In Alaska, conversations about land conservation often involve thousands of acres hundreds of miles from the nearest city. But sometimes just a couple of acres can make all the difference. Community members in Anchorage rallied together recently to help protect one of the most popular birding spots in the city.
Potter Marsh sits at the base of the Chugach Mountains. It’s a foggy day in early November and the burnt orange colored-grasses wrap around the glassy, open water. This is one of the last places to freeze before winter, which is why so many birds come to visit.
“We got your standard ducks that you might call Mallards, Pintail, Green-winged Teal. There’s Snow Geese, there’s Canada Geese, [and] Sandhill Cranes come through here,” Joe Meehan said. Meehan is with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The season is passed now, but a video from the spring migration shows two of those Sandhill Cranes tilting their red heads back and opening their beaks wide.
It’s sights like this that Meehan says attract more than 150,000 visitors each year to Potter Marsh. But those visitors– they probably don’t know that in the woods around the marsh there’s junk– big cast iron boilers, stacks of sheet metal, a toilet or two and a seemingly endless supply of bathtubs.
There used to be airstrip here, so Meehan says the junk– it just started piling up.Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Joe Meehan surveys the land with John Wros from the Conservation Fund. (Emily Russell / APM)
Meehan is here today with John Wros from the Conservation Fund.
All the trash here– it’s unsettling, but there’s an even bigger threat. It turns out, all around the marsh is private land. Wros said until recently, there was a fear the land could be turned into condos.
“Part of the ambiance is that there’s not somebody’s house here,” Wros said. “It’s this wooded, marshy environment rather than development.”
Fish and Game didn’t have money to buy the land, so the Conservation Fund stepped in to help. The current property owners agreed to lower the price and private donors also stepped up to secure the sale.
Joe Meehan said people in Anchorage have a real connection to the place.
“There was one gentleman who walked the marsh almost every day with his wife, who had cancer. She eventually passed away, [but] for the last few months of her life– it was spent at Potter Marsh,” Meehan said. “It was just a special place for him and he wanted to see it protected, so he was interested in helping protect it.”
Meehan says before the sale was finalized, a crew hauled away nearly 20 tons of trash and another 50 tons of recycled steel. Now Fish and Game will make sure Potter Marsh and the land around it stay wild.
After all, Meehan says that’s the way the community wanted it.
Seattle-based Alaska Airlines on Tuesday announced it will discontinue flights to Havana after the holidays.
Alaska joins a parade of other U.S. carriers who are trimming back flights to Cuba or dropping service entirely.
Alaska Vice President for Capacity Planning and Alliances John Kirby said in an interview that he first noticed weakening demand and then the Trump administration reversed President Barack Obama’s liberalization on Cuba travel visas.
“Looking at the precipitous drop-off in bookings coupled with the fact that 80 percent of our traffic can no longer take advantage of the people-to-people education option, we just felt there were better opportunities for us,” Kirby said.
Alaska Airlines launched service on a Seattle-Los Angeles-Havana route with much fanfare last January.
Alaska’s last flight to Havana will depart on January 22, 2018, meaning the service to Cuba lasted just over a year.
The U.S. Treasury Department last week reimposed Cuba travel rules that basically make Americans join expensive, tightly-regulated group tours or have a valid business exemption.
Alaska Airlines said passengers who have reservations for travel to Havana after January 22 will be booked on another airline or offered a full refund.
Spirit Airlines, Frontier and Silver Air also have pulled out of Cuba, leaving American, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest as the main U.S. carriers flying reduced schedules to the Caribbean island.
Kirby said the anticipated pent-up demand for travel to Cuba materialized in the early going.
Alaska’s planes to Havana flew 80-90 percent full in the spring and early summer.
After July, the level of interest dropped precipitously.
“A severe hurricane season didn’t help,” Kirby added. “I think there was some evidence of confusion. It was difficult to figure out how to go.”
Kirby said the Boeing 737 now assigned to the Cuba route will be redeployed to bolster capacity between Seattle and Orange County, California.
Debate on whether Congress should allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is scheduled to begin in the U.S. Senate Energy Committee Wednesday morning. If passed and signed into law, the Congressional Budget Office estimates it would raise $2.2 billion in the first decade. Half of that revenue would got to the state of Alaska, as would half of all royalties if oil is discovered and extracted. But some Alaskans who favor drilling say the state deserves far more.
Loren Leman was in grade school when Alaska became a state, but from his earliest political memories, he has known Congress promised Alaska would get 90 percent of revenues from mineral leasing on federal lands, in perpetuity.
“Alaskans were told ‘this is the promise,” Leman said. “And then, you know, for it to be other than that is, I think, an example of another broken promise.”
Leman grew up to be a state senator and then lieutenant governor. The 90 percent promise lives on in his heart. And not just there. In 2005, for instance, the Alaska Legislature overwhelmingly voted to oppose “any attempt to coerce the State of Alaska into accepting less than the 90 percent” Alaska was promised at statehood.
But, Leman says environmental groups and others opposed to drilling in the refuge have been pummeling the state for 37 years already. Leman says it’s a matter of counting votes in Congress.Loren Leman, via UAA.alaska.edu
“The reality is we’re likely not going to get there without reverting to the 50-50 split,” Leman said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s ANWR proposal, like others before it, back to the 1990s, calls for a 50-50 split. Leman hopes it passes. And if it does? Leman can’t rule out some kind of legal action.
“I don’t know that we necessarily show all over our hands, or even talk about what might be. But I believe Alaska ought to continue to assert its rights as aggressively as possible,” Leman said.
That might not be easy. Some say the Alaska Statehood Act doesn’t actually guarantee Alaska 90 percent of revenues forever. In the 1990s, then-Gov. Wally Hickel sued to enforce the 90-10 split and lost.
Current Gov. Bill Walker says he’s not going to argue with an even split if it means Congress will finally allow oil development in the refuge.
“50 percent of something is better than 90 percent of nothing,” Walker said.
