Alaska News

Gelvin’s air strip being restored with tons of gravel

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-02 16:14

A hundred tons of gravel have restored a remote runway in Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve. The Gelvin’s 700-foot-long air strip along the Charley River was damaged by a 2012 flood. Preserve spokeswoman Kris Fister said the landing strip was out of service until National Park Service personnel teamed with volunteers from Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers in June to rebuild the severely eroded runway.

”There were deep indentations and gaps in the coverage of the strip, so it essentially made it unusable,” Fister said. “And they moved a tremendous of gravel. It was a huge amount of work.”

Fister said a helicopter with a bucket was used to ferry rock and gravel from the river to the nearby airstrip.

”200,000 pounds of gravel was moved,” Fister said. “And the rock was loaded by hand into the bucket and then moved a short distance to the strip itself where then it was spread again by hand.”

Fister said the Gelvin’s air strip provides access to the Charley River at point where water levels are generally high enough for larger boats. She says in the years since the strip was damaged floaters have had to put in 40 miles upriver at the Three Fingers air strip.

”Really made the river mostly inaccessible to anyone trying to float with something larger than a pack raft,” Fister said.

Fister said the project completed over ten days, has readied the Gelvin’s strip in time for summer and fall float and hunting trips.

Categories: Alaska News

Tsunami zone update gets pushback from Oregon Coast legislators

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-02 16:08
DERIN ALLARD / FLICKR – TINYURL.COM/Y89YOJZG

When a massive tsunami hit the northeast coast of Japan in 2011, waves of water overtopped sea walls, swallowed buildings and surged higher than anticipated. One thing those images prompted was a reexamination of the tsunami risk in the Pacific Northwest.

Sooner or later the offshore Cascadia fault zone is going to unleash a monster earthquake and tsunami. When that day comes, the hope is that coastal schools, fire and police stations and hospitals are located high enough so that they don’t get washed away when we most need them to be there.

In Oregon and Washington, the state geology divisions released new tsunami evacuation maps beginning in 2013. The tsunami inundation map updates are still rolling out segment by segment in Washington state. More people and property are in harm’s way under the new maps—about 30 percent more along the Oregon Coast.

And at a series of meetings in Salem that has proven to be a sticky problem.

“Any hazard mapping, as I can attest to from having worked at FEMA, and at the state and at the local level, it’s always heartburn,” Jay Wilson, former chair of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission, said.

Structural engineer Jeff Soulages joined Wilson in venting at a meeting of Oregon earthquake safety advisors. They’re upset at the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries for delaying the adoption into statute of the new, higher tsunami flood line to regulate vulnerable new construction.

“I cannot understand for the life of me why you would wait when you already you have these maps,” Soulages said. “They’ve been in your hands for four years.”

“There’s going to be a lot more heartburn if we have that tsunami and we’ve continued to move forward with the status quo,” Wilson added.

‘There’s no place to go’

One way Oregon differs from neighboring Washington and California is that in the mid-1990s, the Oregon Legislature made it a rule that certain “essential facilities” cannot be built inside the tsunami zone, namely new hospitals, fire and police stations, schools, colleges and jails. Existing critical facilities are grandfathered in place and there are exceptions when, say a new fire station, for strategic reasons needs to be close to a highway or population center.

None of this applies to construction of private businesses and homes.

There’s a reason the old tsunami line is still in place when it comes to new construction: strong pushback from coastal legislators, including Republican state Sen. Jeff Kruse.

“On the South Coast, if you’re going to move things, where are you going to move them to? There’s no place to go. Here’s the ocean and there’s the mountains. There’s not a whole lot of space,” Kruse said. “You get up to Cannon Beach or Seaside, it’s a different environment. Still like in Seaside, if you’re going to move the inundation zone line, you’ve got to go miles to get back above it again.”

The pushback is bipartisan. Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson said people living along the coast have regulatory fatigue and don’t need what she called “holier than thou” lectures.

“I don’t think they need a board in Portland to tell them how to think thoughtfully about tsunamis,” Johnson said. “The other thing that I am very worried about is if we allow this culture of casualty to infest our thinking, we drive people away from the coast that the coast needs.”

Johnson is concerned that an expanded tsunami zone will upend long-term planning for a new hospital in Astoria. It also complicates where to build a new fire station in Gearhart. A new marine studies building at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport gets a pass because it has a planned capacity under 500 people.

Who should decide where essential facilities go?

Documents obtained by public radio show the Coastal Caucus, comprising the eight legislators from districts along the Oregon Coast, took the position that siting decisions should rest at the local level with the state limiting itself to a consultative role. In contrast, some Willamette Valley legislators and disaster resilience experts have periodically proposed to give the state geologist’s staff stronger authority to regulate development in the tsunami hazard zone.

Coastal legislators have let the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries know in no uncertain terms that they would try to strip the agency of authority if it broadens the tsunami regulatory zone.

DOGAMI Communications Director Ali Ryan Hansen said the agency’s board decided it made sense to pause and consult more with affected communities.

“The scientific information about where a tsunami is expected to reach is widely available, but it has it not been used to update this regulatory piece,” Hansen said. “Our board wants to be responsive.”

Hansen said the department in its history has never been asked for an exception or denied a development application for being inside the tsunami zone. The agency’s board tentatively plans to revisit the tsunami line question this December.

In some ways, Oregon’s conundrum is just a preview of what Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska and Hawaii will all get to wrestle with beginning next year. In 2018 the national building code council distributes an updated model building code, which for the first time incorporates tsunami design criteria. States can choose to adopt or ignore the new model code.

The proposed new tsunami provisions cover siting, design and structural resistance to collapse, battering and scouring. The new chapter also gives guidance on how to build taller and stronger to provide an elevated safe haven if a building must be located in the tsunami inundation zone.

Categories: Alaska News

Water restored to all New Stuyahok homes

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-02 15:29
A street level view of New Stuyahok in winter. (Wikimedia commons image)

Homes in New Stuyahok were plagued with low or no water pressure from mid-June to mid-July. At the peak of the problem, more than 30 homes were affected. Now the city water system is back online.

Mayor Randall Hastings said the problem was exacerbated because the sensor that could have alerted the city to a problem in the well house sooner is broken.

“The sensor that’s on the water tank and in the water plant hasn’t been working for over a year,” Hastings said. “We’ve been waiting for a part from Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium that registers and lets us know how much water is in the tank. With the system working, then we would have known there was something going on and we could have probably fixed the problem sooner or prevented us from losing so much pressure that the whole upper village ran out of water.”

That sensor remains broken, but the pump is fixed. Repairs began on July 5. An engineer from the Alaska Rural Utilities Collaborative fixed the well pump. It took the water tower some time to refill. On July 19, the city began shutting off water 12 hours a day, from eight in the evening to eight in the morning.

