The ice cracks under my feet, and I realize that is probably one of the scariest sounds in the whole world.
I’m on thin ice, really. I’m gingerly stepping along the edge of pond ice just off the Herbert Glacier trail. Big mistake. I can’t tell what’s ice and what’s firm ground until I step on it.
It’s November, just after the first big freeze and snowfall of the year in Juneau. I’m midway up the Herbert Glacier trail, an undeveloped area on the edge of the backcountry about 30 miles north of town. I’m checking out reports of a pond that looks like it was just visited by French environmental artist Christo. Or maybe someone dumped a case of Pepto Bismol. What caused the weird pink color?
Juneau residents like Karen Hutten send me a pictures of the pond before the snowfall, saying the unusual “coloration was concentrated more at the back of the pond rather than right by the trail.”Bill Johnson spotted this pink pond along the Herbert Glacier trail on Nov. 4, 2017. The surface appears to be beginning to freeze. (Photo courtesy Bill Johnson)
“The reflection kind of screws things up a little bit because the texture that you’re seeing is from the branches above it,” Hutten said. “Really, it looked very wispy. But it could’ve been particulate matter in water.”
Local scientists suggest several possibilities for the pink or lavender color, but they say the only way to know for sure is to examine the water under a microscope.
Jackie Timothy, Southeast supervisor of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Habitat Division, told me her colleagues were curious, too. But they weren’t able to get out and collect any water samples.
That’s why I was literally risking my life – for science!
Carrying empty plastic bottles and armed with some ice-cracking tools, I head about 3 miles up the trail to find three ponds buried underneath several inches of ice and snow.
But the water I collected was not pink. Later, I learned that I was at the wrong set of ponds.
“There are two (wooden) benches along this trail,” Hutten explains. “You go way past the first bench.”
“Ohhh!” I said, realizing that I had made a huge blunder. I should’ve hiked another mile down the trail.A sample of pond water is readied for examination under a microscope at the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station in Juneau. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
“You get almost to the second bench, but not quite. But really close,” Hutten explained. “It’s the pond on your left.”
Not only did I fail to go far enough down the trail, I also fumbled my role as a citizen scientist. Jackie Timothy of ADF&G reminded me that my sampling bottles should’ve been sterile.
Still, I take my light yellow, mostly clear water samples to the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station in Juneau. Stream ecologist Rick Edwards and entomologist Elizabeth Graham use a microscope to look.
“Just looks like normal algal flock with organic matter. I don’t even see any –” Edwards said.
“Ooop! There’s someone moving through,” Graham exclaimed.
“There’s a green guy just slamming on by,” Graham said. “Oh, now I lost him.”
All they see is some pond debris, a couple of little bugs commonly known as water boatmen, and a very energetic form of plankton called a copepod.
So, what could’ve caused the pink color shown in the pictures?That’s not pink! Water sampled from frozen ponds along the Herbert Glacier trail on Nov. 14, 2017. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
Possibilities include sulfur bacteria, blooms of algae called dinoflagellates, or salt-loving microalgae like what was found in western Australia’s Lake Hillier.
Edwards refers to Hutten’s wispy description as a possible indication of a fungus.
“Long filamentous strands of something, and there are several microbes that grow in filaments,” Edwards said. “Obviously, fungi, the hyphal threads are filaments. That’s quite visible under a microscope, if it were a fungus.”
Edwards said a fluorescent marker dye used by hydrologists to track water flow in such a remote area is very, very unlikely.
I was probably just too late. In addition to making it difficult to find the ponds, Edwards says the snowfall and freezing temperatures likely altered or ended any process that generated the pink color.
“If it is a biological explanation, it’s a microbe of some sort in all likelihood,” Edwards said. “That’s all controlled by temperature.”
“It’s possible that would’ve turned all that off, and they would’ve died and been flushed out,” Edwards said. “On the other hand, there are things that grow in quite cool temperatures.”
So, the mystery of the pink pond will remain a mystery, at least for another, warmer day.
“It might pop again when the ice melts,” Edwards speculated. “In which case, we got to go out there and get a sample now.”
The GAIA GPS app generated this map, which shows where Matt Miller sampled water along the Herbert Glacier trail. The actual location of the pink pond was likely about a mile further east.
The abandoned boat that plagued western Alaska for months is now on the bottom of the ocean. The U.S. Coast Guard assisted the state by performing an emergency scuttle of the F/V Akutan Thursday, three miles outside U.S. waters.
The processor was abandoned in Unalaska in September following a disastrous fishing season in Bristol Bay where the ship’s owner went broke, the crew went unpaid and it’s 158,318-pound haul of salmon was declared unfit for human consumption.
The Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) took custody of the derelict vessel in mid-January. In a press release, the Coast Guard says the scuttle was warranted “given the vessel’s condition and the tumultuous Bering Sea maritime environment this time of year.”
It is unclear how the state funded the disposal. This week, the Unalaska City Council was informed that DNR had asked them to help pay for the removal, but the state and Coast Guard sunk the F/V Akutan before the city had come to an agreement.
A series of talks on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act begins in Anchorage on Friday, Jan. 26.
Passed in 1971, ANCSA transferred millions of acres of land to 12 Native regional corporations and more than 200 village corporations.
But as the decades go by since the act was passed, ANCSA is still not fully understood.
“ANCSA is this big thing that people kind of know a little bit about,” Angela Gonzalez with the Alaska Native Media Group said. The group is hosting the series of talks at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Gonzalez said establishing Native corporations and gaining land rights has helped reinforce Native identities.
