APRN Alaska News
One of the Fairbanks Four is suing the city and four Fairbanks police officers over allegations that his civil rights were violated by police during their investigation of a 1997 murder, which led to a trial and conviction of the plaintiff and three other defendants in 1999.
Marvin Roberts claims in a suit filed Thursday in Federal Court in Fairbanks that the four officers falsely accused him and his three co-defendants of the murder of 15-year-old John Hartman. The suit claims the four officers built their case on phony evidence, and that they and corrupt city officials disregarded evidence that incriminated others and instead pushed for conviction of the four defendants, who came to be known as the Fairbanks Four.
“There’s basic safeguards that the police and others involved in the system,” Michael Kramer, Roberts’s attorney, said. “And some of those are basic investigatory techniques that don’t just focus on a single individual or a single suspect.”
Kramer says the lawsuit also asks the judge to release Roberts from the terms of a agreement the city offered the Fairbanks Four in 2015, after another man confessed to the killing. The city offered to vacate charges against the Four, who by then had spent 18 years behind bars, but in exchange, the four men had to agree to withdraw their claims of prosecutorial misconduct. The agreement also required them not to sue the state, the city of Fairbanks or any of the officers or others involved in the case.
“It was an inherently coercive agreement that he entered into it, although the city’s going to try and hide behind it,” Kramer said. “We think that the judge will find that he was under extreme duress, that the agreement was coerced and that it just can’t be enforced as a matter of public policy.”
Kramer says if the judge agrees, Roberts will seek damages that will enable him to recover some of the income he was unable to earn while behind bars.
“He lost out on the most productive years of his life,” Kramer said. “And while he can’t get those years back, one thing we can do to this case is make the city accept responsibility and hopefully provide some compensation for him, in the end.”
City officials declined to comment on the case today, claiming they hadn’t had a chance to review the complaint.
The other three defendants are George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent. Frese and Pease are Athabascan, and Vent is also Native American. The lawsuit alleges prejudice by investigators and other officials against indigenous people played a role in the conviction.
A hearing on the lawsuit has not yet been scheduled.
Aging in Alaska is both challenging and wonderful. The state’s rapidly growing population of people who are 65 and older are strengthening their communities by contributing time and wisdom, and building the economy. On the next Talk of Alaska we’ll hear from elders about what it’s like to grow older here and what needs to happen to make that more feasible and fun.
This program is part of Alaska Public Media’s Solutions Desk. Check out this month’s stories on aging in Alaska. Want to learn more about Social Security? Listen to Hometown, Alaska: Social Security 101.
HOST: Anne Hillman
- Marlene Johnson
- Sally Robertson
- 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 email@example.com (comments may be read on air)
LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, December 12, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.
The Alaska House Majority Coalition is calling for Democratic representative Dean Westlake of Kiana to resign amid sexual harassment allegations.
The allegations surfaced after a Wednesday report showed a former Legislative staffer claimed Westlake had harassed her on two different occasions.
Since then, according to the Anchorage Daily News, a total of seven women have come forward with sexual harassment allegations against Westlake. In a release from the House Majority, House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said in part, “it is difficult for victims to speak out, especially against elected officials in a position of power and [the House leaders] commend anyone who has been mistreated for coming forward; they are owed justice and respect.”
The Alaska Democratic Party echoed similar sentiments about Westlake, stating that the alleged behavior “cannot be tolerated” and that he should resign immediately.
The allegations coincide with the Legislature’s plans to revise their existing sexual harassment policies.
In one of the most industrial stretches of the state, next to machinists, breweries and a scrap-metal recycler, is an almost-secret aviary. It’s a warehouse inhabited by loons, owls, eagles, song-birds and the occasional falcon. The Bird Treatment and Learning Center, or Bird TLC, is a non-profit that’s somewhere in between a veterinary clinic, animal shelter and a zoo. And it’s on the cusp of moving to a dramatically different new home.
“This is where all the craziness begins,” Amy Kilshaw said while giving a tour one morning in November. Through a fluorescent lit front-room, beyond the bird operating ward, and past several enclosures called mews, each the size of walk-in closets, Kilshaw stood a few inches from a peregrine falcon.
“This one came from Dillingham,” Kilshaw said of football-sized bird. On the other side of an opaque screen the falcon calmly stood in place, barely moving or reacting to the presence of humans.
“She may have had some head trauma, because she’s just not quite all there,” Kilshaw explained. “Falcons normally are very neurotic and very high energy birds. So she is abnormally calm.”
Animals are brought here from all around the state, then Kilshaw and a group of volunteer veterinarians have to work backwards to figure out what happened.
“Unfortunately they don’t come in with name-tags of, ‘Hi, I’m Sam, and I hit a car.’ That would be nice,” Kilshaw laughed with a note of melancholy.
Because of the falcon’s sedate demeanor, it may not be released back into the wild.
“It might just be sending her to her death if we did that,” Kilshaw explained.
Of the birds that can’t leave, many become educational resources, living here or at the homes of volunteers, sometimes in large outdoor mews.
So far this year, Bird TLC has taken in more than six hundred birds, according to Kilshaw, which is down from 2016. Their busiest season by far is the summer, when up to 20 birds will be brought in a day, filling every available spot in the 2,300-square-foot space. Including a few chilly outdoor mews.Avian Rehabilitation Coordinator Amy Kilshaw stands in front of an aquatic mew in the warehouse where Bird TLC is based on King Street in South Anchorage (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)
“This is a juvenile bald eagle that came from…I can’t remember now,” Kilshaw said in between trilling yelps from the bird as it bounced up and down from log perches. It was either Unalaska or Kodiak, she thought. Either way, its feathers were saturated with an oily industrial substance that had so far proven impervious to conventional cleaning techniques. They might have to wait until the bird malted to release it.
