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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: 55 min 51 sec ago

State Lifts Burn Ban, OKs Fireworks Before the 4th

Tue, 2015-06-30 16:41

State officials lifted bans today on open burning and use of fireworks for most of Alaska. They cited a decrease in fire danger due to recent cool and rainy weather and requests by members of the public to allow cookouts, campfires and pyrotechnics for this weekend’s July 4th celebrations.

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center’s map of active wildfires as of Tuesday.
Credit AICC

Both the state Forestry and Fire Marshal’s Office lifted their respective statewide bans on burning and fireworks today, with some exceptions. Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry says his agency’s decision is based mainly on increased rainfall and decreased temperatures that’ve set in over the past few days. And forecasts for more precipitation leading up to the weekend.

“Conditions have moderated in a lot of areas, especially in anticipation of more rain,” Mowry said.

Mowry says Forestry’s burn ban remains in effect in the Anchorage area and in western and southwestern portions of the state. He says the latter two areas haven’t gotten any of the showers that’ve helped reduce fire danger in the eastern Interior and southcentral.

“They’re not getting any precipitation out by Tanana, Galena, McGrath area,” he said. “They haven’t gotten hardly anything, and fires are still pretty active out there.”

Ken Frederick, a spokesman for the Alaska Fire Service, says wildfires burning on military training ranges and other federally administered lands haven’t gotten much rain, either.

“Parts of the military zone – it’s still pretty dry,” Frederick said. “And it’s going to take a lot more than a couple of days to really make a difference on those fires.”

Mowry agrees, and he emphasizes that Forestry is depending on members of the public to be very careful if they build a campfire or spark a charcoal barbecue.

“We’re sort of counting on them to do that, because our resources are stretched pretty thin and we don’t need new fires.”

Likewise, he says, with fireworks.

“Y’know, (the) public really needs to be cognizant of how dangerous fireworks can be,” Mowry said. “Don’t be setting off fireworks in the woods or anywhere where it’s going to cause a fire.”

The State Fire Marshal’s Office also urged extreme caution in a news release issued this afternoon to announce that it had canceled a temporary ban on the sale of fireworks in some areas. Those include the Fairbanks North Star, Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su boroughs, along with the Municipality of Anchorage, and the Tanana and Copper river valleys.

Mowry says Forestry’s decision was based in part on numerous requests from the public to loosen restrictions, because of reduced fire danger and for July 4th celebrations.

But he suggested fans of fireworks might want to wait until later in the year, when there’s less daylight to dampen the show.

“Wait ’til it’s dark and you can enjoy them,” he said.

Today’s announcements come on the heels of news that the amount of land burned by wildfire this month had set a new record. More than 2,400 square miles were blackened in June, easily breaking the old record for the month of just over 1,800 square miles, set in 2004.

The AP reported there were 612 wildfires burning statewide as of Tuesday. The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center says more than 1.6 million acres have burned so far this year.

Categories: Alaska News

Shell Gets Federal Approval to Head North, With Some Stipulations

Tue, 2015-06-30 16:01

A map of the Chukchi Sea offshore leases. The green squares are Shell leases. (Image: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a Letter of Authorization to Shell on Tuesday. The authorization allows the oil company to “take small numbers of Polar bears and Pacific walrus incidental to activities occurring during it’s ‘Outer Continental Shelf 2015’ exploration drilling program in the Chukchi Sea” this summer.

In an accompanying email, Department of Interior Press Secretary Jessica Kershaw writes that “It is important to note that [the Letter of Authorization] does not green-light Shell’s activity this summer, nor does it preclude Shell’s proposed activity.” According to Kershaw, in order to proceed with exploratory drilling, Shell will have to comply with the “Letter [of Authorization] and strong federal oversight.”

According to the letter, Shell must maintain a 15-mile buffer between its two rigs while drilling takes place. That was the subject of a letter environmental groups sent to Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewel last week. The groups argue Shell’s plan to use two rigs simultaneously violates a 2013 regulation.

Chris Krenz is the Arctic Campaign Manager and Senior Scientist at Oceana.

“We are disappointed in the issuing of this authorization we believe the correct course of action for the administration would be to rescind the approval of Shell’s exploration plan and the reason why is we have conflicting information of the impact of Shell’s activities on the marine life in the Chukchi Sea.”

According to Jessica Kershaw, “The 15-mile buffer distance is identified in the Service’s final Incidental Take Regulations issued June 2013 that were subject to public comment and designed to ameliorate potential impacts from oil and gas drilling on walrus and polar bears.”

But the well sites where Shell proposes simultaneous drilling may be too close together to be in compliance with the Letter of Authorization.

Spokesman Luke Miller says the oil company is still evaluating the document.

“It’s quite a document as most of these permits and authorizations are, so we are just reviewing it at this point and hopefully we’ll have more in the days to come.”

There are other requirements laid out in the Letter of Authorization: Shell must also keep the Fish and Wildlife Service informed on the progress of their exploration efforts. The company also has to provide detailed marine mammal observation reports.

