Alaska News

Southeast Tourism Economy Hinged on Cruise Ship Travel

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-06 12:00

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development released a report this week that puts tourism’s impact on Southeast Alaska into numbers. The report calls Southeast the ‘epicenter’ of cruise ship traffic in the state – and that’s the main driver of the visitor industry.

“[I’m on] the Celebrity Solstice,” said Floridian tourist Martin Levinson. “I visited all the 49 other states and this is the last one. I saved the best for last.”

The cruise ship Norwegian Pearl sails south through Chatham Strait on its final voyage of 2013. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Levinson was one of the first cruise ship visitors to Skagway early this summer. He  is one of about a million people who visit Southeast each summer, most arriving on cruise ships.

“Tourism’s one of the big parts of Southeast’s economy,” said Department of Labor Economist Conor Bell, who authored the recent report using statistics from 2014. “I don’t think there’s enough real analysis of what impact tourism really has to our region.”

He found that there were about 4,600 tourism-related jobs in Southeast, making up about 11 percent of the region’s summer economy.

The report says Southeast’s economy is ‘highly seasonal,’ and most of that increase is tied to tourism. From May to September of 2014, there was an average of about 7,000 more jobs each month than the rest of the year. More than half were in visitor-related industries.

Tour guides are the most common of those jobs, followed by waiters and waitresses and then retail salespeople.

The highest paying of visitor-related jobs are captains, mates and pilots of water vessels — earning an average of about $17,000 a summer. Tour guides earned an average of about $6,000 in a summer.

Visitor-related jobs are especially concentrated in three Southeast towns: Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway. Bell found that in 2014, Juneau had about 1,700 jobs directly related to summer tourism, Ketchikan had about 1,000 and Skagway had around 800. Of those three, Skagway stands out.

“The impact of tourism should be apparent to any Skagway resident. For one thing, the summer employment for tourism exceeds the year-round population. And so there’s a huge influx of people. And over half the jobs of summer are in tourism industries. And that’s only counting direct tourism jobs.

53 percent of Skagway’s summer jobs are directly visitor-related. That’s compared to 12 percent in Ketchikan and nine percent in Juneau.

Some of the ports that have less steady or no cruise ship traffic see much less of an economic impact from tourism. For example, last summer, Sitka had 340 visitor-related jobs, Haines had about 200, Petersburg saw 50, Wrangell 40, Prince of Wales Island 150, and Yakutat fewer than 10. The Hoonah-Angoon census area, which includes Gustavus and Glacier Bay, added 250 summer tourism jobs.

Bell says some communities are looking to increase those numbers.

“Yakutat had their first few ships this year and they’re evaluating whether they want to expand that in the future, Hoonah build a dock in recent years,” Bell said. “More and more Southeast communities are going to enter the market and it’s going to make the market more competitive but also more exciting for travelers and it could lead to more economic development.”

In Haines, the borough assembly voted to offer 50 percent- discounted docking fee waivers to cruise ships in summer of 2017. The goal of the waivers is to draw more ships to Haines.

Bell says tourism jobs and cruise ship visitor numbers took a hit during the nationwide recession. But since then, numbers have been building back up.

And as long as visitors keep cruising, Southeast summer tourism employment will continue to climb.

Categories: Alaska News

As the final dock pilings are drilled, a Hoonah controversy is put to rest

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-06 10:38

The final pilings for a new cruise ship dock are being driven at a Hoonah tourist attraction, marking an end to the nearly decade-long saga that divided the community. The publicly financed dock is being built where it serves a local Native corporation’s interests, only indirectly benefiting residents — although many are also shareholders.

On the grounds, tourists wander in and out of a historic salmon cannery turned museum. They skim the treetops on more than a mile of zipline and bask in front of a crackling wood fire that an employee keeps going.

The location of the new dock at Icy Strait Point. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Tyler Hickman is the vice president of Icy Strait Point, owned by the Huna Totem Corp. He says it’s important to maintain the cannery’s off-beat charm.

“It just starts feeling fake when you overdo something,” he says. “We try to make sure that everything we do is authentic.”

Part of that is making sure visitors feel comfortable when they arrive and leave. About 150,000 cruise ship passengers travel to Hoonah each year. To get to Icy Strait Point, they have to schlep over on a small tender boat. There’s no place for the big ships to dock.

Tender boats drop off passengers from the ship. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Hickman points to 60 people on a cruise ship waiting for a tender to transport them to shore. In the future, he says, those passengers will be able to grab their raincoat and wander off the boat on their own.

From there, they could walk through second-growth forest. Not everyone is as enchanted with the location of what Hickman estimates is a $22 million dock, paid for primarily by a grant from the state.

Ken Skaflestad is a shareholder in the Native corporation. He says before the cruise ships started arriving back in 2004, the village felt like a different place. Its population was around 750.

“I remember a day when somebody might wear their pajamas down to pick up the newspaper or groceries on a Saturday morning. If a cruise ship’s in town, that’s changed now,” he says.

A mile past Icy Strait Point’s traffic gate is the city of Hoonah. Tourists shuttle through for bear watching tours and to ride the zipline.

Back in the mid-2000s, the city proposed a multi-use dock located closer to the city center.

An employee in uniform answers tourists questions about a real halibut carted around the boardwalk. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

“This commercial dock that was going to help with barging, that was going to help with freighting, was going to be a place for fishing boats to tie up to,” he says.

Cruise ships weren’t the main focus, but Skaflestad says the conversation shifted after the success of Icy Strait Point as a tourist destination. A public-private partnership was created. The state put in $14 million to build the dock; the corporation put in $8 million. Although the inclusion of cruise ships was decided, the location of the dock wasn’t.

Skaflestad says the Icy Strait Point developers disagreed with where the community wanted the dock, which was about 800 feet toward town from their existing facility.

The city selected Shaman Point. He says the argument became not only about where it should be, but also what: a multipurpose dock close to downtown or a cruise ship dock on private land.

“I can say that I was one … that adamantly took opposition to that whole initiative.”