“We had to shut everybody off because those who had water weren’t conserving it enough to let the tank fill up,” Hastings explained.

On July 25 the city announced that it would no longer be shutting of water because the storage tank was three-quarters full. The storage tank is now entirely full and water pressure restored to all homes.

With the water running again, the city is turning its attention to a perennial problem — customers that aren’t paying for their water. About 110 homes there are on the city’s water system, and Hastings estimates 20 percent of them are not paying for the service.

“The way our system was set up a long time ago, there’s really no way to shut anybody off,” Hastings said. “The very first houses that were built here, the shut off valves are inside the house. People aren’t going to permit you to go in their house to shut them off.”

The city is working to install water main curb valves, an external method for the city to shut off water, on every home. That way, when customers stop paying, the city can stop supplying water.

Another water problem is completely outside the city’s control — the Nushagak River. It is still running too low for a barge to make a delivery. One of the key items New Stuyahok depends on the barge to carry is fuel. Businesses’ and residences’ heating fuel use is already limited, 50 gallons per month for businesses and 30 gallons per month for homes.

“New Stuyahok Limited is really getting dangerously low on stove oil, so hopefully the barge will be here soon,” Hastings said.

With a rainy end of July and more rain in the forecast for August, New Stuyahok Limited anticipates a barge delivery in the next few weeks.

Categories: Alaska News

Changing climate pushes polar bears toward more dangerous interactions with humans

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-02 12:51
As melting sea ice forces polar bears onto dry land, interactions with humans are becoming more common and potentially more dangerous. (Creative Commons photo by Christopher Michel/Flickr)

For Halloween in 2014, the kids in the village of Arviat in the Canadian Arctic had to trick-or-treat indoors. In the community center, they had a warm place to show off their costumes, but more importantly, they were safe from three polar bears outside.

That night, a polar bear and her two yearlings spent three hours on the outskirts of town trying to find a way in.

The polar bear patrol used four-wheelers and bright lights to try to keep the bears from getting too close to town.

Elisabeth Kruger with the World Wildlife Fund was there that night.

“The bears would go a bit on the ice and they would just wait for the four wheelers to go away and then they’d come back on shore and try to cause trouble,” Kruger said.

Jim Wilder, the polar bear project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, recently published a paper on how climate change is impacting polar bear behavior.

“When they have less opportunity to hunt, obviously that has impacts to their body condition – so the bears become thinner, skinnier,” Wilder said. “What our study has shown actually is that when polar bears become thinner and skinnier they become a little more aggressive in their pursuit of feeding opportunities.”

The study is the first of its kind, combining research from the United States, Norway, Canada, Greenland and Russia to look at what motivates polar bears to attack humans.

Polar bears usually hunt on the sea ice, stalking unsuspecting seals. But when there’s open water where there used to be ice, the bears are forced onto land. Wilder’s study found when bears are thinner and desperate, they also become more aggressive hunters.

For evidence of this, the paper points to the worst years on record for polar bear attacks: 2010–2014, a period of historically low summer sea ice.

“Bears in general, particularly polar bears, make their living by investigating anomalies on the landscape. Something that might indicate there’s something there to eat,” Wilder said.

That used to mean places in the ice that indicated there were seals, but now small coastal communities on the flat tundra landscape can also look attractive to the bears.

Wilder said not to panic — there have only been six recorded polar bear attacks in the last 145 years in Alaska. But, there’s still cause for concern.

“If I lived in a coastal community,” Wilder said. “I would be concerned about the loss of sea ice and the impact of that to polar bears.”

A majority of bears that attacked people were malnourished.

Part of Elisabeth Kruger’s job is advising small communities on the best way to keep polar bears out of town.

“One thing I hear really often in the villages is people saying ‘we’ve been here for a millennia and we’re a pretty resilient people and we’ll get through this’,” Kruger said. “I’ve seen how people live and I don’t doubt that they will get through it. That said, this is something we haven’t seen before and it is going to cause drastic changes no matter what we do.”

In order to prepare for increased interactions between polar bears and humans, Wilder’s study mentions Arctic residents should learn to recognize malnourished bears, manage their trash properly and – if it comes down to it – know how to use a firearm.

Categories: Alaska News

Closed process on capital budget draws criticism

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-02 11:56
House page Laib Allensworth places copies of the capital budget on lawmakers desks in the Capitol on July 27. Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kotzebue, reads in the background. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO)

When the state Legislature passed the capital budget on Thursday last week, it ended a negotiating process that largely occurred behind closed doors. That’s often the case for legislation that requires the Senate and the House to work out their differences.   

The Alaska House and Senate each passed different versions of the capital budget funding roads and other infrastructure this spring. But unlike in past years, they didn’t form a conference committee to find common ground until the end of July.  

On July 27, the Legislature returned to Juneau for its third special session. In five and a half hours, the two chambers met, formed a conference committee and passed the $1.4 billion capital budget.  

That pace and closed process upset some members of the Republican House minority caucus. During the capital budget debate in the House, North Pole Rep. Tammie Wilson said she had never seen anything like it.  

“We should be really concerned, because it’s a public process that we’re giving up – the public process of being able to testify on what’s in this budget,” Wilson said.  

It was unusual for lawmakers to meet on the capital budget outside of the legislative session. It’s not unusual that they resolved budget differences behind closed doors.  

Budget conference committee members usually meet privately to work out details. When they hold public meetings, it’s to vote on the compromises they’ve already reached. 

On July 27, the committee unveiled the new $1.4 billion capital budget. In 29 minutes, the committee shot down some minority Republican amendments and moved the bill along.

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Wilson said this week she hopes the Legislature finishes the capital budget much earlier next year – with a more open process.  

“Well, it’s always upsetting when it’s a closed-door deal, and that’s absolutely what it was,” Wilson said. “We weren’t called back until a deal was made. You could pretty much tell that when they met at 1 o’clock and within five or 10 minutes, you know, it was done. And I just don’t think that’s very fair to Alaskans – not to be able to take part.” 

Lawmakers in both chambers heard public testimony on the capital budget before passing separate versions.  

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara said the public and the minority also had more than a month to weigh in. And they were facing a deadline.  

Gov. Bill Walker’s administration was concerned construction projects would be delayed if the Legislature didn’t pass a capital budget by July 31. Gara also said lawmakers saved money from per diem expenses by negotiating outside of the session. 

“The two choices were to sit down there, griping with each other with people collecting per diem in Juneau for a week or two as you haggled everything out, or to say, ‘Look, go home, don’t collect per diem. A sm – group of people will try to figure out a proposal and see if it gets enough votes.’ And that’s what happened,” Gara said.

Political scientist Clive Thomas, formerly with the University of Alaska Southeast, said the extraordinarily late capital budget was a factor in the closed process outside of Juneau.  

“Most capital budgets are usually dealt with by the end of the session, the first session – the end of the regular session – so, I’ve never known of this process before,” Thomas said.

