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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: 10 min 23 sec ago

Sullivan Stands With House on DHS Funding

Thu, 2015-02-12 16:16

Sen. Ted Cruz addresses press conference, with Sen. Dan Sullivan on deck.

Funding for the Department of Homeland Security will run out February 27, unless Congress can resolve an impasse over immigration policy riders the House included in its funding bill.  Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan today stood with conservative lawmakers, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, calling on the Senate to pass the House bill.

Sullivan told reporters at the Capitol he wants to work with President Obama. In fact, he said, he was heading to the White House that afternoon to watch him sign a veterans mental health bill. But when it comes to Homeland Security funding, Sullivan says Democrats shouldn’t support Obama’s immigration policies.

“And I think it’s very important that we make the case that this is something the American people don’t support and it’s something the Constitution of the United States does not authorize,” he said at a press conference that included Republican Sens. Cruz, Mike Lee of Utah and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, along with a host of House conservatives.

The House bill blocks funding for executive orders that would temporarily shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled whether President Obama has the authority under the Constitution to issue the orders, which opponents call “executive amnesty.”

Senate Democrats are demanding a bill free of the funding blocks, and time is running out. Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, among other Republicans on the Senate leadership team, said the House needs to come up with another solution because the House-passed bill doesn’t have the 60 votes needed to clear the Senate. But Cruz and the other lawmakers at the press conference want to hold firm.

“The House of Representatives has done its job,” Cruz said. A flurry of camera shutters followed each of his hand gestures. “It has voted on funding for DHS. And Senate Democrats are playing partisan politics with our national security by preventing the Senate from even taking up that funding bill.”

Senate Democrats say it’s the Republicans risking furloughs at DHS. The Department includes the Coast Guard, the immigration service, border protection and FEMA.

Categories: Alaska News

Jeff King Takes Cautious Approach To Frigid Yukon Quest

Thu, 2015-02-12 14:22

Denali Park musher Jeff King competes in the 2015 Yukon Quest. (Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks)

Jeff King won the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race back in 1989. He is also well-known on the Iditarod trail, having won Alaska’s other 1,000 mile sled dog race four times.

This year, he returned to the Quest, but decided to scratch from the race after only 300 miles.

This year, Jeff King signed up for both of Alaska’s 1000-mile sled dog races. Over the year’s he says he’s seen other dog teams improve after their first 1000-miler.

“This one wasn’t going to make them stronger, this one was going to need recovery,” King said.

When King left the Pelly Crossing checkpoint, temperatures were frigid – between minus 30 and minus 40 degrees. That was still the case when he reached the Stepping Stone hospitality stop.

“After 16 hours, I fully expected to leave,” King said. “I also expected the temperature not to go down to the lowest I had seen since I had arrived and when I stepped out on the porch at 6 a.m., after having fed the dogs three times, food that was really intended for Scroggie creek and Eureka, it was 47 below zero.”

When King first started running the Yukon Quest in the mid-1980’s, those temperatures were the norm, but King says that’s was never fun for him.

“I don’t think fun is the word,” he said. “I think I shared the mentality of wanting to be the toughest and I wanted to know that I could endure and overcome these challenges.”

But King says he’s changed after 40 years of working with sled dogs.

“I love having a fast dog team that loves me and nothing anymore will tempt me into jeopardizing that,” he said.

King is used to running teams that move down the trail between 8-10 miles per hour, but subzero temperatures slowed dogs teams to nearly half that as they approached Dawson City.

“I don’t need another trophy; I don’t need another pay check,” he said. “I want to have fun and that was not fun.”

King says his dogs are recovering well. He also says had the weather been warmer, the race’s outcome could be different.

“I don’t expect any of the teams that make it the whole way to be very competitive again this year, would be my guess,” he said.

King admitted that prior to the race, he confided in close friends that he planned to scratch if conditions hard on his dog team. He wouldn’t say for sure whether he would return for the Quest again in the future.

Categories: Alaska News

BOEM Assessment Suggests Shell’s Chukchi Leases Remain Intact

Thu, 2015-02-12 13:14

Federal regulators are recommending that Shell’s disputed oil leases in the Chukchi Sea be left intact.

That’s the conclusion of a new assessment of Lease Sale 193 – the 2008 auction where Shell picked more than $2 billion worth of Arctic drilling prospects.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released its latest analysis Thursday, after a federal appeals court ordered them to take another look at how much development the sale would trigger in the Chukchi Sea.

Regulators had previously guessed that leases in the region could yield up to 1 billion barrels of oil. But Judge Ralph Beistline ruled that was an arbitrary figure – and it cast doubt on the government’s justification for the sale.

BOEM has revised its estimate, saying that companies could get up to 4 billion barrels of oil from the Chukchi. That’s worried environmentalists, who are concerned about the risk of a spill.

But BOEM isn’t suggesting any changes to the lease sale. According to the study released Thursday, ”It continues to represent a reasonable balance between environmental, economic, and technical considerations.”

This isn’t the first time that BOEM has had to go back and recheck this sale. Judge Beistline made a similar order five years ago. But once the agency put together extra environmental studies, Beistline allowed Shell to explore its leases in the Chukchi.

For now, that activity is still off-limits. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has to wait 30 days before she can weigh in and issue a final record of decision – on whether to uphold the sale, adjust its parameters, or strike it down altogether.

The waiting period will end on March 25.