This is one of the only entities in Alaska that’s capable of not only of rehabilitating injured birds, but navigating tricky state and federal protocols when it comes to animals with special protected statuses, like bald eagles (the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka handles most of the injured avians in Southeast). About half of all the birds taken in are eventually released. Some are big and majestic, but the majority are migratory fowl or tiny song-birds that have hit upon misfortune. For example a tan pine grosbeak about the size of a fist.
“They’ll often eat berries that have been fermenting, and they get drunk and they hit things,” Kilshaw said of the watchful gosbeak.
A small number of the accidents Bird TLC ends up treating are natural occurrences. But Kilshaw and her volunteers are primarily concerned with injuries caused by humans and the world they’ve built in bird habitats.
“Ninety percent of the time it’s human caused,” Kilshaw said, pointing to attacks by domestic dogs and cats, building and car collisions, as well as accidents on roads as examples. “That’s why I do it. Because it’s not nature, it’s us. It’s human induced. So I think it’s our duty to help these birds.”
As part of its educational programming, Bird TLC non-releasable animals into schools or public outreach events (during this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives Convention they provided a snowy owl to the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation’s display booth. According to the company, the word Ukpeaġvik means “a place to hunt snowy owls.”). Part of the small non-profit’s agenda is getting tourists and residents up close with creatures they might only ever see soaring way up in the sky.A snowy owl used as an educational resource by Bird TLC at the 2017 AFN Convention in Anchorage (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)
“It’s really incredible to get to see these birds up close,” Guy Runco said. Runco is the non-profit’s executive director, and the only other paid staff member beside Kilshaw. “They’re around us all the time, we just rarely see them.”
Runco is a man who seems genuinely excited about all birds. He cherishes ravens for their superior intelligence. He has kinder things to say about golden eagles than their bald scavenger cousins. And he has a special place in his heart for black-billed magpies because they are “a great family bird, they really stick together.”
But his role at the center has given him a unique perspective informed by how particular species behave under human care. Swans, for example, are not ideal guests.
“I think swans are big, beautiful birds, and I love it when they’re out in the wild,” Runco said, explaining that indoors they are large, temperamental, and “incredibly hard to take care of.”
According to Runco, the current location on King Street in the Taku-Cambell area works because it’s easy for people to drive to, and there is a lake nearby for releasing birds back into the wild. But presently Bird TLC is focused on building a new facility further south above Potter Marsh. It’ll be 4,000 square feet, about twice the size of this current facility, with more space for rehabilitation, as well as for public engagement.
The upgrade is being paid for by corporate and individual donations, as well as revenues from birds appearing at outreach events. Runco hopes they’ll be in the facility by winter of next year.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority’s board of directors on Thursday approved selling Pentex Alaska Natural Gas Company and its assets, including Fairbanks Natural Gas, to the Interior Gas Utility.
AIDEA’s seven-member board made its sale of Pentex to the IGU official Thursday with unanimous votes on four resolutions that each addressed different aspects of the sale. Before the first vote, board member Gary Wilken of Fairbanks likened AIDEA and IGU to two members of a football team that was finally ready to score, after nearly a year of due diligence and negotiations over the deal.
“Today,” Wilken said, “I hope we’re going to take that ball and pass it to IGU, and they’re going to score a touchdown and make this an investment-grade utility that benefits Interior Alaska.”
Bernie Karl is another Fairbanksan who serves on the board. He said he would’ve preferred a better deal, but he urged fellow board members to approve the one before them.
“I’m telling you, this is the best deal we have going,” Karl said. “So, we have to go for it.”
In his comments, board Chairman Dana Pruhs pointed out two advantages to the three-year gas-supply contract that comes as part of the deal. He said it freezes the gas price at the present level, which should protect IGU ratepayers from price hikes. And it allows an increase in volume without any price penalty. Pruhs says that should help the IGU as it brings on additional customers by convincing them to convert from fuel oil or firewood or other heating sources.
“The hurdle I see is the focus on conversions,” Pruhs said. “That’s critical – all hands on deck. It’s important that the community gets behind it, and the community does things to facilitate it.”
The deal approved Thursday calls for IGU to buy Pentex for $54 million, the amount AIDEA paid for the company in 2015, plus about $5.5 million – the rate of return since AIDEA acquired Pentex in 2015. The company’s assets include Fairbanks Natural Gas; the Titan Alaska LNG production facility at Point MacKenzie, in southcentral; and other subsidiaries that manage LNG storage and transport for Pentex.
When it came his turn to vote, Karl made his support trebly clear when the clerk called on him for his vote, to which he replied: “Yes, yes, yes!”
The fourth and final vote on the deal called for construction of an additional LNG storage tank and processing facilities in Fairbanks. The complex, including the 5.25 million-gallon tank, would cost $45.5 million to build and would be paid for through a loan that AIDEA has offered as part of the whole Pentex-sale package.
Dan Britton, president of both Pentex and Fairbanks Natural Gas, says the tank would provide capacity for additional customers who convert to natural gas. And he says it also would boost the city’s existing five-day gas-storage supply capacity to up to 40 days’ supply. He says that would to provide assurance to customers who may hesitate to convert over concerns about an interruption in the supply of gas.
“So that gives a comfort level to people converting from an alternative heating source to gas – knowing that we have LNG in a tank in Fairbanks ready for use during the extreme cold in the winter,” Britton said.
Britton says site work on the project will begin almost immediately, so the contractor can begin work while the ground is frozen and stable.
This week we’re hearing from Peter Twitchell in Bethel. Twitchell was the former host of KYUK’s Geezer Rock radio show which aired its final episode on October 27.
TWITCHELL: This is a village started by five people, and one of them was my grandfather — my mom’s dad. He was from Nelson Island. I’m getting old… 67. My wife always tells me I’m just a young guy, trying to brainwash me.
