The State of Alaska briefly – very briefly – appeared ready to help the City and Borough of Juneau defend itself in a federal lawsuit brought by the cruise ship industry.
But state lawyers withdrew less than 24 hours later.
The Alaska Attorney General’s office filed a 19-page brief in federal court defending Juneau’s fees on cruise ships and passengers.
The state attorney followed up with a 4-page motion explaining why the state takes an interest in the case.
It argued that the outcome of the lawsuit could impact the state’s own $5 per cruise ship passenger fee, which has survived past legal challenges from the industry.
That was Jan. 30. The state pulled its briefs the next day and asked to be withdrawn from the case.
Alaska Department of Law spokeswoman Cori Mills released a statement.
“The Department of Law yesterday filed notice that it withdrew its motion to file an amicus brief,” Mills wrote Thursday. “The amicus brief was filed in error due to internal miscommunications. The state will continue to monitor this case, but the state is not a party to the case nor does it directly implicate state statute.”
Mills declined to elaborate further. But it directly contradicts the legal argument laid out by state attorneys in its original filings.
Juneau city officials are reacting with caution to the state’s apparent change of heart.
“We’re trying to figure what that means and we’re scratching our heads a little bit,” Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt said.
Watt said the passenger fees in Juneau and other communities are similarly structured, and that means the lawsuit’s outcome in Juneau could set a wider precedent.
“We’re defending our actions in the lawsuit and we think that our fees and Ketchikan’s fees and the state’s fees are legally similar,” Watt added. “And we’re waiting to see what their next step is.”
At stake is millions in cruise ship passenger and port development fees on vessels that call in Juneau during the busy cruise season.
In Juneau alone, that’s about $13 million when local and state fees are added together.
That’s why Juneau has spent more than $600,000 in legal defense since the lawsuit was filed in 2016.
In filings late last year, the cruise industry argued that the fees violated clauses of the U.S. Constitution that prohibit taxes on shipping. The case is headed to trial.
Juneau City Attorney Amy Mead said the state’s on and off maneuver is puzzling.
“I don’t know why it was withdrawn or what process hadn’t been followed or what they felt they needed to do,” Mead said Thursday.
“I don’t know if perhaps they are thinking of re-filing it or if they’ve just made a decision that this is not a direction they want to go in,” Mead said. “But it won’t really impact on how we proceed in our defense.”
The Iditarod sled dog race is in trouble.
That’s the finding from a confidential report looking into the financial sustainability and leadership of the race’s governing body. Iditarod officials are planning to implement a series of reforms later this year, but not until after the race wraps up in March.
The December report was put together by the Foraker Group, and was commissioned by the race’s main corporate sponsors. The Iditarod Trail Committee has received waves of criticism the last few years over controversial new policies, loss of sponsors and a high-profile doping scandal many feel was mishandled.
The document was first reported on by blogger Craig Medred earlier this week.
In interviews with board members, staff, sponsors and mushers, along with a review of financial documents and policies, Foraker concludes the Iditarod’s relationship with key stakeholders is severely damaged. It finds mushers don’t have confidence in the ITC board. And that without internal reforms sponsors aren’t likely to continue supporting the event.
That’s a big threat to Alaska’s premier sled dog race, because most of the Iditarod’s revenues come from corporate sponsorship. The Foraker report notes that the annual event depends heavily on unpaid volunteer labor, and questions whether that model is financially sustainable.
The author also says the handling of the recent doping incident exacerbated mistrust of the board among mushers, and gave ammo to animal rights activists, who have long-criticized the event and pushed sponsors to drop support.
Through its public relations firm Iditarod officials declined a request for an interview. But in four pages of comments sent to Alaska Public Media, ITC’s board commits to making reforms that will make the race viable long-term. The document is an extensive list of policy changes they are planning. Some are quite general, such as improving communication with sponsors and mushers. Others are extremely specific, like finding a plan to replace board members with clear conflicts of interest before this summer and annual review of race rules.
In mid-January, Alaska’s gasline corporation filed tens of thousands of pages of documents with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
Now, the state is waiting for the commission to make a decision on if, and when, the state can get to work on its massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) export project.
Last week, the head of Alaska’s gasline corporation landed in Juneau for two days of meetings with lawmakers and updates on the Alaska LNG project. In between those meetings, Alaska Gasline Development Corporation (AGDC) President Keith Meyer sat down to answer some questions on the federal permitting process.
In mid-January, the state corporation announced that it finished several months of work filing responses to questions FERC had on its application for the Alaska LNG project. Those questions were on everything from impacts on Alaska native culture to how the project could impact fish in the water bodies it crosses.
With those answers, the application has ballooned from 36,000 pages that the state corporation filed last year — to a current total just shy of 100,000 pages.
Now, Meyer and the state corporation are hoping that the federal commission will put out a schedule for completing that environmental review.
And that could happen, or the federal commission could just come back to the state with more questions.
The state corporation is on a tight deadline to get that permit. Meyer said he wants to start construction in the second half of 2019. They’re trying to build a facility on the North Slope, an 800-mile long pipeline and a large plant in Southcentral Alaska and bring it online right around 2025. Meyer calls that a “window” when global natural gas demand is projected to skyrocket.
And that federal schedule will be packed with public comment periods, outside review of the project, and there will be other federal agencies that want permits. Some analysts have said it could take years to get through that process.
Meyer said he thinks the federal commission can get through an environmental review, on what is likely the largest project in its history, in 11 months.
“We certainly think that’s possible. Where there’s a will there’s a way. So we hope there’s a will,” Meyer said.
That’s because Meyer said huge portions of the projects 800-miles of pipeline have already been studied.