Categories: Alaska News

Layovers Vital To Yukon Quest Mushers, Dogs

Thu, 2015-02-12 09:58

Sled dogs take a rest in the dog yard at Pelly Crossing. (Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks)

After Yukon Quest mushers arrive in Dawson City, they drive their teams head across the Yukon River to a public campground, where handlers build elaborate camps for the dogs. They’ll get massaged, fed and sleep for during the 24 hour layover.

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Brent Sass had his dog team lined out and waiting to leave the dog camp more than a half hour early.

“I’m a little anxious, because it’s a lot easier once you get out on the trail,” he said. “This is like before that big game.”

He says he and his team were well rested.

“I feel great. I slept down here with the dogs in the wall tent and I got a good seven hour rest and then a couple naps in between feedings and the dogs did the exact same thing, we’re kind of all on the same schedule,” Sass said. “They ate really well at this stop, which is awesome. They drank really well before we left so they’re all super hydrated.”

A few minutes later, Sass was checking his mandatory gear, just to make sure, and then he took off.

As Sass left camp, handlers for most of the other teams were still setting up.

Beth Shepard and Jake Berkowitz pull at the legs of a collapsible cot. They were also organizing gear and food for rookie musher Jason Campeau.

“…A good wide open place for the dogs to sleep, ample room for the dogs and you… time and energy that you should, a nice Arctic oven to keep everyone warm and yeah that’s pretty much it.”

Berkowitz drove dog teams in the Yukon Quest in 2012 and 2013 before he retired. Behind him, a giant blue tarp hangs between the trees from three ropes. It’s a makeshift tent, tall enough to stand in. Piles of snow topped with straw line the sides. They look like little nests.

“Every dog has their own little spot. We’ll get the dogs up about every six to eight hours,” Berkowitz said. “We’ll get them out of the tent I’ve always found when the dogs go in here they kind of into hibernation mode where you’re not going to see them devour food, so getting them out of here and then they’ll come back, snuggle back up.”

Brent Sass was the first musher to reach Dawson during the 2015 Yukon Quest. (Photo by Emily Schwing/KUAC)

Joel Switzer has been a handler on the Yukon Quest trail many times. He says he’s learned plenty about dog care during the layover.

“You learn things from other teams and other tricks and how other people recover their dogs,” Switzer said. “Well, how to stretch them out and rub the muscles and shoulders and what to look for in the feet.”

After they’re massaged, Switzer will feed dogs a mixture of hot water, kibble and meat.

“There’s something called BLT that people talk about – beef, liver and tripe – what we have isn’t exactly that, but the BLT has a whole new meaning in the dog mushing world,” he said.

It’s the kind of food that’s among a variety Cody Strathe’s dogs will devour. The Fairbanks musher checked in at Dawson exhausted from a run over King Solomon’s dome.

“We had to break trail all the way up and over and around and down, yeah there’s about a foot of snow up there and it’s drifting,” he said.

He was ready to bed down his team, but he had hoped for more rest.

“It’s short, really short, I miss 36,” he said.

Strathe is among a majority of mushers who would have preferred to layover for 36 hours halfway through the race. But this year, the rules committee decreased that time by 12 hours and added two six hour stops elsewhere.

Overall, total mandatory rest time will drop from 52 to 50 hours this year.

Categories: Alaska News

In Rare Appearance Before The Legislature, Walker Announces Plans For Point Thomson Lawsuit

Wed, 2015-02-11 18:14

(Skip Gray/KTOO)

Gov. Bill Walker has announced that on Friday, he will drop his Point Thomson lawsuit against the state and instead try to address his concerns with the settlement through a piece of legislation. It’s exactly what legislative leaders have been calling on him to do for the past two weeks. But the way Walker went about it left some of those same lawmakers less than amused. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

The House Resources committee was scheduled to get an overview on the Point Thomson case on Wednesday afternoon. Bill Walker had filed the lawsuit when he was a private citizen in 2012. The litigation argued that a settlement between the executive branch and Exxon concerning the development of North Slope natural gas reserves violated state regulations. But now that Walker is governor, Republicans in the Legislature have questioned the propriety of having Alaska’s top official suing the state.

The Resources committee had invited the Department of Law to speak on Point Thomson. So, it was a surprise when they got the governor himself.

“Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, you asked for someone from my Administration to testify on the Point Thomson lawsuit that I brought several years ago as a public interest litigant,” said Walker. “I am here to talk to you directly about this and set the record straight.”

The last time a sitting governor spoke directly before a committee was in 2007, when Sarah Palin testified on an ethics bill.

First, Walker reviewed the history of the lawsuit. Then, he said he would drop the lawsuit upon filing legislation to change the way the state deals with oil and gas settlements. And after seven minutes of testifying, he said thank you, stood up, and walked out of the committee room, leaving some members stunned.

“I thought our understanding with the governor is that we would have time to ask questions of him before departing our committee?” asked Rep. Mike Hawker, an Anchorage Republican, of the committee chair.

After taking a brief at ease to collect themselves, the committee came back to order and tried to parse Walker’s statement. As that was happening, the Governor’s Office announced a press conference on Point Thomson would take place within the hour.

When Walker met with reporters, he said he had not reviewed the finalized Point Thomson legislation, but that it would not be “voluminous.” He added that he was tying the dropping of the lawsuit to the bill’s introduction rather than its passage because he did not think it was appropriate to pressure the Legislature that way. If lawmakers do not pass his legislation, Walker said he would consider the matter closed.

“Well, I’ve done all I can,” said Walker.