If congressional estimates are correct, the 50-50 split would give Alaska, over the next 10 years, about $1.1 billion. That’s less than half the current annual budget deficit.
And yet, to hear Sen. Maria Cantwell tell it, even 50 percent of the revenues is too much to give Alaska. The Washington State Democrat leads the anti-drilling fight in the Senate. She says when her colleagues learn ANWR revenues could help Alaska with its budget problem, it helps turn them against drilling.Sen. Maria Catwell, flanked by Sens. Michael Bennet, left, and Ed Markey. Photo by Liz Ruskin.
“We’ve talked to several members who now are saying, ‘oh, I didn’t realize that was the structure, that we were giving Alaskans basically, the opportunity to get well on the revenue that might come off of this,'” Cantwell told reporters at a press conference last week.
Cantwell’s primary objection, though, is environmental. She says drilling would damage a treasured ecosystem. Sen. Murkowski, like most of Alaska’s elected leaders, says drilling can be done with little impact.
A nominee for a top position at the EPA is drawing both praise and criticism, including concerns from a nonprofit in Anchorage that works to raise awareness about the health affects of hazardous chemicals.
Michael Dourson, the industry scientist Trump nominated to head EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention was passed out of a confirmation hearing in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in October.
Rep. Steve Chabot, a Republican from Dourson’s home state of Ohio, introduced the nominee and outlined his credentials.
“Dr. Dourson’s excellence in his field of expertise has been recognized time and time again,” Chabot said. “Over the years, he has received four bronze medals from the EPA.”
Dourson told the committee he’s committed to doing the job right.
“If confirmed as the Assistant Administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, I will dedicate my mind, body, and spirit to the work of this office, to working with its dedicated staff, to the protection of the American public, including its most vulnerable, and its environment from exposure to pesticides and otherwise unregulated chemicals,” Dourson said.
But Democrat Tom Carper of Delaware put up a poster of 10 chemicals Dourson was paid by industry to study. According to Carper, in all 10 cases, Dourson found the chemicals were safe at much higher doses than the government allowed. Dourson rejected the implication but declined to say he’d recuse himself if a chemical he’d been paid to study went before the EPA for review.
“Senator, I can give you as many or more examples of situations where the science that we brought forward as a team actually lowered the safe dose or risk position for various sponsors,” Dourson said. “If confirmed, I will rely on the guidance of EPA ethics officials to determine any issues for which I am to be recused.”
The issue of Dourson’s confirmation hits close to home for the executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. Pam Miller, the executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, says Dourson is a chemical industry scientist for hire.
“He’s worked for many industries such as Dow Agrosciences, the Koch industries, a number of chemical industry associations like the American Chemistry Council,” Miller said. “And his firm has been paid by, I think, more than three dozen corporations or trade associations. He’s even worked for the tobacco industry to justify the safety of secondhand smoke.”
Michael Dourson has not yet been scheduled for a vote by the full Senate.
Alaska Public Media’s Liz Ruskin contributed to this report. Listen to the above audio to hear more from Pam Miller of the Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, staying warm through the winter can cost you. Families spend hundreds of dollars a month on heating fuel, and communities like Kongiganak, colloquially known as Kong, are trying to change that.
After years of hard work, the village’s utility company has not only managed to cut some of its residents’ heating bills in half, but built a revolutionary microgrid along the way.
Last month, Roderick Phillip gave me a tour of Kong’s power plant, a loud, gray warehouse off the village boardwalk.
“You can look up there and you can see there’s a whole bunch of instruments,” Phillip said.
Phillip is the manager of the Puvurnaq Power Company, Kong’s local utility. The village is a member of the Chaninik Wind Group, a group of four communities that’s working together to build new energy systems. Like the other Chaninik villages, Kong gets its electrical power from a hybrid system that uses both diesel and renewable energy. On average, the village’s five local wind turbines provide Kong with about 25 percent of its power needs.
But to get a real sense of why Kong’s microgrid is so special, you have to take a walk around town.
After touring the power plant, Phillip and I visited the home of Ralph Kiunya, the General Manager of Kong’s local corporation. Two identical twin toddlers in matching parkas played on the front steps while one of Kiunya’s daughters was baking a cake in the kitchen. Kiunya’s home is warm and cozy, and he attributes that to the large thermal stove in a corner. The built-in heater was warming the whole house and doing a few other things too.
“You see those kettles?” Kiunya said. “They’re warmed constantly when this is on, so I have warm water all the time. We even put wet clothes [on it], even gloves to keep them warm during winter time when it is on.”
This thermal stove, and others like it, are what makes Kong’s microgrid so revolutionary. On particularly windy days, Kong’s wind turbines can produce more power than its grid can use. So Kong’s utility company installed thermal stoves in homes throughout the village. The heating units are hooked up to Kong’s microgrid, and excess energy that the wind turbines generate is diverted to them.
Kong’s utility company has installed thermal stoves in dozens of homes so far, and Kiunya says that his stove has cut his heating costs by more than 50 percent. He looks forward to using that money for other things.
“Mostly groceries,” Kiunya said with a chuckle. “Good stuff. Yummies for my grandkids.”
According to Manager Roderick Phillip, Kiunya’s not alone. He said that Kong residents with thermal stoves are saving hundreds of dollars a month.
“The money’s going into their pockets,” Phillip said. “Over 90 percent of our community relies on subsistence, and the savings they’re getting is going to putting more food on the table.”
Microgrids are a big deal in Alaska, but even by those standards Kong’s is unique.
“They’re a petri dish; they can be a laboratory,” Dennis Meiners, the founder of Intelligent Energy Systems, said.
Meiners’ company specializes in renewable energy solutions for remote communities. He’s worked closely with Phillip over the past few years and helped Kong’s utility develop a sustainable grid.
According to Meiners, Kong’s system has caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy, and he recently spoke at a conference in Canada about the project. The way that Kong reroutes its excess energy to heating power could be a model for other communities, and the village wants to increase its use of wind power in the next few years. Meiners expects Kong’s wind turbines to displace over 50 percent of the community’s diesel usage, and other microgrid experts are watching the project to see if Kong can pull it off.