“With this project, the corridor is an existing corridor that we are going down. It already has a pipeline in it. The oil pipeline has a road in it and then we deviate from the pipeline corridor and follow road and rail. So it’s all existing corridors,” Meyer said.
Additionally, the Army Corps of Engineers has been working with the state on another, smaller gas pipeline project.
“It’s basically the same route,” Meyer said.
Meyer said that means the environmental review work doesn’t need to be duplicated.
“What we really want FERC to do is take a look at the work done by the Army Corps and use that as the starting point rather than start everything from scratch,” Meyer said.
As the state corporation moves forward with its federal regulatory process Meyer says it has also picked up negotiations with the gas producers on the North Slope.
BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil were originally partnered with the state in developing this project — but pulled out in 2016 citing a tough global market. The companies still control the natural gas on the North Slope, a federal export permit and some of the land needed for the project. The producers have met with Gov. Bill Walker in recent weeks and Meyer said they are motivated to get the pipeline into the ground so they can sell their gas.
“We don’t expect them to be a big investor in the project, but it’s material and we have support from all of them,” Meyer said. “They want to get the gas supply agreements done, as do we.”
There are some other potential snags. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough and City of Valdez are fighting to get the project re-routed.
But, Meyer says he doesn’t want to change the project now.
“That’s the horse we’ve picked and that’s the one we’re going to ride to the finish,” Meyer said.
Gov. Bill Walker’s administration provided a final number on the amount of extra money it plans to spend this year beyond what the Legislature budgeted: $178 million.
Most of this cost — $92 million — is from Medicaid. Roughly a third of that cost is due to the Legislature funding Medicaid at a lower level than state officials projected costs would run. On top of that, those projections were too low. Officials say more people enrolled in Medicaid due to the recession.
Health Commissioner Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson described this in a recent Senate Finance Committee meeting.
“These are unprecedented times for our state,” Davidson said. “The downturn in the economy has resulted in more folks enrolling in Medicaid than we anticipated. “
Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon told her that lawmakers are concerned about the spending.
“I’ve heard conversations in the halls of the Legislature that this administration, not specific to your department but including your department, is ignoring the Legislature’s intent to try to control costs and hold down the operating budget,” MacKinnon said.
Davidson said the costs couldn’t be avoided.
“I certainly haven’t been provided a directive or a nod and a wink from anyone in the Walker administration that it is OK not to control our costs,” Davidson said. “We certainly have those conversations about efficiencies. They are an agenda item in every cabinet meeting we have with the governor.”
Some lawmakers raised the possibility of narrowing Medicaid eligibility.
One potential approach is to require recipients to be employed.
State officials said three-quarters already work.
And many of those who don’t must look for work to receive other public benefits.
Side Street Espresso in downtown Anchorage has been a great place for a good espresso and a daily dose of social or political commentary for decades. Husband and wife owners George Gee and Deborah Seaton have doled out coffee and baked treats for years. George is also an artist. He started drawing on a white board that featured daily drink specials to give customers something interesting to look at. Those drawings are inspired by his inner social and political contemplations and are now collected in a new book – Flutters From Side Street – Volume One.
GEE: For the last year-and-a-half, I haven’t been walking to work from home, but for most of these years — we’ve been there 25 years — I would walk. And just in that quiet time of walking, I talking four in the morning when there’s no one on the streets, no cars. In that quiet time, things evolve in your head.
TOWNSEND: Volume One is out now, Flutters from Side Street. Do you have favorites in your first collection, or is that like asking which one of your kids is your favorite?
GEE: It’s kinda like that. There’s some that I feel closer to than others. There’s ones like the dinosaur one, The Good Old Days, that one I feel close to. The very last drawing in here is Gender Queer. It has to do with my son and I dealing with that issue, or me dealing with my issue concerning it. That’s a really important one because when you go into the text area, you see that really was influential in some changes I was learning about myself. Drawing for me, and you see it in that last section, like a therapist sometimes. It’s just a passing thing, and sometimes it’s deep.
TOWNSEND: Describe for us the dinosaur drawing.
GEE: Well it’s a picture of a skeleton T. Rex head, and it’s titled The Good Old Days. And let me just read, it’s brief. “I think only dinosaurs like me, perhaps unknowingly are already extinct, reminisce the good old days, before money became the standard for truth, honor justice, morality and excellence. Before television became the standard for family time. And before violence was all that could excite our passions. That;s the dinosaur one. But you know, the main focus is political and social. I considered not 9/11, but the response we made to 9/11 to be the most significant watershed geopolitical of the 21st century. So there’s a lot of focus on that. And we’re still experiencing it. I mean, the boundaries and the leadership in the Middle East has changed, but it’s also happening in Europe as the migration’s happening. Drawing is where I started with these images. I quickly moved to also making comments. And once I did that, it became a voice. And this is my voice, coming from Side Street.
Today is George’s 76th birthday and tomorrow evening at a First Friday event at Side Street, a combination birthday party and book launch will take place.
