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Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 32 min 24 sec ago

Federal Agency Reviewing Yellow Cedar For Protection

Wed, 2015-04-15 17:29

Based on a petition submitted about a year ago by a coalition of conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that protection for the Alaska yellow cedar tree might be warranted under the federal Endangered Species Act.

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Yellow cedar is a popular commercial wood, and among the three tree species commonly harvested in the Tongass National Forest, it’s the most lucrative. If the tree becomes a protected species, though, all that would change.

The petitioners calling for federal protection of the Alaska Yellow Cedar are the Center for Biological Diversity, The Boat Company, Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community and Greenpeace. In their lengthy petition, they argue that yellow cedar has “precipitously declined” over the past 30 years due to global warming and climate change.

An aerial shot of a yellow cedar stand. (U.S. Forest Service photo)

The petition notes that the timing and frequency of freeze-thaw cycles in early spring, and reduced snow cover, cause injuries to the shallow root system of the yellow cedar, and those injuries can cause a tree’s death.

Owen Graham of the Ketchikan-based Alaska Forest Association disagrees with the petition’s arguments about global warming causing a decline in yellow cedar.

“It has affected a very small portion of the Tongass over the past 100 years,” he said. “And the bulk of the decline has occurred on the non-commercial timberland.”

The petition cites studies that show more than 70 percent of Southeast Alaska yellow cedar trees in affected stands have died.  Those affected stands are found on about 500,000 acres of forest, on sites from sea level to an elevation of about 300 meters, according to the petition.

The Tongass National Forest has about 17 million acres, including forest, wetlands and alpine.

The petition argues that the yellow cedar must be listed for protection to maintain existing stands from what petitioners call the overutilization of the species. Logging, in particular, is noted, because yellow cedar is targeted for its high value.

Graham said logging of any tree species on the Tongass will become complicated if yellow cedar is protected.

“Most of the stands, particularly at higher elevations, is where the yellow cedar occurs, and it’s scattered throughout the stands,” he said. “So, I guess you’d either have to partial-cut and leave the yellow cedar standing, in which case it would probably blow over, or not harvest at all where there is any yellow cedar, which is most of the higher elevation lands. The lower elevation is mostly red cedar, although there’s not a strict line between the two.”

The petitioners call for future forest planning that addresses climate change, and the effect of global warming on yellow cedar. Specifically, the petitioners call for forest management that favors yellow cedar. That would include planting and selective thinning in areas where yellow cedar has continued to thrive.

The petition notes that active management will not succeed unless there’s also a drastic reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions, to slow climate change; as well as an immediate end to all logging of yellow cedar.

Following the announcement that listing might be warranted, Fish and Wildlife will conduct its own status review of the petition’s claims regarding protection of the yellow cedar, with a finding expected by June 24. Additional information will be gathered for a year after that before a final decision is announced.

Categories: Alaska News

Search Continues In Prince William Sound For Missing Pilot

Wed, 2015-04-15 17:26

Crews from the Coast Guard and Air Force are searching for a missing pilot that went down in Prince William Sound Tuesday afternoon.

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Categories: Alaska News

Breakup Forecast: Sparse Snow, Slowly Warming Weather Lessens Flood Concern

Wed, 2015-04-15 17:25

Forecasters are anticipating a mellow break up over much of Alaska this spring.  Below normal snow and ice in some areas, and gradually warming spring temperatures are lessening flood concerns.

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Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Announces Fiscal Surplus

Wed, 2015-04-15 17:23

As law-makers battle over budgets in the closing days of the Legislature, the city of Anchorage is announcing a fiscal surplus.

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In a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Dan Sullivan announced the city has seven million dollars left over from the last fiscal year. Some of those savings will be applied to property taxes for the year ahead, leading to a dip of about 0.1 percent in the mill-rate for home-owners.

The surplus will also go to funding police and fire academies, covering overages from the SAP software upgrade, and a pilot program focused on addiction treatment. Critics of the mayor’s administration have said it has reduced budget costs by putting off or eliminating critical spending on staffing and social services.

Categories: Alaska News

House Passes Bill To Change Hunting And Fishing License Fees

Wed, 2015-04-15 17:22

The state House has passed a bill that would increase the cost of hunting, fishing and trapping in Alaska.

