Alaska News

Council Banishes 2 In Village Where Troopers Died

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-05-08 10:52

The tribal government in the village where two Alaska State Troopers were killed has voted to banish two men indirectly connected to the deaths.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports the Tanana Tribal Council voted unanimously Tuesday to ask Arvin Kangas and William Walsh to leave permanently.

Kangas is the father of 20-year-old Nathanial “Satch” Kangas, who is charged with murder in the May 1 deaths of Sgt. Scott Johnson and Trooper Gabe Rich.

Walsh is leader of the Athabascan Nation, a small group that rejects the authority of the Alaska state government.

Tanana Tribal Council chairman Curtis Sommer says the council is holding the older men accountable for rhetoric that “more or less brainwashed” Nathanial Kangas.

The council’s action must be reviewed by the tribal court.

Categories: Alaska News

Arctic May Not Be That Busy, Report Says

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-05-07 18:05

Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska (USCG photo)

As the ice goes out in the Arctic, many people predict more ships will be drawn through the Bering Straits to take advantage of a shortcut between Asia and Europe. But, a recent government report suggests less ice may not mean more ships.

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Sen. Lisa Murkowski has made it her mission to remind Washington the Arctic is opening up. In speeches and at hearings with top officials, she aims to instill a sense of urgency about preparing for an increase in ship traffic and new economic opportunities.

“The time to development the infrastructure and support capacity to handle this growing amount of traffic is now. Actually, it was yesterday,” Murkowski said on the Senate floor last month.

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office runs counter to her message. The report authors interviewed dozens of stakeholders, including executives at cargo companies, mining companies and cruise lines about their plans to send more ships into the Arctic.

“We came to the conclusion that it was going to be limited,” Lorelei St. James, team leader on the GAO report, said.

Two big caveats: The GAO report looked only at commercial activity in the American Arctic,
and only over the next decade, but St. James found that just because ships can traverse the Arctic for part of the year doesn’t mean they will.

“There’s just some fundamental geographic reasons that make it more difficult to operate in the U.S. Arctic,” St. James said.

While an over-the-top route can be 40 percent shorter than the traditional voyage between Asia and Europe, the GAO found container shipping companies aren’t interested. To them, speed is less important than reliability. The business is largely driven by the need for components to move steadily around the globe, from factories to assembly plants to markets. Nobody wants
inventory to pile up, so if ships are late, St. James says, a factory might have to halt production.

“They’re very concerned about on-time, and with the unpredictability of some of the weather patterns up there, it just made the shipping companies we talked to less, the U.S. Arctic less attractive to them,” St. James said.

Time is also a big factor for cruise lines in the Arctic, the GAO learned.

“We were told that even if there were deep water ports or ports that the cruises could stop at, that it just takes so long to go through the U.S. Arctic that there’s just a lack of demand from the mainstream for that type of cruise,” St. James said.

While the Arctic lacks deepwater ports and the U.S. has only two working ice breakers, better maritime infrastructure would not really boost shipping or tourism, St. James says, although miners told the GAO they could use a new dock.

“Right now the zinc that the Red Dog Mine has is lighter than copper, so the copper industry would need a deeper water port but officials told us that they were not prepared to pay for that type of … infrastructure,” St. James said.

Admiral Thomas Ostebo, commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska, says he agrees with the GAO report and the cautionary note it strikes on building maritime infrastructure.

“Based on what we know now … it’s too early to tell, what infrastructure we need where we would need it and how big it should be,” Ostebo said.

Get those answers wrong and you waste a lot of money. Ostebo says the perceived need for more icebreakers goes up and down, but the Coast Guard is in the very early stages of possibly acquiring a new one.  Meanwhile, though, Ostebo says the clearest need in  Arctic  waters is for things like better maps and charts, improved communication technology and new
environmental surveys.

“There is a future for the Arctic, and those things would be great investments in whatever future comes up,” Ostebo said.

Sen. Murkowski says she appreciates the GAO report’s emphasis on the need for mapping and charting, but maintains Arctic activity is on the rise, so now is the time to invest there.

Categories: Alaska News

Coast Guard Says Its Increased Arctic Presence Will Have ‘No Significant’ Environmental Impact

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-05-07 18:05

Photo courtesy of the US Coast Guard: The Coast Guard Cutter Healy approaches the Russian-flagged tanker Renda while breaking ice around the vessel 97 miles south of Nome, Alaska, Jan. 10, 2012.

The U.S. Coast Guard has operated in the Arctic for more than a century, but as the maritime agency plans for an increased presence in the region, its taking stock of what its environmental impact will be in the Arctic in the years to come.

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Mike Dombkowski is on the team drafting the Coast Guard’s new environmental assessment for Alaska’s District 17, which was released Tuesday. The document looks at what increased training and patrols in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas will mean for arctic ecosystems.

“What you might call day-to-day Coast Guard operations, doing patrols, search and rescue, aides to navigation, the other types of missions that we perform, here’s what we see ourselves doing and here’s what we think the environmental impact of those things are.”

