At its most northern point, China is hundreds of miles from the Arctic Circle, but its leaders want a say in how the region is governed. Recently, the country issued its first national policy on the Arctic, and it reveals its expansive ambitions in the far North.
“China is determined to better know the Arctic, protect the Arctic, utilize the Arctic and participate in the governance of the Arctic,” Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou said as the policy was announced, according to China’s official state media.
The policy says China will cooperate with others on development in the region, including new shipping routes it calls a “Polar Silk Road,” after the ancient trade routes connecting China to Europe.
This is the first white paper China has ever issued for a region outside its own territory, said University of Canterbury (New Zealand) Professor Anne-Marie Brady. She said the document demonstrates the country’s growing assertiveness in global affairs.
“China is stepping into the power vacuum of global leadership since the Trump administration came to power, and it’s preparing to shape the new world order,” Brady said Tuesday, at a forum organized by the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
Kissinger Institute Director Robert Daly said it’s natural for China to play a major role in the Arctic, particularly when it comes to science, trade and financing. But he said the big question is how other countries are going to react. Daly said the Chinese policy repeats certain phrases, like “the shared future of mankind,” to portray itself as a benevolent force, interested only in economic globalization.
“But note that the last sentence of this important document reads like this: ‘China will advance Arctic-related cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative,'” Daly said. “That’s about as important as a preposition can be in this world: ‘Under the belt and road initiative.'”
Belt and Road is the banner for how China hopes to increase its influence around the world. It’s a global development policy Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in 2013. Daly said extending that China-centric policy to the Arctic isn’t a good idea.
“China’s participation can be welcomed within existing frameworks,” Daly said. “But this notion that China will lead it under Belt and Road has to be resisted, rejected, countered.”
China’s interest in the region has grown over the past decade. It has had observer status at the Arctic Council since 2013. The country has one polar icebreaker and is building a second. And it’s a major investor in Russia’s Yamal liquefied natural gas facility.
Bears play a well-known role in fertilizing Alaska’s temperate forests. They catch, carry, and digest fish, spreading nutrients through the undergrowth.
But two scientists using remote control cameras near Haines show that bears are making contributions on a different front.
They’re not just fertilizing seeds. They’re planting them.
It started when the scientists were overwhelmed by the number of berries in a Southeast forest near Haines. Salmonberries, high bush cranberries, soapberries, blueberries, devil’s club berries and more — not just in one or two places, but all throughout the forest.
Others might reach for a pie pan. These two thought these plants must have a really successful reproductive strategy.
Laurie Harrer is a biology instructor at Central Oregon Community College and Oregon State University, Cascades.
“There are just a ton of berry-producing plants in Southeast Alaska, all throughout the understory,” Harrer said. “In particular, Devil’s Club we noticed was everywhere. If it was that prolific, and all over the place, it must have a very successful method of dispersing its seeds around.”
So, what was it? Taal Levi is an assistant professor of wildlife at Oregon State University. He says they had a guess.
“These fruit in Southeast Alaska appear to be morphologically adapted for birds, because they’re small berries,” Levi said. “In the case of Devil’s Club, small red berries.”
So the two set up a study. Over two summers, they identified more than 400 clusters of berries in a stretch of forest about 30 miles north of Haines. They calculated an average number of berries per plant. They trained motion-triggered cameras on the plants, to see what was eating them.
And what they found was a surprise.
“A bird would fly in and maybe peck and eat anywhere between two and five berries at a time,” Harrer said. “But when a bear would visit these clusters of berries, they would just demolish the entire area. But it wasn’t until we finally crunched the numbers that we realized how huge of an effect bears were having. ”
Bears weren’t just eating more berries; they were eating magnitudes more berries. The two scientists estimate a single bear could eat over 100,000 berries an hour. Robins and thrushes couldn’t begin to keep up.
Harrer said bears were like cargo carriers, taking seeds in their stomachs far away from the original berry patch.
“The whole reason they want their seeds to be dispersed in the first place is so you don’t have the parent plant competing with its offspring, growing up in the exact same area competing for resources and sunlight,” Harrer said.
Bears were helping plants fulfill their biological imperative to reproduce, without sacrificing their own access to resources. And dispersed berries had a better chance than those that just dropped from the bush, Levi says when bears finally released the seeds, they left something to help them grow.
“They’re deposited in a place that was just fertilized by bear scat and has good moisture retention,” Levi said. “It’s like this little patch of potting soil that this seed is left in.”
When Levi and Harrer went back to count how many berries were left behind in their patches, they realized they had a unique opportunity to increase their data.
“[Bears] are placing their whole mouths over the thing,” Harrer said. ”So they’re probably leaving behind a lot of saliva all over that central stalk.”
They started swabbing the stalks for DNA, to see exactly what kind of bears they were dealing with, even if they couldn’t catch them on camera. All the bears — black, brown, male, female — ate berries. Brown bears ate early in the season, allowing black bears into the patch later in the summer. The shift happened when the sockeye started to run.
“Brown bears start to dominate these devil’s club patches as soon as the fruit ripens,” Levi said. “And then a lot of those animals move to feed on salmon primarily, opening that space up for black bears.”
Based on their research, Levi and Harrer believe bears are the most important seed dispersers in the region for berries. While jungle plants often depend on mammals to eat their fruit and carry their seeds to new places, the scientists say it’s the first known temperate example of plants relying on a mammal’s digestive tract as their primary method to travel.
“Because there are so many bears, if they really, truly are the most important seed dispersers, it’s understandable, then, why you have so many more berries in Alaska,” Harrer said.