One of the questions from reporters was why Walker would take questions from them but not the House Resources committee. Walker said he had concerns about the fact that the lawsuit was still pending, and that a press conference was a fundamentally different venue from a legislative hearing.

“It could be an awkward situation,” said Walker. “I’m a strong believer in the separation of powers between me as an individual, and as governor, and their role as the Legislature. So, I was sensitive to that and didn’t think it was appropriate from me to stay and answer questions.”

But after the Resources hearing, Rep. Hawker said that addressing a committee without allowing for questions violated protocol.

“I’m personally very disappointed in the abrupt departure of the governor after we availed him the courtesy of addressing our committee,” said Hawker. “He turned it into a press event that he got up and walked away from, instead of allowing us the opportunity for a dialogue to raise some of the very questions that you all are raising here today.”

While he welcomed the decision to abandon the suit, Hawker felt that the committee should have been alerted to governor’s appearance earlier.

“We received notice about 10 minutes before the committee meeting that the governor wanted to come and say something. That’s all we had to go on,” said Hawker. “So, I’ve just to say the process — this is not good process.”

House Speaker Mike Chenault also had reservations about the roll-out of the Point Thomson announcement.

“That’s part of the problem is lack of communication in that form,” said Chenault. “If we knew what was going on, it makes the decision making a lot easier.”

Chenault added that he was pleased with the substance of the announcement, and that Walker is not putting conditions on the dropping of the Point Thomson suit.

“Regardless of whether the legislation moves through or not, he’s dropping the lawsuit. So he’s not going to try the lawsuit over passing the piece of legislation,” said Chenault. “That’s how it should be.”

Chenault said he could not comment on the likelihood that the bill will advance without seeing the text of the legislation.

Categories: Alaska News

Chief Justice Stresses Need For Rural Presence

Wed, 2015-02-11 18:07

(Skip Gray/KTOO)

With lawmakers reviewing the state budget for cuts, Chief Justice Dana Fabe made the case for preserving the judicial branch’s funding in her annual speech to the Legislature on Wednesday.

“The court does not control the number or types of cases that come before us, or which charges will be brought or tried,” said Fabe. “But it is our responsibility to resolve all of them as promptly, thoroughly, and fairly as we can.”

Fabe specifically addressed the importance of keeping a judicial presence in rural Alaska and the value of letting litigants face trial in their home regions.

“This will likely be our greatest challenge: to resist the financial pressures to centralize our operations in the hub communities and insist that Alaskans come to those hubs for justice or do without,” said Fabe.

In the State of the Judiciary, Fabe also said the court is reevaluating the way it approaches child custody cases to better accommodate litigants who represent themselves, and noted that the judiciary is making advances toward a paperless filing system.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Aerospace Corporation CEO Pitches Privatization

Wed, 2015-02-11 17:17

The CEO and board president of the Alaska Aerospace Corporation were before the Senate Finance Committee this morning, making a pitch, not so much for funding, but for the opportunity to move on. CEO Craig Campbell even raised the possibility of taking the state-owned corporation private.

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Categories: Alaska News

Iditarod Restart Moving To Fairbanks

Wed, 2015-02-11 17:15

For the second time in its history, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will begin in Fairbanks, though race officials still plan to hold the ceremonial start in Anchorage. Last night, the Iditarod Trail Committee’s board of directors voted unanimously to move the start of the race from Willow.

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Stan Hooley, CEO of the Iditarod Trail Committee, says the decision was made after board members observed potentially dangerous areas on the trail by helicopter.

Last year, poor snow conditions led to broken sleds and injured mushers. Aaron Burmeister, who sits on the Iditarod Trail Committee board, was one of those injured in the 2014 race.

Stan Hooley says the overall length of the 2015 Iditarod will be about nineteen miles shorter than usual as a result of the changes, but that won’t necessarily make it easier on mushers and dogs.

“The first part of this race will see longer distances between checkpoints than the traditional route sees,” Hooley said.

Hooley says while mushers would generally prefer to race on the traditional Iditarod Trail, those he’s spoken to accept the change.

Categories: Alaska News

Stampede State Rec Area Advocates Say They’ll Persist, Despite Budget Woes

Wed, 2015-02-11 17:13

Supporters of the Stampede State Recreation Area say it’s becoming so popular that is needs management by the state. It’s a favorite of outdoor recreationalists of all kinds, like these hikers enjoying the trail around Eightmile Lake.
(Credit Friends of the Stampede)

Supporters of the proposed Stampede State Recreation Area near Healy aren’t giving up. Tonight the Denali Borough Assembly will consider and probably pass another resolution urging the Legislature to create the new rec area. Supporters hopes grew after a local official and Stampede supporter was elected to the state house last fall. But the new lawmaker says it’s unlikely to pass this session, because of state budget concerns.

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The most recent version of legislation to create the Stampede rec area would designate 88,000-acres of state land west of Healy, in the northeast corner of Denali National Park for that use. Denali Citizens Council President Hannah Raglund says it would protect the area and local and traditional uses ranging from berry-picking to off-roading.

“The rec area was chosen because of the range of recreational activities that are allowed,” she said. “People can still fish, can still hunt, can still trap.”

Raglund says state management is also needed to limit damage to the Stampede Trail and other areas, like the abandoned bus made famous by Christopher McCandless and the “Into the Wild” book and movie about his wanderings into the Stampede.

