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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: 37 min 29 sec ago

Sitka Tribe Names New General Manager

Mon, 2014-04-14 12:46

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska has hired a new general manager. Lawrence SpottedBird, currently of Washington State, will start work on Monday.

STA’s previous manager, Ted Wright, resigned in October, after about two years on the job. Tribal Attorney Allen Bell has been serving as the interim manager since then.

Speaking with KCAW on Thursday, SpottedBird, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, said he has spent the last 34 years working with tribes and Native American entrepreneurs on business and economic development. He currently runs a consulting firm, SpottedBird Development.

Lawrence SpottedBird will take over as general manager of STA on Monday, April 14. (Photo by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska)

“I consult with primarily tribes and Native American individuals in business development, with a focus on federal contracting development, looking for opportunities in contracting with the U.S. federal government,” SpottedBird said. “A lot of tribal governments and Native American entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the many incentive programs in the federal government and developing contracting enterprises to do so.”

SpottedBird has also spent time in Southeast Alaska: from 1999 to 2000 he served as general manager of Shaan Seet, the village Native corporation in Craig, on Prince of Wales Island.

Tribal Council Chairman Michael Baines said SpottedBird’s background in economic development is exactly what the Sitka Tribe needs. One key priority for STA in coming years will be finding new sources of revenue, Baines said.

SpottedBird agreed.

“Getting a solid footing financially and budgetarily is very important,” he said. “So I will be focusing on looking at ways to address the budget and financial situation that any tribe – or any government really – faces around the country.”

Baines said the Council received about sixteen applications for the position, and flew in three finalists for interviews. All of the finalists came from outside of Sitka.

SpottedBird will be formally introduced to the Tribal Council and public at 6 p.m. next Wednesday, April 16, at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Na Kahidi, immediately before the council’s regular meeting.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature Votes To Create Dr. Walter Soboleff Day In Alaska

Mon, 2014-04-14 12:43

Walter Soboleff passed away in 2011 at the age of 102. (Sealaska Photo)

The Alaska Legislature has finalized work on a bill that would name November 14th as Walter Soboleff Day in Alaska. He was a revered Tligit elder and religious leader.

Senator Fred Dyson from Eagle River carried House Bill 217 on the floor of the Senate and spoke eloquently about his friendship with Soboleff.

“Here’s a man who lived with dignity. He had a tremendous impact on individuals wherever he went. He was a magnificent example for all of us.”

Walter Soboleff was a well-known Tligik language translator and scholar and he was the first Native Alaskan to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister. The members of the Alaska Senate voted unanimously Saturday afternoon in favor of House Bill 217, which passed the House in late March. The bill now goes to the desk of Governor Sean Parnell for his signature.

Categories: Alaska News

House Passes Minimum Wage Bill, As Initiative Sponsors Cry Foul

Sun, 2014-04-13 23:55

House Speaker Mike Chenault stepped down from the dais Sunday, April 13, 2014, to speak out against minimum wage ballot organizer Ed Flanagan’s holding of a dollar symbol sign in committee, and the perception of corruption it could have implied. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

As initiative supporters cried dirty tricks, the House narrowly passed a minimum wage bill that has the potential to knock their proposition off the ballot. The night only got more tense when the Speaker of the House fired back on the floor. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

The fight over the minimum wage bill got so ugly on Sunday night, legislators joked that they preferred debating abortion.

For about three hours, Democrats who have long advocated for increasing the minimum wage spoke against the bill, while free market Republicans said they had seen the light and believed the minimum wage should be increased as quickly as possible.

More than policy, the conversation focused on motive and trust. Fairbanks Democrat Scott Kawasaki acknowledged he was in an unusual position of voting against a measure he liked, because he believed the intention was to manipulate the upcoming elections. He’s worried that Republicans’ end goal is to keep minimum wage supporters from coming out to vote in August, when a referendum to repeal the new oil tax law is also on the ballot.

“It’s a strange vote, and it’s going to be difficult to justify to my voters,” said Kawasaki. “I simply think this is a disingenuous piece of legislation. I think it was brought into session in the last week of session in order for this to pass, so this issue can be taken off the ballot.”

The minimum wage bill was introduced a little over a week ago, and it was modeled after the initiative. It bumps up the rate over the course of two years, then pegs the wage to inflation.

Because of a sour history regarding the last minimum wage initiative, bill supporters added a number of provisions to make it more appealing to skeptics. In 2002, the Legislature preempted a minimum wage initiative, only to gut it a year later. So this time, bill supporters added a letter of intent saying they wouldn’t touch the policy for two years. They also adopted one amendment to outdo the initiative’s increase, hiking the current minimum wage of $7.75 to $9 in the first year, and then $10 the year after. They adopted another to make the wage go into effect earlier.