Not everyone in the industry thinks that they can. Josh Kraft, an engineer with the Alaska Energy Authority who’s familiar with the project, says that Kong could have found more up-to-date wind turbine equipment.
“It means that they’re not going to offset as much diesel as we hoped,” Kraft said.
Kraft said newer turbines would have been more effective. This is a fast-advancing field of technology.
“But that’s how technology goes,” Kraft said. “You wouldn’t necessarily use a computer from 10 years ago today.”
Dennis Meiners disagrees and said that Kraft seems misinformed about the project. He agrees that the wind turbines aren’t the most up-to-date model, but he said that they’ve been completely reconfigured and adapted to Kong’s needs. No one is making wind turbines that are a perfect fit for Alaska’s villages, so Kong had to build something new.
One way or another, Kong’s microgrid is a learning experience for the energy industry. It’s also continuing to evolve. This month, the utility company is installing more thermal stoves and a bank of lithium batteries. According to Roderick Phillip, the increased energy storage should help the microgrid run more efficiently.
“By next month we will have the most advanced system in the northern hemisphere,” Phillip said. “And our own people will be taking of it.”
Phillip might be overstating this a bit, but Kong’s system is certainly going to be one of the best. Its batteries and new thermal stoves should be up and running by the end of November and Kong’s heating bills are, once again, expected to drop.
State troopers have identified the woman that was struck and killed by a car along the Alaska Highway near Delta Junction yesterday.
Alaska State Troopers report that 43-year-old Jennifer Weeks of Delta was hit near ALCAN milepost 1401, about 15 miles south of Delta, at around 7:30 yesterday morning.
Troopers say the driver reported being unable to stop quickly enough. Weeks is believed to have been walking on the highway in dark, snowy conditions. Troopers say there was a buildup of snow on the road shoulder, and there were no visible foot prints.
Troopers added that the driver, who is cooperating with the investigation, reported traveling slower than the posted speed limit, due to snow and diminished visibility. The driver and a passenger in his car were not injured in the accident. Drugs or alcohol do not appear to be a factor.
Several residents of a North Pole neighborhood told Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly members Thursday that they do not want a marijuana-growing business in the area. Their arguments swayed half the members, but that wasn’t enough to pass a measure that would’ve opposed state approval of a business license for the facility.
Residents of the Benshoof turned out in force again Thursday to protest a proposed marijuana-growing facility that they say should not be allowed in their mainly residential area. During the public hearing on a business-license request for the facility near the corner of Badger Road and Benshoof Drive, Lois Maxwell said she opposes it because it’ll harm children.
“We try to teach the children that use of mind-altering substances is not a good idea,” Maxwell said. “But when it’s right in your neighborhood, it’s something that becomes the norm. And we don’t want it to be the norm.”
Maxwell said her home, like many others, is only about 500 feet from where AK Green Bee Inc. wants to grow pot commercially. She said it’s not the right place for such a facility.
Cyrus Freeman, another area resident, agreed. And he said he’s located a much better location in Salcha.
“That property is on a much-larger wooded lot,” Freeman said. “With convenient access to the Richardson Highway.”A borough Planning Department map shows AK Green Bee’s proposed growing facility location, outlined in yellow, with distances to two churches, outlined in red, and adjacent residential areas. (FNSB graphic)
Christa Dyer said she and others in the neighborhood have launched an effort to rezone the area to keep businesses that produce or dispense alcohol or marijuana from setting up shop there.
“We started that process back in July,” Dyer said. “It’s just a really slow process – looks like about six months.”
And 11-year-old Kyra Rodriguez says the facility just kind of creeps her out.
“I just, I don’t like it,” Rodriguez said. “And when I walk home it makes me feel uncomfortable.”
AK Green Bee owner Monique Daigle said she understands her neighbors’ concerns, and has made several changes in the layout and design of her 2,400-square-foot growing facility to accommodate them.
“As far as children in the neighborhood – I’m a parent,” Daigle said. “I’m a grandparent.”
Daigle said she’s met all borough and state requirements for the license. She said she supports residents’ drive to rezone the neighborhood just east of her property, even though that’ll require additional floor-plan adjustments. She said her facility will be well-secured and won’t generate much traffic – only a few vehicles a day for employees and one or two deliveries. And she’ll open a new entry away from the neighborhood in the spring.
“We are responsible members of our community who feel that as the business owners, we owe it to the members of our community to operate with integrity,” Daigle said.
After the hearing, Assemblyman Lance Roberts urged fellow members to disregard the borough administration’s recommendation to support the business license and instead vote for a resolution he sponsored that would urge the state Marijuana Control Board to deny it. He recounted reasons he cites whenever the Assembly considers a marijuana business-license request: that pot is still illegal under federal law and is bad for your health. And he said this time, there’s another important consideration.
“What really matters for this case specifically, is how it is adjacent to residential neighborhood,” Roberts said. “There’s so many places it could’ve been put, but instead it was put right next to a residential neighborhood.”
That argument resonated with three other Assembly members – Matt Cooper and newly elected Angela Major and Aaron Lojewski. The four voted in favor of Roberts’ resolution opposing the business license, but the measure failed on a four-to-four tie vote –Assemblyman Shaun Tacke recused himself because he’s active in the cannabis industry.
After Roberts’ measure failed, the Assembly voted seven to one to recommend the Marijuana Control Board grant the business license pending AK Green Bee obtaining a borough conditional-use permit.
The Assembly then approved resolutions supporting licenses for two other marijuana businesses, with Roberts the lone dissenting vote.
(Missile Defense Agency)
The Trump administration announced last week it has asked Congress to appropriate $2.1 billion to expand the missile-defense base on Fort Greely.
The request would include $200 million to pay for construction of a fourth missile-silo field at the base. The remaining amount would be used to buy and emplace 20 interceptor missiles in the new field.
