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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).
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Arctic Barge Nears Russia After Months In Ice

Thu, 2015-02-26 17:24

The barge was already partially ice-bound on Oct. 31, 2014, as seen from a Coast Guard aircraft in Alaska’s Arctic. (Courtesy: Cmdr. Shawn Decker/USCG)

An unmanned fuel barge that got stuck in Arctic sea ice last fall has now made it almost as far as the northern coast of Russia.

It sounds like the makings of a children’s book: the long, unexpected journey of a little barge called the NTAL-2.

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The ship got lost in an Arctic storm last October, and nearly ran aground near Prudhoe Bay before getting caught up in advancing sea ice. Since then, it’s traveled almost 1,400 nautical miles without ever touching solid ground — about the distance from Maine to Florida.

“This thing is pretty much stuck in ice,” says Mark Serreze, the executive director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “Really just think of it as another ice floe, in many ways.”

Serreze says winter winds have pushed 134-foot barge — and the Arctic ice it’s frozen in — on a typical east-to-west track. It followed Canada and Alaska’s northern coastlines, before leaving U.S. waters, and as of this month, arriving near the Russian coast.

The barge’s path from October to February. (Courtesy: Ed Page/MXAK)

The U.S. Coast Guard handed off this case to their Russian counterparts months ago — but they’ve been able to keep an eye on the barge anyway. That’s thanks to a makeshift transponder from the Marine Exchange of Alaska.

“We program it ahead of time,” says executive director Ed Page. “And [the Coast Guard] basically made a Rube Goldberg design — 2x4s and sandbags and what have you — that allows it to be dropped on [the barge] and not slide off. And that’s what’s tracking it. It’s pretty simple.”

The transponder shows how the barge has moved, and how fast. Page says it’s been a better Arctic experiment than any he could have planned.

“At times it’s going along at three knots or so,” he says. “I thought it would be a lot more stationary, kind of stay in the general area. Didn’t really expect the ice to move that far.”

But Serreze, at the Snow & Ice Data Center, says it doesn’t surprise him.

“The ice cover is becoming thinner, and it’s going to be more responsive to wind, and so that means it tends to move faster,” he says. “But that also means that these pressure ridges — ridging episodes — might become more frequent. And so maybe the barge will get in trouble that way.”

The transponder, center, strapped to weighted 2x4s. (Courtesy: Cmdr. Shawn Decker/USCG)

So far, the barge and its thousand or so gallons of diesel fuel cargo seem to be intact. The vessel’s owner, Northern Transportation Company Limited of Canada, didn’t return requests for comment on whether they plan to retrieve the barge. Coast Guard response commander Shawn Decker says they may try recovering it in the summer, when the ice melts.

For now, it’s serving as a good lesson for the Coast Guard on Arctic operations — like how to respond to a theoretical oil spill atop the ice.

“The barge, and the track that it’s taken — think of it as sort of a tracer,” says Mark Serreze. “Now, if you had an oil spill, say, north of Point Barrow or something, it would have taken basically the same track. So I think it is kind of illustrative of the issues you might have to deal with in the future, knowing how a big oil slick would move.”

The Coast Guard is equipped to handle a spill on ice, says commander Shawn Decker. A spill in open water would be a bigger challenge; the science around how oil interacts with the Arctic environment is still limited.

But it still wouldn’t help in the case of the little barge. Decker says only a heavy-duty icebreaker could have rescued the NTAL-2 once it was ice-bound. The United States has just one of those in service: the Polar Star, which has been deployed in Antarctica all winter.

Categories: Alaska News

University of Alaska To Launch Sexual Assault Survey Next Week

Thu, 2015-02-26 17:22

University of Alaska has this flier about the survey. (Courtesy University of Alaska)

After a several month delay, the University of Alaska will launch a survey March 2 that deals with sexual assault on campus.

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The Campus Climate Survey will go to 15,000 randomly selected students, faculty and staff members. It starts with questions about sexual assault awareness training and asks how well the university deals with reports of sexual misconduct.

The survey then moves on to more explicit questions about sexual harassment and assault. Here’s an example: “Since the start of the school year has someone had sexual contact with you when you were unable to provide consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or asleep?”

University attorney Michael O’Brien says results of the survey will remain completely anonymous and won’t be published.

“This is a way for the university to get a sense of how big a problem sexual assault and sexual harassment are on our campuses, how good a job are we doing at getting out the message about sexual assault and sexual harassment prevention and whether our training is getting out to our community,” O’Brien says.

It’s been the university’s goal to offer training on sexual assault to everyone in the school community. Incoming freshmen learned about rules surrounding sexual misconduct and where to go for help during orientation last August, staff and faculty were trained before the school year started, and Residential Life has been offering sessions. O’Brien says those are just a few examples.

He says the Board of Regents was trained for the first time during its meeting last week in Anchorage.

“We cannot guess who’s going to receive a report of sexual harassment or sexual assault. It could be you, it could be me, it could be a member of our custodial crew and it could be a Regent and we want them to know as well what they can do if something like that happened,” O’Brien says.

Last May, the U.S. Department of Education put the University of Alaska system on a list of about 60 colleges nationwide being investigated as part of a compliance review or for mishandling sexual assault complaints. That list is now at more than 90.

Federal auditors from the Office of Civil Rights visited campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Bethel last October as part of a compliance review, which remains ongoing. O’Brien says the auditors are still going through the more than 10,000 pages of documents the university submitted last year and need to do more interviews.

This is the first time University of Alaska will conduct a campus climate survey. Back in April, the White House had recommended that all colleges do them and provided sample questions. Initially, the University of Alaska modeled its survey after the federal government’s, but O’Brien says there were some problems.