I grew up across the river in the 50s. With these children of the Army families and Civil Aeronautics Administration families. So I spoke a lot of English. It didn’t sound right to speak Yup’ik. Although I heard it all my life, since I was a little boy. Growing up in our house, listening to my grandma, my mom, her sisters, all her friends. I couldn’t speak it fluently, you know. It was all jumbled up in my head. I knew the words, but I had to learn how to talk.
And that only came through practice, and I got my practice speaking my language here at the radio station. I had to translate five minutes of news every day when I first started here. Fresh out of high school, in ’71 when this station opened. Just a little room with a microphone and a transmitter, and that’s how they started KYUK. So I got a chance to start speaking my language, although I was not really fluent.
But it’s funny, I talked to a friend of mine, he used to manage the station here back in 1977. His name was Henry Ivanoff. He’s from Unalakleet. But that was 22,23 years ago, and his voice still sounds the same. But we’re all aging. It’s a funny thing, the voice doesn’t change too much.
This interview was gathered by the interns at KYUK in Bethel.
An effort to smuggle heroin and meth from Anchorage to Togiak went awry in Dillingham Monday, after the mule got picked up for trespassing downtown.
Dillingham Police took a report that Josephine Williams, a 35-year-old from Togiak, was intoxicated at the Bristol Inn, disturbing guests and refusing to leave. Police said that after they arrived they told her to leave the property several more times. When she continued to refuse, Williams was arrested. Her blood alcohol content, according to DPD, was .286 percent.
An officer searched Williams’ belongings at the jail. In the lining of her bra, police found 22 grams of black tar heroin and 25 grams of methamphetamine.
It was a “large seizure for the Dillingham police,” DPD chief Dan Pasquariello said. Pasquariello spent years working alongside the state trooper Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team.
“Around Bristol Bay people sell one tenth of a gram of heroin for $100, and they sell two tenths of a gram of methamphetamine for $100. If you do math on the seizure, the total value of those drugs here in Bristol Bay would be $34,500,” Pasquariello said.
According to the police report, Williams said an individual from Togiak paid for her trip to Anchorage, where she was given the drugs to transport to Togiak. When she got stranded in Dillingham on the way back, the individual sent her $380 through Western Union for the cost of her hotel.
Williams told police the individual was supposedly going to pay her rent for a month, approximately $700, for muling in the drugs to Togiak.
At this time, police are not naming the suspected mastermind of this poorly orchestrated drug smuggling operation.
Only Williams is facing charges: she was booked on two counts of second degree misconduct involving a controlled substance, plus one count of trespassing.
The defendant was tearful at her arraignment in Dillingham Court Tuesday, and said she was hopeful she could go home soon.
Williams was appointed an attorney, and her bail was set at $2,000. Her next appearance in court is scheduled for December 15.
Several students have been caught selling marijuana edibles at Bethel Regional High School. The incidents took place this past September to early October. Parents contacted the Lower Kuskokwim School District staff with suspicions that their children might be involved.
Superintendent Dan Walker said that LKSD then worked with the parents and the Bethel Police Department to investigate the drug dealing.
“’Marijuana oil laced gummy bears’ is the way it was described to me,” Walker said. “It was investigated by Bethel Police Department and students involved were issued some discipline.”
Walker cited confidentiality in saying that he could not comment on the specifics, like who the individuals were and what disciplinary actions have been taken; neither could the Bethel Police Department. BPD said that the matter is now being taken up by the Juvenile Justice Division and the District Attorney’s Office.
Walker says that the number of incidents that have occurred already this year is unprecedented.
“Given our experience over the last four or five years, you know we might have an incident here and there, but I would say at least five incidents that I can remember off the top of my head this year that required my level of intervention,” Walker said.
Walker intervenes when his authorization is needed for discipline beyond what site administrators are allowed to impose.
“So yeah, I’m a little concerned about that at this point,” Walker said.
LKSD Safety Coordinator Perry Barr, who oversees everything regarding school safety from drugs and alcohol to security issues, said that the laced “gummy bear” candies were sold at $5 a piece.
“The dangerous thing about that is you don’t know the potency of the THC that’s in the gummy bears,” Barr said.
THC is the active ingredient in marijuana. Barr says that high doses of it in edibles can have much more intense and long lasting effects than a small amount. He says that the issue of edibles is a new one for the district.
“Since Alaska legalized marijuana, they also legalized edibles. So marijuana, or the THC, is coming in many different forms. Unfortunately, some of those forms are in candy,” Barr said
Barr says that the District’s policy involves educating students and providing treatment resources, including social workers district-wide.
“One of the most important things is actually getting the children to realize how dangerous drugs and alcohol is,” Barr said.
For years, as the eroding village of Newtok has tried to relocate, it’s run up against one stubborn challenge: the cost of housing.
Now, village leaders think they might have found a solution. And it comes from an unexpected place: an Anchorage military base.
On a recent November day, Jay Farmwald drove onto Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and pointed out several long rows of modular dorms, single-story units attached end to end.
“These are the units right here,” Farmwald said.
Farmwald works for the Denali Commission, the federal agency most involved in trying to relocate Newtok. And these buildings are at the center of a plan hatched by the commission, the Newtok Village Council, the base and the Defense Logistics Agency, which handles excess military equipment.
The units were used for more than a decade as temporary barracks for soldiers, while the base built permanent dormitories. Now they’re empty, and the military has to get rid of them.
So why not send them to Newtok?
Farmwald said he was skeptical at first. But the plan has some major upsides. Like, cost.
“The big part of the equation that is enticing is the barracks are free,” Farmwald said. “They’re excess to the military [and] they’re in good condition.”
They were also built to be transported, originally built as modules in Seattle and moved to Anchorage. That means they can be disassembled, barged out to Western Alaska, and reassembled at Newtok’s new site.
