School districts currently manage their own health insurance plans. They pick their own providers, they decide how much of the premium they want to cover, and their employees can bargain for better benefits. But now, a senator from the Mat-Su Borough is pushing for the state to take over management of school health plans, and a report commissioned by the Legislature backs that proposal up as a way of saving money.
Alaska’s school districts spend a quarter billion dollars just on employee health care. It’s a big number that’s only expected to rise, and there isn’t one obvious solution to keeping costs down. But a consulting group hired by the Alaska Legislature thinks it has a few ideas, and all of them involve putting every one of the state’s school employees into the same insurance pool.
Malinda Riley with the Hay Group presented to the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.
“You’re saying that all of employees will go to this network, and as a result achieve better discounts because of the volume of employees that would be utilizing those providers,” Riley told legislators.
The Legislature contracted with the Hay Group to find out what might happen if they passed a bill putting the state in charge of managing health plans for Alaska’s 16,000 school employees — and their dependents. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican senator from the Valley, introduced the legislation this past spring.
The Hay Group surveyed all the state’s school districts, and they interviewed the trust and the insurance companies that currently handle school health plans. Their conclusion is that districts could save up to $34 million every year if the state acted like a broker for schools, without putting them in the state’s existing AlaskaCare employee health program.
“It maximizes the savings through a centrally managed program, so you’re getting that low-hanging fruit of leveraging your size to get the best contracting,” said Riley. “But what it also does is it helps to minimize some employee disruption when it comes to plan design.”
The Hay Group does see some downsides to that arrangement, though. Districts lose the ability to pick and administer their health plans. A change like this would also affect contract negotiations for teachers.
Ron Fuhrer is the president of the National Education Association’s Alaska affiliate, and he thinks the bill would take power away from unionized employees.
“The way it’s written, it’s going to strip the right of education employees to negotiate their health plan benefits and costs,” said Fuhrer in a phone interview. “Under current Alaska statutes, health benefits is a mandatory item of bargaining.”
The NEA manages plans for about a third of the state’s school employees through the Public Education Health Trust. Chief Financial Officer Rhonda Kitter says that on top of their concerns about the bill, they also have questions about the Hay Group report. She’s skeptical that districts would be able to achieve the savings projected in the report, and she says the study doesn’t factor in the $100 million in startup costs the state would need for a takeover.
“We too are concerned with the medical inflation in Alaska, but strongly feel private enterprise is more efficient and more cost effective than government interference with health insurance, and is more nimble in responding to cost savings opportunities,” says Kitter.
Lawmakers will continue their review of the bill when the Legislature reconvenes in January. The Finance Committee has a continuing $350,000 contract with the Hay Group, and about $200,000 has been spent on their study so far.
One of President Obama’s closest advisers is leaving. Pete Rouse has been at Obama’s side since his first days in the Senate and at the White House, serving at times as chief of staff. But Rouse shuns the spotlight, so few people know of his Alaska roots, or the pull he’s had on the 49th state.
Savoonga, a community on St. Lawrence Island, harvested two bowhead whales last week, both of them female.
While the island is praising the immense intake of muktuk and meat amid an economic disaster, Theodore Kingeekuk, a drummer on the island, is celebrating another part of the anatomy — the uterus.
Theodore Kingeekuk is a 21-years-old singer, drummer, and dancer with the Savoonga dancing and singing troupe. He’s also co-captain of his dad’s whaling crew. And last week, after helping distribute meat and muktuk to the community from the two female bowheads, Kingeekuk returned to the beach where he collected the whale’s wombs. His plan:
“Cut them up, clean them out, hang them,” Kingeekuk said. “And that’s when I’ll be putting them on my drum.”
Traditionally, St. Lawrence Island drums are covered with walrus stomachs. But with this years’ bleak walrus harvest—in which the island gathered only one-third of its annual walrus intake—walrus stomachs are in short supply. So Kingeekuk decided to go a different route: whale uteruses.
“I just thought about it. And it actually worked pretty good. And the other drummers were amazed,” Kingeekuk said.
Kingeekuk used this method for the first time last year. He says he had never seen it done before but wanted to give it a try. And the result? Well, Kingeekuk says in addition to producing a lot more drums than walrus stomachs—six times more— whale uteruses are an all-around better drumming material.
“It’s [whale womb] a lot stretchier, and it’s much louder and you don’t have to spray, get it wet as much like stomach walrus,” he said.
Usually the whale wombs are pushed back into the ocean with the rest of the carcass where it becomes food for seagulls and other scavengers.
Not these uteruses, Kingeekuk says he will be making instruments for Savoonga’s drumming group. And if permitted, he will even try to sell a few.
A federal agency says the Arctic continued to warm in 2013 and may have entered a “new normal” of diminished sea ice and wilder swings in weather that affect lower latitudes.