Rep. Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican, said the package was better than the one voters would see on the ballot.

“We are guaranteeing that the minimum wage will be increased,” said Johnson. “Whether you believe or not we’re going to change it, you’ve got to make that decision on your own. But we can guarantee that the minimum will be higher than the ballot initiative, enacted quicker than the ballot initiative.”

The minimum wage bill ultimately passed 21-19, with nine members of the majority caucus breaking ranks and siding with the minority. Some of those opponents from the majority said they did not like the politics surrounding the bill, while a couple had concerns that increasing the minimum wage could hurt businesses.

The bill has been a priority for House Speaker Mike Chenault. While the Nikiski Republican was one of the legislators who gutted the minimum wage law after passing it, he says he’s “matured” in the decade since and would oppose any effort to weaken the bill that’s currently before the Legislature.

Shortly after the vote, Chenault stepped down from the dais so he could freely comment on one of the initiative sponsors. He suggested that organized labor, which has contributed to the minimum wage initiative, was leaning on legislators inappropriately.

“We will not be coerced, threatened, or strong-armed into any other decision,” says Chenault.

Chenault also pointed legislators to a photograph of Ed Flanagan — a former labor commissioner and lead organizer of the initiative — taken at the bill’s only hearing. In the photograph, Flanagan is holding up a notepad, with a dollar sign scribbled on it.

Chenault said he did not know what Flanagan was trying to communicate, but that flashing a symbol like that at lawmakers was wrong given the Legislature’s history with bribery convictions.

But Flanagan says Chenault is taking things out of context. He says he was trying to get the attention of a legislators to ask why the bill had not gotten a fiscal note. That would have slowed the process down by requiring the bill to get another hearing, instead of just the one that was scheduled.

Flanagan says Chenault approached him after the hearing — something this reporter witnessed at the time — and explained what he was trying to communicate with the notepad. Now, Flanagan thinks Chenault is using the incident to distract from the vote itself.

“I think it’s a smokescreen,” says Flanagan. “He got a 21-19 vote. That’s pretty embarrassing for the Speaker in his majority, and it’s because of the hypocrisy that this vote represents.”

The bill now gets sent to the Senate, where members of leadership have said they are reluctant to take the bill up.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature Passes Bill Limiting Medicaid Payments For Abortion

Sun, 2014-04-13 23:11

The Legislature has narrowly passed a bill that putting limits on state Medicaid payments for abortion.

The bill defines the term “medically necessary,” so it only covers physical harm – not psychological harm. Doctors would need to choose from a list of conditions like epilepsy and sickle cell anemia before the state covers the cost of the procedure.

Advocates for the bill, like Anchorage Republican Gabrielle LeDoux, said the point was to keep the state from paying for elective abortions.

“We’ve got the right to travel, but it doesn’t mean the government buys us a ticket to Paris,” said LeDoux. “We’ve got the right to bear arms, but the government doesn’t buy us a Sturm Ruger.”

Critics of the bill believe it will make it harder for low-income women to have access to abortion. Rep. Geran Tarr, an Anchorage Democrat, also suggested that the bill will not save money, because the law will inevitably end up in court.

“Litigation will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, just as it has in the past,” said Tarr.

The Department of Health and Social Services introduced similar abortion regulations last year, but a judge put a stay on them after a lawsuit was filed on the grounds that the regulations violate the Equal Protection Clause.

The bill ultimately passed 23-17, splitting mostly on party lines. Republicans Lindsey Holmes of Anchorage, Paul Seaton of Homer, and Alan Austerman of Kodiak broke with their party and voted no.

The bill passed the Senate last year, with a provision establishing a women’s health program. Because the House stripped that program, the bill was sent to Senate for concurrence on Monday morning. The Senate passed the bill 13-7, nearly on the same margins as before. ***Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat, changed his vote to no after the family planning language was taken out. Sitka Republican Bert Stedman and Juneau Democrat Dennis Egan also joined a bloc of Anchorage Democrats in voting no.

The bill will now be sent to the governor for his signature.

This story has been updated to reflect the Senate’s concurrence vote.

Categories: Alaska News

Sullivan Maintains Fundraising Momentum

Fri, 2014-04-11 17:44

Republican senate candidate Dan Sullivan has kept up his fundraising momentum. Sullivan’s campaign reports he raised $1.3 million in the first quarter of the year.

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That’s a bit more than Sullivan, the former state attorney general and natural resources commissioner, raised during the prior quarter.

Incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich also reports raising more than a million dollars during the first quarter.

Other challengers in the race haven’t yet announced their totals, which aren’t due until next week.

