The Anchorage School District’s proposed $770 million budget for next year includes 24 new teaching positions and only cuts four administrative positions.
Superintendent Ed Graff presented the proposed 2015-2016 budget to the school board on Monday. He says the administration is focused on putting money toward improving student engagement and maintaining small class sizes, and the decision to hire more teachers was in response to community input.
“We took a lot of time working with staff, talking to the community, principals, about what their values were and what they need to make that happen,” he told reporters during a press briefing. “And it came out repeatedly that class size and maintaining stability in our schools was a priority.”
Graff says overall enrollment is expected to drop by about 200 students, though elementary school enrollment will increase slightly. But, he says the district will need to hire more teachers for all levels in order to maintain small class sizes for the lower grades and to prevent secondary school teachers from being relocated to other schools.
Graff says the budget numbers are based on the expected revenue promised in last year’s education funding bill HB 278. The bill includes both an increase in Base Student Allocation and special one-time funds that are currently being used for programs like literacy coaching and preschool.
The budget does not account for the governor’s proposed cuts to education funding. That could reduce the district’s revenue by up to $12 million in state and local funds.
Some of the district’s savings will come from cutting four administrative positions and plans to spend less on fuel and on broadband costs. The district will also redirect $17 million of this year’s unexpected fund balance to next year’s budget. It will close most of the originally expected budget gap.
Andy Holleman with the Anchorage Education Association says the proposal to hire more classroom teachers will help everyone and increase morale.
“What they’re doing is hitting some of the really large classes and bringing them down. That helps everything go further. And, yeah, we think a highly-qualified teacher in a reasonably-sized classroom is the best use of money.”
But Holleman says he doesn’t think the district will necessarily be able to hire those new teachers or retain the current ones.
“Things are kind of tough right now. We’ve had a lot of programs go away, TAs go away. Middle school elective teachers have lost team planning time and in a lot of cases they’ve picked up a lot students that they see every day. So in the upshot from that is, it’s still difficult and kind of grim. But finding out that it’s not going to get appreciably worse is always better.”
He says he thinks many teachers will leave Anchorage for the Lower 48.
The proposed budget also includes money for technology and curriculum upgrades.
The School Board will take public testimony and discuss the budget on Monday Feb. 2. They’ll continue the conversation and vote on the final version on Thursday, Feb 19. It will then go to the Anchorage Assembly for approval.
Anchorage sixth graders are not moving schools. The Anchorage School Board voted on Monday to keep the school structure the same. Currently, some sixth graders are housed in elementary schools while others are in middle schools. The district had considered making sixth grade placement consistent for all students. But, after surveying the community and analyzing the costs of changing the structure, the administration decided it’s best to keep the schools as they are. All but one school board member voted in favor of maintaining the status quo.
Gov. Bill Walker has named four new members to the University of Alaska Board of Regents, changing its geographic composition.
Of the four members removed, three hailed from Anchorage. Only one replacement comes from the city. Sheri Buretta chairs the Chugach Alaska board of directors, and serves on the board of the Alaska Federation of Natives. Andy Teuber of Kodiak chairs the Alaska Native Health Tribal Health Consortium, and he replaces another Kodiak member. Lisa Parker was appointed from Soldotna, and she handles government affairs for the Apache Corporation. Fairbanks gains a member with John Davies, a former state legislator who now works for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center.
With four members, Fairbanks now has the most representation on the 11-person board. A spokesperson for the governor says the governor desired “more regional representation.”
The federal government has turned down a request to create a vast marine reserve around the Aleutian Islands.
On Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the Aleutians won’t advance in the process to become a national marine sanctuary — mostly due to a lack of local support.
Adak, King Cove, Akutan, and the Aleutians East Borough all came out against the nomination. Environmentalists and research groups had been seeking permanent limits on oil and gas leasing and commercial fishing in federal waters around the Chain.
At more than 730,000 square miles, it would have been the largest marine sanctuary in the country.
In a letter, a NOAA representative suggested that a smaller swath of the Bering Sea could be eligible — areas that ”encompass the specific resources you believe to be of the highest value.” But the agency would still need to see proof that other interest groups are on board.
There are 13 national marine sanctuaries around the United States — each with its own local management panel. Those groups can advise NOAA on new regulations for commercial inside the reserve.
A new fishery approved by the Federal Subsistence Board last week will allow the use of set gillnets on the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers.
The Ninilchik Tribal Council submitted the proposals, which will allow the subsistence community there to use one 60-foot long set gill net for sockeye on the Kenai River between June 15th and August 15th.
Up to 4,000 sockeye could be harvested with the subsistence permit, in addition to as many as 1,000 king salmon. That was the main point of contention on the Board’s 4-3 vote. And it complicates an already tough-to-manage fishery, says Alaska Department of Fish and Game Management Biologist Robert Begich.
