APRN Alaska News
It’s been four decades since Bethel had a liquor store, and for now, that status will continue. The Bethel City Council voted Tuesday to protest two liquor store license applications from the Bethel Native Corporation’s Bethel Spirits and the Alaska Commercial Company
Council members cited the loud public outcry against having easier access to alcohol, as well as possible violations of rules against being too close to churches and schools.
When the debate entered the weeds, Council member Chuck Herman added a line to the resolution:
“I just want to make it very clear our protest stands based on the community being opposed to it and not based on any technical violations.”
The vote was 4 to 3.
The state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is required to honor protests from governing bodies unless they are found to be arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.
Bethel Native Corporation President and CEO Ana Hoffman insisted the proposed store is legally situated and argued that what Bethel has now is not working.
“The presence of illegal sales is undeniable and not a cent of the sales is taxed. We have quite possibly created the most unhealthy environment imaginable. Allowing for the issuance of a liquor licenses enhances control and regulation over the current system of chaos.”
In an October non-binding advisory vote, Bethel citizens will weigh in on whether they support several categories of liquor licenses. In the same election, they can approve a new 12 percent alcohol sales tax.
A new map from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game offers a bear’s eye view of Anchorage. The “story map” draws on data and video collected from nine bears- six black and three brown- who wore cameras on special collars in 2012 and 2013. The videos capture bears playing with lawn art, slurping up barbecue grease and running across busy intersections.
Sean Farley is the biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who led the study.
Why they’re in the city:
“They’re not here to visit us. They could give a hooey about us. They’re here for the garbage, the fish, the berries, the gull eggs, the equisetum, the grasses, the dandelions.”
Bears interacting with other bears:
“We might capture a lone bear, usually a youngster, put a camera on it and more often than not it would hook up with two or three other bears and pal around with them. And in one case we had a young black bear hook up and play with a young brown bear. So they’re a little more social than we give them credit for when they’re young.”
A bear takes a picture of the biologist, from a tree:
“I’m a biologist and that was a head slapper for me.. black bears spend a lot of time in trees and they do in Anchorage. I had just grilled a hot dog and was looking out my window and I realized I was looking at a black bear in a tree in my yard and I’m not way up the hillside at all. I ran outside and it was a collared bear and it actually took a picture of my house.”
The bears are all around:
“From previous work I can tell you that an awful lot of times bears might be 10 or 20 yards off in the bushes while we walk down the trail. We’re a visual species- we don’t see them therefore there aren’t any bears here. But the truth is they’re off to the side being good bears, frankly, avoiding people.”
Confronting the garbage problem:
“Because we do have an awful lot of unsecured garbage, I hope we can really change that. We really need a stronger effort to get bear resistant containers that people can use, and that will make a difference. Because we’re always going to have bears in Anchorage. Anchorage is a big city, but we’re in the middle of wilderness.”
Most of us have never lived with without running water at home. Today, we’ll learn about some people who are just getting used to it, and others who would like to get used to having running water. In the second segment of the series Kick the Bucket, we’ll also hear some of the reasons Alaska hasn’t made modern plumbing a simple fact of life for all Alaskans.
Dan Winkleman, the president of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC), described a recent phone call from his mother-in-law in Kwethluk.
“She said, ‘Guess what?’ ‘So I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘I just finished doing the dishes in my sink with the water from the faucet and I wanted to let you know how exciting that was.’ She was giddy with excitement,” said Winkelman.
What’s so exciting about washing dishes? Kwethluk never had running water before. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t cheap: a water treatment plant, water tank and sewage lagoon cost $41 million.
That’s a lot of money — but this is rural Alaska. Weather can wreak havoc with schedules. Getting anything here is expensive, especially heavy equipment. And, piped water and sewer means digging trenches for pipes and pumps, plus installing plumbing in individual homes. But Kwethluk’s system is costly even for rural Alaska, where piped water and sewer in some communities cost in the three-to-five million dollar range.
YKHC Remote Maintenance Worker Bob White said the Kwethluk treatment plant, which cost $4.2 million, has sophisticated features to reduce maintenance and operations, such as computerized controls and sensors that will send out alerts if something isn’t working as it should. And to avoid the expense of large underground sewage pipes, each home is getting a grinder pump that will move sewage through narrow, 2-inch-pipes.
Hefting the pump on to a piece of plywood, White said, “They’re expensive, and they’re heavy. This one’s brand new.”
And it’s heavy duty.
“Part of the problem, it wouldn’t take the harsh conditions,” said White. “The pump manufacturer actually started making an Arctic version, and this is their Arctic version.”
Driving the half mile from the treatment plant to the sewage lagoon, White said workers dredged a pond 20 feet deep to get the soil used to build the berm around the lagoon. Raw sewage is pumped in, then natural processes take over and break it down. The Kwethluk sewer lagoon cost $7.5 million dollars – but, as White explains, that cost is all up-front.
“The good thing about a lagoon is once you construct it, your costs are pretty much done. The maintenance on this lagoon will be less than $5,000 a year,” said White. “So lagoons are really efficient if you have the land mass.”