Legislators spent the extended session and earlier special sessions with the operating budget and a bill overhauling oil and gas taxes. 

Rep. Gara said he’d also like next year’s capital and operating budgets to be resolved sooner. But he says some lawmakers hold out in the hope that the other side will cave.

Categories: Alaska News

Ask a Climatologist: August is Alaska’s rainiest month

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2017-08-02 09:56
(Graphic courtesy of Brian Brettschneider)

August is the wettest month in Alaska. But just how rainy is it in different parts of the state?

We put that question to climatologist Brian Brettschneider. He said the amount of rain in August varies a lot depending on where you are in the state.

Interview Transcript:

Brian: So we are entering peak wet season in Alaska. For a large part of the state, August has the highest monthly precipitation total.

Annie: Where in the state is it the wettest?

Brian: That’s an interesting question because it’s not even everywhere. If you ask people in Interior Alaska, what’s the wettest month of the year, in the eastern Interior it would July. But for the North Slope the Western half of the state, down into Southcentral, August is the wettest month of the year. If you go down to Southeast, it’s September and even October in some places. So it’s not the same everywhere, but when you throw all those stations into one bucket and you average it all together, you’re going to come up with August as the wettest month in Alaska.

Annie: Is anywhere the driest?

Brian: Interestingly in Kodiak, August is their driest month of the year, but that’s a little bit of a special case because their precipitation is very consistent. The difference between their wettest and driest month is not very much. And so it’s kind of a fluke: August is the driest but not very dry. But other than Kodiak, most other stations are number 1, 2 or 3 for wettest months in August. And then once you get to Southeast, it’s kind of middle of the pack.

Annie: On the ground, how many days of rain are we talking in August?

Brian: Well that’s one of the things I get asked a lot. People say, “don’t tell me how much rain is going to fall, tell me how many days I’m going to lose to rain.” So in Anchorage, about 15 days in August — one out of every two days you’re going to get measurable rain. If you make your way up to Fairbanks, it’s about 13 days and then down in Southeast, in Juneau, 19 days. So August in Juneau is their fifth wettest month, it still rains a lot, it’s a lot of little rains.

Categories: Alaska News

Transgender activist looks to connect trans men in the 49th state

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-08-01 18:35
Malcolm Ribot (Photo courtesy of Cathy Gillis)

Malcolm Ribot is a transgender man from Illinois who’s been traveling around the U.S. for the past nine months helping trans men connect with one another. When his journey started, he just wanted to meet some of his many social media followers. He soon realized his network could support people as they go through gender transition and increase the visibility of the trans community. Now he’s in Alaska — his 49th state. Ribot said on one of his first meetings with an Instragram follower, he found out something unexpected.

Listen now

RIBOT: I met someone who, I’d found, had never met another trans guy. And that was crazy to me because my reality back in Chicago was that I hung out with guys all the time. Like every weekend, I would go to the city and just hang out with people and be able to have that comradery, that support. And during the week, I didn’t have other guys that I’d hang out with cause I didn’t live in the city. So I felt really isolated and alone during the week, so the tought of this guy who never had even met a trans guy — and he’s just started his medical transition a week prior — made me feel like he must feel the same way I felt or even just a whole ‘nother degree of isolation all the time. And I met another guy the next day who was only half an hour away, and neither of them knew each other.

And it just kinda started to click that, “Hey. These guys have similarities with one another. They don’t know the other guys.” I started posting pictures of them online. And with my following, people were seeing them and it was starting to spread visibility for our community — in and out of our community. And people were starting to comment on the pictures and say, “Hey. I didn’t know you lived here.” Gradually over time, I started realizing it was a way to connect people. So I started bringing groups of guys together and then seeing them connect in person. And that was what really clicked and I thought, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be connecting these guys with one another and helping show we’re all over the place.

TOWNSEND: Why is it important to build connections between people going through transition?

RIBOT: Some of the experiences that we go through as just so specific to being transmasculine and they’re things you can’t just talk about with anybody and have them understand. So having that support of somebody who really understands and is going through the same thing is just huge.

TOWNSEND: Malcolm, how do you thnk your efforts have changed the larger community’s thoughts and ideas about being transgender? What kind of effects are you seeing from your travels?

RIBOT: I think it’s helping to “normalize” what transgender really is. I think a lot of people don’t know what it is and they have this fear of the unknown. So I feel like it’s helping people realize that we’re human. we’re just other people. We’re just people.

TOWNSEND: In Anchorage, the city is reviewing a ballot measure that would require people to only use the bathroom that corresponds with the biological sex that’s on their birth certificate. You’ve traveled through states that have proposed similar laws. In you opinion, what would the effect of such a law be?

RIBOT: It’s dangerous, especially for trans women. For them to be in a restroom with it’s a lot of violence that can happen in that situation. And for trans men to be in the women’s room, that could cause fear in women. It’s dangerous.

TOWNSEND: Malcolm, what advice would you give to other people who are going through a gender transition? What do you say to them?

RIBOT: My biggest piece of advice has always been to be patient — patient with yourself and others. When you’re coming out to others, try to be patient with their level of understanding and try to be open with how you feel and your feelings about it. Give them time to come to understand it. And patient with yourself as well, with all the different steps that you may plan to go through. Not everybody goes through all different types of steps that people think. Not everybody has surgery. Not everybody goes on hormones. Some people may socially transition. Be patient too with the steps that it can take to get your name changed and to get on hormones and to have surgeries. There’s a lot of hoops that we have to jump through. And that can be really difficult and trying, but in the long run it’s gonna be worth it.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-08-01 18:06

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via email, podcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn

Listen now

Premera says ACA premiums to drop 22%

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media – Washington D.C.

Finally, a bit of good news about Alaska’s health care marketplace: Premera says premiums on the government-run exchange will decrease in 2018 by 22 percent. This is despite uncertainty about what the Trump administration might do as it administers Barack Obama’s signature health care law. The rate could drop further still.

Revenue commissioner resigns to serve ministry

Andrew Kitchenman, KTOO – Juneau

Randall Hoffbeck announced Tuesday he’s resigning as Commissioner of Revenue on Aug. 17, in order to return to the ministry.

State Sen. Gary Stevens files to run for lieutenant governor

Kayla Desroches, KMXT – Kodiak

Longtime Kodiak resident Republican state Sen. Gary Stevens will run for lieutenant governor in 2018.

No commercial fishing on Kuskokwim this year

Anna Rose MacArthur, KYUK – Bethel

For the second year in a row, there will be no commercial fishing on the Kuskokwim.

With cut after cut, state food safety inspections stretch years apart

Carter Barrett, KTOO – Juneau

Outside of Anchorage, the state’s Food Safety and Sanitation Program is responsible for inspecting restaurants, pools, spas, tattoo parlors, food processors and other facilities. But after several years of state budget cuts, fewer inspectors are paying fewer visits — especially to rural Alaska.

