Sen. Mark Begich chastised state lawmakers for their approach to education during his annual legislative address.
He highlighted staffing cuts in Anchorage and Juneau as evidence that the Legislature was not allocating enough money to schools.
“I’ll be blunt. I don’t agree with what’s happened in this building on education funding in recent years,” Begich told the Legislature. “It’s like you’ve built a fire in the woodstove but refused to add enough wood. Now some are complaining the stove doesn’t work and we need a brand-new heating system.”
Begich later told reporters that he thought Gov. Sean Parnell’s funding proposal did not go far enough. Parnell has suggested raising the base student allocation, or the amount of money a school gets for each child enrolled, by $85 this year. Smaller increases would be built in for two years after that.
Begich also came out against a measure that would allow state funds to be used at private schools.
“I believe strongly we should never amend the Alaska Constitution as a fix for education,” said Begich. “Public dollars are for public schools, period.”
The line got applause from Democrats and from some moderate Republicans in the Legislature.
The measure was introduced last year by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Mat-Su Republican. It needs approval from two-thirds of the Legislature before it can be put on the ballot for a majority vote of the people.
“[I’m] somewhat perplexed as to why the senator feels his attention should be spent on internal state issues, as opposed to focusing on national issues,” said Dunleavy in an interview.
Following his address, Begich noted that while his son currently attends private school, he think it would be inappropriate for government to cover his tuition.
Kikkan Randall is back on top. Following disappointing races at the Sochi Olympics, Randall of Anchorage, won a World Cup sprint race in Finland over the weekend.
Teammate Sophie Caldwell’s placed 3rd. The U.S. Ski Team says it’s the first ever double podium finish for the women’s team, and the first time in the modern era that a woman, other than Randall, finished on the podium in an individual race. Saturday’s victory put Randall back on top of the women’s World Cup sprint standings, as she tries to hold onto the title she’s held for the last two years.
This weekend’s World Cup races in Lahti Finland were also the European tour debut for U.S. skier Reese Hanneman of Fairbanks. Hanneman, who earned World Cup starts by skiing to top finishes at January’s U.S. National Championships, placed 73rd in Sunday’s 15 kilometer race.
The State of Alaska will sue over contamination from the Flint Hills North Pole Refinery. Historic sulfolane spills have resulted in the industrial solvent migrating through ground water.
Friday’s announcement by the EPA to seek a 404-C designation for the proposed Pebble Mine has drawn praise and outrage.
Alaska Governor Sean Parnell calls the EPA decision a preemptive veto.
Kelly Maixner is the first musher into Rohn, checking in at 11:26 Tuesday morning.
He took the lead from fellow Big Lake musher Martin Buser at Rainy Pass earlier Tuesday.
Buser, Nicolas Petit, Michael Williams Jr., Paul Gebhardt and Hugh Neff are all currently between Rainy Pass and Rohn.
The remainder of the top-15 have all made it to Rainy Pass.
Teams are making their way into Rainy Pass as they head trough the Alaska Range. It’s arguably the toughest stretch of trail.
Many say they’re ready for the challenge, including a contingent of Norwegians who are in Alaska to find out how their dog teams fare on this side of the world.
The Iditarod has been called the Super Bowl of mushing. That’s how Yvonne Dabakk describes her run to Nome.
“It’s a musher’s paradise! You’ve got to check it out,” Dabakk said. “We were here in 2001 and we were at the ceremonial start and we were like ‘this is kind of cool, maybe we should run this one day,’ so we went home and we bred dogs and we came.”
Dabakk was surprised to find out she’s not the only Norwegian driving a team in this year’s Iditarod.
“You know they’re all just following after us. We had planned this for a while. Suddenly we hear Robert [Sorlie] is going to come back and then Ralph [Johannessen] was like ‘I’m going to go over,’ and then we heard our friend Tommy [Jordbrudal] was going to stay here for 10 months and that’s cool!” Dabakk said.