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Lawmakers voted 33-7 on Wednesday to pass Rep. Dave Talerico’s bill that would increase sporting license and tag fees for residents and nonresidents.

The bill would also create a $20 fish and wildlife decal with the proceeds expected to go to conservation programs and change the minimum age for a license to 18 instead of 16.

Lawmakers also approved an amendment to allow individuals with developmental disabilities to have someone else hunt or fish for them.

Reasons given by the Democrats and independent voting against the bill included frustration that the state was raising user fees but not looking at other revenue.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Categories: Alaska News

Kenaitze Candlelight Vigil Raises Awareness about Sexual Assault

Wed, 2015-04-15 17:20

Members of the Kenaitze, health and social service professionals, and community members joined together Friday at the Tyotkas Elder Center to talk about an issue that’s often kept in silence.

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Alexandra, or Sasha, Lindgren is a Kenaitze elder. She’s sitting at the front of the room telling a story that’s deeply personal. She’s holding a bunch of toothpicks. She pulls one out and shows that when it’s alone, it’s easily breakable. But, when it’s surrounded by other toothpicks, the bunch as a whole is nearly impossible to break.

“Sharing my story, I hope will give someone the strength to come forward and say, I need help, and that together, each of us just by sharing our stories will break cycles of abuse and violence,” says Lindgren.

Kenaitze Candlelight Vigil – Photo by Shady Grove Oliver/KBBI

It’s like people, Lindgren says. It’s much easier to stand up when others are supporting you. That’s why she’s here today, to start a conversation in her community that she says desperately needs to happen.

“Traditionally, at least the way that I grew up out in Bethel, it’s not always talked about. But I think when the elders are able to talk about it, then maybe the young people are welcome to talk about it and be aware that violence is not okay,” says Lindsey Anasogak, who works for Na’ini Social Services and coordinated this event. “Na’ini Social Services is a department within the tribe. When we met before we formed the group, we talked about it for a while, and we came upon the word Na’ini which is a Dena’ina traditional value. And the meaning behind that is courage and bravery. We chose that for a reason and we wanted to make sure our clients who came in that we know that sometimes asking for help takes a lot of courage and to be brave to come in.”

Barbara Waters is here representing the LeeShore Center, which provides outreach and education on the issue and is also a safe haven for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. She says public events like this are important because talking within a community is the first step toward solving the problem.

“We believe our victims, we listen to them, we honor their stories, and we thank them for what they share with us,” says Waters. “It brings awareness of the issue. Ms. Lindgren had a wonderful speech with us before we got started with the candlelight part of the vigil. And that awareness that there are people who have suffered from domestic violence and sexual assault, that it’s our neighbor, it’s our mother, it’s our sister, it might even be ourselves. So, I think that the community needs to get together and get involved and that’s the only way we’re going to see that problem go away.”

And it’s a big problem on the Kenai Peninsula. According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, out of every 100 adult women on the peninsula, 43 have experienced intimate partner violence, 30 have experienced sexual violence, and 52 – more than half – have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence, or both.

For Alaska as a whole, about 60 out of every hundred women have experienced some type of domestic or sexual violence.

“You know, when you go to all these type of awareness-type events, you go to trainings, you go to conferences and conventions, these numbers are brought up quite often and it’s something that nobody is proud of,” says David Knight, who also works with Na’ini Social Services.

He says the first time you hear the statistics, they are shocking. But sometimes, he says we get used to hearing them and we stop paying attention. He says all community members, male and female, victim, perpetrator, people don’t think they’re intimately connected with the issue need to remember that every number represents an individual person.

“I think that those numbers should drive us to do better,” says Knight.

And Sasha Lindgren says that by putting a face, a family, and a story on those numbers, perhaps more people will step forward to seek help, to provide help, or to just listen.

“We can overcome this. You’re not ever stuck being one thing and there is always an opportunity to change your life, make it better, make your life better, your community better, your tribe better. Bad does not always have to stay in charge,” says Lindgren.

It’s like the toothpicks, she says. A person may struggle alone but a community standing together has the strength to make real change.

If you or anyone you know needs help, the LeeShore Center has a 24-hour crisis intervention hotline at 907-283-7257.