Categories: Alaska News

Parnell Reintroduces Retirement Plan

Fri, 2014-04-11 17:43

The Legislature has made little progress on Gov. Sean Parnell’s goal of addressing the state’s looming retirement problem. Parnell hopes to change that by filing a bill that reintroduces his plan to deal with Alaska’s $12 billion unfunded liability.

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Gov. Sean Parnell’s retirement bill dropped on Thursday night, with little more than a week before lawmakers gavel out.

The idea is identical to the proposal he introduced going into session. It transfers $3 billion from the state’s savings reserves into the retirement trust fund. It also commits the state to making a half-billion dollar payment into the system every year. It’s been likened to taking on a 15-year mortgage instead of a 30-year one. Except instead of paying off a house, the goal is put less pressure on future state budgets and guard Alaska’s credit rating.

But the plan didn’t go anywhere. Lawmakers were reluctant to deal with the pension issue without a separate bill in front of them.

Parnell does not agree with that line of thinking.

“Actually, they did see a bill from me,” says Parnell. “I submitted my proposal in our budget proposal. So, to act concerned about not having a bill from the governor when we submitted one by December 15 as required by the Constitution is a little disingenuous.”

As Parnell’s plan languished, members of the House Finance committee tried to push forward their own way of dealing the pensions of public employees. Their proposal would have stretched out teacher retirement payments over a longer span of time, and they unsuccessfully tried attaching it to the education bill. Parnell described the outcome of the plan as “immoral” when it was initially introduced.

“I strongly oppose that particular plan, because I thought it was unjust that future generations have to pay for our debt and the debt of those before,” says Parnell. “I apologized to members who I offended in that, because my comment was not directed at them. It was directed at the result of that proposal.”

But Parnell says even if he doesn’t like that specific idea, he’s willing to hear other proposals in an effort to come up with an agreement that works for both the executive and legislative branches.

“I am open to a bill and working with legislators on that whether it’s something that I file or whether something they file,” says Parnell. “I just want the problem fixed for Alaskans.”

The governor’s retirement bill will get its first hearing on Saturday.

Categories: Alaska News

Inuit Circumpolar Council Discussing Food Security

Fri, 2014-04-11 17:42

The Inuit Circumpolar Council is holding a meeting in Nome next week. The topic is food security, and the goal is to create a framework to understand the issue from an Inuit perspective.

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Carolina Behe is the ICC Alaska Traditional Knowledge and Science Advisor and is organizing the event.

“Overall, it’s to teach how to take a food security lens to the entire environment,” Behe said. “Food security is synonymous with environmental health.”

Communities and organizations across the Bering Strait Region elected traditional knowledge experts to serve as representatives at the session. Behe says the meeting evolved after the ICC identified food security as a top priority for Alaska Natives but did not have a community understanding of that term.

“And so we started doing the research, and we found that there’s over 800 definitions to food security,” Behe said. “Only one of those that I have found so far is from an indigenous community and none of them are from the Arctic.”

These alternative definitions, Behe says, are based on purchasing power—how much money an individual has to buy food—and the nutritional and caloric value of that food.

Those things are really very, very important, but within the Inupiat and Yupik culture, food means a lot more than how many calories you’re getting,” Behe said. “It includes spirituality; it includes the clothes that you’re getting; it includes transfer of knowledge; it includes language; it includes you’re relationship within the environment or how you’re taught to be within that environment.”

“So all of these things have to be considered if you’re to consider food security.”

Two previous meetings were held in Barrow and Kotzebue and another meeting is scheduled for Bethel later this year. The collected information will be peer reviewed by a traditional knowledge advisory committee and then dispersed to tribal councils, industries, agencies, and the Arctic Council.

Behe says ConocoPhillips has already expressed interest in the project, and Inuit communities want to share the information with developers.

Categories: Alaska News

Delta Western Workers Approve Union Membership

Fri, 2014-04-11 17:41

After two months of protests, Delta Western fuel workers in Unalaska have voted to unionize. The Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific got the support of a slim majority in an election on Thursday night.

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Categories: Alaska News

The Alaska Innocence Project Challenging 1987 Murder Conviction

Fri, 2014-04-11 17:40

Evidence used to get a conviction for a 1987 Fairbanks murder trial is in question. The Alaska Innocence Project is pursuing post conviction relief for Michael Alexander, who was imprisoned for the March 23, 1987 kidnapping and killing of Fairbanks teenager Kathy Stockholm. The Innocence Project request challenges biological evidence that helped convict Alexander, and the group’s Director Bill Oberly says the FBI has concurred it could be suspect.

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Categories: Alaska News

Fire Season Likely To Start Early In Southcentral Alaska

Fri, 2014-04-11 17:39

Wildland firefighters are gearing up for the upcoming 2014 fire season. According to the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service, fire season could come fast to parts of the Tanana Valley and Southcentral Alaska.