But bears aren’t the only animals contributing to better berry hauls, the scientists say. Salmon are, too. Dependable salmons runs help Alaska maintain its high density of large bears, compared to places on the East and West Coast where bear populations have dwindled and salmon no longer return.
“A large population of bears spreading berry seeds is helping those understory plants grow,” Harrer said. “Salmon supporting that bear population is vital for bears to help assist all those berry-producing plants.”
Levi says it’s likely that losing salmon could have changed the growth of berrying plants down south — they could no longer travel in the bellies of the bears.
You can find Harrer and Levi’s full study on bears and berries here.
Allen Moore is the first musher to reach Eagle checkpoint. He checked in with a full team of dogs at 11:10 this morning. The two-time Quest champion has maintained first position in the international sled dog race since the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Rookie Christine Roalofs is the latest musher to scratch from the 2018 Yukon Quest.
Roalofs made it into Circle City around 11 last night. With 800 miles of trail ahead of her, she chose to leave the race just after 9 this morning. She cited a personal injury that she said would make caring for her team a challenge.
The other 19 mushers left in the race are still on the trail between the Circle City and Eagle checkpoints. Paige Drobny was in second position out of Circle City, followed by Matt Hall, Laura Neese, and Ed Hopkins in that order.
Audio is courtesy of Zoe Rom with KUAC.
Alaska Sen. Dennis Egan says he won’t seek re-election this year but plans to serve out his term.
The Douglas Island Democrat made the announcement on the radio station he once owned.
The 70-year-old Douglas resident said he has health issues including a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, which has given him severe vertigo that makes it hard to travel.
“Driving across the bridge, no problem,” Sen. Egan said Tuesday during a live conversation with KINY-AM‘s Pete Carran. “But if I go down to the docks and the motion of the channel or whatever, it just drives me crazy.”
Egan said he won’t seek re-election because it’s difficult to visit the communities he represents.
“I don’t think it’s fair to my constituents in Haines, Skagway, Gustavus, Klukwan, even the night-watchman at Excursion Inlet, it’s not fair to them,” Egan continued. “Because I have a heck of a time traveling and I can’t visit those communities. It’s not fair to those folks.”
So far the only person to file a letter of intent to run for the seat is Larry Cotter.
The 65-year-old resident of Thane near Juneau is retiring as CEO of the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association.
Cotter has been registered as both a Republican and Democrat but says he’ll run as an independent.
“I’ve looked at what political parties have been doing over the past several years in both the Congress and at the state levels and it’s pretty hard to tell what parties stand for anymore,” Cotter said Tuesday.Jesse Kiehl, aide to Sen. Dennis Egan, interacts with a visitor to the senator’s office, Feb, 10, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)
Another possible contender is Egan’s own staffer Jesse Kiehl. The 41-year-old Juneau Assemblyman is a registered Democrat and said he’s considering a run if there’s enough interest.
“I still have a lot of a listening to do and a lot of considering to do and I’ve committed to work for Sen. Egan through this legislative session,” Kiehl said Tuesday. “A decision is a couple months away but it’s definitely something I’m thinking hard about.”
Egan is the son of the late Bill Egan, a former Alaska governor. He was a mayor of Juneau and appointed to the Alaska Senate by Gov. Sarah Palin in 2009. He won re-election in 2014 after winning 72 percent of the vote.
Egan represents District Q, which encompasses a middle section of Southeast Alaska including the cities of Juneau, Haines and Skagway.
Vice President Mike Pence stopped in Alaska on Monday on his way to Asia where he’ll lead the U.S. Olympic delegation in South Korea.
During his refueling stop at Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Pence toured the Alaskan Command Center. He also had a closed-door meeting with Gov. Bill Walker and top military officials, including Gen. Lori Robinson, Lt. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves and Maj. Gen. Laurie Hummel.
Pence took questions from the press inside an airplane hangar at JBER. Standing in front of an F-22 fighter jet, the Vice President emphasized Alaska’s role in the American missile defense system.Vice President Mike Pence met with top military leaders and toured the Alaskan Command Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)
“Alaska is the home of missile defense, for all intents and purposes in the United States, particularly with regard to the rogue regime in North Korea,” Pence said. ” Alaska is ready, and America is ready.”
More than 40 of the nation’s ground-based missile interceptors are housed at Ft. Greely in Alaska’s Interior.
Pence’s visit was a reinforcement of Alaska’s strategic importance, but at the upcoming Olympic Games, North Korean athletes will team up with South Koreans — a move that has eased military tensions on the peninsula.
Still, Pence said, the nuclear threat from the North should not be underestimated.
“Whatever cooperation that’s existing between North and South Korea on Olympic teams,” Pence said, “does not cloud the reality of a regime that must continue to be isolated by the world community.”
The Trump administration has used harsh rhetoric at times against the regime in North Korea.Vice President Mike Pence speaking in an airplane hangar at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)
But, as Pence reminded the press at the airplane hangar at JBER, Trump is a talker, so a meeting with members of the regime isn’t completely off the table when he’s in South Korea.
“With regard to any interaction with the North Korean delegation, I have not requested a meeting, but we’ll see what happens.”
From Alaska, Pence flew to Japan, to meet with Prime Minister Shinzō Abe before continuing on to the Winter Olympics in South Korea.
A Wrangell tribe has received federal money to upgrade things like heating, plumbing and roofing for houses and trailers in Wrangell. It’s accepting applications from Native homeowners through the end of next month.