“Harassment online wasn’t addressed in the survey and because we have such a large online e-learning community, we did not want to do a disservice to those parts of our population.
The university planned on doing the survey at the end of last year, but didn’t want it to come out at the same time as finals,” he says.

At that point, the university had received more than 20 complaints of sexual harassment and about a dozen reports of sexual assault since the beginning of the school year.

Categories: Alaska News

Navigating “The New Normal” Of Legal Marijuana

Thu, 2015-02-26 17:21

Samantha Cox has already begun taking custom orders for marijuana pipes and products. Some are discreet vaporizers shaped like pens. Others are elaborate pipes, such as this dragon from China. Some customers have vowed never to shop at Evergreen again. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

As the recreational use of marijuana becomes legal in Alaska today, the changing laws surrounding pot have already created a ripple effect in Sitka. Law enforcement is ironing out the details and businesses are catering to new clientele, with mixed opinions.

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“Whoa. Oooo…”

When KCAW visited Samantha Cox, she was opening a new shipment. She dipped her hands inside a cardboard box, pushed aside the plastic wrap, and pulled out a dragon. Affixing the glass tail to the body, painted red and yellow in imitation flames, she said, “I had to order this all the way from China.”

Right where the dragon’s scales would be is a mouthpiece from which the future owner will inhale smoke. “It’s a pipe,” Cox said.

Since January 5th, Evergreen Natural Foods has been selling pipes for marijuana use underHerb n’ Legend, a separate business begun by Cox and her partner Mitch McGraw that sells its wares inside the natural foods store. Before Christmas, they were tossing around ideas for how to bring more money into Evergreen.

Cox said that Herb n’ Legend has brought in a whole new clientele to the store, some that are casual users and some heavy users looking for products she doesn’t sell (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

According to Cox, they wondered, “What can we sell that’s going to bring in customers, that’s going to be unique to the town, and something that people will actually spend their money on while the economy isn’t doing so well?”

And so, they opened a marijuana accessory business. And they’re not the only ones.

Two weeks ago, Tongass Threads Consignment Store also begun to sell marijuana pipes. Owner Kathleen Hill said she too wanted to jump on the business opportunity, but decided to keep the products separate from shoppers. Her pipes are stored in a room behind the consignment shop.

As for Herb n’ Legend at Evergreen, Cox said that customers reactions have mirrored the vote of Sitkans on Ballot Measure 2. 70 percent support the new venture or at least keep quiet about it, while 30 percent are vocally unhappy.

Cox said, “After the first two weeks, I got a lot more of the older, more conservative folks, who — when they found out these weren’t vases — were not so thrilled. And there’s a lot of times where I’ll get passive aggressive comments that I can’t really speak back to. They’ll come in, they’ll be on the phone with someone else, and make the comment, ‘Oh, I’ll never bring my children here again.’”

Since public attitude toward pot is mixed, I was half expecting the new merchandise to be clustered discreetly in the corner, like the porn section tucked away in the back of a video store. But no. The accessories are right behind the counter and proudly arranged. Cox said that was intentional.

“We went to California and looked around at the different head shops there,” Cox said. “While there was some great ones, there were some that smelled bad. They mixed products that could be used for heavy, scary drugs in with their marijuana products. I want a place where people won’t feel ashamed. A place that is clean and respectable. Everybody knows it’s here and everybody knows it’s normal.”

Compared to other states, marijuana has a long history in Alaska. In a 1975 case called Ravin vs. State, Alaska was the first state to declare that adult citizens had a constitutional right to privacy that protected their marijuana use at home.

When Senator Dan Sullivan was in town last Friday, he brought this up before Sitka’s municipal attorney Robin Koutchak. According to Koutchak, “[Sullivan] said, ‘Well it’s always been legal.’ And we said, ‘Yes, well what’s going to change on the 24th is that friends can give each other marijuana.’

What remains illegal, at least until the state starts issuing licenses in May 2016, is selling marijuana and growing it for commercial purposes. Koutchak has experience with this paradox. She brings up the example of alcohol in some rural communities, where you can possess the drink, but not buy or sell it.

“We as prosecutors would laugh about that and call it ‘magical alcohol,’” Koutchak explained. “If it magically appears, you can drink it. If it magically appears, you can consume it. So this could be a real magical time in the middle.”

The other aspect of marijuana that will remain illegal, indefinitely, is consumption in public. Those in violation will be fined up to $100. In this new climate, Sitka Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt doesn’t anticipate many tickets will be handed out right away. A lot of enforcement will be left up to the discretion of the officer.

KCAW: Come Tuesday, let’s say someone is on their front porch smoking a joint or in their backyard. Neighbors can smell smoke. How would the police department respond?

Schmitt: I think as long as it’s not bothering anybody, we won’t know about it and we won’t be looking to enforce it. You made it sound like potentially this came from a complaint, from a neighbor saying, “Hey, we can smell it.” And we’d probably go talk to them first and say, ‘Hey can you take it inside? The smell is going over to your neighbors place.’ I think that would be the approach.

Schmitt said the department is more concerned about cracking down on underage use and operating vehicles under the influence of marijuana. After February 24th, he expects things to calm down fairly quickly. “I don’t expect a bunch of people smoking marijuana in the street. I think it’s going to be kind of anti-climactic actually,” said Schmitt.

What is unclear in the year ahead is whether Sitka will allow money to mix with marijuana use. Samantha Cox, of Herb n’ Legend, has no interest in growing or distributing marijuana herself. She said she’s plenty busy keeping up with orders. Sales have been booming in the lead up to February 24th. Her customer base is a mix of casual users and heavy ones, and a handful of current cancer patients.