Federal and state funding for the Kwethluk project came in increments so construction spanned some 15 years – which also added to the cost.
Fifty miles up the Kuskokwim River, Tuntutuliak, population 400, doesn’t have running water and gets by on what’s called a flush-haul system. Waste from flush toilets goes into a holding tank, then gets hauled away. People have to haul water. Brian Lefferts, director of YKHC’s office of environmental health and engineering, said there’s a public health cost to that.
“In situations like that,” says Lefferts, “we find that people drastically conserve the water and then they don’t realize the health benefits that come with having piped running water and sewer service.”
Lefferts said the decision on which communities get funding for water and sewer projects comes out of a detailed evaluation.
“All the water and sewer, what we call needs in the state, get entered into a database. It’s called a sanitation deficiency system,” said Lefferts. “We have estimated project costs, the number of homes they’d serve, looking at health impact, capital cost, d the current level of service, and then the level of service they’d have after the project.”
Other criteria include how well the community is doing managing what it has – collecting fees, for instance, and getting employees trained and certified.
A 1994 report by the federal Office of Technology Assessment recommended an annual budget of $120 million for rural sanitation in Alaska. Federal and state funding combined never reached that level, and now officials say it will take $900 million to catch up. That’s on top of $2.2 billion dollars spent over the past two decades.
In a recent presentation to state legislators, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Sanitation Facilities Program Manager David Bevridge said most of that money has come from federal agencies.
“If you look through the Village Safe Water program, it gets matched with federal dollars on a 25-75 percent ratio,” Bevridge explained. “So for every 25 dollars the federal government will kick in 75 dollars so that’s been a big component of the funding in Alaska.”
In 2014, the state legislature allocated $7.5 million for Village Safe Water, out of a $13 billion state budget, to match $50 million from the Indian Health Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Department of Agriculture. But federal funding has dropped by 64 percent in the last ten years. The gap between what’s needed and what’s available is getting wider. And the lack of money for maintenance and operations right now is damaging existing systems. We’ll find out more about that next time.
Citizens in Bethel are weighing a decision on a proposal for the first liquor store in decades. In the shadow of the debate is a powerful and elaborate bootlegging economy across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. A small team of federal law enforcement agents with the United States Postal Inspection Service is working to keep alcohol out of the mail. It’s one of the oldest law enforcement agency in the country, a group with a unique mission that chases after each suspicious package.
KYUK’s Ben Matheson has more in the third installment profiling efforts to stem the flow of illegal alcohol to local option communities in the YK Delta.
Transporting alcohol by boat, truck, or snow machine is the choice of most bootleggers trying to import alcohol into dry villages. But for people who live in more distant communities, or in times when river conditions make travel impossible, the United States Postal Service can be a tempting way for many to ship illegal cargo directly to the post office box of the recipient. It doesn’t always arrive as planned.
Anchorage-based Postal Inspector Alan Damron spends his waking hours trying to stop bottles from reaching places where they will do harm. It’s completely illegal to send alcohol through US mail.
“Sometimes it’s really obvious when something is, for instance, leaking whiskey or vodka and you can smell it a mile away. Those are the easy ones to find,” said Damron.
Records of alcohol seizures over the past four years show dozens of shipments per year to local option communities intercepted by the Anchorage team. More are discovered by troopers in regional hubs. While a few broken microbrews or wine make the list, the vast majority sent to local option communities are vodka and whiskey. Many are a just few bottles, but shipments as large as 36 bottles of vodka or two dozen bottles of Rich & Rare whiskey were intercepted. Depending on the final destination, that can be worth thousands of dollars on the black market.
Veteran Inspector Ron Zielinski is in an interim supervisor in Anchorage and spent eight years working the state’s alcohol cases. He says people try, with varying success, to hide liquor.
“They burp the bottles, the plastic bottles that have air in them, they will break the seal, release the air, close them up and duct tape them. That was going on 15 years ago, it’s still going on today. Hiding it in anything… dog food. Switching it into apple juice bottles,” said Zielinski.
Damron says their success relies more on people than it does on fancy technology or dogs that are used in drug enforcement.
“With alcohol it’s different, the main way we get into the packages is talking to people, getting their side of the story. That’s usually talking to the people the packages are going to,” said Damron.
The inspectors have eyes and ears on the ground in local contacts who give them tips. Damron spent time on the Kuskokwim River ice road this winter and also travels to bush communities.
“We develop intelligence to find out who’s doing this, a lot of these the communities are so small, they know what’s going on in town,” said Damron.
And as US mail is a highly protected federal service, they’ve trained and authorized deputized troopers in a unique program to do postal sorts and build cases, what they call force multipliers. For Damron, the connection between public safety and the alcohol and drugs he searches for is clear.
“When we find a bottle of alcohol, it could be one less rape, one less assault or person abusing a child. It’s a huge motivation because I’m from here, born and raised in Alaska, during my whole life I’ve heard about the effects of alcohol in communities,” said Damron.
Although it’s a federal misdemeanor to ship alcohol, the inspector’s cases are most often prosecuted at the state level where bootleggers can face felony level charges. Damron doesn’t know how many gallons elude inspectors and travel hundred of miles to illegally arrive in mailboxes, but he says every bottle is worth the effort.