The letter also outlines the requirements for seismic testing. The company will not be allowed to conduct offshore exploration activities within a 40-mile radius of communities that hunt marine mammals on a subsistence basis including Barrow, Wainwright, Point Lay and Point Hope without specific Fish and wildlife Service approval.

Meanwhile, a second drill rig contracted by Shell is en route the Alaska. According to Luke Miller, the Noble Discoverer departed Everett Washington [Tuesday] morning. Miller says it’s the last of Shell’s assets to leave the Pacific Northwest.

“We’re not working under any predetermined timelines. Our focus is getting there safely.  In 2012, the journey from Dutch Harbor from the pacific northwest was about two to three weeks, so that’s what we expect.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service prohibits operational and support vessels from entering the Bering Strait until July first, in order to minimize encounters with both walrus and subsistence hunters. Miller says the company is still waiting for sea ice to clear before proceeding north.

“It’s hard for me to say with certainty when things will be going. Safety is paramount.  Our plan is to go to the Chukchi once open water permits, but at this point when mother nature is going to go and what your schedule is going to be.”

Shell proposes to drill up to six wells between July and late October in the Chukchi’s Burger prospect. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, without an exemption waiver, exploration activities are only authorized between July first and November 30.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environment Enforcement is still reviewing Shell’s Applications for Permits to Drill.

Categories: Alaska News

UAS Juneau goes smoke-free Wednesday

Tue, 2015-06-30 15:56

The University of Alaska Southeast campus in Juneau goes completely smoke-free on Wednesday.

A ban on all tobacco products goes into effect July 1 on UAS’s Juneau campus. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

UAS will join thousands of colleges nationwide with similar policies banning tobacco use by students, staff and visitors.

No more cigarette, e-cigarette or hookah breaks between classes; the ban applies to all tobacco products. Anyone looking for a nicotine fix will have to leave campus to get it.

The ban is part of a university-wide policy approved in December by the Board of Regents.

The University of Alaska is not alone in adopting a tobacco-free policy. Institutions of higher learning have been banning tobacco on their campuses for years.

UAS Vice Chancellor of Administration Michael Ciri has been following the issue. He says the university is entering the discussion somewhat late.

“But I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing,” Ciri says. “We were able to learn a lot from other universities that drafted smoke-free policies and, I think, have a better policy for that.”

The regents’ decision to make all University of Alaska campuses tobacco free was primarily to reduce employee healthcare costs.

“When there’s smoking-related illnesses, that is a real, actual cost borne by the University of Alaska. If we pay for fewer employee-related health issues, that provides an immediate savings to the institution,” Ciri says.

The smoking ban will apply to all university property and buildings. Ciri says UAS Facilities Services has been surveying campus to create a simple graphical map.

“We need to be very clear about, OK, actually the property line is right there because if I were a smoker and I am willing to comply with the letter of the law, what I would want to know is, specifically, where’s your property line? Because I’ll stand right on the other side of it,” Ciri says.

Some students have already voiced concern about the university’s enforcement plan, or lack thereof. Like graduating senior Trevor Luedke:

“I think it’s going to be impossible to enforce.”

Administrators admit that enforcement will depend on “the consideration and cooperation of both users and non-users of tobacco.”

In other words, Ciri says, no one will be tasked with enforcing the new policy.

“There’s not going to be a smoking czar or the smoking police going around with little seltzer bottles, hitting people,” Ciri says laughing.

However, Ciri points out that the smoking ban is just one of many conduct policies students are asked to observe. The expectation is that people are going to be courteous.

Categories: Alaska News

Processors hit impasse over sustainability label

Tue, 2015-06-30 11:26

The two groups of processors at odds over who can put the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue sustainability label on their fish appear to be at an impasse, says Chris Hladick, the state’s commissioner of commerce, community and economic development.

“This is gonna be July here, which is gonna be the height of the red salmon run in Dillingham, so I don’t think there’s gonna be any resolution to it at this point, not what I’ve seen,” Hladick said.

This spring, a group of ten processors including Trident, Leader Creek, North Pacific, Peter Pan, Icicle, Ocean Beauty and others asked to access the certification, which is held by the nonprofit Alaska Salmon Processors Association. Silver Bay heads up that organization; Copper River is also a member.

The MSC label is needed to sell salmon in certain European markets.

The two groups have been going back and forth about the terms under which the new group can join. The MSC sponsored mediation, but that failed, so the organization suggested binding arbitration.

They couldn’t agree on that, either, Hladick says.

“ASPA originally said they would do it, and then when only a portion of the Trident group agreed to do it, then ASPA pulled out,” Hladick said.

Hladick says the governor wants to ensure that there’s a market for Alaska salmon.

It’s unclear what the next step is or who will make it now that the MSC’s suggestion has failed. But Hladick says over the next year or two he’ll work with the MSC on changes to the system to prevent a similar issue in the future.

“I’m going to be working with MSC to make sure this doesn’t ever happen again, that people don’t get shut out of the MSC certification program,” Hladick said.