“Even though we check ‘Alaska Native’ on a cultural background list, it’s so much deeper than that,” Gonzalez said. “I’m Koyukon Athabascan from Huslia, Alaska,” she explained.
Gonzalez said that deep sense of identity has been passed down to younger generations — to people like Kacey Hopson.
“My Inupiaq name is Qunmiğu,” Hopson said. “My family is from Wainright, Barrow and Kashmir, Pakistan.”
She wasn’t alive when ANCSA was passed, but Hopson said she knows the act has had widespread impacts.
“It’s hard to imagine a world in which ANCSA doesn’t exist, especially in my life,” Hopson said. “Because of what our elders did, their efforts, and the way that they organized, I’m still able to live in a world where I can still be connected to my culture and my heritage.”
Hopson will join Willie Hensley and Gary Ferguson on stage at the University of Alaska Anchorage Friday, Jan. 26 for the first of three talks on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Their talk is titled “The good, the bad, and the ugly from the perspective of three generations of Alaska Natives.”
The second talk is Friday, Feb. 23 on the diversity of village corporations and the third talk, on Friday, Mar. 23 is on women in ANCSA.
All three public talks will be held in UAA’s Rasmuson Hall and begin at 7 p.m.
The U.S. Ski Team is taking ten Alaskan cross-country skiers to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea in February. Four skiers had pre-qualified for the Olympics –Kikkan Randall, Sadie and Erik Bjornsen and Rosie Brennan.
The rest of the team was announced Friday morning. Making their Olympic debut are Reese and Logan Hanneman from Fairbanks, Anchorage skiers Tyler Kornfield and Caitlin and Scott Patterson and Minnesota native turned Anchorage skier Rosie Frankowski.
Caitlin and Scott Patterson had made their Olympic dream a near reality after their wins last month at U.S. Cross Country Nationals in Anchorage. Still, Caitlin said the announcement came as a shock.
“Right now the news is still sinking in and it’s hard to put to words what I feel, but I’m definitely looking forward to representing my country on the trails of Korea,” Caitlin Patterson said.
While their parents likely won’t be able to make the trip to PyeongChang, Caitlin’s brother Scott said he’s thrilled to have made the team with his sister.
“It is an honor to be selected for the U.S. Olympic team along with my sister and a strong contingent from Alaska,” Scott Patterson said. “I am looking forward to putting my best foot forward on the biggest stage available for cross-country skiing.”
Altogether, Alaska is sending three sets of siblings to the games — Erik and Sadie Bjornsen, Caitlin and Scott Patterson and Logan and Reese Hanneman.
Reese called the announcement an unimaginable dream that he couldn’t really put into words. He did say, though, that he and his brother, “are stoked to represent Fairbanks, Alaska and the United States on the world’s biggest stage!”
All ten Olympic athletes from Alaska ski professionally for Alaska Pacific University. Another skier from APU, Jessica Yeaton, will ski for Australia’s cross-country ski team at the Olympics.
The 2018 Winter Olympics kick off in South Korea on Friday, February 9th.
Lawmakers have released a draft policy that would revise how the Legislature handles sexual and other workplace harassment.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman is the vice chair of the subcommittee working on the policy. He said the Oregon guidelines had the clearest procedure to file a complaint of any examined by the subcommittee.
“There was consensus on the committee to base our policy and procedure on that Oregon procedure, that looked to make a lot of sense,” Claman said.
Harassment became an issue in the fall, when legislative aides and women outside of the Legislature alleged sexual harassment by Kiana Democratic Rep. Dean Westlake, who resigned in December.
The Oregon policy requires that independent investigators handle complaints against legislators. The Alaska draft policy is not yet clear about how these complaints would be handled. Claman said the Legislature’s human resources manager may be in the best position to investigate lawmakers.
The draft policy would require the House speaker and Senate president to appoint special committees on conduct that would covene if a lawmaker has been investigated for alleged misconduct. These committees would have equal numbers from the majority and minority parties. The committees would recommend to each chamber whether to take disciplinary action. Then the chamber would vote the next day that it convenes.
The draft policy would give people one year to file a formal or informal complaint about harassment. Claman said the filing period should draw from existing federal standards.
Claman said the subcommittee plans to meet weekly until it finishes work on the draft policy. He didn’t put a deadline on its work, but says it would work steadily. Its next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.
The Alaska House Democrats voted unanimously on Thursday evening to confirm Kotzebue resident John Lincoln to be the District 40 representative. The vote to confirm Gov. Bill Walker’s choice was required by state law.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon was enthusiastic about Lincoln’s appointment.
“He brings a blend of real-world experience, some very sterling academic credentials, and I think having (been) born and raised in the Kotzebue area and having family ties to both ends of House District 40, I think makes him uniquely suited for the job,” said Edgmon, a Dillingham Democrat.
Lincoln is a vice president responsible for managing lands for NANA Regional Corp. He graduated from Stanford University.
Edgmon says he expects Lincoln to be in Juneau early next week.
The position became vacant when Dean Westlake of Kiana resigned due to allegations of sexual harassment by female legislative aides and women outside of the Legislature.
District 40 includes North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs, as well as three communities in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area – Allakaket, Bettles and Hughes.
There will be a lot less fishing for king salmon in Southeast in the coming season, after the Alaska Board of Fisheries took dramatic steps to protect dwindling chinook returns to the region’s major river systems.
Before wrapping up its 13-day meeting in Sitka on Tuesday, the Board of Fish passed an “action plan” intended to reverse the downward spiral in Alaska’s wild king salmon. The plan targets three primary rivers — or stocks of concern — but leaves the door open for similar conservation measures elsewhere, should they become necessary.