It’s not proven, but the evidence is growing, the report’s chief author said, that a warming Arctic is making the jet stream waver more and delivering more erratic weather patterns to the Lower 48 states, Europe and Russia.
Martin Jeffries of the University of Alaska Fairbanks says more and more research papers are establishing specific links between that weather and a warmer Arctic Ocean.
“It’s believed to be causing in the wintertime colder snowier winters on the eastern seaboard,” Jeffries said. “There is evidence that recent summers in the UK, which have been very wet and have affected farmers are due to the changes in the Arctic as well.”
Or, as University of Virginia Professor Howard Epstein more succinctly put it, “The Arctic is not like Vegas. What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”
But the weather swings involved cooling as well as warming. In Fairbanks, for instance there was an unprecedented record run of 36 days when the temperature was above 80 degrees. But in the same year, Jeffries noted, there was a prolonged spring cold spell.
“In central Alaska, spring 2013 experienced the coldest April in 90 years,” Jeffries said. “And the first green shoots on trees, they appeared very late, on the 26th of May, the latest since records began in 1972.”
Yet the report card also notes that alder shrubs in Siberia have added a whopping 25 percent to their range, and more shrubs and dry conditions have made large wildfires in the Arctic tundra so widespread that they are affecting the atmosphere – putting out so much smoke that Howard Epstein speculates it could be reversing the decreased emissions from Russia since 1989.
“Since the early 1990′s black carbon in the Arctic atmosphere has decreased by roughly 50 percent due to economic collapse in the former Soviet Union,” Epstein said. “Given the increase in arctic wildfires, it seems reasonable to ask how much might that increase offset the decrease of black carbon from other sources.”
But they don’t really know, because the Russians don’t have good satellite coverage and American satellite capacity is eroding as well.
This decline in remote sensing capacity is also one of the reasons nobody knows what the consequences are of an estimated 25 percent increase since the 1970′s of the amount of heat and fresh water that ends up in the Beaufort Gyre to the northwest of Alaska.
So the report card for 2013 is mixed.
Lead author Martin Jeffries says scientists are now studying a moving target when it comes to the effects of a warming Arctic.
“And multiple observations provide strong evidence of widespread sustained changes that are driving the arctic environmental system into a new state,” Jeffries said. “Some would say that this has already happened – that the Arctic has shifted to a new normal.”
The Arctic Report Card is the work of 147 scientists from 14 countries and is now available on NOAA’s website.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is seeking more information from Shell about their 2014 Chukchi Exploration Plan.
Until Shell provides the agency with the answers for dozens of requested revisions, BOEM will not consider their application complete.
The Regional Supervisor for the Office of Leasing and Plans within BOEM, David Johnston, said the ball is now in Shell’s court. The agency is seeking more details on Shell’s ships, the Noble Discoverer and the Polar Pioneer. They also have questions about Shell’s plans to deal with air quality issues, among other things.
“We’re just trying to get a much better understanding of the overall approach that Shell’s going to be taking,” he said, “especially in light of some of the difficulties they faced in 2012.”
Johnston said the 2012 drilling season showed that Shell needs to be more prepared for the Arctic conditions and have more contractor oversight.
The 2012 drilling season “was a good experience for Shell as well as the agency. I think the fortunate thing [is] there was no serious loss of life or environmental damage. But it certainly gave us a wonderful opportunity to learn from that experience, and hopefully we will have improved Shell’s activities as well as our oversight of those activities.”
But Erik Grafe with EarthJustice said the current exploration and operations plans don’t show that Shell has put those lessons to good use. “I think that Shell has to demonstrate that it’s put the pieces together. It really messed up in 2012 and it really needs to be held to a high standard if it’s going to be allowed back in 2014.”
EarthJustice and other environmental groups sent a letter to BOEM stating that Shell’s current plans are too vague. The plans don’t outline things like why the spill response equipment will be stationed in Kotzebue Sound instead of closer to the drill sites and how the faulty spill containment dome was improved.
Shell spokesperson Megan Baldino would not comment on how the request for revisions will impact their timetable for future drilling and would only speak generally about their future plans.
“We continue to put the building blocks in place for an upcoming exploration season in the event that we decide to make that decision,” she said. It’s “really important to point out that this is a multi-year exploration program. And so every step we take is going to be contingent on meeting all the conditions necessary to proceed safely and responsibly.”
Once BOEM has all of the requested information from Shell, they have 15 days to decide if they need more. When the application is considered complete, the agency has only 30 days to review it along with public comments and make a final decision.
The approval would stand until Shell completes their operations, even if it takes more than one season.
Johnston said that if the exploration plan is approved, it could come with conditions such as a requirement to stop drilling by September 17, a week earlier than in 2012.
As temperatures drop in Bethel, a grassroots organization is opening a shelter to provide a safe and warm place to the city’s homeless. The Bethel Winter House will be open every night from December 24th through the three coldest months of the year.