If that sounds kind of nuts, well, it might be. But the problem Newtok is facing is also kind of nuts.
The village’s current site is rapidly disappearing as the Ninglick River eats away at the land, and there isn’t enough money to move everyone to Mertarvik, the new site residents have chosen up-river.The temporary barracks housed soldiers at JBER for about a decade. Now they may go to Newtok. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)
Government agencies that fund crucial infrastructure like a power plant, airport or school won’t commit money to Mertarvik until there are enough people living there. That means housing. But agencies that fund housing won’t commit money without the promise of infrastructure.
It’s a chicken and egg situation, Farmwald said, and it’s been an obstacle for years.
One major selling point for this new plan is it would get a critical mass of houses to Mertarvik all at once.
“And that might be just enough to get the snowball really rolling down the hill,” Farmwald said.
The barracks themselves are no-nonsense: rows of identical beige siding with identical metal staircases leading up to identical red doors.
Darryl Parks, head of operations for the base’s civil engineering unit, offered a tour. He said, after more than ten years of use, the units have held up well.
“Considering we put soldiers through these things — 19, 20, 21-year-old kids — and let them live in here on their own, and they’re not beat up at all,” Parks said. “I think they can handle families.”
Each individual unit has three bedrooms, a small kitchenette and a bathroom. They’re pretty spartan. But Jimmy Charles, Jr., who heads the Newtok Native Corporation, said that’s not a problem.
Charles was visiting the units for the first time.
“It’s a lot better than what they have at the villages,” Charles said, noting that the current housing in Newtok is so dilapidated and overcrowded that these decade-old temporary barracks would be a major improvement.
“Back home, the living quarters are so small,” Charles said. “Some of the houses have nine people.”
The plan is to put two of these individual units together and renovate them to create single-family homes.
Charles’ wife Katherine, who sits on the Newtok Village Council, said she’s already imagining moving in. The couple’s current home has two bedrooms and eight people. They sleep in the living room.
“I can’t wait to move in here,” Katherine said, laughing. “With my own bedroom!”
There are still several steps before that happens. The military is offering the barracks themselves for free, but they’ll have to be retrofitted, with new heating systems and potentially new roofs and more insulation.
A feasibility study determined that the cost of remodeling the units, disassembling them, barging them to Newtok and reassembling them is still less than building similar-sized homes new — testament to the high cost of construction in rural Alaska.
But it will cost an estimated $4.5 million to get one barge-full, or about thirteen homes, to the new site. The Denali Commission has committed $3.5 million to the project. The village is still working out the rest of the funding.
If all goes according to plan, there could be as many as 20 homes and maybe a hundred people living at the new village site by the end of 2019. It’s perhaps a quarter of the housing they’ll eventually need. But, after more than a decade of trying to develop the new site, it would be something of a miracle for Newtok.
A ballot initiative aimed at protecting Alaska’s salmon habitat is kicking up a controversy. Environmental groups call it a needed step to protect Alaska’s most iconic — and lucrative — fish. But the state, many industry groups and several Alaska Native corporations are speaking out against it.
If Alaskans are confused about what the ballot initiative would actually do, that’s understandable. Both sides can’t seem to agree on how it would affect future development in Alaska.
At a Stand for Salmon event held in Anchorage this fall, supporter Arlo Davis collected his first signature from Kevin Illingworth.
As he signed on, Illingworth said like a lot of Alaskans, he thinks protecting salmon should be a priority.
“I know the importance of salmon to our entire state — not just any one group or individual, but to all of us,” Illingworth said.
Illingworth’s signature is just one of 32,127 Stand for Salmon’s organizers need to pin down before mid-January to get it on the ballot. That’s not the only hurdle. The state thinks the initiative is unconstitutional and is challenging it in court.
Here are some basics: Salmon habitat in Alaska is extensive, so the initiative assumes all the state’s water bodies are habitat for salmon and other, similar fish species, unless proven otherwise. If a project will significantly impact salmon habitat, it’s put through a much tougher vetting process by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Also, the state could require the public to weigh in before permitting a project.
And importantly, the initiative gives the state more power to stop projects altogether.
Industry groups hate the initiative.
“We don’t believe this initiative is standing for salmon at all. We think it’s shutting down the state economy, communities and our way of life,” Deantha Crockett, with the Alaska Miners Association, said at a recent conference.
Other industries and Native corporations banding against the initiative use similar language, saying it will set “near-impossible new standards” for development.
Take a big proposed mining project like the Pebble Mine or the Donlin Mine. Those mines are in areas with salmon habitat, which isn’t unusual in Alaska.
“Probably most large mines are going to somehow impact fish habitat and that’s unavoidable,” Richard Mylius said. Mylius, former director of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Mining Land and Water, is against the initiative.
In some cases, Mylius said a mine’s impact is permanent. According to legal documents filed by the state, the Donlin mine will eliminate two fish streams — forever.
“When you’re creating a permanent facility that’s always going to be there, you can’t mitigate that specific stream or restore that specific stream, because it’s not there anymore,” Mylius said.
But Mylius added that companies can’t just walk away and do nothing about it. Today, the state makes them compensate by restoring salmon habitat somewhere else, sometimes in a different water body.
The Stand for Salmon initiative would tighten the rules — all restoration, mitigation or preservation has to be in the same water body that’s damaged. If that’s not possible, then the project can’t go forward.
“Far away projects in other areas can’t compensate for the loss of function to the local community,” Valerie Brown of Trustees for Alaska, a legal organization supporting the initiative, wrote in an email.
Opponents say that’s one reason why Stand for Salmon is designed to block big projects like Donlin, but it will also impede smaller ones, like airstrips and roads.
But Stand for Salmon’s backers say this is an overreaction.