“You do the best you can do, you go to work every day and do your duties to the best of your abilities, but there’ definitely going to be stuff you don’t find,” said Damron. “But we’re not going to give up, we’re going to keep pushing and keeping finding and work with the state to hold people accountable for what they’re doing.”
And as millions of parcels travel across the country, it’s going to happen package by package.
Gov. Bill Walker says the state ferry system needs more money to avoid “crippling cuts” during the next fiscal year.
Walker released a new operating budget Tuesday after the legislature adjourned Monday without fully funding state government.
His new spending plan for the special session adds $7 million for ferries. That’s less than half the amount lawmakers cut before adjourning.
Jeremy Woodrow is an Alaska Marine Highway System spokesman.
“We aren’t sure exactly where that service will be improved in the system. That’s something that the department will still need to review and evaluate before we can give a definite answer,” he says.
The House and Senate could still take the new ferry money out of the budget — or shrink the increase.
Any cuts will reduce sailings during the next fiscal year, which begins in July.
Woodrow says officials will notify ticket-holders of cancellations and other changes once the budget is done.
“When we do know a final schedule and we can guarantee that we’ve maximized that service with the budget that we’re given, we will put an announcement out and we will inform passengers what our process is, moving forward,” he says.
Woodrow says ticket-holders will be rescheduled in the order they made reservations.
Other spending increases proposed in the governor’s new budget include schools, Medicaid, the university system and domestic violence programs.
Alaska State Troopers say a 46-year-old Tanana man has died in an all-terrain vehicle crash near the interior community.
Troopers say Lawrence Moses was found dead of his injuries after the crash, which was reported Sunday night.
The crash occurred on Mission Hill Road about two miles from the community.
Troopers say a preliminary investigation indicates Moses lost control of the vehicle, which struck a tree after veering off the road.
According to troopers, Moses’ body is being taken to the state medical examiner’s office in Anchorage.
Tanana is located 130 miles west of Fairbanks.
Sixty-eight-year old Robert Purpura, of Seldovia, was identified Monday night after an extensive search throughout the day.
Alaska State Troopers report they were contacted by Seldovia pilot Keith Gain, who said he was searching for a missing boater. Gain told Troopers he’d located Purpura’s skiff floating near McDonald Spit with the motor still running.
Purpura was reported missing after being several hours overdue coming home from Jakolof Bay.
Responders notified the US Coast Guard. Troopers from Anchor Point responded in the P/V Augustine. Several private vessels were out searching the area around Seldovia as well.
Just after 7 p.m., the crew of a fixed-wing aircraft from Homer spotted a body floating in the water about a mile north of McDonald Spit.
Search vessels surrounded the area and Purpura’s body was recovered and identified.
Troopers report the state medical examiner was contacted and no foul play is suspected. Next of kin has been notified.
Purpura was a well-known and liked community member around the southern peninsula. According to friends, he was a longtime resident of Little Tutka, where he lived and raised children on a houseboat. He then moved to Seldovia, where people were attracted to his colorful and boisterous character.
He was serving as the chair of the Seldovia Fish and Game advisory committee and was active in local public affairs.
He is survived by family and friends.
Sitka Community Hospital is turning to the residents it serves to try to figure out how to climb out of its $2 million budget deficit.
The Daily Sitka Sentinel reports that CEO Rob Allen spoke with about two dozen people at a community town hall Monday asking where the hospital can improve.
Among the topics that came up was the hospital’s electronic health records system, which has caused delays in billing since it was installed last year.
Next the hospital will meet with specific stakeholders and offer an online survey, which will be released in May. Allen says hospital staff will draft a plan based on survey results.
In December, the Sitka Assembly voted to extend a line of credit to the hospital from $500,000 to $1.5 million.
Denali National Park and Preserve’s wolf numbers have reached a record low this spring with an estimated population of just 48, according to a Park Service study.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that Park Service estimates the wolf population twice each year since 1986 using radio collard wolves and analysis of the few un-collared wolves.
The park’s Chief Wildlife Biologist Steve Arthur says the population decline can be attributed to low snowfall, which made it easier for prey to flee from the wolves, and better tracking technology. The tracking expands biologists understanding of the wolves’ home range, which is used to estimate the population.
Wolf advocates say this shows the need to reinstate a wolf-protection buffer zone that banned trapping in an area directly outside the park until 2008.
The Anchorage Assembly passed a budget raising property taxes by 5.61%, splitting the body between those calling for fiscal conservatism, and others stressing a need for spending on public safety. Clashes will likely lead to line-item vetoes from the mayor’s administration.
Holding his young daughter at Tuesday evening’s meeting, Kelsey Taylor describes his job straightforwardly: “I’m a garbage man.”
Taylor was one of many employees from Solid Waste Services, which handles trash for much of Anchorage. They were there over a proposal to sell off the trash collection service to a private company. The issue has made garbage a hot topic in city politics. A report from a financial consultant found the utility is currently in good working order, and that selling it could bring financial outcomes ranging from marginal short-term gains, to an overall decline in revenues.