Less mercury found in Beaufort Sea polar bears — that’s not necessarily a good thing

Elizabeth Jenkins, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Juneau

Melissa McKinney expected to see some fluctuation in the polar bears’ mercury levels. But the sudden drop off surprised her.

Feds look to relinquish mineral rich Interior lands to the state

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A tract of potentially mineral rich land northeast of Fairbanks is recommended for transfer from federal to state hands.

Ekwok substance use recovery program teaches subsistence skills to fight addiction

Avery Lill, KDLG – Dillingham

Ekwok Lodge hosted a substance use disorder recovery program last month. The vision was to teach subsistence skills as a part of the regimen.

Transgender activist looks to connect trans men in the 49th state

Lori Townsend, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage

Malcolm Ribot is a transgender man from Illinois who’s been traveling around the U.S. for the past 9 months helping trans men connect with one another. When his journey started, he just wanted to meet some of his many social media followers. He soon realized his network could support people as they go through gender transition and increase the visibility of the trans community. Now he’s in Alaska — his 49th state.

Categories: Alaska News

Less mercury found in Beaufort Sea polar bears — that’s not necessarily a good thing

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-08-01 18:01
Polar Bears (Photo by Atwell Gerry, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Warming in the southern Beaufort Sea is leading to some surprising biological changes for the region’s polar bears. But recent findings related to the bears’ health warns of other challenges coming down the line.

Listen now

When scientists go into the field to study the Beaufort Sea polar bears, they collect samples from the sedated bears. A little tuft of fur is flown all the way from the Arctic to a lab on the east coast.

Melissa McKinney hasn’t seen the bears first hand, but since 2004 she’s come in contact with their hair inside a lab at the University of Connecticut. She’s using the hair to look for mercury.

“Most of the mercury that is present in the environment right now is due to human emissions,” McKinney said.

And that mercury makes its way up the food web: first in fish and later in the ringed seals that eat the fish. By the time it gets to the polar bears, the mercury is super concentrated, and McKinney said it can have toxic effects. The Beaufort bears in particular are thought to have some of highest levels of mercury in the Arctic.

McKinney expected to see some fluctuation in mercury levels over time.

“That would be what we would anticipate,” McKinney said.

But over a seven-year stretch, McKinney found the numbers have dropped by more than half.

“Well, I was surprised,” McKinney said. “I thought that we might see some variation, but I was surprised at the extent of the decline that occurred over a relatively short period of time.”

That sounds like a good thing, but that information tells scientists something else.

“The decline in mercury in the Southern Beaufort Sea can largely be explained by their diet and condition,” McKinney said.

Instead of dining on ringed seal out on the ice, more polar bears in the Beaufort Sea are coming on shore, where they’re consuming bowhead whale scraps leftover from subsistence hunts.

McKinney said there’s only so much of that food that can go around.

“In the short term, ‘yes.’ We see declines in terms of mercury,” McKinney said. “But what will it mean in the long term when we have more bears on shore and more bears using that resource?”

McKinney said while this study is about polar bears in the Beaufort Sea, it also reveals something about us: The implications of warming are a lot more varied than we thought.

Categories: Alaska News

Premera says ACA premiums to drop 22%

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-08-01 17:42
Photo of U.S. Capitol by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media

Finally, a bit of good news about Alaska’s health care marketplace: Premera is projecting premiums will decrease in 2018 by about 22 percent, for people who buy their own insurance through the government-run exchange. This news comes despite uncertainty about whether Congress will still try to change the Affordable Care Act, and what action the Trump administration might take as it administers Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

Premera cited two reasons for the lower prices: The company saw a “significant reduction” among Alaska customers in the use of medical services. Also, the state’s reinsurance program is now covering some high cost claims, and the federal government has committed to fund the lion’s share of that for five years.

The news might be a sign of stability in Alaska’s health insurance market, which has the highest priced insurance premiums in the nation.

But Premera cautioned against reading too much into it. Alaska’s market is small and remains volatile, the company said.

Sen. Dan Sullivan said he expected Alaska’s reinsurance program would result in lower 2018 premiums in Alaska. But Sullivan said Alaska’s situation doesn’t solve the larger problem of insurance plans that cost too much.

“Nationally, I mean, the tea leaves I’m reading, it’s going to be more of the same or worse,” Sullivan said. “Going up.”

Unlike Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sullivan supported Republican efforts last week to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act. Those measures failed to get enough votes to pass the Senate. Sullivan says he’s still working hard to find a solution.

“Yeah, I think we’re reassessing right now,” he said.

President Trump has repeatedly suggested his administration might stop making payments to insurance companies for a subsidy known as Cost-Sharing Reductions. CSR provides extra help to the poorest people who buy insurance on the individual market, at the silver level. It allows them to have lower deductibles and pay less out-of-pocket when they see a doctor. The government reimburses insurance companies for the difference.

If a new HealthCare Bill is not approved quickly, BAILOUTS for Insurance Companies and BAILOUTS for Members of Congress will end very soon!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2017

In Alaska, most people who use the online insurance marketplace qualify for a tax credit that lowers their premium – what they pay every month. But fewer than half also qualify for CSR, to lower out-of-pocket costs.

Melanie Coon, a spokeswoman for Premera, said by law, Premera has to provide the CSR subsidy to people who qualify for it, even if the federal government doesn’t come through with the payment.

Coon said Premera would have to increase premiums to make up the difference. And she said they assumed that worse-case scenario when they calculated the rates.

“We have assumed, we’ve been very conservative and assumed those CSR payments are not going to be there,” Coon said. “And so we’ve worked that into the cost of the rates for next year, for 2018.”

(The federal government said Premera’s has asked for a premium decrease of just over 22 percent. Coon said Premera figures the decrease at just under 22 percent. She said Premera used a more precise calculation for the average of its rates.)

She said they’re still calculating what Alaska premiums would be if the CSR is paid. They would almost certainly be lower still.

Sen. Sullivan said he thinks the government should keep providing the CSR money.

“I don’t want people to get hurt, right? So I would be supportive of making those payments,” Sullivan said.

The chairman of the Senate health committee said he plans to begin bipartisan hearings on health care in September.

 

Categories: Alaska News

No commercial fishing on Kuskokwim this year

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-08-01 17:13

For the second year in a row, there will be no commercial fishing on the Kuskokwim.

Larry Lang, owner of the processing vessel Akutan, said the bank will not lend him the money needed to buy silver salmon this summer.

Lang was the only buyer registered with the state to purchase Kuskokwim salmon this year. He was scheduled to anchor in Kuskokwim Bay this week.

The last time there was a commercial opening on the Kuskokwim in 2015, 396 fishermen participated.

