For 30 years, Alaska maintained a universal vaccine program, where federal funding paid for all the standard shots. But in 2011, the money started drying up, leaving only the most vulnerable populations covered.
Now, universal access to vaccines may be back, with a law that uses the state as a broker between insurance providers and pharmaceutical companies to get a bulk rate discount. At the bill signing this week, State Sen. Cathy Giessel said the idea is to make sure “all Alaskans, insured and uninsured, had access to vaccines.” On top of increasing access to vaccines, health care providers expect the law to save them time and money.
Dr. Susan Beesley is making the rounds through the offices of the Anchorage Pediatric Group. Plenty of nurses stop to say hello, and one mentions giving shots. Beesley has practiced there for five years. But right now, she’s not on the clock.
“Today, I’m here as a mom. I’m here for my two-month well-child check with my daughter Robin Beesley.”
Her baby will be getting immunized against whooping cough and tetanus, diphtheria and rotavirus.
“So, today she’s getting one oral vaccine and three shots,” says Beesley.
While getting shots may be a new thing for baby Robin, immunizations are a huge part of what the Anchorage Pediatric Group does. Beesley alone sees about 20 kids every week who get vaccines.
When Beesley first moved to Alaska in 2009, the state still had universal vaccine coverage. It didn’t matter if you were a kid, an adult, insured, or uninsured: If you were getting an ordinary vaccination, the federal government was probably footing the bill.
“Slowly over the past five years, we’ve lost that. And it’s sort of been a step-wise progression from having universal coverage to then just a couple of shots not covered universally, and then slowly, all of them have been sort of changed over to a two-tier system.”
Public funding covers about a third of the shots administered by Anchorage Pediatric Group. The rest are billed to the insurance companies or to the patient.
To avoid a billing mess, the group has to make sure the vaccines are stored according to who pays for them, even though the shots are identical. That means keeping the same exact vaccine in separate bins, in refrigeration units divided by Plexiglas. Some clinics have to spend extra money on entirely different refrigerators for different types of patients.
And no matter how organized a group is, Beesley says there are occasional mix-ups when it comes to distributing the public supply and the private one.
“Sometimes, you give accidentally private stock to a child that you later find out may have had a private insurance, but lost it, and now they’re on Medicaid,” says Beesley. “You can end up eating the cost as the practice for that vaccine.”
Those vaccines aren’t cheap. While we’re waiting for baby Robin’s appointment, Beesley grabs practice administrator Brice Alexander to explain just how much money their group spends on them.
“The cost of the vaccines some of them are upwards of $200 just for the serum itself,” says Alexander.
Alexander adds that the Anchorage Pediatric Group fronts $40,000 a month on vaccines for patients who don’t qualify for the public immunization program, before passing that cost on through patient bills.
But starting next January, the group won’t have to do that. The State of Alaska will be implementing a new system where they act as a buyer for vaccines. They’ll assess insurance companies and private practices a fee, and then use that money to buy vaccines for providers at a serious discount. In states with similar programs, access to vaccines has increased, making disease outbreaks less likely. Providers, patients, and insurance companies have saved millions of dollars.
The new system also means hospitals and clinics won’t have to segregate their vaccines anymore or bill them differently. Alexander expects that to be a time-saver.
“Not having to worry about explaining to patients why they have such a huge bill, it’s much easier to focus on, ‘Yeah, you showed up for the visit. Here’s your bill for the visit, and everything else is covered,” says Alexander.
Beesley also welcomes the change.
“The bottom line is just that it’s such an important preventive service, and we want to be able to provide exactly the same to all of our patients,” says Beesley.
While the new system should make work easier for Beesley and her colleagues, the actual shots themselves aren’t as much fun for Robin. She cries a little, but quickly stops after being patched up with some sparkly Band-Aids and being returned to her parents.
After a few more minutes, Robin is ready to go until the next round.
The Fairbanks area has seen some impressive rainfall over the last few days. National Weather Service meteorologist John Lingass reports 2 to 3 inches around Fairbanks, and 3 to 4 inches over the hills northeast of town.
The heavy rains are causing flooding along rivers. National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb reports high water on the Chena River, along Chena Hot Springs road east of town.
“One to two feet of water is pouring over at mile 36.9 and it is impassable for some vehicles, and [there are] also reports of water over most of the banks out in the Chena rec area and other places upstream of the Moose Creek Dam,” Plumb says.
Gates on the Moose Creek Dam in North Pole are being lowered to shave off some of the cresting Chena, diverting flow into a spillway at the Chena Flood Control Project. Plumb says that will limit high water in the cities of North Pole and Fairbanks, but it won’t be enough to prevent flooding in the low lying Steamboat Landing, Freeman Road area just downstream of the dam. Meanwhile, he says flooding is also an issue on the Salcha River.
“One of our observers, about 20 miles upriver from the Richardson Highway bridge, and they’ve got 3-4 feet of water in their yard — and they’re in a cabin that’s generally up on a higher bank that doesn’t get flooded as often. They’re saying this is some of the highest water they’ve had since 1986.”