Categories: Alaska News

U.S. Senate Favors Secure Rural Schools – Secure Docs, Too

Wed, 2015-04-15 15:40

The U.S. Senate last night  passed a bill to continue Secure Rural Schools. That’s a federal revenue-sharing program that delivers some $14 million to local governments in Alaska, primarily in Southeast, to compensate for low federal timber receipts. The bill also helps Medicare providers nationwide.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is pleased with the extension.

“Yeah! Two more years,” she said today.

It was part of a Medicare reimbursement bill known as the “doc fix.” It now goes to President Obama for his signature.

Secure Rural Schools wasn’t meant to be a permanent subsidy, but Murkowski says some communities surrounded by the Tongass National Forest rely on the program for a significant chunk of their budgets and should be pushed off a cliff.

“If we had not been able to provide for that funding, it would have been a cliff. These communities would be left high and dry,” she said.

Secure Rural Schools pays for local roads and emergency services, in addition to schools.

The “doc fix” portion of the bill ends the threat of a 21 percent rate reduction for Medicare providers, which stems from a cost-cutting law passed 17 years ago. Congress has been passing temporary fixes to block its effects year after year. Murkowski says the permanent doc fix will help older Alaskans and remove uncertainty for their doctors.

But the doc fix has a price tag. Congressional budget analysts say the bill will cost $141 billion over the first decade, but may save money after that. Conservative groups like Club for Growth and Heritage Action wanted senators to vote no. Sen. Dan Sullivan, like Murkowski, voted for the bill anyway. Sullivan points out that he voted to apply “pay as you go” rules, which would have required the bill to be paid for, with unspecified cuts elsewhere or revenue increases.

“But at the end of the day, even though those didn’t pass, I thought that the overall package was important for the state, important for the country,” Sullivan said, speaking of both the Medicare rate and Secure Rural Schools.

Anchorage physician Oliver Korshin says the bill was certainly important to him. Korshin sees a lot of Medicare patients, in part because of his specialty, opthomology, and also because he’s been practicing in the same place for 30 years and his patients have grown old with him.

“A 21 percent cut for my services to Medicare patients would be a devastating thing for me to swallow, or any practitioner that sees a lot of Medicare patients,” he said. “My rent hasn’t dropped by 21 percent,” nor have other office expenses.

If the doc fix hadn’t passed, Korshin says he would have had to stop taking new Medicare patients. Now, though, his door is open.


Categories: Alaska News

Murkowski Campaign Shows Financial Might

Wed, 2015-04-15 15:29

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is up for re-election next year, and her fundraising is going strong. Her campaign today reported she raised $700,000 in the first three months of the year. That beats all quarters the last time she ran, in 2010. Campaign coordinator Scott Kendall says more than 100 individual Alaskans contributed. The full report wasn’t available. Murkowski, reached on a busy day at the Senate, said she hadn’t seen the final number, but she says the early stage contributions come largely from Political Action Committees.

“Much of what we have been doing back here, in Washington, has been PAC dollars, and so I think you’re going to see that show up and be reflected,” she said.

The campaign says Murkowski’s total cash on hand is $1.5 million. She has no challenger yet.

Categories: Alaska News

Opt Out Bill Could Cost Alaska $97 Million in Federal School Funding

Wed, 2015-04-15 14:41

Senate Bill 89 would eliminate sanctions on parents removing their children from school if they object to standardized testing or programming related to sexual health.

The Legislature has advanced a contentious education bill that would allow parents to opt out of standardized tests and certain school curricula.

Senate Bill 89 aims to increase the authority of parents in directing a child’s education within Alaska schools. The measure allows parents to opt their children out of standardized tests, and educational programming dealing with sexual health.

“Any type of questionnaire, we believe, the school district should get permission from parents before they survey their child,” said Wasilla Republican Mike Dunleavy, the bill’s main sponsor. “It’s our contention that parents should be informed so that they make informed decisions.”

The measure also includes provisions limiting what kinds of health-care providers can work with school districts. In response to criticisms raised by the State Affairs Committee’s lone Democrat, Senator Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage, Dunleavy explained that under the bill if a person has “a direct line to an abortion provider” they would not be allowed on a school campus to educate them on matters related to sexual or reproductive health.