“With more harvest, because of a new user group, if the fishery does grow or they are effective at harvesting, that harvest needs to be accounted for in the daily management of the fishery because we do get daily sport harvest estimates,” he said. “So we would hope that this harvest would be added to a program to the managing federal staff so that we could get it daily as well.”
The federal staff in charge is at the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, and they would have to approve any permit applications and operation plans for the fishery. Subsistence users are already allowed the use of rod and reel, dipnets and fish wheels. Subsistence communities in Cooper Landing and Moose Pass will also be allowed to apply for permits.
Having healthy and plentiful returns of salmon each season is an important issue to subsistence, sport and commercial fishermen alike. But, relatively little is known about what happens to the fish once they leave their spawning grounds and head out to sea. A group of scientists have started investigating a piece of the puzzle in a survey of juvenile Bristol Bay sockeye salmon.
Bristol Bay sockeye can account for nearly 60 percent of the world’s harvest each year. But, the fish’s returns vary greatly from year to year.
Scientists believe a large portion of salmon mortality occurs in their first year at sea. And they think size can play a vital role in fish survival.
“So it’s important for them to be large and have extra lipid reserves before they go into the winter in order to survive,” Ellen Yasumiishi, a research fisheries biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said.
A larger fat reserve means more energy for the salmon in winter, when food is more scarce.
During the study, Yasumiishi and her team found that – no surprise – the smaller fish are typically at a disadvantage.
“They swim slower and they have to compete for food with other fish, so they might not be getting as much food as they need to as the other fish,” she said. “And they might also be a prey item for larger species that feed on the smaller prey.”
The study indicates salmon over 180 millimeters long – or about 7 inches – have the highest survival rates.
Yasumiishi’s team also discovered a difference in diets between warm and cold years. She says in warmer years, juvenile salmon fed primarily on pollock.
“Those are a lower-energy rich prey, and whereas in cold years they are feeding on euphasiids, which are crustaceans,” Yasumiishi said. ”So it would be like the difference between me eating McDonald’s fish sticks for dinner and king crab.”
“So that crab, that crustacean provides that extra lipid concentration that they need.”
Yasumiishi says the difference in diet is likely a function of which types of prey are most abundant at the time.
Even though the quality of prey differs depending on the ocean temperature, she says there are a number of other factors in play affecting salmon returns — which vary greatly, regardless of whether it’s a cold or warm year.
Close to 54 million sockeye are projected to run in Bristol Bay in 2015 – which is the largest forecast in 20 years.
A recent study about Alaska non-profits confirms what many in the field know: that federal grant money has been drying up over the past couple of years. On the other hand, it shows that non-profits are developing new revenue streams, and counting on personal giving, particularly in rural areas.
Andrew Cutting is Director of Non-profit Research and Partnerships at the Anchorage-based Foraker Group, which offers training and assistance to Alaska non-profits. He says their study shows that Alaskan are generous.
“Alaskans are very giving. I mean some of these statistics just point to the dollar amount but we know they’re giving in many ways. But this really gives us hard numbers about how Alaskans are giving in their communities and we see that in rural communities they’re giving at a much higher percentage than in urban areas,” said Cutting.
In 2010 Alaska non-profits received 3.3 billion dollars from the federal government. By 2013, that number had been cut by more than half to 1.5 billion, and it’s expected to continue to decline in the current economic climate.
The study shows that nonprofits are counting on earned revenue, which has grown substantially, and personal contributions to make up for the gap. Southwest Alaska residents stand out in their giving.
The Lower Kuskokwim’s giving ratio, based on itemized tax returns, is 3.5 percent compared to 2.7 percent in Anchorage. That’s above the national average of 3 percent.
“Bethel tends to be one of the outstanding ones. We always see blips in communities over time … but Bethel tends to be higher than average and higher than the state year after year, after year,” said Cutting.
Overall, the study says Alaska non-profits are adapting by finding new sources of earned revenue, such as selling goods and services, as federal and state grants are reduced. Cutting says non-profits will have to be nimble, adjusting their funding strategies and diversifying their funding sources over the next few years. He adds that the shift to local giving creates a new narrative for rural Alaska.
“The old story of the villages outside of the main hubs taking, taking, taking isn’t totally true in a lot of ways. Village communities are really taking care of themselves by donating at very high percentages,” said cutting.
Alaska has a lot of non-profits, about 5,700, which are providing a substantial number of jobs. Health and social services dominate the non-profit sector in the state and nationally. The national norm for non-profit employment is 10.6 percent. In Alaska it’s 12 percent. In rural Alaskan communities that percentage tends to be even higher – for example in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta where the non-profit sector accounts for half of the workforce, including many through the region’s largest employer, the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation.
Here is a link to the study.
More than 200 business leaders, researchers and policy-makers gather in Juneau this week for the 2015 Innovation Summit.