Cox said, “Several of these patients said they would have loved to have used marijuana during their treatment, but they were so afraid of the judgment and being labeled a stoner, as if that makes some difference on their worth. There’s those people and there’s the folks that are ready for a change.”

And it’s this second kind of change, a shift in the attitude towards marijuana, that Cox says takes more than a law to make possible.

Categories: Alaska News

Rough Winter Takes Toll On Dillingham Residents

Thu, 2015-02-26 17:19

Winter has been rough around the state this year. And the lack of snow and warm temperatures have not gone unnoticed by businesses and recreational enthusiast.

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My first stop is L&M hardware to speak with Parts Manager Mark Gleeson.

Mark says this is the worst winter he has seen in 22 years. But he says that life goes on and many people have just been using their 4 wheelers to get around, among other things.

“Funny enough, boats. There have been a lot of times this winter that the rivers and what not have been ice free,” he said. “So people have been using modes of transportation they don’t normally use in the winter.”

Snow machine sales have been way down at L&M this year, and Gleeson tells me that’s true around the state:

“It’s getting to the point that if there isn’t a true promise of snow, people are going to hold off a year,” Gleeson said. “And that has happened for the past two years. So we are going to be thick with unsold machinery.”

I cross 2nd Ave to visit Kyle Rolph at the L&M repair shop.

Kyle: “What’s up?”

Matt: “Kyle?”

Kyle: “That’s what my mom calls me.”

Matt: “Is that what I can call you?”

Kyle: “Depends, who are you?”

After a quick introduction, Kyle gets right to the point.

“This winter and last winter are just complete freaks of nature compared to what I know,” Kyle said. “If you went out riding for half a day, you’d probably have to stay in bed for a day, it’s so rough and nasty out there.”

He tells me that when there is good snow, he and his team can barely keep up with demand.

“I mean the mechanics are out moving lumber and stuff around, and normally we don’t have time to work on anything but mechanical things,” Kyle said.

Rolph says work is slow enough he’s actually moving to Hawaii at the end of the month. He’s leaving for a job to work on outboard motors.

Rolph: “There is never an off season over there so I’ll be busy all the time.”

Kyle: “So was the lack of snow a factor in your decision?”

Rolph: “Actually it was. You know, the days go by a lot faster when you actually have work to do.”

He tells me if Hawaii doesn’t work out, he can always come back home.

I headed over next to Delta Western. Ken Reiswig, owner of one of Dillingham’s three main fuel suppliers, says it’s not the lack of snow that is his concern.

“Warm weather and large heating fuel sells don’t go together,” Ken said. “You don’t sell lots of fuel.”

Grocery stores in Dillingham like the N&N Marketplace say business they normally see from the villages in the winter is down because the most of the trails haven’t opened yet.

I’m new here, but I can tell recreation has suffered too. Hunters are struggling to hunt, trappers to trap. Fish and Game says the numbers of reported harvests are down. Ptarmigan haven’t come down from the mountains, I’m told.  Skiers can ski, but apparently not much.

What about other festivities? Charlene Lopez says Dillingham’s Beaver Round-up may be forced to cancel the dog sled races again.

“We’re trying to do what we can to beef up the schedule but also still see what we can do the traditional ways,” Charlene said. “And it is kind of terrible if we have to cancel the dog races being the second year. But we need snow for those, for the mushers and for the dogs for their safety, that’s what we need.”

So, I got off the plane about a week ago, brand new to Dillingham and Alaska. It dawned on me pretty quick that a real winter, with some real snow, is pretty important to business, fun, and life in a lot of Bristol Bay.

Maybe it’s not too late?

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: February 26, 2015

Thu, 2015-02-26 17:18

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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Sen. Lisa Murkowski Skeptical Of Forest Service’s Tongass Plan

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell defended his management of the Tongass National Forest to the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee today. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the panel, says the service isn’t allowing enough timber sales to keep what remains of the logging industry in Southeast Alaska in business.

Arctic Barge Nears Russia After Months In Ice

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

An unmanned fuel barge that got stuck in Arctic sea ice last fall has now made it almost as far as Russia’s northern coast.

What Does Alaska’s Minimum Wage Hike Mean For Businesses?

Annie Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Alaska’s statewide minimum wage increase went into effect on Tuesday. Now, thousands of jobs in the state pay $8.75 an hour — a dollar increase. So what does this means for Anchorage’s small businesses and consumers?

University of Alaska To Launch Sexual Assault Survey Next Week

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

After a several month delay, the University of Alaska will launch a survey next week that deals with sexual assault on campus.

Navigating “The New Normal” Of Legal Marijuana

Emily Kwong, KCAW – Sitka

The changing laws surrounding legalized marijuana have already created a ripple effect in Sitka. Law enforcement is ironing out the details and businesses are catering to new clientele with mixed results.

Independent Power Producers Seek Utility Regulations Change

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Alternative energy producers in Alaska may benefit from new rules the Regulatory Commission of Alaska is considering.  But other independents say the state’s power statutes are so antiquated they should be completely revised.

Rough Winter Takes Toll On Dillingham Residents

Matt Martin, KDLG – Dillingham

The lack of snow and warm temperatures this winter have not gone unnoticed by businesses and recreational enthusiasts in Bristol Bay.