And the town, he says, was split down the middle.

“I refer to it as World War III. It was horrible,” he says.

Tourists explore the grounds of Icy Strait Point. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

A Royal Caribbean executive sent a letter to the city stating that if the dock was built at Shaman Point, cruise lines might not moor there. Skaflestad says the cruise ship passenger experience outweighed the community’s interests in the dock.

“The opinion of the customer’s experience was touted to far outweigh the community’s need to all of the other uses other than a cruise ship dock,” Skaflestad says.

Eventually, the city council turned over. A new mayor was elected and it was decided the dock would be built at Icy Strait Point. Skaflestad says he never did agree with how everything went down. But when he became mayor in 2014, he wanted to make the best of it.

“I had to really work to be open minded about this and listen to the other points of view. The other opinions were that right now the important thing is the development of this industry and that those other uses are really relatively small uses. They’re not going to be big booms to our economy or anything,” he says. “Truthfully, this dock, it’s primarily income that’s  going to come through the cruise ships.”

As the final pilings go in, Tyler Hickman says there’s no need to discuss what happened in the past.

“To me, it’s about today. When you go and walk around the corner, it’s being installed where it is and it’s in the right place,” Hickman says. “The experience the cruise ship guest is going to have is going to be the best in the world.”

The new dock could attract more cruise lines such as Disney, which would mean more visitors to Icy Strait Point and Hoonah.

Skaflestad says he’s trying to be welcoming. He leads the bear watching tours when they get overbooked. He says before, the locals just wanted the tourists to pass right through.

“This metamorphosis has happened and the town is saying ‘I can make a buck here,’ ‘Hey, I’m finding a little niche over here,’ or ‘I’m just going to sit here like I used to sit and watch the birds on the beach and now I’m going to watch tourists,’” Skaflestad says. “There’s this significant change that the presence of these visitors has brought to Hoonah.”

The dock is expected to be completed in October just as Icy Strait Point closes for the season.

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau swimmers bring home gold from Special Olympics World Games

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-06 10:32

Christine Quick, 23, and CJ Umbs, 21, competed in the Special Olympics World Games in L.A. (Photo by Michelle Umbs)

Two Juneau swimmers returned from the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles with five medals. CJ Umbs and Christine Quick competed alongside 6,500 athletes with intellectual disabilities from around the world.

Juneau swimmer Christine Quick says Michael Phelps is taller than she thought he was. The most decorated Olympic athlete of all time took pictures with Special Olympians and jumped in the pool for a swim.

“What was that like?” I asked.

“Happy,” Quick says. “Our team was crazy to see him.”

Quick earned two gold medals and a seventh place finish in backstroke and freestyle events. She says the cheering from the crowd helped motivate her. She’s never received so much attention.

“Everybody said, ‘Yay!’ People took pictures of us,” Quick says.

CJ Umbs is another Juneau swimmer. He received gold, silver and bronze medals, and a fourth place ribbon in backstroke and freestyle events. His mother Michelle Umbs is a coach for Juneau’s Special Olympics program.

“The finish on the fourth place ribbon and the finish on the silver medal, he was just as happy as a clam both times,” Umbs says. “It didn’t matter. He was just so glad to finish.”

Umbs was in L.A. for the games with her husband and other family members. She watched every event her son and Quick competed in.

“The whole week was amazing watching both of them act independently and responsibly. But to see them both as young adults get up on a stage, accept their medals in an environment where they were treated with a lot of respect is over the top for me,” Umbs says.

CJ Umbs and Christine Quick were part of Team USA with fellow Alaska athletes Garrett Stortz from the Mat-Su and Brittany Tregarthen from Kodiak. Stortz competed in golf and Tregarthen in powerlifting.

All four Alaska athletes medaled, but Jim Balamaci says competing in the Special Olympics isn’t about winning.

“It’s really about doing your personal best and really performing and training,” says Balamaci, president and CEO of Special Olympics Alaska.

Prior to 1968, people with intellectual disabilities didn’t have a sports organization.

“Now, almost 50 years later, we transcend the world,” Balamaci says. “People with intellectual disabilities can achieve and that through sports, there’s no better way of gaining friendships and confidence that come back to your community and to your school.”

Both Juneau athletes get to take a short break from training as they enjoy the afterglow of the World Games. Quick will start swimming again in the winter and Umbs will start bowling in a few weeks.

Categories: Alaska News

Tribes to get voice in state transboundary mine work

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-06 10:29

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott speaks at a Wednesday tribal meeting in Juneau on transboundary mines. United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group Co-Chair Rob Sanderson Jr., center, and Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, right, listen. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

State government will formally involve tribal groups in its transboundary mining work.

Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott made that commitment Wednesday while meeting in Juneau with Southeast Native leaders.

“We agreed the transboundary state working group will have a place for a tribal voice in our work that allows them timely, transparent involvement so their voice is heard,” he says.

That will come through the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group, formed last year by 13 Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian governments.

Several Native leaders asked for a tribal seat on the state’s task force. Mallott says he’s not sure that can be done, but a formal arrangement will be set.

Tribes and state officials worry new British Columbia mines on rivers flowing into Alaska will damage fisheries, wildlife and those that harvest them.

Rob Sanderson Jr., who co-chairs the tribal transboundary group, says a now-closed mine upriver of Ketchikan already wiped out the area’s run of hooligan, a high-fat fish, also called at eulachon, oolichan and candlefish.

“That small-scale mining on the Eskay Creek, which is a tributary to the Unuk River, pretty much put that to sleep,” he says.

The Unuk drainage includes the Kerr-Sulpherettes-Mitchell mining project, the largest of several under exploration.

At the meeting, state officials told tribal leaders how they track and monitor transboundary projects.

Tlingit-Haida Central Council President Richard Peterson says it’s not enough.

“We get these reports from Canada … that are 10,000 pages. Our response can’t just be a page. I just don’t believe that it has the validity. And I challenge you to do a better job,” he says.