The state says a Seward police officer was justified in the fatal shooting of a man he had handcuffed and detained in his patrol car in early October.The man, Micah McComas, had wriggled into the driver’s seat of the police vehicle moments before the shooting. It was about 1:30 a.m. October 1 when Seward Police Officer Matthew “Eddie” Armstrong pulled over the Kia Sportage that McComas was driving. In body camera video obtained by the Associated Press through an open records request, Armstrong is heard questioning McComas and his female passenger. He soon learns McComas has a suspended license. Armstrong checks McComas’ pockets and wallet for weapons. The officer tells McComas he’s doing that for safety reasons, because McComas’ wallet is large and he wants to put him in his police vehicle while he talks to MComas’ passenger. But Officer Armstrong notices suspicious baggies in the wallet. Armstrong reads McComas his rights and puts him in the back of the patrol car with his hands cuffed behind his back. According to a report from the state Department of Law, Armstrong suspected McComas was on drugs and also holding drugs. “If you want to contest it, just do it in court man, that’s the way it goes,” Armstrong tells McComas in the video. “I’m a good guy…” McComas says. “I’m not saying you are a bad guy, Micah. Have a seat,” Armstrong says. The video shows Armstrong return to the Kia to interview the passenger, and he starts searching her purse. All of a sudden, the patrol car’s horn starts honking. According to the state report, McComas is bumping it as he climbs through a partition into the front seat. Armstrong runs to the car, pulls out his gun and flings open the driver’s side door. McComas is now in the driver’s seat with his hands still cuffed but in front of him. The video doesn’t show the gunshots, because the body camera was knocked off as Armstrong lunged into the car. The state report says he fired five times and that McComas died from a gunshot to his torso. The report also says while Armstrong performed first aid he heard McComas say, “I was just trying to get away.” The report says investigators later found methamphetamine and heroin on McComas, and his blood tested positive for amphetamine. “The suspect did actually shift the vehicle into gear, and hit the gas and started taking off,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills said, speaking on behalf of the Department of Law. McComas’ attempt to flee was key to the department’s review of Armstrong’s actions, Mills said. Both McComas and Armstrong appear to be white, and the state report does not indicate whether race was a factor in the shooting. According to the report, after getting struck by the car, Armstrong acted reasonably to protect himself and others as McComas attempted to steal the vehicle, which had other firearms in the trunk. “So under those circumstances, it was reasonable for the officer to believe that the use of deadly force was necessary, and as a result, criminal charges are inappropriate in this case,” Mills said. Seward City Attorney Will Earnhart said Armstrong followed police department policy and that the department has its own review planned. Earnhart said the city is proud of Officer Armstrong for showing professionalism but added that city officials have deep sympathy for McComas’ family. McComas’ sister told the Associated Press she thinks it’s suspicious that the body camera video does not show the shooting and she wonders why so many shots were fired. The AP reports she is traveling to Alaska to meet with officials and view the video. According to the state Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals, the office reviewed a total of 13 cases involving law enforcement officers using lethal or potentially lethal force in 2017.
President Trump says he didn’t care about opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling – until he found out other presidents had tried to and failed.
“I never appreciated ANWR so much,” Trump said, in a speech recounting his 2017 accomplishments at a Republican retreat in West Virginia. “A friend of mine called up who is in that world and in that business. He said, ‘Is it true that you’re thinking about ANWR?’ I said ‘Yeah, I think we’re going to get it but you know …’ He said, ‘Are you kidding? That’s the biggest thing by itself. Ronald Reagan and every president has wanted to get ANWR approved.’ And after that I said ‘Oh, make sure that is in the bill. It was amazing how that had an impact. That had a very big impact on me, Paul.”
He seemed to be addressing House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was nearby. Trump did not identify the friend he credits with turning him around on the importance of opening ANWR.
“I really didn’t care about it,” Trump said. “Then when I heard that everybody wanted it, for 40 years, everybody tried to get it approved, ‘Make sure you don’t lose ANWR.'”
Trump added that he believes it will be great for the people of Alaska. He also called it “one of the great potential fields anywhere in the world.”
Alaska Wilderness League Director Adam Kolton has fought for years to keep the refuge undeveloped. He said the president’s casual attitude toward a wild place millions of Americans want to protect is frustrating.
“Yeah, so maybe he’s aware this was a political win he can chalk up. But does he understand the issue, what’s a stake?” Kolton asked. “I think the cavalier nature of the comments suggest that he doesn’t.”
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan was in the room for Trump’s speech. As he tells it, the president has cared about ANWR since at least last March. That’s when Sullivan and Sen. Lisa Murkowski brought Alaska maps to the Oval Office and briefed Trump for nearly an hour on state issues.
“After that meeting,” Sullivan said, “Seeing him in different settings and stuff, a number of times, a number times, he would ask, ‘Hey Dan, how are we doing on ANWR? We going to get that done?'”
Sullivan spoke from a chartered bus as the congressional Republicans made their way back to the Capitol from West Virginia. He said he’s not sure why Trump told the story as he did.
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the president,” Sullivan said. “Could’ve been a playful remark, having a little bit of fun.”
Congress approved opening ANWR in its tax overhaul in December. The act calls for two lease sales on the coastal plain of the refuge in the next seven years. Alaska Wilderness League says Congress should repeal the legislation, and environmental lawsuits are almost certain.
The Anchorage Police Department is partnering with the U.S. Army to help find jobs for soldiers after their military service.
Police Chief Justin Doll signed an agreement with the Army’s recruitment division Wednesday formalizing the partnership. Doll himself was enlisted in the Marine Corps before becoming a police officer.
The Army program gives veterans a foot in the door to future employment by guaranteeing job interviews at organizations that’ve signed on, among other benefits.
It includes public agencies like APD and academic institutions, as well as corporations and other private companies.
According to a written statement, the police department’s recruiters expect to have access to a pool of “highly skilled, motivated and professional” job candidates.
The Defense Department has awarded a $6.56 billion contract to the Boeing Company to oversee another expansion of the missile-defense base at Fort Greely.
According to Reuters, the Pentagon announced Wednesday that the contract will accelerate “delivery of a new missile field with 20 additional silos and two additional silos in a previously constructed missile field at Fort Greely.”
The contract runs through December 2023, Reuters said.
Boeing officials also said Wednesday the company had met its commitment to an earlier expansion that brought the total number of ground-based interceptor missiles based at Greely to 44 by the end of last year.
Eagle River High School teacher Valerie Baalerud was sitting near her students in an assembly waiting to hear a talk from state Education Commissioner Micahel Johnson. Then the topic of the Milken Educator Award came up.
