This week we’re heading to a city- the capitol city to be more specific: Juneau. Ricardo Worl is CEO for Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority.
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Instead of the usual businesswear worn in the Alaska State Capitol, many female legislators are wearing kuspuks, the traditional and comfortable Inupiat-Yupik garment not often seen in boardrooms. It’s also being adopted by some men in the capitol.
On this particular Friday, Senate Secretary Liz Clark’s kuspuk is getting a lot of attention.
“Somebody told me the fabric is called Fairy Frost so it’s sort of a turquoise blue and it’s got the Fairy Frost trim with some red ric-rak over top. It also has the multi-colored cat heads lining the hood and the pocket. It’s more a dress length with a ruffle. It feels like a mumu to wear so it couldn’t be more comfortable.”
Clark owns five kuspuks. She and other legislative staff easily joined what’s become a tradition among legislators, who started wearing kuspuks to work on Friday about a decade ago.
Anchorage Senator Lesil McGuire credits the idea to former representative Mary Kapsner, an Alaska Native from Bethel.
“Back when she was in the House of Representatives serving, she had an aide named Katie Real and they started wearing kuspuks every Friday.”
When Real passed away from an illness, Kapsnor and other women in the House of Representatives continued wearing kuspuks to honor her legacy.
Kuspuk Friday soon spread to the Senate where now it’s part of the Friday uniform for the pages. The Senate Secretaries, the Sergeant-At-Arms, and her assistant also take part in the tradition. Three of these kuspuk-clad individuals on the Senate floor are men. Senate McGuire would like to see every more males embrace kuspuk Friday.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is get more masculine fabrics introduced. Our assistant Sergeant-At-Arms Andy Higgins has come out with a really bold black one with some gold piping so it would be nice to get the Senate President and the Majority Leader wearing a kuspuk as well.”
Eagle River Senator Anna Fairclough served with Mary Kapsner. Most Fridays, Fairclough can be seen wearing a kuspuk. While she enjoys the functional purposes of the garment, like the big pockets, Fairclough says Kuspuk Friday means something more.
“It’s the solidarity per se with the women around Alaska that we know where our roots are at. We know there are traditional values in all cultures across Alaska that need to be respected and it’s our way of embracing that.”
While a kuspuk is a traditional Alaska Native garment, Senator McGuire notes most of those wearing kuspuks on Friday in the Capitol Building are not Native.
“Non-Native Alaskans take pride in celebrating the Alaskan Native Heritage and I think that’s something that I have really enjoyed seeing grow in this building in my thirteen years here. It’s something that I would not say was immediately a part of the culture but it’s certainly become a part of it.”
Wrangell Representative Peggy Wilson owns four kuspuks.
“I love wearing it because it’s so much more comfortable than anything else I wear.”
Freshman Representative Harriot Drummond of Anchorage borrowed a kuspuk from a friend for Kuspuk Fridays. She says it fits her normal, outside-the-capitol style.
“I like wearing hoodies in my off hours and this is an appropriate type of hoodie to wear to work.”
In the usual sea of dark suits and stiff collars in a state capitol, Kuspuk Friday adds a touch of fun, color, and comfort to the work week. It’s also a symbol of Alaska’s diversity of cultures and people.
Over the course of his administration, Gov. Sean Parnell has made an overhaul of the state’s oil tax system a top priority. In previous legislative sessions, his efforts to bring down the overall tax rate on oil companies has been stymied by the Senate. But this week, that body passed an amended version of his plan.
On Thursday, he sat down with APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez to discuss the status of the bill.
What does success look like to you, and do you have any metrics in terms of a hard number of barrels you’d like to see go through the pipeline? And at what point do you say this bill is successful? And when do you say it needs to be revisited?
I think it’s highly speculative question in terms of eliciting a highly speculative answer. But success to me is an Alaskan comeback, an Alaskan comeback on oil production.
The reason I want to see an Alaskan comeback is that I want to see more opportunity for Alaskans from oil. I think there is plenty more oil to be had. I want to see us be competitive and get it for Alaskans.
So a metric for me, I think it’s going to take three to five years before we start seeing new production. But we should see significant investment begin to ramp up in that time frame and I think we need only look to the North Sea and the UK from their recent tax changes and they are now having billions of British pounds sterling being invested in the North Sea for their changes. My recollection is it’s been several years since that occurred.
And so it doesn’t sound like there’s a specific measure then?
No, because this system, every tax regime should be built to last. Unfortunately we found that the current system is not, especially at these high oil prices. We’re missing out. So the bottom line is, it’s got to be competitive across a long time frame and we should start seeing things change in the near term, like three to five years. That way we’re not stuck long term without savings and little to no production.
Is turning things around bending the decline curve, stopping decline, or ramping up production?
For me, it’s maximizing that asset that’s in the ground for Alaskans. So you had senators talking about how there are 9 billion barrels of proven reserves. And stating, what is the problem?
Well, the problem is, companies won’t invest in getting those 9 billion barrels of oil across the next 30 years without a tax regime that makes sense for them to get it. That means Alaskans oil remains locked in the ground, something that minimizes Alaskan opportunity. Like the Senate majority that voted for the bill, I want to maximize opportunities for Alaskans.
Some legislators have said they want to see a fiscal plan with this proposal and also a scenario for what happens if we don’t get [increased production]. Are we going to get that as this bill is being considered?
So, at the beginning of session I met with majority leaderships in the finance committees and with the presiding officers. And I told them I want to be engaged with them on a five-year fiscal plan.
Because, number one, even if no change is made, that means we have to rein in spending even harder given declining production. But part of the principle or result of tax change, is that in the near term, we’re going to need to use our savings to get us through to more production.