The three existing missile fields at the base on Greely now accommodate 40 of the nation’s 44 ground-based midcourse defense interceptors. The GMD system is designed to destroy an incoming enemy missile while it’s still above the atmosphere.
Officials with Boeing Company, the GMD system’s prime contractor, announced last week that the company and subcontractors had installed the 40th interceptor at the Greely missile-defense base. That was the last of 14 additional interceptors that the Obama administration had ordered in 2013, after a previous confrontation with North Korea over its development of an offensive ballistic-missile system that the nation’s leadership is building to enable it to deliver nuclear warheads to adversaries.
President Trump said the fourth missile field and its 20 additional interceptors are needed to defend the United States from a missile attack by North Korea.
All three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation applauded the proposal and pledged to work for passage of a measure that would amend the Defense Department budget to authorize appropriating money for the missile-base expansion.
The largest potential timber sale in the Haines State Forest in decades was put on hold this summer.
The decision from the Department of Natural Resources was made in response to a successful appeal of the forest land use plan for the 855-acre sale.
Now, the Division of Forestry has put forward a new plan.
The Baby Brown Timber Sale, about 35 miles northwest of Haines, offers up 20 million board feet of old-growth spruce and hemlock.
Astoria Forest Products offered $270,000 for the timber last year. They were the only bidder.
But the sale hasn’t gone forward.
DNR Commissioner Andrew Mack canceled the deal as it was being offered, because Lynn Canal Conservation successfully appealed the state’s forest land use plan. The original plan was only for a portion of the sale.
Lynn Canal Conservation said it shouldn’t have gone out to bid until plans were complete for the entire area.
Haines Forester Greg Palmieri said that’s the main difference between the new document and the old one.
“This plan takes into account the entire sale offering, which is 11 harvest units,” Palmieri said. “The first forest land use plan only offered a harvest plan that applied to the first two units that were going to be for the sale.”
Palmieri explains why only a portion of the potential sale was addressed the first time around.
“I was directed to make the most effective use of the timber sale offering as I possibly could initially, by creating a forest land use plan for two units to start with that could be prepared for that operational season, which would have been this past summer, had that gone through,” Palmieri said.
After the successful appeal, Palmieri went back and wrote up a plan for the entire sale.
“So I’m hoping that’s going to lead to a successful discussion and moving forward with the sale,” Palmieri said.
But Lynn Canal Conservation president Eric Holle said the overarching environmental concerns haven’t been alleviated.
“We’re not really any happier with the land use plan,” Holle said. “It dotted a few I’s and crossed some T’s. But the real issues remain the same.”
Holle sees a fundamental flaw with the sale.
“The big issue is that clear-cutting old growth forest in these large industrial-scale cuts is really from the dark ages of forestry,” Holle said. “Most places around the world that still have old growth do not do that.”
Holle points to some positive aspects of the plan.
“I should say, it’s encouraging to see some mention of the hydrologic impacts, and the impacts to cavity nesting birds, for example,” Holle said. “But the use of partial cuts and shelterwood cuts, and so forth, is not convincing. The same old problems are going to remain.”
Though he can’t say for sure, Holle doesn’t think Lynn Canal Conservation will appeal the sale again. But he remains concerned about potential environmental impacts.
“Really, they’re going to be removing 855 acres of old growth trees near the Klehini River, which is a prime salmon stream. And there’s not a whole lot we can do about that,” Holle said.
Forestry is accepting public comments on the current forest land use plan until Dec. 11. You can link to the full document here.
Female salmon build nests, or redds, when they spawn by turning onto their sides and flapping their tales to stir up sediment, which can expose the riverbed and lead to erosion nearby and downstream.
A study recently published in the journal Geomorphology found that over time salmon may play a significant role in sculpting landscape surrounding the rivers where they spawn.
The team of researchers conducted the study by creating a computer model to simulate chinook, sockeye and pink salmon’s spawning activities.
The model showed that land and mountains around rivers where salmon spawn could be nearly a third taller if salmon were not present.
“We figured that there would be an effect, but, to be honest, I thought it would be rather small, maybe a few percent,” study co-author Brian Yanites said. Yanites is an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Indiana University.
For Yanites, the crux of the study is the way it demonstrates the inter-connectedness of scientific disciplines.
“We often think of geologists working on the rock and the mountain ranges, and the biologists are over working on their fish,” Yanites said. “But really the biology and the earth interact over these long time scales. If one thing changes in the biologic system or geologic system, it can propagate through a bunch of different earth system.”
The next step for scientists is to apply their computer model to the physical world.
“What we’re thinking about now is, can we see the actual impacts in a real landscape and be able to attribute that (to salmon)?” Yanites said.
The model is a theoretical one so far. It has not been applied to specific river systems in Alaska or elsewhere.
But it does suggest that the salmon that have shaped culture and history in Alaska for generation upon generation have shaped some of its landscapes and mountains as well.
A $917 million University of Alaska system operating budget for next year, approved by UA regents, does not include non-union employee pay raises.
UA president Jim Johnsen addressed the lack of pay increases when rolling out the FY19 budget request for regents at a meeting Thursday.
“I think it’s realistic, given our state and our university’s fiscal situation, but I don’t think it’s a good thing,” Johnsen said.
Faculty Alliance chair Lisa Hoferkamp also spoke to regents about the issue.
“I hope you will please keep in mind that adequate compensation is crucial to retention and recruitment of high quality faculty and staff,” Hoferkamp said. “Without offering competitive salaries that take into account cost of living differential, UA’s challenges, including accreditation, enrollment as well as many others, will not only continue, but I believe they will worsen.”
FY19 will be the second year in a row that non-union staff and faculty have not received a salary increase. Staff alliance chair Kara Axx echoed concern about pay stagnation.
“It’s been a while for an increase, and we’re all taking on additional responsibilities at the same time,” Axx said.
Axx noted that staff councils at each campus are looking into unionization.
“The staff councils have started collecting feedback from each campus to determine if unionization would be in the best interest of the staff,” Axx said.