Opt out provisions put federal school funding in jeopardy when standardized testing falls below a 95% threshold. That is already starting to happen in some parts of Alaska where local school districts have enacted opt out rules of their own. This year, the Haines School District had 12 students whose families objected to standardized tests, putting it below the Federal level. The district is currently waiting to hear what this could mean for its funding.

While the state’s 54 school districts currently have local provisions on opting out, SB 89 could result in a massive funding loss for the state as a whole.

“The US Department [of Education] concern is that that may mask underperformance of students, therefore not meeting the stated purpose of those title funds,” said Susan McCauley with the state’s Department of Education. If Title requirements are not fulfilled then schools across Alaska stand to lose federal dollars.

“The total funding for those programs is $96, 758,000,” McCauley added.

SB 89 now moves on to the Senate Rules Committee.

KHNS’s Emily Files contributed reporting from Haines.

Categories: Alaska News

Fuel Sale in Nome Targets Spring Subsistence Hunters

Wed, 2015-04-15 11:04

Gas prices in downtown Nome. April 13, 2015.

Anywhere else in the United States, $5.47 per gallon for gasoline might be pretty frightening—but in Nome, it’s a sale for spring subsistence.

Earlier this week, Bonanza Fuel dropped their gas prices by $0.25 per gallon. CEO Scot Henderson says that while they’ve been locked in to the higher cost of fuel purchased last fall, they wanted to make it easier for Nome residents to get out in the country for subsistence. Bonanza is owned by Sitnasuak Native Corporation, and Henderson says hunting and fishing are important to shareholders and their customers.

“We wanted to do everything we can to make fuel more affordable during this important time,” said Henderson. “So, instead of waiting another two or three months when the spring barge arrives to lower gas prices, we’ve decided to start lowering prices now when local residents are needing to buy more gas.”

Henderson says this is the first time he can recall that Bonanza has specifically offered a spring subsistence sale.

Like most Western Alaska communities, Nome only has three or four months in the summer when the port is open and fuel can be delivered. Distributors like Bonanza order about a year’s worth of fuel at a time, and the summer cost of gasoline typically remains the stable price through winter.

Henderson says this has been beneficial in past winters when gas prices have spiked, but this year’s immense drop hasn’t transferred to Nome.

The first summer barge delivery to Nome is two or three months out, but Henderson says things should be looking up—or, more literally, down.

“It is a bit early for me to speculate on how much of a decrease we will be seeing, but we do expect that there will be a relatively significant decrease in price from when they were set last fall,” said Henderson. Gas was $6.10 per gallon after the bulk purchases, with retail prices fluctuating throughout the year to remain competitive.

Over the last several years, Bonanza has purchased fuel primarily from Asia or refineries in the Pacific Northwest. Sitnasuak has not yet set a date for when the sale will end, but Henderson says it will be communicated well in advance.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 14, 2015

Tue, 2015-04-14 18:10

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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House Steps Towards Full Legal Marijuana Sales

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

A bill that is fundamental to setting up legal regulations for marijuana in Alaska passed the state House today. The bipartisan vote is a step toward the Alcoholic Beverages Control Board establishing a permit structure that oversees a full legal market, from growers to commercial sales.

New Rules For National Guard To Wait Until Next Year

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

A bill that applies a uniform code of military justice to the Alaska National Guard will not pass the Legislature this year.

Eielson Will Keep F-16 Squadron

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

The Secretary of the Air Force told Alaska officials Tuesday that Eielson Air Force Base will keep its F-16 Aggressor squadron.

Lawmakers Opt To Keep Anchorage LIO Lease … For Now

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

In a 13-to-1 vote, the Legislative Council has decided to punt on the question of what to do with the Anchorage Legislative Information Office.

Facing Budget Cuts, Aleutians East to Close Cold Bay School

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

The Aleutians East Borough is closing its second school in three years. The school board voted last week to shut down the Cold Bay School, with state budget cuts looming and enrollment on the decline. Locals are worried the closure could put the tiny community in jeopardy.