The big hit for commercial trollers is ending the winter season a full six weeks early, on March 15. It’s hard to state the economic impact on trollers — each one a small, often family-owned business — on losing a prime opportunity to harvest a bedrock species that is currently earning them close to $13 a pound.
But we’ll come back to that.
The “action plan” adopted by the Board of Fish — known formally as RC422 — includes language that the steep conservation measures spelled out for the coming year for the Chilkat, Unuk and King Salmon rivers — where king salmon stocks have fallen precipitously — should also apply to the Taku, Stikine and Situk rivers which are not yet considered “stocks of concern.”
Just the opening paragraph of the action plan — the preamble — touched off a flurry of accusations that the Department of Fish & Game was going too far.
Board member Robert Ruffner initially thought the preamble was a bad idea, but became convinced that the Taku, Stikine and Situk were not headed in the right direction.
The preamble language is a bit of a warning shot across the bow — but at least it’s across the bow of a fleet that will be fishing.
“We could have an action plan here today that said none of you get to go fishing at all — for anything — and we’re still not going to meet escapement goals,” Ruffner said.
The Board also took some heat for including some language in the preamble about the Pacific Salmon Treaty, which many fishermen consider an unrelated issue to the current conservation crisis. The Pacific Salmon Treaty deals with chinook moving across the international boundary, say, a king that was hatched in a river in British Columbia, but is caught in Alaskan waters. It’s a really complicated agreement — but that’s precisely why Deputy Commissioner of Fish & Game Charlie Swanton thought it was important to incorporate it into the action plan.
“34 chinook salmon stocks in Southeast Alaska, a handful that are recognized as part of the treaty, and several that are in stock of concern status,” Swanton said. “We’re going to do the job that we’ve got to do relative to balancing all of those things and see if we can’t meet our escapement objectives and pull ourselves out of this.”
So the action plan is really a manual for the state to implement significant fishing restrictions on the stocks of concern, and to take whatever other steps may be necessary — by emergency order — to pump the brakes on catching kings headed for other rivers.
It’s a huge worry for commercial trollers.
“I think staying in business is still a question mark,” Jeff Farvour said.
Jeff Farvour began his career as a deckhand in Sitka. He’s worked his way up through a wooden troller to a larger fiberglass boat which picked up on the very day last season when Fish & Game announced that there would be no second king opener in the summer.
The action plan will be a bitter pill.
“I’m confident it will help us avoid the Southeast wild stocks we’re trying to avoid. I think it’s a good plan in that respect,” Farvour said. “But as far as the financial end of it, it’s yet to be seen. We’re a year-round king salmon fishery, with some coho opportunity and a chum fishery in the summer. But it’s really that king salmon that makes it happen for Southeast.”
Farvour and his fellow trollers want the king salmon fishery to recover, but it’s going to take a while. Salmon trolling remains one of Alaska’s few limited-entry fisheries where young people can buy in on savings, rather than taking out huge loans — and Farvour’s concerned about them.
Troller Tad Fujioka also sees an economic problem in the action plan: Losing six weeks of spring trolling means a loss of 20-30 percent of their income for some fishermen, but residents of coastal waters — like Sitka — can still pull together decent season fishing out on the ocean on tolerable winter days, and during the brief summer opener.
Elsewhere, it’s going to be difficult make it, especially when the action plan closes down fishing completely in the places like the Upper Lynn, Behm, and Seymour canals — prime territory for trolling on protected inside waters.
Fujioka feels those trollers are bearing a disproportionate share of the conservation burden.
“I’m particularly concerned about the effect this is going to have on the smaller communities, Kake, Angoon, Hoonah,” Fujioka said. “Small boats in the small communities are particularly dependent on the spring and late-winter fisheries.”
But Fujioka, like Farvour, recognizes that it’s critical to allow as many wild kings to return to Southeast’s rivers as possible.
“It’s unfortunate that the biology of the stocks made it such that it had to be this way,” Fukioka said.
After months of work, the Skagway Assembly passed a final memorandum of understanding last week with White Pass Yukon Route Railroad, setting the stage for a new lease to extend the company’s control of the city’s waterfront.
Though the meeting ended in a signed agreement, the road to get there was not smooth.
The memorandum with White Pass was a controversial item for the Skagway Assembly last week when it was added late to the agenda.
Mayor Monica Carlson said it was because she hadn’t heard back from the railroad company before the time the agenda was issued.
Assembly member Orion Hansen took issue with that. He said he had initially tried to get the memorandum on for discussion before that.
“I didn’t want to have it on the agenda if we didn’t have anything to talk about, and we had not heard from White Pass at that time,” Carlson said.
“Mayor, the protocol is that if two Assembly members request something be on the agenda, that’s all that’s needed to put it on the agenda,” Hanson said.
The Assembly passed the final memorandum 5-1, with member Dave Brena voting against it.
The last detail to fall into place was a vote to remove the city’s “right of first refusal” to buy White Pass.
In two separate rounds of negotiations, White Pass refused to sign a memorandum, which included giving Skagway the first shot to buy the company if it goes up for sale.
Last week, the Assembly decided they could live with that.
They agreed to remove the provision with a 4-2 vote.
But that wasn’t the end of the controversy.
Two other agenda items were also added late: a discussion about White Pass being in default on its current lease, and “eminent domain.”
Member Dave Brena requested the two items be put on the agenda.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind that White Pass is in default of their lease,” Brena said. “They only reason they’re not technically in default is because they haven’t been given proper notice. They’ve made the clean-up of the contamination a condition of the MOU. But cleaning the contamination is their responsibility. We do not need an MOU for that.”