So I’m working with House and Senate leadership, engaged in discussions with them in a five year fiscal plan. You saw the first stages of that with Scott Goldsmith speaking up in Senate Finance. I anticipate arriving at a place where we’ll rein in spending, we’ll used budget reserves to get us through to that point of new production.
One of the [Senate] amendments has to do with a three-year sunset … Is that something you would consider?
No, it’s an incredibly stupid idea, and let me tell you why.
When companies plan to invest hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of dollars, they need to recover that capital over 20 years, say. They plug in the tax regime across that time, if there’s a sunset on a tax regime that’s out there three years, five years, seven years, not only do they have the uncertainty of each year’s legislative session where the law could change, they then know that the law will be changed in three or five or seven years. that will chill investment.
But with the sunset, there’s the possibility of renewal.
But it’s about uncertainty. They will not invest where there is legal uncertainty that they could ever recover their investment. So a sunset provision would chill investment in Alaska until that sunset is resolved with another tax regime. It would be worse than the current system.
In that same amendment, there’s a community revenue sharing component with clearer language on how much could be appropriated. The current bill doesn’t have that in there. How do you feel about the state of revenue sharing?
Revenue sharing was originally and currently factored into the progressivity calculations. Because those are going away, we had said let’s just use the corporate income tax account as the accounting mechanism for it. I’m committed to revenue sharing, it will continue at current levels. And the legislature right now has essentially made that same commitment.
You’ve said this [Senate] bill fits with your guiding principles [for an oil tax package]. Are there any changes you’d like to see in the House version?
I have not had enough time to think about any changes. I think any bill can be improved and I’d be happy to get back to you on any changes we plan to advocate for. Given the change that occurred on the floor last night, I had a cursory briefing on what happened and the effects financially on it. But we’re going to look more closely to see if we can make it any better, just like I know the House of Representatives will. “
Gov. Sarah Palin was the one who brought ACES into being. She’s been quiet on this issue in public. Have you been in touch with your predecessor?
I have not. And I’ll speak for myself. ACES was modeled on $60-80 a barrel oil and there was very little discussion about higher price oil situations like we’ve been in recently. And given the history now of what we know happens under ACES, we have five years of history to look at with investment running to Texas and North Dakota and their production turning upwards and ours not. Because of that, change is required at this point in our history and that’s why I’m moving to change it.
The most persistent opposition to the legislation has been from Democrats in the minority in both chambers. And without the numbers to get any of their alternatives heard, they’re using a public relations strategy of sorts. And they have put more effort in making public records requests of your office and talking a lot about transparency. They’ve been saying they haven’t gotten the answers they want [on the oil tax issue]. How do you respond to that?
I think it’s just more political gamesmanship. It’s designed to distract us from the goal of maximizing Alaskans opportunity. And here’s what I mean. They’ve asked for information. The legislature has their consultants. The administration has their consultants. Between our two sets of consultants, there have been, 21 presentations from these experts in these committees where they can be asked out in the open for information.
So the notion that individual legislators, 60 of them, should be able to make their own individual requests when they have their own is the height of political gamesmanship. It’s not reality.
Are you alluding to [Democrats’] claim that you’ve been keeping consultants on lock that you have previously hired?
Yeah, welcome to the world where they pay for their consultants as legislators and the administration pays for our consultants, and then they both go to the committee table in the open-air public hearing to get evaluated.
In this case, they’ve had 21 different opportunities to ask consultants questions. So, again, I think it’s political gamesmanship. I’d rather see them focus constructively on creating opportunities for new production and new jobs for Alaskans.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think Sen. [Charlie] Huggins said it best when he told about meeting that young Alaskan man working in North Dakota. It was a very personal story about a young man who had to leave the state to find a job in the oil patch, which is what he wanted to do. And when that young man looked Sen. Huggins in the face and said, and you fix it so I can work in Alaska? That’s what strikes home for me.
This is about creating opportunity for him. I’ve already had — and Sen. Huggins has already had — a wonderful life of opportunity here in Alaska. Sen. [Pete] Kelly referenced it. This is for our kids and our grandkids. This change, brining about new production, will create an economy here for generations now. And I’m not willing to sacrifice that without a fight. And Alaskans deserve more than political spin and a pr campaign has been mentioned. They deserve serious work. And I think they’re getting it, they got it from this Senate and I think they’re getting it from the House as well.
The Elia Salafie Memorial Sled Dog Race and K300 Camp Out Race are happening this weekend.
The three-day Salafie Memorial race starts this Friday and is put on by the Bethel Sprint Musher’s Club.
Organizer John Simon says the race is named in honor of the late Elia Salafie, a Bethel musher who ran a Bethel sprint kennel in the 60’s.
He says even though many mushers today may not know who Salafie was, it is still important to honor him and his contribution to local mushing; he was instrumental in organizing sprint races over forty years ago.
This year’s course starts across from the small boat harbor in Bethel and goes upriver to Joe Pete’s fish camp and then along the wood cutting trail toward the bluffs behind Napaskiak and then back to Bethel.
The first two days mushers sprint 25 miles, and on Sunday the course is extended to 30 miles.
John Simon called this year’s course “challenging.”
The purse has been raised this year to at total of $25,000—with the winner taking home $4,500.
14 teams or less are expected to race this year.
Also this weekend is the K300’s annual Camp Out Race.
The race starts at 11 am Saturday with a noncompetitive start up the Gweek 45 miles to a camping spot where teams, friends and fans are welcome to camp out for the night.
The real race starts 11 am on Sunday with the dash back home toward Bethel.