The assessment looks at the Coast Guard’s plans for a broader arctic presence from mid-March through mid-November. Beyond summer training exercises in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas—exercises the service has already conducted for several years running—the increased arctic operations call for establishing safety zones around vessels exploring for oil, enforcing laws protecting endangered species and marine mammals, and “poaching prevention” of fish stocks and mineral deposits. The plan also calls for routine patrols of arctic waters with the nation’s two active icebreakers.

The assessment claims the impact will be minimal, and finds an increased Coast Guard presence will have “no significant adverse impacts” on water quality, arctic biology, cultural resources, and public safety.

It’s supported by a companion document, a biological evaluation endorsed by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that affirms the Coast Guard’s increased arctic presence is “not likely to adversely affect” protected bird, fish, and marine mammal species.

Even if their arctic commitments increase, the bigger question for the Coast Guard may be one of resources.

Andrew Hartsig directs the arctic program at the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit oceans advocacy group in Anchorage. He says an increased Coast Guard presence above the Arctic Circle is, on the whole, a good thing, but he questioned if the agency has what it needs to carry out its goals.

“The limiting factor is clearly funding, and until the Coast Guard gets more funding, specifically to engage in arctic work, they are going to be resource-limited in terms of the personnel and the assets they can bring to bear.”

Despite continued calls from residents and organizations in the arctic for plans and preparation for maritime disasters like an oil spill in arctic waters, Dombkowski said those are all questions for a different assessment to tackle.

“Oil spill response is such a huge, big enough thing that it really deserves its own document,” he said, “and that document and supporting stuff is being done right now.”

For now, the Coast Guard plans to tour its new environmental assessment statewide, with plans to visit Anchorage, Kotzebue, Nome, and Barrow next week for public meetings.

A delegation from the agency will be in Nome Monday, May 12 at the Northwest campus, delivering at the campus conference room from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Categories: Alaska News

Emergency Personnel Battle Unalaska Warehouse Fire

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-05-07 18:05

(Photo by Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska)

While the rest of the state is gearing up for wildfire season, Unalaska’s emergency responders spent Wednesday fighting an industrial fire inside a local longshore warehouse. The building appears to be a total loss.

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Uber Sosa is a dock worker for Pacific Stevedoring. At 5 a.m. Wednesday, he was at home — in a dormitory right next door to the warehouse that his company leases from the Ounalashka Corporation.

Suddenly, Sosa says: “Someone woke me up. I was sleeping. It was the police, came knocking on everybody’s door, telling them to get out. So everybody had to get out, and we didn’t have time to get anything.”

The warehouse was on fire, and smoke was blowing through Sosa’s bunk. Sosa says he and about 20 other people made it out safely.

Meanwhile, more than 15 emergency personnel – along with volunteers from the Department of Transportation – started fighting the blaze.

They blocked off East Point Road around the warehouse and began pumping water inside.

After 11 hours, the building was still on fire – but also still standing. City workers used an excavator to peel back the charred aluminum siding and allow better access to the fire inside.

Steam and smoke were billowing out of the structure, but the fire stayed contained.

Fire Chief Abner Hoage says the warehouse was full of basic but highly flammable materials. There may have been tar-coated fishing nets:

“It was reported that there were about 20 pallets of wax-coated fiber board in there, as well as a whole bunch of empty pallets,” Hoage said. “And of course, that stuff burns really hot and really long.”

A little over a decade ago, a fire ripped through another structure in the same location as this warehouse. It contained the same kind of materials – pallets and fiber board. Hoage says that fire took three days to extinguish.

“So it could be a while getting everything completely out, to where it’s safe for us to go in and evaluate what happened,” Hoage said.

Hoage says that firefighters will stay on site as long as it takes. But at this point, it
doesn’t look like there’s anything left to salvage.

Hoage estimates between $1.5 and 2.5 million worth of damage has been done, including the value of the physical structure and the equipment stored in it.

That’s a big enough loss to trigger an investigation by the state fire marshal. They were expected to send representatives to Unalaska on Thursday to determine what caused the fire.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is also keeping an eye the fire.

Unalaska’s fire department used chemical foam to smother the flames Wednesday morning. Some of that foam leaked out of the building and onto the beach, about 100 yards away.

Fire Chief Hoage says they stopped using the foam and let the DEC know about the contamination.

“DEC sent a local rep out to take some pictures of the foam in the water and you can see a lot of that’s dissipated,” Hoage said. “And the Anchorage office has been notified.”

Managers for Pacific Stevedoring, which rents out the building, and the Ounalashka Corporation, which owns it, are cooperating with the investigation. But neither company could be reached for comment.

Categories: Alaska News

Agencies Emphasize Fire Prevention Awareness

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-05-07 18:05

The sunshine and warmer weather are bringing more Alaskans out to enjoy parks and trails. But that increase in recreation can also mean more accidental fires. Four agencies joined forces at a media event Tuesday to get the word out about fire prevention.

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Categories: Alaska News

Troopers Maintaining Presence In Tanana

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-05-07 18:05

Alaska State Troopers are maintaining a presence in the village of Tanana. Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters says Troopers do not have a post in the village and the assignment of officers there is temporary.

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Categories: Alaska News

Honor Flag Lands In Fairbanks

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-05-07 18:05

(Photo courtesy Alaska State Troopers)

A commercial airliner delivered the United States Honor Flag to Fairbanks yesterday. The flag, which flew at Ground Zero in New York following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and has since traveled around the country to honor fallen law enforcement officers and fire fighters, was brought to Fairbanks to pay tribute to Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Patrick “Scott” Johnson and Trooper Gabe Rich, who were killed in Tanana last week.