The prestigious award comes with a $25,000 check from the foundation.
“I was totally shocked,” Baalerud said. “I was talking with some students about who it might be. We were all sort of making our bets and then at least one of those students said, ‘I think it could be you, Mrs. Ballerud.’ And I laughed and said I could always find a way to spend that money or something. And then they said my name and I was like, ‘Oh no!’ And she goes, ‘I knew it!'”
Baalerud grew up in small-town Pennsylvania. She says her hometown of Granville Summit has a population of about 60. She jokes there are more cows than people. She says she’s always been a history nerd and picked up teaching as a career because her first husband was in the military, and wherever the family moved, teaching jobs were available.
She ended up settling in Eagle River with her family and has been at Eagle River High School for eight years. Eagle River High principal Marty Lang says Baalerud earned the award.
“She is whip smart. Her energy is so infectious that when she’s in front of a classroom, kids just can’t help but love what she’s doing and love history,” Lang said. “She brings that every day to every class. It doesn’t matter at what level, she’s just such a dynamic teacher and a great ambassador for education that she’s more than deserving.”
The real purpose of the assembly was a surprise to almost everyone at the school. Lang was among a very small group of people who knew about the award.
“That’s the hardest part,” Lang said. “I found out sometime, I think, in mid-December and so for two months I’ve had to hold onto this secret that’s so much fun.”
Baalerud employs some creative teaching techniques. In an economics class today she incorporated a concept from the TV program Stranger Things to explain price floors and price ceilings. She also has her AP World History students describe their favorite historical events for their final exams. She also has her students create 1920s style radio shows. Baalerud’s dedication goes way beyond the classroom.
“I’ve done everything here at the school itself,” Baalerud said. “I’ve taught flag football; I was head coach for a while. I coached DDF — Drama Debate and Forensics. I’ve coached track and field. I’ve done a little bit of everything, and I think that’s really important as a teacher, to get to know your students outside of the classroom as well as in, and I’ve really enjoyed doing that.”
Baalerud says she plans to spend the award money on an upcoming family trip this summer.
“It’s really nice to have a cash prize with it. I’ve never won anything before… I won a bike when I was I was in second grade. This is way better,” Baalerud laughed.
Baalerud is one of 44 recipients of the Milken Educator award this year, and the sole Alaska award winner.
Dennis Davis flying his drone at the edge of Shishmaref a few days after a cold snap helped the sea ice freeze up late in January. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)
As the climate changes, subsistence hunters in Alaska are changing with it.
With warm temperatures this winter across the state, sea ice is forming exceptionally slowly in the Arctic and Bering Strait regions.
But subsistence hunters in small towns like Shishmaref, with a population of around 600 on a barrier island at the top of the Seward Peninsula, are finding ways to adapt.
On a recent afternoon in late January there was finally a patchwork of ice covering the Chukchi Sea at the edge of town. As snowmachines zoomed past, Dennis Davis set up his new drone.
“Some people think it’s a toy, but a lot of people know that it’s an actual tool,” Davis, 39, said as he attached propellers to the carbon-fiber frame.
It’s a serious drone, worth about $5,000, with a high-quality nice camera mounted on the bottom. Davis plugged his iPhone into the controller and sent the microwave-sized device speeding out over the sea-ice.
Looking down at the bird’s-eye view beamed directly to his screen, Davis pointed out nuances in the varieties of ice.
“You can see the different colors in the ice,” Davis explained. “What you want is more of the bluer ice.”
According to Davis, blue ice is more solid than white. Those are areas hunters can travel across more safely as they search for marine mammal pretty.
Subsistence hunters in coastal communities like Shishmaref have always watched for these conditions. But the drone can scout further and faster than the naked eye. Davis crowd-funded for the machine to document the rapid erosion eating away at Shishmaref after storms, which has prompted a decades-long search for a new location to move the community.A boat buried under snow on the south side of Shishmaref near the lagoon (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)
Journalists and environmental advocates have held up Shishmaref as a symbol for climate change’s looming threat of displacement. But as the ocean encroaches on the town steadily from season to season, residents still need to eat, pay bills, and support themselves. And so hunters like Davis are contending with diminishingly predictable environmental conditions, using technological tools like this drone to try and regain an advantage understanding what’s happening on the land and sea.
Davis plans to use the drone to help “set a course for everybody when they go out hunting in the spring time.”
“I’d just send out the drone and find the best available trail that they can use, instead of having to go out and just mess around on the ice,” Davis explained.
Davis doesn’t use the drone to spot prey – something he believes would be an unfair advantage and gets into murky, evolving regulations over Unmanned Aircraft Systems interacting with wildlife. But he sees the machine as a new way to hunt animals more efficiently and safely, not unlike how satellite phones and GPS devices have become increasingly common in rural communities that rely on subsistence harvests.
New technologies are just one way hunters in Shishmaref are adapting to changing conditions. There are others.
People are changing not just how they hunt, but what they hunt. Traditionally, people in Shishmaref relied more heavily on marine mammals for food. In the last few decades, residents say more caribou are venturing closer to town, increasing the local harvest. All around town, hides hang from porches and meat racks, ruby red haunches cure in the sun, and tangled piles of antlers rest on roofs.Two caribou hides hanging on a rack behind a house on the east side of Shishmaref (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)
And musk oxen, giant prehistoric goats which were wiped out of Alaska in the 1800s were reintroduced to the mainland just fifty years ago and are steadily working their way back into people’s diets.
In fact, it’s one of Davis’s favorite sources of protein.
Back at his home, he fried up a house special: musk ox burgers.
“I compare musk ox to waygu beef, because it’s so marbled,” Davis said, referring to the highly prized variety of Japanese beef cattle.