The total purse is $8,250 this year.
The K300 Junior Classic is also coming up on Wednesday March 27th.
The House gets its first stab at the Senate’s oil tax package Friday.
The bill, which gets rid of a mechanism that raises the tax rate on oil as the price per barrel goes up, will be taken up in the resources committee. Co-chair Eric Feige, a Chickaloon Republican, says their goal with the bill is to bring Alaska’s oil tax rate down without undercutting states like Texas and North Dakota.
“I think our objective will be to place Alaska pretty close to the center of the competition, probably a little bit above the middle, if you will.”
The bill was first introduced by Gov. Sean Parnell, and the current version puts the base tax on oil at 35 percent while offsetting that with a $5 per barrel credit. But the governor’s original bill established a 25 percent flat tax. The difference between them comes to about $300 million in state revenue every year at forecast levels of production.
Feige offered support for the governor’s draft early in the session, calling it a “great starting point.” But he says that his committee is unlikely to bring the tax rate down to that level.
“Is it going to go all the way back to 25 percent? Probably not,” says Feige. “I don’t think there’s the support in the legislature to bring the base rate back down there. In the end, we’ve got to get get 21 votes in the House, keep 11 votes in the Senate. So we’ll proceed accordingly.”
The bill that moved out of the Senate on Wednesday got the minimum votes needed to pass, and key supporters have said that they don’t want the House to implement deeper cuts.
As the bill progresses through the House, one item that municipalities are expected to pay attention to is the treatment of the state’s community revenue sharing fund. That money is used to supplement city and borough operating budgets, and it comes as piece of the progressive tax feature the bill plans to wipe out.
The new bill doesn’t tie any percentage of oil tax revenue to the fund. It just allows the legislature to appropriate money to the fund at their discretion. Feige says he doesn’t have a problem with that policy, and he describes it as an accounting change that shouldn’t affect the program.
“But do we need to specifically say that the source of that revenue sharing money is coming from a particular place in our revenue stream? No, it’s just going to come out of general fund,” says Feige. “So, I don’t see anything untoward with the way SB21 has addressed that.”
An amendment that would have applied more specific guidelines for replenishing the community revenue sharing fund failed narrowly in the Senate on Wednesday night.
The resources committee has hearings scheduled through all of next week. The plan is to take testimony from the major oil producers on Tuesday, followed by smaller companies on Wednesday, and then offer changes to the bill later in the week.
A bill reworking the state’s oil tax structure has cleared a major hurdle, passing the Senate late Wednesday night on an 11-9 vote. The package would effectively lower taxes on producers with the hope of getting more oil in the pipeline. But without firm commitments to ramp up production, opinion on the legislation was split almost down the middle.
If you had to tally the debate in numbers, a few would come to mind. Thirteen: The number of amendments offered. Forty: How many minutes the longest speech lasted. Six-billion: The number of dollars Alaska could forego in state revenue over the next five years if the bill passed. Ninety-thousand: The number of extra barrels that would need to be produced every day to offset that loss.
For hours, senators went back and forth on whether that could happen. Supporters of the bill characterized it as a necessary risk that would make the state more competitive.
”It’s time to act. Alaskans – Alaskans’ future needs to be secured,” Anchorage Republican Sen. Anna Fairclough said. “Our generation, the next generation depends on that.”
Other members of the majority caucus rolled out personal stories of Alaskans leaving for the promised lands of North Dakota and Texas, and they spoke of a need to pass a healthy economy on to their children.
But they were reluctant to give specific numbers on the amount of oil they expect to see produced under the proposed tax regime, or give a hard timeframe for when the state should see changes to the production decline.
Meanwhile, opponents of the bill gave wonky treatises focused on the history of Alaska’s tax system and the factors contributing to declining oil production. Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican, warned that a big hit to the state’s treasury could affect the state’s bond ratings and ability to secure low-interest loans for capital projects. Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat, listed the number of times oil companies have misled the state on oil taxes.
“This is a bad bill that should be voted down. It’s a giveaway, it’s a crapshoot, it’s a far, far cry from our best work and what we’re capable of doing. I’ve watched each committee negotiate against themselves, waiting for some positive word form the oil industry. The words never came,” French said.
The bill that passed is a significant reworking of the state’s tax code. Right now, Alaska has a windfall profits tax that requires producers to pay more when oil prices are high. This measure gets rid of that, while adding a higher base tax that’s offset by a $5 per barrel tax credit.
Just one amendment was made to the legislation. A measure setting the base tax rate on oil at 35 percent passed with the support of 11 members of the majority. An earlier version of the legislation would have kicked that tax rate down by a couple of percentage points after 2016. That would have meant an extra $300 million in state revenue lost at forecasted levels of oil production.
In a late-night press conference following the Senate floor session, Anchorage Democrat Johnny Ellis suggested that amendment was needed to appease Click Bishop, a Fairbanks Republican who was seen as a swing vote.
“They didn’t have the 11 votes until amendment number one passed,” Ellis said.
Majority leadership denied that this was the case.
For his part, Gov. Sean Parnell is happy with the bill. The original legislation came out of his office, and lowering the state’s oil tax rate has been a consistent priority of his administration. He says he expects the legislation to start working shortly after it’s put in place.
“We should start turning things around in the near term, like three to five years, and that way we are not stuck without savings and little to no production,” Parnell said.
The bill will now be considered by the House. The first stop is Resources. Rep. Eric Feige, a Chickaloon Republican who co-chairs the committee, says that he shares the governor’s goal of making Alaska’s tax rate more competitive. When asked if the narrow margin of the Senate vote would affect his committee’s work, he said it would not.