Donna Kuntz had lived in her house for more than 30 years when it was inspected.
“The assessor said my electrical the box outside box was not up to code and was dangerous the way it is,” Kuntz said.
That was eight years ago.
“If I qualify this time I’d really like to have my electrical checked and my fuse box outside updated and wiring updated,” Kuntz said.
The local tribe, Wrangell Cooperative Association, might be able to help her. It’s received a $600,000 grant to upgrade homes owned by Alaska and other Natives. Kuntz’s situation isn’t uncommon. Tom Rooney lives in a two-bedroom house with his mom and step-dad.
“I’m disabled, you know,” Rooney said.
He’s in a wheelchair.
“I guess if I wanted to, I’d get a ramp to put in and a bigger bathroom, a handicap bathroom, just so it’s a lot safer in the house,” Rooney said.
The money comes from a federal Indian Community Development Block Grant. It’s called the “Healthy Homes Program” and is administered by the The Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority.
Melanie Rodriguez helps run the program, which hopes to upgrade 20 houses in the community.
“We prioritize by elders over the age of 62, if you have children in the home under the age of six,” Rodriguez said. “And then it also goes down to income and any kind of health issues your household might be facing in regards to the condition of the home.”
Rodriguez says no problem is too big to tackle. The goal is to address hazardous living conditions. And prevent small problems from turning into big ones.
A 2016 survey by the Wrangell Cooperative Association found that a third of households had someone over 60 living there. That would automatically give them priority.
Aaron Angerman used to work for the tribe as the administrator.
“We want to keep our elders here and healthy,” Angerman said. “We don’t want them to move away because of conditions in the home or anything else like that.
Once an applicant is approved, the regional authority and tribe discuss with the homeowner which upgrades are practical and necessary. The work is supposed to take a month or two.
The Wrangell Cooperative Association has applications at it’s office, and there’s a deadline: Feb. 28.
Angerman says he hopes it’ll keep the community intact. Every Native homeowner in Wrangell is eligible for the assistance.
“Wrangell’s a pretty special place and it’s important for us to take care of those who are our future and those who got us here,” Angerman said.
Lt. Governor Byron Mallot and Sen. Dan Sullivan met with Canadian officials last Sunday and Monday to press for more U.S. input on transboundary mines.
Sullivan says he wants Alaska and the U.S. to be more involved in the permitting process for mines located in Canadian watersheds that drain into Southeast Alaska. He also wants Canada to require mine operators compensate impacted Alaskans in case of environmental disasters.
“To protect essentially our economy, whether it’s fisheries or tourism in Southeast Alaska,” Sullivan said. “If, god forbid, we had a Mount Polley type disaster that went into our waters.”
In 2014, the Mount Polley Mine tailings dam collapsed, releasing millions of gallons of waste into nearby lakes and the Cariboo River. The disaster has raised fears that similar accidents in the future could hurt the region’s salmon runs.
Mallott and Sullivan also asked Canada to join water quality testing in Southeast waters. And the Alaskan officials requested the immediate reclamation of the Tulsequah Chief mine. It is an abandoned mine in British Columbia that continues to leak toxic water into a tributary of the Taku River near Juneau.
“What we’ve been able to do is A) emphasize that it’s important to the federal government and B) that it’s really important to us as Alaskans,” Sullivan said. “And we put forward some specific requests. And we’re going to press on those. And I think they are legitimate requests… we certainly hope our Canadian friends will follow up with us to work on it.”
The U.S. State Department sent a letter to Sullivan saying it and the EPA are also talking to the Canadian government about these issues.
The Trump administration’s vision for American “energy dominance” has big implications for Alaska, and this winter, some of them became more concrete. In December, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) was opened to drilling. And in January the Interior Department released a new draft plan to open most of Alaska’s coastal waters to oil development.
One of the places that stands to be significantly impacted by those decisions is the North Slope.
Harry K. Brower Jr., is the mayor of the North Slope Borough. He works out of big mint-green building smack dab in center of Utqiaġvik — with his name and title printed on the front.
On the second floor of the building, Brower sits at a conference table in his office and talks about some of the changes that may be coming to the region.
The North Slope Borough has the ability to tax oil and gas infrastructure within its borders, and that money is what allows them to build roads, keep the schools open and pay for the fire department.
But as the prospect of offshore drilling in the Arctic takes shape, the borough is also registering its concerns for how to protect the bowhead whale and other marine life people here depend on for food.
“Offshore activity is one that’s most important to us because it’s been providing our sustenance for thousands of years,” Brower said. “And here’s a new administration wanting to go full bore: let’s go and explore and develop whatever we can.”
Already, the borough has been in touch with the Interior Department, requesting that certain federal waters stay off-limits for drilling.
When it comes to ANWR, the borough supports opening the area known as the coastal plain — or 1002 area — to oil and gas development. But even so, Brower says that there’s still information his office doesn’t have about how the area will be developed, and how that will impact local residents.
“It’s a very large area of land,” Bower said. “But then there’s no infrastructure. So where’s the interest going to be? Is it going to be close to the current infrastructure, is it going to be further away so they can develop all this infrastructure that’s needed to extract the resource? I don’t know.”
On ANWR and the new offshore plan, the mayor says that communication with the federal government will be key. His office later confirmed by text that the Interior Department is planning site visits to the North Slope and community briefings for later this year.
Officials are looking in to what caused an oil spill discovered Saturday morning at the Valdez Marine Terminal.
According to Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which operates the terminal, under 200 gallons of oil leaked from two arms used to load crude onto tankers.