The goal is simple, according Eva Malvich, the chair for the Bethel Winter House project.
“It’s very basic. To prevent death by exposure for people in this community, period.”
She says there were four deaths over the past winter from people who could not get out of the cold. The group says it’s hard to determine the exact need. Malvich says Bethel’s homeless are hidden. People often bounce around between family members and friends’ couches and may be in and out of homelessness. She sees people in the Cultural Center in her job as Museum director.
“I didn’t realize people come here to secure basic needs like drinking water and heat, a place to stay warm. You can see that in the wintertime when we first open. People come in to use the restrooms and hang out,” said Malvich.
Rusty Tews is the Sobering Center program Manager and a leader within the project. He points to a study done last winter.
“We counted 100 people on January 28th last year that were sleeping either in a shelter, such as TWC, or on someone’s couch or out in the woods or in an unheated home. And 36 of them were kids,” said Tews.
A related group called the Bethel Homeless Coalition is working to build a permanent plan, but before that happens, winter is here. The group got together this October and set about on an aggressive schedule to open the shelter by Christmas. They’re getting donations of sleeping mats and blankets from around the region and state. They’re collecting donations online and building a base of volunteers. The Bethel Covenant church will be the shelter’s home for the first month of operations. Its focus will be adults. And just on the very essentials. With a goal of zero deaths, Tews says it’s simply a safe place without any judgment.
“A place to be safe, a place to get some food and shelter for the night. As far as other services, it can’t come from us as a full package we don’t have the resources to do that. They’re out there and I think they’ll come to us and ask,” said Tews.
The group is looking for donations of towels and personal hygiene items, as well as people to cook a warm meal. The plan is for food in the evening and a basic breakfast in the morning. It will be all run by volunteers, according to Tews.
“The biggest thing we need are volunteers. We need people that are willing to come and spend 12 hours. Probably the most boring hours of your life at times, but 12 hours to help monitor for us,” said Tews.
The group of about 30 has organized as a Lions Club. That means they get 501 c (3) status and are eligible for grants and liability insurance. Their goal is to raise $50,000 and be ready for next year too. Malvich says this is problem that Bethel can solve.
“We’re a big community, we’re a caring community, I think we can do better than that, we have an unmet need and we need to do something about it. It’s a community wide problem and it needs a community-wide solution,” said Malvich.
The group’s online fundraising page is here.
Eaglecrest Ski Area in Juneau is in the finals of a Powder Magazine poll of favorite North American ski areas.
Called the Ski Town Throwdown, Powder Magazine runs the contest and people from all over Canada and the U.S. have been casting votes.
The contest ends Friday at 4 p.m.
The U.S. Women’s cross country ski team will take part in their third weekend of World Cup racing Saturday.
The women’s primary relay team claimed a bronze medal in Lillehammer, Norway last weekend in the four-by-five kilometer classic and freestyle relay. The team tied their best ever relay time set in 2012.
After the race, defending World Champion Kikkan Randall told FasterSkier.com the team is exactly where they want to be as they prepare for the Olympic Games in Sochi next February.
“We know when we put together four strong legs, we’re right in the hunt and everybody went out and skied really confident and strong,” Randall said. ”We’re far from being in our peak form right now, so to put together a solid day here is great and we’re just going to keep getting better and better.”
Randall is currently ranked fifth in overall World Cup Standings among the women.
This weekend’s events, hosted in Davos, Switzerland, include a 15 kilometer ski and a freestyle sprint on the women’s side. Men will race a 30k as well as a freestyle sprint.
With oil revenues expected to decline, Gov. Sean Parnell wants to cut the state’s budget by $1 billion next year and then use another billion in savings to balance the rest. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
If Gov. Sean Parnell had one big talking point while unveiling his budget proposal, this was it:
PARNELL: “Lower revenue means we tighten our belts now.” “We need to tighten our belts on expenses.” “Nobody’s denying that we are tightening our belts.”
At an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce luncheon and then again with reporters, Parnell emphasized the need to pull back on state spending. At $12.4 billion, his budget for the 2015 fiscal year is smaller than the $13.4 billion one currently in place.
Appropriations from the state’s unrestricted general fund — the pot of money that lawmakers are free to appropriate without any strings attached — amount to $5.6 billion. The next biggest funding source is the federal government, which is contributing $3.1 billion to Alaska’s government.
Parnell’s plan keeps agency operations mostly flat at $7.6 billion, and Parnell announced that 150 state jobs were being cut to save money.
The proposal shrinks the capital budget by a third, with the state substantially cutting back its contribution. Of the $1.7 billion allocated for infrastructure, just $430 million is coming from Alaska’s unrestricted general fund. The federal government is footing most of the difference.