Categories: Alaska News

Sen. Lisa Murkowski Skeptical Of Forest Service’s Tongass Plan

Thu, 2015-02-26 10:42

Beached logs pile up in Shoal Cove on Revilla Island in the Tongass National Forest. A new report challenges old-growth logging spending in the forest. (Jim Baichtal/USFS)

In a U.S. Senate hearing room this morning, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell is defending his management of the Tongass National Forest.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski says the service isn’t allowing enough timber sales to keep what remains of the logging industry in Southeast Alaska in business. Tidwell says he’s planning sales of 70 million board feet a year for the next two years.

Tidwell: “We are putting up more. It’s not adequate. The bridge timber we talk about, to be able to provide the bridge until we can move into the second growth, we were able to put Big Thorne sale out last year. We’re optimistic we’ll be moving forward with it this year.”

Murkowski: “We’ve got a little bit of an ESA issue with Big Thorne. You and I both know that. So  to say that we’ve got it out there and it’s going to be this big bridge out there, the people on Prince of Wales aren’t so optimistic right now.”

Murkowski was referring to the Endangered Species Act and an expected battle over the Alexander Archipelago Wolf.

She’s holding a series of hearings in the Senate Energy Committee on the budgets of the departments her committee oversees. Murkowski says she hoped to see more in the budget for the Tongass.

“But I don’t think you are offering anything more than you have, which is nothing,” Murkowski said. “Nothing to the people of the Tongass.”

Murkowski also says the president’s proposed budget has little funding for Secure Rural Schools.

Categories: Alaska News

Head of Continental Defense Lays Out Threats Facing U.S. Amid Rising Importance of Arctic

Wed, 2015-02-25 19:24

Admiral Bill Gortney took over dual-hatted command of NORAD and NORTHCOM in December 2014. (DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy)

Admiral Bill Gortney visited Alaska for the first time earlier this month since taking over the two organizations tasked with defending North America from attack. Gortney wears two hats: he is head of both the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), as well as the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM). It’s one of the highest positions in the military chain of command, responsible for dealing with airborne threats–whether missiles launched from a hostile country, or a rogue plane within American air space. After a visit to Fort Wainwright and the missile fields in the Interior, Gortney came to Anchorage for an inspection of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and talked with KSKA’s Zachariah Hughes about the strategic importance of Alaska to the military’s mission.

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Admiral Bill Gortney: The world is round—most people don’t realize that, the world is round. And your location from here allows us to get from here to defend from the Northern approach, as well as to deploy from here. The F-22’s that are stationed here can get to England or to the Middle East quicker than they can from the continental United States there down south.  So it’s an incredibly important strategic asset.

As far as recently, the importance of what we do out of this great state—and oh, by the way, the pictures don’t do it justice—is the increased activity in Russian long-range aviation, the “Bear Bombers.” They are, we believe, messaging using these long-range aviation flights. And so very frequently when they come down here we launch assets, aircraft—fighters, tankers, and early warning—from Alaska, and Canada does the same thing. We coordinate that activity, whichever one makes the most sense.

Zachariah Hughes: You said “messaging,” what does that mean?

Adm. Gortney: Well, all countries use their militaries in a messaging way to display strength, should they need to. That’s what we mean by “messaging,” it’s not in a kinetic sense, it’s not hostile. It’s just ‘We’re here, we can do these sorts of things.’

ZH: The Russian long-range craft that have been entering airspace—how frequently is that occurring, and when did it start?

Adm. Gortney: Well, they’ve been doing it since they were the Soviet Union. They took a pause for—I’m not sure how many years, but just recently in the last three or four years the numbers have gone up.  I’m not going to give you the percentage, because the percentage implies—ya know, if I said 500% you may get that that’s a whole lot, but five is 500% of one, right? But it has gone up significantly that we’ve notice here, and they’re flying profiles that they haven’t flown before. Now, they’ve never entered our air space, which goes out to 12 nautical miles, but they have entered what we call our Air Defense Identification Zone—and all nations have these, they go pretty far out there. And they’re adhering to the international standards that they’re supposed to out there. The numbers have gone up, but they fly it in a professional manner, just as we fly in a professional manner.

ZH: Switching gears just for a second, the U.S. is poised to take over some new Arctic responsibilities: is the importance of the Arctic changing? And the way capabilities and assets are deployed, are those changing?

Adm. Gortney: Yes, actually one of my assigned missions from the Secretary of Defense is to be the advocate of the Arctic for the Secretary of Defense. And since this is the Arctic—well, a little bit further North if you draw the line correctly—we use the Army and the Airforce, as well as the Coast Guard and a little bit of Navy out of here to do that advocacy role in the Arctic.

[The Arctic is] absolutely critical. This is a pretty harsh place to operate. It takes a particular skill-set, equipment, and people to know how to operate. And this gives us the opportunity to understand that.

ZH: With the national draw-down in the Armed Forces going on, and sequestration looming large over a lot of those conversations, how is your work going to change going forward? And is there any change in the resources you have at your disposal?

Adm. Gortney: Well, coming out of every war there’s a 27-32% reduction in the Department of Defense budget. This goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War, and of course we didn’t have a DOD back then. So this isn’t the first time we’re coming out of a major war and the budget goes down. And so this is a reality we have to deal with. How we do that as a nation is the hard part.

The other piece is that every time we’ve come out of a major war we go into an international security environment better than the one we went in. You would think that’s why you went to war. And just in the last three years, if you look at the international security environment around the world, it is not a more secure environment than we went in. And it’s nobody’s fault—we just didn’t predict it. No one predicted what’s occurred. That is what’s different this time, and that’s what causes me concern.

ZH: Do you still get to fly?

Adm. Gortney: No I don’t, I’m too old.

ZH: Do you miss it?

Adm. Gortney: I do, yeah. But I had a pretty good run. And now it’s up for the young pups to do it.