Peterson and others at the meeting said agencies should include traditional knowledge from elders in their analysis. They also pointed to tribal environmental testing, which could be shared.

State and federal officials, mining interests and environmental groups will join tribal leaders Thursday for more meetings on transboundary mine impacts on Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

Helicopter crew, pregnant pilot deliver Aleutian Islands fishermen to safety

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-06 10:23

Mihey Basargin of Wasilla on the docks in Dutch Harbor after being rescued. (Photo by John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska)

Two fishermen were rescued from their boat grounded off Unalga Island in the eastern Aleutians on Tuesday.

A Coast Guard helicopter crew from Air Station Kodiak hoisted the men to safety about 1 pm. The two were flown to Dutch Harbor and did not require medical attention.

The owner and skipper of the Alaskan Catch said he’s glad he and his crewmate are unscathed, but his 35-foot boat is a total loss.

Mihey Basargin of Wasilla said he thinks there’s about 200 gallons of fuel still on board.

The Alaskan Catch was heading from Dutch Harbor through Akutan Pass to longline for black cod on the south side of the Aleutian Islands chain.

Basargin said he was intentionally avoiding the middle of the waterway.

“The current is pretty strong in that pass, so you try to keep closer to the shore,” he said. “You lose speed in the middle.”

He said a submerged rock put “a pretty big hole” in his boat around 5 a.m.

“It was pretty quick,” Basargin said. “A couple minutes, we were flooded.”

The two men put on their survival suits.

Meanwhile, Gavreel Reutov was fishing a couple hours away on the Bering Sea in the Foreigner. He and Basargin have been friends since childhood in Homer.

The two boats had shared a slip in Dutch Harbor’s Carl Moses Boat Harbor the night before.

“We quit fishing and came back and see what we can do for these guys,” Reutov said.

Reutov heard and relayed Basargin’s distress call and motored toward his friend. He also continued to help the Coast Guard communicate with the Alaskan Catch throughout the morning.

The Foreigner and the helicopter arrived at the scene at almost the same time, nearly 8 hours after the accident.

Coast Guard Aviation Maintenance Technician Joseph Garofalo hoisted the men in a basket, one at a time, onto the helicopter after the long flight from Kodiak.

“There was a tall cliff next to where they were,” Garofalo said. “We couldn’t get too close to them without risking our blades hitting the cliff.”

Garofalo said the top of the sea cliff was hidden in the clouds.

The helicopter’s pilot, Lt. Commander Kimberly Hess, said finding a break in the thick cloud cover, after refueling at Cold Bay, made finding the Alaskan Catch a lot easier.

But a 30-knot tailwind swirling along the cliff made her work more difficult.

“It was super windy,” she said. “But the truth is with that cliff there, I had good visual reference. It’s much harder to hoist over the water. So with the cliff there, I had something to look at, which helps me stay still.”

Hess said the rescue went about as well as she could hope for, in part because once the Alaskan Catch ran aground, its crew did everything right.

“They did a great job. Those guys saved themselves really,” she said. “[They] called for help early. They put on their survival gear. They didn’t get off their vessel. They stayed warm. They stayed dry. They never got in the water. They never tried to climb up a cliff or something like that.”

Two Weeks To Go

Hess said few Coast Guard helicopter pilots are female, but she has a characteristic that’s even more unusual for a working helicopter pilot.

“I am almost six months pregnant,” she said in the Coast Guard’s Dutch Harbor office after the rescue. “You can fly up until the end of your second trimester, and I’ve got a couple weeks left, then I’ll be done.”

“So my baby girl has saved three lives at this point,” Hess said and laughed. “She’s chalking them up.”

Hess also piloted the rescue of a man who had a stroke and seizures on the cargo ship Elsa about 150 miles south of Kodiak Island in July.

The Alaskan Catch rescue was the first for flight mechanic Joseph Garofalo. Hess said a celebration was in order after someone does their first rescue.

“If you’re not six months pregnant, you definitely go out and have a beer, but we’re going to have to come up with something else,” she said.

The crew agreed that milkshakes would make a good substitute.

There was little celebration down the road at the Carl Moses boat dock, where the Foreigner returned after helping with the rescue. Both boats’ crews squeezed onto the Foreigner at the end of a very long day.

Basargin said he was glad no one was hurt. He also said he didn’t know whether his insurance would cover the loss.

“We were parked in this same stall this morning,” Reutov said of the two friends’ nearly identical boats. “Now one of them’s gone.”

Categories: Alaska News

USDA to bailout some canned sockeye surplus

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-06 10:19

There’s some good news this week about that often spoken of glut of canned sockeye salmon: the US Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday it intends to purchase up to $30 million worth and put it into food banks and other emergency assistance programs.

Last week Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to approve the purchase, which she said would alleviate a surplus inventory and put a nutritious product in food programs around the country.

In her letter Murkowski noted that this year and last year’s very high harvests of sockeye in Alaska were actually harming the livelihood of many fishermen and the industry. That should come as no surprise to Bristol Bay fishermen, some of whom went home with a base price of .50 cents a pound for their catch this season.

Last year the USDA helped clear some inventory of canned pink salmon, agreeing to buy $13 million of product for similar food programs. Then-Governor Sean Parnell had asked the Department to buy up to $37 million of canned pinks, which many companies said were stacked floor-to-ceiling in warehouses and not moving anywhere.

The USDA did not offer many other details, other than that it will solicit bids in the near future. Tuesday’s announcement was well received by the Food Bank of Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

Talkeetna celebrates the start of new recycling program

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-06 10:15

The new recycling program comes online in Talkeetna. (KTNA photo)

Talkeetna’s Mat-Su Borough Transfer Site, often referred to by locals as “the dump,” is not the sort of place you would normally expect to find a celebration, but that’s exactly what happened on Monday when the community’s first recycling container was brought online.

As the first aluminum cans were tossed into Talkeetna’s new recycling container, there was an air of celebration. Many Talkeetna residents have been waiting decades for a local, regular, reliable recycling solution. On Monday, that became a reality.