The Skagway cruise dock also is an operating ore dock, which has stored and shipped raw gold, silver, copper and other metallic material from mines in Canada for decades.
White Pass’s current lease says it’s their responsibility to deal with the legacy contamination on the property they control.
But Borough Manager Scott Hahn notes that lease was signed in 1968 — before the Environmental Protection Agency was even formed.
Hahn said a new lease that has stronger provisions about what’s required for clean-up is in the city’s best interest.
White Pass also needs a new lease to maintain control of the waterfront: the current lease is set to expire in 2023.
White Pass tried to get an extension in 2015, but it failed when it went before voters.
Two years later, there’s more urgency: a new generation of huge cruise ships are set to arrive in Skagway this summer. But the port needs modifications in order to accommodate those ships.
Since White Pass controls the property, the city and the company have been negotiating throughout the last year over a new lease that will give White Pass the continuity they want to invest in remodeling the dock.
This all leads back to the issue of contamination.
White Pass needs to know the full scope of the ore dock’s environmental issues and how to mitigate them before they can do any construction.
Tyler Rose, with White Pass, said they’ve been working with the Department of Environmental Conservation to commission a risk assessment of the area. It was supposed to be finished late last year but has been delayed. The first draft is expected this week.
In the meantime, those delays fueled tension over the agreement.
Brena pointed to them as evidence that White Pass was in breach of contract to clean up contaminants.
He also asked for discussion about the city’s power to seize property from White Pass through eminent domain.
Rose, who attended the meeting representing White Pass, was dismayed by those additions to the agenda.
“I’m flummoxed by this, and disappointed quite frankly, as far as the concept of bargaining in good faith,” Rose said.
Rose said it was especially frustrating to be discussing default and eminent domain unexpectedly while on the precipice of an understanding.
“Is the community eager for litigation? Are we eager to fight with a major stakeholder? Is that what we’d like to do? Or would we actually like to engage in a productive process where we can work together for mutual success?” Rose said. “These are the things that are just very troubling not only to myself as a citizen, but for White Pass.”
Member Orion Hanson, who was on the negotiating team between the Assembly and White Pass, took the unexpected additions to the agenda personally.
“That this was inserted here tonight on this agenda, I was appalled,” Hanson said. “What message are we sending? Are we going to be contentious and just starting flinging around that we’re going to have lawsuits? Or are we going to try to find solutions to stabilize our town? I mean, I’m a little emotional about this because I’ve really poured my life into it.”
Despite the rancor of the discussion, the passage of the memorandum means a new lease will now be drafted by lawyers.
But, Skagway voters will have the final say at the ballot box.
Villages like Newtok, Shishmaref and Kivalina have become well known for being on the front line of Climate change, but many other communities are facing erosion and flooding issues. Chefornak, in the Y-K Delta near the Bering Sea coast, is one of those villages. KYUK continues its look at climate change and how Chefornak’s villagers are facing the future.
On a crisp and clear Saturday morning, Rosalie Kalistook, known as Rose, walks down to the edge of her aunt’s home. Standing next to a fish drying rack, Rose points several yards across the snow to the shoreline.
“My aunt’s house, the land is falling from here,” Kalistook said. “You can see it. It’s 12 feet away from my aunt’s home. I think it’s two feet from her shed here.”
It’s mid-December, and some men are out on the ice fishing for blackfish. Kalistook is the General Manager of the Chefornak Village Corporation. She points again, this time farther down the shore.
“And you see that house up here? Their steam house is ready to go, and next will be their home,” Kalistook said.
Kalistook gestures farther, indicating several more buildings.
“And you can see the old BIA school that’s ready to fall out too,” Kalistook said. “And in the back the AVCP Head Start is ready to go as well.”Rosalie Kalistook’s father, Paul Tunuchuk’s home, in Chefornak. December 16, 2017. (Photo by Christine Trudeau / KYUK)
At her parents’ home, just behind her aunt’s house, her 79-year-old father Paul Tunuchuk shares memories of the old village of Chefornak while his 18-year-old granddaughter Alexia Aylyuk translates.
Tunuchuk says that the old village was on the other side of the Cicing old village site, where it was “nice and quiet.”
Tunuchuk was a young man around Alexia’s age when Chefornak moved to its present spot in the 1950s. Then, like now, erosion and flooding threatened and villagers needed to get to higher, more stable ground,
“From old village over there… easy to flight. That’s what this move was, [it] was higher right here, [in] this village,” Tunuchuk said.
“So he’s saying that it was a lot more easier to get floods over there than over here, so we all just moved the village up to a higher place just to be safe. We all just moved, took our things, used a boat, kayak. We just started from there, I guess,” Aylyuk said.
More than half a century later, it’s Tunuchuk’s daughter Rosalie Kalistook who is trying to find a way to move the village again. She’s searching for both higher ground and the money to move what’s been built since, which is considerably less movable and more expensive.
After Kalistook came on board, the corporation put two Chefornak college students to work on a community survey.
“The outcome of the survey came out that the concern of almost every home is erosion,” Kalistook said.
That survey became the basis of a five-year strategic plan. And one of the students, Eric Tunuchuk, is working with Max Neale at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to apply for grants for Chefornak. The price tag? It’s estimated that the cost of building a seawall to protect the village of less than 500 people will cost $25 million. Funds from grants they apply for now won’t be arriving for a year or more.
“If we can use a million or two at a time,” Kalistook said, “Eventually we’ll get to save the village, I am hoping.”
To make their case they also need data on erosion, potentially from community monitoring programs now being put together by the state government, Alaska Ocean Observing Systems, and the Alaska Institute for Justice, which is already working with several Y-K Delta villages. Executive Director Robin Bronen says that the goal is to keep data collection simple and easy.