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The BLM Alaska Fire Service will work with U.S. Army Garrison Alaska through early June to conduct routine prescribed burns over nearly 60-thousand acres.

Mel Slater is the Public Affairs officer for the Fire Service. He says the plan is to reduce fire danger as summer weather heats up.

Smoke from the Stuart Creek 2 Fire. Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks.

“Well, these are areas over the years that have had debris, fallen trees and over the years, those things have built up,” Slater said.

The BLM and the Army have worked together in years past to conduct prescribed burns to prevent fires that could be associated with military training. Slater says the two agencies are reevaluating their practices prior to the upcoming fire season and in response to the nearly 90,000-acre Stuart Creek 2 Fire that was ignited during an Army training mission northeast of Fairbanks last summer.

“There are agreements in place between the army and BLM Alaska Fire Service that says who provides what kind of services and those negotiations are just taking a look at those agreements and making modifications when they’re necessary,” Slater said.

Forecasters expect the fire season to come on strong in parts of Alaska’s South-Central and Western regions due to low snow pack and above normal early spring temperatures.  Parts of the Tanana Valley prone to warm winds, also known as Chinooks, may also see heightened fire danger in May, but Slater says fire prediction is complicated.

“Trying to predetermine what kind of fire season we’re going to have is a pretty difficult guess at best. Right now it’ kind of hard to say, I mean we still have snow on the ground, so we’re still trying to figure out how we’re going to do our prescribed fires right now,” Slater said.

Prescribed burns are planned for the Donnelly Training area, Yukon Training Area, Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, but recent snowfall has pushed back the burning.

Slater says it was supposed to start this week, but the Fire Service and the Army are reworking that schedule.

Categories: Alaska News

HAARP Research Facility To Shut Down

Fri, 2014-04-11 17:38

It’s been both praised and maligned. Praised by scientists as a tool to gain knowledge about Earth’s ionosphere; maligned as a secret means to develop an ultimate weapon. The HAARP resembles a giant radio antennae. It’s 180  towers are 78 feet tall and  have been beaming radio waves into the atmosphere since 1997. The facility covers about thirty acres of Department of Defense land just off the Tok Cutoff, not far from Gakona Junction. The news of its imminent shut-down has alarmed the scientific community. Bob McCoy directs the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.

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“We’re up here in the subarctic, and we can see how the sun connects to the Earth along the magnetic lines at high latitudes. It would be a shame if this facility went away. “

McCoy says there are only three facilites like it in the world.

“One in Norway and one in Russia. But HAARP is much more flexible. It’s got a wider frequency range, it can go something like less than three up to ten megahertz, and has quite a bit more power.”

HAARP and UAF research projects have been linked for years. And major universities throughout the US remotely access the HAARP facility and it’s information – Cornell and Rice among them. That’s why recent news that the Department of Defense plans to abandon HAARP galvanized McCoy and fellow scientists to make their case to save HAARP to the secretary of defense earlier this year.

“So a lot of us realize how important it is, how powerful, how significant the facility is. So we’re trying to figure out ways to keep it alive as an active scientific tool. Last March the National Academy did a workshop and invited in forty- something scientists to testify about the value of the science that has been done and could be done in the future from HAARP.”

 It is a question of money. In these federal budget – cutting times, the roughly four million dollars a year needed to maintain the facility is getting scrutinized.

HAARP is owned by the Air Force Research Laboratory, but was until recently operated by an Anchorage contractor, Marsh Creek.

Steve Floyd is the principal systems engineer for Marsh Creek. He says HAARP’s money woes started with last year’s sequestration cuts.

“Our contract through Marsh Creek to run the facility, came to an end in the middle of June of 2013. And I guess it’s the sequestration cuts that really squeezed the budget and the Air Force Research Lab decided to save some money and take it dark for a while. “


He says the cost cutting measures are ill-advised, because the research done there is valuable.  Floyd says the ionosphere has a strong impact on satellite communications, but not enough is known about how that works.


“So we’ re transmitting out with a focused beam, doing a very, very, very minute but detectable stimulation of the plasma of the ionosphere with these what are really very standard short wave radio transmissions, but it is just enough to do a cause and effect study of the ionosphere.”


Floyd says the research conducted in Gakona has far reaching implications for both military and commercial communications systems.

“HAARP is in Alaska because we wanted to be underneath a region of concentrated ionosphere called the auroral oval. And we all have marvelled at the Northern Lights, and what that is doing is painting out this hollow ring of concentrated ionosphere, that’s caused by the Earth’s magnetic field. And we wanted to be underneath that auroral oval a good percentage of the time. “

He says there’s no better site than Gakona for the research facility. Bob McCoy agrees.  McCoy and his fellow researchers argue there’s a lot more science to be done in Gakona. McCoy says there’s a possibility that the defense department could find an entity willing to share the costs of HAARP’s upkeep.