Plumb says the Goodpaster River is also high and likely overflowing it’s banks and flooding low lying areas, adding there are cabins along the river.
Interior miners aren’t happy with changes proposed to federal permits for small scale placer operations that impact water resources, including wetlands. Dozens of miners attended an Army Corps of Engineers public meeting in Fairbanks this week on the proposals.
Roger Bergraff of Fairbanks has been in the mining business for 40 years, and says he’s witnessed a regulatory trend that’s forcing out mom and pop placer operators. Bergraff laments the demise he blames on expanding and increasingly complex environmental regulations and paperwork.
Bergraff points to legal interpretations of the Clean Water Act that have expanded the definition of wetlands, resulting in more regulation of mining in wet areas that cover much of the interior. Army Corps of Engineers Regulatory Specialist Deb McAtee says the proposed permitting system reflects court rulings.
The proposed new permits cover smaller areas, focus on wetlands, and require more specialized reclamation. Army Corps project manager Leslie Tose (TOESE) points to a 2008 mitigation rule that’s being rolled into the permit.
Tose says miners would also be required to better document their sites and work with photos. The proposed new permit, which is out for public comment, did not sit well with most miners at the meeting, but Casey Post, who’s mined north of Fairbanks for 5 years, expressed mixed feelings.
Post attributes some of the negativity about the proposed new permit to miss information that’s been rumored around, but adds wetlands reclamation can be a big deal.
Post, one of the younger people at the meeting, says he understands the frustration of long time miners, but considers permits and regulatory compliance just another part of the business.
Those rules are blamed by old timers like Roger Bergraff for quashing the kind of pioneering people he credits with making Alaska what it is today.
Bergraff does not blame the Army Corps of Engineers, which he says is trying to craft a workable placer permit but has to meet constraints coming from above. The Corp’s Tose is optimistic despite initial negative sentiment.
Tose says timing of the proposed permit roll out is not ideal because miners are busy during the summer. She says the public comment period will be extended to provide more off season time for feedback.
On Thursday morning Bill Rawls, a visitor from North Carolina, cast a hook and bait into Ship Creek near Downtown Anchorage. After about an hour of waiting he felt a pull on the line. A short struggle later Rawls reeled in the biggest fish he has ever caught in his life—a 40-pound king salmon. “Everyone around me kept saying how big it was,” he recalled giddily.
The 40-pounder was caught during the Slam’n Salm’n Derby, a 10-day long fishing competition in Anchorage which draws hundreds of locals and tourists looking to snag king salmon. Prizes are given out for the largest fish caught, which include a flat screen television, Alaska Railroad tickets, and a coveted 16-foot cataraft.
The event is free to the public, but donations are directed towards the Downtown Soup Kitchen. Last year the organization raised about $50,000, which it used to temporarily house and feed those in need.
The derby comes after a series of lackluster salmon runs in the region. This year, though, more than 100 fish have already been entered into the competition, some topping 30-40 pounds. “The Derby’s off to a great start,” said Dustin Slinker, owner and operator of Ship Creek’s Bait Shack. “A lot of the other fisheries in the state are under emergency orders and shut down, but here in Downtown Anchorage you can still catch a 40-pound King Salmon.”
A fish hatchery program that broke ground in 2012 is partially credited for the abundance of fish. This is the first season that grown salmon from the hatchery have swum through Anchorage, Slinker said.
The derby wraps up at noon on Sunday, when there will be a BBQ and awards ceremony. Rawls is heading back to North Carolina before the competition closes, but he’ll try to come back next year. “Down at the creek everyone was super polite, super helpful,” he said. “It was just a once in a lifetime experience and I’m going to try and make it back.”
This week we’re heading to the hub community of Bethel on the Kuskokwim River. John MacDonald lives in Bethel.
Hot canola oil pangs off a stainless steel tub under the watch of a local fry bread master. Some people say it’s magic that turns a hand-stretched disc of dough into a puffy — but-not-too-puffy — piece of golden, delicious fry bread.
Fry bread, that high calorie treat that can go savory or sweet, has generations of history in many Alaska Native families, where the untraditional food has become a cultural fixture.
Garfield Katasse is the big guy under the tent by the Garfield’s Famous Fry Bread banner. On days like this during a big Native cultural convention, Katasse spends hours on his feet, patiently working the dough and frying it up piece after piece after piece.
He goes through 175 pounds of dough a day, all mixed by hand.
“You know, my day starts (at) 4 o’clock in the morning, and doesn’t end ‘til 10:30 at night,” Katasse says. “Because I have to run around and get all my ingredients and get ready for the next day.”
There’s a funny squeal coming from the headphones Katasse wears, plugged into a gadget clipped to the collar of his hoodie. He’s got severe hearing loss, and it helps him get by.
He says his disability makes it tough for him to work a regular job, but it also lets him travel and sell fry bread to thousands during events and festivals. Katasse has been setting up shop in the Juneau and Anchorage areas for about a decade. He grew up in Juneau, but lives in Albuquerque and Anchorage most of the year.
Even without four walls or a roof over his business, he’s become a local institution.