Juneau Assembly To Decide Fate Of Haven House

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

A group of Juneau residents is challenging a transitional home for former female inmates in their neighborhood. The Juneau Assembly heard the appeal Monday night.

Alaska Salmon Producers Seek To Rejoin MSC Certification

Dave Bendinger, KDLG – Dillingham

A group of ten of Alaska salmon producers, which represent nearly three quarters of the Alaska’s salmon harvest, are attempting to rejoin the Marine Stewardship Council label.

Private Funding Allows Round Island To Remain Staffed, Open

Dave Bendinger, KDLG – Dillingham
Round Island, the centerpiece of Alaska’s Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary will remain staffed this summer and perhaps next, thanks to private funding.  Last year, citing state budget cuts, Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation removed funding for the program, which costs around $100,000 annually.

Search Continues For ‘Denali Highway Dog’

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A Fairbanks animal advocate is continuing her effort to rescue a loose dog in the Anderson area. The so-called “Denali Highway Dog” has been wandering through communities along the Parks Highway since last summer.

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Assembly To Decide Fate Of Haven House

Tue, 2015-04-14 17:28

Signs protesting Haven House’s location can be seen all over the Malissa Drive area, even in front of Haven House. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The Juneau Assembly heard an appeal Monday night challenging a transitional home for women who are former inmates.

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Andrew Hughes and the Tall Timbers Neighborhood Association contend the conditional use permit granted to Haven House in October by the Juneau Planning Commission was improper.

Each side of the appeal had 30 minutes to present its arguments. Prior to the hearing, the Assembly had about 1,700 pages of supporting documents to review.

Representing the Tall Timbers Neighborhood Association, attorney Dan Bruce argued Haven House is a halfway house. He quoted how city code defines a halfway house:

“‘A single-family dwelling for not more than nine persons over the age of 12, together with not more than two persons providing supervision and other services to such persons, all of whom live together as a single housekeeping unit. Residents may be serving a sentence for a criminal act.’ That is Haven House. There is no ifs, ands or buts about it.”

Under city code, halfway houses are not allowed in typical residential districts, like the zoning that covers Malissa Drive in the Mendenhall Valley where Haven House is located.

Attorneys Dan Bruce, Robert Palmer, and Mary Alice McKeen presented arguments to the Juneau Assembly Monday night. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Bruce said the short-term residents of Haven House would not take ownership of the neighborhood and its presence would lower property values.

“This is the wrong move. It is placing transitory individuals with criminal records in a stable and mature neighborhood and I think that’s completely inappropriate. And I think it is in effect a social experiment and the people of this neighborhood are being asked to be part of the experiment,” Bruce said.

Attorney Mary Alice McKeen represented Haven House. She said Haven House is not a halfway house and the head of Alaska’s Department of Corrections agrees.

“And the reason is that people live in Haven House by their choice. They are not sentenced to live at Haven House. The women living in Haven House could live anywhere as long as they got the permission of their probation or parole officer,” McKeen said.

Representing the planning commission, assistant city attorney Robert Palmer III said Haven House is considered transitional housing and is allowed in a residential neighborhood with a conditional use permit.

“The record clearly establishes that there’s substantial evidence that transitional housing will improve the public health and safety. The structure complies with all fire and building codes. And probably most importantly, evidence was presented that the recidivism rate without transitional housing is roughly 60 percent. With transitional housing as proposed by Haven House, recidivism rate drops down to 20 percent,” Palmer said.

The Assembly met later last night to deliberate. City attorney Amy Mead says the Assembly has 45 days to issue its decision to the parties.

Haven House is currently operating on Malissa Drive with staff, including a live-in manager, and two residents.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Salmon Producers Seek To Rejoin MSC Certification

Tue, 2015-04-14 17:27

A group of ten of Alaska salmon producers, which represent nearly three quarters of the Alaska’s salmon harvest, are attempting to rejoin the Marine Stewardship Council label.

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Categories: Alaska News

House Steps Towards Full Legal Marijuana Market

Tue, 2015-04-14 17:27

Many in the House floor session were unclear of whether HB 123 would receive enough support to pass, all the way up until the vote.

A fundamental bill for establishing regulations over marijuana in Alaska passed the House today.  The bipartisan vote is a step towards the Alcoholic Beverages Control Board creating a permit structure for all components of a full legal market.