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Categories: Alaska News

NAACP Demands Apology Over Sullivan Comments

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-05-07 18:05

The Anchorage NAACP and the Anchorage Central Labor Council have called on lieutenant governor candidate Dan Sullivan to apologize for comments likening required payment of union dues to slavery.

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Sullivan, who currently serves as Anchorage mayor, made the comments during a candidate forum Monday.

The slavery comparison came up when Sullivan was asked about right-to-work legislation, in which employees are not required to join a union to get or keep a job.

Sullivan told The Associated Press today that there are many forms of slavery, and he was talking about “economic slavery.”

While he originally said he did not believe an apology was necessary, he later sent a statement saying that he apologized “if the use of the word offended anyone.”

Categories: Alaska News

Minecraft In The Classroom: When Learning Looks Like Gaming

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-05-07 18:05

Minecraft could help engage students in science, technology, engineering and math. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The popular video game Minecraft has made its way into Juneau high school classrooms.

A graduate education course at the University of Alaska Southeast showed teachers how to implement the game in their classes.

KTOO’s Lisa Phu went to a high school algebra class to hear what students have to say about Minecraft – not as a game but – as a learning tool.

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Solving a real problem inside a virtual world

Lori Sowa is assistant professor of engineering at the University of Alaska Southeast. She heard about Minecraft from her kids.

“My son, his first day of first grade, he came home and the first thing he asked me was, ‘Mom, what’s Minecraft?’” says Sowa.

Minecraft is a popular video game that allows you to build elaborate structures, gather resources and fly, among many other things. Some people call Minecraft virtual Legos.

UAS graduate student Colin Osterhout recreated the area of the “Monster Lobe” inside Minecraft. He’s also built Juneau and Douglas in the virtual world. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

For Sowa and her teaching team at the University of Alaska Southeast, Minecraft is also a way to get kids to think critically, collaborate and solve problems, which is why they’ve made Minecraft part of a graduate education course. Development of the course was supported by apre-college grant from the Alaska Space Grant Program and a Mathematics and Science Partnership Grant from the Department of Education and Early Development.

The goal is to help teachers brush up on science, technology, engineering and math content but teaching Minecraft has also been part of it.

“Most of the students – you know, the teacher students – coming into this had probably heard of Minecraft but hadn’t actually played it, so we have spent some time working with the teachers to help get them up to speed on their gaming skills,” Sowa says.

The professors are teaching Minecraft through the context of a real life problem that’s taking place in Northwest Alaska about 40 miles north of Coldfoot. Sowa and her colleagues call it the “Monster Lobe.”

“It’s this mass of partially frozen soil and rock and woody debris and ice that’s moving down the hillside, but it’s moving very slowly. With warming temperatures it’s starting to move at a faster rate towards the Dalton Highway and the pipeline is right in that area,” Sowa says.

The challenge is for the teachers and their students to figure out how to protect the Haul Road and the pipeline from the Monster Lobe. And to do it inside Minecraft.

UAS graduate student Colin Osterhout is helping to teach the class. He created the Monster Lobe in Minecraft.

“On the screen right now is the topography of an area north of Fairbanks along the Haul Road. I added in all this texture along the landscape, so all this stuff is sliding down the mountain. So, like, one idea students might come up with is, ‘Well maybe we should put dams here, there, and there,’” Osterhout says.

Since everything in Minecraft is a one-by-one meter block, “you can really easily measure your distance from here to there, measure what your solution is going to cost in terms of amount of yardage, cubic yardage of material,” he says.

Without even realizing it, by brainstorming solutions the students start to think like engineers.

“Alaska in particular is suffering a shortage of engineers. A third of Alaska’s engineers don’t live in Alaska,” says UAS assistant professor of education Chip McMillan, who’s also teaching the graduate class.

The goal of trying to solve a complex problem like the Monster Lobe inside Minecraft isn’t necessarily about churning out engineers. McMillan says it’s about building qualities such as “grit, perseverance, this ability to stick with a problem and that’s something that I think we’re steadily losing.”

It’s also about meeting students where they are. McMillan’s research indicates that 85 percent of students in second to eighth grade are playing Minecraft.

“They’re preoccupied with this medium, so, you know, if your kids love baseball then you try to frame some physics problems in terms of baseball. You’re always trying to leverage what their natural interest is,” McMillan says.

Some teachers in McMillan’s class were leery about learning Minecraft. They now use it in the classroom. Parents have taken an interest in the class.

“The line is always the same: My kids are obsessed with this game and I hear you’re doing something,” he says.

In practice

During fourth period at Juneau-Douglas High School, Lexie Razor’s ninth grade Algebra 1 class is using the library computers. Minecraft is on the screens.

“Everybody should be in the building and you need to go to the different structures and start calculating the volume and the surface area,” Razor announces over the buzz of students settling down.

The class is part of CHOICE, an alternative learning program for students needing extra support in order to graduate.