Republicans have an overwhelming majority in the House, and in the past they’ve been more sympathetic toward the governor’s oil tax reform efforts than the Senate. If they pass a bill with changes, it would have to be reconciled with the Senate version.
Senator Murkowski has threatened to filibuster the nomination over the Interior Department’s decision to prevent construction of a road from King Cove to Cold Bay. The proposed road would cut through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Secretary Salazar agreed Wednesday night to reevaluate the decision. That was enough to appease Senator Murkowski to allow the committee vote.
Under the agreement, the next Interior Secretary will visit King Cove and meet with local leaders.
“Sally Jewell will have the undeniable privilege of going to King Cove, and I’m going to be with her. We’ll figure when the best time to get in and out safely. It may be that we have to fly into Cold Bay and walk,” Senator Murkowski said Thursday morning.
Residents of King Cove have lobbied for the connector road, arguing that traveling to Cold Bay by sea and air is often unsafe.
A final decision on the road could be months or years away. Interior will reassess the environmental review and include what Senator Murkowski calls the “human component” of the construction project.
The agreement was announced as the hearing began. Not long after, the panel voted 18 to three to move her nomination onto the full Senate.
The three no votes came from Republicans, including Wyoming’s John Barrasso. He said he remains concerned over Ms. Jewell’s work on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association.
“I’ve asked her whether she disagrees with NPCA’s positions. She testified that as vice-chairman she was unaware of the organization’s various positions and thus unable to say which decisions she agrees with. That concerns me,” Senator Barrasso said.
Senator Barrasso told the committee NPCA has sued the government to halt some energy projects on public land.
Senator Murkowski said she’ll take Ms. Jewell “at her word” – that Ms. Jewell will bring people of all stripes together, from the Interior Department and outside, to hash out areas of disagreement.
“She says specifically that she is a convener. I need her to be a convener. We need her to be a convener,” she said.
Senator Murkowski remains uncommitted to voting yes or no on Ms. Jewell’s final roll call vote. She wants firm answers to specific questions.
“I asked a very direct question on whether she’d support putting ANWR into wilderness. And I got the “I believe in balance” type of thing,” she said after the vote.
Seven Republicans voted in favor of moving the nomination onto the full Senate, including Idaho Senator Jim Risch.
Risch noted the quirkiness of the Cabinet confirmation process; every state has its own King Cove, in Idaho, it’s the endangered sage grouse.
A major perk of being Senator is the ability to threaten to filibuster a cabinet pick for a home-state gimme.
“It’s really unfortunate that it takes a nomination like this, and this type of a process in order to get urgency out of a federal agency,” Risch lamented.
Risch pointed out even though he voted to move Ms. Jewell onto the full Senate, he can, and may yet, put a hold on the nominee.
The Senate takes off the next two weeks for recess. It’s expected to debate Ms. Jewell’s confirmation in April.
A large landslide has transformed a mountainside near the Matanuska Glacier. Locals noticed the landslide in mid-February. It left a black streak of rock and debris on the unnamed mountain at least a mile long.
Sheep Mountain lodge owner Zack Steer first heard about the landslide when some friends drove by it on the way to his place. The next week, he was heading to Anchorage and took his camera along. The slide is clearly visible if you look south from around mile 94 of the Glenn Highway.
“It just looks like part of the mountain just fell off and slid down. And when you look closely at it, you just realize it was an avalanche of rock debris. And it just conjures this image in your mind of tumbling rock and dirt and soil and trees and basically just a river of earth moving down the hill and makes you really glad you weren’t there in front of it when it happened,” Steer said.
Russell Riddles feels the same way.
“I mean, if you would have been there, you wouldn’t be here anymore,” he said.
Riddles was driving down the Glenn Highway with his wife when he first spotted it. He is a manger at the Long Rifle Lodge nearby. Riddles says there are some informal moose camps in the area, but he thinks they were spared by the slide:
“One of the local kids hiked up there and said the moose camp one of the neighbor guys uses, it went right to the edge of it, actually knocked down the spruce tree that he hangs some of his stuff off of, but did not actually wipe out his little area he goes to every year,” Riddles said.
The landslide is on state land. The Department of Natural Resources knows about the slide, but doesn’t plan to do any work to investigate it further. But landslide expert Marten Geertsema is very interested in learning more about it. Geertsema is a Geomorphologist with the Province of British Columbia in Canada. From pictures, he says the slide looks like a deep, bedrock failure.
“The deeper landslides tend to have delayed responses to environmental conditions,” Geertsema said. ”So for example if there was a warm summer that could have an influence, or even a very wet summer, those affects are often delayed in these deep-seated landslides.”
Geertsema says slides can also be the result of fatigue that builds up under a slope over centuries or even millennia. But he says large slides like the one off the Glenn Highway are becoming more common around the world. He says there is evidence the increase may be linked to permafrost melt due to global warming:
“I think warming is especially going to be important in places like Alaska and Canada and in high mountain regions around the world. Obviously if you get wetter conditions, that will contribute as well. Like last year Alaska had a tremendously heavy snow pack and that triggered a number of rock avalanches, in the early snow melt season… Lituya was one of them,” Geertsema said.
The landslide that happened off Lituya Mountain in Glacier Bay National Park last June was the largest one ever recorded in North America. It ran for more than five miles down a wide glacier. Geertsema says no one knows how often big landslides occur in Alaska, but it’s valuable to take note when they happen.
“I think it’s important to document them and its important to figure out what the baselines are and how things are changing. These events do have profound effects on the environment,” she said.
Given the vast wilderness areas in Alaska, Geertsema thinks a lot of large landslides in the state probably go undetected.