The two-day event is a time to listen, discuss and brainstorm about Southeast Alaska’s economic future.
Brian Holst, the executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council and the summit’s organizer, says speakers and participants will focus on new ways of doing business.
“These are entrepreneurs and university people and people involved in the business world or supporting business that have experienced innovation in their professional work,” Holst said.
The Innovation Summit runs Wednesday and Thursday at Juneau’s Centennial Hall. There is a registration fee.
A Ketchikan man has been missing for nearly a month, with no evidence that he left the island.
Roy Banhart was last seen on Dec. 29. He had called for a taxi to take him downtown, and spent some time at the 49er Bar on Water Street. He left the bar, and was going to take a taxi home, apparently. But, witnesses told his family that Roy was intoxicated and belligerent, so the cab driver made him get back out.
That’s the last reported sighting of 38-year-old Roy Banhart. And his family is anxious.
“He’s on the quiet side. He’s been known to disappear as far as contact for a short period of time, but nothing like this,” said Banhart’s first cousin, Irene Anderson. She lives in Seattle but is heading up the search efforts for the family.
Anderson said that in early January, they reported her cousin missing to Ketchikan’s police department.
“(Police) have searched Alaska Airlines records, and Alaska Marine Highway records, and I’ve been in contact with local air taxis and InterIsland Ferry,” she said. “There’s no indication that he left town.”
Ketchikan is on an island, and there’s no way off except by boat or plane. The remaining explanations for what might have happened to Banhart are not good.
“I’m hearing that the last time he was seen by two different friends on two different occasions, he was not in a good frame of mind, and was intoxicated,” Anderson said. “So, the concern is that he’s in the water.”
Anderson said it’s possible that her cousin may have committed suicide, but it’s also possible that he was murdered. She said she received information from someone who wants to remain anonymous.
“A party overheard a man down at Thomas Basin Dec. 29, referring to Roy. The conversation with another party indicated that this person was involved in some kind of harm to Roy, and indicated that there were gunshots fired,” she said.
Police, though, say there’s no evidence of foul play. Deputy Chief Josh Dossett offered a third possibility: that Banhart slipped and fell into the water. It’s happened before to other people.
“We’ve had plenty of cases where someone who is intoxicated has fallen in the water and drowned,” Dossett said. “At this point, we don’t have anything to indicate, other than he was in the proximity of Kennedy (Street near the 49er), to indicate that. We’re just following up on any leads that we get.”
Dossett said the case remains open, and one officer is assigned to it. Other officers have helped when tips have come in, and police have searched in numerous locations around town without any luck.
If Banhart did end up in the water, his body may or may not have resurfaced by now. Dossett said it depends on various factors.
“It depends on the current, it depends how deep it is. The water temperature has a lot of effect on the body,” he said. “We’ve had cases where people have not resurfaced for a few months.”
There are some local residents organizing searches for Banhart separate from the police investigation, and Anderson hopes others might be willing to join in.
“If people would look at like, what if this was my brother, my cousin, my best friends, my coworker,” she said. “We need that kind of coverage to help find him.”
Anderson said that, in addition to the waterfront, groups are looking around trails, especially Deer Mountain, one of her cousin’s favorite places to hike.
Anyone with information about Banhart is asked to contact the Ketchikan Police Department. For updates on search efforts, you can go to the Facebook page called Please Help Find Roy Banhart.
Yukon Quest mushers dropped off all the food and gear they’ll need for the 1000-mile sled dog race in both Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon over the weekend. Race Manager Alex Olesen says the race becomes more of a reality once all that gear has been delivered.
“I mean we’re not ready, we’re never all the way be ready,” he said. “There’s always going to be things that come, there’s things that will break, there’s things that will change, but now it’s on!” said Olesen.
On Saturday, at least 15 volunteers heft bags filled with everything from wool socks to chunks of frozen fish and meat from the back of a pick up truck.
Long before these polypropylene bags were dropped off in Fairbanks, mushers like Cody Strathe had them laid out and labeled waiting to be filled in the driveway at Squid Acres Kennel – home of the sled dogs both he and wife Paige Drobny train for mid-distance and long-distance races like the Yukon Quest.
“I think last year, I had probably 40 total bags for the Yukon Quest,” he said. “Right now, I’ve made a spread sheet that tells how many snacks and how many meals I need at each checkpoint.”
A week ago, Strathe stood over a wooden table in front of his house, with a knife in his hand. A strong, musty stench hung in the air.
“Ok, well, I’ve got a couple beaver carcasses laid out her eon the table and I am cutting the meat off,” said Strathe. “The meat is one of the dogs’ favorite snacks on the race. For some reason this stinky gross beaver met is just absolutely one of their favorites.”
A few feet away, there’s a different kind of smell. Friend Matt Cameron mans a giant saw to slice up a long, frozen block of something green and lumpy. It’s frozen tripe, or cow stomach.