“It just seems like a bad deal for everybody,” Taylor said of the report’s findings, “really not a good competitive deal for the taxpayers of Anchorage.”
SWS has a surplus of cash right now. The Administration’s budget planned on shifting $5 million from the utility into different funds.
“The utility is way over-funded, they should not be holding cash,” Mayor Dan Sullivan said after the Assembly meeting. He believes the utility is fundamentally owned by all the residents of Anchorage, and that any extra money should be passed along in the form of property tax relief. “I think that’s a better use than parking a bunch of cash where they don’t need.”
But Assembly members rejected that, unsettling the mathematical equilibrium in the Administration’s budget.
A solid block of Assembly members added in several amendments, including more animal control employees, a coordinator for issues on homelessness, and a planner to work on new marijuana regulations. All together, the budget changes amount to a bump over last year’s levels. The amended version passed 6 to 5 (Demboski, Evans, Hall, Johnston, and Starr voting against), with some fiscal conservatives objecting that a tax increase is unacceptable.
But others claimed the Administration’s budget left out money for much needed services.
“These amendments tonight dealt with public safety,” said Assembly Chair Dick Traini, who commends the Administration’s emphasis on fiscal produnce, but sees an obligation to provide funding for measures to keep the public safe. “I think you’re going to find a lot of people very happy when they can get the officers to come when they’ve got an issue with a wild dog.”
Assembly members also removed a controversial pilot program from the Administration to send a small number of Anchorage’s street alcoholics out of state for substance abuse treatment. The $200,000 set aside for the program will remain in the budget, but it will now be up to an Assembly committee on what kinds of treatment it will fund.
Though it was far from the worst budget battle Sullivan has been through, line item changes are not yet set in stone. “The budget’s not done yet,” he said. “I have seven days to veto.”
The Assembly delayed several items, including voting whether or not to approve a new collective bargaining agreement with the union representing police officers. That will come up at the next meeting, after the runoff election determining the city’s next mayor.
Community groups in Anchorage are continuing to protest the state legislature’s cuts to education funding. The Alaska PTA spoke publicly about the issue for the first time at a rally in downtown Anchorage, where about 100 people gathered with signs and balloons.
Community members and advocates were speaking out against the $48 million dollars in statewide education funding cuts included in the budget passed by legislators earlier this week.
“It’s all about the children,” said Alaska PTA president-elect Juan San Miguel. “That’s what we’re here for. If we don’t give them the tools that they need to succeed, we’re not going to make it as a country.”
San Miguel said the 7,000 member group is non-partisan and cannot lobby, but they felt they could not be publicly silent on the issue any longer. He suggested that the lawmakers cut their own budget before cutting education.
Other rally goers shared their messages directly with legislators and the governor by pulling out their cell phones and calling Juneau en mass.
Rev. Michael Burke from St. Mary’s Church spoke to the crowd saying education is one of the core values of the state and is important for everyone, including the faith community.
“This is the one thing that unites us all as Alaskans,” he said before taking the microphone. It “is the belief in the wisdom of investment in our children.”
The Anchorage School District is planning for the cuts, though final numbers could still change. The district needs to inform tenured teachers about any layoffs by May 15.
School Board Member Tam Agosti-Gisler, who attended the rally, said the district will likely cut the pilot programs that focus on early learning and literacy.
“These are all valuable components of how we’re trying to move the needle and improve the educational outcomes of our students, but now we’re being asked to walk backwards instead of walk forward.”
The Anchorage superintendent will present their revised budget on Thursday. The legislature’s current budget also cuts forward funding for education.
On Tuesday evening, the Anchorage Assembly approved the district’s originally proposed $784 million budget.
Icebreakers? Sure, But Coast Guard Boss Says Cutters Come First
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Anchorage
The head of the Coast Guard says the country must invest in new icebreakers to meet a predicted increase in Arctic drilling and marine traffic. But he
also told a U.S. Senate panel today (TUES) the Coast Guard needs a lot of ships, and icebreakers aren’t the top item on his acquisitions list.
As Lawmakers Gavel In For A Special Session, Leaders Ask For A Break And Relocation
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
Immediately after the Legislature gaveled out of their extended regular session, Gov. Bill Walker called them back in for a special one.
Marriage Equality Advocates Ask Governor To “Stop In The Name Of Love.”
Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau
On the day the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on marriage equality, more than 40 people gathered at the Dimond Courthouse plaza across from the State Capitol in Juneau to rally through song and dance.
A Moving Target: Stopping Booze At The River
Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel
In the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta, the three Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Taskforce (WAANT) investigators can’t be everywhere at once. Some villages are trying to fill in gaps where bootlegged alcohol reaches dry option communities. In the second of a three-part series on the law enforcement efforts to stem the flow of alcohol to the region, a look at Akiak’s tribal approach.
Kick The Bucket: Health Implications Of Third World Conditions In Rural Alaska
Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage
More than six percent of Alaskans live without water or sewer systems. The so-called “honey bucket” situation has frequently been deplored and millions of federal and state dollars have been devoted to dealing with it.