Of the five Norwegian teams, at least two may prove very competitive, including last year’s Rookie of the Year, Joar Lleifseth Ulsom.
“It’s a good team and they’ve all done a thousand mile race now and lots of other races so they have a lot of experience, so they know what to do and they know how to rest and don’t get too excited about things so I think if things fall together we can have a good run,” he said.
Ulsom is not much for words. He’s tall, shy and quiet, which might be to his advantage as he tries to navigate his way past two-time champion Robert Sorlie.
“To win the Iditarod is not easy,” he said. “You have to have no accidents. Everything has to go fine all the way.”
Sorlie says he doesn’t start a race if he doesn’t intend to win. It’s different for Tommy Jorbrudal though. He brought seven dogs from Norway simply so they could get to know the trail.
“You just can’t do enough travelling with your dogs and because it’s such a good atmosphere and the distance that we’re going to do, it’s just all aspects of it are just totally fascinating,” Sorlie said.
Much like his Norwegian compatriots, he plans to return to the race again for a more competitive effort after he gets a rookie run under his belt.
Alaska Fish and Game officials killed an Eastern Interior wolf pack last week, and the National Park Service – which had been studying the animals – is none too pleased.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that all 11 wolves in the Lost Creek pack near Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve were shot. That included the pack’s alpha pair, which had been fitted with tracking collars as part of an ongoing research project.
Doug Vincent-Lang, acting director for the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation, says the wolves were in an area adjacent to the preserve that has been targeted by the state for aerial predator control, which is part of an effort to boost moose and caribou numbers.
But Yukon-Charley Superintendent Greg Dudgeon said the shootings are a setback for a long-term study of wolf behavior that began roughly 20 years ago. He said the Lost Creek pack had been monitored for the past seven years.
Martin Buser took an early lead in this year’s Iditarod. The past champion was the first into Rainy Pass about 5:42 Monday morning. Nicolas Petit was into Rainy Pass about an hour later.
Those two leaders were followed by Kelly Maixner, Mike Williams, Jr. and last year’s runner-up, Aliy Zirkle. All three were out of Finger Lake early Monday. Last year’s champion, Mitch Seavey, was racing in 16th places and into Finger Lake about 5:27 this morning.
Buser of Big Lake last won the Iditarod in 2002 when he finished the race with the fastest time on record – 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes and 2 seconds. Last year, Buser bolted to the front early only to lose in closing days.
Updated: Monday, 3/3/14 at 12:31am
Martin Buser leads the pack as he approaches the Finger Lake checkpoint.
Buser holds a few mile lead over fellow Big Lake musher, Kelly Maixner.
Hugh Neff, Nicolas Petit and Allen Moore round out the top-five.
Last year’s runner-up, Aliy Zirkle, ranks 11th so far, clocking into the Skwentna checkpoint at 9:09pm Sunday.
The 2013 Iditarod Champion, Mitch Seavey is currently near the middle of the pack in 32nd place.
The 42nd annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race is underway. Dog teams left Willow Sunday. They’re making their way toward the Alaska Range, where the trail is reportedly extremely rough.
Even the most experienced veterans have concerns about what they might find on their way through the mountains.
Many mushers have their sights set on the checkpoint in Nikolai, including four-time champion, Jeff King.
“If you wipe out your sled or a key dog or sprain your leg, it’s going to happen today or tomorrow,” King said.
Nikolai is the sixth stop along the trail, more than 260 miles from the start line. King says the vast majority of logistical challenges in the Iditarod occur before teams get there.
“Our teams have the most excessive energy they’re going to have the entire way, the teams sizes are largest and it is by far the most challenging piece of trail,” he said.
A YouTube video of the trail outside Rainy Pass shows bare ground, rerouted in spots through the Dalzell Gorge. There are also reports of weak ice on the Rohn River. It’s a trail report Martin Buser is concerned about.