Categories: Alaska News

With cut after cut, state food safety inspections stretch years apart

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-08-01 17:08
The food safety permit for the Timberline Bar and Grill in Juneau hangs on its wall on Saturday. With fewer inspectors conducting fewer inspections, some restaurants go years between inspections. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Salmon patties sizzle on a grill at The Salmon Spot, a new addition to Juneau’s many downtown seasonal food stands. Its license hangs just above a box of plastic gloves.

With food inspectors available in town, navigating the permits and getting open for business was a lot of work – but not impossible. The seasonal stands in Juneau are inspected regularly.

Food Safety and Sanitation license hangs on the wall inside Forno Rosso, a mobile food stand in Juneau. The stand features a full-size custom pizza. They were inspected twice in 2016, both with zero violations. (KTOO photo)

In the western Aleutian island of Adak, there are only two full-service restaurants. The federal government considers restaurants high-risk and recommends food safety regulators inspect them four times a year.

But none of the restaurants in Adak have been inspected in over four years.

In 2013, the Aleutian Sports Bar and Grill was cited for rodent droppings and storing food in the kitchen restroom, among other violations. It’s since closed its kitchen.

In Alaska, inspections are creeping further apart. High-risk facilities are inspected on average once every 18 to 24 months. In rural areas, it can be even longer.

Outside of Anchorage, the state’s Food Safety and Sanitation Program is responsible for inspecting restaurants pools, spas, tattoo parlors, food processors and other facilities. The check-ins are intended to protect public health. But after several years of state budget cuts, fewer inspectors are paying fewer visits.

“I would say the number of inspections staff at this point would need to triple or maybe even quadruple for us to be able to get out with any degree of adequacy,” Kimberly Stryker said. She manages the state’s Food Safety and Sanitation Program.

Stryker’s inspectors have to triage.

In 2016, 50 percent of high-risk retail food establishments were inspected – up a few points from two years before. Less than one in five low-risk facilities – like coffee shops, bars, grocery stores – were inspected.

Low-risk facilities are only inspected if there are complaints or if inspectors have time.

How frequently Food Safety and Sanitation inspects a facility is based on an assessment that factors in proximity to their offices, the concentration of high-risk facilities, if it is a hub community with access to smaller villages, among other criteria.

“Once you go outside those larger communities, you’re really talking about much more expensive travel, much more difficult travel,” Stryker said.

A round trip Anchorage-to-Adak plane ticket is $1,200, and there’s only one flight a week.

Over the last three years, lawmakers cut over a million dollars from Food Safety and Sanitation’s budget. Two offices closed and a fifth of the staff was cut. And expensive plane tickets to a town with just a handful of restaurants are harder to justify.

“I would say overall it’s resulted in a reduction in our capacity to be able to prevent and respond to illness outbreaks, reports of illness, or reports of lack of sanitation,” Stryker said.

The Federal Food and Drug Administration contracts to inspect facilities that sell food across state lines – usually large processing plants. The state uses these trips to inspect other nearby facilities as well. The state also raised the fees facilities must pay, to make up for lost funds.

“We’re like a puppy dog chasing our tail, that’s just what we do, we’re never caught up,” Jason Wiard, an environmental health officer based in Juneau, said. “It gets a little stressful, it gets a little tough.”

Part of the job is being gone for a week or more on trips.

“You might be sleeping in places that would surprise you,” Wiard said. “You could be sleeping on a gym floor, in a clinic cause there’s no lodging, or you might have someone say, ‘You can sleep on my couch.’”

Staff turnover is common in Food Safety and Sanitation because of tough working conditions and budget layoffs. Keeping staff well trained, and investing money in training is a challenge.

In recent weeks two fully-trained inspectors quit. Stryker remembers an employee counting 16 positions that have turned over since November 2014.

Are there consequences?

The Centers for Disease Control estimates 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from a foodborne illness a year.

According to the most recent CDC data, 2015 was Alaska’s worst year for foodborne illnesses and hospitalizations since its tracking began in 1998. There were 234 reported illnesses and 31 hospitalizations where the location of preparation was confirmed as restaurants.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control. No cases were reported in 2007, 2009 and 2011. Only cases that are part of an outbreak under the CDC’s definition are counted. (Graph by Carter Barrett/KTOO)

“I can certainly speak as an Alaskan first, and as a public servant second, I’m concerned about Alaskans becoming sick with foodborne illness,” Stryker said. “It’s completely preventable and it can absolutely change a person’s life.”

The city manager in Adak said the small town rumor mill keeps restaurants and cooks in-check, but Adak is scheduled to be inspected this fall.

“I’ve been out to rural communities where I’ve been just scared. Like, I know it’s been so long since we’d been out here. You show up and they’re dialed in perfectly,” Wiard said. “I think everybody understands the importance of food safety. Then again, I’ve been to places where you walk in and it’s a disaster.”

There used to be a McDonald’s, a movie theater and a swimming pool in Adak. They’re gone now, just the skeletal, weathered structures are left. A zombie movie was nearly filmed on the island – the perfect apocalyptic-esque set.

“When they don’t see us for a lot of years it’s hard to go in there and say, ‘You’re doing all this stuff wrong.’ And they’re like, ‘Great, where were you for the last 10 years? We’d love to hear this more often, so we’re not out of compliance,’” Wiard said.

In Juneau, sometimes it takes a visit to reassure food safety. In 2011, Wiard shut down Juneau’s downtown soup kitchen, The Glory Hole.

“It was awful, it was egregious, it was the worst thing possible that I could have done,” Wiard said. “They had lots of rodents, and cockroaches and ickies.”

After an overnight cleaning binge, Wiard returned early the next morning to see if the kitchen could reopen for breakfast.

“Just the impact of being able to do that, so folks down at The Glory Hole could have a breakfast that morning, you know, that was some of the sacrifices that I look at – yeah, that was a good thing,” Wiard said.

In rural communities, that level of follow up and education isn’t always possible.

As for the Food Safety and Sanitation Program’s budget for this year, it didn’t lose any more funding.

Categories: Alaska News

Feds look to relinquish mineral rich Interior lands to the state

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-08-01 17:02

A tract of potentially mineral rich land northeast of Fairbanks is recommended for transfer from federal to state hands. The 709-acre parcel near Fox and the Ft. Knox Gold Mine is being relinquished by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, near where the agency operates a satellite downlink facility. The Bureau of Land Management recently completed an environmental assessment of impacts of relinquishing the property.

“We have found no potential for significant impacts from the relinquishment and transfer to the state,” Valerie Baxter said. Baxter is with the BLM eastern interior field office.

Baxter said the state has selected the land which, includes mining claims held by the operator of Ft. Knox.

“Because it’s an ANILCA state selection, if it transfers to the state, then the state mining claims will become valid,” Baxter said.