 The Air Force is paying for HAARP ionospheric research now going on through this month and in May of this year.  During that time, HAARP will be inventoried to determine if some of its equipment can be used to support other scientific activities elsewhere.    Meredith Mingledorff, a public information officer with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirkland AFB in New Mexico, says in an email,

“The Air Force favors the transition of the HAARP facility to a basic research organization.”

But that depends on funding.  If no other organization can be found to pay expenses,

 ”The Air Force plans to decommission the research site…and initiate divestiture in June 2014.”

 The cost of the deconstruction has not been established yet.

Categories: Alaska News

AK: Puppet Town

Fri, 2014-04-11 17:37

(Photo by John S. Hagen)

Haines seems like a quintessential Southeast Alaska town. There are eagles, bears, salmon, big mountains and rough water. It’s a picture-book no stoplight, no movie theater, low crime type of community. But there’s a seedier and eclectic side of Haines that emerged late this winter: the underground puppet scene.

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We aren’t talking about Muppets. Those fuzzy, funny and googly-eyed characters are not the same as puppets. Not in Haines, Alaska.

Here, there are at least three puppet troupes, dozens of self-taught puppeteers and puppet makers and one artist who has traveled to Europe to explore the history of puppetry, Byrne Power.

(Photo by John S. Hagen)

“What I saw was a puppet troupe who was doing a show – it looked like stuff from their backyards, stuff you’d find at the Salvation Army, rusting metal, old toys – and I said ‘We could do that,’” Power said, at the Sheldon Museum in Haines where he helped curate the puppet exhibit Strung Up and Reconfigured.

Power is sort of the father of puppetry in Haines. Almost 10 years ago he gathered a group of artists and formed a puppet troupe. Here’s artist Debi Knight-Kennedy explaining how she fell into the puppet scene.

“Byrne came up to me one day before I knew him very well and he said ‘So, you’re a doll maker.’ And I said, ‘No, I make figurative sculpture.’ And he said ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. So you can make your dolls talk. I’m starting a puppet troupe.’ And that was it. It was all over for me,” Knight-Kennedy said.

After a few years, Power stayed with traditional puppetry, while some in the group wandered in a different direction. Now the group is called Geppetto’s Junkyard and consists of more than a dozen people including a plumber, a yogi, a boat builder, retired teacher, jujitsu instructor and others.

This winter, they created a show called “Space Lust.” It was described on posters as a cross between steam punk, space cowboy and puppet space opera. It was wild scene of live music, special effects, acting and of course, puppets.

The puppets are all hand-made and usually assembled from found objects, like bicycle parts, kitchen gadgets, vacuum hoses and carved wood.

Knight-Kennedy’s husband, Gene Kennedy is also in the troupe. He’s a handyman and plumber, but is drawn to creating puppets, like the carved wooden horse he made, with multiple moving parts.

(Photo by John S. Hagen)

“It’s all wooden cut out plywood,” Kennedy said. “Basically there are four parts to the body and two levers that work in tandem. And the head swings on its own and it’s counterweighted with lead weights so it always comes back to the same place.”

Geppetto’s Junkyard has their fans. They pack in the sporadic shows. But no one – especially the puppeteers and actors, pretend they are traditionalists. Power is more so. Back at the museum he says he doesn’t think anyone in Haines is true to traditional puppetry.

“There are some puppet styles for instance that take real skill to manipulate. It’s not as simple as you stick your hand up and wiggle it around,” Power said. “You learn very definite things about how to move your hand and it takes months and months of training, years, to be good.”

Of the more than 100 puppets in the exhibit, about two-thirds were made locally. There was even one that might be local from several generations ago. It’s a bone, shell and sinew Tlingit puppet on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Puppets, Power said, cross all cultures.

In Haines this winter, puppets were everywhere. Besides the museum exhibit and Geppetto’s Junkyard show, Power also put on a show. Students at the Haines School created their own puppets. There was even a visit from Carlton Smith of Juneau who performs Tlinigt ventriloquism with his puppet, Charlie.

Power says he’s drawn to puppets because they still surprise people. He says when he goes on the road with a show, he’s not pigeon-holed because puppets are still edgy and intriguing enough to cross all ages and interests.

“Because if you have a music group, you say to someone, ‘Oh what kind of music do you have?’ and they say whatever style of music it is and you say ‘Oh, then you play here.’ But if you have a puppet troupe, the first question is ‘Is it for children?’ and I say, ‘Well, not really.’ And they look kind of blank and say ‘OK’ and you can play for anybody.”