Axx applauded an announcement by President Johnsen that a pay comparison study is in the works: what he described as “a thorough external and internal salary and benefits analysis.”
Johnsen said the research will likely be contracted, with results available in the spring in time for consideration of pay in the following year’s budgeting process.
The lights are back on in Newtok. After three days without electricity, power returned to the village Sunday evening.
According to Assistant Tribal Administrator Dalen Awaluk, the community power company turned off Newtok’s electricity Thursday afternoon for maintenance.
Throughout the cold days, Awaluk said that people without wood stoves or personal generators slept in the school to keep warm and community members brought food to feed the crowd.
Awaluk’s wife carried over canned fruit, pilot bread crackers, beef jerky and chicken fried rice. His family has a generator and stayed in their home. Awaluk said that the community has been here before. Last winter a generator broke down, leaving Newtok without electricity for five days during the middle of winter.
Awaluk said that this outage wasn’t as cold as the last one and that the outage last winter prepared the village to know what to do during a multi-day blackout.
The two chambers of the Legislature are far apart, both on policy and on how to end the special session.
The Alaska House met for a technical session Monday in Juneau, but the Senate has adjourned, with members returning to their homes.
The impasse is a result of the two chambers having different views on the two bills on the special session agenda.
The Senate majority wanted to address a bill revising criminal sentencing as quickly as possible. And Senate leaders say now isn’t the time to consider a tax bill, which is the other measure that Gov. Bill Walker included in the special session call.
The House majority wanted to spend time on both bills, and was hoping to pass the tax ahead of next year’s session.
They felt some urgency because next year is an election year.
The House passed its own version of the sentencing bill, and expected to resolve differences with the Senate in a conference committee.
Instead, the Senate voted to concur with the House version, and adjourned sine die — a Latin term for having no fixed day to resume — on Friday.
By adjourning, the Senate made a statement that it didn’t want to spend any more time in Juneau, which would open the door to working on the tax bill.
But each chamber doesn’t have complete control over when it adjourns.
The Alaska Constitution says that neither chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the agreement of the other side.
So the Senate and the House could continue to hold technical sessions until the scheduled last day of the session, which is Nov. 21.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham Democrat, said he hopes the Senate will change its mind.
Edgmon said the first thing he’d like to do is fix a provision of the criminal sentencing bill, Senate Bill 54.
That provision may unconstitutionally require people who commit class C felonies for the first time have the same penalties as those who commit more serious class B felonies.
“We can certainly get the House back into action and take any major action should the Senate all of a sudden decide that they want to come back and fix that C felony provision of Senate Bill 54,” Edgmon said. “If the Senate wanted to work on the fiscal plan, we would be more than willing to jump right back in on that as well.”
For his part, Senate President Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, said the Senate was open to fixing Senate Bill 54 on Friday, but the House didn’t have enough members to act. So the Senate adjourned.
Kelly said he was concerned that if the Senate stayed longer, the House would have tried to use the rest of the session to push for the tax bill.
“I think it was the plan actually all along for them to drag us into a conference committee and then, as happened during the regular session and the other special sessions, delay and delay and delay, trying to get us to say yes to taxes,” Kelly said. “And we’re just not going to do it.”
The only committee meeting scheduled for Monday, for the House Finance Committee, was canceled.
The Trump administration is currently weighing a decision that could alter the future of the Pebble Mine — and the Bristol Bay region communities that would see the mine built in their backyard.
That includes Dillingham and Iliamna. They were the only two places the Environmental Protection Agency visited last month to get public input on whether to scrap an Obama-era proposal to put restrictions on the mine. In Dillingham, residents spoke unanimously against the idea. But in Iliamna, the reaction was more mixed.
At least one resident is still deciding whether the mine is a good idea.
Evelynn Trefon wears a lot of hats; she’s the school secretary, she’s on the city council, she’s on the board of the electric co-op. She also runs a business selling fruit in the summer. And she was also my tour guide, driving me around the roughly 16 miles of quiet roads that run through Newhalen and Iliamna. As Trefon showed me the lay of the land, her four-year-old daughter sat patiently in the back seat.Evelynn Trefon is secretary at the Newhalen school, and also serves on the city council and the board of the electric co-op. (Photo courtesy Evelynn Trefon)
Trefon’s originally from Kansas, but she moved to Newhalen in 2011 with her husband, who grew up here. Newhalen and Iliamna together are home to about 350 people, spread out by the north shore of Lake Iliamna, the biggest lake in Alaska. We turned a corner and got a spectacular view.
“When it’s blowing, when the waves are coming up, it looks like an ocean,” Trefon said.
But as we continued on, Trefon started to describe the other landmarks she pointed out in a very specific way:
“So that’s the clinic there – the clinic employs quite a few people,” Trefon said. “The post office only employs one person.”
Whenever we passed a business or an office, Trefon told me how many jobs it provides. The same thing happened when we passed the Iliamna village council.
“And they employ probably four people — probably four or five people,” Trefon said.
It’s not a random fixation. Poverty rates here are higher-than-average for Alaska. The top employer is the Newhalen school, where Trefon works as the secretary. But that might not always be the case.
If it’s built, the Pebble mine would be about 20 miles from Iliamna. The company argues one reason it belongs there is it would provide more local employment. Trefon told me when the large mining company Anglo American left the Pebble project in 2013, some people in the community lost their jobs. Trefon said today, some find work in far-off places, like with the oil industry on the North Slope.
“But then that takes them away from their families, that takes them away from their friends, that takes them away from their subsistence lifestyles,” Trefon said. “So it’s hard, it’s a hard choice if you want to work.”
That helps explain why opinions were so mixed at EPA’s hearing in Iliamna last month. Local mothers like Trefon stood before federal officials and argued both for and against the mine. That included Margie Olympic from Newhalen, who has worked for Pebble for the last 11 years.