Several research sites are scattered around the Stampede, including this one that monitors the changes in the area’s permafrost.
(Credit Friends of the Stampede)

“We see people from all around there world out there, all year round now. Walking, skiing, winter, spring, summer, fall.”

Raglund says the rec area also would protect habitat, wildlife surveys and scientific research venues operated by the University of Alaska and other organizations.

“They found it to be a great site to study permafrost that’s beginning to thaw,” she said.

The citizens council has gotten lawmakers to introduce bills to create a Stampede Recreation Area in each of the past three legislative sessions. The measures haven’t gone anywhere, but  group members were more optimistic about its chances this year

“A lot of us here were pretty excited to see we had a local Healy resident that was elected to represent us in Juneau,” she said.

The old Fairbanks city bus made famous by “Into the Wild” has become one the Stampede’s favorite attractions.
(Credit Friends of the Stampede)

Raglund says the election of former Denali Borough Mayor and Stampede state rec area supporter Dave Talerico to the state House raised optimism among supporters. But Talerico says since the election it’s become clear that any proposal requiring any additional state spending will probably be dead on arrival.

“With the budget concerns that we have this year, I would say there’ll be a lot of things that will be put on hold for the time being, just due to the fact there’ll be expense involved,” he said.

Raglund says the rec area would pretty much support itself through user fees.

And David Evans, the deputy presiding officer of the Denali Borough Assembly, says he believes it wouldn’t cost much to create and manage the rec area.

“I think it’s relatively minor, when you look at the state as a whole,” he said.

Evans says the Assembly will probably pass another resolution in this month’s meeting that again calls for creation of the rec area.

“It’s been widely supported by the Denali Borough Assembly and a lot of the area residents,” he said.

But Talerico cites other issues beyond cost, including opposition by the Alaska Miners Association and Usibelli Coal Mine. A Usibelli spokeswoman says the company is concerned the rec area would create regulatory obstacles to its plans to explore for natural gas in the Stampede.

Raglund says the most recent version of the legislation preserves Usibelli’s exploration leases and continued mining operations.

Categories: Alaska News

NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest Not So Tiny

Wed, 2015-02-11 17:12

NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series has become anything but tiny since its inception in 2008. And this year, the series began a contest, open to all, where the winner gets to travel to NPR in Washington DC and play a concert at the tiny desk. In this inaugural year, the contest received over 7,000 entries, including 17 from Alaska.

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Playing a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR is a big deal—Cat Stevens, Jackson Browne, and Lucinda Williams are among the names who have performed in front of the book, CD and record shelves at the All Songs Considered office.

All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson conceived of the Tiny Desk Concert after leaving a bar show, frustrated they couldn’t hear the music over the crowd noise. When Boilen introduced the first ever Tiny Desk Concert in 2008 he says, “So we’re going to video tape this for our blog and maybe it’s the start of something and maybe it’s not.”

Alaskans compete for a seat at the tiny desk

Almost seven years later, the series has over 400 performance videos on its website. Boilen had no idea.

“I never really thought that it would go much beyond a little novelty thing that we did now and again,” Boilen says.

The name “Tiny Desk Concert” is a double entendre that references Boilen’s old psychedelic band the Tiny Desk Unit, and that artists literally play at his desk. The series was a success from that first video.

“This series spoke to people , the moment we put Laura Gibson online, in a video form, the reaction we got to that very video, because of its intimacy, connected on a level I didn’t really expect,” he says.

Fast forward eight years through concerts by Pat Benatar, T-Pain, Trey Anastasio, Nickel Creek, Neko Case, Lyle Lovett, Wilco, Steve Earle and hundreds more—and add and a twist.

“Yes there’s a contest, and wonderful there’s going to be a winner, but the most important wonderful thing is for people and friends to get together and make something—that’s the value of art, the value of community, that’s what we wanted to inspire,” he says.

Juneau-based musician Marian Call, who also happens to be a KRNN DJ, couldn’t agree more. Call, the Wool Pullers, and George Kuhar performed at a house concert in Juneau where three video entries were recorded for the contest.

Call says, “I’m anti-contests in general, but I felt like this one both had a good prize, a good mechanism, and was good for everyone even in the entering. It wasn’t exclusive, it wasn’t dangling money, it wasn’t dangling a record contract, it was just about performing in a venue that all of us have always wanted to perform in, right? But then, even better than that, they gave us an excuse to create our own space that felt like a Tiny Desk Concert, and claim it. So now 5,000 people have claimed a little stake of their own Tiny Desk world and I think that’s exactly the best possible outcome. More art was born.”

A Sleetmute- and Anchorage-based musician named Emma Hill also made some new art.

“One of the very first videos I watched,” says Boilen, “was a woman named Emma Hill and she did a song about Denali, just dedicated to her home and the thing that she loves. It’s a beautiful song, she did it with a banjo player who had the most fantastic looking banjo—it was like this refraction paper, psychedelic looking banjo. They both sat on little tiny chairs next to a little tiny table and it was delightful. I loved it.”

Boilen will announce the winner on NPR’s Morning Edition on Thursday. He says the choice was difficult and meant a lot of long nights at the Tiny Desk reviewing videos. Ultimately, he says the winner’s talent and charisma is undeniable. But who really cares about winners, it’s about the creation of new art, right?

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: February 11, 2015

Wed, 2015-02-11 17:11

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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Senate Takes Up Controversial Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

In the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, the Environment and Public Works Committee took up a controversial plan by President Obama to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA program would require a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide from power plants by 2030.  Republicans call it federal overreach, and Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan had more objections than time allowed.