Unalaska Preps For Cruise Passenger Influx
Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska
Unalaska will get a big population boost this weekend, with the first cruise ship of what’s shaping up to be a busy summer. The Aleutian Islands
usually see a ferry run before the cruise ships start coming — but not this year.
U.S. Army ‘Sugar Bears’ Fly Supplies To Denali
Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna
Army helicopters flew the last round of supplies to Denali base camp yesterday for the 2015 climbing season. The unit, dubbed the “Sugar Bears”
is well-known in Talkeetna, and has a history in Alaska of combining training and supply runs.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on marriage equality yesterday (Tuesday). On the same day, around 40 people gathered at the Dimond Courthouse plaza across from the State Capitol in Juneau to rally through song and dance.
The group wants Gov. Bill Walker and Attorney General Craig Richards to end Alaska’s same-sex marriage appeal in one federal case and withdraw its support of gay marriage bans in the Supreme Court case.
With a single speaker wrapped in plastic, two microphones and a number of backup dancers, around 30 people stood in the rain singing,
“Stop in the name of love/ Before you break my heart/ Think it over/ Think it over/ Gov’nor Walker, I’m aware of what you do/ After we voted for you….”
Here’s Maureen Longworth reciting her own version:
“Gov. Walker, I’m aware of what you do. After we voted for you, you signed on the amicus brief against marriage equality. There’s time before you spend money causing us pain and hurt. Think it over. We gave our trust to you.”
At the end of the 5-minute performance, Longworth asked everyone to participate.
“Call Gov. Walker and ask him to stop in the name of love. And have all your family and friends do the same.” Longworth said.
Longworth is referring to the state’s appeal to the federal court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in Alaska. Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration initiated the appeal, and it’s been carried forward by Gov. Walker’s administration.
Longworth and others singing also want the state to withdraw from the amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court defending gay marriage bans.
Kimberly Crawford, who voted for Walker, has been doing exactly what Longworth is asking people to do.
” I’ve called him several times, emailed him. I mean, it’s unacceptable in my opinion.” Crawford said she’d had no response.
Kimberly married Marguerite Crawford in 2013 in Connecticut, and their marriage was recognized in Alaska last October when same-sex marriage became legal.
“We had our first marriage, what we consider our real marriage Aug. 4, 2012, in the courtyard here. Since we couldn’t get married inside the court, we were married outside.”
Marguerite Crawford hopes the singing and dancing will send a message to the governor and attorney general.
“It’s a good lighthearted way to say they are breaking our hearts by denying us the equality that other community members receive.” Crawford said.
Through a spokesperson, the governor says he respects the separation of power from the attorney general; the issue of withdrawing the state’s same-sex marriage appeal or from the amicus brief is up to the attorney general.
Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills says the Department of Law doesn’t plan on withdrawing from either. In January, the Walker administration asked to hold the appeal. Mills says it’s prudent to wait for the Supreme Court decision.
“We haven’t done any work on the case. We have been waiting until the U.S. Supreme makes its decision and the Ninth Circuit granted that stay to wait and see what happens.”
She says since the stay was issued, no money has been spent on litigation. She also said signing onto an amicus brief is a routine department function and didn’t result in additional costs.
As of Tuesday morning, the Department of Health and Social Services reports there have been 134 same-sex marriages in Alaska since it became legal on Oct. 14.
On Monday, Army helicopters flew the last round of supplies to Denali base camp for the 2015 climbing season. The unit, dubbed the “Sugar Bears” is well-known in Talkeetna, and has a history in Alaska of combining training and supply runs.
There are signs all around of the imminent beginning of Denali climbing season. The temperature is warming, the mosquitos are back, and the Sugar Bears are in town. Sugar Bears is the nickname of the U.S. Army 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment’s Bravo Company, based at Fort Wainwright. If the name conjures up images of breakfast cereal, there’s a good reason.
In the 1960s, a sugary breakfast cereal named Sugar Crisp went on sale. The name has since been changed to Golden crisp. Both brands feature as a mascot the appropriately named Sugar Bear. Chief Warrant Officer Kirk Donovan says Bravo Company’s name originated from supply runs that the unit made after relocating following Vietnam.
“When they first came up to Alaska, they used to haul a lot of supplies to real remote areas—real remote villages, and they used to bring in…cereal.”
Chief Warrant Officer Malcolm Jennings says the unit has official permission to use the Sugar Bear mascot.
“We have a letter of permission from Post Cereal to call ourselves the Sugar Bears.”
Despite the frankly adorable image the unit’s name conjures, the 1-52nd’s Bravo Company is an Army unit like many others. For the last few days, they have been taking loads of supplies from Talkeetna to support the National Park Service’s presence on Denali. That’s not their only role, however. The unit returned from deployment to Afghanistan late last year, and a soldier showed me where on the helicopter guns could be mounted. Lieutenant Colonel Alan Brown, a U.S. Army Alaska spokesman, says the Sugar Bears are training again now that they are back in the U.S.
“They’ve been working to get their aircraft back from deployment, get them all refitted and back to operating speed, so they’re going to have a busy summer in the high training season, here.”
Lieutenant Colonel Brown says part of that training means not only the type of terrain the soldiers operate on, but also preparing for the variety of entities that they might have to work with.