15-year-old Mackenzie Biddinger and a classmate are working on finding surface area and volume of different shapes, but Mackenzie is more excited to talk about a different Minecraft project they recently did – building a 3D model of a plant cell.

She says the model included all the different parts of a cell.

“There’s the chloroplast and the mitochondria and what was the other one? Chlorophyll? The cell wall, the cell membrane, and the cell itself,” Mackenzie says.

Mackenzie enjoyed collaborating with other students for the project.

“You learn from each other and you learn other people’s strategies and stuff like that and it’s better to be social and I think it’s a lot more fun. It helps me a lot,” she says.

Mackenzie has Minecraft at home, but doesn’t find it appealing “to build random things out of pixilated blocks.”

But in class, she’s a fan.

“It’s better than doing actual, like, just writing on paper. I think this is a better way of learning than the usual way. It’s fun and you actually learn from it,” Mackenzie says.

For 15-year-old Evan Okpik, Minecraft is a way to stay engaged in academic work he often finds boring.

When asked what he’d be doing in class if he wasn’t on Minecraft, Okpik says, “Probably trying to sleep, listening to music. It’s what I do when I hate a class.”

Three months ago, teacher Lexie Razor didn’t know how to play Minecraft, let alone teach it in class. But after taking the UAS graduate education course, she’s happy to have another tool to use in the classroom.

“It just helps them to do things in ways that they’re interested in and so they may put forth more effort and understand it more because it’s something that they can relate to,” Razor says.

The students, she says, exhibit academic traits associated with science, technology, engineering and math – subjects collectively known as STEM.

For the last few minutes of class, Lexie Razor allows the class to play Minecraft in creative mode. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

“They just think that they’re playing but when we were doing the project, listening to the groups and how they talked and how they were problem-solving and how they needed to fix the things that they built — that’s STEM and they don’t even realize that they’re doing it, but they’re practicing those things,” Razor says.

Razor plans to use Minecraft in her geometry class as well. She says it’s important to connect the game to the curriculum.

“I’m trying to come up with some kind of project where I’m going to give them a certain amount of volume and they have to build some structures or do something so that they can use Minecraft, ‘cause they’ve heard that I’ve been using it and they’re pretty jealous,” she says.

Toward the end of class, 12th grader Colin McClung walks over to the computer area.

“I was actually just sitting over there and I saw somebody playing Minecraft and I was like, ‘Is somebody slacking off in class?’ and I came over here and everybody had Minecraft open.”

McClung says he’s happy to see a teacher has realized that video games can be used as teaching tools and aren’t just a waste of time.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: May 7, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-05-07 17:15

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

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Arctic May Not Be That Busy, Report Says

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

As the ice retreats in the Arctic, many people predict more ships will be drawn through the Bering Straits to take advantage of a shortcut between Asia and Europe. But, a recent government report suggests less ice may not mean more ships.

Coast Guard Says Its Increased Arctic Presence Will Have ‘No Significant’ Environmental Impact

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

The U.S. Coast Guard has operated in the Arctic for more than a century, but as the maritime agency plans for an increased presence in the region, its taking stock of what its environmental impact will be in the Arctic in the years to come.

Emergency Personnel Battle Unalaska Warehouse Fire

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

While the rest of the state is gearing up for wildfire season, Unalaska’s emergency responders spent Wednesday fighting an industrial fire inside a local longshore warehouse. The building appears to be a total loss.

Honor Flag Lands In Fairbanks

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A commercial airliner delivered the United States Honor Flag to Fairbanks yesterday. The flag, which flew at Ground Zero in New York following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and has since traveled around the country to honor fallen law enforcement officers and fire fighters, was brought to Fairbanks to pay tribute to Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Patrick “Scott” Johnson and Trooper Gabe Rich, who were killed in Tanana last week.

Troopers Maintaining Presence In Tanana

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Alaska State Troopers are maintaining a presence in the village of Tanana. Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters says Troopers do not have a post in the village and the assignment of officers there is temporary.

Agencies Emphasize Fire Prevention Awareness

Jolene Almendarez, APRN – Anchorage

The sunshine and warmer weather are bringing more Alaskans out to enjoy parks and trails. But that increase in recreation can also mean more accidental fires. Four agencies joined forces at a media event Tuesday to get the word out about fire prevention.

NAACP Demands Apology Over Sullivan Comments

The Associated Press & APRN Staff

The Anchorage NAACP and the Anchorage Central Labor Council have called on lieutenant governor candidate Dan Sullivan to apologize for comments likening required payment of union dues to slavery.

Sullivan, who currently serves as Anchorage mayor, made the comments during a candidate forum Monday.

The slavery comparison came up when Sullivan was asked about right-to-work legislation, in which employees are not required to join a union to get or keep a job.

Sullivan told The Associated Press today that there are many forms of slavery, and he was talking about “economic slavery.”

While he originally said he did not believe an apology was necessary, he later sent a statement saying that he apologized “if the use of the word offended anyone.”

Borough School Honors Redington, Sr.

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Ground was broken Tuesday for the first new school to be constructed in more than a decade in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The new Joe Redington, Sr. school is located near the original homestead of the father of the Iditarod.

Minecraft In The Classroom: When Learning Looks Like Gaming

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

The popular video game Minecraft has made its way into Juneau high school classrooms.