Davis likes to cook about as much as he loves to eat. But subsistence isn’t just a culinary hobby. For him, like for most people in Shishmaref and indigenous communities across Alaska, it’s a necessity.Dennis Davis’s musk ox burgers, topped with Swiss cheese, sautéed onions and mushrooms, along with freshly sliced prosciutto and a home-made aioli. Or ketchup. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)
Davis and his wife have all seven of their kids living at home. Dinner tonight is self-serve, with everyone grabbing burgers as they come off the stove. By the time it’s done, all eight pounds of meat that he mixed together is gone. Buying this much frozen ground beef at the store would have cost up to $70, a per-meal cost that is out of reach for many in rural communities where jobs and cash are scarce, and everything costs several times as much as it would at a super-market in the Lower 48. Even water. Like many rural Alaska villages, Shishmaref lacks plumbing and easy access to potable water. At the store, a gallon of it costs $11.
For those who can get a permit to hunt them, musk oxen have become a relatively reliable source of meat.
“You know where they’re at, you know how they behave,” Davis said. “They just stay in the same spot.”
That consistency is a relief, because environmental conditions are making ocean hunting less and less predictable. In years like this, when the sea ice forms later, it doesn’t get as thick, and come springtime it disappears much faster. That’s a problem for hunting ice seals, walrus, and bearded seals, which everyone in Shishmaref calls by their Inupiaq name, oogruk.
“Going oogruk hunting or walrus hunting, you can go like 30, 40, 50 miles without seeing something,” Davis said of the last few years.
It hasn’t always been that way. In fact, it’s a pretty recent development. It isn’t that there are less animals; it’s just that as they follow retreating sea ice they are distributed further from the town – prompting hunters to travel greater distances searching for them. In a study published last fall, state researchers interviewed 110 coastal residents over 10 years and concluded that marine mammals are still plentiful, but access to them is getting harder, with worse conditions during shorter windows of time.
As the sea ice retreats, the animals follow. That’s a chase that’s not only more expensive for hunters, but creates more hazards as weather and sea conditions become more variable.
Last year Davis went almost all the way to Kotzebue, about a hundred miles away, looking for oogruk. On the way back the weather took an unexpected turn, nearly costing the hunting party all their equipment.
“Between boats and everybody’s snowmachines we had close to $150,000 on the ice that could have been lost,” Davis recalled. “That’d be a sad day in Shishmaref.”
Changing weather patterns are one of the biggest differences noted by some of the community’s elders.
“The way we hunt oogruk or seal hasn’t changed. The conditions have,” Percy Nayokpuk, 65, said. Nayokpuk runs a store in town and is Davis’s father-in-law.As he minded the counter at his store, one of two in Shishmaref, Percy Nayokpuk says that among the changes he’s seen in animal populations near Shishmaref are fewer polar bears and more caribou. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)
This year’s is the latest freeze-up of the ocean he ever remembers.
Nayokpuk has seen plenty of shifts in the animals around Shishmaref – some good, some bad. The unpredictable weather worries him. But he’s encouraged that younger hunters are constantly adapting.
“We’ve always been hunters here, we hunt regardless of the situation,” Nayokpuk said from behind the counter as his store.The Nayokpuk General Store, which Percy Nayokpuk’s father started in 1960. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)
For those tracking subsistence across Alaska, the sense of uncertainty comes with a degree of optimism.
“It’s positive in my mind that our people are able to adapt. And they’re doing so,” Brandon Ahmasuk said. Ahmasuk manages subsistence resources for Kawerak, the regional non-profit in Nome that works with 15 smaller communities around the Bering Strait.
Some hunters are taking advantage of new opportunities created by environmental changes. Open water later in the year around St. Lawrence Island, for example, has meant more bowhead whale harvests for the town of Savoonga.
The longer travel to reach hunting grounds requires more money for gas, leading communities to pool resources.Seal meat hanging on a rack outside a home, with a pile of caribou antlers from past harvests (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Shishmaref)
With healthy food basically unaffordable at local stores for many residents, hunters have no option but to adapt.
“They have to put food on the table,” Ahmasuk said. “In the villages they have to do something to offset whatever they can’t get from the store. They don’t have a choice: they have to. They have to go get it.”
Ahmasuk’s big worry is whether a changing climate could affect animal populations and their health in the coming years, a worry prompted by several unusual die-offs the last few years, as well as instances of avian cholera and toxic algal blooms.
But as long as the animals are healthy, Ahmasuk is confident people in the region will find ways to live off them.
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.
Senate leaders have disciplined Wasilla Republican Sen. David Wilson over an incident in which he retaliated against a female legislative aide.
Wilson will be on probation for three months and was required to write a letter to the aide taking responsibility for his actions. Fairbanks Republican Senate President Pete Kelly said the leaders took other actions.
“We required an individual training course on retaliation and placed Sen. Wilson under travel restriction,” Kelly said.Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, reads a statement about disciplinary action Senate leaders took against Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla. Sen. Peter Micciche, right, watches. (Photo by Bob Laurie/360 North)
Kelly said Wilson must demonstrate during the probation that he understands human resources policies, and the Legislature’s expectations for decorum. And he won’t be able to take any state-funded trips.
Skiff Lobaugh, the Legislature’s human resource manager, found in a report released Wednesday that Wilson committed retaliation during a December press conference.
Wilson said at the press conference that security footage showed he hadn’t sexually harassed the aide during a June incident.
Lobaugh found that the incident did not fit the definition of hostile work environment sexual harassment. But Lobaugh said the incident did occur and that it was an uncomfortable interaction between Wilson and the aide. Lobaugh wrote that Wilson undermined the investigation by claiming the incident didn’t happen.
Eyewitnesses said Wilson held his cellphone between the aide’s legs. Lobaugh said the video showed Wilson held the phone one to two feet from the hemline of the aide’s skirt.