A major factor that makes this iteration of recycling in Talkeetna different than previous attempts is borough involvement. Borough contractors will pick up the recycling container just like any other dumpster at the transfer site. Instead of taking it to the landfill, however, the contents will go to the Valley Community for Recycling Solutions.

Butch Shapiro, the borough’s solid waste manager, says that there is an economic incentive for his department in diverting recyclables away from the landfill.

“That’s the big thing for us. The more we can keep out of there, the more we can save, the longer we can make a cell last. And that’s huge, because it costs between $3.5 to $5 million to build a landfill cell.”

Shapiro estimates that the Mat-Su Borough saves about twenty-five cents for every pound of material that is recycled instead of dumped in the landfill.

He says that the current program, which includes plans for recycling in Talkeetna, Willow, and Big Lake, could save the borough $100,000 in the next year. He says adding more recycling communities would increase those savings over time.

While the borough is handling the transport of the recycling container, the community had to come up with the funding for it. The final cost to refurbish a retired trash container and make it suitable for recycling is between $8,000 and $10,000. Butch Shapiro says a new container with similar capabilities could cost three times that much.

“Quite a savings, there. It really brings it within the realm of possibility. It’s been a long time coming.”

The Talkeetna Recycling Committee had little difficulty in raising funds in short order. Grants for $10,000 each from the Mat-Su Health Foundation and Matanuska Electric Association, as well as local fundraisers and donations, meant that the committee was able to bring the first container online this week, with a second already undergoing refurbishing.

Talkeetna resident Katie Writer organized much of the fundraising. On Monday, she told the gathered crowd of more than thirty people why she took the leadership role for the project.

“I’m really honored to fill those shoes, because the Earth is the most important thing to me. And, being here in Alaska, we need to be able to honor the Earth and take care of our trash in a better way.”

Mollie Boyer is the Executive Director for the Valley Community for Recycling Solutions in Palmer, the facility where Talkeetna’s recycling will go for processing. She says VCRS was founded with the initial goal of establishing reliable recycling options. Now, she says the establishment of recycling programs in individual communities helps her organization move toward its long-term goals.

“…To provide a permanent recycling facility and opportunity for the Mat-Su…This bin here represents the fulfillment of that long-term goal.”

The container is not the end of the story, however. The Talkeetna Recycling Committee is actively seeking volunteers to help guide local residents in what can be recycled and how it should be prepared. For the moment, aluminum cans, steel cans, and #2 plastic jugs, such as milk jugs, are accepted.

Categories: Alaska News

Synthetic drug blamed for 30 Anchorage hospitalizations

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-06 10:08

Anchorage police say at least 30 people have been taken to the hospital over the past four days with health problems stemming from the use of a synthetic drug called Spice.

The Alaska Dispatch News reports that Police released a statement Wednesday asking people to contact them with any information about the source of the drug, which is banned by local and state laws.

Spice was once sold in gas stations and convenience stores and marketed as incense or potpourri. In 2010 the Anchorage Assembly outlawed the designer drug based on its composition, but manufactures quickly changed agreements.

The Assembly passed a new law that banned Spice based on its packaging and a list of labeling criteria in 2014. Later that year, a similar statewide ban went into effect.

Categories: Alaska News

State flags removed from Fairbanks bridge due to conditions

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-06 10:06

A display of America’s 50 state flags has been removed from a Fairbanks bridge due to their worn condition and an ongoing debate about Confederate symbols.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that nonprofit community development organization Festival Fairbanks removed the flags Monday.

Festival Fairbanks Executive Director Julie Jones says the flags were taken down because of the wear and tear they had sustained. She also says part of the decision was influenced by the inclusion of the Mississippi flag – which includes a Confederate battle flag in its upper left corner.

Jones says they did not want to only remove Mississippi’s flag from the display. Because of the tattered state of all 50, the organization chose to remove them all.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage police investigating shooting of 3-year-old

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-06 09:58

Anchorage police say they’re investigating the fatal shooting of a three-year-old.

According to a release from the department, police received a call just after noon on Wednesday reporting the shooting at a home in southeast Anchorage. The child was pronounced dead at the scene.

A police spokeswoman said detectives were conducting interviews and processing information.

Police said they would release additional information as it became available.

Categories: Alaska News

Choice Improvement Act helps close VA funding gap

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-08-06 09:58

A move by the Obama Administration has freed up money in Alaska to close a funding gap in healthcare for veterans.

Shawn Bransky, the interim Associate Director for the Veterans Affairs in Alaska, says the Choice Improvement Act signed by the president on July 31 lets Alaska shift about $20 million between programs in order to restore services that have slowed in recent months.

“Essentially what it did here in Alaska is it gave us the flexibility to get that money moved over from the Choice Act to our non-VA Care Coordination funds, to continue to provide care for veterans here in Alaska through the end of our fiscal year, 30th of September,” Bransky said.

That funding shortfall came in part because of national changes to how the VA pays outside providers for healthcare. Legislation passed a year ago is credited with reducing wait-times, but proved far more expensive than anticipated.

In Alaska, which served as the model for VA reforms, the program backfired, extending wait-times. Officials with the VA say the third-party contractor that handles billing under the Choice Act has pledged more resources in Alaska to reconnect veterans with services that for many were routine.

The Alaska VA also has a new interim director, Dr. Linda Boyle, a 25-year veteran of the Air Force. Boyle announced that on his visit next week the Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs, Robert McDonald, will attend meetings in Wasilla, Kotzebue, and Point Hope.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Wednesday, August 5, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-05 17:41

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

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Shell’s Arctic Icebreaker Returns to Unalaska

John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska

Shell’s Fennica icebreaker has returned to Alaska. It docked at Dutch Harbor on Tuesday night after enduring repairs and protests in Portland, Oregon.

Gov. Walker Meets with Kuskokwim Tribes on Trust Lands

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

Governor Bill Walker was in Akiachak and Tuluskak Tuesday to discuss a lawsuit involving tribal lands into trust, according to officials in Akiachak. Walker’s office kept his first visit to southwest Alaska since his election low profile amid high interest in a case that could reshape jurisdiction on Alaska Native lands.