The big problem is that erosion does not qualify as an emergency under the Stafford Act, the law governing the federal emergency program. Bronen says that gathering data will help prove that erosion, in the face of climate change, is no longer slow moving, but a real emergency.
“What’s actually happening in communities shouldn’t be called erosion because it’s happening much faster,” Bronen said.
Bronen says that the price Alaska’s coastal communities are now paying for the loss of the protections ice and permafrost once provided against erosion, storm surges and flooding, is beyond an environmental problem. It’s a human rights challenge.
“The right to self-determination is the most critical right to protect when you’re talking about the way that climate change is affecting the habitability of the places where people have lived for generations,” Bronen said.
Back at Kalistook’s father’s house, the television plays in the living room while the elder contemplates ways to combat the erosion and flooding that is once again threatening his village.
“He wants something to do with probably putting most of the houses probably just further back from near the river,” Aylyuk said as she translates for her grandfather. “’Cause some of the houses are very old, and elders live there, and there is not much we can do.”
The walls of the Tunuchuk home are covered in photographs of loved ones: those that have passed on and those that remain. Tunuchuk says that one of his favorite things about Chefornak’s current location is its proximity to good fishing.Alexia Aylyuk, 18, holds up a live blackfish just caught outside her 79-year-old grandfather Paul Tunuchuk’s home in Chefornak. December 16, 2017. (Photo by Christine Trudeau / KYUK)
“Lots of fish around here. That’s why [we] moved right here,” Tunuchuk said.
A moment later, a family member hauls in a big bag filled with wriggling black fish.
“Fish, blackfish…” Tunuchuk said with a smile.
Next fall in Bethel, a climate change workshop will be offered to Y-K Delta communities by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the Western Alaska Landscape Conservation Cooperative.
A woman who embezzled over $300,000 from the Skagway Traditional Council was sentenced to serve 18 months in prison.
Delia Commander, 64, of Oregon pleaded guilty on one count of embezzlement and must pay almost the entire sum of $297,731 in restitution to the council, according to the office of Alaska’s District Attorney.
Commander was the tribal administrator for the Skagway tribe from 2008 to 2014. She was responsible for managing finances, grants, contracts, housing and more.
According to the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward, Commander successfully embezzled more money than in any other tribal fraud case she’s worked on.
“The Defendant plead guilty to embezzling $300,000, which is the equivalent of two full years of operating budget,” Steward said.
The tribe receives about $150,000 from the Bureau of Indian Affairs every year. Commander used some of that money to pay for college tuition, credit cards, cash advances at casinos and a trip to Hawaii.
Commander applied for grants from entities like the EPA for additional funds, and didn’t follow up on reporting.
The theft was discovered when she abruptly resigned three years ago as the council began to press for financial documentation and question her frequent absences.
Court documents say sentencing was difficult to decide in Commander’s case, since she was a “grandmother” with “no prior criminal history” and “a master’s degree.”
But prosecutors felt a significant sentence was justified partly to deter others from tribal fraud.
“There are over 200 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, most of them receiving some federal funding,” Steward said. “That system, in these remote places, and these small organizations, relies heavily on trust. Trust that the organizations and the people running them will spend it in the ways that they’re meant to be spent.”
Skagway Traditional Council still is working on repairing the financial damage.
Their new tribal administrator, Sara Kinjo-Hischer, said by email they were grateful it was over, and they can move forward.
Alaska’s distilleries are bracing for a shift that will bring big changes to tasting rooms. On Tuesday, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board adopted new regulations banning distilleries from serving cocktails – at least in the traditional sense.
The ABC Board voted 3-1 in favor of new regulations that mean no more gin and tonics, Moscow mules, negronis or other mixed drinks at Alaska’s distilleries.
“I understand this is a contentious issue,” ABC Board Director Erika McConnell said at Tuesday’s meeting. “And I understand this has a lot of impact on our nine distillery licensees.”
The rule, drafted by the Department of Law, clarifies what qualifies as a “distillery’s product.” That is, specifically a distilled spirit made on site.
It does not include ingredients like tonic, syrups, and juices used to mix drinks, even if they’re made on site.
Distilleries have been operating tasting rooms since they were legalized in 2014. And cocktails have been a part of the equation.
Janilyn Heger’s family owns Skagway Spirits, a distillery opened in the Northern Lynn Canal this summer. She worries about the new regulation significantly changing the experience of visiting her business.
“I know that all of the distillers are doing the same thing,” Heger said. “We’re harvesting local botanicals and we’re creating unique cocktails that are really showing off what we do in a unique environment. The whole thing is an experience. Part of that, at the very least, changes now with this decision.”
There is one catch with the new rule. It does allow mixers to be provided at distilleries. But staff can’t mix drinks behind the bar.
Assistant Attorney General Harriet Milks addressed the difference.
“An issue that the department of law raised was that if you mix the distillery’s distilled product with some other product, as long as you have, I think it’s one half of one percent alcohol, you have an alcoholic beverage and it’s your jurisdiction to regulate those alcoholic beverages,” Milks said.
So, you could get a ginger beer, lime and vodka – separately. But the customer would have to mix them together on their own if they wanted a Moscow Mule.
“We can make some fun out of it, I guess,” Heger said. “We can certainly make fun of this decision.”
Heather Shade, owner of the Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines, says her tasting room is currently operating as normal, until they receive official notice. Though, it will be closed for a couple weeks for vacation starting Jan. 28.
Brandon Howard owns Amalga Distillery in Juneau.