Barrow Democrat Benjamin Nageak told colleagues during a House floor session there are some basic reasons marijuana needs its own regulatory board.

“I mean jeez, every time I see high people I go over, because I want to laugh,” Nageak said, illiciting chuckles from around the chamber. “I think we need to have a separate board to have, ya know, happy versus versus unhappy people.”

House Bill 123 sets up a body within the ABC Board to start doing exactly what voters opted for on Ballot Measure 2: regulating marijuana like alcohol.

The state has until November 24th to set up a regulatory structure for all the pieces of a legal marijuana market that don’t exist yet, from permits to grow, all the way to packaging and sales.

Many think it’s too much work for the ABC Board to handle without adding more capacity.

“The staff of the Alcoholic Beverages Control Board is simply overwhelmed by the work they have right now,” said Anchorage Republican Liz Vazquez. “To throw in the mix matters dealing with marijuana and so forth–I don’t think it’s doable, I don’t think we’re appropriating enough resources to this issue.”

One of the biggest objections during the floor session was the fiscal note. Some house members say that at $1,574,400 the state can’t afford to pay for the four new staff positions it would create in the ABC Board.

While the Marijuana Board would be made up of five volunteers coming from different backgrounds, the staff working on their behalf are set to be full-time state employees. But ABC Board Director Cynthia Franklin insists the funds make all the difference.

“We need the money to not only get the people in place to take on this additional substance, but to get the technology in place to be able to answer reporters’ and legislators’ questions about what’s happening in marijuana,” Franklin said.

If approved by the Legislature, the new board would have dedicated experts handling many of the finer points of regulation that do not yet exist. They would also be responsible for creating public services similar to what is currently in place for alcohol, for example informing community members of who is applying for licenses, and confirming products were grown legally.

Lawmakers made a number of arguments against the bill. Some worried that it would allow felons to work in the new industry. Others raised concerns about the composition of the board, and what counts as a qualification when it comes to “industry experience.”

“You don’t have to be a cannibal to know something about cannibalism,”said Anchorage Republican Gabrielle LeDoux who sees narrow definitions of expertise as unnecessary.  “You want people to know something about marijuana who are regulating it.”

HB 123 passed 25 to 15, and now goes before the Senate for consideration.

Categories: Alaska News

Private Funding Allows Round Island To Remain Staffed, Open

Tue, 2015-04-14 17:26

Round Island, the centerpiece of Alaska’s Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary will remain staffed this summer and perhaps next, thanks to private funding.  Last year, citing state budget cuts, Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation removed funding for the program, which costs around $100,000 annually.

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Categories: Alaska News

Search Continues For ‘Denali Highway Dog’

Tue, 2015-04-14 17:25

A Fairbanks animal advocate continues an effort to rescue a loose dog in the Anderson area. The so called “Denali Highway Dog” has been wandering through communities along the Parks Highway since last summer.

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Categories: Alaska News

New Rules For National Guard To Wait Until Next Year

Tue, 2015-04-14 16:57

A bill that applies a uniform code of military justice to the Alaska National Guard will not pass the Legislature this year.

The legislation is a project of the House Judiciary committee. At a hearing on Tuesday, Chair Gabrielle LeDoux said that the bill will not make it to the floor before the Legislature gavels out. Her aide, Thomas Brown, explained that committee members will work with members of the administration on the issue during the interim.

“We will craft a better — I hesitate to say ‘perfect bill’ — but a better bill, so that this time next year we can send the governor something that all parties involved can be content with,” said Brown.

Various versions of a military code bill were introduced in the beginning of session, in response to a federal report documenting misconduct in the Alaska National Guard.

The bill under consideration would allow for courts martial and would give the Alaska National Guard the ability to hand down dishonorable discharges.

Lt. Forrest Dunbar, a judge advocate officer working on the bill on behalf of the Walker administration, explained to the committee that clearly defined criminal activity perpetrated by Guardsmen — like sexual assault or theft — would still be referred to civilian law enforcement. But he said there are instances where the code of military justice is more stringent than the civil code, and it would allow discipline within the Guard for some of the activities described in the federal report.