Sorting that out could take a year or two.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska stops Medicaid providers inflation-linked increases

Tue, 2015-06-30 11:22

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services will not increase rates for Medicaid providers, citing an underfunded budget.

The Alaska Dispatch News reports that DHSS announced Monday that it filed emergency regulations to freeze rates that customarily rise a percentage point or two every year to account for inflation.

Starting Wednesday, Alaska’s Medicaid program will see a drop of $51.9 million in state funds. Since the federal government matches state expenditures, the total loss of funding for the Medicaid program will be around $100 million.

Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson says Gov. Bill Walker’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year included a $20 million cut to Medicaid, and the Legislature cut an additional $31.9 million.

Freezing inflation-based rate increases will save the state $8 million in its general fund.

Categories: Alaska News

Weekend rains bring relief for Alaska wildfire crews

Tue, 2015-06-30 11:21

Weekend rains brought relief to crews battling Alaska wildfires, but conditions are expected to heat up later this week, capping a record fire month.

Only two new fires were logged Sunday, according to the latest figures available. But the area actively burning grew by about 257 square miles on Sunday alone. That’s an increase attributed in part to better fire mapping conducted as improved weather tamped down smoke that previously grounded some flights.

Nearly 2,462 square miles burned so far this month – breaking the old June record of 1,802 square miles set in 2004. Fire officials also initially said Monday that 2,975 square miles had been burned.

As of Monday, Alaska had 612 wildfires this season, including 314 that remain active over more than 2,265 square miles.

Categories: Alaska News

Second Shell Oil drilling rig on its way to Alaska

Tue, 2015-06-30 09:30

Royal Dutch Shell’s second Arctic drilling ship, the Noble Discoverer, is on the move from Washington state to Alaska.

KIRO-TV reports the massive oil drill rig was escorted from the harbor in Everett by two tug boats and two Coast Guard vessels.

The Noble Discoverer started its move around 4 a.m. and is moving about 7 miles per hour.

Protesters say they plan to put kayaks in the water to meet the ship along it route out of the Puget Sound.

The Nobel Discoverer’s sister ship, the Polar Pioneer, left Seattle in May, after hundreds of environmental activists in kayaks and other vessels tried to block its progress toward the Arctic Ocean.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Monday, June 29, 2015

Mon, 2015-06-29 17:38

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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A Dark View of Arctic Geopolitics

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.

World leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, have talked of the Arctic as a zone of peace and co-operation. But continued tranquility is just one forecast for the region.

Shell’s Arctic Drilling Rig Arrives to Dutch Harbor

Emily Schwing, KUCB – Unalaska

The Transocean Polar Pioneer, a drill rig contracted by Royal Dutch Shell, has arrived in Dutch Harbor.

Gov. Walker Signs Fuels Tax Increase

Associated Press

Alaska Governor Bill Walker has officially signed off on the state’s first tax increase in a decade.

What the Supreme Court’s Redistricting Decision Means For Alaska

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of citizens to make changes to the congressional redistricting process through initiatives.

Kachemak Residents Buck A Hatchery Proposal in Tutka Bay

Quinton Chandler, KBBI – Homer

Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association is a salmon research and advocacy center fighting for an opportunity to temporarily move 80 million artificially bred pink salmon fry into Tutka Bay every year.

Katmai Bear Cams Draw International Audience of Millions

Hannah Colton, KDLG – Dillingham

Last year 16 million viewers tuned in to watch a reality show with no dialogue, no celebrities, and hardly any humans. They were watching Explore.org’s bear cams at Katmai National Park and Preserve, where brown bears catch salmon and hang out at Brooks Falls. The cams went live for their fourth summer on last week.

Bristol Bay Salmon Camp: ‘Can We Eat the Fin?’

Matt Martin, KDLG – Dillingham

Every summer the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation holds salmon camps for middle school and high school kids. It’s a mix of a little fun and little education on the region’s number one renewable resource, salmon.

Categories: Alaska News

What the Supreme Court’s Redistricting Decision Means For Alaska

Mon, 2015-06-29 17:35

The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the right of citizens to make changes to the congressional redistricting process through initiatives.

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The Monday decision has no tangible impact on Alaska at the federal level. With one congressional district for the whole state, it’s impossible to gerrymander Alaska when it comes to national representation. But an attorney who has handled state-level redistricting litigation thinks the decision could draw more attention to how political lines for the Legislature are drawn. Jason Gazewood says the non-partisan Arizona process that was upheld could “serve as a model for Alaska.”

“To the extent that Arizona board created a board that was designed to be nonpartisan in how they chose election districts, Alaska could really learn a lot from that lesson,” says Gazewood. “Alaska’s choice process is really driven by partisan interests.”

Arizona voters established an independent redistricting commission out of concern that political parties were gaming the system to increase their representation in Congress. In Alaska, the lines for the state Legislature are set by a board picked out mostly by elected politicians. Gazewood says there’s an incentive to consolidate power, rather than put voters in districts that best represent their views or interests.