“They’ve put in a wildly inconvenient contrivance that is so absurd it’s nearing comical,” Howard said. “The fact that I can put an ounce and a half of gin on the counter next to a glass of tonic and then the customer can take that ounce and a half of gin and pour it into the glass of tonic and that is fine.”
Howard is still hopeful cocktails will get back on the menu.
“It just goes to show how badly a legislative fix is needed,” Howard said. “I think it’s good for us to now focus our energies on seeing HB269 pass through.”
Howard’s referring to pending legislation introduced by Representative Chris Tuck. House Bill 269 would clarify in state law that distillers can combine the “distillery’s product” with other ingredients, giving cocktails the OK.
Legislators who signed onto the original tasting room bill in 2014 have said they never intended to prohibit the sale of mixed drinks.
Over 500 pages of public comments were submitted on the new regulations. At Tuesday’s meeting, Director McConnell said the majority of comments supported the continued sale of cocktails.
But Assistant Attorney General Milks told the board the quantity of comments should not define the response.
“Public comment is never a popularity contest,” Milks said. “And it’s never a numbers game. So somebody can generate 200 or 500 or 1,000 form letters. That doesn’t make those public comments worth of necessarily any more weight than you give the two or three independently written comments.”
The new rule is not in effect yet. The regulation still needs to be reviewed by the Department of Law and signed by the Lieutenant Governor.
It goes into effect 30 days after getting that signature.
Southeast Alaska legislators all agree that the state needs to draw from the Alaska Permanent Fund to keep state government running. They also agree that a draw is only part of a fiscal solution. It’s the other parts of that solution that they disagree over.
Independent Rep. Dan Ortiz from Ketchikan sees the permanent fund as a major asset for the state.
“You know, that permanent fund is the best thing’s that happened in the history of our state in terms of government action, and it’s really important that we preserve that fund,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz said he’s willing to use the funds to run the state government, but he doesn’t want lawmakers to open the door to an annual process of deciding how much to take from permanent fund earnings.
“No, that’s not acceptable,” Ortiz said. “We can’t do that to the public.”
Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman said doing that would be too risky.
“The ad-hoc draws are very deadly because 21 and 11 – 21 members of the House and 11 members of the Senate – could clean everything out except what’s constitutionally protected in the permanent fund,” Stedman said.
To solve that problem, Stedman proposed a constitutional amendment that would limit the size of a draw from the fund and protect permanent fund dividends.
“You wouldn’t have the permanent fund to go to and just rob chunks out of,” Stedman said. “The door would be closed, and the lock on it would have been spun and you wouldn’t have the combination.”
For Stedman, this could be enough for this year. He doesn’t see the need to pass a broad-based tax now as part of the fiscal plan.
Juneau Democratic Rep. Sam Kito III disagrees. He said he’ll resist passing a bill drawing from the Permanent Fund – like the Permanent Fund Protection Act — if it doesn’t include a broad-based tax. He said including a tax as part of a comprehensive plan would ensure the plan is sustainable, and that its effects on different groups is balanced.
“I do think that it’s only a piece,” Kito said. “And I do have a concern that if we pass the Permanent Fund Protection Act without additional broad-based revenue that it will be virtually impossible to get broad-based revenue at any point in the future. And so, there needs to be some balance to the fiscal plan.”
The nonpartisan Legislative Finance Division estimated that if the legislature only draws from the permanent fund without additional revenue, there will be a budget gap of more than $560 million.
Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins said this is why he supports taxes as part of a comprehensive plan to balance the budget in the long run. He’s concerned that if the Legislature draws from fund earnings without a plan, it will continue to draw from earnings unpredictably in the future.
“This is one of the reasons why we need to pass a fiscal plan, because you can’t live in La La Land and think you can balance the budget simply talking about government waste and cutting government when there’s really no practical way to cut government anywhere close to the amount needed to balance the budget,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
Emily Kwong in Sitka, Leila Kheiry in Ketchikan and Berett Wilber in Haines contributed to this report. It is part of a CoastAlaska series talking with Southeast lawmakers about the start of the legislative session.
Gov. Bill Walker has appointed Kotzebue resident John Lincoln to serve as the state representative for District 40, which covers North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs. Walker made the appointment on Wednesday night, the deadline to fill the vacancy under state law.
The position became vacant on Dec. 25, when Dean Westlake resigned over allegations of sexual harassment by legislative aides and women outside of the Legislature.
Lincoln is the vice president responsible for managing lands for NANA Regional Corp.
The appointment is subject to confirmation by the House Democrats.
President Trump is credited with helping advance Alaska’s long sought gas pipeline project. Alaska Gasline Development Corporation president Keith Meyer told the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce yesterday that Trump administration goals dovetail with selling North Slope gas to Asia.
”We’re really getting a good reception in Washington and it’s largely because we have a project that fits very well with the administration goals of trade and infrastructure and energy export,” Meyer said.
Meyer says AGDC is spending a lot of time in Washington working with Whitehouse and agency officials on the estimated 43 billion dollar Alaska gas line project.
“And so we sort of, when we’re in Washington, brand this as America’s large energy infrastructure project,” Meyer said.
Meyer credits President Trump’s relationship with Chinese president Xi JinPing with helping grow interest in Alaska gas, pointing specifically to an April 2017 meeting.
”In that meeting at Mar-a-Lago, Florida, President Trump, because of the work we’d done in Washington, mentioned Alaska LNG,” Meyer said.
Meyer says that lead to Xi and other Chinese officials visiting Alaska, and Governor Walker signing an agreement with China to explore a financial backing for gas line capacity deal.