Categories: Alaska News

Attorneys Wrap Up Arguments In Lawsuit Challenging Restrictions To Medicaid-Funded Abortions

Wed, 2015-02-25 17:51

Attorneys for both sides wrapped up arguments Wednesday in a case that could reverse state prohibitions against some Medicaid-funded abortions. Attorneys for Planned Parenthood claim a state statute is too restrictive, while it violates a woman’s constitutional rights.

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Categories: Alaska News

New Marijuana Bill Would Require Alaska Residency Of Sellers

Wed, 2015-02-25 17:23

Two days after Gov. Bill Walker filed a bill to create a marijuana control board and a day after the drug became legal in the state, state senators are offering legislation setting terms for that board.

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The 25-page bill was offered by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. It would require marijuana retailers and growers to be licensed by the state, instead of just getting business registrations. They would have to be an Alaska resident for at least one year before they can apply, and would need to go through fingerprinting and background checks.

The legislation also addresses the packaging and advertising of marijuana products. It requires retailers to keep the drug in child-safe containers, and limits them from marketing marijuana in a way that would be “enticing to minors” but without defining what that means. It also requires edible marijuana products to be sold in serving sizes that have a maximum of 10 milligrams of THC — the active chemical in the drug.

Categories: Alaska News

With Budget Recommendations, Early Education Programs On Chopping Block

Wed, 2015-02-25 17:22

Lawmakers are targeting a number of early education programs for cuts. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

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Pre-kindergarten grants, Parents as Teachers, Best Beginnings — all of these early learning programs were zeroed out in the budget recommendations offered by a House education subcommittee on Tuesday night.

“I looked at our Constitution, and I looked at what we are constitutionally mandated to do,” says Rep. Lynn Gattis, a Wasilla Republican who chairs the subcommittee.

Gattis says with the state facing a multi-billion dollar budget deficit, her prerogative was to make cuts to newer programs, programs that had not been fully funded in the past, and programs that did not meet the standard of “essential.” More than $12 million was cut from the Department of Education’s budget. But the base student allocation — the funding that is divvied out to schools based on their enrollment numbers — was not touched.

“My goal was to keep the classrooms whole,” says Gattis. “So, in order to do that, let’s not reach into the BSA, let’s not go there. So what are your choices to make your numbers?”

On top of cuts to early education, the subcommittee eliminated funding for a literacy program and a library technology program. They also slashed $5 million meant to expand broadband internet access to the state’s school.

The cuts are perennially controversial. Early education programs in particular have been a traditional political football. Conservative Republicans have targeted them for cuts, arguing that they compete with private sector daycare and may duplicate federal education programs; Democrats have sought to expand pre-kindergarten learning programs, especially for low-income children.

Rep. Sam Kito III, a Juneau Democrat on the subcommittee, opposes the early education cuts.

“I’m concerned that if we take funding away from our younger kids, then we’re actually going to see a decrease in graduation rates in the future.”

Kito also has concerns with how the cuts were advanced. While Kito expressed opposition to some cuts during the subcommittee hearing, he was not allowed to offer any amendments to the proposal during that meeting.

“Denying the amendments denies our ability to comment and hear from the department,” says Kito. “So, we have less of an ability to make our voices heard.”

Amendments were allowed to be filed in advance through Friday, but Kito says the subcommittee was only given full budget information two hours before the deadline, which did not allow members to review the impact of cuts or draft changes. The process bothered Kito enough that he stood up in the House chambers on Wednesday to air complaints before the whole body.

Gattis stands by her approach. She notes that Kito’s colleagues in the House Democratic minority will have the ability to fight the cuts later. She also believes that committee members had sufficient time to offer changes, and that keeping meetings from running long matters when the House is in the middle of the budget drafting process.

“Making amendments on the fly — voting for those becomes a very repetitious type thing,” says Gattis.

The education recommendations will now be sent to the House Finance Committee. In better budget years, some funding for early education programs has been restored at that stage.

Categories: Alaska News

State Rep. Nageak Taken From Capitol By Ambulance

Wed, 2015-02-25 17:21

Rep. Benjamin Nageak addresses the Alaska House of Representatives, Feb. 4, 2015. He was speaking as the primary sponsor of HJR 10, a resolution opposing the revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

A Barrow state representative was taken by ambulance from the state Capitol Wednesday.

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House Speaker Mike Chenault said Rep. Benjamin Nageak, a Democrat from Barrow, wasn’t feeling well and given his medical history, it was thought better to have Nageak checked by medical personnel than to do nothing.

Nageak underwent a heart procedure in 2013 after doctors found blockages.

Nageak had been speaking on the House floor to a resolution on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Senate majority press secretary Carolyn Kuckertz said Sens. Cathy Giessel and Donny Olson looked at Nageak along with paramedics. Both have medical backgrounds.

He is under observation at a hospital.

Categories: Alaska News

Commercial Fisheries Commission Chief Reacts To Being On Chopping Block

Wed, 2015-02-25 17:20

Bruce Twomley has been with the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission since 1982. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission is defending itself against a recent state report pointing out inefficiencies and legislation that could dissolve the agency.

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Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission Chair Bruce Twomley is worried about the agency’s future, especially after a bill was introduced last week to dismantle the commission as a cost saving measure.

“We would like to get to the end of this session so that we can do what we can do at our end to try to suggest savings. We hope we’re still in a position to do that. We hope we’re still intact at the end of this session,” Twomley says.

The Department of Fish and Game released a report earlier this month that draws attention to backlogged permit application cases, a slow work pace by the three commissioners who head the agency, and alternatives to the agency’s organizational structure. The commission respondedMonday to the report in writing and posted it on its website.