Alyeska reports most of the oil was contained to the berth, and state officials have seen no evidence that oil reached the water. But according to Geoff Merrell with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, due to rough sea conditions, it’s probable some crude escaped containment and then was naturally dispersed.
Alyeska spokesperson Kate Dugan said the spill’s cause is still unknown. She confirmed the leak is not ongoing.
The incident happened at the same berth where a different spill happened last September. Back then, over 140 gallons of crude residue leaked into the Port of Valdez during an annual test of the loading arms, of which nearly 130 gallons was recovered. An investigation later determined that spill was primarily caused by human error.
Brooke Taylor with the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, a watchdog group, said it’s too soon to say if there’s any relationship between the two spills, but she added valve issues may be a common factor.
“Any time you have two incidents and there is a piece of equipment that is even in part contributing to that situation, that’s then going to highlight this is an area that should be looked at very closely and possibly corrected,” Taylor said.
Icy conditions affecting valves could have contributed to Saturday’s spill, Taylor said. She said Alyeska was already looking at making improvements to the terminal’s valves before this weekend’s spill.
Alyeska reports that Saturday’s incident did not impact the trans-Alaska pipeline’s operations. In addition to the state and Alyeska, the U.S. Coast Guard also responded to the incident.
Alaskans know about the 7.9 earthquake that shook the state Jan. 23, but just how did the scientists figure out the exact location of the quake — as they do for tremors around the world. What is the process for sharing that information? And, should major disaster strike, how could the federal government step in to help Alaskans recover?
HOST: Larry Persily
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LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, February 6, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.
For the first time in 29 years, Ice Alaska will not be hosting an ice-carving event. The nonprofit’s board of directors made it official Wednesday by canceling plans for a smaller youth carving event the organization had hoped to stage in March. The organization will instead focus on bringing back the World Ice Art Championships next year.
“The reason we’re not having the event this year is because of lack of funding, lack of support,” he said.
Board members said during a meeting Wednesday they knew it would be a longshot to organize the Stroecker Youth Amateur Classic on short notice during January. They also agreed the public may have soured on the event, because of disputes between Ice Alaska and Dick and Hoa Brickley, the former organizers of the World Ice Art Championships and owners of George Horner Ice Park, where the event has been held since 2011.
Bartos says the allegations of wrongdoing and threats of lawsuits between the two parties contributed to Ice Alaska’s failure to meet its goal of raising $50,000 by the Jan. 31 deadline.
“It is disappointing,” Bartos said. “It was disappointing to me, especially, because I wanted to see it go on.”
It’s also a disappointment to the fans of the annual ice-carving championships who come from around the world to marvel at the elaborately sculpted and illuminated blocks of ice. And it’s disappointing to the business community that’s benefited from the injection of tourist dollars during an otherwise slow time of year.
The Brickleys reportedly intend to stage their own ice-carving event in March.
Steve Brice, an ice-carver and Ice Alaska member who attended Wednesday’s meeting, says that event probably contributed to the lack of donations for the Stroecker Youth Amateur Classic.
“Right now, the community is confused,” Brice said. “They don’t really know what’s going on.”
But, says board treasurer Steff Clymer, the Brickleys’ event won’t be called the World Ice Art Championships, because Ice Alaska now owns the rights to that title.
“The name belongs to us,” Clymer said. “We’ve gone after it, we’ve sealed that down, and we want to keep it.”
Ice Alaska intends to use the name again next year, when the organization plans to bring the event back and stage it at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds. Bartos and the other board members all agreed that’s now their top priority.
“We’re a new organization,” Bartos said. “We’ve got a lot of good, spirited people that want to get behind it and want to make it happen. And I think the community will be proud of what this organization does.”
Bartos figures it’ll cost at least a half-million dollars to stage the ice art championships. He says board members are already working on plans to recruit volunteers and line up sponsors.
“It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of support,” Bartos said, “And we have got to have the community behind it.”
Board members agreed Wednesday that building community support will depend largely on ensuring the public knows that Ice Alaska is determined to put the controversy behind it and to operate transparently from now on.
The House Community and Regional Affairs Committee met Saturday morning in the state Capitol to hear public testimony on House Bill 269.
The bill could settle a debate over whether distilleries can serve mixed cocktails in their tasting rooms.
Of the more than 30 people who spoke at the packed committee hearing, only three testified against the bill.
Two were members of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, or CHARR, which advocates on behalf of bars.
CHARR CEO and President Pete Hanson said the organization supported distillery tasting rooms when they were first established.
“We applaud the authors of this legislation for recognizing that there are issues to be worked out with the tasting rooms at distilleries,” Hanson said. “We still support the concepts that we agreed to in 2014, when we supported that bill.”
Hanson was referring to House Bill 309, which allowed distilleries in Alaska to have tasting rooms where customers can sample products, but with limits.
They can’t have live entertainment or games and their hours of operation are restricted. They also can’t serve customers more than 3 ounces of their product a day.
One thing HB 309 did not address was whether non-alcoholic mixers could be used to make cocktails with a distillery’s product.
Rep. Chris Tuck said the new bill would clarify language from the 2014 law. The Anchorage Democrat sponsored both.
The mixed drink ambiguity led to the recent 3-1 Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board decision to restrict distilleries from mixing cocktails.
Under the new regulation, they can separately provide customers with the alcohol and the mixer, but the customer must make the cocktail themselves.
That decision came despite an outpouring of public support for distillery tasting rooms in written testimony.