“You know, you’ve got presiding officer of the House, presiding officer of the Senate making decisions about who’s on the board. The governor making choices,” says Gazewood. “So, really, these are decisions that are motivated by politics in a lot of ways.”

It would take an amendment to the Alaska Constitution to change the redistricting process, which would involve a vote of the people.

It took Alaska three years to finalize its maps in the last redistricting cycle.

Categories: Alaska News

Mt. View Neighborhood Plan pulls together community ideas for a better place to live

Mon, 2015-06-29 17:32

Participants at the Mt. View Street Fair watch performers. Hillman/KSKA

The Mountain View Community Council is putting the finishing touches on their neighborhood plan. It’s a targeted vision for making the city’s most diverse neighborhood a place people want to stay for the long-term.

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Mountain View residents who attended Saturday’s Street Fair know what they want for their neighborhood.

“More police presence. Definitely,” says Noreen McKnight. “A lot of young kids hanging out late at night, making a lot of noise. Actually, last night there were gun shots in my neighborhood. And just more of a police presence, not harassing, just patrolling making the community aware that they are there.”

People should “stop littering,” says Sierra Ekon. “Because people would want to live in Mountain View more and wouldn’t think it’s a dangerous place.”

“More playgrounds for the kids,” requests Samantha Moua. “Because we live in a trailer, and there’s no playground except for a basketball hoop.”

All of those ideas and more have been incorporated into the Mountain View Targeted Neighborhood Plan. The plan was three years in the making and included input from focus groups and a community-wide, weekend-long event. It lays out goals like better lighting on Mountain View Drive, proactive policing, and building a local health clinic.

“There’s a need for services in Mountain View,” says Mountain View Community Council President Daniel George. For example, “the nearest place to drop off a letter at a post office is to go all the way across the highway to the post office in Russian Jack. We don’t have a postal drop box anywhere in Mountain View that I’ve been able to locate.”

George says parts of the plan are already being enacted. The Downtown Partnership will be picking up trash, cleaning graffiti and doing safety patrols in the community for the rest of the summer. Cook Inlet Housing is developing more high quality housing units.

“It’s a neighborhood that people move to or from. We want to make it a neighborhood of choice,” George says.

The plan is posted on the Mountain View Community Council website and will need to be approved by the Anchorage Assembly to become official. The council is still seeking more input. Projects will be funded by non-profits, community organizations, and the municipality.

Categories: Alaska News

Muldoon Farmers Market highlights need for community space

Mon, 2015-06-29 17:21

People chat during the first Muldoon Farmers Market at Begich Middle School. Hillman/KSKA

Muldoon’s first farmers market launched this weekend to a buzzing crowd. But the effort is about more than just connecting people to fresh food; it’s about building community.

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Two hours after the market opened on Saturday morning, the tables of fresh vegetables had been reduced to a pile of zucchini from a Wasilla farm and a few bags of lettuce from the community garden.

Nineteen-year-old Graham Dinkle from Wasilla has been selling at markets his entire life, and he says this was very atypical. “Usually it’s pretty slow. Like every once in a while a customer will come by, but I’ve been swamped.”

The dozens who came through the Begich Middle School parking lot walked away with art, coffee, free books and painted faces as well.

Area resident Diana Campbell says when she first heard about the market, her reaction was “Finally!”

“It brings people together,” she says. “And it showcases what we have here and what we can have more of. It’s a bright spot, and we’re trying to make more bright spots on this side of town.”

Market volunteer Kaylen Saxton says it also demonstrates that the community needs a gathering space. It took months for the volunteer-run committee to find a location for the now weekly event.

“In this community there are very few places that you can meet. The schools are used for the meetings when you have thirty or more people you want to get together. And we really want another space, outside space and inside space, eventually.”

Saxton says she’s hoping the market will eventually find a home in a new park near Debarr and Muldoon. The Anchorage Assembly will consider officially designating the land as a park later this year. But for now, the market will stay at the middle school, every Saturday through the end of September.

Categories: Alaska News

Kachemak Residents Buck A Hatchery Proposal in Tutka Bay

Mon, 2015-06-29 16:38

Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association positions itself as a group responsible for protecting and rehabilitating salmon stocks.

“One of the things we would like to do as an organization is to improve the economic structure of the commercial salmon industry within Cook Inlet. Raising pink salmon for additional harvest does that,” says Gary Fanderi.

Gary Fandrei, Executive Director of Cook Inlet Aquaculture, says right now they have a total of 12 net pens in the Tutka Bay Lagoon. The pens hold immature fish until they are ready to be released. They can handle about 100 million salmon fry. But, that is too many fish for the lagoon.

“The lagoon is a fairly confined area. When we release all 100 million fish from in the lagoon, they return to that lagoon when they return as adults,” says Fandrei.

When the tide is low it becomes nearly impossible to maneuver boats into the lagoon. Fandrei says if they can’t harvest the returning salmon quickly enough overcrowding will stress the stock Cook Inlet Aquaculture needs to breed the next generation. Their solution is to take eight of every ten fish to the head of Tutka Bay. In April 2013 Cook Inlet Aquaculture applied with the Department of Natural Resources for a permit to move the net pens. That application was first denied and then approved on appeal.