“This kind of training gives us the ability to train all over the region, not only at high altitude in this mountainous terrain, but also really doing a lot of collaboration with different agencies.”
The vehicle of choice for the Sugar Bears in their missions is the CH-47F Chinook helicopter. With nearly 10,000 horsepower, a cargo capacity of ten tons, and a top speed approaching 200 miles per hour, the Chinook is ideal for the kind of supply mission that Monday’s flight called for. After a briefing for the reporters tagging along, it was time to get airborne.
After a picturesque flight into the Alaska Range and onto the Kahiltna Glacier, the Sugar Bears began organizing cargo that a smaller helicopter will carry higher on Denali. Totes full of food, fuel containers, and a number of other supplies were loaded into large cargo nets. Denali Mountaineering Ranger Joe Reichert oversaw the sorting and bundling of the gear. He says the interagency cooperation between the Army and the National Park Service benefits both.
“There’s obviously efficiency, and they’re going to be flying in anyway to do their training, so it seems like a mutually beneficial expense.”
With the loads separated and arranged, it was time to head back to Talkeetna. With the back ramp of the Chinook open, the return flight proved noisy, but breathtaking. With this year’s base camp supply runs complete, the Sugar Bears will move on to other training missions until they’re needed elsewhere.
Can two ships be called a “fleet”? If so, that’s the size of the Coast Guard’s ice-breaking fleet, plus one more that’s in the shop and may never return to service. Still, Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft says he has so few multi-purpose cutters that the Coast Guard can only stop 20 percent of the known drug shipments in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The admiral says that allows international crime, terrorism and human trafficking to flourish with relative impunity.
“With our limited arsenal of ships and aircraft, this is truly an issue of capacity. And this is why the off-shore patrol cutter is our No. 1 recapitalization priority,” he said.
The Coast Guard procurement plan adds 91 new ships to replace an old cutter fleet that’s prone to time-sucking breakdowns. Total cost: more than $21 billion. The commandant says if the Coast Guard is going to build icebreakers, too, he’s going to need a bigger budget. Zukunft says it would be a good investment.
“This is part of our national infrastructure, if you will, in terms of our ability to exert influence and sovereignty in the Arctic domain,” he said.
Some in Congress have pressed the U.S. Navy to chip in for a new billion-dollar icebreaker, but a Navy official balked last month, telling a House panel the service has its own ship-building needs.
Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska chaired the Senate hearing. Sullivan says everyone seems to recognize the need for more icebreakers, but paying for it seems to be a matter of political football.
“You know, clearly the Russians in this area are eating our lunch, despite what you mentioned is a country whose size in terms of the economy is well below that of the United States,” Sulllivan said.
Russia is said to have 40 icebreakers. Of those in operation, four are in the heavy duty class. About half of the Russian fleet is medium and small icebreakers that are privately owned. While many of Moscow’s ships are reaching the end of their expected life span, that country has 11 new icebreakers planned or under construction.
Zukunft says he’s still cooperating with his Russian counterparts, so those Russian ships should be considered assets that might be called on to respond to an American search-and-rescue case.
“As we look at what are the real threats as we see in the Arctic, think beyond Vladimir Putin,” he urged. “And the real threats continue to be safety of life at sea, environmental, the well being of the indigenous tribes that have lived up in the Arctic region for the millennium.”
In the near term, despite the lack of a U.S. Coast Guard port in the Arctic, Zukunft says they are preparing for the likelihood that Shell will resume exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea this year.
“And we will have a rotational presence of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, and a national security cutter, and a shore-based aviation detachment, based in the Arctic region this summer,” he said.
The commandant also addressed Alaskan concerns that the seven island-class patrol cutters now based in Southeast and the Gulf of Alaska will be replaced by six fast-response cutters. Yes, Alaska would lose a patrol boat, but Zukunft says the new cutters will be able to operate over more days, in harsher conditions and travel further from home.
Immediately after the Legislature gaveled out of their extended regular session, Gov. Bill Walker called them back in for a special one. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
On Tuesday morning, legislators — some reluctantly, some bedraggled, and some remarkably chipper — reconvened at 10 a.m., for five-minute floor sessions. They received a message from the governor, asking them to do three things: expand Medicaid, create a sexual abuse prevention program for schools, and pass a budget that pays for government for a whole year.
Rather than launch straight into committee hearings, lawmakers then broke up into a series of closed-door meetings. There were caucus meetings, leadership meetings, and meetings with the governor. House Speaker Mike Chenault said he broached the idea of taking a two-week recess and then reconvening back in Anchorage, noting that construction is scheduled to start on the Capitol building in a matter of days.
As that all was happening, Walker’s new budget dropped. It reverses the Legislature’s freeze on cost-of-living raises for public employees. It restores some money for education, but still included his original cut of $32 million of one-time funding for schools. And, predictably, it also includes language that lets the state accept federal dollars to expand Alaska’s Medicaid program.
In all, it adds $90 million in state spending that had been cut by the Legislature, amounting to a 2 percent increase in money used from the unrestricted general fund.