And maybe that’s why puppets and Haines go together. For puppeteers like Melina Shields with Geppetos Junkyard, it makes perfect sense.

“I think that there’s just something inherently creative that happens by taking these found objects and letting the puppets be born into whoever they are,” Shields said. “And it’s just magic.”

Categories: Alaska News

300 Villages: Kasaan

Fri, 2014-04-11 17:36

This week, we’re heading to Kasaan, located in Southeast Alaska on Prince of Wales island. The coastal Native village is home to the oldest Haida building in the world. Frederick Otilius Olsen Junior is from Kasaan.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 11, 2014

Fri, 2014-04-11 17:00

Individual news 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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Sullivan Maintains Fundraising Momentum

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Republican senate candidate Dan Sullivan has kept up his fundraising momentum. Sullivan’s campaign reports he raised $1.3 million in the first quarter of the year. That’s a bit more than Sullivan, the former state attorney general and natural resources commissioner, raised during the prior quarter.  Incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich also reports raising more than a million dollars during the first quarter.  Other challengers in the race haven’t yet announced their totals, which aren’t due until next week.

Little Progress Made In Dealing With Looming Retirement Problem

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The legislature has made little progress on Governor Sean Parnell’s goal of addressing the state’s looming retirement problem. Parnell hopes to change that by filing a bill that reintroduces his plan to deal with Alaska’s $12 billion unfunded liability.

Inuit Circumpolar Council Discussing Food Security

Anna Rose MacArthur, KNOM – Nome

The Inuit Circumpolar Council is holding a meeting in Nome next week. The topic is food security, and the goal is to create a framework to understand the issue from an Inuit perspective.

Delta Western Workers Approve Union Membership

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

After two months of protests, Delta Western fuel workers in Unalaska have voted to unionize. The Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific got the support of a slim majority in an election on Thursday night.

The Alaska Innocence Project Challenging 1987 Murder Conviction

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Evidence used to get a conviction for a 1987 Fairbanks murder trial is in question.  The Alaska Innocence Project is pursuing post conviction relief for Michael Alexander, who was imprisoned for the March 23, 1987 kidnapping and killing of Fairbanks teenager Kathy Stockholm. The Innocence Project request challenges biological evidence that helped convict Alexander, and the group’s Director Bill Oberly says the FBI has concurred it could be suspect.

Fire Season Likely To Start Early In Southcentral Alaska

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

Wildland firefighters are gearing up for the upcoming 2014 fire season. According to the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service, fire season could come fast to parts of the Tanana Valley and Southcentral Alaska.

HAARP Research Facility To Shut Down

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Gakona’s High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, better known as HAARP, is slated for the junk pile.  But a group of University of Alaska researchers are trying to stave off a Department of Defense move to scuttle the often-misunderstood scientific facility.

AK: Puppet Town

Margaret Friedenauer, KHNS – Haines

Haines seems like a quintessential Southeast Alaska town. There are eagles, bears, salmon, big mountains and rough water. It’s a picture-book no stoplight, no movie theater, low crime type of community. But there’s a seedier and eclectic side of Haines that emerged late this winter: the underground puppet scene.

300 Villages: Kasaan

This week, we’re heading to Kasaan, located in Southeast Alaska on Prince of Wales island. The coastal Native village is home to the oldest Haida building in the world. Frederick Otilius Olsen Junior is from Kasaan.

Categories: Alaska News

Final Vote On Abortion Bill Delayed After Divisive Amendment Process

Thu, 2014-04-10 21:15

The Alaska State House opened debate on a bill putting limits on state Medicaid payments for abortions on Thursday, only to shelve it and delay a final vote to Sunday.

The bill requires abortion providers to sign a statement that a procedure is “medically necessary,” and it defines that term to include only physical conditions – not mental ones. Advocates of the bill believe the state is paying for elective abortions under the current law, while critics argue that the bill restricts abortion access for poor women.

The version that the Senate passed last year also included a provision establishing a women’s health program, which made the bill more palatable to moderate Republicans. That program would have allowed low-income single women to access birth control and family planning services, with those services largely paid for by the federal government.
A House committee stripped that language in March with support from an influential conservative advocacy group, but the issue of family planning became a major focus of debate during the amendment process.

Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, the Anchorage Republican carrying the bill, signed on to an amendment signaling the Legislature’s intent “to continue” funding women’s health services in the state. The amendment, which passed 35-5, does not commit the Legislature to expanding services in any way. A handful of Democrats opposed the measure because they did not believe it to be substantive, and they instead tried to reintroduce the original family planning language that would have compelled the state to establish a new program immediately.

LeDoux spoke against the Democrats’ amendment, arguing that the state already provides women’s health services through public health clinics.