According to Tuck, the original law was intended to prevent distilleries from acting like bars. But he said it was never their intention to restrict cocktails.
“I mean do we want the AMCO board to be really regulating non-alcoholic drinks? Their role is alcoholic drinks,” Tuck said. “You can’t add water to Scotch. Do we really want people just taking straight shots of alcohol?”
The new regulation will take effect 30 days after being signed by Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott.
A few blocks away from the Capitol on Saturday afternoon, it’s business as usual at Amalga Distillery.
A customer perusing the menu and selected the hot cider, a drink mixed with their signature Juneauper gin.
Co-owner Brandon Howard said it has been hard to plan long term.
“We do like the current regulations,” Howard said. “The two-drink limit makes it so that we don’t have to deal with public inebriation, we don’t have to cut people off. People come in here for a good experience and it fosters a safe environment.”
At the hearing, Rep. Dan Saddler, Eagle River-R, asked whether allowing distilleries to use mixers will further blur the line between tasting rooms and bars.
“Was it your intent bringing this bill forward that there should not be any other further erosion in the distinction, such that your intent is that there should never be stools to sit down or extended hours or entertainment or anything else that would make a distillery that can also sell mixers into a bar?” Saddler said.
Tuck said that was correct, since they never intended for non-alcoholic mixers to come into question.
“Our intent was to allow the mixers and the AMCO Board seemed to have changed the last three years of tradition and so we’re just trying to set the record straight,” Tuck said.
Juneau resident Kimberly Metcalfe also testified against the proposed bill and said there should be restrictions on the number of new distillery licenses in the state.
“It’s putting established bars at a severe disadvantage when distilleries are selling a cheap product at happy hour prices, and happy hours are not allowed in this state,” Metcalfe said. “A tasting room should be just that; should be a place to taste the product as-is.”
Howard said the public support has been encouraging.
“The public preference is incredibly clear,” Howard said after the hearing. “It becomes a vote for the will of the people and what the public wants to see. I’m cautiously optimistic.”
The Community and Regional Affairs Committee will hold another hearing on HB 269 before voting on the bill.
In the small community of Shishmaref, there’s a local business like no other. It’s a tannery, set up to process hundreds of seal hides a year sent from subsistence hunters. After fits and starts, it closed down for several years. Now, the tannery is back in business. But not without challenges.
“This is a Shishmaref slipper,” 65-year-old Percy Nayokpuk explained, holding up a single slip-on shoe made of shimmering gray seal skin with black beaver trim and blue beadwork.
“Good slippers for up north, I tell you. Don’t get no Crocs if you’re gonna live around here, get a pair of these,” Nayokpuk said, returning the slipper to a shelf in the corner of the store his family has run since 1960.Percy Nayukpuk has run his store since 1990, when it took it over from his father. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Shishmaref)
There is plenty else for sale. Walrus ivory earrings are near the candy bars behind the counter. Draped casually below a stereo speaker is a wolf pelt.
But the seal products are extra special. Families here have long relied on hunting ice seals, in part because the fur is exceptionally good protection from the cold, used to make beautifully mottled hats and thick outer mittens.
These house slippers were sewn in Shishmaref. And on the other side of town, in a squat one-story building, is a place dedicated to fur crafting.
“This is the work area,” Dennis Sinook said, standing in a dim, chilly room lined with work tables and tanks. “When people first come in, they come in and drop the seals off here. First we’ll invoice them, count how many seals they have, what kinds of seals they are.”
Sinook manages the business for the Native Village of Shishmaref, which owns the tannery.Fleshing machines had kicked off fat onto the walls. Sinook said they’d gotten to most of it, but run out of cleaning supplies before they could fully remove all the stains as the tannery was closed up for the season early in January. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Shishmaref)
On the white walls are a few yellow marks, splatter kicked off from what look like circular saws mounted atop work-tables.
“These are fleshing machines,” Sinook explained. “It fleshes the fat right off of the seal.”
In essence, tanning hides is a process of taking some oils out, and putting others back in, until the material is pliable enough to refashion into garments.
The going rate is $19 per linear foot. And though they’ll tan some other types of animal hides, according to Sinook seal is the most cost-effective.
After being closed down for several years, the tannery re-opened last fall. It’s set to now be a seasonal operation, getting underway in October amid the fall seal hunt, and running to early January. This year there were seven employees, and Sinook is pleased with the run.
“We did 850 seals in three months,” Sinook said. “That is the most I’ve ever seen them do.”
According to Sinook, the business took in $25,000-$30,000.
This is the only tannery of its kind in Alaska right now, and there’s enough pent up demand that Sinook had to put a limit of ten hides per family.The Shishmaref Tannery, which was originally located in a different, older building, is designed for energy efficiency, with a wind turbine to help supply extra electricity. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Shishmaref)
But all over the building are signs of just how hard it is operate a business in a town this far off the road system. The ceilings are extra low to cut down on heating costs. There’s a small wind turbine outside to add supplemental power. In a backroom are giant wooden drums that spin the hides dry as a last step in the tanning. Next to them are giant bags of sawdust shipped from the Lower 48. Sinook buys each bag at $10.11, but by the time its been freighted all the way to Shishmaref the per-bag cost is $70.
Salt, which they also use in quantity, is cheaper.
“We get that from Costco,” Sinook said matter-of-factly .
Like much of western Alaska, Shishmaref’s lack of critical infrastructure is a barrier for business opportunities and local economic development. As we spoke, Sinook was worried because a check he mailed to his bank still hadn’t cleared. Mobile deposits aren’t an option because the tannery has no Internet, an expensive extra utility. The town doesn’t have piped water, so Sinook has to haul 600-800 gallons a week from the Washateria.