“If you actually do take a hard look at this and keep an open mind, you’ll see that this shift is not going to be dramatic — it’s not going to dramatically impact the way you can and do business,” Emily Anderson of the Wild Salmon Center said. Anderson helped write the initiative.
Anderson argued that in many cases, project builders can avoid permanently damaging salmon streams, like by putting a mine in a slightly different spot or by using different technology. But Anderson also acknowledged that under the initiative, some projects won’t make the cut.
“There’s a standard in here — a standard of care that says, ‘if you’re going to substantially damage Alaska’s fisheries, Fish and Game can say no to your permit,’” Anderson said.
Anderson called this is a paradigm shift for Alaska — but she said it’s an important one.
“There has to be some sort of upper limit or upper threshold and the ability built into the system for the state to say, ‘you know, this isn’t going to work with us,’” Anderson said.
But there’s another significant wrinkle to this controversy — a legal wrinkle. Stand for Salmon’s lawyers and the state’s lawyers fundamentally disagree on whether the initiative goes against the state’s constitution. The question is, does it mean that one state resource — salmon — would take priority over minerals, oil, hydropower and all Alaska’s other resources?
The Alaska Supreme Court will have the final word on that this spring. If the initiative wins in court and gets enough signatures, next year, it will be on the ballot.
Three Congress members opposed to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are challenging the revenue projections for that endeavor, and they have fresh evidence on their side.
The Democratic members wrote a letter asking the Congressional Budget Office to re-evaluate the estimate that lease sales in the refuge could raise $2.2 billion over 10 years, split evenly between the federal treasury and the state of Alaska.
The letter, from top Democrats on the House Resources Committee, points to the annual lease sale held this week for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, to the west of Prudhoe Bay. More than 10 million acres were offered but bids totaled just over a million dollars.
The letter says at that rate, the coastal plain of the refuge would raise only $180,000.
The NPR-A lease sale was lackluster compared to last year’s. Only seven tracts drew bids.
One longtime observer of Alaska’s petroleum industry says companies may have concluded most of the promising tracts in the reserve are either already leased or currently off-limits.
The Arctic Refuge sits to the east of Prudhoe Bay. A sweeping tax bill pending in Congress could open the refuge to its first lease sale.
The letter-writers are Reps. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, and Californians Jared Huffman and Alan Lowenthal.
They did not mention this week’s state lease sale on the North Slope. It raised $21 million in high bids.
The U.S. Senate Thursday confirmed Alaskan Joe Balash as assistant secretary of Interior for land and minerals management.
Balash was Alaska’s commissioner of Natural Resources, then became chief of staff for Sen. Dan Sullivan. Both of Alaska’s senators say he’s well qualified for the job, which puts him in charge of the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and other offices.
But there was dissent. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., pointed out that Balash pressed Alaska’s failed claim to 20,000 acres on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Cantwell argued that if Balash has the Interior job, he’ll be able to act as judge on his old case.
“That claim that was turned down, he could reverse that,” Cantwell said.
When asked about recusals at his confirmation hearing, Balash said he would consult with the department’s ethics officer and comply with the rules. Cantwell says the rules are too lax.
Sullivan says Balash’s experience is an asset.
“When you have someone who has worked on land issues in a state, the idea of making yourself be recused because you have expertise and policy from your state job when you go into a federal job, to me, seems outrageous,” Sullivan said.
In the end, Balash won a bipartisan vote, 61-38.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, says he’s looking forward to Balash playing a critical role in coal country.
The recent avalanche death of a longtime Anchorage ski coach with decades of experience in Alaska’s mountains shocked those who knew him.
But as much as Randy Bergt knew about avalanche danger, his death represents a phenomenon not unfamiliar in backcountry skiing: sometimes, even snow safety experts get caught in avalanches.
Bergt spent years coaching up-and-coming cross-country skiers, including the dominant Service High School teams in the mid- to late-’90s and even some athletes who went on to the Olympics. The recently retired 60-year-old was considered a pillar of the ski community. Service’s recent Snowball ski race finals we’re dedicated to Bergt.
It isn’t a surprise Bergt’s contributions to skiing are part of how he’s being memorialized. More unexpected is that he died skiing, in the alpine, buried under 4 feet of snow at Hatcher Pass the day before Thanksgiving.
“It’s like finding out the best driver you knew just got in a bad car wreck,” Gary Snyder said. Snyder is a high school science teacher and fellow ski coach who spent time in the backcountry with Bergt.
“Here’s a guy who had a ton of experience,” Snyder said. “He thought things through a lot. He paid attention to details, and clearly he knew a lot about avalanches, and then to have him die in an avalanche is really shocking.”
Snyder is not alone in struggling to understand what happened.
Bergt was with two other skiers on Marmot Mountain and was the first to descend. The most recent avalanche forecast noted a weak layer in the snowpack.
Bergt triggered an avalanche reportedly 150 feet wide by 800 feet long. His group carried the recommended avalanche rescue gear: beacons, probes and shovels. Bergt’s partners dug him out, but their attempt to resuscitate him was unsuccessful.
Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center director Jed Workman said a major factor in the accident is that instead of fanning out, the snow funneled into what’s known as a terrain trap.
“This was a fairly thin avalanche, but getting buried in a ravine, it increased the depth,” Workman said.
The avalanche hazard was rated “considerable.” But considerable is in the middle of a scale that has five degrees of risk, and it doesn’t mean the entire forecast area is unsafe.
The forecast is just one part of the puzzle, Workman said.
“There’s just no guarantee that any one of us is going to put all the pieces together every single time. Accidents are going to happen, and it’s not a reflection, necessarily, of our skill,” Workman said.
Still, friends and family said Bergt was about the last person you would expect to be buried in an avalanche.
Bergt was a professional ski patroller at Alta Ski Area in Utah for 11 winters. He made hundreds of human-powered alpine ascents and descents. Bergt’s backcountry buddies said he was one of the most careful skiers they’ve ever known.