“Other than putting contraceptives in the drinking water, I mean we’ve done just about everything we can do as far as family planning services.” LeDoux said on the floor.

The Democrats’ amendment failed on a 22-18 vote, with four Republicans – Lindsey Holmes of Anchorage, Cathy Muñoz of Juneau, Alan Austerman of Kodiak, and Paul Seaton of Homer — breaking ranks with their party.

Sen. Berta Gardner, an Anchorage Democrat who offered the original family planning language last year, thinks the amendment to simply continue funding women’s health services is not a compromise measure, but a fig leaf.

“It means nothing,” said Gardner in an interview. “It’s just like a little ‘P.S.’ but without the force of law.”

While the family planning amendments prompted the most discussion on the floor, the amendments that showed the greatest strife on the bill dealt with the lack of mental health exception.

One amendment added that exception back in, which would have allowed women receiving medication for psychiatric disorders to qualify for abortion coverage because of the pregnancy risk that creates. That failed 21-19, with Mike Hawker of Anchorage joining the bloc of Republicans seeking to alter the bill. The other amendment would have allowed for a mental health exception only in cases where suicide is likely. That failed 20-20, picking up support from Republicans Charisse Millett of Anchorage and Eric Feige of Chickaloon.

Once the amendment process wrapped up, the bill pulled from consideration and tabled until Sunday. House Speaker Mike Chenault acknowledged that the outcome would be close.

“You can see it’s kind of a divided issue,” said Chenault after the floor session. “It always is, it always has been.”

Chenault added that final consideration was not being delayed because of any uncertainty over the bill’s ability to pass. The bill was moved so that legislators with scheduled absences could be present for a vote.

Last year, the Department of Health and Social Services introduced regulations that are nearly identical to the bill language, but include the mental health exception. Those regulations are now the subject of a lawsuit, and a judge has put a stay on them until the courts determine if they comply with the equal protection clause of the Alaska Constitution.

If the bill passes, it will be sent to the governor’s desk for his signature, and then, most likely, to the courts.

Categories: Alaska News

Geraghty Testifies On Tribal Law And Order Commission Report Findings

Thu, 2014-04-10 17:33

State Attorney General Michael Geraghty testified before a legislative committee this week to respond to a national report that singles out Alaska for its high rates of violence against Alaska Natives, especially Native women. The Indian Law and Order Commission report was deeply critical of Alaska’s law enforcement and judicial system. But the state’s Geraghty says the Indian Law and Order Commission is trying to impose lower 48 solutions that won’t work in Alaska.

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Categories: Alaska News

Army Sets New Protocols During Fire Season

Thu, 2014-04-10 17:32

The Army has a new protocol for live ordnance training during times of high wildfire danger. Army artillery practice sparked the Stewart Creek 2 wildfire that burned east of Fairbanks though much of last summer. The 87,000 acre blaze forced evacuations and cost more than $20 million to fight.

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Categories: Alaska News

Exit Exam Bill Could Bring Diplomas To More Students

Thu, 2014-04-10 17:31

Graduation time is just around the corner and for most seniors that means walking a stage and accepting a diploma. But a few students a year in Petersburg do not receive a diploma because they don’t pass a test. A bill making its way through the state Legislature would change that. House Bill 220 would repeal the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam.

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The high school is especially quiet. Red signs are posted on the outside of the library doors and several classrooms.

High School Principal, Rick Dormer, says large groups of 10th graders are getting tested in the classrooms and smaller groups are in the library. The signs help others know to stay out because a quiet environment is important.

“You can see we have big red signs, ‘Testing, Do not Disturb’,” Dormer says, “We’re in the middle of it here today and kids are in a room and it’s three hours and it’s make it or break it. And we’ve had kids really crying before the test, crying after the test. It’s high stress, it’s high-stakes.”

There’s a lot riding on this test and students feel the pressure. If they don’t pass it, they don’t graduate with a diploma.

“And they must pass in three areas, reading, writing and mathematics. And they must pass it with a certain score that’s set by the state to earn their diploma,” Dormer says. “So despite anything that a student may or may not do, if they complete all graduation requirements, which has happened here in Petersburg, and do not pass this particular exam in the State of Alaska, we cannot give them a diploma in Petersburg High School. Rather, they get what we call a certificate of completion that is not equivalent.”

The certificate does not hold the same weight as a diploma. Students who want to further their education after high school can’t qualify for financial aid.

Sonya Stein is the Director of the Student Financial Assistance Office at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“The federal department of education requires that a student has a high school diploma or its equivalent in order to be federal financial aid eligible,” says Stein.

An equivalent would be the GED or the General Education Development, which would require students to pass another test.