A graduate education course at the University of Alaska Southeast showed teachers how to implement the game in their classes.

KTOO’s Lisa Phu went to a high school algebra class to hear what students have to say about Minecraft – not as a game but – as a learning tool.

Anchorage Schools Celebrate Bike To School Day

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Fifty schools participated in Bike to School Day in Anchorage on Wednesday. KSKA’s Anne Hillman talked to students from Lake Otis Elementary about why they hopped on their bikes instead of into vehicles, and what they learned along the way.

Categories: Alaska News

UAA, Willamette University Partner To Offer New Law School Opportunity

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-05-07 15:55

There isn’t a law school in Alaska, but the University of Alaska Anchorage is launching a new program to make it easier for Alaskans to attend law school.

It’s a partnership with Willamette University College of Law in Oregon.

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Prospective law school students in Alaska face a lot of obstacles, including cost and having to attend school out of state.

(Photo courtesy Willamette University College of Law)

Deb Periman, the UAA Legal Studies Program Coordinator, says the goal is to create more options for Alaska students.

“This partnership is designed as a way for very high-achieving, very highly-motivated and focused students to reduce their education costs and be able to get that law degree and their undergraduate degree in six years rather than seven,” Periman said.

This approach is called a “3+3″ program, and it’s modeled after Willamette’s current partnership with Oregon State University.

Students will complete all the requirements for their undergraduate degree at UAA during their first three years – with the exception of a year’s worth of general elective credits.

For their fourth year of school, students will attend Willamette University College of Law before they receive their undergraduate degree, which Periman says is unusual.

“They’ll complete their first year of law school and what they’ll do then is transfer those law school credits back to UAA as upper-division elective credits,” Periman said. “So, essentially, they’ll be graduating with their baccalaureate degree after their first year of law school.”

Periman says the program will help ease some of the financial burden on students by eliminating the cost of the final year of undergraduate work, and it will increase graduates’ earning potential by getting them into the workforce a year earlier.

Curtis Bridgeman, the Dean of the Willamette University College of Law, says there are a number of similarities between Willamette and UAA, so the partnership is a natural one.

“We really focus on a student-centered education, and by that we mean the sort of education where the students aren’t just a number; we really try to get to know them early on; get to know their goals for their career and try to help make them connections that are gonna lead to good employment outcomes,” Bridgeman said.

One requirement of the program is after their first year of law school, students must return to Alaska to complete an externship or capstone project. The idea is to allow students to get first-hand experience with Alaska law and Alaska employers.

With over 150 Willamette law school graduates in Alaska, Periman says there should be plenty of externship opportunities.

“There’s a tremendously active alumni association here and an association that takes a lot of pride in giving new graduates a leg up,” Periman said.

Job prospects bode well for students who graduate from the program. For the class of 2013, Willamette ranks fifth in job placement among West Coast law schools.

Periman says the program will kick off this coming fall, and anticipates between 4-6 students being accepted each year.

Categories: Alaska News

Few Turnout For Borough Budget Hearing

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-05-07 14:10

A Wasilla budget hearing last week drew almost nobody, while about 30 Willow residents came out on Friday to speak up about the Matanuska Susitna Borough’s proposed 2015 budget. Monday night in Palmer, a dozen people showed up for the final public hearing before the 409 million dollar spending plan goes to the Borough Assembly for deliberations.

Assemblyman Vern Halter said last week that ” 80 percent of Mat Su budget goes to pay for schools. ” But Deena Paramo, suprerintendent of the Matanuska Susitna Borough school district, says that statement is not accurate.

“Seventy five percent of those funds are in our operations are paid by the state. And then there’s another forty million on there that comes for the PERS and TERS pass through which is really the retirement system. And so, of that 269, the Borough contributes 53 million approximately, and so 53 million of a 400 million dollar budget is not 80 percent. “

 The school district had planned to ask the Assembly for funds to cover a 7 point 3 million dollar shortfall, but those circumstances have changed.

Luke Fulp, assistant superintendent, told the Assembly Monday that since the legislature adjourned, a number of adjustments have been made to the school district budget. Increases in the base student allocation, and the amount of money home schooled children receive from the state, added to a one time allocation approved by the legislature, have infused unexpected money into the school district’s budget, he said.

“So altogether we are looking at 10 point 5 million dollars of revenue from those different adjustments. However, within our originally projected budget, we had a three million dollar that we had assumed would continue in one time funding. So really a net increase in state revenue of 7 point 5 million dollars. “

 Fulp said the good news is offset by ongoing negotiations with four employee groups. “A lot is still unknown for us,” he said, adding that “Eighty percent of the school budget is tied up in employee salaries and benefits”. Fulp said there would be no staff reductions this year.

 John Moosey, Borough manager, told the Assembly last month that the Borough would loose about a million dollars in state revenue sharing for the next fiscal year, and that mean’s a tight budget. Moosey told his department heads to trim cost so that the coming budget closely resembles last years.

But on Monday, the Assembly got a pleasant surprise. According to Borough finance director Tammy Clayton, the reductions in the state’s revenue sharing scheme actually occurs over a number of years, so that this year, there will be more revenue available than previously thought.