The new sports complex currently under construction at the University of Alaska Anchorage now has a name – the Alaska Airlines Center. UAA and Alaska Airlines announced the $6.3 million partnership on Thursday.
Though the new athletic facilities will bear the name of the airline, the money is dedicated to helping out with other aspects of UAA’s athletic department.
One-million dollars of the deal will go towards creating a new scholarship endowment for UAA student athletes.
UAA Athletic Director Steve Cobb says there are approximately 200 student athletes at UAA, over 75 percent of whom receive at least partial scholarship support. Once the endowment is fully funded, it will yield approximately $40,000 in new scholarship money annually. Alaskans will have the top priority.
“The way our averages are now, and most of our athletes are on partials, it would be seven additional athletes who would be able to give our average amount of aid to,” Cobb said.
Currently, the average amount of aid the athletic department awards is a little less than a half scholarship.
The remaining $5.3 million is slated to assist with travel costs for the 13 athletic programs at UAA.
According to UAA Vice Chancellor of University Advancement Megan Olson, those costs are as much as three times as much as schools in the Lower 48.
“The travel itself is such a big part of the athletics program budget, the partnership that Alaska Airlines is providing in their sponsorship helps to relieve that burden,” Olson said. “All of our athletes have to travel extraordinary distances in order to compete.”
The athletics department’s travel budget is approximately $1.6 million this year.
The new arena is scheduled to open in the Fall of 2014, and Cobb doesn’t just expect it to give a boost to the athletic department, but to the community as a whole.
“Very soon, everyone is gonna come to the Alaska Airlines Center for one reason or another, whether graduation, a lecture, a concert, a game, or some other event,” he said. “I think in probably two years, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anybody in the state who hasn’t visited that building.”
Cobb also said the new facilities will allow for some growth of the programs, which might even mean the addition of men’s and women’s soccer teams in the future.
“It’s a big decision here anytime you add, because of the tremendous cost of each program, but we also have an obligation to meet the needs of the state,” Cobb said. “So, that’s the first thing you look at, are there unmet needs of the state, and the fact is we are exporting talented, young student athletes that like to play the sport of soccer and they don’t have a chance to stay here.”
The new deal will officially start on July 1 of this year, and includes an option to renew it for an additional five years.
Southcentral Alaska sport fishermen are applauding a move by the state’s Board of Fisheries aimed at ensuring escapement goals for Kenai River late – run Chinook salmon. The Board voted unanimously to approve substitute language for a proposal that would have triggered emergency management measures based on the run’s failure to achieve a specific escapement goal of 15,000 fish.
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The Iditarod Race Marshall is calling the death of a dropped dog in Unalakleet this year one of the worst tragedies in the race’s history. The Iditarod Trail committee has since launched an investigation into what happened. They’re working with the dog’s owner to develop better dog care standards for the future.
Over the last week, Iditarod Race Marshall and Director Mark Nordman, has been in discussions with the race’s head Veterinarian, as well as rookie musher Paige Drobny about what could have been done to prevent the death of Drobny’s dog, Dorado. “Right now, I still stand by our program,” he says. “I stand by my Head Vet. It’s something we have to learn from. Anytime we have something tragic like this, you gotta learn from it.”
When Drobny pulled her team into the Unalakleet checkpoint, more than 700 miles into the race, she knew she had to leave her Dorado behind. “Well, Dorado has been sort of stiff on his front end since Ophir,” she explains. “I had a vet check him over and they couldn’t find anything wrong with him. He started to get stuffer as it went on, so I just decided in Unalakleet he didn’t need to go anymore. He was getting tired.”
Dorado was scheduled to fly back to Anchorage with a group of other dropped dogs, but high winds and blowing snow grounded commercial flights and more than 130 dogs remained in the checkpoint for more than three days. The majority of the dogs were moved inside, but Dorado was among 30 that were not. On the morning of March 15th, Dorado was found buried in drifted snow. Preliminary necropsy results show the dog died from asphyxiation. Since news of the death broke, the Iditarod Trail Committee, or ITC, has faced scrutiny about the organization’s ability to provide quality dog care along more than 900 miles of remote trail between Anchorage and Nome. Some of that scrutiny has come from mushers including Paige Drobny. “I did a great job taking care of my dogs!” Drobny laughs, sheepishly. “You know, the vets that are out there are doing their best but I don’t know them all there was a lot of them.”
Race logistics along the Iditarod trail are complicated. Nearly all of the checkpoints are accessible only by air. It’s difficult to move more than 40 veterinarians around so they can see dog teams repeatedly. “I don’t know even if I saw one vet twice and because it’s my first year,” she says. “I didn’t know any of those vets and I didn’t get to develop a relationship with any of them.”
With the exception of the Head Veterinarian, all race vets are also volunteers. They do have to apply for the position and they must be licensed. They also attend a series of trainings and workshops hosted by the ITC prior to the race. Mark Nordman says paying vets may not make a difference. “I wouldn’t say paid veterinarians would be any better,” he says. “In my opinion they would not be better because these people are here for the passion of the even t and the dogs.”
But Drobny says there are ways to improve vet care on the trail. She dropped six of her 16 starting dogs in this year’s Iditarod. Prior to the race start, she lined up a handler to pick up those dogs when they arrived back in Anchorage, but they were hard to track down. Currently there is no standard system to track dropped dogs as they are transferred between checkpoints. Drobny thinks the race should implement a system much like that used by shipping companies like Fedex. “As soon as that dog gets on a plane, it gets scanned and all the information like when it was last fed or when it gets meds, all that information would be with that scan so that everyone would have that information and it could get lost,” explains Drobny.