The commission doesn’t take issue with the whole report. Twomley recognizes it includes a lot of praise for the agency and he stands firmly behind one of the report’s recommendations to maintain the three commissioners until all the cases are complete.

“We think that is a very sound recommendation,” he says.

Since its creation in 1973, Twomley says the commission has been going through a deluge of thousands of applications to limited entry fisheries and is now down to the last 28 cases. The report recommends those be complete by the end of June. A more reasonable time frame, says Twomley, is by the end of 2016.

He defends why the commission takes so long to adjudicate cases.

“Some cases are more than 15 years old because we had more than 23,000 applications to work through and the reason is really the volume and complexity of the cases, and the fact that these huge caseloads arrive almost at the same time,” Twomley says.

Rep. Louise Stutes’ House Bill 112 would eliminate the commission by transferring duties to Fish and Game and a division of the Department of Administration.

Twomley says the survival of the agency is vital. He says the commission will likely limit one or more fisheries in the near future, but wouldn’t name them. He says the work the commission does is complicated and specialized.

Twomley has been a CFEC commissioner since Gov. Jay Hammond appointed him in 1982.

“The only reason I’m sticking around is because I think there is some critical work to be done, but if someone wants to force my retirement, that would not be the worst thing that could happen to me. It would not be good, however, I think for the agency or the task and the remaining employees at the agency,” Twomley says.

CFEC has 28 full-time employees including the three commissioners.

The House Fisheries Committee on Tuesday heard an agency overview from the CFEC commissioners. Committee chair Stutes said the Fish and Game report wouldn’t be discussed, but committee members alluded to details in the report through their questions, like the slow pace of adjudication.

Stutes says her bill to eliminate the CFEC will get its first committee hearing March 5.

Categories: Alaska News

Update: Tlingit-Haida OKs Same-Sex Marriages

Wed, 2015-02-25 17:19

Southeast Alaska’s largest tribal organization has authorized its courts to perform same-sex marriages. The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska announced its new policy Monday.

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Tlingit-Haida’s seven-member governing board voted unanimously Friday to define legal marriage without a gender requirement.

Council President Richard Peterson says the council is exercising its governing authority to include all tribal members.

Tlingit-Haida Central Council President Richard Peterson addresses the tribal assembly in March 2014. Peterson just announced the council has OK’d same-sex tribal marriages. (Courtesy THCC)

“It’s something we can do to extend our sovereignty for all of our tribal citizens. It’s not just about the same-sex marriage and helping just one segment of our tribal citizens, but all of our tribal citizens,” he says.

Peterson says that, as far as he knows, Tlingit-Haida’s courtshave not conducted marriages in the past. He wants the new policy to encourage same- and opposite-sex marriages.

The tribal government will issue marriage licenses. But it’s unclear whether they’ll be recognized by the state.

Court rulings last fall forced Alaska to allow same-sex marriages, but many top officials remain opposed.

“It’s certainly not to do it to spite them or anything like that. I’m very hopeful that they’re going to recognize these marriages because the folks that we’re going to be marrying are Alaskans,” Peterson says.

Tlingit-Haida will require least one person in a couple to be a tribal member. The council lists nearly 30,000 Tlingit and Haida Indians in and outside Alaska within its rolls.

Peterson cites high suicide rates among Alaska Natives, as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youths, as another reason for the policy.

“If showing that we care about all of our tribal citizens equally can send a message where they feel included and belong and loved, and if that helps them to not want to turn toward suicide and other (harmful) things because the feel forsaken, then that’s what we should do,” he says.

Peterson says the council knows of about 20 other tribes amending or adopting rules to recognize marriage equality. Some others determined no changes were needed to allow same-sex unions.

Peterson says that’s a small percentage of the 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States

“We just recently had Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. And she so eloquently spoke at a time when we were still referred to ‘savages’ and we didn’t have the right to vote. So, now, here we are, and we have tribal citizens who don’t have rights. And we need to provide for that and advocate for that,” he says.

“What the tribal authorities are doing here is moving in the very same direction that the country is moving,” says Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a New York City-based, nationwide advocacy organization.

The group lists tribal governments in the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest and Oklahoma where same-sex marriages were approved during the past half-dozen years.

They include Washington state’s Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Oregon’s Coquille Indian Tribeand the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma.

“Members of the tribes know what it’s like to experience discrimination. They know what it’s like to be shoved outside, to be looked down on. And I think what tribal authorities are saying is that, out of that history, we know it’s important that we not commit the same kinds of discrimination, that we not isolate people, that we not harm them,” Wolfson says.

Tlingit-Haida Central Council’s new marriage directive also covers tribal divorces.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: February 25, 2015

Wed, 2015-02-25 17:18

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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Air Force Officials Say F-35 Program Back On Track, Eielson Remains Preferred Location

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

The F-35 aircraft, the new fighter the Air Force wants to keep at Eielson Air Force base, has been plagued by cost overruns and equipment failures. But Air Force brass told a U.S. Senate Committee this morning those problems are in the past.

NORAD Commander Visits Alaska

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

Admiral Bill Gortney visited Alaska for the first time earlier this month since taking over the two organizations tasked with defending North America from attack. Gortney wears two hats: he’s head of both the North American Aerospace Defense Command – or NORAD – as well as the U.S. Northern Command. It’s one of the highest positions in the military chain of command, responsible for dealing with airborne threats — whether that’s missiles launched from a hostile country, or a rogue plane within American air space.