“Yeah, it smells pretty bad, butt he dogs love it!” Cameron laughed.
The tripe, the beaver meat and all kinds of other dog food are packed into the drop bags. But these bags aren’t just filled with food.
There’s also a flurry of activity inside Cody Strathe’s house.
Fellow musher and friend Mandy Nauman sits on the living room flood amid a heap of handwarmers.
“Any help is much needed and I’m here to help,” she said.
She drove a team in the Yukon Quest last year, so she’s familiar with the scenario playing out today.
“At some point during the race, the musher is going to appreciate all the work that all their friends put in,” said Nauman.
Over at the kitchen counter, a pot of caribou stew bubbles as long-time friend Matt Austin scoops teaspoons of red powder into small plastic bags. After he’s done with that, he’ll organize other dog food supplements, additives, oils and ointments for sled dogs. It’s a tedious job, but that’s what he’s here for.
“It’s just fun to be a part of the whole scene and help good people out,” said Austin. “It’s awesome to be able to give a hand and hang out friends and drink some beer and have some food and just be social.”
Not every musher throws a drop-bag party like this to prepare meals, sort dog booties and double check packing lists.
Rookie Kristin Knight-Pace of Healy says she and husband Andrew were huddled in their one room cabin with all her gear spread out the night before she was set to deliver her bags to race personnel.
“This is the biggest relief ever. This is like the hardest hurdle,” she laughed.
She says keeping track off all her gear and everything for her dog team is an enormous challenge.
“This is my first 1000 mile race, so it’s the fist time I’ve ever had to pack for this long of a trip,” said Knight-Pace.
“I’ve been thinking about it like all those people that through-hike the PCT. They mail all their stuff to themselves ahead of time at all these post offices along the trail and that’s how I feel this is,” she said. “It’s a relief to know that it’s juts going off into the world and what’s done is done.”
Over the next two weeks, drop bags will be shipped to checkpoints along the 1000 mile trail. They’ll be ready and waiting for mushers after they leave the start line of the 32nd annual Yukon Quest February 7th.
Alaska’s governor and congressional delegation are furious over President Obama’s announcement this weekend that he’s seeking wilderness status for the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That would put the area off-limits to oil and gas development. Permanent wilderness designation would require congressional approval, and this Republican-led Congress is unlikely to grant it. But that’s just the start of what Obama has in store for the state in the coming days.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, flanked by Congressman Don Young and Sen. Dan Sullivan, faced national reporters at the U.S. Capitol, projecting ferocity.
“We have said as a delegation that we will not stand it. We will not tolerate (it), and we will do everything that we can to push back against an administration that has taken a look at Alaska and said ‘it’s a nice little snow globe up there and we’re going to keep it that way,’” she said.
Murkowski says wilderness status for ANWR is just one of three gut punches the Interior Department plans deliver this week to Alaska’s economy. She says Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s chief of staff, Tommy Beaudreau, told her about them Friday. Punch two will be withdrawals from the Arctic off-shore leasing program. That five-year draft plan is expected as soon as tomorrow. Punch 3, Murkowski says, will be to the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, where ConocoPhillips needs a road to develop its Greater Moose’s Tooth project. Murkowski says the government intends to impose conditions that will add $40 million to the cost.
“If it’s not off-limits, (the administration is) going to make it so hard and so expensive that no operator is going to want to do it,” Murkowski said. “Is this how you treat a state?”
Murkowski says she intends to try to block the actions legislatively and through the budget — a meaningful statement since she chairs the subcommittee charged with writing the Interior Department’s spending bill. She’s written a “sense of Congress” statement on the Arctic, as an amendment to the Keystone pipeline bill. She mentioned a possible lawsuit. She also says the congressional delegation will work to educate the rest of the country on how much care Alaska’s industry takes to avoid harming the land or animals.
Rep. Young told reporters the industry does no harm to Arctic wildlife.
“I mean that’s the nonsense. The guy in New York, Miami, Philadelphia San Francisco. ‘Oh, we’ve got to save the poor little animals,’” Young said in falsetto, hands aflutter. “It doesn’t affect them! Never has. It’s all a myth, easily sold to the less knowledgeable people.”
Once the administration formally requests wilderness status, it intends to manage those parts of ANWR as wilderness. Environmentalists who support the plan say it won’t make a big difference on the ground, because industry isn’t allowed there now anyway. The government says in its plan it intends to keep subsistence access the same. Murkowski says she believes Obama’s wilderness request is just a prelude.
“Lisa’s theory: I think that they are advancing this in an effort to get environmental support, to raise money for the cause,” she said.
As she sees it, Obama is trying to drum up support from his base so that he can then declare ANWR a national monument, an executive action to lock up the area. Murkowski says that would violate the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which says Congressional approval is required to reclassify large tracts of land.