Ft. Knox has explored some of the area in recent years under BLM issued permits. Any additional action on the property after transfer, would be subject to state agency approval. Baxter says that includes anything affecting historic trails which cross the 700-acre parcel.

“If the state decides to do something different up there, then there’s a process that they have to go through based on the fact that those are RS 2477 trails,” Baxter said.

Transfer of the land from the federal government to the state must be authorized by the secretary of the interior. Baxter said that usually takes four to six months.

Categories: Alaska News

Ekwok substance use recovery program teaches subsistence skills to fight addiction

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-08-01 16:55
The Ekwok community arrives for the graduation ceremony Friday. (Avery Lill/ KDLG)

Behind the Ekwok Lodge, the smells of soured salmon and pig muck hang in the air. Despite the odor, Ben, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, smiled shyly as he pointed out the nails in wooden boards that surround the pen. The nails stick out to deter bears.

“We feed them fish and other left over foods. You hear their squeals because they’re being picked on.” Ben said as one pig let out a shrill squeak when a bigger pig muscles it out of the way. “I don’t know why.”

For the past month, 22-year-old Ben, who grew up between Ekwok, Dillingham, Togiak and Anchorage, participated in a substance use disorder recovery program. The vision of the program was to teach subsistence skills as a part of the regimen. All the graduates are Alaska Native, and the idea is that cultural activities can be integral to recovery.

While raising pigs might not be a traditional subsistence activity in rural Alaska, these nine smelly animals gave the clients ample opportunity to practice one that is — fishing. The program participants set nets every day to bring in enough fish to feed the pigs. For two men, including Ben, this was their first time to be involved in subsistence fishing.

The three men graduating from the program helped daily with construction and maintenance on the lodge, which has been out of use. They chopped wood and carried water up to the lodge from the river. They fished for salmon to feed to the pigs and to cut and smoke for themselves. They took a maqii every night, cleaning themselves in the steam bath.

“It’s fun picking berries, making akutaq from the berries that you picked, and taking a load off with cutting up fish. It was nice labor,” Ben said. “I’m slowly, slowly getting used to being clean and sober and looking forward to keeping it that way.”

Friday was graduation day. More than two dozen people, family members, the local priest and members of the Ekwok community gathered to celebrate the month the graduates have spent in recovery.

The mood was relaxed and celebratory in the main building of Ekwok Lodge. It is a big room with large windows and wooden walls decorated with trophy fish. Children ran along the sides and between couches and wooden chairs as the graduates stood up to receive their diplomas. The program’s leaders and community members congratulated and affirmed each one individually. Several coordinators spoke of their own recovery from addiction. The graduates themselves spoke warmly about the program and about their commitment to sobriety.

Ekwok Natives Limited masterminded the program and put up the funds, which were substantial. Jimmy Hurley Sr., president of ENL’s board, estimated that the village corporation spent about $100,000 to cover the costs for all participants and to bring in Tutan Recovery Services, a private business from Anchorage, to run the program.

“Everybody used to put up fish, but the subsistence part, it brings pride in the people,” Hurley said, explaining ENL’s investment in the program. “If you’re a native and you don’t know how to put away salmon, I think there’s a lot of embarrassment. That should be a part of every recovery, bringing culture into it. Culture is really strong. We’ve lost so much of it.”

The men in the program caught and smoked fish to take home with them after graduation. (Avery Lill/ KDLG)

Getting this program off the ground was not without obstacles. The power and water both went out to the lodge at points during the camp, and at least one person enrolled did not complete the program.

Overall, however, word from coordinators and the graduates was positive.

“At the end, they’re able to take some of their product home with them, and this will help sustain them when they’re looking for jobs,” Hurley said. “They’ll remember the camp, the sobriety they had here. They’ve got enough confidence in themselves right now that they could really go and take on a feat.”

This is Tutan Recovery Service’s first time operating outside Anchorage or incorporating subsistence as a component of their recovery program. At a time when the governor has declared the epidemic of opioid use in Alaska a crisis, many are looking for more effective means of combating addiction. Relapse is always a concern in programs that address substance use disorder. Eydie Flygare, the program director, anticipates that the subsistence component will be a help as the clients return home.

“When you find out where you came from and then you start doing some things you did when you were a kid. You’re just like, ‘Okay, yeah! I got it!’ The fact that a few of them are going back to do subsistence again, and that includes the spiritual aspect, I think absolutely it helps,” Flygare said.

As for Ekwok Natives Limited, Hurley said that the corporation board has been supportive of this year’s pilot run of the program. However, the price tag is too large to continue without grants or outside funding. In the coming months, they will explore their options for continuing the wellness camp.

The graduates have all flown back to their homes in Anchorage and in Bristol Bay hopefully to continue their journey with sobriety. They left with smoked fish in their bags for this winter and the skills to do it again next summer.

Categories: Alaska News

State Sen. Gary Stevens files to run for lieutenant governor

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-08-01 16:08
Sen. Gary Stevens addresses a joint session of the Alaska Legislature during debate about confirmations of the governor’s appointees, April 17, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Longtime Kodiak resident Republican state Sen. Gary Stevens will run for lieutenant governor in 2018.

Stevens has spent almost 18 years in the Alaska legislature. Before that, he was a familiar face in Kodiak’s local government. He’s served as mayor of both the Kodiak Island Borough and the city of Kodiak and was also school board president.

Stevens has been in the senate since 2004, and previously served as a member of the Alaska House of Representatives. He said it’s been in the back of his mind to run for the position of lieutenant governor. Now that he’s in the first year of a four-year term, he said he’s in a good position to do it.

“If I win, great, if I lose, I’ll spend two more years in the Senate. … Either way,” Stevens said. “I’d much appreciate the opportunity of being lieutenant governor.”

Stevens expresses flexibility about working with the goals and needs of whoever wins the position of governor.

“Giving the governor your input and your impression of how things should work or may work or can work is really, really important and that’s varied,” Stevens said. “Sometimes, we’ve had lieutenant governors that have not been able to work with the governor at all and sometimes we’ve had governors and lieutenant governors who’ve been a very fine team. That’s the main thing. And it’s really up to the governor in that case to figure out how best to use the lieutenant governor.”

Stevens also said Alaska is struggling with its election process. He said soon the state will need to replace its ballot counting machines and could look toward an alternative method. He said some of the Western states, like Colorado, have found success with mail-in ballots.

Stevens said the health care system, oil and gas, state resources and international business and sale remain primary focuses moving forward.

Categories: Alaska News

Cruise-ship tourism will expand next summer

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-08-01 15:08
A Holland America cruise ship sails up Juneau’s Gastineau Channel June 19, 2017. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

More tourists will come to Alaska next summer on cruise ships.

Research by Wells Fargo Securities predicts about 6 percent growth from this summer’s number, which is 1.06 million passengers. The company projects growth from 5 to 10 percent in other markets around the world.

The numbers are based on capacity, not tickets booked.