After a visit to Fort Wainwright and the missile fields in the Interior, Gortney came to Anchorage for an inspection of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Cargo Ship Detained In Unalaska For Environmental Investigation

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

The Coast Guard is holding a cargo ship in Unalaska over alleged environmental crimes.

Attorneys Wrap Up Arguments In Lawsuit Challenging Restrictions To Medicaid-Funded Abortions

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Attorneys for both sides wrapped up arguments Wednesday in a case that could reverse state prohibitions against some Medicaid-funded abortions. Attorneys for Planned Parenthood claim a state statute is too restrictive and violates a woman’s constitutional rights.

New Marijuana Bill Would Require Alaska Residency Of Sellers

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Two days after Gov. Bill Walker filed a bill to create a marijuana control board and a day after the drug became legal in the state, state senators are offering legislation setting terms for that board.

Early Education Programs Facing Budget Cuts

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Lawmakers are targeting a number of early education programs for cuts.

As Legislature Eyes Budget Cuts, Public Media Funding Targeted

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The Legislature is considering cutting in half, the amount of funding available for public broadcasting.

Rep. Nageak Taken From Capitol By Ambulance

The Associated Press

A Barrow state representative was taken by ambulance from the state Capitol today.

Commercial Fisheries Commission Chief Reacts To Being On Chopping Block

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

The Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission is defending itself against a recent state report pointing out inefficiencies and legislation that could dissolve the agency.

Update: Tlingit-Haida OKs Same-Sex Marriages

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Southeast Alaska’s largest tribal organization has authorized its courts to perform same-sex marriages. The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska announced its new policy Monday.

Categories: Alaska News

Cargo Ship Detained In Unalaska For Environmental Investigation

Wed, 2015-02-25 14:14

(Credit: smp/marinetraffic.com)

The Coast Guard is holding a cargo ship in Unalaska over alleged environmental crimes.

The Lindavia arrived in port from China a couple of weeks ago. Kevin Feldis, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, says the 600-foot ship was loading up with seafood to take back to Asia. But was detained before it could leave port.

“Right now the crew is still here in Dutch Harbor, and they will be staying there pending further steps in the investigation,” Feldis said Tuesday. He’s working the Coast Guard with the case, but couldn’t say more about the alleged violations, citing the open investigation.

Unalaska Ports Director Peggy McLaughlin says the Lindavia was chartered by Maersk Lines. This was its first visit to Unalaska, but McLaughlin says it’s since been released from Maersk’s service. She couldn’t say whether that was as a result of the Coast Guard investigation.

The Lindavia is currently at anchor in Dutch Harbor. Feldis says the ship’s owner, Germany-based Dauelsberg, may post a bond to let it leave port as the investigation continues.

Categories: Alaska News

Air Force Officials Say F-35 Program Back On Track, Eielson Remains Preferred Location

Wed, 2015-02-25 12:00

The Department of Defense’s first U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter (JSF) aircraft soars over Destin, Fla., before landing at its new home at Eglin Air Force Base, July 14, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joely Santiago)

The F-35 aircraft, the new fighter the Air Force wants to keep at Eielson Air Force base, has been plagued by cost overruns and equipment failures, but Air Force brass told a U.S. Senate Committee this morning those problems are in the past.

In recent years, many have called on the Pentagon to pull the plug on the expensive aircraft. But Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh says the F-35 program is back on track.

“This is no longer a power point slide. We have flown thousands of F-35 sorties now. They’re on the ramps in multiple bases. We’re starting training of our first operational pilots,” Welsh said. “So we are well into this program being a real thing. A year from now, a year and half from now we will declare initial operational capability for the F-35, and I see nothing that stands in the way.”

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James says she’s also confident in the F-35, although she warned that software could still pose problems. And she says if budget sequestration continues, the Air Force will have to buy fewer F-35s, which will drive up the cost of each aircraft, now estimated at $115 million apiece.

Eielson is the Air Force’s preferred location for the first F-35 squadrons. The final basing decision is expected in 2016.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Pacific University Offers New Scholarship For Pell-Eligible Students

Wed, 2015-02-25 11:46

Alaska Pacific University is adding a new scholarship for low-income students who are eligible for the Pell Grant. The school also recently lowered tuition costs and hopes both measures will help attract new students.

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Carter Caywood is the director of admissions for Alaska Pacific University. He says if a student is either fully or partially Pell eligible, they qualify for APU’s promise tuition grant:

“APU will use a unique combination of other scholarship grants and discounts to help them basically fill their tuition costs,” Caywood said. “If they are fully Pell eligible, they pay nothing for tuition out of pocket. If they’re partially Pell eligible, they just have to make up the difference that the Pell grant doesn’t cover up to whatever the maximum Pell is for that year – APU will cover the rest.”

Ian McDermod has already gone through the application process. He says APU’s scholarship programs and lowered tuition costs have drawn in students like him from across the U.S.

McDermod is a freshman from New Hampshire, and is in APU’s outdoor studies program. He says he mostly applied to schools in the Northeast

“Initially, I didn’t think that I would be going to school so far away, but when I received all my applications back, all the schools that I got accepted back, and all of the money I had received, it came down to a few different colleges, and APU just seemed like the best option as far as affordability,” he said.

McDermod says affordability was a top priority for him.

“I know that there’s so many kids who just go into endless amounts of college debt,” he said. “I know some kinds have six-digit numbers as far as college debt goes, and I knew that was something I didn’t want to happen.”

Tuition runs about $19,500 per year at APU. And McDermod says he’s only had to pay about $7,000 out of pocket so far, much of that going toward room and board at the university – which isn’t included in the tuition price.