University of Alaska-Fairbanks Cuts Means $200k Bite to Nome’s Northwest Campus

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

Deep cuts across the University of Alaska Fairbanks are spreading to satellite campus across the state—and Nome’s Northwest Campus is no exception. UAF is facing a larger cut for the upcoming year than had been previously expected—in all, a reduction of 31.4 million dollars.


‘Expedited Partner Therapy’ Lowers Gonorrhea Cases in the YK Delta

Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel

There’s been a big decrease in the number of gonorrhea cases in Southwest Alaska over the past five years, according to the state Department of Health. It comes after local doctors tried a new strategy, called expedited partner therapy.

The Elasmosaur: A Nessie-Like Dino Unearthed Near Talkeetna

Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna

Earlier this summer, paleontologists confirmed that fossilized vertebrae found in the Talkeetna Mountains belonged to an ancient sea creature, the elasmosaur.  This is the first time that remains of the species have been found in the state.

Bering Straits Native Corp. Buys Alaska Industrial Hardware

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

Bering Straits Native Corporation is getting into the hardware business—after purchasing Alaska Industrial Hardware, a small Alaska-based chain of industrial construction and equipment stores.

Kodiak’s Alutiiq Museum Releases Book On Karluk Archaeological Site

Kayla Desroches, KMXT – Kodiak

One Kodiak Island settlement has served as both a rich archaeological resource and fueled the Alutiiq heritage renaissance now underway in Kodiak. The Alutiiq Museum recently published a book called “Kal’unek” with the University of Alaska Press. The nearly 400-page volume focuses on archaeological discoveries near the community of Karluk and delves into the site’s lasting effects on those involved.

A New Totem Pole Graces Ketchikan Shipyard

Madelyn Beck, KRBD – Ketchikan

Ketchikan’s newest totem pole arrived with a massive crowd Saturday in front of the Vigor shipyard. It’s the first totem pole raised in about two years, and tribal and non-tribal community members alike cheered as it came through the crowd.

Drums of Hazardous Waste Dumped Near Kodiak

Kayla Desroches, KMXT – Kodiak

Someone has dumped drums of hazardous waste in the Buskin River State Park. That’s according to Preston Cruise, an Alaska State Park Ranger, who says they discovered two 55-gallon containers last month.

Categories: Alaska News

A New Totem Pole Graces Ketchikan Shipyard

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-05 16:30

Photo: KRBD-Ketchikan.

Ketchikan’s newest totem pole arrived with a massive crowd Saturday in front of the Vigor shipyard. It’s the first totem pole raised in about two years, and tribal and non-tribal community members alike cheered as it came through the crowd.

This was the sound of the totem pole being brought from the Vigor warehouse on Saturday to its current prominent position just off of Tongass Avenue.

Hundreds showed up from around town and neighboring communities, including highly regarded members of local tribes and Vigor representatives.

Vigor General Manager Mark Pearson says the idea to carve a totem pole for the shipyard came in the winter of 2013. Pearson added that Vigor members wanted to have more native art to show the connection between the company and its community.

“So it has to be an expression of our willingness to do more for the community, and to include all of the community. Any time we’re exclusionary or any time we’re insensitive to the differences in people, we limit ourselves.”

Former Ketchikan Indian Community member Willie Jackson described what the pole, itself, symbolized.

“Looking at the pole, you’re going to see the raven on top, you’re going to see the strong man right underneath that raven, you’re going to see the eagle…but you’re also going to see the woman at the very base of the pole, which is the strength of who we really are as a matriarchal society.”

Vigor CEO Frank Foti came from Portland for the ceremony, and says that he wants his company to connect with all people, making sure natives and women were included.

“Vigor means effort, energy, good health, renewal.  It’s part of who we are. My color today is pink and part of it is to bring some of the feminine energy into what we do. We have a tremendous group of men and women that are part of what we do. To you I say ‘Háw’aa! T’oyaxs-nsm! GunalchÈesh!” (Thank you in Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit, respectively.)

Photo: KRBD-Ketchikan.

After much struggle to raise the pole with manpower alone, a group of about a dozen people pushed, pulled and heaved the structure into place.

After the new pole was in place, the celebrating continued up at the Ted Ferry Civic Center. There was food, singing and hours of dancing, along with gifts for those who made the pole raising possible.

Metlakatla’s mayor, Audrey Hudson came forward to show her appreciation to those who put so much effort into the raising of this particular totem pole. She was especially grateful to the carver who brought the pole to life.

“I feel blessed to have witnessed a new totem pole today. Totem poles are a powerful symbol for both our peoples. These events serve to strengthen the ancient relationship between the Tlingit and Tsimshian, between Metlakatla and Ketchikan. My hats off to Jon Rowen for his beautiful work.”

Rowen, a Tlingit from Klawock on Prince of Wales Island, thanked Mayor Hudson, his cousin, for the kind words, but said little during the ceremony.

Vigor CEO Frank Foti, however, had a lot to say, mostly out of thanks. Many tribal leaders gave Foti gifts that night, including a hand-carved paddle, abalone inlaid hummingbird bath, and a new nickname: chief.  Foti thanked everyone for their help, especially tribal members who taught him about the culture in the land surrounding his Ketchikan shipyard.

“Connecting what we do and what we build with who we are and the land that we live in is…it’s a constant conflict. We build with organic and inorganic materials. We impact the world we live in. We make it better, we make it worse. We look at why. That’s who we are and who we try to be. We are honored to be somewhat part, and learn to be part of a tribe.”

And then, as the opening remarks drew to a close, it was time for the song and dance, lasting late into the night.

Categories: Alaska News

University of Alaska-Fairbanks Cuts Means $200k Bite to Nome’s Northwest Campus

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-05 16:10

Deep cuts across the University of Alaska Fairbanks are spreading to satellite campus across the state, and Nome’s Northwest Campus is no exception.