“But if he’s got public support on his side, he doesn’t care if he’s ignored the law (ANILCA),” she said. So I think he’s teeing himself up for future action.”
While Obama’s move has Alaska officials fuming, environmentalists are thanking him. Cindy Shogan of the Alaska Wilderness League says it’ll still be tough to get a wilderness bill through Congress but she says Obama’s commitment to the issue helps.
Two Sand Point men are facing federal charges after allegedly breaking into the town’s post office in late December.
Sheldon Shuravloff, 21, and Keith Lee Wilson, Jr., 18, were indicted Thursday on charges of burglary with intent to commit larceny, and conspiracy to commit burglary.
An unnamed 17-year-old is also facing juvenile charges in connection with the alleged break-in. The state is handling that part of the case.
Sand Point Police Chief John Lucking wouldn’t say what was damaged in the incident, which happened on Dec. 28. The post office’s outer door was unlocked at the time, Lucking says, to allow after-hours access to mailboxes.
“We responded to the report of a burglary there… and found damage and secured the scene, and cooperated with the federal authorities who came in to conduct their own investigation, which we supported,” Lucking says.
He says all three defendants are lifelong residents of Sand Point, which is home to about a thousand people. Though the case has been turned over to federal investigators, Lucking says locals are still paying close attention.
“The community is adamant — they’re expecting accountability here. And I think everybody feels like it was a personal violation,” Lucking says. “It’s everyone’s post office, and people were locked out of their mail for a week, and processes have changed and doors have become locked now. And it shouldn’t have to be that way in Sand Point, Alaska.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Courter says that’s a consideration as the case moves forward.
“It’s pretty well known that in our small communities, the post office is a center of community life,” Courter says. “It’s important for every member of the community, not just the people involved in a particular break-in or incident.”
Shuravloff and Wilson could face up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine for each charge. Courter says the value of the damage done to the post office could affect any possible sentence.
President Obama is proposing the largest ever wilderness designation in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which would forever put the coastal plain off-limits to oil and gas development.
The White House announced the plan with a YouTube video showing Arctic footage with the president explaining the area’s importance to polar bear, caribou and migrating birds.
“But it’s very fragile,” Obama said. “That’s why I’m very proud my department of Interior has put forward a comprehensive plan to make sure we’re protecting the refuge and that we’re designating new areas, including coastal plains for preservation.”
Alaska’s top elected officials were united in their displeasure with the weekend announcement. ANWR’s coastal plain is coveted by the state and oil industry for its vast resource development potential. Gov. Bill Walker and the state’s congressional delegation issued a joint statement describing the president’s move as a war on Alaska’s future. Walker says it undermines the promises of the statehood compact.
“The plan was we had to live off of our resources and then over time, they’ve taken away a 100 million acres at a time, it doesn’t take long before we’re down to trying to make a living off a small piece of ground,” Walker said. “I’m sorry if I sound frustrated today, but I am. I’m very frustrated. I mean, it’s not a shot across the bow, it’s a little more serious than that.”
Permanent wilderness designation for the coastal plain would require an act of Congress. The environmental lobby has been pressing for that for decades, without success. The likelihood of such a bill passing in this Republican-led Congress is virtually nil. But Sen. Lisa Murkowski isn’t taking the announcement lightly. In a written statement, she says her days of trying to work with the administration are over and she intends to hit back with everything she can. Murkowski chairs the Senate committee that oversees the Interior Department. She also chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that writes its budget.
This week, we’re heading to Lower Kalskag – a community of about 250 people on the Kuskokwim River. Janet Evan is the city clerk in Lower Kalskag.
Republican Senator Lesil McGuire of Anchorage has introduced the first large-scale bill regulating marijuana like alcohol in Alaska. The measure includes fine points that lawmakers, police, and the public need to adapt November’s Ballot Measure 2 into a legal framework.
Senate Bill 30 lays out a new, more specific definition of marijuana that includes derivatives like hash oil, as well as byproducts like hemp. McGuire says the bill is the first of three that will come out of the Judiciary committee.
“It decriminalizes marijuana in the case of 21-year-old Alaskan adults using marijuana for recreational and medicinal uses,” McGuire said, for, “up to one ounce.”
The legal defense for transport of marijuana is defined, as well, something the 1975 Ravin decision did not cover even after sanctioning personal use.
McGuire’s bill comes as government bodies across the state are mobilizing on measures to create boundaries for legal marijuana use that will be clear to both the public and police. Under SB-30, for example, you cannot drive with “an open marijuana container,” which is further defined as everything from paraphernalia to a broken seal on packaging. Similarly, there is a mechanism for ticketing open consumption—something the city of Anchorage is currently considering.
Myron Fanning is deputy chief for the Anchorage Police Department, and said a big concern in implementing the new laws is squaring local rules with those being drafted by the Legislature.