Carmen Plunkett, who’s from Juneau but now lives in California, was carefully packaging up eight pieces of the plate-sized treats.
“We love our fry bread, as you can tell,” Plunkett says. “I now take it back and I freeze’em, take it back and I can have’em later. Cause there’s no — I can’t cook it myself.”
The fry bread she can buy in California just isn’t the same.
Even in the rain, Katasse’s customers keep queuing up in the parking lot where he’s set up for a few days.
“I love Garfield’s fried bread. He does the best fry bread,” says Bettyann Boyd.
By the end of Katasse’s first week in town, she’d eaten four pieces.
“It’s light and it’s big, and he always has good conversation while you’re getting it,” she says with a cheery chuckle.
Boyd, Plunkett and many others in line are Tlingit. They remember their first time eating fry bread made by their parents and grandparents when they were young children.
And yet, Smithsonian Magazine and popular lore attribute fry bread’s origins to the Navajo. Katasse, who’s Tlingit but spent a lot of his adult life in the Southwest, says his recipe came from a Pueblo friend. Sometimes, he sells fry bread topped with Mexican ingredients as an “Indian taco,” though he personally enjoys it with salmon and green chili.
Many Native American groups around the country have variations of fry bread. How it’s come to be so closely associated with Alaska Native cultures is a bit of mystery.
Boyd says she doesn’t know much about its history in Alaska.
“I just know it brings a lot of people together,” she says.
Plunkett says she never thought about it.
“I never questioned it because it was part of our, you know, what we ate,” Plunkett says. “Now, you have me questioning it.”
Dwayne Lewis, a Navajo and owner of the restaurant Sacred Hogan Navajo Frybread in Phoenix, says he doesn’t have any theories about how it got to Alaska. He remembers his grandma saying fry bread was first created when the government was rationing food to the Navajo.
Like matzah is a symbol of Jewish persecution, Navajo fry bread has a lot of history, symbolism and emotion kneaded into it.
In the 1860s, the U.S. government forced the Navajo and other Southwest Native American groups to relocate to a doomed settlement called Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation. Traditional foods grew poorly there. Starvation led the government to provide canned goods, flour, sugar and lard, which led to fry bread.
For Katasse’s customers in Alaska, fry bread doesn’t appear to have that baggage. Darrin Austin doesn’t have a trace of ambivalence while he eats.
“Pretty good, I like how he makes them big, too. Has that big tub,” Austin says between bites. “Sweet, you got sugar on there, the butter, you know, it’s buttery. And it’s crispy, fresh out of the oil.”
Katasse keeps his recipe under wraps, but does share one key additive.
“I say my prayers … every time I do 10 pounds of dough, for everybody that walks across my booth, buys bread, that they would be blessed and nourished,” Katasse says.
When people ask him, “What’s your secret?” he says that’s it.
“There’s no magic about this,” he says.
Some Alaskans were drawn to come here by a book – for instance “Coming into the Country,” or “Two in the Far North,” or “One Man’s Wilderness.” We’ll be building a list of the Best Alaska Books on the next “Talk of Alaska.” Let us know which is your favorite.
Steve Heimel’s Top-5 Alaska Books:
- Coming into the Country
- Wilderness, a Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska
- Ordinary Wolves
- Into the Wild
- Pilgrim’s Wilderness
Do you agree with Steve’s list? Let us know!
HOST: Steve Heimel, Alaska Public Radio Network
- Vered Mares, publisher, VP and D House
- David Stevenson, Director of the Creative Writing and Literary Arts Program, University of Alaska Anchorage
- Callers Statewide
Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).
Send e-mail to talk [at] alaskapublic [dot] org (comments may be read on air)
Call 550-8422 in Anchorage or 1-800-478-8255 if you’re outside Anchorage during the live broadcast
LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, June 24, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.SUBSCRIBE: Get Talk of Alaska updates automatically by e-mail, RSS or podcast.
U.S. House Ethics Committee today issued a letter of reproval to Alaska Congressman Don Young for accepting gifts and expenses related to multiple hunting trips in violation of the House Gift Rule. The panel says he should repay $28,000 to gift-givers and $31,000 to his re-election campaign. The committee found he accepted 15 such trips between 2001 and 2013. For seven of those trips, only some of the expenses, such as air travel provided by friends, were deemed improper. But all expenses for eight of the trips were found to be gifts in violation of the rule or improper use of campaign funds for personal use. The committee also noted that Young listed none of the gifts or trips on the personal financial disclosure documents members of Congress are required to file each year.
The action originated with a wide-ranging Department of Justice investigation that began years ago. In August 2010, the Justice Department told Young it would not bring any charges against him. But that same month, DOJ sent information about his gifts and hunting trips to the Ethics Committee. The trips the Justice Department identified were trips taken by Young, his family members and staff to hunting lodges and all occurred between 2003 and 2007. Investigators for the committee found improperly funded trips dating back to 2001 and as recently as last year.
The Ethics Subcommittee that investigated Young did not conclude Young corruptly or purposefully accepted the gifts, nor that he made false statements to federal officials. The Committee did not recommend the harsher penalty of censure by the full House of Representatives.
