It will be a few months before butterflies flit through the air in Interior Alaska, but the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks was recently filled with them.
The museum is working to catalogue the second-largest collection of Arctic butterflies and moths in the world. It’s the largest private collection of its kind. Eventually most of the specimens will be passed on to the Smithsonian.
The faint scent of moth balls hangs in the air in a back hallway at the Museum of the North. In fact the smell was so strong a few weeks ago, some employees left work early. Halfway down the hall, there’s a small, locked lab.
“So, we’re in a small room packed, every surface and most of the floor space is covered with the drawers of Kenelm Philip’s butterfly collection,” Derek Sikes, the Curator of Insects at the Museum, said.
He usually works on arthropods – hard bodied bugs like beetles and spiders, but lately he’s found himself literally surrounded by stacks of wooden boxes filled with more delicate and graceful Lepidoptera, better known as moths and butterflies.
The specimens came from Kenelm Philip, one of the first scientists to start collecting butterflies and moths in the Far North back in the 1960’s.
“Almost nothing was known about butterflies in Alaska,” Sikes said. “Butterflies are a very high profile group. They’re like the birds of the insect world. So, imagine coming to Alaska and nobody knowing anything about the birds.”
But Kenelm Philip didn’t just catch butterflies. Sikes calls him a ‘scientific Renaissance Man.’
“In addition to loving classical music, he had his PhD from Yale in radio astronomy,” Sikes said. “He also published on fractals, he published on microscopes, so he was into the mechanics of microscopy and he also wrote a computer program, a mapping program.”
Philip passed away in March, leaving behind one of the largest collections of Arctic Lepidoptera in the world. He kept his specimens in a fire-proof lab he built next to a house filled with microscopes, old computers and piles of field notes, not to mention an endless supply of moth balls – an adventure for someone like Derek Sikes, who was charged with transporting the entire collection to the Museum.
“We were just sifting through piles and piles of papers and we would come across weird surprises, like underneath a pile of papers, there’s a jar of cyanide or a bullet, so it’s an interesting problem to work on,” he said.
There are at least 83,000 butterfly and moth specimens, but Sikes says they haven’t been counted since the 1980’s. “We don’t really know how many he added to the collection since then. So, there’s more than 83,000.”
The diverse array of Arctic butterflies and moths are joined by more exotic specimens from faraway places like Ethiopia and the Philippines. There are some specimens that haven’t been lined up and pinned under glass. But those that are, are nearly perfect. “You can see here, the arrangement of these drawers is artistic.” Sikes pulls out a drawer filled with rows of small, iridescent blue butterflies.
“These are blues, a delicate group of the smallest bodied butterflies,” he said, describing the insects inside. “Of course the blues have this very metallic and gorgeous color.”
Their heads and antennae are aligned perfectly. Their wings are spread wide. Underneath a glass cover, they float permanently over little squares of paper, covered in fine handwriting. Each tag notes where and when the butterfly was collected. Some come from Murphy Dome north of Fairbanks. Others come from Philip’s favorite spot on Eagle Summit, 120 miles away. There’s also a row from Inuvik in Canada’s Northwest Territory.
“He would align species by their color patterns and geographically so that if there was a change from a northern, to southern part of the range, you’d be able to detect it in the specimens.”
This collection holds answers about differences in geography and sex. A collection that spans as many years may also answer questions about the effects of climate change over time. Sikes says there is plenty that may come from the collection.
“I’m sure there’s treasures we have yet to uncover,” Sikes said.
Before he passed away, Kenelm Philip negotiated to transfer 90 percent of his collection to the Smithsonian Institution. The Museum of the North will house the rest. Sikes and colleagues will work through the summer to catalogue and photograph everything with funding assistance from the National Park Service and the National Science Foundation.
Facing the possibility of a total closure of the King salmon fishery this summer and new dip-net openings, people from the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta are speaking up on all sides of the issue.
Jeff King is the winner in this year’s Kobuk 440. King crossed the finish line at 12:12 am Sunday morning, followed by Tony Browning and Hugh Neff.
K440 board President Liz Moore says the trail conditions were generally good, although there was low or no snow in some areas and icy conditions caused some sleds to tip over when the wind picked up. She says there were 8 rookie teams this year.
“This year a lot of the rookies that came out are trying to get mileage to qualify for the Iditarod race,” Moore said. “A lot of those qualifying races earlier in the season were canceled due to lack of snow.”
The Kobuk440 is the final Iditarod qualifying race of the season.
The race course is completely off the road system.
Inmate Found Dead At Eagle River Women’s Jail
The Associated Press
A 24-year-old inmate at a women’s prison has been found dead in her cell.
The Alaska Bureau of Investigations Major Crimes Unit announced today that the inmate was found dead last Thursday in her cell at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River.
Correctional officers found Amanda Kernak unresponsive during a routine security check at 1:35 a.m.
Authorities say no foul play is suspected, and the State Medical Examiner’s Office took custody of the body.
A Department of Corrections spokeswoman says Alaska State Troopers are investigating Kernak’s death.
Legislature Passes Bill Limiting Medicaid Payments For Abortion
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
The Legislature has narrowly passed a bill putting limits on state Medicaid payments for abortion.
House Passes Minimum Wage Bill, As Initiative Sponsors Cry Foul
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
As initiative sponsors cried dirty tricks, the House narrowly passed a minimum wage bill that has the potential to knock their proposition off the ballot. The night only got more tense when the Speaker of the House fired back on the floor.
NTSB Advances Investigation Into Fatal Training Flight Crash
Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel
The National Transportation Safety Board has finished its on-scene investigation into the crash that killed two Hageland Aviation pilots last week.