There’s also less state money for mega-projects. This past year, the Susitna-Watana Hydro Project got nearly $100 million from the state. Now, Parnell’s asking for $10 million. The funding request to legislators for the Knik Arm Bridge project has also been halved to $5 million, while the federal government is lined up to kick in $50 million toward KABATA.
Even with the cuts, the state faces a billion-dollar deficit under the proposal. That money would have to come out of the state’s $17 billion rainy day fund. Under the budget that was enacted for this fiscal year, that savings account is already expected to take a $2 billion hit.
The biggest item in the budget isn’t a project at all. It’s a $3 billion transfer from the state’s budget reserves that would be used to help pay off the state’s unfunded pension liabilities. Parnell says it’s a bipartisan goal which should keep Alaska’s future debt under control.
“It would be akin to Congress and the President making the Social Security sustainable over time,” Parnell told reporters on Thursday afternoon. “From a state standpoint, this is about as significant as it gets to address the single largest cost driver of our operating budget.”
There is a chance that Parnell’s budget proposal could grow after the Legislature gets a chance to review the document. Parnell expects them to put in some of their own capital projects and have different priorities when it comes to state agencies. He says he wants them to show restraint, but he hasn’t named a hard number for a spending cap.
“I wanted to leave room for legislators,” said Parnell. “I wanted to lower the band of spending again, given lower revenues. Every department was asked to produce savings in line with that and with the proportion of general fund dollars had in their budget.”
Legislators will get their crack at the document when they reconvene in Juneau on January 21.
This story has been updated to include information on a federal appropriation for the Knik Arm Bridge project. A previous version specified that the funding request was halved, without specifying that the reduction was in proposed general fund spending.
Outside money is expected to pour into the race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Mark Begich, and the first of it is making a splash across Alaska’s TV sets.
Last month, it was an anti-Begich ad from Americans for Prosperity, a group linked to conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch. Now a pro-Begich super PAC is weighing in with an ad of its own. Alaskans can expect a lot more in the months to come.
The anti-Begich ad featured an unnamed woman with long reddish hair in a kitchen, tying Begich to the Affordable Care Act.
“Sen. Begich didn’t listen. How can I ever trust him again? It just isn’t fair,” the woman said.
The new TV spot also features a woman with long reddish hair, also in a kitchen, but her name appears on screen. She’s Megan Collie, of Anchorage.
“That ad, attacking Sen. Begich? It turns out she’s an actress, from Washington, DC, pretending to be from Alaska. I’m not an actress. I live here and I trust Mark Begich. He’s trying to fix the healthcare law,” she said in the new TV spot.
The message is the first public appearance of a Super PAC called Put Alaska First, which spent nearly $100,000 on it. Its treasurer is Anchorage lobbyist Jim Lottsfeldt.
“ Honestly we weren’t planning to come out this early but it’s clear in 2014 politics across the nation, the Koch brothers are on the attack and we thought it was smart to start our defense sooner rather than later,” Lottsfeldt said.
While his ad emphasizes its Alaska bona fides, Lottsfeldt acknowledges he’s paying for it with out-of-state money.
“I am seeking people who are giving big dollar amounts to do this because it’s the only way effectively it works,” Lottsfeldt said. “I’m not holding bake sales. I’m going to people who can donate large amounts of money and asking them to donate.”
He says he’ll disclose the donor list when he’s required to in January. But he says the six-figure spending he’s reported so far came from just a few people.
Super PACs like his, along with so called “dark money” groups that don’t have to name their donors, are sure to be a multi-million force in Alaska’s Senate race.
Unlike a candidate’s campaign, these groups can raise unlimited amounts of money, from anybody: corporations, unions or just rich people who want to influence the makeup of the U.S. Senate. But they can’t contribute to candidates and they can’t coordinate their strategy with a candidate’s campaign.
SuperPACs have formed to support Republican Senate candidates Mead Treadwell and Dan Sullivan, too, put they haven’t reported any of their spending yet.
To get an idea of how much money these sort of groups can inject in a race, take a look at Montana. Two years ago, about $55 million was spent on the U.S. Senate contest there, more than half of it by outside groups.
Montana Political Science professor David Parker says the Alaska race is likely to attract a flood of outside money for the same reasons Montana did. To start with, Parker says, they both have small populations, so TV time is cheaper than in big-city media markets.
“So No. 1 is the cost of advertising. A lot of bang for your buck,” Parker said.
Also, Parker says, the Senate’s political landscape is much the same this time. It’s closely divided between the parties, and nationwide, Parker sees only 5 or 6 seats on the ballot that could go either way, to a Republican or a Democrat.
“So if you’re trying to swing the balance of power nationally, you go to the competitive seats and guess what, Alaska’s one of them,” Parker said. “Why do these outside groups care? It’s not so much about Alaska issues but the broader national implications of the balance of power in the United States Senate.”