Young’s spokesman said the congressman would not talk about the report today. He issued the following statement:
I accept the House Committee on Ethics’ report and regret the oversights it has identified. There were a number of instances where I failed to exercise due care in complying with the House’s Code of Conduct and for that I apologize. As the Committee indicates in its report, I never “made any knowingly false statements to government officials” nor did I act “corruptly or in bad faith.”
I have made each of the payments recommended by the Committee and have taken significant steps since 2007 to strengthen my office’s polices for compliance with the Code of Conduct to ensure that these types of oversights do not happen again. It is through these actions that I show my colleagues and Alaskans that I fully respect the House Rules and will continue to comply with them now and in the future.
I am pleased that today’s decision represents the conclusion of an extended inquiry by both the Department of Justice and the House Committee on Ethics and I will continue to faithfully serve the people of Alaska.
Governor Sean Parnell wants the hiring process for state employees examined after it was revealed a former police officer hired with the ferry system has a checkered past.
Several people who talked about Jason Joel’s job performance for a previous story did not want to share their identity, including a former Haines Police Dispatcher who alleges Joel harassed her on the job. Now she is speaking out.
Forty-six-year-old Angie Goodwin started at the Haines Police Department as a dispatcher in 2009. By then, Jason Joel had been on the job for three years. Goodwin says at first, she considered him a friendly coworker. But slowly, she says Joel’s comments and actions toward her turned from friendly and joking to crude and harassing.
“It was so gradual, that by the time it got bad, I didn’t realize that I was in trouble,” Goodwin said. “I mean at first he joked around and stuff, but it was just joking.”
“But he gradually pushes his way in, and you let him come in because you feel safe. He’s a police officer.”
Goodwin says the alleged verbal harassment was sometimes sexual. Occasionally it included physical contact. Once, Joel picked Goodwin up over his shoulder, she says. Another time he grabbed her wrist. And, she says, the harassment became constant.
“There was some form or other of harassment – verbal, physical, sexual – almost every time we worked together,” she said.
Goodwin says there were witnesses to the harassment, but none who could be reached for comment. Several other women in Haines and Skagway say they either witnessed or experienced harassment by Joel, but have not wanted their names used publically.
As the harassment increased, Goodwin says she became more stressed. She began seeing a counselor. She mentioned some of the incidents to her doctor when she complained of not being able to sleep. In March 2011 she decided to finally make an official complaint to Chief of Police Gary Lowe.
“I was on edge and I just got really upset and I called him and he was almost home when he answered his phone and I started crying,” Goodwin said. “I said ‘I need you to come in here, I have something really important you need to know.’”
About two weeks later, she says the chief told her Joel had resigned. The borough confirms that Joel was allowed to resign in a deal signed by Joel, the borough manager and a public employee’s union representative.
Goodwin resigned a few weeks after Joel. She says she wanted out of the department.
“I was sick of it. I was so burned out at that point I couldn’t stand it,” she said. “I just wanted out at that point.”
Shortly before she resigned, Goodwin began documenting incidents of harassment from Joel. She also has a letter she wrote to an attorney asking for guidance. But after Joel surrendered his state police certification, she quit pursuing legal action.
When Goodwin heard Joel had been hired as a security officer with the state, she was upset and decided to finally speak out.
“He’s dealing with 5,000 times more people now than he was at the police department. I mean, this isn’t just small town Haines now that he’s dealing with. Now he’s got the whole state under him,” Goodwin said. “What were they thinking? But there’s no way for them to dig it up because the borough, everyplace he’s worked for has hidden it one way or another.”
Joel has not responded to email requests for comment. The Haines borough – along with other police departments he’s worked for – say his personnel file is confidential and won’t confirm any complaints that were leveled against him.
But the allegations and documented work history were enough to get some lawmakers, and now the governor’s attention.
“The governor has asked Commissioner Kemp to look into the hiring process and we’re following through with that request,” Department of Transportation spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow said.
Exactly how DOT Commissioner Pat Kemp will examine the process is not yet clear, Woodrow says.
“It’s important to point out that Mr. Joel is a state employee so anything the state does regarding his employment has to be done under the strict guidelines that follow state procedures,” Woodrow said.
Some state hiring policies are developed by the Department of Administration and could be changed by staff. Others are outlined in state statute and would require the legislature to take action. But, right now, Woodrow says details of the hiring process are confidential.
State Representative for Haines, Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins says he hopes Kemp will share the results of his examination of the hiring process with the public.
“I think Gov. Parnell directing Commissioner Kemp to look into this is a needed and positive step and I hope they come full circle and let us know what happened,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
Sen. Dennis Egan, also a Democrat and chair of the Senate Transportation Committee has also sent a letter to Commissioner Kemp asking him to look into the hiring of Joel, according to Egan’s staff.
In Congress today, a bill that would allow foreign students to work in Alaska fish processing plants cleared a major committee. The provision is part of a spending bill now headed to the Senate floor. Both Alaska senators say they pressed for the return of the J-1 visa program to help meet demand for seasonal seafood processors. But the program is controversial.