“I been using a four-wheeler and a trailer with a 200-gallon tank,” Sinook said. “It would be a lot easier if we had running water here.”Sunrise over the lagoon in Shishmaref (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Anchorage)
Many of these are the same problems that hampered the tannery from its beginning.
Tony Weyiouanna was a much younger man in the 80s, when the community started looking into the idea of a tannery.
“From the time we started talking about it to when it opened the doors it probably was about four years,” Weyiouanna recounted at his office in Nome, where he now works for Kawerak, the Bering Strait’s regional non-profit.
Back then, Shishmaref’s village council wanted to find economic opportunities that made use of their local resources. Among them were many traditional skin sewers who knew how to turn animal hides into good-looking, practical garments, along with ample hunters who remain experts at harvesting ice seals from the waters of the Chukchi sea.
The idea was to take the tanning and sewing that was happening in homes and replicate it on a commercial scale, creating efficiencies in the traditional methods by pooling resources. Some of the finished hides went back to the families that brought them in, like taking wool to be spun into yarn you can use at home. Others skins were purchased by the tannery, and sewers were employed to turn them into gloves, slippers, hats and more.
When Weyiouanna started managing the tannery in 1991, he expanded business, advertising to hunters and trappers across Alaska, telling them to mail their hides to Shishmaref.
“We needed our tanners to be busy all the time, from morning ‘til quitting time,” Weyiounanna said.
The advertising worked, and the tannery was receiving all kinds of furs: Beaver, wolf, sea otter, bear.
Weyiouanna hired elders to teach younger women how to sew traditional garments, and had buyers for the finished products across the state.
According to Weyiouanna, in the mid-90s the tannery was an economic engine, handling hides from across the state and bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars — much of which stayed in Shishmaref and the region.
“It made an impact,” Weyiouanna said.
But it was never an easy business to keep running. Weyiouanna left the tannery in 1995, and wasn’t keeping tabs more than a decade later when things got rocky.
“I didn’t really pay attention too much on why it shut down,” Weyiouanna said. “Maybe mismanagement.”
Now that it’s back, Dennis Sinook thinks the tannery can thrive again in Shishmaref.
But the time commitment has been a drain on his personal life.
Sinook is an accomplished subsistence hunter — and that’s part of what he loves about living here. He had bright-red caribou haunches curing in the sun outside his house from a successful trip out into the country a day earlier. A massive polar bear hide hands on his living room wall. It’s hard giving up subsistence opportunities for all the headaches that come with running a business, and he’s weighing whether he’ll return to the job next fall.
Regardless, Sinook hopes years from now Shishmaref’s tannery is still in business.
“Hopefully someone can see what I see,” Sinook said. “To keep it open. To keep it alive. To keep people sewing.”
The craft of making things from seal is something he doesn’t want to see go away.
Sinook is not alone. At least one other community in the region, Brevig Mission, is thinking about setting up a tannery of its own.
This journalism project was made possible by a fellowship from Marguerite Casey Foundation, which supports low-income families in strengthening their voice and mobilizing their communities to achieve a more just and equitable society for all.
Two coalitions of environmental groups filed separate lawsuits Friday challenging the federal government’s December lease sale in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
The government offered 10 million acres at that sale – all the land within NPR-A that was designated eligible for development. It was the largest lease sale ever offered in the Indiana-sized reserve west of Prudhoe Bay.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said at the time he was fulfilling a pledge he made to boost the flow through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. But the sale drew only seven bids, covering less than one percent of the area offered.
One lawsuit takes a traditional approach. It alleges the Bureau of Land Management was required to conduct a new environmental study before the sale. Attorneys at Trustees for Alaska filed the complaint on behalf of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society.
The BLM said last fall it was relying on environmental studies of NPR-A conducted during the Obama administration.
Earthjustice attorneys, in their suit, say the BLM should have considered the climate impacts of potential oil and gas production that could result from such a large sale. The plaintiffs in that case include the Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.
Washington state officials have proposed a new tack to save the Pacific Northwest’s critically endangered orca population.
Their idea is to boost salmon hatchery production by 10 million to 20 million more fish per year to provide more food for the iconic killer whales.
No one wants to see orcas starve, but reliance on fish hatcheries leaves some whale advocacy groups uneasy.
There are just 76 orcas left in the pods that call the inland waters of the Northwest home. That’s the lowest number in more than three decades. Numerous factors take the blame for the dwindling population, but one of the biggest according to biologists is lack of prey.
Chinook salmon are the preferred food for these orcas.
Sport fisherman Greg King can relate.
“The science is there. They’re dying,” King said. “We’re on a world stage here right now. The whole world is watching us. Are we going to let these orca whales die and have that blood on our hands? I don’t think we want that.”
King trooped to the Washington Legislature this month to support spending tax dollars to increase hatchery production of Chinook—also known as king—salmon.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife first proposed this idea and the governor is running with it.
State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, independently put forward the concept and is getting traction with both parties in the legislature.
On one level, the idea is pretty simple; rear more salmon at maybe a half-dozen existing hatcheries throughout the state with spare capacity and release them.
Some of that could happen at the Hoodsport salmon hatchery on Hood Canal.
“We want to see if we can add to that prey base here from Hoodsport,” said Rob Allan, state Fish and Wildlife Regional Hatchery manager
Asked whether he thinks this will work — that enough of the fish will survive to grow big enough to interest the killer whales — Allan said he hopes so.