In addition, Wilson called during the press conference for House Speaker Bryce Edgmon to step down from leadership. If Edgmon had done this, the aide could have taken a pay cut or lost her job.
(Photo by Laura Kraegel, KUCB – Unalaska)
On Monday, KUCB reported that sponsors of the petition to recall Unalaska Mayor Frank Kelty have no proof supporting their allegation that he pursued illegal dock agreements.
Now, we bring you the story of why the recall is still moving forward — without evidence.
Sponsor Erin Enlow Anderson said the recall is a vote of no confidence in Kelty and how he’s been running the city.
“Since he’s been in office, my observations is there’s been a lot of chaos,” said Enlow Anderson.
But is that reason enough to oust the mayor before the next regular election? In Alaska, recalls don’t require petitioners to prove their allegations.
Under Alaska law, City Clerk Marjie Veeder said there are three reasons an elected official can be recalled: “Misconduct in office, incompetence, or failure to perform prescribed duties.”
When Veeder received the initial application to recall Kelty, it included four charges against him. She reviewed those charges — with guidance from City Attorney Brooks Chandler — and decided only one met the standard for misconduct. (Chandler declined to comment for this story.)
That charge was “Disregard for the intent of Unalaska Code of Ordinances Title 7: by attempting to sole-source land use agreements at the Unalaska Marine Center.”
In other words, the 10 petition sponsors — Enlow Anderson, Jeff Treannie, Sharon Treannie, Clint Huling, Robert Marquardt, Alena Syverson, Christina Chamberlain, Jason Gates, Amanda Gates, and Ryan Burke — believe the mayor attempted to give the shipping company Matson first crack at an agreement for priority mooring at a section of dock.
And if that is true, Veeder says it would violate the law.
“The Unalaska Marine Center is a public asset,” she said. “We are not allowed to sole-source. Meaning, [we are not allowed to] not issue a request for proposals and give companies equal opportunities to submit a proposal for how that asset will be used.”
But that doesn’t mean anyone has shown Kelty actually did anything illegal, because petitioners don’t have to prove their allegations are true. Neither does the city clerk.
The only thing the clerk has to demonstrate is that if the allegation were true, it would be sufficient grounds for a recall.
Veeder said she doesn’t know if Kelty attempted to sole-source a dock agreement. And when asked, she was unable provide examples of actions that would implicate him.
“I can’t speak to that because I don’t know,” she said. “But I can tell you that there was no RFP issued, and we didn’t go through a public process.”
With no proof required, KUCB asked Veeder if that means you can recall anyone you don’t like? Just by claiming they did something illegal?
“I suppose that could be done,” she said. “That’s why questions like this are left to the voters. The allegations have been made. It’s up to the voters to determine what they want to do with the question.”
Voters will have the chance to decide what happens to Kelty when the polls open March 6.
The ballot will include the sole-sourcing charge listed on the petition, as well as a 200-word rebuttal from Kelty. Then it’ll ask voters to answer the question: “Shall Frank Kelty be recalled from the office of mayor? Yes or no.”
A simple majority is required to recall the mayor. So if more than 50 percent of voters choose “yes,” the office will be vacant until a special election is called and a new mayor elected.
That process would take no more than 60 days, during which Vice Mayor Dennis Robinson would act as mayor.
If that scenario plays out, Veeder said she doesn’t see any reason why Kelty would be prohibited from running again in the special election.
She also said Unalaskans could file another recall petition six months after election results are certified — and they could apply with the same charge.
“There is nothing in code that prescribes that it has to be a different reason than the last time,” she said.
Veeder said she is happy to answer any questions that community members have about the recall process.
The election is scheduled for March 6.
Conservation groups Wednesday filed a lawsuit to thwart the land exchange Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced last week. The swap is intended to allow a road for King Cove, through part of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
“What the secretary failed to do was any environmental analysis, any public process related to this actual exchange of lands,” attorney Katie Strong said at the environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska.
The suit she filed alleges the swap violates environmental law and several aspects of ANILCA, the 1980 Alaska lands act. Strong said ANILCA puts specific conditions on building roads in refuges, and on land exchanges.
“That exchange provision was not included to allow the secretary to just trade away lands where development pressures arise,” Strong said.
Road advocates say the access is a matter of health and safety for the people of King Cove. Bad weather often makes it unsafe to fly out of their airstrip, but a road would take them to Cold Bay and its 10,000-foot runway. About 10 miles of road would go through the refuge, most or all of it through designated wilderness, the highest level of federal land protection.
Strong said Zinke needed to get the approval of Congress and subject the proposed land trade to formal public scrutiny. She said an environmental review must also precede any swap.
A reporter asked Zinke last week if he had done an environmental analysis on the exchange. The secretary gave a general answer.
“We looked at all options,” Zinke said. “We looked at everything.”
His predecessor, Sally Jewell, ordered an environmental study on a different proposed swap and two possible routes for a road. She concluded a road would cause “irreversible damage.”
Zinke said there would be a new environmental review for the road itself, but he didn’t clearly say whether one was required for the land swap. He said, as secretary, he’s a steward for public lands and also has a responsibility to tribes.
“So on this one, there is no significant issue the Department of Interior has found environmentally,” Zinke said. “Just the opposite.”
Trustees filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, on behalf of nine groups: Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, The Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society, Wilderness Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Alaska Wilderness League and Sierra Club.
Representative Zach Fansler refuses to resign from the House, but his constituents are already planning to replace him.
The Bethel legislator is accused of assaulting a woman when she denied his sexual advances, and members of his coalition are demanding that he step down. Local Democrats met in Bethel on Tuesday to discuss who should replace Fansler if he resigns his seat, or gets expelled from it.