J-1 visas are intended to promote cultural exchange. As the State Department explains it in promotional materials, it’s all about “hands-on experience to learn about U.S. society and culture.”
But some U.S. employers and overseas recruiters exploited the program, exposing students only to the culture of hard labor, night shifts and squalid housing. After a protest at a Hershey factory in Pennsylvania, the State Department changed the rules in 2012. It barred J-1 students from certain jobs, including seafood processing. The Alaska industry had been hiring several thousand J-1s a year.
Daniel Costa, who researches immigration issues for the Economic Policy Institute, says the processors should not be allowed to employ J-1s again.
“It was being used more as a cheap labor program,” he said.
He says Alaska fish plants aren’t a good place for these students to fulfill the purpose of the visa.
“They’re stuck out in the middle of nowhere, in isolated towns where there aren’t a lot of cultural exchange activities to do,” he said.
The U.S. has another type of visa for temporary workers, the H2B. Costa says fish processors should really hire H2Bs, but then they’d have to run ads announcing the vacancies to locals first, so employers prefer J-1.
“They don’t have to do the advertising, they don’t have to pay any of the taxes, Medicare, Social Security, that sort of thing,” he said.
Recruitment agencies even have J-1 savings calculators on their websites, showing employers they can save nearly 8 percent per worker if they hire J-1s. Dennis Phelan of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association says his members search near and far for seasonal workers, including from Alaska’s job centers.
“They will tell you we hire every qualified person that they send us,” Phelan said. “But that is just a fraction of what we need.”
They do hire some H2B visa holders, but he says that program is too complicated, and the number of visas issued is limited. Phelan says, though, the processing gig is good for J-1 students.
“Because of the way the salmon season tends to work there tends to be a good bit of overtime and so then they get paid time and a half for that, plus they obviously have free room and board so they have virtually no expenses and are making more than minimum wage,” he said.
In the past, he says, the students had their cultural experience after working.
“The students then once they had finished their contract and had made the money, the vast majority of them then head out and travel across Alaska, travel across other parts of the United States,” he said.
The State Department says that’s not good enough anymore. Phelan says if they’re allowed to hire J-1s again, the processors know they’ll have to provide cultural enrichment during the work period.
“Obviously, these are not heavily populated areas where the plants are and so you’re opportunities for things like that are somewhat limited but obviously we’ll do everything we can to make sure the students are getting out,” he said.
If the visa provision survives negotiations with the House in the months ahead, it would allow foreign students to work as fish processors only through September 2015.
Former Haines Police Dispatcher Speaks Out On Alleged Harasser
Margaret Friedenauer, KHNS – Haines
Governor Sean Parnell wants his staff to examine the hiring process for state employees after APRN reported a former police officer hired with the ferry system has a checkered past. Several people who talked about Joel’s job performance for a previous story did not want to share their identity, including a former Haines Police Dispatcher who alleges Joel harassed her on the job. Now she is speaking out.
U.S. Senators Work to Allow Foreign Students Back in Fish Plants
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC
In Congress today, a bill that would allow foreign students to work in Alaska fish processing plants cleared a major committee. The provision is part of a spending bill now headed to the Senate floor. Both Alaska senators say they pressed for the return of the J-1 visa program to help meet demand for seasonal seafood processors. But, the program is controversial.
Remains of 17 Servicemen Identified from 1952 Crash
Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage
The remains of 17 service members who died in a 1952 plane crash near Mount Gannett have been identified by the Department of Defense. An Alaska National Guard Blackhawk helicopter crew discovered the crash site two summers ago on Colony Glacier during a training exercise. A team went back to the site to recover what they could later that month. The identified remains will be returned to families all over the country and given burials with full military honors.
Army Changes Training Procedures In Wake Of Stuart Creek 2 Fire
Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks
It’s been one year since the Stuart Creek 2 Wildfire was reported burning in the Yukon Training area northeast of Fairbanks. The blaze, ignited during an army artillery training exercise, burned more than 87,000 acres. Later, military officials conducted multiple investigations to find out why Army leaders signed off on the use of high explosive ammunition at a time when the National Weather Service had issued Red Flag Warnings. In response, training procedures have been rewritten.
New Oil Tax Proponents Argue In Favor Of Law
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
A handful of leading advocates for the new oil tax regime made the case for keeping the law Wednesday night. The forum was hosted by the Anchorage Young Republicans, and panelists included economist Scott Goldsmith and State Sen. Cathy Giessel. They argued that if voters repealed the new tax law in August, the oil companies could abandon development of a natural gas pipeline.
ADF&G Shuts Down Little Su Kings for the Season
Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna
Days after lifting restrictions on one river in the Susitna drainage, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is shutting down king salmon fishing entirely on another. A Fish and Game emergency order will close fishing for Kings at 12:01 am on Friday on the Little Susitna River south of the Parks Highway bridge.