“One slip and it can bring a race to an end or it can really create more challenges,” Buser said.
He’s has run the race 30 times. He’s also a four-time champion with 18 top-ten finishes. He built himself a new sled to handle conditions this year.
Buser: “It’s just a virtually indestructible runner system that’ve built, that I don’t think anybody has in the race, so I know at least my runners are not going to break.”
Schwing: “What did you make them out of?”
Buser: “They’re a high density plastic.”
Buser took the lead early in last year’s race, only to come up short by the time he reached Kaltag. His run-rest schedule was experimental. He was also running a team of young, inexperienced dogs. That team is back, a year older with lots more miles on their legs after a successful mid-distance racing season.
“It is what it is,” he said. “I tried last year and I’ll try maybe even a crazier move this year, but I think the dogs are ready to keep up with an unorthodox schedule.”
Buser’s pale blue eyes twinkle. He doesn’t elaborate. But that kind of cunning doesn’t scare other returning champions like Kotzebue’s John Baker.
“We should expect to see the strongest team that I’ve ever brought to the race,” he said.
Baker says he’s ready to face much of the same competition he has for the last 18 years.
“The same people are here except for Robert Sorlie is back and that will certainly add some flavor to the race for sure,” Baker said.
Robert Sorlie brought 16 dogs from Norway to try for a third Iditarod championship after a seven-year hiatus.
“Oh, I’m very tough,” Sorlie said. “I have been doing dog races for 25 years now in the top all the time. I’ve always been in the top three in mostly every race, so I know what you have to do when you are out there. But of course you have to the team. If you don’t have the team, you cannot do good races.”
Aliy Zirkle believes she has the team Sorlie is talking about. Her petite sled dogs are coming off two years of back-to-back Yukon Quest-Iditarod runs, with two consecutive Quest wins and two Iditarod second place finishes. Zirkle is the favorite in this year’s Iditarod, but that doesn’t worry her.
“I’m going to worry about what’s really kind of critical which will be trail issues, and dog issues and musher issues and that kind of thing, but we’ll just keep figuring it out as we go,” Zirkle said. “That’s what I like about this race. You just keep making decision as you make your way down the trail and hopefully you make the right ones.”
Worry or not, mushers will have to face whatever the trail throws at them as they cross over the Alaska Range. After that, they still might face warm temperatures and there’s plenty of reported glare ice and hard-packed trail as they make their way for Nome.
The 42nd Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race gets underway in Willow, Alaska Sunday.
On Saturday, mushers lined out their dog teams in downtown Anchorage for the Ceremonial Start of the race.
This year’s race includes six former champions and at least 20 mushers vying for a top-10 finish.
New Zealander Curt Perano, otherwise known as the Kiwi Musher, took off first from the ceremonial start line in downtown Anchorage. He was followed by 68 others. Some are running the race for the experience. Others, like Aliy Zirkle are long-time veterans looking for a win. The Two Rivers musher spent most of Saturday morning shaking hands and posing for photos with fans like Florida tourist Syvilla Morse. “I have run before once or twice…OK, 13 times,” she joked when Morse asked Zirkle if she’d run the race before.
“Have you won?” was the next question. “Actually no, I haven’t quite won yet, but thank you for asking,” Zirkle responded.
Zirkle is running the team that led husband, Allen Moore to a second consecutive Yukon Quest Championship this year. She’s finished the last two Iditarods in second place behind a Seavey. In 2012, she was beat by Dallas Seavey. Last year, his father Mitch managed to stay ahead for the win.
He says he’s running one of his best teams for this his 21st Iditarod.
“Sometimes we start with dogs that we think are sound,” Seavey said. “But when you get out there a couple days, maybe that old injury flares up again. Any of those guys I’m just leaving home.”
This year’s field is deep. There are six returning champions and countless top-10 finishers among the 69 teams running. Ray Reddington, Junior has run the race 12 times and finished in the top-10 three times. He is well aware of what he’s facing.