Cruise Lines International Association-Alaska President John Binkley said cruise lines are following the money.

“Most of these are publicly traded companies, so they’re looking at where they can take these assets, the ships, and move them to the destination where they’re able to get the best return on investments for their shareholders,” Binkley said. “Right now, Alaska is popular and people want to travel to Alaska. That allows them to charge a little higher price, because there’s a high demand.”

Passengers walk a downtown Juneau dock where three cruise ships are tied up June 11, 2017. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Binkley said factors include Alaska-based reality TV shows, interest in the Arctic and strong marketing. He also said many tourists consider the state to be safe and secure.

“Some geopolitical problems around the world in some areas cause people to want to go to a domestic location that’s exotic, like Alaska, rather than a foreign destination where the perceived safety might be in question,” Binkley said.

Binkley expects growth to continue into the 2019 season, though he doesn’t have the numbers yet.

Passenger capacity hovered just under 1 million from 2012-2015.

The Wells Fargo study projects 6 percent market growth worldwide in 2018, the same as in Alaska. More and larger ships are driving the boom.

Australia will have even more capacity, as will Europe, excluding the Mediterranean. The Caribbean and China are expected to see lower growth.

Categories: Alaska News

Revenue commissioner resigns to serve ministry

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2017-08-01 14:36
Department of Revenue Commissioner Randall Hoffbeck discusses a compromise budget package with reporters as Gov. Bill Walker listens in the cabinet room of the Capitol in Juneau in June. Hoffbeck announced his resignation Tuesday. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Randall Hoffbeck announced Tuesday he’s resigning as Commissioner of Revenue on Aug. 17, in order to return to the ministry.

The 59-year-old commissioner has often served as the governor’s point person on how to close the state’s budget gap.

Gov. Bill Walker said he reluctantly accepted the resignation.

Deputy Commissioner Jerry Burnett will be interim commissioner until Walker names a replacement.

Hoffbeck said he wants to spend more time with his father — who has Parkinson’s disease – as well as his two grandchildren.

“When we finished the oil and gas special session, you know, I just kind of felt done,” Hoffbeck said. “The energy wasn’t there and there’s a lot of other things that were tugging me in other directions, and I just finally really felt … it was time for me to focus on a calling to ministry and really to where I was headed before this job came along.”

Hoffbeck completed seminary in 2014.

“I’ve never been a pastor, per se, and that’s something that’s … ahead of me in my career path, not behind me,” Hoffbeck said.

Hoffbeck worked on some of Walker’s key proposals, including a plan to use money from Permanent Fund earnings to pay for state government.

Hoffbeck said he’ll continue to work with Walker until his last day on a proposal for a new tax to help close the gap between what the state government spends and what it raises.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Monday, July 31, 2017

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2017-07-31 18:16

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via email, podcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn

Listen now

Murkowski in Sitka hours after critical health care vote

Emily Kwong, KCAW – Sitka

Less than 24 hours after casting a critical vote on healthcare, Senator Lisa Murkowski was back in her home state of Alaska. She had choice words about voting her conscience, despite pressure from the GOP and President Donald Trump himself.

Gray whale harvest on the Kuskokwim stirs up controversy

Teresa Cotsirilos, KYUK – Bethel

In Southwest Alaska, a tired crew of volunteers on Saturday night, dragged a large whale’s carcass onto shore near Napaskiak’s airport. The whale was grey, bloody and barnacled, and the men who set to work butchering it said it was at least 37-feet long. Residents are still distributing its blubber and meat, saying it will feed families throughout the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta for months.

Test missile launches from Kodiak

Kayla Desroches, KMXT – Kodiak

The Alaska Aerospace Corporation just completed its second missile test of the summer as part of its partnership with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

Man killed with hatchet in Fairbanks bar

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A Fairbanks man is dead following a hatchet attack at a local bar.

Sand Point loses entire police force

Berett Wilber, KUCB – Unalaska

Sand Point faces a problem with its police force: It doesn’t have one any more.

State fire service battles blazes north of Ft. Yukon

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Wildfire season is holding on in Alaska as warm dry weather persists later than normal. The Alaska Fire Service reports that water scooping planes and smoke jumpers corralled a new blaze north of Ft. Yukon over the weekend.

State looks to update Bicycle and Pedestrian plan

Allison Mollenkamp, KDLG – Dillingham

The Alaska Department of Transportation is working to update the state Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan. The Bike and Ped plan is a policy document that guides road design and education surrounding non-motorized transportation.

Beluga whale harvested near Dillingham Sunday evening

Avery Lill, KDLG – Dillingham

A beluga whale was harvested Sunday evening near Dillingham. It was the whole hunting party’s first time to take a beluga.

Teenage Gambell whaler under social media fire from noted environmentalist

Lori Townsend, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage

This spring, a controversy erupted when an extreme environmentalist launched an online attack on a teenage whaler from St. Lawrence Island.

Categories: Alaska News

Gray whale harvest on the Kuskokwim stirs up controversy

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2017-07-31 17:52
The whale killed in the Kuskokwim River on Thursday night is butchered and the meat and blubber distributed to people from up and down the river on Saturday, July 29, 2017. (Katie Basile/ KYUK)

On Saturday night, a tired crew of volunteers dragged a large gray whale carcass onto shore near the Napaskiak airport. The whale was gray, bloody and barnacled, and the men who set to work butchering it said that it was at least 37 feet long. Residents are still distributing its blubber and meat, saying that it will feed families throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for months.

Listen now

This concluded two exhausting days of efforts to retrieve the whale, and the way in which hunters killed it in the first place is still generating controversy.

Chris Larson gave ceremonial thanks to his first whale on a black, silty beach near Napaskiak. He gave the whale water to drink, and the crowd that surrounded the carcass went quiet. Then he led the village in the Lord’s Prayer. Larson is an elder and Napaskiak’s honorary tribal chief, and he consulted several people from the coast for advice on the ceremony. This is the first time that anyone can remember a gray whale coming this far up the Kuskokwim River.

“People are hungry,” Larson said. ”The whale will last maybe two months, I don’t know.”

About ten men were slicing thick slabs of white blubber from the whale’s back and placing them on black and blue tarps.

Those getting the meat weren’t sure how they were going to prepare it. One woman laughingly said that she was going to use Crisco.

“I don’t even know,” another said, “I guess we’re gonna google it or something.”

A few people said that they were planning to ask their relatives up the coast for advice.

The elders were given meat first. People started scooping the blubber into white trash bags and fastening them onto the backs of four-wheelers. Boats of local families kept pulling up to shore. The meat was given to community members from Bethel, Akiachak, Tuluksak and Akiak. One woman from Napaskiak said that she didn’t know half the people there. At about 9:00 p.m. on Saturday, Bethel Fire Chief Bill Howell, who also works as a local butcher, arrived with his children and at least six very large knives. He rolled up his sleeves and began carving whale steaks.