But in late May, the Commissioner of DNR rescinded the permit after receiving complaints from Kachemak Bay State Park residents. Nancy Hillstrand is one of those residents. She is a member of the Kachemak Bay State Park Citizen’s Advisory Board.

“And I also have a background in working with rehabilitation and enhancement of the fisheries with Alaska Department of Fish and Game over a twenty year period,” adds Hillstrand.

Hillstrand says Cook Inlet Aquaculture has moved past enhancing pink salmon stocks and has entered the realm of industrial artificial production.

“The key is for the hatchery to limit its production to the land allotted to it instead of expanding its huge footprint into [the] park and critical habitat we have here,” says Hillstrand.

She says the park doesn’t function to help just one species thrive. It’s there for all of them.

“When you do a plankton study prior to release of some of these fish you will see a big soup of all different kinds of species out there. Once you release this huge magnitude of fish out into a small narrow bay like that it’s like a big lawn mower going through,” says Hillstrand.

Fandrei claims any impacts on habitat would be minimal. He says the net pens would only be in the bay for 2-3 months starting anywhere around the end of January to the beginning of March.

“They would be then removed sometime before the end of June,” says Fandrei.

Glenn Hollowell with the Department of Fish and Game backs up Fandrei.

“There is not a significant salmon return to the river at the back of Tutka Bay. This river periodically freezes up very hard. So the gravel freezes down to a very deep level and it tends to kill off whatever salmon might have found their way back to those rivers,” says Hollowell.

Hollowell says Cook Inlet Aquaculture approached his department a couple of years ago to find the best location for a salmon release.

“When we release hatchery fish we like to release them from a very isolated place; and we also like to have them released near a significant freshwater outflow which ideally originates from a geological source,” says Hollowell.

A geological source that releases minerals the salmon will home in on during their migratory return. Hollowell says they found two places. They could keep the fish in Tutka Bay Lagoon.

“Or at the back of Tutka Bay next to the river that comes down the valley there,” says Hollowell.

Hillstrand questions Fish and Game’s part in this.

“The Department of Fish and Game has this directive to give priority to rehabilitating depleted species.” says Hillstrand.

She says they’re not doing that. She’s afraid the advice to move Cook Inlet Aquaculture’s fish to the Head of Tutka Bay will actually hurt chances to replenish populations of animals like Dungeness crab. Cook Inlet Aquaculture is in a holding pattern for now. They’re waiting for a decision from the Department of Natural Resources. DNR says they’re still reviewing the situation.

Categories: Alaska News

Gov. Walker Signs of On Fuels Tax Increase

Mon, 2015-06-29 16:18

Alaska Governor Bill Walker has officially signed off on the state’s first tax increase in a decade.

Walker signed the increase into law in a small public gathering on Saturday morning.

The law places new taxes on wholesale refined fuel, including gasoline and heating oil but not aviation fuel or fuel used by the Alaska Marine Highway.

The tax will fund the state Department of Environmental Conversation’s Spill Prevention and Response division, which cleans up about 2,000 spills of crude oil and refined fuel each year. The division is usually funded by oil revenue, but falling crude prices left it underfunded for the coming fiscal year.

The bill passed the House by one vote.

Categories: Alaska News

A Dark View of Geopolitics in the Arctic

Mon, 2015-06-29 16:18

Irvin Studin

World leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, have talked of the Arctic as a zone of peace and co-operation. But continued tranquility is just one forecast for the region. A much darker scenario came today from a Canadian policy scholar who is also a professor at the University of Toronto and Russia’s Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.

Irvin Studin says competing claims for Arctic resources are inevitable but those conflicts are unlikely to erupt any time soon. In a discussion at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank, Studin said he sees a much closer path to conflict in the Arctic, and it starts with Russia, in Europe.

“Near term, and this is my primary message today: Escalation of fighting in Ukraine, or the collapse of Ukraine, or an accident or misread by the West, or the East, or between Russia and Ukraine, might have consequences through the Arctic as a thoroughfare, “he said.

These “consequences” he speaks of are dire.

“The Russians would bomb through the Arctic,” he said. “The rockets would go through the Arctic. I don’t think we’re talking infantry in the first instance. I think these are highly reachable targets for Russian interests.”

Studin says Russians are well aware of the prospect while the U.S., in his view, is oblivious. He says the Ukraine problem can be solved, with neutral peacekeepers and a commitment that Ukraine must never join NATO. But, he warns, the solution has to come in the next six months.

On the Arctic Council, international co-operation remains the operating principal, and Russia is still, by most accounts, working well with the U.S. Coast Guard. Studin says Moscow can strictly adhere to agreements, to what he calls “transactional” co-operation in the Arctic. The professor, though, says that’s just a veneer on Russia’s solid wall of strategic distrust.