“All we know is that we release fish, they go out to the salt (water) and then they come back,” Allan said. “So then it’s up to the whales to go ahead and eat ’em. We think it’s going to help.”
But potential complications abound.
The federal government will need to give the OK because both the Puget Sound orcas and many wild salmon runs they used to feed on are listed as endangered.
“Hatchery fish has been identified as a bit detrimental to recovery of wild stocks,” Allan said. “They want us to put the reins on it a bit.”
Hatchery fish could compete for resources with wild stocks and they might interbreed. It’ll be a challenge to identify the right salmon stocks, hatchery locations and run timing.
“Where do we emphasize, you know a chinook or a chum salmon? Where do they need to be when the whales are there?” Allan said. “Also where are we not going to have this impact on wild fish? So it’s a real juggling match.”
The federal government’s Southern Resident killer whale recovery coordinator said she is in discussions about how to make this work.
“We need to come up with creative solutions,” Lynne Barre of NOAA Fisheries said. “There is kind of a sense of urgency around the whales with the recent losses.”
Environmental groups are the most wary of the orca food pantry concept as it proceeds through the Legislature, though not opposed.
“Given the urgency with orcas and the critical need for food to be available to sustain orca populations, everything is on the table,” Darcy Nonemacher said. Nonemacher handles government affairs for the Washington Environmental Council. “At the same time, we do not want have hatcheries done in a way that undermines listed salmon and other species that orcas eat, in particular chinook salmon.”
The president of the Orca Conservancy, another group, said using hatcheries to feed the orcas should only be a “short-term” solution until wild runs rebound.
The governor’s office says it may take years to figure out if the supplemental feeding strategy works so they’ve penciled in indefinite funding.
One way to measure results would be to collect and dissect orca poop to see what they ate, which is easier said than done.
Environmentalists have long favored breaching dams on the lower Snake River to boost salmon numbers and are now directly linking that to creating food for orcas.
However, breaching those federal dams appears to have minimal support in Congress.
Separately, the Washington Legislature is debating a bill to reduce noise impacts on orcas by imposing a seven-knot vessel speed limit within 400 yards of an endangered resident killer whale.
Additionally, the governor and state Senate have proposed to increase spending on marine patrols to enforce such a speed limit and existing rules for boaters to stay at least 200 yards away from whales.
Both the governor’s office and legislators are talking about creating a Southern Resident killer whale task force to focus on securing more public and private resources and support for orca recovery efforts.
Gov. Jay Inslee included nearly $4 million for various orca recovery initiatives, including increased hatchery production and vessel enforcement, in his 2018 budget requests now pending before the state Legislature.
Canada is working on its own orca protection plan with many similar elements.
The Southern Resident killer whales routinely cross the maritime border between Washington state and British Columbia.
In 2014, state Department of Fish and Wildlife hatcheries released around 145 million juvenile salmon and steelhead, about one-third of which were Chinook.
A 10 million increase in king salmon production for the purpose of feeding hungry orcas would equate to a 20 percent increase in annual releases of that species.
Hatchery fish not eaten by the killer whales may provide increased fishing opportunities for humans.
The proposed budget authorization to rear the first cohort of Chinook salmon to feed the orcas comes in at $1.5 million.
The tone of a hearing in Anchorage on two draft permits for the proposed Donlin Gold mine was very different from those held in the region where the mine would be located.
Those who gave public comments to state regulators Jan. 26 in Anchorage expressed trust and support for the proposed project.
The Anchorage comments came from industry groups and Native corporations.
Five people testified. Each spoke in enthusiastic support of the mine’s waste and wastewater plans, and the Donlin project overall.
That reaction differs sharply from the comments delivered weeks before by rural Kuskokwim residents at similar hearings in Bethel and Aniak.
There, the majority of residents living downriver of the proposed mine said that they didn’t want it.
To them, the project’s potential economic benefits weren’t worth its risks to a river, land and culture built on subsistence.
But in Anchorage, the industry groups and Native corporations saw it differently. Andrea Gusty grew up on the Kuskokwim in Aniak. She’s vice president of corporate Affairs for the Kuskokwim Corporation. The Native corporation owns the surface rights to the proposed mine site and has built a strong partnership with Donlin Gold.
“Development and traditional subsistence Alaska Native lifestyle does not have to be mutually exclusive,” Gusty said. “They can exist in harmony,”
TKC calls Donlin’s plans “environmentally and socially responsible.”
“Not only does TKC trust their ability to do it right,” Gusty said. “We will make sure it is done right. Because Donlin has worked with TKC and our shareholders every step of the way.”
Gusty has confidence in the three-step water cleaning process outlined in one permit, which requires the mine’s wastewater to meet state standards for drinking water or aquatic life water.
Donlin also has worked closely with Calista Corporation, the regional native corporation that owns the sub-surface rights to the mine.
Like TKC, Calista is in full support of Donlin. Donna Bach grew up in Bethel and works as Calista’s government affairs liaison.
“The Donlin Gold prospect will provide opportunity for jobs,” Bach said. “I think there’s a lot of pride and fulfillment, not just in the environmental, responsible way in which it’s being handled, but also to bring pride back to a region that needs jobs.”
Trade groups echoed the potential benefits of more employment for a region with few jobs and no industrial base.
During the mine’s exploration phase, 90 percent of its camp workers were Alaska Native corporation shareholders or descendants.
During the life of the proposed mine, Donlin predicts 50 to 60 percent of its workers will be Alaska Native corporation shareholders or local hires.