But Workman and Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center Director Wendy Wagner said the more time someone spends in avalanche terrain, the more they are exposed to the risk of getting caught in one.
“There is no way you’re going to be able to reduce a risk to zero, to be able to know for sure a slope’s not going to avalanche,” Wagner said.
Avid skiers will face so many variables that are often unseen and completely out of their control that the odds of an accident increase over time, Wagner said.
“It just takes that one day, with that one wrong decision, in the wrong spot, and you have a really bad outcome,” Wagner said.
Like everyone else interviewed for this story, Wagner doesn’t blame Bergt for his death. But the impulse in others to assign blame might have deeper origins.
Paul Wunnicke was a longtime friend and ski buddy of Bergt’s, and also a trained avalanche professional. He’s on the Alaska Avalanche School board of directors.
Though he admits he’s no psychoanalyst, Wunnicke has a theory about why people are quick to judge victims of accidents like the one that befell his friend.
“If you can sit in your armchair and say, ‘Well, you know, I would do this and I would do that, and I wouldn’t have done this or wouldn’t have done that,’ then you feel a little bit better about all the times that you had near-misses you had that you don’t even know about,” Wunnicke said.
There’s a lack of negative feedback for bad decisions made in the backcountry, because more oftentimes, nothing goes wrong, Wunnicke said.
“If it didn’t avalanche, and we’re home by our sweeties by the fire at the end of the day, then we must’ve made good decisions,” Wunnicke said. “And that isn’t necessarily what happened. In reality, it might just be that we were very lucky.”
Bergt would’ve wanted his death to cause others to learn more about traveling in the mountains, to think critically about the risks while they’re there and to communicate with their partners, Wunnicke said.
And Wunnicke says Bergt would’ve also wanted one other thing:
“Absolutely, without a doubt, I know Randy would say, ‘Go skiing.’ That’s what Randy would want us to do.”
Alaskans: have you been scammed?
That’s the question federal regulators are trying to answer after a massive settlement with the company Western Union. Officials don’t know how many people may have been affected, but they’re looking for victims – and hoping to return money residents might have lost to dirty tricks.
In a lawsuit settled last January, the money transfer company Western Union agreed to turn over $586,000,000 and admitted it had not done enough to prevent fraud. Now, the federal government wants to return that money to people who were swindled.
“If someone sent a money transfer through Western Union and they lost money to a scam, then they’re eligible to ask for their money back,” Todd Kossow, Director for the Federal Trade Commission’s Midwest region, said during a conference call on Thursday.
The period in question stretches from 2004 all the way to 2017. People across the country were targeted in an array of scams, many of them online or over the phone. Victims were told they’d won a foreign sweepstakes, but had to send money to cover a fee in order to claim their winnings. Or grandparents were contacted and told their grandchildren were in trouble abroad and needed money wired right away.
Though Western Union didn’t commit any of these frauds, in its settlement the company agreed it had failed to stop scams and prevent money laundering.
“Essentially it didn’t do enough to protect people from fraud, and it didn’t properly discipline agents that were facilitating the fraud,” Kossow said.
Nobody knows how many people fell victim during the 13-year period covered by the settlement. Scams tended to target vulnerable populations. In Alaska, there have only been a few official complaints reported, according to Assistant Attorney General Cindy Franklin of the Consumer Protection Unit, who suspects many people haven’t come forward out of confusion, embarrassment or shame over being tricked.
“The scams are specifically designed to press on fears of specific groups like the elderly, or immigrants,” Franklin said. “That opens up a whole additional shame spiral. And that’s what makes it difficult for us to know how many people this has happened to.”
People who suspect they’ve been victims of a scam that involved Western Union have until February 12, 2018 to file a claim and potentially recover some of their money. The Federal Trade Commission is asking residents to submit claims through a website they’ve set up at ftc.gov/wu.
Wasilla Republican state Sen. David Wilson said the video of a June incident shows that he did not sexually harass a female legislative staff member.
“My phone is off. It never leaves the waist side. It goes from my hand — I’m holding papers — down, comes back up. I never bend down, it does not go to the door, it does not go between anyone’s legs. I can guarantee you that shows very clearly on the video. I am a couple of – great distance away from anybody during that conversation that occurred,” Wilson said.
Two news reporters have said Wilson held his cell phone between the legs of the staffer.
Wilson called for an on-air apology from KTVA for reporter Liz Raines’ coverage of the incident.
Wilson also called on House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham Democrat, and House Rules Chairwoman Gabrielle LeDoux, an Anchorage Republican, to step down from their leadership positions.
Wilson said a staff member of the Legislative Affairs Agency told Edgmon what was on the video. Wilson said Edgmon then allowed harassment allegations to continue without asking for an investigation.
Wilson said the agency has concluded an investigation. He called for the video as well as the report on the investigation to be publicly released in the next week.
Alaska is likely to stay warm this month, while much of the Lower 48 experiences a cold snap. It’s a flip-flop of the expected weather pattern that’s not uncommon, especially in winter.
Brian Brettschneider, with our Ask a Climatologist segment, says the culprit is a feature of the jet stream called a Rossby wave.
Brettschneider says the jet stream moves around the planet from west to east, but it doesn’t necessarily take the direct route.
Brian: It waves up and it waves down, kind of like a river meandering. We call these waves Rossby waves and there are generally about five of these waves traveling around the globe. But where ever it goes up in one place, it has to come back down somewhere else. It’s kind of like squeezing a balloon. When you squeeze a balloon in the middle, there’s a reaction, it bulges out on other sides of the balloon. So where these waves move northward, like what’s happening now near Alaska, it’s dragging lots warm air from the subtropics. So we feel that as warm. But if you do the math, the average distance between these peaks and troughs is about two to four thousand miles. If you move east two to four thousand miles, you’re talking about the central part of North America. So the jet stream is now racing south over there and it’s pulling in cold air from the north.