The ITC released a list of three major changes they will implement to improve care for dropped dogs. They plan to build boxes to house dogs in the larger hub checkpoints of McGrath and Unalakleet. They will arrange for more frequent flights out of checkpoints. Veterinarians will also patrol dropped dog lots more frequently in the future. Drobny calls the changes “positive” and Mark Nordman agrees. “If you’re not trying to improve. Than you shouldn’t hold a position in any venue that we deal with,” says Nordman. “We see that our care of the dogs has improved as far as what we’ve learned from the dogs. It just continues. It’s just an evolving process.”
Nordman has been involved with the race in some capacity since 1983. In 30 years, he’s never seen a an incident like this. “It was the biggest hit I’ve ever had in all my involvement with Iditarod,” he says. “Whether it was the five times racing that I did. Once the events start, my position oversees all things Iditarod and it was a huge hit. A lot of emotions, a lot of emotions for everyone involved and they’re still feeling that.”
Drobny acknowledges that her dog’s death is likely one of the worst tragedies in the Iditarod’s 41 year history. She says she and husband and fellow musher Cody Strathe haven’t decided if they’ll enter another Iditarod. “We were just saying it might be nice next year for both of us to run the race together with Dorado’s ashes and take him back out on the trail. And go to those dog drops and see those changes implemented would be a cool thing for the two of us to do.”
The ITC will continue to look into ways to further improve dog care. Further necropsy results for Dorado are due out within the next 30 days.
The Iditarod is over, but there’s still racing left to be done this season. The Kobuk 440 out of Kotzebue is scheduled to start April 11. One musher is taking the long route to reach the race. Chuck Schaeffer, formerly of Kotzebue and now living in Willow, is driving his dogs from Nenana to Kotzebue for the race, alone. Schaeffer did the trip last year as a way to save the expense of flying his dogs north for the race. But this year, he’s taking time to stop and talk with young people in villages along the trail about personal responsibility and self pride.
After the Municipality of Anchorage sued designers of the botched Port of Anchorage expansion project earlier this month, the designers faulted the construction. But one construction company involved is defending their work.
Kirkland, Washington-based MKB Constructors was a sub-contractor under Integrated Concepts and Research Corporation, or ICRC. ICRC is being sued by the Municipality of Anchorage, along with CH2M Hill Alaska, and PND Engineers. MKB Construction’s main job was to drive sheet piles into the floor of Cook Inlet, creating part of the base for the new port.
Andy Romine was the on-site Project Manager for MKB. He defends his company’s construction work and takes issue with the construction companies being referred to as inexperienced.
“They even talk about it a little bit in the lawsuit,” Romine said. “They want to say that it was an inexperienced contractor that caused part of the problem and I just don’t agree with that.”
Romine says he had worked on six similar projects and his crew were union employees from the local pile drivers and operators unions. There were multiple problems with the project, which used a patented ‘open cell sheet pile’ design. Everyone agrees that some sheets of metal, driven into the ground crumpled and separated during construction.
In a previous story a spokesman for Anchorage-based PND Engineers defended their design and faulted incorrect installation by construction contractors, saying they should have used a barge from the water side, which is a method that had been proven successful, but Romine says that’s not true.
“There’s one common thing that everybody’s saying — the engineer says it, CH2M Hill said it, MKB said it. When we built the project off of the land-based work platforms, which were the anticipated method of construction included in the contract documents, it didn’t work. Who is responsible? Everybody probably has an opinion, but there’s one thing that everybody agrees on, that that’s not the way to do that project at the Port of Anchorage,” Romine said.
The administration of Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan has led the push to get the Municipality reimbursed for its losses.
- Letter to Ernie Hall (PDF)
A major improvement project at Homer’s Deepwater Dock is forcing Buccaneer Energy to move its jack-up rig Endeavor out of the harbor. But the company will now have a little extra time to move the rig.
The original deadline to move the Endeavor rig was March 20th but Homer Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins says that deadline has now been moved back by a week.
“We did agree to allow them to stay there until (March) 26th and that was based on our construction project and the arrival of our materials,” said Hawkins.
Hawkins says the crew that is working on the Endeavor is still waiting for some equipment to arrive, including a large boom for one of the rig’s cranes.
The city, too, is waiting on equipment before it can begin a major fender replacement project at the Deepwater Dock.
Hawkins said the pilings for the project have been installed but the city is still waiting on shipment of the new dock fenders. The fenders are quite enormous, at 45-feet long by 22-feet wide. They are being shipped to Seward from China, says Hawkins, and will then be barged to Homer from there. Jay Brandt Construction of Homer won the contract to do the work, which Hawkins says should take about a month.
Hawkins says before the job can be completed, the Endeavor must be moved away from the dock.
“The crews can do quite a bit of the work while the rig is there but there’s some work that is going to (force) it to pull away,” he said.
Hawkins says the repair shouldn’t disrupt the normal schedule of the Deepwater Dock, which gets pretty busy once the summer fishing season gets into full swing.
He says the Endeavor rig will need at least two tugs to move it away from the Deepwater Dock. As of Friday, no tugs were available at the harbor.
Buccaneer spokesperson Jay Morakis said in an email message that the company had received a necessary certification from the American Bureau of Shipping and is expecting to receive a Coast Guard inspection of the Endeavour sometime later this week. If that happens on schedule, he expects the Endeavor jack-up rig to move to the Cosmopolitan Unit near Anchor Point, where it expects to drill later this year.
Federal spending cuts known as sequestration will have less of an impact on the Coast Guard in Alaska than elsewhere in the country. That’s the word from Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, who is in charge of the Coast Guard’s District 17, which encompasses the entire state.