“Donlin remains a poster child in our industry of what you can do to ensure that communities benefit from an operation in their region,” Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Crockett said.
Crockett predicts that Donlin will not only boost the economy of the Kuskokwim region; it would grow the economy of the entire state at a time when revenue from its main natural resource, oil, is declining.
Public comments on Donlin Gold’s waste and wastewater draft permits will be accepted through Feb. 13.
In diesel-powered villages, electric bills can climb to several hundred dollars a month, especially in the winter.
So a batch of new energy assessors — who live in those communities — are being trained to spot areas of improvement around the home.
Alexis Wagner is looking down at a shiny black Samsung tablet. On it, there’s a list she’ll spend the next two hours filling out.
“When we go through the house, there will be appliance inventory, other plugins, windows,” Wagner explains.
Before we take off our shoes to enter this Juneau home, Wagner fills out the occupancy: there’s a woman who lives here with two small dogs. Even body heat is taken into consideration when evaluating energy efficiency.
Wagner says just scrolling through this list, she’s getting her own ideas.
“I have to make a lot of changes to my own house,” Wagner said with a laugh.
Wagner works at the Metlakatla Indian Community as a grant writer. But after today, she’ll be able to do another task, and she’s not alone. Five people are in the group with her — learning this new skill.
“We call them energy leaders, but privately I think of them as energy champions,” Shaina Kilcoyne said. She’s an education and outreach director at REAP — the Renewable Energy Alaska Project.
The nonprofit invited residents from Kake, Angoon, Hoonah, Yakutat and Metlakatla to participate in the new program. It’s part of a joint-effort with Southeast tribes to make household energy assessments more accessible and affordable.
An energy audit from a private company can cost thousands of dollars. So while these energy assessments aren’t quite as detailed, Kilcoyne says for $25 it’s a great value.
“Some of the upgrades can be expensive,” Kilcoyne said. “We’re starting with the low hanging fruit.”
In the home’s kitchen, Austin Pajak, who lives in Yakutat, is eyeballing the lights.
A gold retro-looking fixture hangs above the kitchen table.
Pajak inputs the wattage of each bulb into the spreadsheet on his tablet, and Kilcoyne walks him through it.
Replacing these light bulbs with LEDs could save the homeowner around $45 a year.
But Kilcoyne says not every energy vampire is so obvious. Take your coffee maker, for example. Some models have a burner plate which keeps the pot of coffee warm all day and uses electricity. So Kilcoyne suggests swapping out a glass coffee pot for an insulated one.
Jennifer Hanlon, an environmental director at Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, says those small household fixes are the best option for now.
Addressing the little things doesn’t solve the bigger problem, though: that these communities are powered by diesel.
But Hanlon says Yakutat is still a ways from tapping into alternative forms of energy, like tidal.
“You know, we’re not going to get that up and running anytime soon,” Hanlon said.
So having a few trained people in Yakutat who can offer energy assessments could at least ease some of the financial burden. And, Hanlon says, make it easier for people to stay in Yakutat.
After a few hours of scanning the Juneau house from top to bottom, the energy assessors are ready to make their final recommendations and explain to the homeowner how much they could save.
With a few simple adjustments, the household electric bill could be reduced by close to 10 percent.
One of the newly minted energy assessors said they were excited to go back to the village and share with they learned. They already had a list of homes lined up.
The Home Energy Leader Program runs through July 31.
This week we’re hearing from Carolina Vidal lives in Anchorage. Vidal is originally from Mexico and is the owner of The Piñata Shop in Anchorage.
VIDAL: At first I started calling myself a word I made up — “Piñateur” — which is silly because it has some Spanish and French, but now I’m just the owner of the piñata shop.
Almost a year ago, my now-seven-year-old was about to turn seven, and she asked me for a Trolls-themed birthday party. And she doesn’t have to twist my arm to make a party. I enjoy parties a lot. I was an event and wedding planner in Mexico and I worked doing the same in New Jersey. I knew I wasn’t gonna find it in Anchorage, because I knew when I’d seen piñatas before. I think I know piñatas; I’d been around them all my life. Usually, by the time the second kid hits it, it’s broken in pieces, and I thought they were very fragile and not very well made.
So I told her, “I’m going to make you a piñata. And she want the cloud guy. She wanted the cloud to rain candy once it was broken. And I gave it a shot, and I loved how it turned. And that was the beginning of it.
I wanted to do something different, so I went for a salmon, a Humpy salmon. And I loved how it turned out, and my husband, the Alaska guy, was very proud. He took a picture of me holding the salmon piñata and sent it to all his relatives. And our neighbors and friends started looking at what I was doing, and I started getting orders from them.
I’ve seen of them being whacked and people ask me, “Doesn’t it hurt to see your work, and those hours invested in them, just being whacked.” And I say no. I thought it was going to be like that, but I’m excited for the kids. I’m like, “Get it! Harder! Come on, Johnny! Come on Lulu! Come on, go for it!” That’s nice for me to make their very first piñata and I have people coming back to me and asking for more.
District 38 Representative Zach Fansler has resigned.
The legislator tendered his resignation letter to House Speaker Bryce Edgmon this morning. “He didn’t feel that he could adequately serve his constituents given the allegations that have been made,” his attorney, Wallace Tetlow, said in an interview with KYUK.
Last weekend, a Juneau woman alleged that Fansler slapped her multiple times when she denied his sexual advances, rupturing one of her eardrums in the process.
KYUK’s reporting on this story is ongoing.