Three Weeks, No Flights: Diomede Residents Stranded without Mail, Food Deliveries

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

The only aircraft flying to one of Alaska’s most remote communities has been down for maintenance for nearly three weeks—leaving residents of the Bering Strait community of Little Diomede with empty mailboxes, bare grocery store shelves, and no way on or off the island.

Gov. Walker Dropping Pt. Thomson Lawsuit

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
Gov. Bill Walker has announced that on Friday, he will drop his Point Thomson lawsuit against the state and instead try to address his concerns with the settlement through legislation. It’s exactly what legislative leaders have been calling on him to do. But the way Walker went about it perplexed some of those same lawmakers.

Alaska Aerospace Corporation CEO Pitches Privatization

Jay Barrett, KMXT – Kodiak

The CEO and board president of the Alaska Aerospace Corporation were before the Senate Finance Committee this morning, making a pitch, not so much for funding, but for the opportunity to move on. CEO Craig Campbell even raised the possibility of taking the state-owned corporation private.

Chief Justice Fabe Argues For Judicial Branch Funding

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

With lawmakers reviewing the state budget for cuts, Chief Justice Dana Fabe made the case for preserving the judicial branch’s funding in her annual speech to the Legislature.

Iditarod Restart Moving To Fairbanks

Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna

For the second time in its history, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will begin in Fairbanks, though race officials still plan to hold the ceremonial start in Anchorage.

For Musher Lance Mackey, ‘Retirement’ Is A 4-Letter Word

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

Lance Mackey is currently running in 8th place on the Yukon Quest trail. He is the winningest musher in Yukon Quest history. The four-time champion is a cancer survivor and the lifelong musher knows he can’t run dogs the way he used to.

Stampede State Rec Area Advocates Say They’ll Persist, Despite Budget Woes

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Denali Borough Assembly considers a resolution tonight urging the State Legislature to create a Stampede State Recreation Area near Healy. It’s the latest attempt to push the proposal with state legislators.

NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest Not So Tiny

Scott Burton, KTOO – Juneau

NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series has become anything but tiny since its inception in 2008. And this year, the series began a contest, open to all, where the winner gets to travel to NPR in Washington DC to play a concert at the tiny desk. In this inaugural year, the contest received over 7,000 entries, including 17 from Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

Senators Grill EPA Clean Air Chief over CO2 Rule

Wed, 2015-02-11 16:10

In the U.S. Senate today, the Environment and Public Works Committee took up a plan by President Obama to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The proposed EPA regulation would require a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide by 2030.  Republicans call it federal overreach, and Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan had more objections than time allowed.

Each senator at the hearing had eight minutes to confront EPA Clean Air boss Janet McCabe. Some questioned the point of reducing U.S. emissions if China and India aren’t lowering theirs. Others raised home-state details they say make the regulations impossible. Alaska’s Dan Sullivan, when it was his turn, challenged the Obama Administration’s authority to regulate C02 emissions from power plants.

“You’ve tried to get this authorization before and Congress has not passed it,” Sullivan told McCabe. “You’re not allowed to then move forward with the regulation to do what Congress won’t allow.”

Sullivan likened it to the president’s executive action on immigration, and Obama’s quest for a wilderness designation in the Arctic Refuge. Sullivan quoted from a Supreme Court opinion scolding the EPA for over-reach in another Clean Air program, and tried to get McCabe to acknowledge a parallel.

Do you think that this regulation dramatically expands your authority?” he asked.

“I believe we’re following what the Clean Air Act requires,” she said. “This is a statute that Congress enacted to protect public health from air pollution. The agency over a number of years … has made a determination that CO2 endangers public health and welfare. That determination was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Sullivan didn’t get into specifics about how the regulation would apply in Alaska, but the senator implied bad stuff ahead.

“Mr. Chairman, my time has expired. I have several additional questions that I’ll submit for the record, particularly as it relates to Interior Alaska, communities such as Fairbanks that pay enormously high energy costs and are going to be severely, severely negatively impacted by this rule,” he said.

In Alaska, the proposed emissions rule would apply only to power plants on the grid, and it’s easy to see why Fairbanks would feel it’s in the regulatory crosshairs. The Fairbanks utility relies on coal and oil for about 60 percent of its power supply. The CEO of Golden Valley Electric has already warned of higher rates if it has to install emissions-reducing equipment to satisfy the mandate.

But that may not be necessary, says Michael Tubman, who worked on energy issues in the State of Alaska’s D.C. office for a string of governors, from Knowles to Palin.

“It’ll be completely up to the state as to where they want to put their resources, how they want to make those reductions,” said Tubman. He’s now a Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a Washington-based think-tank formerly known as the Pew Center for Global Climate Change.

The power plant rule sets a reduction target for each state. Alaska’s is 26 percent. Tubman says the rule wouldn’t necessarily require changes at the power plants themselves.

The state, he said,  ”could choose to reduce emissions from coal and natural gas plants. Or it could decide to build more renewable energy. It could decide to institute an energy efficiency program and get most of the reductions that way.”

Reductions in CO2 that have come since 2012 will count toward the state’s target. Tubman says modernizing the Railbelt transmission grid could be a big source of carbon savings.

Alaska has considered that for years, to save money and improve reliability, but the price tag is about a billion dollars.

Tubman points out the rule isn’t final yet.