His budget also requires a draw from the constitutional budget reserve — the hard-to-access rainy day fund responsible for a stalemate in the first place. The $10 billion account requires a three-quarter vote for a withdrawal, which means at least some minority Democrats have to vote for it. They have said in budget negotiations that their support is conditional on increased funding for education and Medicaid expansion.
The House Finance Committee is scheduled to hear that budget bill on Wednesday.
Citizens in Bethel are weighing a decision on a proposal for the for the first liquor store in decades. In the shadow of the debate is a powerful and elaborate bootlegging economy across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
The region’s three Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Taskforce investigators can’t be everywhere at once. Some villages are trying to fill in gaps where bootlegged alcohol reaches dry option communities. In the second of a three-part series on the law enforcements efforts to stem the flow of alcohol to the region KYUK’s Ben Matheson reports on Akiak’s tribal approach.
On a bright spring day overlooking the frozen Kuskokwim River, Akiak Tribal Policeman Ryan Jackson explains how this low-tech checkpoints work. It’s intended to stop alcohol at the doorstep to the community, and it’s basically Jackson, a 4-wheeler, and a badge.
“I just hold it up and say ‘Stop, this is a checkpoint,” said Jackson.
For the past two winters, the village has set up a checkpoint where snow machines and trucks come in off the Kuskokwim River. Jackson and others make sure to have coverage for big traffic days like basketball tournaments and dog races, as well as paydays from local employers. When the community is flush with cash, that’s when they know people will make the trip to Bethel, coming back with alcohol, which fetches 80 dollars a bottle in Akiak.
Jackson says his methods change depending on the weather and trail conditions.
“4 wheeler, sno-go, truck, either one. The sno-go is easier to chase with,” said Jackson
That is, if someone flees:
“You chase after them,” said Jackson.
Leaders say they’ve seized 500 bottles coming into Akiak this past winter. An agreement with tribes in nearby Akiachak, Tuluksak, and Kwethluk allows for similar efforts.
Mike Williams, a tribal advocate, alcohol counselor, and Iditarod dog musher says the matter is extremely personal to him–he’s lost all six of his brothers to alcohol.
“It’s a small community. We know who (the bootleggers) are. When a person brings in the booze from the next village, with today’s technology of instant communication, with texting and everything, we know who’s dealing,” said Williams.
Tragedy was evident this winter when three Akiak people who had been drinking drove their 4-wheeler through a storm into an open hole on the Kuskokwim and drowned. Surrounded by millions of acres of tundra, back trails, and side sloughs, Akiak’s not going to catch every last bottle. Williams says bootleggers know that as well as anyone.
“They have been getting real smart too,” said Williams. “They’re using communication to do the transaction outside of Akiak.”
For Williams, taking an aggressive stance in the village is part of a broad push to regain local tribal control after legislation fractured jurisdiction. Williams says it has prevented tribes from having meaningful power at home.
“We’ve lost so much control over the long years but we need to have that control back and take our lives back,” said Williams.
While they are willing to share information with state troopers, Akiak takes a distinctly tribal approach to follow up with those caught bootlegging. They’re brought in front of tribal court judges, like 72-year-old Elizabeth Lake.
“It’s good to talk. (We) have someone to talk to them in the village, instead of having troopers come around,” said Lake.
Lake says people caught running alcohol may face fines or community service, but keeping them out of jail and closer to home helps in the long run. Jackson Williams is another tribal court judge.
“We’re the community that wants to really go after people that bootleg to bring in booze to sell. We take care of it our way,” said Williams.
And that way raises privacy concerns regarding checkpoints. But Williams takes a broader perspective.
“When we first started, people were saying what about my civil rights, what about my rights as an individual? And we say-what about the rights of our children, the rights of our women, the rights of people to have a healthy community? What about the rights of people who are not using being effected? What about their rights?,” said Williams.
State law enforcement doesn’t get involved in the checking. Investigator Todd Moehring from the state’s Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team says the checkpoint is strictly a tribal initiative.
“I applaud their efforts. They’re doing a great job trying to take an active role in combating bootlegging, which has been really good. It has cut down on the calls we’ve gotten, they’ve been stepping it up, trying to process things tribally,” said Moehring.
Chance Cunningham, worked as a Village Public Safety Officer in Akiak for two years. VPSO’s are not employed by the tribe. He says his only role at the checkpoint is to stand by.
“I just sat in the distance, in the shadows, in the hopes that nothing bad would happen, that I would have to be there because I have the tools and training,” said Cunningham.
On the front lines, TPO Jackson thinks it’s working.
“It’s less work if we get the bottles before they go out,” said Jackson.
And to keep the bottles from entering his community, Jackson will watch where the Kuskokwim meets his village.
You don’t have to go to a foreign country to find Third World conditions. You can find more than six percent of Alaskans living in those conditions – without modern running water or sewer systems. The so-called “honey bucket” situation has frequently been deplored and millions of federal and state dollars have been devoted to dealing with it. But the reality remains that people in 3,300 households in the state live without running water and flush toilets and have much higher rates of hospitalization for respiratory and skin infections. Are there solutions? Maybe? Are we getting closer to those solutions? Maybe not. Today we begin a five-part series entitled “Kick the Bucket,” in which we’ll get a closer look at the water and sewer situation in rural Alaska. In part one, we look at the public health implication of inadequate water supplies.