Ostebo says the Coast Guard is in high demand as activity picks up in Alaska, especially with offshore oil development.
“It’s going to require the Coast Guard and Coast Guard aviation assets to have a presence up on the North Slope, and Kodiak is making preparations to be up there, in less capacity than we were last year, but more than we have been traditionally,” Ostebo said at an awards ceremony Friday at Air Station Sitka.
Ostebo says that’s the good news. The bad news is that sequestration has created “uncertainty” in the budget. Tuition assistance for Coast Guard personnel is gone. Improvements for Coast Guard housing in Sitka are on hold. A request to add a fourth helicopter in Sitka will have to wait, too. And, Ostebo says, there are other uncertainties.
“We’ve got some icebreaker issues. We’re supposed to have two ice breakers up here. Both the Polar Star and the Healy were going to come up. Whether they show up or not is now of great debate,” Ostebo said. “Just fueling those ships is millions of dollars. You’ve got 1.5 million gallons capable on the Polar Star. At $4 a gallon, it’s pretty expensive to fill it up. So we’re trying to figure out how best to use that, or whether we will use it at all in the Arctic.”
Ostebo says District 17 paid some bills early and put itself in a pretty good place to whether budget cuts. He says the core missions of the Coast Guard, from rescues to navigational aid maintenance to vessel safety, will not change.
At a first felony appearance before the magistrate at the Dillingham courthouse Wednesday morning, Leroy B. Dick, Jr, 42, of Manokotak, initially refused legal counsel, telling the judge: “To be honest, I could say I’m guilty of the crime.”
Dick is accused of killing VPSO Thomas Madole, 54, Tuesday afternoon in Manokotak. The State of Alaska is charging Dick with murder in the first degree, which carries a maximum sentence of 99 years in prison.
Mr. Chris Lesh of the Public Defender’s Agency in Dillingham was appointed to represent Dick. Dick is in custody and will be held on $1,000,000 bail.
Governor Sean Parnell released a statement today, expressing his sadness over the tragic death of Officer Madole. Parnell has ordered all state flags to be lowered tomorrow in honor and memory of Madole. Heis the first VPSO to be killed in the line of duty since Ronald Zimmin was shot and killed in the Bristol Bay borough in 1986.
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The Alaska House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a “Stand Your Ground” bill on a 33-5 vote.
House Bill 24 expands what’s known as the “castle doctrine,” which allows people to use deadly force to protect their homes and businesses from intruders. The controversial legislation extends that protection to anyplace a person lawfully has a right to be.
Bill sponsor, Big Lake Republican Representative Mark Neuman, says it simply clarifies that self-defense is not a crime.
“If you’re in your home, and an invader comes into your home, are you supposed to if we had a duty to retreat maybe go hide in your bedroom? That’s not what it says,” said Neuman during debate on the House floor. “It says you have the right to defend yourself in your home. Why shouldn’t you carry those rights anywhere you have a right to be? And make that clear.”
Neuman has introduced versions of the bill in previous legislatures, but they died in the Senate after passing the House.
Similar laws are already on the books in about two dozen states nationwide. They came under scrutiny last year after unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in a suburban Florida community. Initially Zimmerman was not charged for the shooting, because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
Opponents of House Bill 24 cited concerns over whether it would limit the ability of prosecutors to try gang shootings, particularly in Anchorage. Andy Josephson, a Democrat who represents the Anchorage University District, also brought up potential public safety concerns.
“I’m worried about more bullets being shot, and the innocent people in the background of the shooting scene – in a mall for example on a Christmas Eve day, who are just shopping,” Josephson said. “And I don’t think we’ve covered thoroughly enough what the liability might be to them.”
Josephson was one of four Democrats who voted against the bill. The only Republican to oppose it was Lindsey Holmes, a former Democrat who represents West Anchorage and switched parties just before the start of this year’s session.
The Alaska Department of Law had concerns over the 2010 “Stand Your Ground” bill, with then-Attorney General Dan Sullivan writing that it would “encourage the needless taking of human life.”
Current Attorney General Michael Geraghty reversed course last year, and has said he supports the current version of the bill.
Anchorage Republican Charisse Millett served notice of reconsideration on HB 24 after today’s vote. That means it will be back for another vote, likely later this week.
If it still passes the House as expected, HB 24 would need to pass the Alaska Senate before it can go to Governor Sean Parnell for his signature.
Debate on whether the state’s oil tax system should be overhauled continued in fits and spurts on Wednesday. By early evening, the Senate had considered seven amendments to a bill flattening the tax rate on oil companies and shifting incentives for credits.
So far, only one has passed. An amendment supported by 11 members of the majority would set the base tax rate on oil at 35 percent. An earlier version of the bill would have included an automatic 2 percent reduction to that amount three years from now. According to state estimates, that would have cost the state an extra $300 million in lost revenue at forecasted levels of oil production.
The Democratic minority offered most of the other amendments, with some aimed at bringing back progressivity and others narrowing the application of certain tax credits.
But one of the more popular of the failed amendments actually came from Republican Gary Stevens. The Kodiak senator introduced a measure that would cause the tax changes to sunset after three years if the legislature determined they weren’t working. He said that, as written, the bill risks giving industry too much of a tax break without a guarantee of increased production.
“It is tying us into something that is enormously expensive for a very long time unless we have an escape clause,” Stevens said.
Those carrying the bill argued that a sunset on the bill would create uncertainty for oil companies. The measure ultimately failed 11-9, but earned the support of the Senate Democrats and Sitka Republican Bert Stedman.