Annie: Is this more likely to happen in the winter?
Brian: We definitely see this in much larger magnitude in the winter. In winter, we have much bigger temperature gradients between lower and higher latitudes and that creates a stronger jet stream and it’s able to move north and south a much greater area and then either draw in warm air from much farther south or cold air from much farther north.
Annie: And what about climate change? Is climate change making this phenomenon more noticeable or worse?
Brian: We need to be careful. Whenever we have a warm spell, it can be convenient to say, oh this is global warming. Or when we have a cold spell, we can say what global warming? So you have to remember that global warming, climate change, is like this background noise, so our warm spells are a little bit warmer and our cold spells are also a little bit warmer. As the earth warms, the temperature gradient decreases a little bit, so it gets warmer at higher latitudes, much warmer, and it gets somewhat warmer at lower latitudes. So the temperature gradient is a little bit less, the jet stream is a little bit weaker, and is susceptible, perhaps, to greater waviness. It can be a little bit paradoxical, that in the lower 48 they can have more frequent cold outbreaks, but perhaps not as intense as before or not as long lived as before. We do still get warm and cold, it’s just a little bit less intense than it would be in a pre-warming environment.
This year, in a move heralded by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as “large and unprecedented,” the Trump administration offered the most land ever to oil companies in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. Nine hundred tracts, totaling more than 10 million acres, were up for bid.
But at the annual lease sale held today, oil companies bid on only seven tracts. The sale lasted less than 10 minutes.
In a call with reporters after the sale, Ted Murphy of Bureau of Land Management said there’s never a guarantee that oil companies will be interested.
“We never know exactly how industry is going to react to the number of tracts made available,” Murphy said. “Lease sale interest is unpredictable.”
Oil companies ConocoPhillips and Anadarko jointly bid on all seven tracts that sold. The acreage they bid on is located in the eastern part of the Reserve, near land Conoco is already leasing and developing.
No other companies placed bids at the federal sale. The sum of all bids was just over $1 million — an underwhelming result compared to last year’s sale for the Reserve, which raked in close to $19 million.
Tim Bradner, co-publisher of the Alaska Economic Report and a longtime oil and gas observer in the state, said it’s possible ConocoPhillips is already leasing the lion’s share of the available land in the Reserve with the most oil potential. Bradner said oil companies do see potential in other parts of the Reserve — commonly called NPR-A — but that land is currently off limits.
“The really good stuff in the NPR-A, from a geologic perspective, was not on the table this morning,” Bradner said.
Much of that land surrounds Teshekpuk Lake. The Obama administration decided not to allow oil development there because it’s habitat for migratory birds and caribou. Environmental groups want that land to stay protected, but the Trump administration is considering opening up more of the area to oil development.
There was also lease sale for state land and waters on and near the North Slope today; officials saw that as a big success. The state received over $21 million dollars in high bids. That’s over $3 million more than last year’s sale, which was also considered a success.
“We feel that the competitive nature of today’s bidding is very, very good for the state of Alaska and it rings loudly that people are interested,” Chantal Walsh, director of the Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Oil and Gas, said.
The Spanish oil company Repsol was of the most aggressive bidders at the state sale. Repsol is one of the companies behind a 1.2-billion-barrel oil discovery announced on the North Slope this spring. Many of Repsol’s bids were south of that discovery.
Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via email, podcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn
Murkowski strikes sweet note on immigration
Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media – Washington D.C.
While Senator Lisa Murkowski has been appointed to the conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the tax bill. While Murkowski is helping President Trump achieve his tax overhaul, she’s sounding a different message on immigration.
Sexual assault allegations are aimed at a Juneau lawmaker
Andrew Kitchenman, Alaska Public Media-KTOO – Juneau
A former Alaska House staff member has alleged two incidents of sexual harassment by Representative Dean Westlake, a Kotzebue Democrat.
Alaska GOP votes to block three House Reps from primaries
Aaron Bolton, KBBI – Homer
Alaska Republican Party leaders voted Saturday to block Homer Rep. Paul Seaton, Anchorage Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux and Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak from running in the 2018 Republican primaries.
State lease sale draws higher bids than BLM sale of NPRA tracts
Elizabeth Harball, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Anchorage
This year, in a move heralded by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as “large and unprecedented,” the Trump administration offered the most land ever to oil companies in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve.
High Levels of Biotoxin Found in Dead Walrus; Experts Unsure of Regional Affect
Davis Hovey, KNOM – Nome
In the Bering Straits region, 39 dead walrus washed ashore and were documented in various communities between mid-August and end of September.
Anchorage assembly tweaks rules on abating illegal homeless camps
Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage
Members of the Anchorage Assembly took a small step toward addressing complaints about how the city handles homeless camps.
Overturned skiff had been heading to tug boat anchored in Gastineau Channel
Jacob Resneck, KTOO – Juneau
Authorities have identified two men reported missing after a skiff overturned in Juneau’s Gastineau Channel.
Tongass in transition: Striking a chord with old growth trees
Elizabeth Jenkins, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Juneau
The last sizable timber mill in the state has struggled to find enough trees to keep the saws running. But down the road, a small mom and pop operation is thriving with a unique business model.
The last sizable timber mill in the state has struggled to find enough trees to keep the saws running. But down the road, a small mom and pop operation is thriving with a unique business model.
Alaska Specialty Woods uses salvaged trees to make instrument tops, which are shipped all around the world. But this sustainable company still wants the timber industry to stick around.
Near the end of windy gravel road, Brent Cole Jr. fires up a chainsaw.
With his dark hair piled into a bun, he runs the blade through an enormous log sitting on the ground. His brother is next to him, cutting the section into smaller and smaller chunks.