“I am very grateful that I have a job that I can put food on the table, pay bills have private insurance, get what my kids need and want and enjoy the luxuries of a car, boat, snow machine, new car,” Olympic said. “And the best part is I don’t have to get up and leave my community.”
But a different mother told EPA officials she feared the mine could endanger the salmon fishery — and that provides jobs, too. Renee Zackar of Igiugig explained how salmon have supported her entire family.
“My husband and I put up fish every summer. My two sons commercial fish in Bristol Bay. All three of my daughters worked at commercial fish processing at Naknek for two years. Two of my daughters went to the fly fishing academy program,” Zackar said.
Trefon was at the hearing, but she didn’t stand up to speak. She simply sat quietly and listened to what others had to say.
As Trefon started to drive back to where I was staying for the night, I asked: so, what about the salmon? Trefon said yes, subsistence fishing here is abundant. She turned down a gravel road and pointed towards another local spot.
“This road just takes you to the rapids, which is a pretty world-famous place to go fishing,” Trefon said. “Oh yeah, I love to fish.”
Every summer, Trefon sees two species of salmon return to spawn in the river behind her house — a phenomenon she calls “miraculous.” The Pebble Partnership argues it can build the mine without harming the fishery. But if something goes wrong, Trefon wonders if the salmon could find their way back.
I asked Trefon if the Pebble Mine controversy has made things uncomfortable in Newhalen and Iliamna.
“Well there’s always drama, in any small community,” Trefon said with a laugh. “But the main thing we always come together for is always the kids. Both communities are fed into the Newhalen school and we always come together for the kids.”
That’s part of why Trefon decided to make a life here — for her, her husband and her daughter, who had fallen fast asleep in the back seat.
“I love living here,” Trefon said. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
If the Pebble Mine gets built, it will bring significant changes to this small slice of rural Alaska. Just like her community, Trefon has mixed feelings about the mine. She hasn’t decided whether she thinks it’s a good idea or a bad idea.
Trefon said Newhalen and Iliamna do need jobs. But a few hours after she dropped me off and we said goodnight, she sent me a text. It read: “One last thought. Jobs are important, but salmon are more important.”
Along with setting Alaska’s hunting regulations, the state Board of Game also makes decisions about what animals Alaskans are allowed to keep as pets or livestock. Ferrets, alpacas and one-humped camels are all OK and on what’s called the “clean” list.
At this year’s meeting, currently underway in Anchorage, the game board is considering a proposal to allow a new species: the lesser hedgehog tenrec. Despite the name, the tenrec is not a type of hedgehog, and while they look alike, tenrecs and hedgehogs are not related.
They’re also not legal, but there are at least a couple tenrecs in Alaska. One of them, named Lemon, sprawled out in the palm of this reporter’s hand recently at a house in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Lemon perked up when she saw a small bowl of worms and happily munched on some. Like other tenrecs, Lemon is covered in hard, dull spines, and she has a pointy face like a rodent’s.
Her owner — we’ll call her “Stacey” — agreed to an interview if we promised not to identify her.
“She’s sweet and cuddly,” Stacey said. “I can carry her around. She’ll sit in my shirt or she has a little pouch that I can carry her in.”
Stacey had a hedgehog once, and it did not go well, she said. Other unhappy hedgehog owners on Facebook told her about tenrecs, which are mellower and cleaner. Some people, including the former Alaska resident who proposed allowing tenrecs, describe them as hypoallergenic.
When Stacey got Lemon from a breeder in the Lower 48, she wasn’t aware that tenrecs are illegal in Alaska. Among other steps in the process, Lemon had to get checked by a veterinarian. Stacey figured somebody along the way would’ve warned her.
It turns out, Alaska doesn’t have a list of banned pets, just one with those that’ve been allowed. It’s also unclear how many states have legalized tenrecs like Lemon.
“I have grown quite fond of her, so I of course don’t want anything to happen where I would get in trouble for having her or lose her,” Stacey said. “That’s definitely a huge concern. She’s grown to be part of our family!”
Stacey has reason to be concerned: If the Alaska Wildlife Troopers become aware of a prohibited pet, they would have to investigate.
Maj. Bernard Chastain, deputy director of the Wildlife Troopers, said there are only so many options, and they all involve getting rid of the pet.
“Options may include the owner of the animal actually euthanizing the animal, potentially the owner shipping that animal out of state to a location where someone could possess it legally,” Chastain said. “If the person refuses to comply and it warrants law enforcement getting involved, we would potentially seize the animal and charge the person for possession.”
Tenrecs might have an uphill battle in Alaska: The Department of Fish and Game opposes making them legal.
U.S. breeders raise them in captivity, but Fish and Game said in its recommendations to the game board that allowing tenrecs as pets could encourage the pet trade in a species that presents a conservation concern in its native habitat.
If the board agrees, that would leave Stacey and Lemon in the same predicament.
“That is a huge concern, because I’ve never had an illegal pet, or, you know, I might speed sometimes, but otherwise I generally don’t do anything wrong!” Stacey said. “So it is a little stressful, it’s stressful having her.”
The Trump Administration has appointed a new Northwest regional director for HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Jeffrey McMorris of Issaquah, WA began his new job this week.
McMorris has been chief of staff for a King County councilwoman. He is now the top executive in Region 10, covering Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. McMorris is the brother of Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. She was widely reported to be a front-runner for Interior secretary but President Trump picked Ryan Zinke instead.
HUD administers grants to state, local and tribal governments, as well as public housing authorities.
For too long Alaska has been near or at the top in the nation for violence against women and sexual assault. Recent harassment and rape allegations against powerful people in Hollywood and in media have elevated the problem. But will that attention help change behavior?
HOST: Lori Townsend
- Suzi Pearson – A.W.A.I.C (Abused Women’s Aid In Crisis)
- Julie Dale – STAR (Standing Together Against Rape)
- Statewide callers
- Call 550-8422 (Anchorage) or 1-800-478-8255 (statewide) during the live broadcast
- Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).
- Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org (comments may be read on air)
LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, November 14, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.