The oil tax bill is one of Gov. Sean Parnell’s major priorities. Supporters say it’s necessary to put more oil in the pipeline, while critics are concerned that it would bring down state revenue by roughly a billion dollars each year without any commitments from oil companies to ramp up production.
As of press time, debate on the bill was ongoing, with more amendments expected.
After years of problems, which halted the Port of Anchorage project, the Municipality of Anchorage is suing the designers.
Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan’s administration filed the lawsuits in response to recent studies released by the engineering firm CH2M Hill. That company faulted the port’s design. Robert Owens is an Assistant Municipal Attorney with the city. He says the municipality has been investigating problems with the port project since they arose 2009.
“When the suitability study was completed we found out the full extent of the problems,” Owens said.
There were multiple problems with the project, which used a patented “open cell sheet pile” design. These sheets of metal, driven into the ground, shored up by metal supports, with earth filled in behind, were supposed to create a base for the port, but some crumpled or separated during construction. Owens says besides the problems that came up during construction, the CH2M Hill report indicates the port structure might not hold up during an earthquake.
“It was unstable. It could fall or tip or collapse in some fashion, because part of it, the native soils that it’s sitting on, Bootlegger Cove Clay, is unstable or could liquefy. It wasn’t just the way it was built, but really more that it won’t stand the test of time. There’s real concern that it won’t be stable over time,” Owens said.
The now defunct VECO Corporation produced a stability study on the port and VECO was then purchased by CH2M Hill. Now that company says its predecessor’s study was bad. The municipality is suing three parties: Integrated Concepts and Research Corporation, or ICRC; CH2M Hill Alaska, and PND Engineers. Kenton Braun is the Vice President of PND Engineers. He defends his company’s design and says the problems arose because of incorrect installation.
“The reason that we’re all talking is because the construction went bad out there and it was the methodology that led to the problems,” Braun said.
Braun says contractors to ICRC, the general contractor working for the Maritime administration, which was managing the project for the city, are responsible.
“We were tasked to design the facility. What happened was it went wrong when it went to construction – it was an inexperienced contractor that got involved and failed to construct it properly,” Braun said.
Braun says contractors tried to drive the metal sheets into the earth by pounding them in at close-range from the shore with a pile-driving hammer. He says the slope began to erode into the partially constructed wall increasing pressure, making it difficult to drive the sheets in. He says they could have used a barge from the water side, which is a method that had been proven successful.
The port project was started back in 2003 under Mayor George Wuerch and Port Director Bill Sheffield. The Design was approved in 2006 Under Mayor Mark Begich. Sheffield was still the Port Director. The Sullivan administration has led the push to get the Municipality reimbursed for its losses.
The Municipality has an ongoing relationship with the U.S. Maritime administration to complete the project and is not suing them. Earlier this month, CH2M Hill released a second study and presented three new designs for the administration to consider. Attorneys say they will likely decide on a new design in the coming months.
Under Senator Murkowski’s plan, coastal states would receive 27.5 percent of revenue generated from offshore energy.
In Alaska, a quarter of that sum would go to coastal boroughs with the rest going into state coffers.
Senator Murkowski said coastal states deserve money brought in from federal waters.
“We willingly want to access these resources; they provide good jobs and benefits most certainly,” she said at Wednesday morning press conference. “But there is impact. There is undeniably impact.”
“Impacts” like new infrastructure and traffic to oil spills, something neither she nor Senator Mary Landrieu mentioned when they unveiled their bill. Landrieu, a Democrat, represents oil-rich Louisiana.
The plan creates revenue sharing of 50 percent for onshore renewable energy projects. Senator Murkowski said that puts renewables and fossil fuels on the same plane, because states now take home half of federal revenues for onshore oil, gas and coal development.
And the new bill would also allow states to pocket an extra 10% of the federal offshore revenue, if they opt to use it to create conservation funds, or invest in renewable energy.
Senator Murkowski said that could raise a state’s total stake to 37.5%.
“We want to do more to encourage the development, the research and development, the build out of our clean energy sources,” she said. “What better way to do that, to help pay for that, than from some of our offshore energy opportunities?”
Just last week President Barack Obama proposed his plan to use money from offshore lease sales to encourage investment in alternative fuel cars and trucks.
Including the money for conservation and renewable energy may win over some skeptical Democrats, but not all.
Eight Democratic senators are circulating a letter opposing revenue sharing; saying any money generated from lease sales should go to paying down the debt, and oil spilled off the coast of one state could harm neighboring ones.
Senator Landrieu said Gulf Coast States have contributed $211 billion to the treasury in oil and gas revenues, and that helps the entire country.
“There are only four states producing that money. It’s not Illinois. It’s not New Jersey. It’s Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama,” she said at the same press conference.
That’s a dig at Senators Dick Durbin, Bob Menendez and Frank Lautenberg. They represent Illinois and New Jersey and signed the letter of opposition.
Durbin is the number two Democrat in the Senate.
The bill does not call for any increased production, so overall, the federal government would earn less money if the bill became law. Congress will need to find cuts elsewhere to offset the loss of federal revenue.
Both Senators Murkowski and Landrieu deferred any talk of cost to the Finance Committee, a committee neither serves on.
Senator Mark Begich introduced his own revenue sharing bill earlier this year, one that looks quite different from Senator Murkowski’s.
He said his plan would put more money into the local economies and Native Corporations but less into the state.
“The key for me is making sure the local communities, including the tribes are part of the equation,” he said before a Senate vote.
He said the two plans can be reconciled.
Either would have to pass the Senate Energy Committee before it can be considered by the whole Senate.
There’s no planned committee action yet.
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