“After it was introduced, one of the things that happened was, we were originally told that we would only get 80 percent of the projected state shared revenue. So that’s what went into the budget. We’re now going to receive what they originally projected, which is four point one million, so there will be an additional one million, two hundred and forty seven thousand that is not shown in this budget at this time. “

Clayton told the panel that the recently approved federal Farm Bill would be adding another three point two million dollars in PILT [payment in lieu of taxes ] funds to the Borough’s coffers in the next fiscal year.

But Assemblyman Jim Sykes said at an earlier public hearing that he is “concerned that taxpayer revenues are down, while state grants are increasing to comprise about 33 percent of the Borough’s budget. “We don’t have control of the grants”, Sykes said, and asked . .. “what are our critical needs now? ” Adding that revenue the Borough gets from the state are for multi year projects.

Sykes comments echoed those of Palmer resident Patty Rosnel, who points to the budget allocation for Port MacKenzie. “They are taking on additional debt, and not spending money on the people who are here.” she said after the Wasilla meeting. Rosnel hammered that point home Monday night in Palmer

“We see that development policies have not been working. And while the have not been working, we’ve been pouring money into them, and that money has not been going to the people of the Borough. That’s what we need, we need a shift from development back to operations. We need services, services for the people. “

 After Monday’s public hearing closed, Assemblymember Jim Colver moved the spending package onto the table. Budget deliberations begin on Wednesday.  

Categories: Alaska News

Borough School Honors Redington, Sr.

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-05-07 11:12

 

A spring downpour did nothing to dampen the spirit of the day. Matanuska Susitna Borough mayor Larry DeVilbiss, wearing a hard hat, stood with other state and Borough officials and school district leaders to work gold painted shovels into the dirt for the ceremonial first dig at the construction site.

“This is the first major school project in ten years.  And this is a complex, it includes high school, middle and elementary school. So, it’s a big step out into the future where our growing center is. “

DeVilbiss says the school project is keeping up with the growth in the area. He says if Knik -Fairview incorporated, it would be the fifth largest city in the state.

The new Joe Reddington, Sr, junior/senior high school will house some 550 students as soon as the doors open in the fall of next year.  Catherine Esary,  spokeswoman for the Mat Su School District, says it will be a junior -senior high school to begin with, then convert to a high school.

“Actually, we have enough students out here to fill it. When we open it, it will be full, because we’ll be bringing kids from Wasilla middle and high school. We have twenty portables there now. So this will help decrease that crowding. And also, we have two elementary feeder schools already at Knik and Goose Bay. They house 400 and 450 students, so we already have 800 kids ready to come. You know, these are not built out into the future, these are just in time construction projects, which we thank our voters for.”

 The 65 million dollar project is being paid for out of a bond package that Borough voters approved in 2011.

Barbara Redington, Raymie Redington’s wife and daughter in law of Joe, says she’s proud the school is named after him

“It’s such a great honor for Joe, and for Vi [Redington].  What an honor for Joe, especially in the Knik area, where he homesteaded. He homesteaded here to Knik in 1948.”

The once remote Redington homestead now fronts on one of the busiest highways in the state.  Despite the congestion along Knik – Goose Bay Road, the school ‘s location about a mile off the highway is quiet and surrounded by forest.

Construction machinery droned in the background during the event. Bulldozers were still leveling the recently cleared 103 acres for the project.

Mike Brown with the Borough’s capital projects department, says the plan calls for a second school to be built on the site after the new building is complete. The two schools will address over crowding in Borough schools. I’m Ellen Lockyer

 

Categories: Alaska News

National Science Foundation To Deploy Seismic Sensors In Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-05-06 18:03

Alaska is the place to be if you want to study earthquakes. In a year, it has as many earthquakes as all the other states combined. Scientific study of those quakes is beginning to ramp up significantly as the National Science Foundation deploys a new network of seismic sensors this summer.

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Alaska has dozens of seismometers that measure earthquakes, but they’re mostly clustered around Southcentral, Fairbanks and on the volcanoes of the Alaska Peninsula.

Over the next five years the state will be getting many more – close to 400 of them, funded by the National Science Foundation through the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, or IRIS. The instruments going in are state of the art, says IRIS spokeswoman Perle Dorr.

“They can detect movement of a magnitude six earthquake from anywhere around the world, they can detect movement of about the thickness of your hair,” Dorr said.

IRIS has the whole region mapped out in a grid. Every 43 miles there’s a dot, marking the target for one of these seismometers. Some of them mark equipment already in place, but for many of the dots, somebody has to get there and spend a couple of days auguring out a hole, if possible in bedrock, and cementing one of these instruments, looking much like a tin can, in there, then setting up the solar collector and communications array. All the while dealing with weather, mosquitoes and wildlife. Firearms training is required.

This will be the Transportable Array, spread all over the state, into Canada, and in the Bering Sea. Peter Haeussler of the U.S. Geological Survey says they will be seeing earthquakes they would not have seen before.

“And with this instrumentation that’ll be in places in Alaska where there has never been a seismometer before I think we’re gonna learn a lot about seismic activity in say Western Alaska, Northwestern Alaska or Northern Alaska that we had no idea even existed before,” Haeussler said.

The array has already been in and out of 1700 sites across the continent. When an earthquake happens it takes about a day for all the data to come in, but it is made available to researchers and the public at once on a website called “earthscope.”