Now in a third year of state funding cuts, the continuing low price of oil has left UAF facing a larger cut for the upcoming year than had been previously expected. In all, it’s a reduction in funding of $31.4 million. Increasing operating costs, paying off debt, and compensation increases mean the cut leaves UAF $20 million dollars short, and to make up the difference, cuts are happening across the board.

Nome’s Northwest Campus. Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM file.

Northwest Campus director Bob Metcalf says for the most part classes and degree programs are safe, but rural campuses will feel the sting mostly in fixed costs like personnel and facilities.

“All of the rural campuses, we’re taking a little bit bigger cut,” he said, noting proportional cuts will happen in Kotzebue’s Chukchi Campus and Bethel’s Kuskokwim Campus. (A full list of cuts to UAF is available online.)

“As far as the college is concerned,” Metcalf said, “[within] the College of Rural and Community and Development, the campuses are by far the largest expense.”

It’s a roughly $200,000 bite into the Nome campus’ budget. That means further reductions in travel and contract services, and leaving some unfilled jobs empty. Metcalf said that means one administrative staff job. A second job being left vacant, a library technician position, means the newly-refurbished Emily Ivanoff Brown Student Resource Center and Library will be left without anyone to run it.

“It was tough, but we purposefully kept the library position vacant because we knew this was going to happen,” Metcalf said. Now the campus “won’t have anyone to actually provide any library services.”

As a self-professed “lover of books,” Metcalf said the vacancy means shuttering the library, at least for now. “That’s one of the most painful one for me. I would say mothballing is probably the best way to describe it.”

Metcalf himself isn’t immune to the cuts. He and other administrators face unpaid furloughs this year, but it doesn’t mean he’ll work any less; essentially the same hours worked, but less pay. On top of similar budget cuts he expects over the next two years, Metcalf said he also thinks it’s just the beginning of furloughs for employees across the UAF system.

“The message … to everyone else is, this is the beginning of furloughs,” he said. “The university just passed regulations regarding furloughs, this past year. So now they have rules in effect to manage furloughs and the first furloughs are applied to administrators and I imagine that we’re going to see more furloughs through the system in the next year or two.”

Amid the cuts, Northwest Campus is also making an investment: an city land auction in December saw UAF officials dig into the university savings to buy the plots of land the campus has, until now, been renting. An unexpected opportunity, the sale cost about $450,000.

Though the sale isn’t fully complete, Metcalf said it’s a little easier to face the impending cuts knowing UAF’s long-term investment in Nome’s campus.

“The sale was approved … by the Board of Regents, and the whole way up to the very top,” he said. “So it does signify major support for a university here in our region.”

The fall semester at Northwest campus starts Sept. 3. Course listings for the fall classes are online.

Categories: Alaska News

Gov. Walker Meets With Kuskokwim Tribes on Trust Lands

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-05 15:40

Governor Walker visited southwest Alaska villages earlier this week. Photo by Governor’s Office.

Governor Bill Walker was in Akiachak and Tuluskak Tuesday to discuss a lawsuit involving tribal lands into trust, according to officials in Akiachak. Walker’s office kept his first visit to southwest Alaska since his election low profile amid high interest in a case that could reshape jurisdiction on Alaska Native lands.

Governor Walker arrived in Akiachak around 10 a.m. and spent a couple of hours meeting with tribal officials and community members before flying to Tuluksak.

Phillip Peter is chairman of the Akiakchak Indian Reorganization Act or IRA council, which opposes any further delays.

“Akiachak already won the case. I said to them we’re not going to drop this issue, it’s already been approved by the court,” said Peter.

The Governor was traveling Wednesday on the North Slope where he was talking with other tribes about trust lands and was unavailable for comment. Press Secretary Katie Marquette says Walker is reaching out to tribes like those in Southwest Alaska.

“…To talk to them about lands into trust issues, he has additional meetings across with other tribes in villages across the state to continue to talk about land into trust issues,” said Marquette.

The Department of the Interior announced new rules last year to allow Alaska tribes to put land into trust. Alaska Native leaders say the change, after years of litigation, brings them one step closer to self-determination.

Trust status for tribal land protects it from taxation and alienation – the taking or sale of land — and gives tribes greater jurisdiction. Under the new rules, tribes could put lands they own into trust, including land they’d purchased, received through an inheritance, or lands transferred to tribes by Native Corporations.

The state has fought the issue over the years. Walker inherited the 2013 lawsuit from the Parnell administration. Most recently, Governor Walker asked earlier this year, for a six-month delay in the case. The state is not talking about its plans now, but Akiachak officials say the Governor wants another six months.

Cori Mills, an assistant attorney general with the Department of Law, says the first six-month extension ended in July, the state then received a 30-day extension and now faces a deadline of August 24th.

“That’s the deadline in place now. Whether the state makes a different decision or wants to withdraw the appeal, that’s yet to be seen and will be determined by August 24th in whatever is filed by that time,” said Mills.

The state can also ask for more time.

After the meeting, described as a first for the community, Akiachak’s Phillip Peter is hopeful that Governor Walker seems willing to work with them.

“The Governor is willing to work with the tribes about the land into trust issues. I was saying to the Governor that we’re going to go forward and work with the state of Alaska on this land into trust issue,” said Peter.

Akiachak and Tuluksak were plaintiffs in earlier litigation to allow trust lands.

Categories: Alaska News

Humpback Researchers See ‘Old Timer’ Again After 44 Years

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-05 15:16

Whale researchers in Southeast Alaska have broken the record for the longest re-sighting of a humpback whale.

Forty-four years ago, the first sighting of a humpback known as Old Timer coincided with both the end of commercial whaling and the establishment of the Endangered Species Act. The whale’s re-sighting on July 12th in the waters outside Petersburg interacts with a fierce debate within the conservation community over the future status of these mighty marine mammals.

