover the ocean in a living layer full of toxic muck. This year has one of the largest harmful algae blooms on record in the North Pacific. It reaches all the way to the Aleutians. At least two different toxins have turned up in unusually high amounts this year: domoic acid and the toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning.
The small fish that fur seals eat, like sand lance, can accumulate toxins from the algae. Wright said he wants to know if the Pribilof seals have been getting doses of poison when they feed in the Aleutians.
“But now we have this population off Bogoslof, in the Aleutian Islands, and I’m really interested to find out where those fur seals are feeding,” Wright said. “If they’re feeding in the Aleutian Islands, then that would help reject this hypothesis. But maybe they’re feeding out on the continental shelf of the Bering Sea and they’re not at risk, at least right now, of encountering toxic sand lance.”
Algae grow faster when the ocean is warmer. With warming ocean temperatures, it’s only a matter of time before we see big algae blooms in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean like we’ve seen in the North Pacific this year, according to Wright.
The NMFS fur seal researchers on Bogoslof are counting pups and females and putting satellite tags on a few of them to see where Bogoslof seals get their meals.