Learning Language Through Alutiiq Culture and Tradition
Brianna Gibbs, KMXT – Kodiak
The Alutiiq Museum held a language immersion retreat this week in Kodiak. More than 30 participants gathered to learn traditional games and practice their language skills with speakers of all different generations.
The remains of 17 service members who died in a 1952 plane crash near Mount Gannett have been identified by the Department of Defense. An Alaska National Guard Blackhawk helicopter crew discovered the crash site two summers ago on Colony Glacier during a training exercise. A team went back to the site to recover what they could later that month.
The identified remains will be returned to families all over the country and given burials with full military honors. Some of the family members reflected on the experience.
Mary May and her younger brother Bill Turner were the middle siblings in a pack of six kids growing up in rural Pennsylvania in the 1930s.
“We lived on a tiny little valley. We knew nothing about the outside world. So your family was all you had,” she recalled.
May said her brother loved airplanes and joined the Air Force when he finished school. He was 22 and headed to Korea when the C-124 Globemaster he was navigating crashed with 52 people on board.
“It was a kid trying to realize his dream, you know? And it was cut short, I guess.”
Bad weather made it impossible for search parties to recover the remains of the plane in the last months of 1952. May said she never had closure from his death. “You never give up totally. You always think that he would be found or he would come home somehow.”
When some of the wreckage was spotted in 2012, May said she began to hope. Like other relatives of the victims, she gave a sample of her DNA to the Department of Defense forensic labs. The scientists there managed to match it with the bones of her brother’s leg.
May said she was shocked when she learned they found her brother. She recalled she shouting the news to her daughter over the phone, but then she didn’t know what to say.
“It’s very hard—you didn’t want to accept it before and now you still don’t want to accept it. I don’t know,” she paused. “It’s just a hard thing to live through.”
May said she thinks burying the remains alongside her mother will help. All of her other siblings have already passed.
For Michael Williams, the death of his brother-in-law Howard Martin in the 60 year-old crash was something his wife’s family would never discuss.
“When it was brought up, it immediately brought tears. So I basically did all my research in secret, so to not upset anybody. I just wanted to find out a little more detail than what the family revealed.”
Williams said his research connected him with other families around the country who were also seeking closure on the issue. They formed relationships through email and Facebook and remembered even when others forgot.
“It’s kind of disappeared in the fog of time,” he said. “And fortunately the Alaska National Guard noticed something and decided to take a look down on Colony Glacier. They could have easily flown over and said ‘ah that’s nothing’ and not went down there and investigated. But they got curious. And really, the families do appreciate it.”
But other families will continue to wait. The remains of 35 of the 52 victims are still lost on the mountain, though the Department of Defense said they will keep looking. In memory of those who died, the mountain where they perished was recently named Globemaster Peak.
It’s been one year since the Stuart Creek 2 Wildfire was reported burning in the Yukon Training area northeast of Fairbanks. The blaze, ignited during an Army artillery training exercise, burned more than 87,000 acres. It was one of the largest wildfires in the United States in 2013.
Later, military officials conducted multiple investigations to find out why Army leaders signed off on the use of high explosive ammunition at a time when the National Weather Service had issued Red Flag Warnings. In response, training procedures have since been rewritten.
Deputy Commanding Officer, Colonel Adam Lange signs off on training that takes place at Fort Wainwright.
“We’re certainly putting a lot more rigor into it. Based on experiences last year, we certainly don’t want anything like that to repeat again,” he said.
But Lange hasn’t always been the guy in charge of decisions when it comes to training exercises that take place during the wildfire season. Last June, a field artillery unit trained with live fire when the Fire Weather Index indicated high or extreme conditions.
Fort Wainwright’s Fire Chief did not approve live fire that week, but was repeatedly overridden by an Installation Range Officer based more than 300 miles away at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The overrides prompted the Director of Emergency Services to email then Deputy Commanding Officer, Colonel Ron Johnson. He has since retired. In response, Johnson emailed Colonel Mark Kneram, at JBER, who oversees training and operations for US Army Alaska.
“Our fire situation is critical,” wrote Johnson. “Please make sure your people have a very clear picture of the situation here before they decide to override the fire recommendations from the fire professionals. I can tell you that it isn’t based on a bunch of civilians trying to keep soldiers from conducting training.”
The email was sent only a day before the Stuart Creek 2 fire was reported. It was ignited by artillery used during the training. Two weeks later, the blaze had grown beyond 80,000 acres. Residents in Two Rivers as well as their sled dogs and livestock were evacuated as the fire approached the small community, 20 miles from Fairbanks.
“My sense is the community is a little raw about last year. There was a lot of emotion surrounding the Stuart Creek Fire,” Colonel Lange said. Lange replaced Colonel Johnson. He says the army has since adopted a new approach to live fire training at times when fire danger is high. “It’s OK under these conditions now, because many of our train-ups now are not tied to a unit getting ready to go out the door to say ‘Well, do we really have to do that, can we do it another way?’ And if there’s an answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions, then maybe we do it another way or we do it another day.”
This year, Lange has the authority to approve waiver requests for training when there are Red Flag warnings. Earlier this spring, Lange says he signed off on just such a waiver.