Professor Parker says the ads Alaskans are starting to see are only the most visible of the political spending. Outside groups spent millions in Montana on the ground war. These weren’t your standard door-knocking, get-out-the-vote campaigns. Parker says they used, among other tools, statistical modeling, crossing – for example – poll results with consumer purchase histories to micro-target.
“And they’ll look for trends out of their sample and they’ll say, ‘hey, I notice that these people who drink Folger’s Crystals – whatever – are more likely to have this argument about Mitt Romney resonate with them,’” he said. “So they find all the people who drink Folger’s Crystals and they send targeted messaging and people to the doors to give them that message in person.”
Alaskans, he says, can expect much the same. If the spending in the Alaska race reaches Montana proportions, it would amount to more than $200 per likely voter.
Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew and Dr. Troy Payne with the University of Anchorage Alaska Justice Center presented findings from a study about police shootings at UAA’s Gorsuch Commons today.
Chief Mew clarified how the demographics involved in shootings changed from the first decade of study to the second.
“The number of African Americans that we engage in and shoot at are going down, first half to the second half. Pacific Islanders coming up the first half to the second half. Hispanics, Natives are going down first half to the second half,” Mew said. “It seems to me that the data is all over the place, but the numbers are pretty small.”
The study of Anchorage police shootings over the past 20 years has produced conflicting data. Although minority citizens are disproportionately involved in police shootings the majority shot by officers were white. The study attempts to show the recipe for officer-involved shootings and says vehicles are used as weapons in many cases.
Although minority citizens are disproportionately involved in police shootings, the majority shot by officers were white.
The study attempts to show the recipe for officer-involved shootings and says vehicles are used as weapons in many cases.
After two years of high profile officer-involved shootings in Anchorage, including one of a Pacific Islander man armed only with a stick, the Anchorage Police Department commissioned the study from the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center.
Researchers caution the study deals with small numbers, just 45 shootings in two decades, and that much of the data is contradictory.
“We were looking at situational characteristics, officer characteristics and characteristics of the citizens that were involved in these,” Assistant Professor Dr. Troy Payne, who reviewed the cases, said.
Payne says minorities, particularly African Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are disproportionately represented in officer-involved shootings over the 20 year period. And he says that’s not a surprise because minorities tend to be over represented when it comes to just about every aspect of the criminal justice system from arrest rates to the ability to get bail.
“I don’t see that as something that is suggestive that APD is racist or has any kind of racial animus, but it is a question and we should probably be looking at that,” Payne said. “It may very well be that people from these communities react different to the police and it may be that the police department can engage in training and outreach that could help address that; it may be that these communities need to think carefully about how they’re reacting to police officers operating in their neighborhood.”
Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew says the department commissioned the study because of public outcry regarding the spike in officer involved shootings in recent years. There were five in 2012 and five more in 2013.
“Those two events back-to-back got the police department and the public and the media all talking about what, if anything, has changed in this town; what if anything is changed with the police department – and we committed to doing a number of things,” Mew said. “One of those things is to take a good hard look into what we think is going into these officer involved shootings: what we could learn, what kind of changes we could make, what kind of changes the public needs to make.”
Last spring, the police decided to stop firing at vehicles and to institute new tactics for dealing with cars when they’re being used as weapons. Mew says the study confirms that was the right choice, showing that in 40 percent of officer-involved shootings the weapon was a car.
A fact sheet recently produced by the UAA Justice center says assault on officers has gone up over the past decade in Alaska. And the shift in tactics at APD, he says, is an effort to address that. But Mew says, in general, it’s hard to get much clarity from the study.
“The data on one hand says that certain minorities are over represented. There’s other data that would suggest that minority officers shoot more. There’s other data that says that most of the people we shoot are white,” Mew said. “I mean the data is conflicting and the numbers are tiny and I think to try and draw sweeping conclusions based on that is taking issues out of context and I don’t want to see the community divided over that.”
Dr. Payne researched which minorities were shot most often during the first decade and found most were black males, but over the past 10 years that group has been replaced by Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander males.
The family of Shane Tasi, the Pacific Islander man who was shot and killed while wielding a stick last year is suing the Anchorage Police Department. His is the only case over the 20-year period where someone was shot for using a blunt object as a deadly weapon.
Mew says another study is in the works that will look at cases in which officer-involved shootings did not happen. Both studies will be updated annually and eventually the APD will use the information to create further prevention strategies.
About one third of officer-involved shootings in the study resulted in citizen fatalities. A report by the Police Minority Task Force on police shootings is scheduled for publication later this month. The APD plans to, for the first time, to publish their policies, including those concerning officer-involved shootings, in 2014.
The Department of Administration has a new acting commissioner. Curtis Thayer has been promoted from his deputy position, and he will be taking over for Becky Hultberg, who left the position for a job with the state hospital association.