“I think Sen. Sullivan’s position on the Environment and Public Works committee really offers him an opportunity to have EPA look at their proposal and look at it from an Alaska lens and perhaps make some changes that are advantageous to the state,” he said.

Tubman suggests Sullivan might ask to expand what counts as a carbon reduction to include off-grid sources, like new wind generators in diesel-dependent rural Alaska.

“That might allow the state to reduce its emissions while achieving other policy goals,” he said.

The EPA hopes to issue final rules this summer, with state compliance plans due a year later.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Lack Of Snow Pushes Iditarod Restart To Fairbanks

Wed, 2015-02-11 12:58

 

The lack of snow in the Alaska Range has persuaded the Iditarod Trail Committee to move the race start to Fairbanks. After a flyover, mushers say the Dalzell Gorge is impassable and the Farewell Burn area is, again, completely bare.

The race started in Fairbanks in 2003, for weather reasons. For Interior musher Aliy Zirkle, the move is somewhat welcome news, from a competitive standpoint.

“It’s too bad, because the Iditarod is the Iditarod and I like the traditional route, just like I like the traditional Yukon Quest Route,” Zirkle said. “But, in the same sense, it’s actually ‘easier’ for us as a kennel because our dogs and I can sleep in our own beds the night before the race.”

The Iditarod’s ceremonial start will still take place in Anchorage. Mushers will then truck their dogs to Fairbanks for a restart on March 9.

The race route will travel west to Nenana, and then head north to Manley before they pick up the northern route near Galena – a trail the race usually follows in even numbered years. Dog teams will also make stops in Huslia and Koyukuk this year.

Categories: Alaska News

Three Weeks, No Flights: Diomede Residents Stranded without Mail, Food Deliveries

Wed, 2015-02-11 11:57

Little Diomede sits on the border of Russia and the United States. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Brahm, August 25 2008.

The only aircraft flying to one of Alaska’s most remote communities has been down for maintenance for nearly three weeks—leaving residents of the Bering Strait community of Little Diomede with empty mailboxes, bare grocery store shelves, and no way on or off the island.

Andrea Okbealuk works at the Diomede school, and on Tuesday afternoon she was escorting children to lunch. The kids were eating alongside classmates, but also other members of the community, parents and aunties and grandfathers. No mail or cargo deliveries since Jan. 22 has left store shelves empty, and with no checks coming in the mail, wallets are thin and essentials hard to come by. So the school has opened its doors, serving nearly 300 lunches and dinners to Diomede residents since Saturday.

“In our store, it’s pretty bare. We do have a bunch of food here at the school, which will last for a while,” Okbealuk said. Hunters have been on the ice daily, she said, but strong winds, rough water, and poor ice conditions have made catching game difficult. “In our home,” she added, “I think the hardest part is having milk for the babies.”

Even with the school sharing its food, Okbealuk said, for mothers with young babies, no new stock on the shelves means there are few alternatives.

“It is hard when there’s no milk,” she said. “When you’ve switched your baby to regular canned milk to whole milk, to nonfat milk, to two percent milk, and then to nonfat milk again, and then now to powdered milk, it upsets the baby’s stomach.” She sighed. “A couple of us are going to that now.”

The needs go beyond the right food on the shelves. Late Friday night and into Saturday morning, an Army National Guard Blackhawk had to be dispatched to medevac a pregnant 18-year-old from Diomede to Nome’s Norton Sound Regional Hospital. While on the ground the Blackhawk crew and four medical providers were alerted to a two-month-old with an airway issue. That infant was identified as a “critical patient” and medevaced to Nome as well.

Diomede’s remote location means there are not many options when it comes to passenger and freight service to the island. Its unique geography—set along the shore of an island that’s little more than a mountain jutting sharply from the Bering Sea—means there’s no runway, save for the occasional ice runway that can be carved into the sea ice.

That leaves just one company, Oregon-based aircraft operator Erickson Aviation, that provides helicopter service to Diomede.That service is paid for with a $337,520 subsidy of federal and state dollars under the Essential Air Service program set up in 1978. Under the program, the federal Department of Transportation pays $188,760 for the helicopter service, with the rest of the money coming through Bering Strait regional nonprofit Kawerak.

Erickson’s program director Chris Schuldt said the company only keeps a single helicopter—a twin-engine Bölkow BO-105—for service to Diomede. That helicopter has been down for routine maintenance in Anchorage since its last flight to Diomede in January.

“We’ve had some maintenance on the aircraft, but the goal is to return it to service in the next one to two days,” Schuldt said Tuesday. “Pending weather, [the helicopter] will return to Nome and begin operations as soon as that’s complete, [and] make sure our aircraft are in the top condition before we begin flying passengers and cargo again.”

Shuldt said Erickson’s customers, including DOT, are aware of the company’s maintenance status and plans to return to service this week. Erickson also contracts with the U.S. Postal Service for weekly mail service to Diomede.

According to Kawerak’s Pearl Mikulski, who worked on the EAS contract for the nonprofit in the past, the contract requires Erickson to make a certain number of trips each year, but otherwise allows the company to set its own schedule when it comes to flights, as well as stoppages for weather and repairs.

Kawerak can do little, Mikulski said, beyond cautioning Erickson to use the funds in such a way as to ensure flights last all year. That’s an especially difficult proposition during winters with poor ice conditions, Mikulski added, as the contract assumes an ice runway for part of the year. Last winter, that ice around Diomede wasn’t thick enough to support a runway.

Andrea Okbealuk said, for her and the residents of Diomede, every day without a helicopter means people are closer to not having what they need.