“So, we have some ranges where you can shoot into an old ribbon of a river, where there’s nothing but rock and gravel with no fuels in it whatsoever, and there’s still standing water and ice left over from winter,” he said. “That would be a great place to shoot high explosive artillery right now.”
But some of the changes to procedures won’t come easy. A report that came from one investigation suggests the acquisition of artillery rounds that are less likely to set fire to the forest. Colonel Lange says that’s easier said than done.
“It turns out the Army has some, but it’s very little stockage of it and so U.S. Army Alaska has requested to receive a bunch and we have not been able to get the army to grant us permission to use that. The Army has very large stocks of traditional 155 high explosive ammunition and they want us to use that before it becomes no good any longer,” he said.
Lange says the recommended ammunition might be available for training at Fort Wainwright in fiscal year 2016.
A final report on what happened with Stuart Creek 2 also calls for more coordination and training with the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service. Those meetings do take place. The report also recommends AFS acquire thermal sight equipment to pinpoint hot spots during monitoring missions. According to a spokesman at AFS, fire managers already use infrared technology when they fly over fires. A final suggestion calls for a review of the Memorandum of Agreement between the Army and the Alaska Fire Service. That effort is ongoing.
Days after lifting restrictions on one river in the Susitna drainage, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is shutting down king salmon fishing entirely on another. On Wednesday, a Fish and Game emergency order states that, starting at 12:01 am on Friday, the Little Susitna River south of the Parks Highway bridge will be completely closed for kings.
According to Fish and Game, only nineteen king salmon have passed the counting weir, and about 200 kings have been harvested. Fish and Game says that low water levels are causing the fish to stay further downriver, which makes them more vulnerable to being caught. The low end of the escapement goal for the Little Su is 900 kings.
A complete list of fishing restrictions can be found on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website.
The Alutiiq Museum held a language immersion retreat this week in Kodiak. More than 30 participants gathered to learn traditional games and practice their language skills with speakers of all different generations.
With Chinook harvests shut down on the Yukon, summer Chum harvests are on the rise, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game wants to make sure Chum stocks are managed sustainably.
Stephanie Schmidt is a Fisheries Biologist with ADF&G and said this trend of tighter Chinook restrictions elevating levels of Chum harvests has been growing over several years. With Chinook runs not expected to significantly increase in the next few years, the growing demand on summer Chum will likely continue.
To prepare for this demand, ADF&G is researching Chum migration through a tagging program called the Summer Chum Salmon Radio Telemetry Project.
Outlining the goals of the project, Schmidt said, “The tagging would be to estimate stocks specific run timing. When do certain stocks enter the river? How fast do they move upstream? Do certain stocks migrate together? We’re also looking to identify important spawning tributaries. So we don’t know where all the summer Chum salmon go. We’re also hoping to use the data to get an estimate for drainage-wide escapement.”
This information will be used to manage summer Chums as fishing pressure on the runs increases.
Locals working with ADF&G are attaching the tags about 18 miles upriver from Russian Mission at Dog Fish Camp. The project began last week on June 12 and will continue through July 18. That is the amount of time estimated for the entire stock to pass by the camp. In all, the project plans to tag 1,200 Chum by mid-July.
ADF&G asks fishermen who harvest tagged Chum to note the date, time, and location of the catch and to mail the tag to the address listed on the outside of the device.
“The tags look like a little capsule, actually, almost like a little pill,” Schmidt explained. “And then they have a wire sticking out of them, and you’ll be able to see that wire sticking out of the mouth of the summer Chum salmon. If a wire is missing my some chance, we do an external tag as well, so we just insert a white spaghetti tag in the dorsal fin of the summer Chum salmon.”
Schmidt said mailing tags back helps keep ADF&G costs down. Individuals who return tags will receive a “summer Chum radio telemetry research project hat” and get entered into a lottery to receive $500 in cash.
Schmidt says the bulk of the summer Chum run is expected to hit Russian Mission tomorrow, Friday June 20. At that point, 80,000 to 90,000 Chum per day should begin passing through that section of the river. Based on historical data, these rates should continue for the next 11 days.
The social and cultural harvest of king salmon for Bethel and a subsequent community dinner have been cancelled.
The events are sponsored by Bethel’s tribe, Orutsararmiut Native Council, and supported by the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation.
This year, directed king salmon fishing is prohibited on the Kuskokwim River due to low returns. But Federal Managers have authorized 32 villages along the Kuskokwim and coastal areas to participate in the special harvest of less than 1,000 king salmon.
Under the system tribal councils administer the permit. Zack Brink, ONC Executive Director, says the harvest and dinner were cancelled because a key staff member has had an unforeseen circumstance that has taken them away from Bethel.
The community dinner was set for June 20th. ONC was allowed to harvest up to 100 king salmon. It’s unclear whether ONC will reschedule their social and cultural harvest and dinner.
Some tribes are refusing to participate in the social and cultural harvest because they say they’re not allowed to harvest what they need.
The special permits allows for fishing, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9am to 9pm and expires on June 30, or when the quota for the village is met.