“Every year, we say it’s the best field there is, but I think it’d be hard to compare any years to this one,” he said.
The race follows the northern route and he says there is one thing in particular he’s looking forward to.
“We’ll have some good food at Galena I hope. You know, we always do!” Reddington said.
But Galena is more than 500 miles down the trail. Before teams get there, they’ll face a guaranteed rough trail over the Alaska Range. There are reports of snow free rocks in the notorious Dalzell Gorge and open water near Rohn. Glare ice and hard-packed trail will also challenge sled dogs and mushers alike.
Polar Bears in the US were listed as threatened in May of 2008. In past years, the Alaska Zoo has provided a temporary home for nine orphaned polar bear cubs, in cooperation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It isn’t easy to raise a polar bear cub. Alaska Zoo director Pat Lampi ought to know.
”We’ ve had two within the last less than four years. So we feel it is important to be ready.”
Lampi says the Zoo needs more room for cubs.
“You can’t introduce a young cub with an adult for two to three years. And so we don’t have the facility, currently, to keep any more adults.”
Right now, The Zoo’s permanent polar bear exhibit has room enough for two adult residents. Ahpun came to the zoo as an orphan from the North Slope, Lyutik was born in captivity in Russia, then sent to an Australian zoo before ending up in Alaska.
It is hoped that the two bears will become more than roommates, and plans are to expand the polar bear enclosure to provide denning space for Ahpun, should she become pregnant
“If our female got pregnant, you’d need have to have some separation from her and the male. If we have to separate our bears for some reason, currently they’re either.. one can be inside and one can be outside. So this would give us the opportunity if we have to sep Ahpun and Looie, that we could move one of them over to this new area. They would have a separate denning area and some outdoor area and some small pools to acces. “
The Alaska Zoo’s ambitious expansion plan will be completed in two phases. Phase 1 will be a transition facility for orphan bear cubs, and Phase 2 will triple the size of the current permanent polar bear exhibit, including maternity dens.
Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service gave the Zoo a five year authorization to stand by as a rescue facility for North Slope polar bears. The Alaska Zoo is the only facility in the US to have such an agreement with the federal agency.
And with all eyes on a defrosting Arctic and the area’s new potential for development, there is bound to be more human – bear encounters. Lampi says polar bears are being forced into areas where there are more humans, and that means there will be more orphan cubs looking for a home. )
“Alaska is the only state that has polar bears native to its lands. If there should be a premiere exhibit on this species, it should be in Alaska. “
Eileen Floyd is the Zoo’s major gifts director. Floyd says the expansion plan has been under consideration for five years. The cost of the combined phases is about 8 million dollars, but the Zoo has most of the 1 point 4 million (dollars) needed to begin work on the orphan cub transition facility. Fundraising has begun on the 6 million (dollars) for Phase Two.
Lampi and Floyd say many zoos are not taking polar bear cubs now, because of recent rules set by the government of Manitoba
”Those standards are being adopted by zoos in the United States. That’s the new bar for everybody to reach. ” ” So if you are building a polar bear exhibit, you’re going to build to those standards. “
The Zoo’s expansion will be up to the Manitoba standards, with natural substrate in the the outdoor yard area where bears can dig to their heart’s content. Polar bears can live up to 40 years in captivity, and can breed well into their twenties. Breeding polar bears in captivity could help researchers understand the reasons for reproductive failures in declining wild populations
”It’s for the benefit of the wild population, and the captive population,” Lampi says.
The cub Kalli will someday provide wild population DNA for future breeding programs. Lampi says a polar bear raised in captivity would most likely spend it’s life in captivity. He says the future of the polar bear can’t be predicted during this time of change. But science can help:
”Keep and eye on the science, and what’s going on with the pack sea ice up there. They’re an amazing species, and it would be devastating to let them die off. “
The Alaska Zoo collaborates with the Cincinnati and Memphis Zoos on reproductive studies on polar bears. Other studies could show how much energy it costs a polar bear to swim, and one would even set protocols on how to wash polar bears in the event of an Arctic oil spill. Specially designed washing tables are already in place at Prudhoe Bay and at the Alaska Zoo.