Old Timer’s Flukes captured from the deck of the M/V Northern Song on July 12th. (Jim Nahmens/Nature’s Spirit Photography; shared with permission)

Back in the 1970s it was so rare to see a humpback whale in Frederick Sound, sightings were often dismissed as wild rumors.

Now the area is so abundant on a recent trip the humpback whales turned Cape Fanshaw into a meadow of blowholes and tail flukes.

It was here that Adam Pack, a professor at the University of Hawaii sighted a whale who breaks the record for the longest re-sighting of a humpback. Back on shore in Petersburg, Pack looks out at the Sound from the deck of the Northern Song, the boat he was on when he saw the whale he calls Old Timer.

“I was on the deck out here and Jim Nehmans, my colleague, was adjacent to me and then we saw this one fluke at the same time,” he said. “We just looked at each other and said ‘there’s Old Timer’ and we literally jumped up and high fived right there on the front of the boat.”

Old Timer was first sighted here when Richard Nixon was still president and “American Pie” was Number 1 on the Billboard Top 100. Since then Pack and his fellow researchers have built a whole database of the humpbacks that grace these waters. And to him they’re all individuals with their own quirks and personalities.

He shows me a catalog of all the whales who congregate in Frederick Sound. Pack describes how the whale’s tail fluke is like a humpback’s fingerprint. He points to one: “This is stumpy. He’s missing half a fluke blade,” he tells me. “We’d call that one Crazy Eyes. This is angel fish because that looks like an Angel fish up there, this looks like a mosaic painting.”

Old Timer’s fluke is black with white shading like dots of shaving cream left on a full beard. Pack says the fact he gets to see whales like after 44 years is testament to the protection and conservation the species has been given since 1972.

That protection together with the decision to ban commercial whaling back in 1970 has been so successful, in April the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed that humpback whales in the Pacific should be removed from the endangered species list.

“This recognises the fact that things have improved for the whales,” said Marta Nammack, the Endangered Species Act listing coordinator for NOAA.

Nammack’s heading up the proposals which would take humpbacks off the endangered species list in 10 of the 13 places they reside across the world.

But some wildlife and conservation groups think those proposals spell danger

“It’s premature to remove those protections when so many threats like climate change, ocean acidification and ocean noise are increasing,” said Kristen Monsell, a Staff Attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

She says NOAA’s move is shortsighted. The reason humpbacks are doing so well is because of the endangered species Act.

“The ESA is a very powerful tool that helps to protect, conserve and recover imperiled species,” Monsell said.

But Marta Nammack, from NOAA, says what’s the point in having a list at all if you can’t recognize when an animal no longer belongs on that list.

“The whole goal of the endangered species act is to get them off that list,” she told me. “It’d be nice if we can see some more.”

Recently NOAA opened up a public comment period in order to hear the concerns of groups like Kristen Monsell’s. That ended on July 20th and the organization will now take those comments into account before making a final proposal sometime early next year.

Whatever happens between now and then Adam Pack says seeing whales like Old Timer again and relisting can be celebrated but that doesn’t mean they can be complacent.

“It means we’ve done pretty good but we have to continue to be vigilant,” he said. “We have to make sure that they are there for generations to come.”

And if the whales living in Frederick sound are anything to go by it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere fast.

Categories: Alaska News

Shell’s Arctic Icebreaker Returns to Unalaska

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-05 15:11
Shell’s Fennica icebreaker has returned to Alaska. It docked at Dutch Harbor Tuesday evening after enduring repairs and protests in Portland, Oregon.

The Fennica approaches the Delta Western Fuel dock in Alaska’s Dutch Harbor on Tuesday. KUCB/John Ryan photo.

Shell began drilling the top of a well in the Chukchi Sea last week, but it does not have federal permission from the U.S. Interior Department to drill into oil-bearing rocks unless the Fennica is on site. Shell’s bright yellow well-capping stack sits on the stern of the Fennica. It’s to be used in case a well blows out and other splll-prevention methods fail. “Once the Fennica is in theater [in the vicinity of the Chukchi Sea drill sites], then we’ll engage in discussions with the regulator about that permit,” Shell spokeswoman Megan Baldino said. The drill sites are more than 1,000 miles north of Dutch Harbor, the nearest deepwater port. The Fennica went to Portland’s Vigor shipyard after tearing a three-foot gash in its hull on an uncharted rock in Alaska’s Dutch Harbor on July 3. The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the incident. Greenpeace activists suspended from a bridge across Portland’s Willamette River and climate-change activists paddling kayaks in the river managed to delay the Fennica’s departure from the shipyard by about 36 hours. Shell has until the last week of September to finish its drilling for this year.
Categories: Alaska News

Kodiak’s Alutiiq Museum Releases Book About Archaelogical Site

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-05 14:34

Photo: A picture of the Kal’unek cover by the Alutiiq Museum. Shared via

One Kodiak Island settlement has served as both a rich archaeological resource and fueled the Alutiiq heritage renaissance now underway in Kodiak. The Alutiiq Museum recently published a book called “Kal’unek” with the University of Alaska Press. The nearly 400-page volume focuses on archaeological discoveries near the community of Karluk and delves into the site’s lasting effects on those involved.

The Alutiiq Museum’s Director of Research and Publication, Amy Steffian, says the site at the mouth of the Karluck river – Karluk One – opened to excavation in 1983, when few people knew about Kodiak Island’s Alutiiq history.

“Many people would not even claim their Native heritage because there was so much disenfranchisement and disrespect, and there was this sense that the pre-historic culture that had preceded the people that live today was impoverished,” says Steffian. “That these were poor people who suffered and who didn’t have a vibrant artistic life and certainly when we set out to study this site, it became pretty clear that that was false.”

Steffian says it became extremely exciting to the Alutiiq community to see the objects coming out of the ground and have access to them. She says sharing that was the second part of the book.

“It’s really two stories. It’s the story of the site and its contents and it provides an ethnography, it talks about how people lived 600 years ago, 400 years ago in that time period, but it also tells how this kind of anthropological, archaeological study when done in partnership with the community, when done with support and involvement, can be a very powerful experience.”