The tree they’re slicing has been dead for decades. It’s salvaged from an old logging raft that was used to transport heavy machinery in a bygone era.
This is how the family business gets its wood: from bridges no longer used on old logging roads to trees that have been blown down or are dead standing.
Cole says there are millions of acres in the Tongass National Forest, and finding these trees can be like a scavenger hunt.
“We’d always make fun of my dad because he’s been doing it for years and he’d get all excited, and we’d be like you’re such a goof ball,” Cole Jr. said with laugh. “But now we see.”
And if you spend enough time with his dad — Brent Cole Sr. — it’s obvious how that enthusiasm could rub off.
At his workshop, a few towns over from the log yard, Cole Sr. shows me a thin, blond piece of wood.
“This here’s got indented grain, and look at the loud visual energy of that!” Cole Sr. says excitedly. “You go, ‘Wow!’”
He says the trees have a story to tell. Take the logging raft, for example. It’s riddled with holes from a worm-like mollusk. Other pieces of wood have a gray tinge. The result of mineral exposure from being buried in the soil.
Cole Sr. embraces those imperfections and shapes the wood into tops for acoustic instruments, like guitars.
The workshop doesn’t have any finished guitars lying around. Cole Sr. jokes that he only plays the band saw.
So he taps on a slice of Sitka spruce to show me why it’s sought after by nearly every guitar maker. With each thwack, you can hear the wood vibrate.
Ryan Cole, Brent Cole Sr. and Brent Cole Jr. examine a piece of wood they’ll turn into an acoustic instrument top. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)
Cole Sr. used to drive trucks for a big logging company on Prince of Wales Island. Then he started his own business back in the early 90s: Alaska Specialty Woods.
At first, it was just a matter of buying whatever he could get his hands on. For a small operation, that usually meant buying individual trees from the Tongass National Forest. Most of that was salvaged. Some of it was cut down.
But in 2014, Cole Sr. says it became nearly impossible to find any living Sitka spruce that wasn’t off limits in the Tongass.
“We just said, ‘No.’ This is what we’re going to do,” Cole Sr. said. “We are just going to be the salvage people.”
Alaska Specialty Woods now produces as many as 10,000 guitar tops a year — shipping them to 80 different countries. They have name brand customers, like Gibson Guitars.
Cole Sr. says he knows at least on the surface being the “salvage people” could look like a more eco-friendly way doing business. Especially at a time when clear cutting the big trees remains up in the air.
The U.S. Forest Service wants to end old growth logging in the Tongass National Forest. It could be the death of the larger neighboring mill. The last of it’s kind in the state.
But Cole Sr. says here’s the thing:
“For us, it really behoves us — Alaska Specialty woods — and our customers, if there is an active timber industry here,” he said.
Through the years, Alaska Specialty Woods and Viking Lumber have used the same barges. They’ve flown the same helicopters to remove logs in the Tongass. Cole Sr. says if the big mill closes, that would be bad for his business.
Still, he doesn’t want to see the region return entirely to its past logging days.
“I want to see a slowdown of the amount of old growth clearcut,” Cole Sr. said. “But I also want to see a transition for a management for that.”
Which, he says, means the bigger mill should have longer to adapt.
Unlike Alaska Speciality Woods, Viking Lumber doesn’t make it’s own niche products. The company mills the wood on the island and ships the boards to the Lower 48.
Cole Sr. has invited Viking to stop by and see his operation.
In the meantime, he says he gets why people are concerned about the Tongass. But he says the economy should be able to flourish, too.
“They got good ideas and good intentions. Save the planet. But I think there’s common ground and using common sense and utilization,” he said. “And I think we can do it all.”
He doesn’t think the timber industry will ever be as big as it once was in the region.
But like his guitar tops, he says the wood in the Tongass still has a story to tell.
Alaska Republican Party leaders voted Saturday to block Homer Rep. Paul Seaton, Anchorage Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux and Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak from running in the party’s 2018 primaries.
All three representatives joined Democrats and independents last fall to form a bipartisan coalition, taking control of the House away from Republicans. The Republican Party’s state central committee said that violated a party rule about caucusing with other political parties and that the legislators misled voters when the joined the coalition.
“The two penalties for that at the time are no financial support, access to our database and also granting the Republican Party the freedom to recruit a challenger,” Alaska Republican Party Chairman Tuckerman Babcock explained.
Babcock said Saturday’s vote is an expansion of last year’s decision to deny the House members support.
He said a court ruling in October, which determined that independents are allowed to run in Democratic primaries, also allows the Republican Party to block individuals from running as its nominee if they violate that party rule.
Rep. Seaton said he hasn’t officially heard from the party about its decision and wasn’t made aware of Saturday’s vote.
“I just don’t think this actually comports with state law,” Seaton said, “that people can excise people from their party or they can say, ‘Yes, you’re in the party, but we’re disallowing you personally from being able to run.’”
Babcock wrote a letter to the state Division of Elections Monday, alerting Director Josie Bahnke of the party’s decision. Rule changes for the 2018 primaries were due in September, so it’s unclear whether the state will honor the change or decide it doesn’t comply with state law.
Bahnke told KBBI in an email that the division plans to make its decision within a week.
The state also appealed the October ruling to the Alaska Supreme Court, which could complicate the outcome. Babcock said the party knows the decision could go either way.
“We’ll see how things unfold,” he added. “We don’t know if we’ll join with the Democratic Party in the defense of the decision, we don’t know if we’ll go to federal court, or we don’t know if we’ll just accept the state’s decision and just to state our position and let the voters decide.”
Seaton, LeDoux and Stutes could still run as a Republicans next fall if they’re blocked from the primaries. Each would need to collect signatures in order to do so. They could also run as an independent or join another party’s ticket.