Winterlake Lodge on Finger Lake is an official Iditarod Trail checkpoint, 153 miles down the trail from Anchorage.
The Dixon family owns and operates the lodge, hosting mushers, their dogs and paying guests alike.
Slavik Boyechko & Travis Gilmour
Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency announced today they are starting a formal process to look at using EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act to stop development of the proposed Pebble Mine.
The EPA’s announcement today was directly targeted at the Pebble Mine. The developers of that project are understandably not pleased with what they say is a gross overreach of federal authority which should be concerning to all Alaskans.
Mike Heatwole is vice president of public affairs at the Pebble Limited Partnership:
“The initiation of this 404 process is indeed unprecedented; it’s unprecedented federal action, and clearly has far ranging implications beyond Pebble,” Heatwole said.
To date, Pebble has spent more than half a billion dollars studying the environment and developing mining scenarios. They say they understand the importance of Bristol Bay salmon and don’t expect to get permitted if their mine can’t co-exist with the fish habitat. What they do expect is a chance to play by long established rules.
“The strength of the US system, and what attracts foreign investment is the ability to work your way through a very prescribed process. And that is not what has happened here,” Heatwole said. “This is well outside the established process, because we have not yet filed an application to develop the prospect at Pebble.”
Alaska Congressman Don Young says the EPA is setting a dangerous precedent that has nothing to do with Pebble Mine. In Young’s view, the federal government is stepping on the state’s authority over its own land to such an extent it threatens what it means to be a state at all.
“We could possibly lose utilization of any of our other state lands, wherever there was a watershed period, by some interest group saying, ‘No, this can’t be done,’ Young said. “And that goes for airports, schools, any type of activity on any of our state lands. That could occur.”
Likewise, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a written statement today that if the EPA action is allowed to stand, it’ll threaten development across Alaska, and anywhere in the nation.
Sen. Mark Begich is the only member of Alaska’s federal delegation who has come out against the mine. He said today he’ll be watching to make sure the agency doesn’t overreach, but Begich says the EPA is acting within its rights so far.
“My concern is going to be that they don’t have a broad sweep, and the way I understand this effort they’re doing is a very narrow focus on that Pebble Mine deposit and therefore not affecting any other mines in the region or any other type of development,” Begich said.
Begich says Pebble can continue to work on its permit applications. As he sees it, the EPA isn’t exercising a veto as much as it’s drawing up a list of requirements the mine will have to meet to discharge into wetlands.
The Alaska Native, sport and commercial fishing, and environmental groups who have led the charge against Pebble were cautiously optimistic following Friday’s long-awaited announcement.
Kim Williams is the executive director for an association of Bristol Bay tribes and village corporations known as Nunamta Aulukestai. She is among those who’ve specifically asked the EPA to issue 404c protections to block Pebble’s development out of concern that the state agencies would rubber stamp the project:
“It was our last hope. They need that one permit, to put the dredge and fill somewhere up in that mine area, and it will impact water,” Williams said. “That was our only recourse, to go to EPA.”
That today’s announcement didn’t close the book on Pebble wasn’t lost on the mine’s opposition. Robin Samuelson, one of the tribal leaders who signed the 2010 request asking the EPA to intervene, says they are ready and able to keep up the fight:
“We’ve been in this battle for fourteen years. If it lasts another twenty, I’ll be there,” Samuelson said. “And if I’m gone, my grandchildren will be there. We’ll never give up the fight.”
Legislation allowing a popular air-ambulance service’s membership program to resume coverage passed the state Senate on Friday.
Alaska officials last year decided the program did not meet state standards. It allowed existing AirCare subscribers to keep their memberships until they ran out. But new memberships and renewals were prohibited.