”And so this really sets now our course, a lot of our focus for 2018, to finalize the definitive agreements for this relationship,” Meyer said.
Noting that the state additionally has MOU’s to buy Alaska natural gas, with Vietnam, Korea and Japan, Meyer says a lot of paperwork has to be processed. He does not anticipate final decisions by China and other buyers and investors until 2019.
Gov. Bill Walker faced a deadline today to pick a state representative for District 40, which covers North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs. Walker hadn’t announced a decision by 5 p.m.
The seat became vacant on Dec. 25, when Dean Westlake resigned following allegations of sexual harassment by female legislative aides and women outside of the Legislature.
Walker spokesman Austin Baird said Walker chose to look outside of the first three candidates nominated by the local Democratic party.
“Gov. Walker, after reviewing the three initial candidates that were forwarded by House District 40 — he did do interviews in person here in the state Capitol with all three of those candidates — in addition, though, after communicating with the Democratic Party in House District 40, is also going to interview two other people,” Baird said.
Those new candidates are Kotzebue resident John Lincoln and Utqiagvik resident Abel Hopson-Suvlu.
Baird said Walker wants someone who is well prepared, but declined to say why Walker didn’t limit his choices to the original nominees: Kotzebue city council members Eugene Smith and Sandy Shroyer-Beaver and Utqiagvik resident Leanna Mack.
The pick must receive support from a majority of the 16 state representatives who are Democrats before taking office.
District 40 Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Winzer said Walker’s office consulted with the local party. But Winzer said she’s frustrated that the local party didn’t have the time to open up the application process again. State law requires the government appoint a replacement within 30 days.
“If they wanted another list of three, to me, the only fair way to do that is reopen an application and so forth,” Winzer said. “But by the time that they were really looking at that, it was too late.”
Winzer said many of the qualified residents in the District avoid partisan politics due to their work with Alaska Native corporations. And some potential candidates would have taken a pay cut to join the Legislature.
“Even if they can work the rest of the year at their regular job, it is still going to be a significant financial blow, probably,” Winzer said. “Especially the last couple of years, with not knowing how long the session’s going to last.”
Kotzebue’s John Lincoln is the vice president responsible for managing lands for NANA Regional Corporation. Abel Hopson-Suvlu of Utqiagvik is adviser to the president of Arctic Slope Native Association.
Yesterday’s early morning magnitude 7.9 earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska prompted emergency tsunami alerts that popped up on thousands of Alaskans’ cell phones.
The National Tsunami Warning Center’s alerts even went to phones in Anchorage, where there was no threat of a tsunami. That’s because communities in the same alert zone, like Whittier, could have been struck by a tsunami.
But another group of Alaska cell phone customers around the state did not get the message via the Wireless Emergency Alert network: subscribers to GCI.
Federal Communications Commission guidelines have gotten the largest cellular companies in the U.S., like AT&T and Verizon, to upgrade their systems to deliver the alerts, but GCI will not be sending those messages until next year, not automatically anyway.
GCI spokesperson Heather Handyside said that’s because the company is among roughly 100 smaller wireless providers that needed more time.
“The longer deadline is because this is a very complicated, date-intensive process that involves tens of thousands of wireless phone numbers and geolocating them, so it’s just very complicated,” Handyside said.
A 10-person team has been working on the upgrades for about six months, Handyside said. GCI plans to be integrated with the Wireless Emergency Alert system by May of 2019, she said.
In the meantime, GCI offers its more than 100,000 wireless customers an app to get emergency alerts. It can be found wherever you get your smartphone apps by searching “GCI alerts.”
Two Juneau judges are retiring this summer, but it’s unclear if applications will be immediately accepted for both seats or just one.
The Alaska Court System hopes to upgrade one of the seats at the Dimond Courthouse to deal with increases in serious criminal and civil cases.
Juneau District Court Judge Thomas Nave is retiring at the end of June. He was appointed to the bench in 2010.
Doug Wooliver, deputy administrative director for the Alaska Court System, said they’re proposing legislation to upgrade that position to another Superior Court seat.
Money for the additional salary and benefits, about $35,000 a year, would come from previous cost savings.
The new judge will share staff with the two other Superior Court judges already working there.
Superior Court cases are bottlenecked at the Dimond Courthouse, Wooliver said.
“The Superior Court handles felons and the District Court (handles) misdemeanants in the criminal arena,” Wooliver said. “Superior Court does all family law matters, probate matters, and things like that. Sometimes District Court cases can also be very, very complex. But, in general, Superior Court work is more time-intensive and complex than District Court work.”
The other District Court seat currently is held by Judge Kirsten Swanson.
Wooliver said the new Superior Court judge could step in anytime as a District Court judge. The new judge could also preside over cases in other communities as the need arises.
After nearly seven years on the bench, Juneau Superior Court Judge Louis Menendez also is retiring June 29, the same day as Judge Nave.
“In Alaska, judges have to retire when they are 70,” Susanne DiPietro, executive director of the Alaska Judicial Council, said. “Judge Menendez falls into that category.”
DiPietro said they’re accepting applications from anyone who’s worked as a lawyer in Alaska for the past five years.
A wide range of experience in criminal and civil law in Alaska is ideal, but not required.
Applications are due by Feb. 2.
The council will do background checks on all of the applicants, and send a survey out to all Alaska attorneys asking them to comment on each applicant’s qualifications.
“The council’s process is very clear, not all of the qualified applicants will be nominated, but only the most qualified of the group,” DiPietro said. “The cream of the crop, the tallest timber is how the constitutional founders referred to it.”
The council will meet in Juneau to interview applicants and hold a public hearing before selecting at least two nominees. Gov. Bill Walker will then have 45 days to appoint someone to the bench.