About 20 of Fansler’s constituents filed into an empty classroom on Bethel’s Kuskokwim University campus in Bethel and tried to decide what to do. The informal meeting was attended by local professors, non-profit organizers and city officials. Local citizen Bev Hoffman helped organize it.
“We need to meet immediately,” Hoffman said. “And it is my hope that leaders in the District 38 communities are doing the same thing.”
Fansler’s scandal is creating a headache for local Democrats. If Fansler goes, Governor Bill Walker could select a replacement from three people recommended by the local party to finish out his term.
District 38’s Democrats weren’t prepared for this. They’re between party chairs at the moment, so no one’s technically in charge. Without a chair, they can’t nominate anyone. Then, they’ll need to caucus to make their three selections. District 38 includes dozens of Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages, and constituents in those communities would need to participate in the caucus remotely.
“If the Democratic Caucus says you have to be present to participate, you’re excluding a lot of people who should be involved,” former AVCP president Myron Naneng argued at the meeting.
Beyond the logistical challenge, District 38’s Democrats may have trouble finding those three replacements for Fansler. It’s not that the Y-K Delta lacks leadership, says Kathy Hanson, a former teacher at the university who attended the meeting, it’s that the leaders are needed here. Not many people can just drop what they’re doing and move to Juneau.
“I think there are a number of people who could do the job very well,” Hanson said.” Many of them have jobs, so that narrows the group down pretty quickly.”
Of course, there’s a chance that Governor Walker won’t pick anyone that the Caucus recommends. When Representative Dean Westlake resigned last month, Walker selected Kotzebue native John Lincoln to replace him, who was not one of the three candidates that his District’s Democrats submitted initially.
Like many of his constituents, community members at the meeting were still trying to process the allegations against Fansler. Kathy Hanson voted for, and with, him for years. They both taught at the university.
“He and I agree on most of the issues,” Hanson said. “He’s articulate and I thought he’d serve our district well, and I think he has in many, many, many ways.”
“So,” Hanson said with a sigh, “This is tough. It’s just so unfortunate that it happened, if it happened. Sounds like it did.”
Yesterday, Hanson and District 38’s Democrats took the first step towards replacing Fansler. The District Caucus will meet on February 6 at 6:00 p.m. at the Kuskokwim University campus to elect a new District Chair.
Native language experts are urging the state to declare a “linguistic emergency,” and work with tribes to open a discussion about the endangerment of indigenous languages. In a report to both the legislature and Governor Walker, the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council warned that most of the 20 indigenous languages recognized by the state are expected to go extinct by the end of the century.
They recommended that, in the Council’s words, “the Governor issue an Administrative Order recognizing the linguistic emergency exists, and clearly stating that it is the policy of the State of Alaska actively to work to promote the survival and efflorescence of all of Alaska’s 21 official languages.”
Of all the endangered languages, Central Yup’ik has maintained the most speakers, with a little over 10,000 people using it today.
The report also implores policymakers to look at the relationship between historical trauma and language loss, and consider something “modeled after Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to help find healing options for survivors of that trauma.
The Council suggests that the state sponsor a series of listening and discussion sessions so that the actions of the past can be publicly recognized, “partnering with communities and indigenous organizations to hold healing ceremonies.”
(Photo courtesy of Joni Beckham)
If you are from rural Alaska, winning on the television game show “The Price is Right” carries a price tag they don’t tell you about on the show, as a Bethel resident recently learned when she won big on the program.
Wearing a blue, flowered qaspeq, Joni Beckham earned $63,000 worth of prizes as a Double Showcase Winner. The episode aired on Monday, but was filmed months ago in early November. Beckham is a nurse at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. As she spun the famed wheel, she gave a shout-out to Bethel and her YKHC co-workers.
“I want to say hi to my babies,” Beckham said, “Kennedy, Kayla and Kyler, and my husband, of course, and all my co-workers at my local hospital in Bethel. Hi, guys!”
“Hi, everybody,” television host Drew Carey added.
Beckham’s prizes include a trip for two to Thailand, two cars, a basketball arcade game, a washer and dryer, a refrigerator and more. But to get all her prizes to Bethel, Beckham says, the show is making her pay the shipping from the Lower 48, except on the cars. The show will deliver as far as Anchorage. According to Beckham, the show will not allow her to accept the monetary value of her winnings.
According to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, between 1990 and 2015, the industrial sector contributed most of it. That includes the oil and gas industry.
DEC commissioner Larry Hartig said in a press release Tuesday that the findings weren’t “unexpected.” Oil and gas development on the North Slope represents “the largest industrial complex” in the state.
In October, Gov. Bill Walker signed an administrative order to jump start a strategic climate change plan for Alaska.
So, even though the agency has released carbon emissions reports before, this latest one has the potential to shape climate policy.
A warmer Arctic means big changes for sea ice and the animals that depend on it. But a new paper shows how warmer ocean temperatures are impacting animals on land in the Arctic as well.
“As temperatures are warming, what we’re seeing is that events that are weather triggered offshore are having onshore consequences on land mammals,” Joel Berger, a biologist at Colorado State University, said.
Berger studies polar bears in western Alaska and Russia’s Wrangel Island in the Chukchi Sea. But he has a special place in his heart for another Arctic animal.
“Scientists aren’t supposed to say this,” Berger said, “But sometimes they fall in love with the animals they study and clearly that’s the case with muskoxen and me.”
The muskox is basically a giant circumpolar goat. It’s well adapted to living in the far north. It hunkers down in the winter, conserving energy by not moving around a lot — a kind of waking above-ground hibernation. It also has a long coat and special woolly undercoat called qiviut. Berger says it’s eight times warmer than sheep wool — perfect for winter field work on the tundra.