“Some of us do have meds that were supposed to come a couple weeks ago,” she said. “I’ve had meds that I ordered a couple weeks ago, and I just ran out.”

She sighed again. “Hopefully, in the next few days, we’ll get chopper service here.”

This isn’t the first time Diomede has been without air service.Late applications for the Essential Air Service Grant caused service to lapse for more than two weeks in July.

Categories: Alaska News

For Yukon Quest Musher Lance Mackey, ‘Retirement’ Is A 4-Letter Word

Wed, 2015-02-11 11:44

Lance Mackey cooks up a snack for his dogs. (Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks)

Lance Mackey is currently running in 12th place on the Yukon Quest trail. He is the winningest musher in Yukon Quest history. The four-time champion is a cancer survivor and both his public and private life hasn’t always been positive. The lifelong musher knows he can’t run dogs the way he used to, but he may never be ready to hang up the harnesses.

In the 2013 Yukon Quest, Lance Mackey made it is far as Pelly Crossing. That year, the weather was too warm for his young dog team, they were sick and he decided to scratch. This year, conditions are nearly the opposite and Mackey is determined to cross the finish line.

“I ain’t going to let them down. My fans, my friends they might understand, but my dogs they don’t,” Mackey said. “We started this, we’re going to do everything we can to finish it.”

But many of Mackey’s competitors and some of his fans have voiced concerns about whether he can handle extreme cold, exposure and tough trail. Even he says his body isn’t holding up the way it used to.

“I don’t know what my future holds in these long distance races, but it looks like it’s going to be more challenging and that’s going to give me more satisfaction if I get to the end of this thing,” Mackey said.

For Mackey, ‘retirement’ may be a four-letter word. But he does say his priorities in racing have changed.

“I did my time, I achieved my goals and now its just about being in this sport as long as possible because I do love it and don’t know what the hell else I would do,” he said.

This is Mackey’s seventh Yukon Quest. He’s never finished lower than third place. Regardless of where he finishes this year, he says his dogs are still up front.

“Every team in this race, every dog team in front of me at the moment has dogs from my kennel,” I contribute to the success of these people and that’s something that just won’t ever go away.”

Mackey’s Comeback Kennel legacy began with a dog named Zorro, who finished the Quest as yearling back in 2001.

Mackey himself is still on the runners, driving teams from that line. And with more than 500 miles of trail ahead the former champion still has plenty of opportunity to claim a spot in the top-10.

Categories: Alaska News

Lawmakers Consider Repeal Of Some Credits And Subsidies

Tue, 2015-02-10 20:05

Every year, the state of Alaska forgoes roughly a billion dollars because of tax credits, subsidies, and fee exemptions. With the state facing a multi-billion dollar deficit, the Legislature is taking a closer look at these potential revenue sources.

A report by the Department of Revenue identified more than $40 million indirect expenditures for reconsideration, and another $446,000 for outright termination. Among the potential cuts are a discount to cigarette companies for putting stamps on their packaging that verify they have paid taxes, and a corporate income tax loophole that could encourage taxpayers to move assets to foreign subsidiaries.

At a House Finance committee hearing on Tuesday, Fairbanks Republican Steve Thompson described the report as a guide for legislators working to trim the state’s budget.

“This is going to be a valuable, valuable book to make people go back and take a look to see what kind of legislation we need to pass and what we need to repeal,” said Thompson.

Legislative and agency staff were careful to note that the value of a tax credit or subsidy may not be recovered in full if the measures are removed from the books.

While a bill to repeal some of these credits and subsidies has not yet been introduced, legislators are considering the possibility of an omnibus bill that could remove multiple items at once.

The report is the first assessment of the money the state forgoes from credits and subsidies. The reporting process was created last year as part of a bill establishing automatic sunsets for indirect expenditures.

Categories: Alaska News

In A Social Media Fracas, Walker Withdraws Appointee

Tue, 2015-02-10 20:02

Gov. Bill Walker has pulled the name of an appointee to the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Grace Jang, a Walker spokesperson, confirmed on Tuesday that Jeff Landfield’s nomination was withdrawn because of “disrespectful” and “misogynistic” images posted to his social media account.” Many of the photographs circulating through the Capitol featured Landfield in swim briefs while vacationing in Las Vegas. One photo showed Landfield with his hands on a woman’s chest, and another had him making a crude gesture using a bachelorette-party prop.

Landfield says he is “disappointed by the decision,” but that he does not want his removal to serve as a distraction from work in Juneau. The 30-year-old Anchorage resident also believes the reaction to the photographs may be the result of a generational divide between those who have grown up with social media and those who have not.

“This is probably a big part of the reason many people have no desire to get involved in public service,” says Landfield.

Landfield adds that he disagrees with the description of the photos as “misogynistic.”

Landfield currently chairs Anchorage’s Federation of Community Councils. In 2012, he attempted an unsuccessful challenge against Sen. Lesil McGuire in the Republican primary. McGuire currently chairs the Senate’s Judiciary Committee and had been assigned Landfield’s confirmation hearing. McGuire was not available for comment.

According to Walker’s spokesperson, Landfield was appointed at the recommendation of Craig Fleener, an Arctic policy advisor to the governor and his former running mate. As of Tuesday evening, Landfield had not been contacted by the Governor’s Office about his nomination.

Categories: Alaska News

NTSB Report on Wasilla Midair Crash Inconclusive

Tue, 2015-02-10 18:34

 The National Transportation Safety Board  has released a preliminary report on a January midair collision of two light planes.  