If you’re one of Kwethluk’s 750 residents, you’re 400 miles from the road system that serves Anchorage and Fairbanks, 120 miles from the Bering Sea, and near a branch of the Kuskokwim River. In the winter, this is how you get water for your household.
“You have to chip the ice away. You have to chip and chip, especially when it was really cold and the ice was thick,” said Claudia Hansen.
Until Hansen’s home gets hooked up to a new piped water and sewer system, her son continues to haul ice from the Kwethluk River. Once it melts and the silt settles, it’s ready to use — and drink.
Fifty miles up the Kuskokwim River, in Tuntutuliak, Lucy Lupie says fetching water is a young man’s job.
“Since my husband is getting older, it is harder for him to get ice,” said Lupie.
Alaskans without plumbing also collect rainwater, or buy water at a central watering point, often carrying home 5-gallon jugs weighing about 40 pounds each. After all that effort, people use water sparingly – as little as two gallons per person per day. Fifteen gallons a day is considered necessary to stay clean, and the average American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water a day. One way villagers conserve water is by sharing a basin of soapy water for hand washing.
Especially for little ones, this can foster respiratory infections, as Kivalina Community Health Aide Isabell Booth explains.
“A lot of respiratory illness,” said Booth. “We had a lot of pneumonia and bronchiolitis in like two and under.”
CDC studies show Alaskans without plumbing get invasive pneumococcal infections up to eleven times more often that other Alaskans. In Southwest Alaska, where 40% of the homes lack plumbing, one in four infants is hospitalized for severe respiratory infection.
In Northwest Alaska, Kivalina gets its water from a river, and sometimes can’t get enough to last all year. Booth says she sees the effects when the water tanks are closed.
“Every time our water gets low when they shut down, I start to see abscess, skin problems like abscess start coming around and go on for probably a month or two to where they have to be treated with antibiotic,” said Booth.
When people can’t use outhouses due to permafrost or boggy ground, for instance, they use a bucket fitted with a toilet seat, a “honey bucket,” which gets emptied every day — or so. In Tuntutuliak, Adolf Lupie carries his family honey-bucket down a boardwalk leading to an underground bunker. He laughs as he advises caution.
“Make sure it’s not slippery around here or we’ll slip and the honey bucket will be over us.”
After emptying the bucket, and back indoors, Lupie says it’s worse when it’s warmer.
“When the spring time comes, it’s really gross and smelly,” he said.
People are frustrated but most say they wouldn’t move just to have plumbing. Many villagers have strong ties, like Lucy Lupie who says she doesn’t know who she’d socialize with in larger communities.
“It’s where our relatives are,” said Lupie. “Like if I was in the city, where would I turn to for help or even to socialize?”
And, many rural communities have thrived for centuries because they’re ideally situated for food gathering. Stanley Hawley, of Kivalina, says he’s driven by the imperative, and rewards, of supporting his family with food from nature.
“Once we get exposed to that livelihood, that way of living, it gets ingrained in our spirit, and in our soul, and in our psyche,” said Hawley.
Health experts say near-universal piped water and sewer is one of, if not the most important American public health achievement of the 20th century. It helped cut U.S. mortality rates by 40%, and raise life expectancy from 47 to 63 years. Later we’ll hear about some of the reasons so many Alaskans still live without plumbing.
Now that the United States has assumed chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the University of Alaska Fairbanks will play a central role in carrying out the U.S. agenda in the region, UAF’s top two administrators said Friday.
UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers outlined that role Friday during a live webcast of the Arctic Council meeting at the Murie Building on the campus’s West Ridge. During the meeting, Canada formally relinquished the presiding role to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Rogers told a group watching that as the nation’s Arctic university, UAF has always been active in shaping and informing U.S. policy for the far northern regions. Rogers says UAF’s role will increase during the nation’s two-year term heading up the Arctic Council.
“This is a really important time for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks as well,” Rogers said. “We have the expertise, we have the reputation to make significant contributions to support the work of the Arctic Council, to support Arctic policy and science generally.”
Rogers says UAF will see a lot of Arctic Council-related activity over the next two years. Upcoming activities include an Arctic Energy Summit and a Polar Law Symposium this fall,which will include sessions at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.
Rogers says the council itself will be meeting in Alaska over the next two years. And members of its delegations and its advisory panels will frequently be coming to the state, along with observers and non-governmental organizations that are associated with the council.
A new report from the National Parks Service says Alaska parks brought over 2.5 million visitors, $1.1 billion and 17,000 jobs into the state economy last year.
National Park Service spokesman John Quinley says restaurants, air taxi services, and local shops across the state see economic benefits from the parks.
“You know, replace the fishing rod that got lost on their flight to Philadelphia or something,” Quinley said. “It’s that local spending is well that cumulatively creates jobs, it’s not one person creating one job with their spending, but 30,000 people sort of spending bits of money in a lot of different places.”
Alaska parks in 2014 had the highest visitation on record.