The state Senate adjourned from the special session today, passing one bill on the session agenda while declining to act on the other.
Senators did act on a wide-ranging bill to scale back last year’s reductions to criminal sentences.
The Senate voted Friday to agree to the changes the House made to Senate Bill 54. It now is headed to Gov. Bill Walker’s desk.
The Senate didn’t act on a proposal by Walker to tax income from employment, intended to help close the gap between state spending and revenue.
The Senate passed the criminal justice bill 11-8, despite a series of concerns raised about the measure.
Representatives of the court system, prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement questioned whether changes made by the House would withstand court challenges.
Several experts said one provision may violate offenders’ constitutional rights.
Department of Law’s Criminal Division director John Skidmore questioned the provision. It applies the same sentences to people who commit class C felonies for the first time as those who commit more serious class B felonies.
Skidmore said it would certainly face a legal challenge.
“For the C and B felonies, having them have the same sentencing range, I’m telling you, that is a problem,” Skidmore said. “That’s not just somebody saying, ‘I’m going to file a lawsuit,’ and it may or may not be frivolous. I’m telling you there’s also a legal issue there that the courts will have to resolve.”
The Senate passed a version of the bill for the first time in April.
The House made 28 amendments in committees and on the floor during the special session.
It was those amendments that troubled legal experts Friday.
Senators could have rejected the House amendments, which would have led to a conference committee to settle their differences. But the Senate decided against the move.
Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon said residents have called for stricter penalties. She said the law allows judges discretion to decide sentences individually.
“From a public perception, at least if you have been aggrieved, if you have had someone die close to you, if you have had someone’s, your car taken, that when it goes through a court process, the B or the C does not determine in the end the final consequence. It’s the judge,” MacKinnon said.
Bethel majority-caucus Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman opposed the House version.
“If we see something that is wrong in the bill, that’s constitutionally challenging, we should not go forward in my opinion to make that law, and then have it fixed later,” Hoffman said. “If we see that it is wrong, we as legislators should fess up and fix it.”
Quinlan Steiner leads the state Public Defender Agency. He said that the potential flaw with class C felony sentencing could lead the courts to throw it out, leading back to Senate Bill 91.
That means first-time class C felons would face suspended sentences instead of immediate jail time.
“That’s what the litigation is going to be about,” Steiner said. “It’s not speculative. It will be filed. It will be an issue in every single C felony case, until it’s resolved.”
Senators who spoke in favor of today’s bill described it as tough on crime and said a vote against it would be a step backward.
The House must adjourn by Monday or the Senate will be called back.
Flying beside the American Flag this Veterans Day you’re likely to spot another national icon: the stark black symbol for prisoners of war and those missing in action.
Designed in the early 70s, the POW/MIA flag was part of a national movement by families during the Vietnam War to resolve the fates of missing service members. In many parts of the country, the symbol is ubiquitous, even though the last decades of American conflicts have seen practically no POWs.
To a younger generation of veterans for whom prisoners and the missing dead are no longer a part of combat, the POW/MIA flag’s symbolism is shifting away from the literal and toward a feeling of having dropped out of the national consciousness.
It was 26 degrees on a recent Saturday morning in downtown Anchorage as members of the Service High School band shifted from foot to foot trying to stay warm as they clutched their instruments. Clad in green jackets, the teens were bringing up the tail of a parade for veterans, followed a stilt-walking clown, a reindeer on a leash and a cadre of older bikers.A man walks his reindeer toward the Park Strip as part of a parade for veterans in downtown Anchorage (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public
Flying from the back of their motorcycles is the black POW/MIA flag, with a white silhouette of a young man trapped behind wire and a menacing guard-tower. The text underneath read ‘You are not forgotten.’ The image is everywhere: Patches, flag-poles — there’s even a Dodge Charger with a paint job of the somber emblem covering the entire side.
The license plate: POWMIA.
According to Woody Quackenbush, the vehicle belongs to someone from nearby American Legion Post #1, where he is a member.A Dodge Charger painted with the POW/MIA flag drove behind a group of bikers in the veterans parade (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)
“During the Vietnam War and stuff they’d send people out on patrol, they didn’t know where they were,” Quackenbush said, his long gray beard hanging down toward his beige three-wheeled hog.
In 1962, at age 17, Quackenbush enlisted in the Army. In his view, during and after the Vietnam War, the POW flag was a way to draw attention to soldiers the government didn’t work hard enough recover.
“We’re still trying to find a lot of people that didn’t come back,” Quackenbush said. “They don’t really have any records of where they are or what to look for. Once in a great while they find somebody. It’s a shame.”Woody Quackenbush, center, rides a three-wheeled motorcycle as part of a group of veteran bikers from an American Legion Post in Anchorage (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)
Officially, as of September of 2017 there are still 1,602 Americans unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. That’s a lot, but it pales in comparison to past conflicts where neither the science nor the will was in place to recover the dead. From World War II alone, there are 72,977 service members still listed as missing.
But this accounting of warfare is becoming extinct: since 1986 through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the total number of service-members left un-recovered by the military is six.
Roger Sparks recently retired from the military after more than two decades serving as a Marine infantryman and later a pararescue jumper, having deployed to some of the most rugged parts of Afghanistan. Now, he works as a tattoo artist at a studio in Eagle River.
“The conflicts that we’re fighting now, it’s not an atmosphere that you’re being held captive,” Sparks explained, sitting in the garage he’s converted into a home studio, filled with art, movie posters and the large, curling horns of a doll sheep skull.Roger Sparks shows off a tattoo gun at his home studio in Eagle River (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)
Sparks is a highly decorated vet who did a total of ten combat tours. And according to him, for many younger veterans the POW flag no longer stands for the literal absence of comrades held behind enemy lines or lost in the battlefield.
“I almost view that as, ‘Well that’s their era of symbolism,’” Sparks explained.
“I can really identify with the severity of their experiences, but I don’t feel I have ownership of that,” Sparks added, referring to older sentiments toward the POW flag.