In the past, Thayer has worked for the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, and for the utility ENSTAR. While at the Department of Administration, Thayer has helped implement a policy of “universal space standards,” which put most state workers in 6′ by 8′ cubicles.
A coalition of fisheries related business is holding a public forum in Anchorage tonight on House Bill 77. The controversial legislation would streamline permitting for the Department of Natural Resources. Earlier this week, people packed into the borough assembly chambers in Soldotna for a meeting on the issue. Not one member of the public testified in favor of the bill.
Testimony went on for more than two hours. Everyone who stepped up to the mic was opposed to the bill. A level of agreement rarely seen in this room. Two major issues surfaced as sticking points. One was raising the legal standard for challenging a Department of Natural Resources ruling.
“It’s controversial,” said Deputy DNR Commissioner Ed Fogels. “We’re looking at these appeals, and quite frankly a lot of them really don’t have a lot of merit. People just don’t like the decision, the may not even live in Alaska. We’re trying to make it so that people have a good reason to appeal a decision.”
Fogels was joined on the panel with Senator Micciche and Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell. He says the current qualification for challenging a decision is too broad. Under HB 77, that would change.
“This makes it so you have to write down why the decision will hurt you, will harm you. I know a lot of people out there don’t fundamentally agree that we should be raising that bar, but it’s a way for us to reduce the administrative burden on appeals that don’t have merit.”
The decisions the panel referred to were decisions about water reservation permits, called instream flow reservations. What has people worried is losing their ability to save water for fish, where it might potentially be used for something else, like a mining project.
Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell tried to ease the concern that individuals will lose their standing to apply for or challenge those permits and that government agencies would instead represent those interests.
“Fish and Game has always been very receptive to partnering with people who are interested in securing water reservations to protect fish habitat. We would still be committed to working with interested groups and ensuring that groups that share our interest in instream flow reservations still have every opportunity to partner with us in obtaining these reservations.”
Campbell said the department has already taken 35 applications under its wing that would be disregarded should HB 77 pass.
But that wasn’t the kind of reassurance the public was after.
Dr. David Wartinbee, a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, told the panel HB 77 is about trust. But he’s not buying the administrative argument that HB 77 will somehow lessen the workload for reviewing permits, or that there’s even a problem at all.
“Show me that abuse. I don’t believe. I don’t believe that it’s going to happen,” Wartinbee said. Nor was he convinced that a backlog of permits up for review was big enough to justify passage of HB 77.
“I have a problem with that when you tell me at the beginning of the meeting that you have resolved more than 70 percent of the backlog. It seems to me that internal efficiencies have solved the problem that this entire bill is all about. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Marilyn Cornell of Soldotna put it even more plainly.
“I’m an Alaskan, from the tip of my hair to the bottom of my toes. And no one should be able to tell me that I don’t have a right to put input into anything the state government is going to decide.”
Senator Micciche said he had a lot to take back to Juneau after the meeting. HB 77 has already passed the house. It currently sits with the Senate Rules Committee, which will take up the issue again in January.
Normally in December, the Bethel area is covered in snow and ice but it’s been unseasonable warm so far. In fact, Bethel broke a record Dec. 6 reaching 48 degrees. The Y-K Delta is known for winter warm ups but the amount of them lately has some folks scratching their heads.
By now, the Kuskokwim is often a frozen highway of activity for Kwethluk residents like Max Olick, who enjoys making the 15-mile trip downriver to Bethel.
“You know this time of the year, we’re going back and forth with trucks,” Olick says. “But this year, it’s kind of depressing.”
Olick, who has been a Yup’ik subsistence fishermen and hunter his whole life, says he’s never seen it like this before.
Last week, temperatures were above freezing for six days straight reaching into the 40s four of those days. It’s enough to melt the snow and turn everything brown, which is not a safe landscape for guys out checking their nets or traps under the ice.
“The open leads are hard to see right now and if you go down to the river, it’s all the same, you won’t be [able to] even notice open waters,” Olick says.
Olick has been the village’s Public Safety Officer for 31 years and hasn’t crossed the Kuskokwim to check his own net in a week. However, others others are risking it; those who have beaver traps or black fish traps set or white fishnets under the ice.
“They’re trying to put food on the table for their family and they’re risking their lives out there taking chances,” Olick says.
About 160 miles away on the Bering Sea coast, Brandon Aguchak works as Scammon Bay’s Tribal Council Director. He says a bunch of boats went out to go seal hunting recently. Subsistence seal hunting in December is pretty much unheard of. The season usually wraps up in late October… but everything has melted back to brown tundra.
“Like a fall, early fall,” Aguchak says.
A lot of hunters in Scammon Bay would normally be out checking their traps and nets this time of year but Aguchak says they can’t. He doesn’t know of anyone going hungry–most have stored salmon and moose and the freshly caught seal—but he says it’s still a hardship.