“There was some behavior by Guardsmen that involved sexual relations with recruits. And the civilian authorities, for a variety of reasons, decided not to prosecute. For example, perhaps there wasn’t enough evidence, or it didn’t tightly fit the definition of sexual assault,” said Dunbar. “But there are military offenses that are broad enough where we could potentially pursue some of those offenders for things like dereliction of duty, conduct unbecoming of an officer.”

Dunbar added that the bill is expected to bring more order to the Alaska National Guard. But he said he could not definitively answer the most common question about the code.

“‘Had this leg of the stool been present prior to the activities that led to the scandal, could we have avoided those activities in that scandal?’ And the answer is: We’re not sure — there’s no way to know,” said Dunbar. “I think it would have increased the likelihood that we would have been able to bring good order and discipline to those units more quickly.”

A special investigator appointed by Gov. Bill Walker is expected to release a public report on the National Guard scandal next month.

Categories: Alaska News

Facing Budget Cuts, Aleutians East to Close Cold Bay School

Tue, 2015-04-14 13:24

The Aleutians East Borough is closing its second school in three years. The school board voted this week to shut down the Cold Bay School, with state budget cuts looming and enrollment on the decline.

Locals are worried the closure could put the tiny community in jeopardy.

Sandy Lopez’s twin boys, Matt and Zenny, are sixth graders at the Cold Bay School. The pair grew up in town, and celebrated their twelfth birthdays at school on Friday. Cold Bay’s four students are all in the same age group.

The playground at the Cold Bay School. (Courtesy: Kerry Burkhardt)

“It’s a real personal education,” Lopez says. “They’re very attached to each other — they’ve gone to this school their whole life, and they do very well.”

Lopez says Cold Bay has been a safe, sheltering place to raise her kids. But her family — and several others — will likely have to move away when the town’s school shuts its doors at the end of this semester.

The school has had fewer than 10 students for four years now. That means it no longer receives state funding. Until now, the Aleutians East Borough School District has been paying for Cold Bay on its own.

This year, major state funding cuts could create a half-million dollar deficit for the rest of the district’s schools. And school board president Tiffany Jackson says it would cost them an additional $211,000 to keep the Cold Bay School open.

“Nobody wants to be talking numbers, because all of our children are so important,” Jackson says. “But just economically, we didn’t think that we could absorb the cost.”

The school district hasn’t finalized its budget yet, but Jackson says they haven’t asked the Aleutians East Borough for extra money to help keep Cold Bay afloat. The borough is already close to maxed out on its local contribution — they gave the schools about $1 million this year. The district decides how to dole that money out.

Some residents have questioned why the borough couldn’t spare funds for Cold Bay, when it invests millions in capital projects elsewhere in the region. Borough administrator Rick Gifford says they can’t give much more than they already do.

“We fund the schools based upon their budget and their budget request up to as much as we are able to without going over the cap,” Gifford says. “And then we fund projects in each of the communities, hopefully to bring in economic development that will then bring in families to the communities.”

Superintendent Michael Seifert says Aleutians East will reopen the Cold Bay School if enrollment rises above 10 kids again. But some parents aren’t sure that’ll be possible.

Candace Schaack has lived in Cold Bay for more than a decade, and had hoped her two-year-old daughter would go to school there. But now, her family and most others with kids will have to relocate — homeschooling isn’t an option for parents who work. And Schaack worries the community will start to dissolve.

“It’s going to leave us with really no room for growth,” she says. “Cold Bay has so much potential … but I don’t see people moving here with a family if there’s no school.”

The students at the Cold Bay School, from left to right: Matt Lopez, Wake Kremer, Tommy Mack (who attends only in first quarter), Zenny Lopez and David Young. (Courtesy: Kerry Burkhardt)

Schaack grew up in nearby Nelson Lagoon, which had its school closed three years ago. Enrollment hasn’t bounced back, and soon, the borough may have to tear the school building down.

“The whole village is just falling to pieces,” Schaack says of her hometown. “I hate to say that, but it really is — it’s a really bad thing for the community to have that happen.”

Cold Bay is more transient than most towns in the borough — it’s not a fishing community, or a native village, and most of its hundred or so residents are government employees. Many work at the airport, used for emergency stops by jets crossing the Pacific.