The whale was killed Thursday night in a lengthy, brutal encounter and pulled to shore at Napaskiak after two days of tedious work. Its carcass sank to the bottom of the Kuskokwim after it was killed, and Napaskiak Search and Rescue member Joseph Evon took on the job of finding it in 30 feet of water. Search and Rescue crews don’t exactly have the tools for this, so Evon said that he had to improvise.

“Honestly, to be given this task,” Evon said. “I’m pretty dumbfounded… and I have to think outside the box.”

The team welded massive metal hooks out of scrap metal, each about four feet long and two feet wide, and spent hours trawling the river with them, trying to sink the spikes into the whale’s flesh.

On Saturday morning they lucked out. When volunteers boated out to the whale’s location, they found its carcass loose and floating on the river’s surface. Six boats towed it into the shallows, and a man in a loader managed to pull it onto shore.

When the whale was first spotted on Thursday, word spread quickly up and down the river. 40 to 50 boats soon surrounded the animal outside Napaskiak. Men and women in the boats were armed with guns, their grandfathers’ seal harpoons and whatever they had on hand.

“I drove the boat and I drove aggressively because I want part of the muktuk (blubber),” one hunter said. He and his friends asked to remain anonymous because they were concerned about the legal ramifications of their actions. They said that at one point the whale dragged their boat; at another they ran out of gas. Another hunter described shooting a total of 16 different guns into the whale’s body, including an assault rifle, jumping from boat to boat to get a better shot.

“It felt like I was covered in slime and blood,” the hunter said. “There was blood everywhere.

The three hunters KYUK spoke with were devastated when the whale sank. They helped Joseph Evon recover the carcass, and they were there to help butcher it when it was brought to shore.

Video of the hunt was soon posted to Facebook. Some responded with shock on KYUK’s Friday call-in show “Talk Line”. Many who called in felt that what happened was wasteful.

“If we don’t retrieve it, we’re just wanton slaughterers,” one caller said. Another said that, “not every animal that comes up the Kuskokwim river belongs to us.”

The waste of the animal was widely condemned by some on the call-in show and in the extensive discussions that took place on Facebook, but now the meat and blubber have been salvaged.

This does not alter the legal questions surrounding the killing of a gray whale on the Kuskokwim River. Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, said that while a select number of Alaska Native villages are permitted to hunt bowhead whale, “the harvest of other large whale species is not authorized.”

According to Speegle, NOAA is currently reviewing pictures and video from the hunt outside of Napaskiak and may investigate it further.

The legal issues surrounding the taking of the gray whale were not far from the minds of those butchering the animal in Napaskiak on Saturday. Some of the men who were sawing through the whale didn’t want their pictures taken, and most did not want their names on KYUK. Some participated in the hunt; some didn’t. The local controversy and the legal issues surrounding killing the animal have been stressful, but now they say it’s about food.

“This ain’t slaughtering animals,” one person asserted. “This is our food. It’s not slaughtering nothing. Just tell people out there so they can understand.”

“It’s given to us by God,” another man said. ”It’s given to us by our creator. It gave itself to us and our belief is if it’s given to us, take advantage of it.”

“So you know what Yup’ik culture is?” Brenda Carmichael challenged. She’s one of the women helping to butcher the whale. “You tell me what it is. I live my culture. I pass it down to my kids. Who are you to tell me what Yup’ik culture is and isn’t?”

As for Elder Chris Larson, he said he’s proud of what Delta residents accomplished, particularly the men who killed and salvaged the whale together.

“I told them now they’re Nukalpiaq. That is Yup’ik for a man in his prime; a good hunter and provider,” Larson said.

Categories: Alaska News

Teenage Gambell whaler under social media fire from noted environmentalist

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2017-07-31 17:45

This spring, a controversy erupted when an extreme environmentalist launched an online attack on a teenage whaler from St. Lawrence Island. Anchorage-based writer Julia O’Malley went to the community of Gambell to hear about what happened afterwards, and wrote an article about it for the magazine High Country News. The story is about 16-year-old Chris Apasingok. His bowhead whale strike was celebrated by the community but O’Malley said when the story was reported, it generated unexpected attention on line.

JULIA O’MALLEY: But what that did is took that story which meant one thing in Gambell and broadcast it to a wider world that didn’t have the same cultural understanding of whaling. And so Paul Watson who is a really kind of extreme environmentalist — also reality television figure — came across that story and went off to his personal social network, talking about how no one should take a whale, and in profane terms. And really personally attacking Chris, the 16 year old who got the whale.

LORI TOWNSEND: If you would, I’d like you to read a segment from your story that captures the difference in messaging from decades ago to today.

O’MALLEY: 100 years ago — even 20 years ago — when Gambell was an isolated point on the map, protected part of the year by a wall of sea ice, catching the whale would have been a dream accomplishment for a teenage hunter. A sign of Chris’ passage into adulthood and a story people would tell about him until he was old. But today, in a world shrunk by social media, where fragments of story travel like light and there is no protection from anonymous outrage, his achievement has been eclipsed by an endless wave of online harassment.

TOWNSEND: What do you think people in the lower 48 and even along the road system misunderstand about hunting in a place like Gambell?

O’MALLEY: I think people don’t have the best understanding of food insecurity and how that is also a significant driver. In rural communities you have to get wild food. In a place with a very weak cash economy you cannot just rely on going to the grocery store. So I think there is some misunderstanding there. In Alaska Native communities that I have visited I have found that hunting is an expression of culture. It is a conduit for the transmitting of values from one generation to another. The subsistence hunt is absolutely central to how people view themselves in relation to nature and how children are taught to understand nature. Food and economics are a factor, but it’s so much larger than that.

TOWNSEND: Chris’ family worries about him. He’s a young person at that age when your emotions can be kind of hard to control — when you’re a teenager. They’re worried about him being a young person and being able to handle all of this negative attention that has come his way. Even though he is quite quiet, what sense did you get from him in this regard about how he is able to process or not process what’s happening?

O’MALLEY: I’m a mother of two boy children. It is my feeling that sometimes they process things in a way that is different than I do as a woman. So I can imagine as a teenage boy — overlay adolescence on all of that and it’s kind of its own thing. My feeling is that he feels best when he is outside of the village. And he’s spoke about that. He has said, “I just try to forget about it. I try to go with my one friend and we go out and we go boating. Or we go out and look for birds.” Who knows how things will turn out for him, but I think the positive healing influence for him is to be out in nature where things make sense, and to be performing the hunt and feeding his people in his village, his family. I had at the end some misgivings about doing the story. It felt important at a wider level to tell this other side, but at the same time I don’t know that it helps Chris to rehash it. I think it helps him more to be quiet and return to things that he is used to and accustomed to.

Categories: Alaska News

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