Costco may move into a Fairbanks building being vacated by Sam’s Club. Fairbanks North Star Borough officials announced Monday that senior Costco representatives have entered into an agreement with the borough to occupy the 161,000-square-foot warehouse store building off College Road.
A borough news release says the Costco reps met with Borough Mayor Karl Kassel and other local officials last week, and toured the big box store.
The news release emphasizes that officials with Seattle-based Costco, quote, “are in the early stages of evaluating the property but are optimistic about moving ahead quickly”.
Sam’s Club is scheduled to close its Alaska stores Friday as part of nationwide restructuring.
The board that regulates Alaska’s legal marijuana industry has a more industry-friendly chair.
State marijuana regulators also reacted to the Trump administration’s more hard-line approach to pot.
Mark Springer was elected Wednesday by fellow board members on the Marijuana Control Board.
Board member Brandon Emmett, an active proponent of legal marijuana, praised Springer’s tenure to date.
“You’ve been a member of this board since its inception and I feel that you’ve brought a measured approach to all the decisions you’ve made on the board,” Emmett said. “I think you make a fine chair.”
A Bethel city councilman, Springer replaces Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik, who some pot business owners had accused of being a “prohibitionist” hostile to the industry.
Alaska Marijuana Industry Association executive director Cary Carrigan said by contrast Springer has proven even-handed.
“I consider him extremely objective and consider him really well-read and thoughtful about what he makes decisions on,” Carrigan said after the vote. “And I’ve seen him pull back on things that which I thought could have been pushed forward but at the same time I think it’s because of that thoughtful approach that I think he’s going to be a really big addition and I really approve of him as being the chair.”
Mlynarik resigned last month after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo calling marijuana “a dangerous drug.”
Sessions’ also rescinded Obama administration-era legal guidance to federal prosecutors advising them to defer to state laws.
Mlynarik explained his resignation saying the Trump administration’s posture undercut the legitimacy of state-regulated marijuana.
Alaska Department of Law says it’s still business as usual.
“In terms of the day-to-day operation of Alaska’s licensed marijuana businesses, the Sessions memo by itself doesn’t change things,” Assistant Attorney General Harriet Milks, who advises the marijuana control board, said.
Milks told the board that the most troubling aspect of Washington’s hostile approach is the roadblocks that remain for banks to do business with the industry.
“There’s some concern – it’s just concern – that financial institutions will be ever more reluctant to work with cannabis businesses,” Milks told the board. “That will leave the multi-billion dollar cannabis industry highly vulnerable, or more vulnerable, to criminal activity — not to mention creating problems for states’ efforts to track and collect taxes.”
Most banks already refuse to accept the proceeds of legal marijuana for fear of running afoul of federal laws.
Alaska’s attorney general has joined 18 others to petition Congress to update the law.
Mlynarik’s resignation also left an opening for a public safety designee on the board, which has since been filled by Gov. Walker who’s appointed North Slope Borough Police Chief Travis Welch.
Welch’s appointment and the reappointment of two other sitting members will be subject to confirmation by the Alaska Legislature.
A 23-car pileup closed a slippery stretch of the Johansen Expressway for nearly three hours Tuesday afternoon. Only minor injuries were reported, but the chain-reaction wrecks closed the two westbound lanes between Peger Road and University Avenue – right after four state Department of Transportation snowplows had passed through the area.
State Transportation Department spokeswoman Meadow Bailey says the weather we’ve been having over the past week has created the perfect conditions for very slick roadways.
“We had rain last week, followed by freezing temperatures, and then just a continuous dusting of snow,” Bailey said Tuesday. “And when we have conditions like that, there’s really nothing we can do to get that layer of ice off the road.”
But Bailey said Tuesday afternoon that DOT has been trying its best in recent days to clear snow and at least scratch the surface of the ice, and then spread sand on it.
“We have all of our resources out right now — all of our equipment that’s available, all of our staff,” Bailey said. “They’ve been working since last week.”
In fact, Bailey says the crews and equipment were working on the Johansen Expressway Tuesday afternoon, immediately before the drivers of 23 vehicles lost control in a chain-reaction wreck near the western end of the expressway.
“We actually had four pieces of equipment out – two regular plows and two tow-plows,” Bailey said. “They were plowing the full width of the Johansen, and putting down sand really just before this crash.”
Bailey says two snowplows that were sent to make one last run over the Johansen were instead unable to get through, because of the pileup, which closed the two westbound lanes from about 2:45 to 5:30 p.m. She says the wrecks should focus the minds of motorists on the need to employ such wintertime driving habits as slowing down and maintaining a safe following distance.
“This was a section of road that was sanded and plowed very recently,” Bailey said. “And it’s just a reminder to everyone that we need to slow down in these conditions.”
Alaska State Troopers say only minor injuries were reported. Troopers handled the wreck, with help from UAF and city police. Fairbanks police spokeswoman Yumi McCullough says city officers had responded to five wrecks and three motorist-assist calls by about 5 Tuesday evening. She city police urge motorists to just slow down, even if some stretches of road don’t look as slippery as they really are.
“It’s got that thin layer of ice on there and a little bit of snow on top of it,” McCullough said, which “makes it seem like it might be OK.”
Temperatures around the pileup were around 15 below And Troopers say the borough sent a public transit bus to the scene to give motorists and their passengers a place to warm up while Troopers investigated the wreck. Troopers say their investigation into the wrecks is ongoing.
Meanwhile, Bailey says DOT crews will continue to run blades over the ice and spread sand on it. But she says the area’s roads are likely to remain slippery for a while.