“Every time there’s a large earthquake that’s recorded by the transportable array in North America we make animations of the waves moving through the array, and so for some like the Virginia earthquake in 2011, the stations were in the Midwest at the time and it was like watching ripples on a pond move through the seismometers,” Andy Frassetto, an IRIS hardware specialist, said.

The array gives geologists a much better picture of what’s going on under the surface. It will find faults nobody knew existed and Frassetto says it will be a big help in assessing earthquake risk.

“Being able to understand the rate and distribution of earthquakes is really key to assessing where strain is accumulating, which areas are actually releasing and transmitting stress, and it really allows you to have a complete picture of what the earth is doing,” Frassetto said.

Last week the Seismological Society of America had its annual national meeting in Anchorage, partly to talk about the array and partly because of the anniversary of the great Alaska earthquake – the event that convinced scientists the continents move and collide, causing volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Peter Haeussler says information provided by the array is certain to answer some basic scientific questions about the forces that built the Alaska Range, blew up Katmai and are shaking Cook Inlet.

“And so there’s this piece of crust that was kind of ripped off of somewhere like the British Columbia margin, came northward, started colliding into the southern Alaska margin somewhere around 25 million years ago, and sort of doing a “right punch” into Southern Alaska,” Haeussler said. “And in that process there has been more than one oceanic plate that’s been sort of diving down underneath the margin.”

“I have no doubt that after this array is installed that we’re gonna be much better able to image these slabs that are down there at depth, and what’s happened to them in this really 25 million year period since that collision began.”

In a sense, scientists now start waiting for a big earthquake. With this much instrumentation in place, it would be a scientific bonanza. But earthquakes operate in geologic time scales, and after 2018, it’s not clear how much more the National Science Foundation will put into the project. What happens to any given site next would largely be up to the organizations involved.

“And I think there would be hope that at the end of the period that the National Science Foundation is supporting this array that we be able to keep some of these instruments out there so we could have a much longer record of what’s happening in the earth’s crust here in Alaska,” Haeussler said.

Sometimes, as when the array came to Wyoming, even more instruments get added.  In that case, scientists got answers to basic questions about how the Rocky Mountains were formed.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska’s UAV Test Site Begins Operation

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-05-06 18:02

The University of Alaska’s status as a Federal Aviation Administration unmanned aerial vehicle test center is official. Events in Anchorage and Fairbanks marked the start of operations on Monday.

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Categories: Alaska News

GCI Turns 3G On In Bethel, Faces Lawsuit

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-05-06 18:02

The same week that GCI turned 3G on in Bethel, attorneys served the company with a lawsuit. It alleges that GCI over-promised and under-delivered on its wireless, smart phone and data-plans.

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GCI spokesperson David Morris confirms the company activated 3G service in Bethel on Wednesday, April 30th at around 5am. Morris says GCI customers in Bethel should now see data service on their phones.

The GCI cell tower in Bethel. (Photo courtesy GCI)

“You would have seen a dramatic increase in speed. 3G is generally data, faster emails and things like that. The texting doesn’t change. The voice really doesn’t change. Like I said, there might be a slight improvement but the biggest improvement is on the data side.”

3G is a system that delivers data somewhere between 10 and 20 times faster than the previous 2G network that was available in Bethel, says Morris.

GCI has been working on getting 3G service since it was awarded a federal grant from the FCC in late 2012. GCI was hoping to have service available by late 2013 but problems with towers delayed service until April 30th. The next phase of 3G rollout will be getting service to 9 villages surrounding Bethel.

“This Summer we will deploy in additional villages around the Bethel area. And that will be 3G services. And right now we’ve been notified that we are eligible to receive an approximately 44 million dollar grant to deploy 3G and 4G services in 48 additional rural communities over the next two or three years.”

These improvement come after years of what customers say is unsatisfactory service, saying it’s often unreliable or does not work at all. David Henderson, a Bethel attorney filed a lawsuit against GCI on April 22nd.

“They’ve failed to live up to what they promised in their contracts, which is reliable data plans and reliable cell service. And that’s violated unfair trade practices and laws in Alaska and basically committed fraud.”

The lawsuit on behalf of four plaintiffs seeks past damages and goes back two years. Henderson says GCI has been requiring people in Bethel to have data plans that work intermittently or not at all since they took over cell service in 2008.

“All the people in this community have been paying for something they have not been able to get. GCI knows that. If somebody calls up GCI and says I’m not getting any data. My data plan doesn’t work they’ll give them a credit. But people shouldn’t have to call up and ask for a credit when GCI is charging for something they knowingly can’t provide, and they’re advertising to people that they can provide it and they’re not telling people when they sign up for it that they can’t provide it and that’s the issue.”

The lawsuit asks that a minimum of $500 dollars be paid to each GCI cellular customer in the Y-K Delta region. Damages may be larger for smart phone customers who Henderson says were forced to pay for data. The lawsuit also calls for damages for those with basic cell services, on the grounds that calls are repeatedly dropped.

GCI has spent more than 50 million dollars in federal grant money and about 150 million dollars of their own capital to build the infrastructure for cellular and other telecommunications services for Bethel and 69 other rural Alaska communities.