Sitka Republican Senator Bert Stedman sponsored the bill that passed unopposed today.
Senate Bill 159 does not name AirCare, but allows it and similar membership programs to operate in Alaska.
The measure now goes to the state House, where Juneau Republican Representative Cathy Munoz has authored a similar measure. House Bill 300 has had one hearing in its only committee of referral.
The AirCare program has about 3,200 members in Alaska. Most live in Southeast.
People from across Alaska and the Lower 48 assembled in Fairbanks today to bid final farewell to former Territorial Governor Mike Stepovich.
Stepovich died February 14th at the age of 94 in California. His body was returned to Fairbanks where he was buried today. Stepovich was born in Fairbanks and spent much of his life there raising 13 kids with his wife Matilda, while working as an attorney and politician. He’s being remembered as a pioneer and public servant who dedicated his life to Alaska.
After serving three terms in the Territorial Legislature,
Stepovich was named Alaska’s final territorial governor in 1957 by President Dwight Eisenhower.
In 1958, Stepovich resigned from the governor’s office to run for the U.S. Senate. He was defeated that year by Ernest Gruening, and by Bill Egan two years later.
In 1966, Stepovich ran for governor, but lost to fellow Republican Wally Hickel in the gubernatorial primary.
Stepovich is survived by all 13 of his children.
Your last chance to see the Eagle Tree, Science on a Sphere, the Tlingit house posts, and other permanent exhibits at the Alaska State Museum is Friday. The facility in downtown Juneau will be permanently closed to the public this weekend as staff continue boxing up artifacts for this summer’s big move.
The 24,000 square foot museum will be torn down to make way for a new 180,000 square foot facility that is now under construction on the same site.
The museum’s Bob Banghart said they’ll begin moving artifacts into the new vault in May. All of the permanent exhibits on the second floor of the Museum have already been packed up in wooden crates and metal cases, or covered and stacked on pallets. Salvaged animals and flora from wall dioramas along the ramp that spirals around the Eagle Tree have been set aside. Artifacts in the basement collection are being carefully packed up and prepared for the move.
That six weeks is our actual moving time. So, we have to have everything done in advance. Think of it like a play. You’ll spend months and months and months in rehearsal, development, and everything. The play only lasts like six weeks and then it’s done.”
The second floor of the existing facility is currently arranged as part storage area, part art salon with the display of notable pieces in the museum’s collection produced by Alaskan artists with familiar names like Boxley, Schoppert, Davis, Woodie, Baltuck, Craft, DeRoux, and Laurence.
Banghart said the original schedule for demolition of the current museum was pushed back several weeks after gusty winter winds played havoc with the new vault’s tent or a temporary, inflatable roof covering. They also have to wait for the paint, floors, and other interior materials to release manufacturing gasses before they can condition the air and begin safely moving any artifacts inside.
“The downstairs collection vault is enormous. It’s three times bigger than what we have currently,” Banghart said. “It’s going to be the finest collection facility north of Seattle anywhere.”
The physical structure of the building doesn’t encapsulate the spirit and necessity of collecting and preserving history. It’s just a place to do it. As time moves forward, the buildings need to change because they wear out. But the obligation doesn’t change. It still has to be there and it has to be preserved and collected in the best possible fashion.”
A Final Friday event will feature food, music, and a Five Decade timeline where patrons, artists, staff, and volunteers can add their memories to a new display along the museum’s spiral ramp. The event starts Friday, Feb. 28th at 5 p.m. and runs until 9 p.m.
Admission for the entire month of February is free.
Willow runner Dave Johnston has set a new foot record in the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational race. Dragging a sled over snow, ice and dirt trail, Johnston covered the distance in 4 days, 1 hour and 38 min. That’s over 87 miles per day. Johnston bested the old record set by Steve Reifenstuhl of Sitka in 2005, by more than 14 hours.