“One of the big challenges is telling my officers what they can and can’t do,” he explained. Fanning was part of a delegation the city of Anchorage sent to Colorado for a recent conference on what has been learned a year in to its legalization.
Deputy Clerk Amanda Moser also attended, and thought the conference helped officials learn about different strategies to address many of the unanticipated issues arising from legalization.
“One of my main take-aways from the conference was we don’t have to re-invent the wheel here in the municipality of Anchorage,” Moser said after the delegates presented to an Assembly committee looking into commercialization. “We can take what Colorado has done over the last year, what’s been successful, what hasn’t been successful, and use that as we begin to write our regulations.”
SB-30 will be introduced to a joint hearing between the Senate and House Judiciary committees on Monday.
In 2014, Alaska’s Air National Guard rescued more than 90 people. They picked up individuals from downed aircrafts, snow machines that fell through ice, and lost hikers in the wilderness.
The 49-person search and rescue squadrons are credited with saving over 2,000 lives in Alaska over the past 20 years. But they also deploy abroad providing rescue capabilities for the Air Force in Afghanistan, Iraq and even Djibouti in East Africa. Many of their skills are honed during training missions around the state. They let KSKA’s Anne Hillman tag along on one late last month.
My flight aboard a HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter starts like any flight anywhere — with a lecture on buckling my safety belt.
“Then you can adjust it with the straps and also on the end if you want to tighten it up, just pull this. Or loosen it. However you want.”
But my safety belt isn’t attached to a seat – I’m hooked to a ring bolted to the floor. The back of the helicopter is an open space where pararescuemen – called PJs – can move around to jump out different doors or pack the space with gear. Fifteen people can fit in the back, though it doesn’t allow much breathing room.
The pilots, engineers and PJs chat through headsets about their landing site, the weather conditions, and who saw their buddies perform.
Sunlight turns the distant Chugach Mountains pink and we fly low enough to the ground to see tufts of grass still poking through the season’s meager snow fall. Soon we fly into a bank of fog near Mount Susitna and the winds pick up dramatically. The helicopter circles around the proposed landing area then after some conversation we move on. The conditions aren’t suitable for what they need to practice – a PJ jumping tandem out of a Hercules C-130 aircraft, carrying another to the ground.
The helicopters soon choose a new location and drop us off with a stretcher and loads of gear. They take off again to practice mid-air refueling.
Combat Rescue Officer Aaron Hunter sets up the drop zone.
“I’m just going to mix this in underneath,” he says, testing the wind and laying out rectangles of orange material showing the wind direction.
He radios to the Hercules that’s headed toward the drop zone carrying five more PJs and tells them the altimeter settings for the new location.
“King Bruin….. the setting is 9-4-2,” he said.
Hunter joined the National Guard straight out of college. He says he had never even heard of it until a month before signing up, but he says it suits him.
“I’ve been in the Guard seven years now and every day has been not the same,” Hunter said. “And that really helps me out because I don’t really have ADD, but I feel like I have ADD a lot.”
He’s worked in Alaska and deployed to Afghanistan and Djibouti. Hunter’s completed hundreds of jumps.
“I don’t even really consider jumping super dangerous anymore,” Hunter said. “There are so many things built into that make it safe. There’s a better chance of me getting hurt on a ladder than I think there is jumping.”
Hunter explains that parachutes have built-in safety mechanisms. The ‘chutes will deploy even if the jumper is unconscious, though they wouldn’t have control over the landing. For Hunter, the joy of being in the guard isn’t the thrill of the jump, it’s helping people.
“So I’ve had a chance to work on several different plane crashes where the people were still alive and you have the ability to administer a little bit of care and then get them out of their bad situation and move them on to higher care,” he said. “No one else in the state would have been able to do anything.”
The National Guard is deployed when the State Troopers can’t reach an area because of equipment, personnel, or weather conditions. The Guard will send out the pilots and PJs. If the area can’t be reached by an aircraft, the PJs drop ATVs and snow machines out of the plane by parachute then use them to access the victims.
During this training mission, the heaviest equipment is a chainsaw brought along in case a PJ lands in a tree. After about a half an hour, the Hercules returns to the drop zone and hurls a streamer out the door. It shows the PJs the wind direction and helps them figure out where to jump.
“They’re gonna fly over where the streamers landed and they’re gonna count how many seconds it takes to get from the streamers to the target, then start the count again after they pass the target then jump out the same distance from streamer to target,” he said.
Hunter starts a bright pink smoke signal to give more pointers.
“It always changes. The situation on the ground is always different than what you think it’s going to be. No matter what it’s always different. And so, winds change. Might as well know the winds are changing,” Hunter said. “And it’s nice to have a physical indicator of that.”
Soon after the four jumpers drift slowly to the ground and land a minute walk away from the blazing orange arrow. Capt. John Romspert led the tandem jump. He says it’s a skill he mostly uses overseas for carrying specialists or translators into action.