“A lot of people rely on white fish and black fish,” Aguchak says. “They can’t go out and get these things here for their families so I think some people do have a hard time without checking their traps.”
It is getting colder. Although there’s no snow in the forecast, freezing temperatures are. Until conditions improve, Max Olick advises against traveling on the river near Bethel. . .but if you have to he says don’t go alone and bring extra rope.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is looking for input from the public on how best to deal with about 1,000 head of cattle on two islands in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
About 200 of the animals are on Wosnesenski Island, between Sand Point and King Cove, and another 800 are on Chirikof Island, southwest of Kodiak.
The cattle were first introduced to the islands to provide food by a family on Wosnesenski in 1938, and for fox ranchers on Chirikof in the 1880s. Neither island currently has permanent human residents.
Steve Delehanty is the manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, based in Homer. He announced the start of a “scoping” process to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act before the cattle are removed or eradicated.
“Not that they’re malicious creatures or anything. We need cattle in the world for sure. But in this case, they’re consuming the vegetation, altering the vegetation, trampling, compacting the soil. It causes problems for nesting birds, salmon streams, for archeological sites that get degraded by the trampling and the vegetation removal,” Delehanty said. “So it’s isn’t really a steady state – it’s not that they did something back 100 years ago and now everything is fine. The biological potential of the island is at a low level, and will remain at a low level until we can bring it up through some sort of action we want to consider.”
Though the cattle presence far predates wildlife refuges in Alaska, the animals are still considered invasive and not compatible with their environment in the eyes of the federal government.
“Any time we’re dealing with a species that don’t belong on a place, they generally tend to have unintended and undesirable ecological effects,” Delehanty said. “And again you have to remember that Hagemeister along with the two islands we’re talking about now, Chirikof and Wosnesenki, Congress set them aside and said ‘these places are special and should be managed for wildlife,’ and so we have an obligation to try and make them available and make them places where wildlife can thrive and people can go out and enjoy that wildlife.”
Delahanty’s reference to Hagemeister Island was an instance in the early 1990s when a large heard of reindeer was to be eradicated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the island near Togiak. It caused quite a bit of controversy and the refuge was forced to allow some of the animals to be rounded up and flown out to join a herd near Nome. The rest were shot.
Delehanty says the scoping process for the Wosnesenski and Chirikof cattle will determine how they are dealt with, though allowing them to remain seems like a long shot.
“We don’t have a preferred solution – we have a preferred outcome, which is healthy refuge islands where wildlife can thrive. But by all means, if people want to say the best possible outcome is just leave things as they are now, that is a totally legitimate point of view. And if grazing were to continue, for example, there’s law that requires uses like that to be found, to be determined to be compatible with the purposes for which the refuges was created,” Delehanty said. “So as part of this whole planning process, that is one other thing I need to be looking at is to say, ‘Okay, is that an option?’ Would that scenario comply with this standard of compatibility with refuge purposes.”
The scoping process will include meetings with interested federal, state, and local agencies, federally recognized tribes, stakeholders and the general public.
Russian tea cookies, white chocolate coconut clusters, and star-shaped butter cookies are just a small sampling of what was available Tuesday afternoon at the Governor’s Annual Christmas and Holiday Open House.
Doors to the Governor’s Mansion opened to the public at 3 o’clock, “and then they’re greeted to the governor, first lady, lieutenant governor,” explains Erika Fagerstrom, manager of the Governor’s Mansion. She’s been organizing the Governor’s Annual Christmas and Holiday Open House for eight years. This year, though, is a little more special than others.
“They started constructing the house May, 1912, and by December the family had already moved in and they had their very first open house New Year’s 1913, so this is the 100th open house,” Fagerstrom says.
After the greetings, guests walk into the dining room where there is a large table with trays and trays of cookies and fudge. For 4-year-old Ella Malaby, this is what she’s been waiting for.
“She loves it. That was her favorite part was seeing that whole table full of cookies and candy,” says Staci Malaby.
She brings her daughter to the governor’s open house every year. “She knows this house is the cookie house, not the Governor’s House, and she loves seeing the gingerbread houses and the train.”
Veronica Salter, 14, is with her classmates from Faith Community School. They’re performing songs from the musical “Christmas in Black & White.” Salter can’t remember a year she hasn’t been at the governor’s open house. “I like how everybody is really friendly and how people are singing also and they play beautiful music and I like meeting the governor, too. I got to shake his hand and say hello,” Salter says.
Roland Eim is from Germany and is visiting Juneau for the first time. He heard about the open house from his daughter who recently moved to town.
“We actually walked for about half a mile to come here and got very wet as you can see and I got a really nice conversation with the governor,” Eim says.