TSA and Juneau airport officials hope the recently expanded baggage screening system will reduce airline departure delays.
After numerous requests, federal funding was finally realized for the second machine at the Juneau International Airport, just in time for the arrival of Delta Airlines.
Delta’s daily summer flight between Juneau and Seattle adds another aircraft at the busiest time of the day.
“There’s four aircraft in the morning from 6 o’clock to about 8 o’clock. That’s a two-hour window for four aircraft,” Marc Cheatham, the deputy manager at the airport, said. “And adding on Delta’s aircraft, that’s five aircraft now. That’s a lot of bags to be going through one machine.”
TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers says the machine cost about $330,000. Both screeners use CT-Scan technology to detect explosives and produce a 3D image.
“We know not only today, but for several years, that explosives remain the number one threat against aviation security,” Dankers said. “So all checked baggage must be screened.”
If a piece of luggage sends off an alarm, a TSA officer, like Noah Teshner, pulls it aside for additional screening.
“When the bag alarms, we’re going to take the bag to a search table and at that search table we’re going to open the bag . We’re going to go inside the bag and look specifically for an item that alarmed the machine,” Teshner said. “Once we’ve located that item, we’re going to run a test on it and ensure the item is permitted to go. And then we’re going to repack the back and send it on its way.”
Teshner says TSA does not open luggage unless the alarm has gone off.
Before the new screening machine was added, bags bound for Alaska Airlines were getting jugged up on busy days, Cheatham says.
At least Alaska Airlines has a conveyor belt from check-in desks. Delta does not.
“Delta employees actually cart them in and put them up the rail and into the new CT. and then Alaska airlines can also utilize the second machine,” Cheatham said. “They can use the bag belt system, especially in the morning; they have four aircraft in the morning. They can have an employee here that sends it from the bag belt system to the new CT 80 and through that so they can do a lot more bags much faster.”
Delta’s seasonal service ends in September. Cheatham says Delta will likely not get its own conveyor belt system until the carrier comes back to Juneau next summer.
Even without it, he says, the new baggage screening equipment is expected to end the morning bottleneck and hopefully, “the delays for the aircrafts will be limited, hopefully.”
Two groups in the Aleutian Islands are looking for the region’s next great start-up business.
The inaugural Aleutian Marketplace Competition opened last week, in search of innovative ideas from residents of the region’s 12 main communities.
The contest comes from the Aleut Corporation and the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, or “APICDA.” Larry Cotter is executive director there. He says they want sustainable businesses that will create jobs and make some kind of social impact.
“It can be anything,” he says. “We’re encouraging people to think outside the box, take a look at the resources that exist around them and to put those resources to work.”
Cotter says they’re basing the program on Alaska Federation of Natives’ marketplace. But in the Aleutians, the landscape isn’t the easiest for entrepreneurship. Cotter recognizes that towns here are spread out across the Bering Sea, with small populations and limited connectivity.
“It’s certainly challenging,” he says. “But I don’t think we’ve thought of all the good ideas that are out there, in terms of business opportunities. And we’re hoping to stimulate people.”
The contest will run over the next five years. This year and next, it’s geared toward business ideas, trying to give people an incentive to start new ventures. The top three proposals win cash prizes — a thousand dollars or less apiece. Winners will also present their concepts to APICDA’s board.
In year three, Cotter says, the Marketplace switches gears to business development. They’ll offer a $20,000 prize and other assistance to try and make the winning ideas into reality.
“I imagine that both TAC and APICDA would be willing to participate, provide guidance and mentoring and that type of thing,” he says — but that’s only if they like what they see in the first couple of rounds.
This year, submissions are due by Aug. 31. All the details are available on APICDA’s website.
A handful of leading advocates for the new oil tax regime made the case for keeping the law to a friendly audience on Wednesday.
The forum was hosted by the Anchorage Young Republicans, and panelists included economist Scott Goldsmith and State Sen. Cathy Giessel. They argued that if voters repealed the new tax law in August, the oil companies could abandon development of a natural gas pipeline. They also credited the law, which caps the production tax at 35 percent, for adding more drill rigs to the North Slope.
The event wasn’t a debate, and the invited panelists all spoke against returning to a system where the tax rate increases along with the price of oil. The 60-person audience also included plenty of people who had already made their minds up on the issue. Anchorage Chamber of Commerce President Andrew Halcro moderated the event, and many of the questions he took from the floor expressed support for the tax law.
“Uh, ‘With this much data seemingly in favor of SB21, how could anyone disagree?’” Halcro read from a notecard. “Not a loaded question …”
Proponents of the referendum were not invited to speak, but they were allowed to rent a table outside the forum. Ray Metcalfe, who served in the Legislature in the 1980s, was on his own manning the booth, offering bumper stickers to a crowd that seemed less than eager to take them.
“How are you going to convert anybody if you don’t go into the lion’s den?” asked Metcalfe.
Metcalfe thinks he persuaded two of the attendees to vote for the referendum by showing them that other oil-producing nations tax at a higher rate than Alaska.
The referendum will appear on the August 19 primary ballot.