“So this can only last so long if the underlying game is incredible,” he said.

Looking ahead, Studin says the government in Russia will change one day, and he cautions the U.S. to stay out of it.

“It is in everybody’s interest that Russia remain stable and that there is a happy succession,” he said. “And let me repeat to my American friends: there is no necessary condition for this succession, in being happy, to be democratic and in our image, as it were. It just needs to be a stable, happy transition.”

A troubled transition could create a power vacuum, he says, which would be bad for the Arctic and the rest of the world.

“Any collapse of Russia, which is not unthinkable this century, is a hellish proposition,” he said. “It is a century long problem.”

Retired diplomat Kenneth Yalowitz, another participant at the forum, doesn’t see the same conflict points that Studin does. But after hearing the analysis, Yalowitz sounded a bit tenuous in his optimism.

“You’ve given a lot of reasons why this may not be the case, but my hope is that the very obvious and self-evident reasons for cooperation in the Arctic can have a spillover effect into other areas,” he said.

In the back of the auditorium sat two top-ranking Arctic officials in the State Department: Admiral Robert Papp, the special Arctic representative, and Deputy Assistant Secretary David Balton. Papp called Studin’s perspective a “fascinating alternate view.”

“To get someone who has an inside view of what the Russians are thinking is very helpful to us, and that’s why we attended today,” Papp said.

Papp says for him, it reinforces the need for open communications with the Russians.

Categories: Alaska News

Polar Pioneer drill rig arrives in Dutch Harbor

Mon, 2015-06-29 12:19

The Polar Pioneer drill rig arrives in Dutch Harbor. (Photo by Emily Schwing, KUCB – Unalaska)

The Transocean Polar Pioneer, a drill rig contracted by Royal Dutch Shell, has arrived in Dutch Harbor.  The oil company plans to use the port as a hub this summer as part of their exploratory Arctic drilling effort.

There’s very little opposition in the tiny Alaskan town in comparison to that in Seattle, where some environmental activists went so far as to chain themselves to one of Shell’s Arctic drilling support vessels last month.

When the Polar Pioneer left Seattle, hundreds of protestors turned out in kayaks. They waved signs and tried to keep the drill rig from departing.  But when it arrived nearly two weeks later in Dutch Harbor, a tiny fishing outpost in the middle of Alaska’s Aleutian Chain, it was greeted only by a brisk, nighttime wind.

There are no anti-Arctic drilling signs, no banners, no protestors in kayaks.  Mayor Shirley Marquardt says that’s for good reason.

“You know down in Seattle, there’s harbor boats and rescue boats and people to pull you out of the water all over the place,” Marquardt said. “You don’t have that here. And the water is tremendously brutally cold even in the summer and it doesn’t take much.”

The real reason no one is out protesting is because most people here are working either on fishing boats, or at one of the local fish processors. More fish come through Dutch Harbor than any other port in the nation.

People also work a myriad of other jobs outside of fishing from construction to security.

“We’ve always had a healthy, wealthy place to live because we depend on the sea,”  Susie Golodoff said. She has lived here for 40 years.  She teaches at the school and fishes with a gillnet right out her front door. The resident naturalist in town, she’s the person everyone asks when they want to identify a bird or a plant. She’s not quite sure why her neighbors aren’t more concerned about the oil rig or Shell’s summer plans.

“I’m kind of baffled to tell you the truth. I think part of it is that we’re kind of short term community with people from other places and people just think as far up as their as their next catch delivery, so there’s just a little bit of a disconnect maybe,” Golodoff said.

Currently, giant boats are at sea harvesting pollock, the kind of fish that’s eventually processed into things like fish sticks. Smaller vessels are out targeting species like halibut, and Dungeness crab for fine dining. Trucks are driving to and fro, filled with gravel and construction crews are furiously working on countless projects.

The sight of a giant yellow and blue drill rig towering over emerald green islands and squat gray buildings isn’t new in Dutch Harbor. In 2012, the company brought a different rig here and then sailed it nearly 1,000 miles north to the Chukchi Sea. That mission ended in near disaster when it ran aground.

But no one is talking about that accident or the possibility of something worse. James Buskirk is the captain of the fishing vessel Destination.  He was among a number of people running quick errands at the local grocery and supply store.

“Well, geographically the Chukchi Sea is a long way from the eastern Bering sea where we do all of our fishing,” Buskirk said. “So no, I don’t have any direct concerns. The possibility of an accident is always there whether they’re drilling on land or under water.”

Mayor Shirley Marquardt understands the worst-case scenario, and she and other local officials have met with Shell a handful of times to discuss safety and logistics.

“So, we’ve been able to kind of talk to Shell and their folks and say, ‘You know, we’ve seen this happen before and it didn’t work out so well,’” Marquardt said.

Shell is still awaiting federal approval before it can send the Polar Pioneer and its support vessels nearly 1,000 miles north through the Bering Strait. Until then, the rig is moored just outside the local port as fishing boats chug past to offload their catch and head back to sea for another round.