For thousands of years muskoxen have dealt with all the blows of the Arctic.
But things are changing.
“Summers are longer. Winters are shorter,” Berger said. “But we’re also seeing rain on snow events.”
Rain on snow. It sounds like something that happens in Juneau every week during the winter.
“Your listeners are going to be thinking ‘What? We get this all the time. Why is that a problem?’” Berger said.
It’s a problem because rain in the Arctic instantly turns to ice when it hits the frozen ground, trapping the low vegetation muskoxen depend on.
But this isn’t having the effect you might think. They’re not starving to death.
It’s a problem for pregnant muskoxen. At the end of their pregnancy — in February, March and April — the rapid growth of their babies is most susceptible to being impacted by rain on snow events.
And when there’s diminished food for the mother during this last trimester, Berger says her babies are “runtier”. When his team measured them at one, two and three years old, they had smaller heads than others whose mothers experienced fewer rain on snow events during pregnancy.
In general, smaller animals have higher mortality rates and if they survive, they reproduce at lower rates. Which means that one winter storm in the Arctic that brings rain instead of snow, can result in a nutritionally deprived baby that will have lower odds of growing up and reproducing. The ripple effect here, you can see, is serious.
“Even subtle rain on snow events can have these prolonged effects on young muskoxen,” Berger said.
So far, Berger and his team have tracked these impacts on the first 3 years of the animal’s life. And they’ve seen that a three-year-old muskox will still carry the impact of a rain on snow event that happened when it was in utero.
Berger is on his way back to Wrangel Island in Russia in a few weeks. He’ll see how the four-year-old muskoxen are faring. It’s unknown whether these runty individuals will be able to make up for their small size later in life.
The window for public comment on a controversial road comes to a close this week. The Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project — or Ambler Road — would start at the Dalton highway and stretch over 200 miles west.
That’s a big road in a state with not that many of them. Proponents say it will enable growth of the mining industry, and create jobs. Detractors worry about impacts to subsistence and the environment.
The road itself is an idea that’s been kicking around for decades. But it picked up steam back in 2011. At that time, the price of oil was high, the state had cash, and then-Governor Sean Parnell wanted to put some of that money toward encouraging natural resource development in parts of the state that were off the road system.
Ambler Road was part of that push. It’s an area that has been explored for its rich mineral potential since the 1950s, but hasn’t been developed because of its remoteness.
“You can’t develop the Ambler Mining District without a road,” Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse, President and CEO of Trilogy Metals, said.
Van Nieuwenhuyse’s company is currently exploring two copper deposits tucked into the southern part of the Brooks Range. He says that without a road, there just isn’t an economical way to get the minerals to market if they do decide to start mining there.
“We’ve looked at this very seriously. Looking at using aircraft and even airships that aren’t in commercial use, but are in planning stages. We’ve dialogued with Lockheed… and the math just doesn’t work,” Van Nieuwenhuyse said.
The state’s proposed solution to this access problem is a private industrial road, 211 miles long, running from east to west along the south side of the Brooks Range. Picture a road that starts in the heart of Alaska’s interior and makes a beeline for the Chukchi Sea and Kotzebue, stopping near a group of Kobuk River villages.
Wilmer Beetus is First Chief of Hughes, one of the villages close to the east end of the proposed road. He says that residents in Hughes support the project, because they believe it will translate to construction and mining jobs.
“Right now we’re in a deficit we’ve been in the last couple years and it really hurts the economy around here. It’s not an easy life living out there, especially when there are no jobs,” Beetus said.
But other residents in the area are opposed. Vanessa Edwards is Acting Tribal Administrator of Alatna, another community close to the proposed route. She says the benefits that might come from a road don’t compare to the potential damage the project could do to important subsistence resources.
“That Ambler mining road would cross two rivers that would directly affect us, that’s the Koyukuk and the Alatna rivers. That’s where sheefish and whitefish go to spawn,” Edwards said.
There are also concerns about how the road might affect the caribou population. Cyrus Harris lives in Kotzebue and is the Vice-Chair of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group. At a meeting of that group earlier this winter, he expressed worry over how the project might affect a critical resource for his community.
“Caribou is our main source of meat back home. Unlike beef and so forth that urban folks depend on, well, we depend on the land, the land being our garden. And that’s how we’re raised from time immemorial,” Harris said.
All of these sentiments are currently being collected by the Bureau of Land Management. The agency will use those public comments in its assessment of the impacts of the project, including economic, environmental and subsistence impacts.
Tim La Marr is overseeing the process for BLM. He says that analysis will be done by a team of professionals including wildlife biologists, engineers, hydrologists, fisheries biologists, as well as a sociologist and economist.
Ultimately the agency will have to decide whether or not to grant a permit to build the road through federal land, and if so, what the requirements will be to mitigate the environmental impact.
BLM could deny that permit, but La Marr says in his experience, that’s pretty rare.
The National Park Service is also conducting a separate but parallel analysis of the section of the road that crosses Gates of the Arctic National Preserve. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which established the Preserve, included a provision that if there was ever a transportation system built to the Ambler Mining District, NPS would have to accommodate it.
“The Park Service I suppose you could say wasn’t given the opportunity to say no,” Greg Dudgeon, Superintendent of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, said. “Rather it was where the road would go such that it would be least impactive to park purposes, and the terms and conditions for how the road would be used.”
The state agency leading the Ambler Road project — the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA — estimates that it could cost up to $380 million to build. The agency expects to finance that price tag through a mix of private capital, bonding and tolls.
It’s not yet a done deal that the environmental review process will be completed — so far AIDEA has only paid for the scoping and some of the analysis that happens directly afterward. An AIDEA spokesperson said that once the scoping is complete, the AIDEA board will decide the next step.
The public comment period is open through Wednesday, January 31st.