“Normally I plan differently because the person I’m jumping has never jumped before,” Romspert said. “Some people have never even seen one of these planes I’m taking them out of. So not only do I have to fly for myself as we sky dive, I have to fly for them and be prepared for them to do everything their not supposed to do.”
The guardsmen pack up their parachutes and head to the waiting helicopter. This time, Hunter will jump. It’s his first time in about two months. He says he’s slightly anxious.
“I think scared and excited are the same thing sometimes,” Hunter said.
The helicopter takes off again. When the conditions are right, Hunter jumps without hesitation. Others practice hoisting in and out of the airplane on cables, disappearing into the mini blizzard created by the helicopter’s propellers. And soon the training mission is over. Ten of us pack into the back of the aircraft, perched on bags of gear and parachutes, and head back to Anchorage.
Back at JBER, Capt. Aaron Zamora prepares for the mission debriefing. He was Romspert’s passenger, though usually he jumps himself. He was in the Air Force before joining the Alaska Air National Guard.
“For 10 years we practiced with body armor and M4s and night vision goggles. Everything was related to war,” Zamora said. “I was getting a little tired of that, you know? A couple rounds of Iraq, a couple of rounds of Afghanistan. I was kind of over it.”
But Zamora says he wasn’t ready to leave the military, so he moved to Alaska and joined the Guard. Here, he only deploys every other year. His main focus is keeping civilians, Air Force, and aviators safe in the state. He says the role is less stressful but still has its own challenges.
“It’s a little unique here,” Zamora said. “You never know what you’re going to get into, whether it be on a glacier, on a river, or out in the ocean or some sort of rope system you have to set up on the side of cliff to get someone out of their plane.”
Zamora says it’s nice not to have to think about guns or other aircraft, just the environment around you and how to save someone’s life.
McGuire Introduces Bill To Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol
Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage
Republican Senator Lesil McGuire of Anchorage has introduced the first large-scale bill regulating marijuana like alcohol in Alaska. The measure includes fine points that lawmakers, police, and the public need to adapt November’s Ballot Measure 2 into a legal framework.
Anchorage Assembly Addresses Potential Army Downsizing
Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage
A pending military draw down could take more than 11,000 troops off of bases in Alaska.
Walker Names Transportation Commissioner
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
There’s a new boss at the state agency overseeing, roads, airports and ferries. Gov. Bill Walker on Friday named Marc Luiken as his commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
Walker Outlines Plans For Budget Cuts
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
With Alaska facing a multi-billion-dollar shortfall, Gov. Bill Walker is proposing 5 percent cuts to agency funding. He described his fiscal plan in his State of the Budget address on Thursday night – a speech that hasn’t been given since 2006.
Murkowski, Sullivan Agree Climate is Changing but Split on Naming Cause
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC
The U.S. Senate spent the week voting on a raft of amendments to the Keystone XL pipeline bill. Democrats took the opportunity to force votes on climate change.
XS Platinum Agent Doesn’t Appear at Arraignment
Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel
An arraignment was held Wednesday in federal court in Anchorage for the five XS Platinum Inc corporate officials indicted on charges of violating the Clean Water Act and making false statements to federal officials.
ARCTREX Tests Arctic Oil Spill Tracking Techniques
Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage
Offshore oil and gas exploration has become increasingly prominent over the past several years. But questions remain about how effective response efforts would be if there’s an oil spill. Last summer, scientists began tackling one piece of the puzzle – tracking how spilled oil would move and spread in the Arctic Ocean.
AK: Rescue Training
Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage
In 2014, Alaska’s Air National Guard rescued more than 90 people. They picked up individuals from downed aircrafts, snow machines that fell through ice, and lost hikers in the wilderness. The search and rescue squadrons also deploy abroad providing rescue capabilities for the Air Force in Afghanistan, Iraq and even Djibouti in East Africa. Many of their skills are honed during training missions around the state.
300 Villages: Lower Kalskag
This week, we’re heading to Lower Kalskag – a community of about 250 people on the Kuskokwim River. Janet Evan is the city clerk in Lower Kalskag.
A biologist from the U.S. Geological Survey has been appointed to lead the state’s Habitat division.
Tony DeGange is currently the chief of the ecosystem and geography offices at the Alaska Science Center. DeGange says he was recruited by Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten about the job, and that he supports the division’s conservation mission.
“As more and more people live on the earth and there’s a lot more development, we have a responsibility to take care of our natural resources, and when we do development to try to do it in a way that minimizes impacts to fish and wildlife,” says DeGange.
DeGange has worked for USGS for more than 30 years, and has previously collaborated with Fish and Game on salmon habitat projects. He has also represented the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
DeGange takes over the position at a time when the division is reconsidering its habitat management process. Management plans for the state’s sanctuaries and reserves — like the McNeil River bear refuge and Minto Flats — were being rewritten under the previous director, Randy Bates. The policies were targeted by a petition campaign that described the changes as a “rollback,” and Bates was removed from the position earlier this January.