“They can land here. And then the place that has the most room and bathrooms and all of that is the school,” says teacher and principal Kerry Burkhardt. Her school is also the tsunami shelter, and a space for potlucks, open gym hours and free shelter for travelers.

Burkhardt wishes the school board had given her an extra year to try to boost enrollment. With that time, she says locals could have recruited more families to the open jobs in Cold Bay. That’s been tough with the school on the chopping block.

“We were sorry to hear and to see that the weather station hired two families with children, they learned that the board was thinking of closing and so they turned the jobs down,” Burkhardt says. “That was a great loss, and I feel as though we would have been alright.”

Now, the school building will be turned over to the borough, like the school in Nelson Lagoon. Burkhardt says she hopes it’ll be kept stocked with supplies in case it ever reopens. And she wants the district to remember Cold Bay’s proud history.

“One year, for Battle of the Books, Cold Bay took state,” she says. “We’ve had kids who had perfect SAT scores. We’ve had all sorts of marvelous community members and people that go off in the world. This school has been vibrant and important to many families for many years.”

She’s hoping their last semester will be a strong finish to help students find some closure. Burkhardt herself leaves a long legacy at the Cold Bay School — her own daughters went there in the 1990s, when there were about 40 students and many more jobs in town.

Now, her daughters are in graduate school, and Burkhardt is looking for work. She says she’s grateful for the district’s offer of a post at a different school — but she plans to move away, too.

Categories: Alaska News

Eielson AFB Will Keep F-16 Squadron

Tue, 2015-04-14 12:03

The Secretary of the Air Force told Alaska officials Tuesday that Eielson Air Force Base will keep its F-16 Aggressor squadron.

Alaska Congressman Don Young says it’s good news on its own but it also improves the chances the Eielson will get F-35 aircraft, too.

“It means we have a permanent wing in Eielson and the chances, the worry of it being moved to Fort Rich or Elmendorf are now put to rest,” Young said. “It’s a positive thing so I feel very good about it.”

The Air Force said last fall it was considering moving the 18 F-16s now based near Fairbanks to make room for two squadrons of F-35s.

Eielson remains the military’s preferred location for the new aircraft, a decision that could mean thousands of new jobs for the Fairbanks area. A final basing decision for the F-35s expected next year.

Categories: Alaska News

Lawmakers Opt To Keep Anchorage LIO Lease … For Now

Mon, 2015-04-13 23:13

In a 13-to-1 vote, the Legislative Council has decided to punt on the question of what to do with the Anchorage legislative information office.

The council, a small but powerful group of lawmakers who effectively serve as the Legislature’s officer managers, decided to pay the rent on the building for the year. Sen. Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican who chairs the group, said that would give them time to see if they can get out of the lease terms.

“We will attempt to enter into negotiations with the owners for purchase of the building and the land,” said Stevens.

As part of a sole-source contract, the state spent nearly $8 million to renovate the Anchorage LIO last year. But the state does not own the property, and has instead signed a 10-year lease to use it at an annual rate of $3.5 million. In the face of public pressure over the agreement, the Legislature considered buying the building outright, but backed down when the property owners did not want to sell the land.

But with the state facing a multi-billion-dollar deficit, lawmakers have toyed with the breaking the lease and relocating to state-owned building at a lower price. Stevens said the extra time would also allow the Legislature think through that option and look at other Anchorage real estate for the office.

Rep. Charisse Millett, an Anchorage Republican who serves as the House majority leader, supported delaying action on the Anchorage LIO. She worried about the financial liability if the Legislature breaks its contract.

“If we got into a long-term lawsuit over this issue, I don’t think that would be good for the state either,” said Millett.

Rep. Sam Kito, a Juneau Democrat and the lone minority member on the council, was the only member to oppose the decision. He argued that the if the Legislature has cheaper office options available now, it should take them.

“I do have a concern that as we are telling everybody else to tighten up their belts because we don’t have a lot of money, that we as a Legislature will then be occupying the most expensive building in Anchorage,” said Kito.

The Legislature currently faces a lawsuit over the Anchorage LIO over damages allegedly caused to nearby properties during its renovations.

Categories: Alaska News