Categories: Alaska News

Summer king season to open July 1, but not without protest

Mon, 2015-06-29 10:54

Southeast Alaska salmon trollers will open their season on schedule this Wednesday (7-1-15)  — but under protest. The state says this year’s quota for Alaska fishermen under the Pacific Salmon treaty is too low.

A deadlock at the Pacific Salmon Commission delayed planning for this summer’s king salmon season by months, as representatives from Alaska, Canada, Washington and Oregon wrangled over estimates of chinook abundance.

But on Friday (6-26-15) , the Department of Fish & Game announced that the first king opener of the summer troll season will begin, as usual, on July 1.

This summer’s fishery will be built around a draft abundance index of 1.45 — although Alaska has refused to formally accept that number, declaring it too low.

The Alaska Trollers Association estimates Alaska’s share of king salmon this year at 237,000 fish. That’s slightly below average for the past ten years, and significantly lower than last year’s record quota of nearly 440,000 king salmon.

Trollers say the quota ignores signs that 2015 is another big year. Trollers Association Director Dale Kelley says her members are “beyond frustration” that they may have to watch a banner year for kings swim by. “So, no, we don’t feel like fishermen get a fair shake out of this agreement,” Kelley said. “And really as long as the treaty’s been in place, we never have.”

The abundance index is usually reached through consensus among scientists on the Pacific Salmon Commission’s Chinook Technical Committee. This year, representatives failed to come to an agreement for the first time in over a decade.

Categories: Alaska News

Katmai bear cams draw international audience of millions

Mon, 2015-06-29 10:47

Holly, a favorite among cam viewers, with her cubs – one biological, one adopted. (Photo courtesy Tina Crowe, NPS)

Last year 16 million viewers glued their eyes to screens to watch a reality show with no dialogue, no celebrities, and hardly any humans.

16 million – that’s more viewers than the Bachelor, American Idol, or Dancing with the Stars. They tuned in to watch Explore.org’s bear cams at Katmai National Park and Preserve, where brown bears catch salmon and hang out at Brooks Falls.

The cams went live for their fourth summer.

In the days before the cam went live this season, the comment section on the website felt like the long bus ride to summer camp. Returners were catching up with old friends, swapping stories from last year, getting excited and  impatient.

They were ready to see some bears.

 “I can’t wait! I’m itching to see the bears again”

That’s 68-year-old artist and writer Dicky Neely.

 “That’s D-I-C-K-Y N-E-E-L-Y, I live in Corpus Christi, Texas.”

I found Neely because he’d posted some of his artwork on the website — a drawing of a big goofy bear with its nose up against a camera. Neely first found his way to Explore.org last year, looking for surfing videos.

“I’m an old surfer, but I’m disabled now and I can’t surf anymore, so I’m home a lot. So I was looking for surf cams and I stumbled on the bear cam. So I clicked on it. And the first thing I saw was a mother bear swimming down the river, with another dark shape on its back… They finally got to shore and the little cub was jumping around and looked so happy to be alive and to be a little bear… it made such an impression on me!”

“How how often do you watch the cams?”

“Well, every day, sometimes for hours. Of course sometimes I just leave it on and do other things.”

“Well I was struck by how many people were on the comment section just kinda hanging out and talking with each other… it’s like this community?”

“Yeah, it is, it’s social thing – I don’t get into that as much, I don’t like to just have conversations online… Although, whenever I post artwork, or I do post a comment occasionally, people respond and I usually write back. But, I’ve made friends with some people that watch it. There’s a fellow in Germany, he’s become famous I guess as the bear watcher, named Juergen, and I sent him some of my artwork.”

“Did you know there were 16 million people watching the bear cam last year?”

“No, I had no idea! 16 million, that’s really something…”

I went to an expert to find out how all these remote viewers are affecting the day-to-day at Brooks Camp.

“My name is Roy Wood, I’m the Chief of Interpretation at Katmai Park and Preserve.”

Wood is known affectionately by the bear cam followers as Ranger Roy. He says these viewers are from nearly every country on the planet:

“– with just a few exceptions… I think like Yemen had no visitors, and Syria had no visitors and that’s not really surprising. But last year the major surprise was that India moved way way up the list. India is now the third largest viewer of the bear cams, and Pakistan is the 5th largest viewer. And this was really surprising to us because we don’t see very many people from those two countries in person or on the webcam chat boards.”

Nor does he see many visitors from the Vatican City. But he says, 45 people are watching from there, too.

“My sincere hope is that the Pope is watching the bear cams along with the rest of the world.”

In the pre-cam days, Wood says, he would give his presentations out on the platforms in Brooks Camp, talking with a handful of people at a time. Now he says a single talk might reach up to 15 thousand people:

 “The first time we saw those numbers just ticking up like that it was kind of scary because you’re used to dealing with 15-20 people in front of you at any one time,”says Wood. “To see thousands just brings a different feel to it.”

So what is it about these bear cams that is so universally appealing?

“Well one thing that was somewhat surprising was how readily people would grasp the idea that bears are individuals.”