According to the report, released on Tuesday, eyewitnesses say the January 31 crash, in clear weather, occurred when the planes were flying at about the same altitude, one heading Southwest, the other Northwest. They collided at a 90 degree angle a few miles Southwest of Wasilla. The crash sent both pilots to the hospital with serious injuries.  NTSB Alaska Chief Clint Johnson:

 ”The information that is in the preliminary report does reflect what we know up to this point. We were able to interview a number of witnesses who actually saw the collision took place, and the airplanes basically came together right over the South Hollywood airstrip, just coincidentally. The collision took place anywhere between 1500 and 2000 feet. We are still trying to nail down exactly what the altitude was, but at this point right now, that is what the Trooper pilot was able to tell us.”

Both planes were Piper PA 18 Super Cubs. One was piloted by Levi Duell, 35, a state Wildlife Trooper, the other, by 53 year old Jeffrey Bara.

The damaged planes spiraled down into birch and spruce forest. Bara’s plane lost most of a wing after the collision, and his plane landed upside down.  

“The Trooper airplane after the collision had minimal elevator control, whereas the elevator controls the pitch of the airplane, the up and down basically. And however, he was able to regain limited control before going into the trees. The other plane, Mr. Bara’s airplane was not so lucky. It actually lost the entire right wing and descended in an uncontrolled spiral into the trees, ” Johnson says.

Johnson says that it is possible the pilots were not tuned to the same radio frequency. He says Duell transmitted his take off intention on a prescribed frequency for the area.

“Both of those radios were removed from each one of the wreckages and sent to our vehicle recorder lab, and they’ll be examining them to see if by chance they were on the same frequencies, but that is just a data point at this point right now. That is part of the investigation ”

The planes’ radios are being sent to NTSB facilities in Washington DC.

The actual cause of the crash will not be determined for months. Johnson says the NTSB tries to complete accident  reports within a year. He says midair collision are rare.  The last one in Alaska, in Talkeetna in 2011, took four lives.  

 

I’m Ellen Lockyer

 

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Lawmakers Weigh Exempting Alaska From Daylight Saving Time

Tue, 2015-02-10 17:12

A state Senate committee has advanced a bill that would exempt Alaska from daylight saving time.

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The bill, from Sen. Anna MacKinnon, moved from the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

It would exempt Alaska from the annual time change beginning in 2017. That means Alaska would be five hours behind the East Coast, instead of four hours behind, from about March to November.

MacKinnon told the committee that there are health impacts associated with changing the clocks each spring and fall, and she wants to help Alaskans avoid those. Those include increased rates of heart attacks, suicide and traffic accidents in the spring, she said.

Under the Uniform Time Act, the state has the authority to exempt itself from daylight saving time, but not to change time zones entirely.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Seeks Delay In Tribal Sovereignty Case

Tue, 2015-02-10 17:10

Governor Bill Walker’s administration is seeking a delay in a long-running tribal sovereignty case, saying it wants to form a working group to explore policy issues and potential alternatives to continued litigation. But the tribes’ attorney says the state’s request for a delay is just a ploy to get around its loss in court.

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In an email, Department of Law Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills said the state is looking at ways to improve the State’s relationships with tribes and would rather reach out to stakeholders before launching further into litigation. She said a six-month delay would give the new administration time to consider other options, including a Congressional remedy.

Native American Rights Fund senior attorney Heather Kendall says her clients had hoped for a different approach from the new administration:

“Obviously they’re not happy with this. The Governor had indicated before the election that he would consider dropping the litigation altogether,” Kendall said. “This is clearly not the case based upon his recent actions. What he apparently is trying to do is put the case into limbo so he can look at potential Congressional alternatives, looking for a political fix.”

At issue is whether Alaska tribes have the same rights as Lower 48 tribes to put land into trust –a protected status that exempts lands from state jurisdiction, including taxation. In the 1970s, the Department of Interior Solicitor’s office issued an opinion that Congressional intent, as expressed in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, was that Alaska Native tribes not be allowed to put land into trust.

Four tribes and several individuals filed suit, and in 2013, the Washington, D.C. federal district court ruled that Alaska Native tribes retain their right to place lands in trust under the authority granted by Congress in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

In its motion requesting the delay, the state stated it has a good chance of winning its appeal of that ruling.

But Kendall says tribes won a solid court ruling that agrees with the tribes on all counts, and has the federal government on their side. She says the state is just trying to delay the results of a ruling it has little chance of winning on appeal.

“The state is seriously unlikely to succeed on the merits of an appeal and that is why the state has now shifted ground and asked to suspend the briefing in the appeal itself,” Kendall said.

Following the 2013 ruling, the Department of Interior issued final regulations allowing the Secretary to consider proposals to take lands into trust for Alaska tribes. The court directed the agency not to act on the petitions until appeals are decided.

Kendall says the tribes and individuals who brought the case should not have to endure further delay in final resolution of the issues, which have been pending in court since 2006.

“There have been several tribes that have applied and have petitions actually before the Secretary for consideration and who knows but it’s very possible the secretary is in the process of considering those petitions,” Kendall said. “I want to be clear in that although it may take a while for the Secretary to act upon those petitions once the stay is lifted, there are active petitions before the secretary even now.”

The district court may deny the state’s motion, allow a delay of six months or a delay of some period of time less than six months.

Categories: Alaska News

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