The exit exam has been required in Alaska for a decade. It was established through state law before the No Child Left Behind Law prompted other standardized tests.

There’s no middle ground with the exit exam.  . .either you pass it or you don’t.

Principal Rick Dormer says it can be heart breaking.

“I can tell you we’ve had two students who have not passed the test by one point, one section by one point,” Dormer says.

In both cases, the school paid some extra money to appeal the results to the state’s education department but it didn’t work.

“We don’t believe that’s the best assessment of a kid’s knowledge of what they know,” Dormer says. “Really any testing is there just as a measure to see what they know and then you build on it and so we don’t agree that high stakes testing is the best measure of what a kids knowledge is and whether or not they deserve a diploma. I think it’s a much more complicated than a one shot test.”

House Bill 220 would work retroactively, so past students who received a certificate instead of a diploma because they didn’t pass the test would be able to get a diploma. They’d just have to request it.

So far the bill hasn’t seen much opposition. It passed the House with a vote of 32 to 5. The Parnell administration and the Education Department support getting rid of the test as well.

The bill is sponsored by Representative Pete Higgins, a Republican from Fairbanks.

Categories: Alaska News

Sitka Assembly Passes Anti-Smoking Law

Thu, 2014-04-10 17:29

The Sitka Assembly passed a controversial amendment Tuesday night, tightening the city’s anti-smoking laws. The question before the assembly was whether children should be prohibited from entering any business that allows smoking — even for a non-smoking event. The decision came down to different interpretations of what voters intended nearly a decade ago.

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It was the fourth time the Assembly had discussed the amendment, which pitted anti-smoking advocates against those who felt, in the words of one member of the public, “You’re going a little too far…You’re micromanaging things that a parent should do. So let’s do city things, and let parents do parent things.”

In 2005, Sitka voters passed a law that barred children from entering businesses that allow smoking. This past December, the American Legion, a private club that allows smoking, hosted a Christmas party for kids – but didn’t allow smoking at the event. The Legion asked the city attorney whether the party was legal. She said it was.

In response, Mayor Mim McConnell and Assembly Member Phyllis Hackett sponsored an amendment to clarify the intent of the 2005 law. The new language makes it clear that if a business allows smoking, then kids can’t enter, even for a smoke-free event.

That prompted protests from the Legion, and the Assembly sent the issue to the Health Needs and Human Services Commission. The commission voted unanimously in favor of the amendment. They cited, in particular, the possible health hazards of third-hand smoke, or the chemicals that can remain in walls and furniture after a room has been used for smoking.

But both McConnell and Hackett argued that all of these issues – third-hand smoke, public health, assembly overreach and even Christmas parties – were beside the point. Voters already settled these issues when they passed the law in 2005, Hackett said. The assembly’s job was simply to honor the voters’ original intent.

“The issue here, which I know some people are having a hard time understanding or choosing to believe, but the issue here is about intent, and it’s about the intent of the ordinance that was passed,” Hackett said. “And it was passed overwhelmingly by the voters.”

Assembly Members Mike Reif and Matt Hunter, however, insisted it wasn’t so easy to tell what voters intended nearly a decade ago. Reif pointed out that third-hand smoke, for instance, wasn’t even part of the debate in 2005.

“I personally really don’t know the intent of the voters in Sitka back in 2005,” Reif said. “It’s very cloudy trying to speculate what the intent was of all those voters.”

All the same, Reif said he felt he had a clearer sense of the voters’ will now.

“I do think that if we put this to the vote of Sitkan voters today, that they would pass this, they would want to see this banned,” Reif said. “I’ll support it because that’s what I think the majority of Sitkans want.”

Hunter, meanwhile, spoke at length about how his thinking on the issue had changed.

“I’ve publicly gone back and forth on this issue and I’m still conflicted on it,” Hunter said, adding that he had consulted the original 2005 ballot. “The language as it’s written, the whole reason for doing this amendment to change the language, is because the language is unclear. And to me it means that, what people voted on, it’s very easy for people to interpret it in many ways.”

He said he thought the issue should be put to a vote once again.

“I am going to not support this ordinance because I feel that this is an issue that really needs to go to the people to decide,” he said. “And while I have no intention of exposing myself or those I love to first-, second- or third-hand smoke, I also am very sensitive to the personal responsibility issue.”

In the end, Hunter was the only vote against the amendment. Assembly Member Pete Esquiro had agreed with Hunter during earlier meetings, but he voted yes, without offering any other comment.

Categories: Alaska News

Fairbanks Will Help Fund New Mental Health Drop In Center

Thu, 2014-04-10 17:28

The City of Fairbanks will help fund a new mental health drop in center. Earlier this week, the city council approved $58,000 for the Northern Door Clubhouse.

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Categories: Alaska News
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