There might be 50-70 bears each season at Brooks Camp. There’s so many, Wood says it can be hard for people on the ground to tell one bear from another.

 “But these bear cam people, some of them are just amazing at their bear identification and observational skills. They’re picking up on things that a trained observer at Brooks Camp doesn’t always pick up on.”

Wood says it’s exciting to have all these extra sets of eyes on the bears. It means when something unusual or interesting happens, they’re less likely to miss it.

“So that’s been really cool that they’ve been jumping in as citizen scientists and really helping us learn more and document more about the bears here.”

To Wood, this is a great success of the bear cam videos.

“There aren’t many people who are moved to action from just watching TV. But the cams ARE moving people to action, and we’re very proud of that.”

Back in Corpus Christi, Dicky Neely says spending so much time watching the cams has changed the way he views bears.

 “I don’t know how you could watch those bears for any length of time and still regard them as the dangerous, killer, ferocious animals eager to rip humans apart… Because you can see their normal behavior is not vicious or anything like that.”

Maybe the big difference between bear cam fans and fans of mainstream TV. Unlike fans of Survivor or the Bachelor, the bear cam people aren’t waiting for a catfight, or for someone to make a fool of themselves. They just want to see bears doing what bears do.

“Well I just wanna see a good season with a lot of salmon, lot of bears, wanna see the bears succeed, be healthy, successfully hibernate again, and just continue with their life cycle, undisturbed, that’s what I wanna see.”

According to Ranger Roy, the bear cams are here to stay. And as long as the bears are in Katmai, there will be bear cam people around the world rooting for them.

Watch the bears yourself on Explore.org. 

Categories: Alaska News

Spending Bill Includes Contract Support Costs

Mon, 2015-06-29 10:42

A spending bill advancing in the US Senate includes full funding for Alaska Native health care providers’ contract support costs. That’s an area of native health care that’s been underfunded even though the supreme court has repeatedly ruled in favor of tribes. Those costs include items like legal and accounting fees, insurance, and workers’ compensation. 2014 was the first year in decades of full funding for contract support costs.

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski chairs the appropriations subcommittee that wrote the bill. She says the spending plan fences off funding for contract support to prevent the government from taking from other programs, which has happened in the past.

“They basically dipped into existing Indian programs, shortchanging them. That’s not how to you do it. You don’t rob Peter to pay Paul. What we’ve done is put in a separate appropriations account that will prevent this cycle that’s occurred at the IHS,” said Murkowski.

Contract support costs have been the subject of lawsuits and recently brought multimillion dollar settlements to tribal health care groups for overdue reimbursement. Murkowski says the new bill provides clarity.

“That’s significant. It’s significant in that the assurance going forward full support for contract support cost is going to be there and there’s not going to be a shortage in other accounts to pay for that full coverage,” said Murkowski.

The bill would also provide the first federal funds for tribal courts in so-called PL 280 states, which includes Alaska. states in which the state government has extensive criminal and civil jurisdiction in Indian Country and in Alaska Native villages. The bill has 10 million dollars for tribal law enforcement and justice pilot projects.

“That will help insofar as how we deal with these perpetrators who seemingly time and time again inflict this level of violence and basically get away with it. Because we have not been able to collect evidence, prosecute, and bring to some level of justice, those offenders,” said Murkowski.

The Senate appropriations committee approved the bill earlier this month. It still must advance though the full senate, which is in the midst of a larger budget gridlock.

Categories: Alaska News

Communications lag rattles relatives after Alaska crash

Mon, 2015-06-29 09:28

Rowland Cheney of Lodi, California, was one of nine victims in a sightseeing plane crash in Alaska.

Alaska State Troopers originally identified the 71-year-old man as Hal Cheney.

The DeHavilland DHC-3 Otter turboprop went down Thursday in Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan in southeast Alaska. The shore excursion was sold through Holland America.

Eight passengers from the Holland America Line ship Westerdam and a pilot died.

The other victims are Mary Doucette, 59, of Lodi; Glenda Cambiaso, 31, and Hugo Cambiaso, 65, of North Potomac, Maryland; June Kranenburg, 73, and Leonard Kranenburg, 63, of Medford, Oregon; Margie Apodaca, 63, and Raymond Apodaca, 70, of Sparks, Nevada; and the pilot, Bryan Krill, 64, of Hope, Idaho.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage officials look to keep troublemakers out of parks

Mon, 2015-06-29 09:27

Anchorage officials are looking for ways to keep people who break the law out of city parks.

The Alaska Dispatch News reports that the city’s legal department is working to rewrite city parks and trespassing laws to create a better way to deal with chronic misbehavior, which may include a way to ban people for long stretches of time.

Anchorage police Capt. Garry Gilliam says until late last year, officers told people ticketed for misdemeanors like drinking in public that they couldn’t come back to the park for a year. If that person came back they would be arrested and charged with trespass.

That program has been suspended. Anchorage city prosecutor Seneca Theno says the earlier program did not fully comply with due process rights.

Categories: Alaska News