She says that the museum worked with many contributors on “Kal’unek,” from researchers to people who had excavated on the site.

“And also with members of the community who’d cared for the collection in the museum as volunteers or as paid employees and we asked everyone to write about a thousand words that summarize their experience so that we could tell the story not only of the site and its history, but of the impact of this research on the community broadly,” says Steffian.

And she says they’ve built a picture about Alutiiq life using a variety of resources, from oral history to Russian texts. As far as the artifacts go, they stand out for being especially well-preserved.

Executive Director April Laktonen Counceller explains the fresh water that leaked into the site helped prevent oxygen from touching the artifacts until excavators could unearth them.

“Thinking about a 500-year-old house where the grass that they used to keep the floor dry and clean still being green and then within just a couple of hours, the oxidation happening,” she says. “Of course, they didn’t collect probably the dirt and the grass, but they collected the more resilient items like the wood masks and the baskets. I mean, it’s just amazing the types of things that survived.”)

Counceller says she was involved in the project through the Kodiak Alutiiq New Words Council, which draws on the knowledge of Alutiiq elders. She says the members who had helped create words for modern technology turned their attention to ancient objects.

“By creating words for items where the words were once lost, we were able to kinda put our mark back on that pre-history and say this is our pre-history,” she says. “Our people have long been discussed by outside archaeologists, anthropologists. For the elders, it was really important to claim ownership over the past by giving back new words to those old items.”

She says they didn’t always invent now words or combine existing ones. For instance, they use applied the modern word for knife to an ancient one.

“That helps show the cultural continuity,” explains Counceller. “That we don’t need to come up with a completely unrelated word. We can use an existing word so that people can leverage the language they already have.”

Counceller says there are many more words listed in the book.

“Kal’unek” stands out as a thorough study of Alutiiq culture and, as Steffian says, “the goal was to make it a joint project where everyone was involved and people of all heritages and interests had access to the material.”

Categories: Alaska News

AquaBounty reporting net losses for first half of 2015

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-05 12:12

AquaBounty Technologies released a consolidated financial statement reporting a net loss of $3.5 million for the first half of 2015.

The company raised about $3 million dollars through sale of shares to its major investor, which will provide funding through early next year. The balance of cash on hand was reported to be $4.7 million. CEO Ron Stotish says they are spending heavily on marketing efforts and preparations for field trials of the product in foreign markets.

The biotech company has developed a genetically modified salmon that can be farmed to market size in half the time of conventional wild or farmed salmon. Aquabounty has applied for approval to market and sell the product, and believes it will receive FDA approval later this year.

Aquabounty says their product will fill a need for more fish protein which the company believes will come more from aquaculture than from wild fisheries in the future. Many major retailers have said they will not stock the product if it is approved. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski is pushing through legislation to require that AquaAdvantage salmon, which she calls “Frankenfish,” will have labeling indicating it is a genetically modified food product.

Categories: Alaska News

‘Expedited Partner Therapy’ Lowers YK Gonorrhea

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-08-05 12:08

YKHC consists of a regional hospital in Bethel. Photo Courtesy of YKHC.

There’s been a big decrease in the number of gonorrhea cases in Southwest Alaska over the past five years, according to the state Department of Health. It comes after local doctors tried a new strategy, called expedited partner therapy.

When he moved to Bethel to take a job as an OBGYN at the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation in 2009, Dr. David Compton learned the region was having an outbreak of the sexually transmitted infection, gonorrhea.

“I found out that not only did we have a very high baseline rate of sexually transmitted infections – gonorrhea and chlamydia – but we were seeing what we discovered to be was an epidemic of gonorrhea that the CDC was very concerned about and we were very concerned could develop into epidemics of other sexually transmitted diseases, like HIV,” said Compton.

Until 2008, gonorrhea infection rates in Alaska were very low. But In 2009, they detected an uptick everywhere and called it an outbreak across the state.

Dr. David Compton with Nurse Caroline Compton who is also his wife. Photo Courtesy of YKHC.

If left untreated, in women, the bacterial infection can result in pelvic inflammatory disease and serious pregnancy complications. It can lead to infertility in both women and men. Young people, 15-29, are more likely to be infected by gonorrhea because of their sexual behaviors. Alaska Natives are disproportionately affected.

The Centers for Disease Control and the state suggested something called expedited partner therapy – that’s where instead of tracking down partners of infected people and trying to get them to come in for treatment separately, the doctor prescribes or gives the medication to the patient to pass on to their partners.

It took six to nine months, Compton says, to convince everybody involved that it was a good idea. They had to switch from the recommended medication, which is a shot to a pill, Compton says, in order to make it easier to deliver the medication, but it worked.

“What we found when we tried this was that the partners were treated up to three days faster and therefore they had sex with fewer people with the infection and we were able to decrease the rate of the gonorrhea,” said Compton.

By a lot: they reduced new infection by 48 percent in the Southwest region of the state over the past five years.

Graphic by Ben Matheson/KYUK.

They also reduced the duration of test to treatment time for the STI from nearly a week to just two or three days. Now expedited partner therapy has become routine at YKHC in Bethel. It’s also available at village clinics and at the public health office.

That’s something Susan Jones, who works for the state HIV/STD program says was critical to getting the outbreak under control. Now it’s becoming more available throughout Alaska, she says.

“It’s something that has extended across the state in various degrees. One of the things that have helped this along is that the physicians in the state changed their regulations that allowed them to do prescriptions for individuals exposed to STD’s. You don’t have to see the person but you can write a prescription if they’ve been exposed to gonorrhea,” said Jones.

Jones says although the decrease in YK Delta Gonorrhea is hopeful, it’s recently come to light that some is being missed in the routine urine test, so it’s important to ask providers about additional testing, in some cases.

And, although gonorrhea is down, overall in the region, Jones says the Southwest area, along with Northern Alaska, still have the highest rates of gonorrhea in the state and Alaska ranks number four in the nation for the STI.

Categories: Alaska News