Sparks grew up in Texas surrounded by Vietnam vets, men who tended to have been drafted and generally went on one combat deployment. Today’s volunteer military is made up of people more similar to Sparks, with multiple combat deployments accrued during military careers.
Compared to the Vietnam era, Sparks sees the country’s relationship with its recent wars as marked less by fervent support or opposition than general indifference. Part of why he thinks the POW flag resonates today with so many veterans, service-members and families is less for the silhouetted young man behind barbed wire, than the words below about not being forgotten.
“I think that when you look at the (American) flag you can say ‘Well that’s patriotism.’ But when you look at that POW/MIA flag it’s more of combat loss, the reaping, just horror of what has been paid for this country to go on,” Sparks said. “I think that’s why people feel so strongly about it.”
When Sparks started tattooing guys in Afghanistan, they’d sometimes sit down to do sessions right after returning to base from pararescue operations. Sparks described it as almost like a ceremony to process what they’d experienced. There, and in the time since, no one’s asked for the POW insignia.
Over the last five months, multiple sled dogs in Nome were attacked by musk oxen in at least four separate incidents. In October, one of the attacks resulted in the death of a dog, and now, people in the community, including the pet owner, are questioning what can be done to prevent further loss of life.
Long-time Nome resident Vickie Erickson has become accustomed to dealing with musk oxen near her home in the Icy View neighborhood. Erickson says over the last few years, she has lost four dogs to musk ox attacks:
“Our dogs are family; they are not anything other than just family,” Erickson said. “We spend hours a day with them; Mitch walks them two or three hours every night; no matter what the weather, he’s with them. And we’ve tried everything. We’ve tried fences; we’ve tried the dog pens. I saw one Facebook post: ‘well, why didn’t the dumb dog run away?’. Well, you know, there are City rules, and dogs have to be chained, as they should be; they shouldn’t be allowed to run around free. But that makes them, certainly, a target.”
During Erickson’s latest encounter with musk oxen on October 3rd, which she described as a traumatic experience, Erickson’s family dog for six years, Bart, was fatally wounded.
“I believe it was a Tuesday afternoon, at 4:00 I was at work, and I got a call from my son, saying, ‘hurry, you need to get home, the musk ox are all over our place, and they have attacked our dog Bart and I don’t think she’s going to make it,’” Erickson said.
Erickson said she then called Nome Police Department, and the dispatcher told her that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) would send someone to respond to the incident. Nome Fish and Game biologist Bill Dunker recalled that the responding ADF&G employee did not take action against the offending musk ox in this incident.
“Of the four instances where we had musk ox that attacked dogs, two of those animals were shot and killed in Defense of Life and Property, one of those animals was removed by the Department, and the fourth animal we were unable to identify, and that animal or those animals in the area did not continue to exhibit aggressive behavior, and so no further action was taken in that instance,” Dunker said.
When it comes to killing wild game animals outside of hunting seasons, the Defense of Life and Property or DLP regulations, under Alaska State law, dictate what can and can’t be done.
For example, a DLP report must be completed after an animal like a musk ox is killed; then, the meat must be salvaged, and it’s given over to ADF&G, which then donates it to those in need.
“In an instance where an animal poses a threat to somebody’s safety or their property, before killing the animal, they take all of their means that are practical in a given situation to deter that animal,” Dunker elaborated. So in the event that all other means, practical, don’t successfully deter that animal, and it continues to pose a threat to public safety, at that point they (the public) can legally harvest or kill that animal.”
Dunker said various means used to deter musk oxen in the past have included inflatable bear decoys, water hoses, and rubber bullets. Fish and Game has even experimented with bear-urine-scented wicks. Most of these efforts have proved to be unsuccessful.
At the end of the day, the best deterrent Dunker recommends is to use some sort of protection or enclosure for outside dogs, as a barrier between them and musk oxen.
“For household pets, a securely anchored, free standing chain-link enclosure would be a good choice for keeping animals safe around your home or something like that, and certainly some type of fencing for larger areas, be it high-tensile or chain-link, those are a couple of good alternatives that people can use to protect their animals,” Dunker said.
Before her dog Bart was attacked for the third and final time, Erickson said she and her husband took several preventative steps, including using different types of barriers.
“We were out of pens, and fences didn’t hold them out, pens didn’t hold them out, and this time, Mitch had put a bunch of equipment — it looks terrible down there, he put a Jeep down there, we had connex vans, the green house, a smoker, an outhouse, four-wheelers, snow machines — all around these dogs, just trying to make some kind of barrier. And one (musk ox) got in, and that was all she wrote,” Erickson said.
Musk oxen tend to attack dogs because they perceive dogs as wolves, but during the fall season, when musk oxen are in their rut, Dunker says they are typically even more aggressive.
When asked why these fatal encounters between dogs and musk oxen have been happening more frequently summer after summer in Nome, Dunker said he could not speculate on that.
Wildlife Trooper Maggie Stang with Alaska State Troopers in Nome sometimes responds to musk oxen incidents on her own or alongside Fish and Game employees. She has observed musk oxen blocking portions of the runway at the local airport, and in one incident this summer, a bear killed a musk ox on the runway, which created an obstacle for aircraft. Stang believes musk oxen could also be a threat to human lives in situations like these, not just out in Icy View.
Erickson says she knows people, including herself, who have been threatened and charged by a musk ox before. She suggests that further action be taken, like removing all of the musk oxen from within Nome city limits, before a musk ox claims human lives as well.
“I’m so upset about the loss of my dog that I really don’t care if they are herded out, airlifted out, or otherwise,” Erickson said. “I don’t think they should be allowed to be so well protected within the City limits that they put everybody else at risk. For me, next year I think I’m going to take the Women on Target class and become very familiar with using my gun, and do the best I can to protect myself on my walks and my last remaining dog I have.”
So far, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has not proposed any further action regarding the regulation of musk oxen interactions with people and property.
Erickson says for now, she and her family won’t adopt any more dogs in order to prevent more animals from being killed by musk oxen.