Carter Caywood says stories like McDermod’s are becoming more common, due in part to the school’s outreach efforts both online and through traditional methods like open houses and college fairs. But, for many potential students, he says it comes down to cost.

“You hear private education, you think very expensive, but if you look at a lot of these schools, especially along the West Coast, the Pacific Northwest, even the state schools, we’re exponentially more affordable even at full price,” Caywood said. “And that doesn’t consider the fact that almost every student that comes to APU who asks for one, gets a scholarship paid.”

Tuition at Whitman College, a private liberal arts school in Washington State, costs about $44,000 – more than double APU.

Caywood says currently about 60 percent of APU’s undergraduate students are from outside Alaska, but the school has recently bolstered its in-state recruitment efforts.

He says APU’s enrollment has been stagnant over the last few years, but he expects enrollment to jump next fall.

“There’s a number of different things that we’re doing, but it would be hard to disassociate the changes in our tuition and the new scholarship programs that we’ve rolled out from this bump in interest in APU,” Caywood said.

The first recipients of the APU Promise Grant will see reductions in their tuition starting next fall.

APU is hosting a FAFSA workshop and APU Promise Grant assistance Saturday from 11am until 2 pm.

Categories: Alaska News

Bethel Man Charged With Murder

Wed, 2015-02-25 09:29

Bethel Police have arrested 27-year-old Mark Charlie Junior in connection with the suspected homicide of 26-year-old LeeAnn Berlin. Joe Corbett is a Lieutenant for the Bethel Police Department.

“Mr. Charlie has been booked at the correction center and charged with Murder in the first degree and tampering with physical evidence,” said Corbett.

Officers responded Monday afternoon to the BNC apartments for a welfare check. They found Berlin who appeared to have been deceased an extended period of time, and Charlie Junior, whom they arrested.

Police interviewed Charlie and say he admitted to strangling Berlin four or five days before his arrest. He said he argued with Berlin Wednesday night. Police say alcohol was likely involved.

The woman’s body was taken to the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation morgue and will go to the state medical examiners office for an autopsy. The investigation is ongoing.

Categories: Alaska News

As Legislature Eyes Budget Cuts, Public Media Funding Targeted

Tue, 2015-02-24 18:52

The Legislature is considering halving the amount of funding available for public broadcasting.

Rep. Lynn Gattis, a Wasilla Republican who chairs the Department of Administration finance subcommittee, introduced the cuts by saying the group was focused on essential needs.

“In this fiscal climate, the state should focus on mission critical services, reduce its footprint, and take this opportunity to get out of business that it doesn’t need to be in,” said Gattis at a Tuesday afternoon budget closeout. “This has truly been an opportunity to evaluate the wants versus the needs of state government.”

Between operations and infrastructure, public radio and television were granted $5 million in state funds in the last budget. With the proposal offered by the House Finance subcommittee, funding would be reduced to $2.5 million.

Tyson Gallagher, an aide for Gattis, explained that the cuts would be focused on outlets that have other broadcasting options in their service area. That includes commercial radio stations.

”With the advancements in technology and the development of other broadcast sources, there’s less of a need to maintain public service programming at comparable levels to prior years,” said Gallagher at the subcommittee hearing.

Last year, state grants contributed more than half a million dollars to Alaska Public Media’s $6 million budget, which includes the Southcentral station KSKA. KTOO, the Juneau public radio station, now gets 10 percent of its $2 million budget from state grants. KUAC, which is operated by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, receives nearly $250,000. Because of the station’s position within the university, it was targeted for cuts when the school was experiencing its own shortfall.

The changes will now be sent to the full House Finance Committee for consideration.

Categories: Alaska News

After Filing Bill To Limit Per Diem, Anchorage Democrat Pledges Some Of Her Own

Tue, 2015-02-24 18:47

A week after filing a bill that would prohibit legislators from collecting per diem when not in the capital, Rep. Harriet Drummond has pledged to return some of her own daily allowance. The Democrat will fly home for Anchorage caucus this weekend.

“I think I should put my money where my mouth is,” said Drummond at a Tuesday press availability, before asking her aide to hand over her purse. “I’m getting paid $237 a day, and I’ll be gone for three days. And I’m going to write a check for $771 to Alaska’s Best Beginnings program.”

Which amounts to three days per diem, plus a little extra.

Drummond believes her check is needed because the state is facing a multi-billion-dollar deficit, and programs — like the early education one to which she will donate — are likely to face budget cuts. Drummond says legislators should have to share some of that burden.

“I’ll be sleeping in my own bed, and cooking in my own kitchen,” says Drummond. “Yet I’m being paid $237 for each of those days to be in Juneau.”

Right now, Legislators are paid out their per diem for food and lodging, in bulk, at the beginning of session. Drummond’s bill would require changes to the way allowance money is accounted. Her bill does not make exceptions for travel with a legislative purpose or for personal emergencies.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, a Nikiski Republican, sees a practical problem with the bill. He says even if people are traveling away from Juneau on work or personal business, there are still basic costs lawmakers have to cover.

“My rent doesn’t stop down here. My landlord doesn’t say don’t worry about paying that rent for the five days that you’re gone,” says Chenault.

Chenault adds that a per diem of $237 is a rate set by the federal government.

While he could not say if the per diem bill would advance, Chenault added that the public should expect cuts in other places.

“You’ll see cuts made in the Legislature’s budget, dealing with a number of issues that are out there,” says Chenault. “We’re trying to rein in the spending that we can at the legislative level, no different than what we’re asking the departments to do.”

So far, the per diem bill has not been scheduled for any committee hearings.

Categories: Alaska News