The process is currently on hold. DeGange says he will now have to figure out what to do with those plans.
“The criticisms were that the state wasn’t following a highly transparent and public process,” says DeGange. “One of the first things that Sam Cotten has charged me with is coming up with a recommendation on how to move forward.”
DeGange says those recommendations will likely come next month.
There’s a new boss at the state agency overseeing, roads, airports and ferries.
Gov. Bill Walker on Friday named Marc Luiken as his commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
Luiken served in the same post from 2010 to 2012 under Gov. Sean Parnell. He’s a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who also worked on oil production with ConocoPhillips.
Walker says he liked Luiken’s approach the last time he was commissioner.
“He has somewhat of a shared vision I have, as far as what can be done in the Department of Transportation,” Walker said. “I think there’s some more efficiencies we can do, do things differently than they’ve been done over the past.”
Walker removed acting Commissioner Pat Kemp, a Parnell administration holdover, from the post January 12th.
Kemp and two other officials were told to resign after they released a report Walker said criticized his freeze of transportation megaprojects, including the Juneau Access Road.
Kemp said it was an informational report, not a challenge.
Offshore oil and gas exploration has become increasingly prominent over the past several years. But, questions remain about how effective response efforts would be if there’s an oil spill. Last fall, scientists began tackling one piece of the puzzle — tracking how spilled oil would move and spread in the Arctic Ocean.
The Arctic Tracer Release Experiment – or ARCTREX – is a step toward understanding how oil – or other contaminants – would spread in the ocean.
The team couldn’t release oil into the water, so they used a red-colored dye instead.
“It’s a non-toxic, kind of like a food dye that you use for cupcakes,” Peter Winsor, an associate professor of oceanography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said.
He says the goal of the experiment wasn’t necessarily to mimic crude oil, but instead to better understand how the ocean could disperse any number of substances underwater.
“The dye will disperse by the ocean currents and we think that the dye is a good representative of something we can map over time to really learn how to map something that is spilled into ocean in great detail,” Winsor said. “It’s not a perfect representation of crude oil; it might be a fairly good representation of crude oil that has subject to dispersants.”
The team released dye on the surface of the ocean in two different locations in September, when the edge of the Arctic sea ice is still far to the north. The first batch of dye was deployed at the Berger lease patch, about 60 miles off Alaska’s northwest coast in the Chukchi Sea. Winsor says this release proved the crew could successfully track the dye and relay the data in near-real time to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration – where it could be mapped online.
“That particular dye release was very exciting because it stayed in the upper ocean – the top 50 meters,” Winsor said. “It never spread any deeper, and fairly rapidly was stretched, strained and deformed over time as we mapped it back and forth with our research vessel and some of our autonomous underwater robots.”
The crew tracked the dye for about four days before moving onto the next location, a little closer to Wainwright. The second release was much closer to the coast and near a large front — where there’s a big difference in temperature and salinity across a very short distance…and Winsor says the dye there tracked much differently.
“In this case, the dye left the surface of the ocean within 1 hour and 40 minutes and basically started to sink and follow that water mass down through the water column towards the sea floor,” Winsor said. “So, that was interesting from an oil spill management perspective, because after 1 hours and 40 minutes, you wouldn’t see a trace of it anymore at the sea surface.”
“So, if you do an overflight with an airplane or an autonomous flying vehicle, you wouldn’t be able to see it anymore.”
The team used three methods to track the dye: a pump system on the ship to get measurements at the surface; a small vehicle towed behind the ship to gather data further below; and with autonomous underwater vehicles, which are about 5 feet long and weigh 110 pounds. Winsor describes them as large, yellow bananas with wings – and they use an unconventional propulsion method.
“They suck in a little bit of seawater, which means they get heavy compared to the surrounding water and sink slowly through the water column. But, because of the wings they translate that to forward moving…or propelling themselves forward,” Winsor said. “So, they slowly glide from the sea surface to the sea floor, and then they pump out the same amount of water, and now they’re slowly drifting up to surface and the wings propel them forwards.”
“We’re able to run them for several weeks to several months on just a single load of batteries.”
Winsor says that efficiency coupled with the ability to program them via satellite means they could prove to be a valuable tool in tracking spills, even without a support vessel in the area.
Though this is a good first step, Winsor says the data is specific to this type of area and wouldn’t be a good representation of a place with deeper water like the Gulf of Mexico.
“This is a very different ocean; it’s 40-50 meters deep – only a shallow Arctic shelf sea that’s very dominated by wind and hydrographic properties and water coming up through the Bering Strait,” he said.
Winsor says he plans to take a team out to the same areas next year and release dye at the bottom of the sea to simulate what could happen if an Arctic oil well blows out.