Eim says he’s surprised with the notion of a governor opening up his house to the public, “In Germany or like in France or like any other country, you’d likely have lots of police protecting the governor, so I think it’s a very awesome thing. It’s very close to the people and I appreciate that much, really.”
For Gov. Sean Parnell, continuing the open house tradition is important.
“It really says that our government, our house, the people’s house is accessible. And it’s our chance to be accessible in a pretty big way and for people to really enjoy the house that belongs to them,” Parnell says.
Along with continuing the tradition of the open house, the Parnell family will practice another tradition as they spend the holidays at home in Juneau – opening one gift on Christmas Eve.
Popular footwear brand XtraTuf is on a mission to prove to their disappointed loyal customers that the iconic boots are not just “Sort-of-Tough.”
Two years ago, parent-company Honeywell transferred production of XtraTuf from Illinois, to a factory in China, and the product that rolled off the line was nowhere near what Alaskans had come to expect. XtraTuf says the quality is back and they want to replace any pairs purchased that didn’t hold up, no questions asked.
The Alaska Department of Transportation has a new tool in the war on icy roads.
A Fairbanks green technology advocate is trying to muster interest in an alternative model for financing energy and other projects. Fairbanks resident Robert Shields runs the local non-profit Alliance for Reason and Knowledge.
The Alaska State Museum in Juneau is getting a lot of help from other Alaska museums ahead of its move to a new facility in 2016.
As the staff works to pack up the more than 32,000 artifacts in its collection, museum professionals from around the state are lending a hand, and learning what it takes to safely store and transport priceless historical objects.
In the basement of the Alaska State Museum, Eva Malvich uses a box cutter to slice a thin piece of gray cardboard into a small rectangle. Mounted on the cardboard, supported by four pieces of foam, is a makeup brush with an ornately carved metal handle. Malvich doesn’t know much about the brush, except that it came from a woman who collected items for her vanity.
“But then, you know, with objects you have to preserve them forever,” she says.
Malvich is director of the tribally owned Yupiit Piciryarait Museum in Bethel. The name means “The people’s way of living.”
“We’re the only museum in the [Yukon Kuskowkwim] Delta,” she proudly declares.
After a career in public administration, Malvich started working at the museum about a year ago. She had no practical experience, so she’s learning the best way to handle and preserve objects. She points to a piece of cardboard, like the one on which she just mounted the makeup brush.
“I used to wonder what the heck this was, because we have boxes of this,” she says. “I used to think, why do I have so much cardboard? Now I know it’s called blue board and it’s useful for making containers for my objects.”
Malvich is learning under the direction of husband and wife team Scott and Ellen Carlee. Ellen is the Alaska State Museum conservator. Scott is curator of museum services. His job is to assist and advise other museums and historical societies throughout the state.
“I help them with projects that they are working on. I help them get grants,” he says. “I actually have a small grant that I can give out to help them do projects. I can do assessments.”
During his travels, Carlee says other Alaska museum professionals wanted to know how the state museum was going to move its collection to a new State Library Archives and Museum building, scheduled to open in 2016. That’s how he got the idea to bring them to Juneau to see the project firsthand.
“I thought, well, it would be really nice to have them help me. But I would feel bad if it was, you know, on their own nickel,” Carlee says. “So I thought we should at least try to pay for their travel expenses. So I wrote this grant to the Institute for Museums and Library Services to help fund this travel down here as a professional development opportunity for these museum professionals throughout Alaska.”
The grant is for $83,000, which the state museum is matching. Carlee says each museum professional will get to visit Juneau twice – once during the packing and planning phase and again during the actual move.
“We’re calling them XOs, because ‘outside museum professionals’ is a little hard to say all the time and to write down,” Carlee says. “So XOs, just, we kind of think of it as like external operative or something. Somebody from the outside is coming in to help us.”
Anjuli Grantham is Curator of Collections at the Baranov Museum in Kodiak. Located inside the Russian American Magazin – a two-story log structure built in 1808 – it houses a treasure trove of colonial Alaska history. The museum’s not moving anytime soon, but Grantham says the staff is redesigning all of its exhibits.
“That’s going to mean that a lot of the objects that are currently in collection storage are going to be on exhibit,” says Grantham. “So, it’s going to require a lot of shuffling of things. It’s a perfect opportunity to implement some of these new solutions.”
Grantham had some experience preserving and caring for objects prior to working for the Baranof Museum. Still, she says the opportunity to learn from the staff at the Alaska State Museum is unique.
“This is what they do,” she says. “They conserve objects and they create these really amazing storage solutions for fragile objects of many different types of materials. It’s kind of like, now I’m here under the tutelage of masters.”
Grantham and Malvich were the fourth group of XOs to visit Juneau as part of the project. The grant is providing travel for 27 museum professionals from 12 Alaska institutions. Carlee says he works with between 60 and 70 museums around the state.