Categories: Alaska News

Bethel City Council Confirms Code And Policy Violations

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-05-06 18:02

The Bethel City Council met Monday night in executive session for three hours with the attorney they hired to conduct an investigation into nepotism, contracts, and personnel issues.

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City Manager Lee Foley was placed on administrative leave two weeks ago as a result of the investigation. His status did not change Monday, but the council came back on the record for a minute to confirm that there indeed has been improper behavior within the city.

Mayor Joe Klekjka made a statement when the council reconvened at 9:30 p.m.

“There were code and policy violations,” said Klejka.

Those were for actions related to procurement, nepotism, credit card usage, personnel policies, leave, and travel and training policies.

Klekja said the council will be taking remedial measures. He explained after adjournment that the Bethel city code is a living document.

“You’re always trying to improve, trying to have the best actions come out of it, and when you find new things to improve it you do those. Additionally, we’re going to need to put some checks and balances in place to make sure the violations that occurred don’t happen in the future,” said Klejka.

Klejka said the city may be looking to hire a human resources director or procurement officer.

The council authorized $40,000 to pay for the investigation. They specifically looked at contracts to demolish the old police station and those with former finance director Bobby Sutton, plus leases at the sandpit, among other personnel issues like intimidation of employees, among other thing.

The city is not releasing the report prepared by the law firm as they are considering it attorney-client privileged communication. Mayor Klejka said that council may be preparing a public document, but he was not certain Monday night.

Categories: Alaska News

Online Realtor Says Sitka Tops State In Livability

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-05-06 18:02

Sitka has won a spot on top of yet another list. The online realtor Movoto says Sitka is the most liveable community in Alaska. Just ahead of Anchorage and Juneau.

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Categories: Alaska News

Great Land Trust Planning To Buy Top Of Bodenburg Butte

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-05-06 18:02

The Great Land Trust plans to buy the top of Bodenburg Butte in Palmer.

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The Great Land Trust plans to buy the top of Bodenburg Butte in Palmer. Trust executive director Phil Shephard says fundraising for the project starts immediately. Shephard says when the purchase is made, the top of the Butte will be donated to the Matanuska Susitna Borough.

“The trail up Bodenburg Butte is the most popular trail in the Mat Su Valley. And this parcell came up. We haven’t purchased it yet. We have a purchase agreement, and we will be raising money. “

 The Borough has not allocated any funds to the purchase as yet, Shephard says. But the Borough will be the land’s caretaker after the purchase is made.   The 40 acres at the top of the Butte is owned by the Alaska Mental Health Lands Trust at present.

“Everyone was really surprised that Mental Health Trust owned the top of the Butte. And, you know, to be able to say ‘Yes, I helped to buy the Butte’ is a pretty rare thing, and so, we’re excited to know that people are excited to be able to help out. We need to bring dollars from the local community to the project.”

 Shephard says the Greatland Trust needs to raise 187,500 dollars for the purchase by the end of this summer. The area is one of the Mat Su’s most loved hiking destinations and a local landmark, noted for its views of Knik Glacier, the Palmer Hayflats and the Chugach Mountains.

A fundraiser for the Butte purchase is set for May 8 in Wasilla.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Woman Found Off Salmon Creek Trail Dies

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-05-06 18:02

A 61-year-old woman died after being found in the water off Salmon Creek Trail near Juneau Sunday afternoon. Her body is being sent to the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Anchorage for an autopsy.

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Bartlett Regional Hospital employee Sandra Gelber was a physical therapist in the Rehabilitation Services Department.

Capital City Fire/Rescue responded at 4 p.m. to a 911 call about an unconscious woman, says Assistant Chief Ed Quinto.

Sandra Gelber was found in the water off Salmon Creek Trail about a mile from the gate. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

“A couple hikers reported to dispatch that they were on Salmon Creek Trail, that they found a female in the water along one of the creeks along the trail. It was approximately about a mile up from the gate. She was in the water. They brought her up, started doing CPR and they called us,” Quinto says.

Quinto says Gelber was found approximately 100 yards past where the road is washed out, and about 40 feet off the trail downhill. He says she was unconscious and in critical condition.

It’s unknown how long she was in the water before she was found.

“It appears like she was either hiking or jogging up there. She was dressed in jogging clothes and we don’t know how she got into the water,” Quinto says.

An ambulance transported Gelber to Bartlett Regional Hospital. She was pronounced dead there around 4:30 p.m, according to the hospital.

Bartlett spokesman Jim Strader says Gelber arrived at work Sunday morning and was done with her shift at 3 p.m.

“We’re kind of in shell shock to be honest. She was very, very well loved by all of her coworkers and her patients as well,” Strader says.

Gelber joined Bartlett in 2009. Prior to that, she was at Sitka Community Hospital. A statement sent to hospital employees by interim CEO Jeff Egbert described Gelber as “an avid outdoors person” and “she died doing what she loved best; out on the trail, appreciating the beautiful place we call home.”

Gelber leaves behind husband Tim Riley and two college-aged children.

AEL&P closed Salmon Creek Trail at the end of January when an 80-foot section of the road was washed out. AEL&P put an orange safety barrier around the slide and reopened the trail last week.

Categories: Alaska News
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