John Luther Adams Wins Pulitzer For ‘Become Ocean’
The Associated PRess
Former Fairbanks resident John Luther Adams has won a Pulitzer Prize for his composition “Become Ocean”
Adams’ work has long been inspired by the natural world he’s experienced, and the Pulitzer committee was attracted to the real-world feel of “Become Ocean,” which was informed by the waters off the coast of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
The committee said the composition is a “haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.” The piece was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, which debuted the work in June.
How Many People Have Signed Up Insurance Under Obamacare?
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
Want to know how many people have signed up for private insurance under Obamacare? Like the law itself, the answer is exceedingly complicated. The administration is tracking the number of plans purchased on healthcare.gov and on the state exchanges. But the federal government isn’t counting the number of people buying plans directly from insurance carriers.
Museum Experts Sift Through The Arctic’s Largest Butterfly Collection
Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks
It will be a few months before butterflies flit through the air in Interior Alaska, but the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks was recently filled with them. The museum is working to catalogue the second-largest collection of Arctic butterflies and moths in the world. It’s the largest private collection of its kind. Eventually most of the specimens will be passed on to the Smithsonian.
HB23 Would Allow Public Financing Of KABATA
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
With a 16-4 vote on Saturday, the state Senate approved House Bill 23, allowing public financing of the Knik Arm Crossing. The approval moves the $892 million project forward by updating the project’s financial model. The bill allows funding for the bridge to come from three public entities: one third from bonds, one third from National Highway System funds, and the final third from federal loans.
YK Delta Residents Speak On Possible King Salmon Fishery Closure
Charles Enoch, KYUK – Bethel
Facing the possibility of a total closure of the King salmon fishery this summer and new dip-net openings, people from the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta are speaking up on all sides of the issue.
Jeff King Wins Kobuk 440
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
Jeff King is the winner in this year’s Kobuk 440. King crossed the finish line at 12:12 am Sunday morning, followed by Tony Browning and Hugh Neff.
The National Transportation Safety Board has finished its on-scene investigation into the crash that killed two Hageland Aviation pilots Tuesday.
Derrick Cedars, of Bethe,l and Greggory McGee, from Anchorage, died in Tuesday’s crash.
The Cessna 208 went down in a willow patch near Three Step Mountain, 30 miles southeast of Bethel. A post-crash fire destroyed the airplane and burned nearby bushes.
Investigators are releasing few details beyond that.
“The wreckage unfortunately was what we would refer to as very fragmented, and obviously there was a post crash fire, so a lot of the components coming out there will be in smaller pieces,” Clint Johnson, the Chief of the Alaska Regional Office of the National Transportation Safety Board, said. ”So they’re going to be slingloading the parts and pieces in its entirety back to Bethel.”
The wreckage will then be flown to Anchorage within the next week.
“They will do a wreckage lay out and be able to go though each one of those components with a fine tooth comb,” Johnson said. “We’ll be able to document each and every piece of the wreckage that comes back.”
The investigator in charge, Chris Shaver, documented the aircraft and what troopers call a “large debris field.” Back in Bethel, he conducted interviews with Hageland as well as family and friends of the pilots. A Cessna investigator also visited the crash scene, and State Troopers Thursday brought back the pilots’ remains. A team from Pratt & Whitney, the engine manufacturer, will inspect the engine once it’s transported to Anchorage.
There was also what’s known as a Transportation Disaster Assistance Investigator in town Friday to help the families and co-workers of the pilots who were killed. The crash occurred just before 4 p.m. in clear and calm weather as the two pilots conducted a training flight. NTSB officials say they don’t know who was flying at the time.
“There were obviously two qualified pilots at the controls, each one of the of them had controls, that’s going to be a little bit tough to determine for absolutely sure,” Johnson said. “Again, with details like that, once Chris gets back and we start taking a look at the wreckage, we might be able to determine that, but right now, that’s pretty much an unknown.”
The report from the NTSB is expected soon.
The Alaska Senate unanimously passed Erin’s Law this morning. The law provides age-appropriate sexual abuse education to children in public schools.
Erin’s Law would educate children in public schools to speak up if something inappropriate happens. It also trains teachers and trusted adults to recognize signs that a child is being abused.
RELATED: Legislature Weighs ‘Erin’s Law’
Republican Senator Lesil McGuire brought forth a Senate bill identical to the House version first sponsored by Democratic Representative Garan Tarr. McGuire testified that Erin’s Law was the first step toward eliminating sexual abuse of children in Alaska.
“We lead the nation. This is one of those places where I hope a decade from now that we’ll be not leading the nation that we will completely flip the statistics. And I think this is gonna be a big part of it, Mr. President, is asking that our schools put age appropriate education about good touch, bad touch, good secrets, bad secrets,” McGuire said.
Sponsors expect that training would reach more than 90 percent of Alaska’s youth who attend public schools and the adults who spend a lot of time with them.
Erin’s Law, named after 29-year-old Erin Merryn from Illinois, who was sexually abused as a child and has made it her goal to pass the law in all 50 states.
The law includes two-year delay for implementation. Governor Sean Parnell supports Erin’s Law.
The House version sits in the Finance Committee. The law has been passed in 12 states and is pending in 25 others.
Hydaburg and Annette Island school districts were among three Alaska Native groups that received advanced telecommunications technology grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Rural Development office.
Hydaburg School District was awarded $500,000 to purchase video conference equipment for distance learning and training, in cooperation with the University of Alaska Southeast. According to USDA, the equipment will serve schools in the Hydaburg, Southeast Island and Craig districts.
The equipment also will be used for staff professional development, virtual field trips, education for all community members and to connect Alaska Native students with other Native American students in the U.S.
Annette Island School District was awarded about $400,000 for video conferencing to connect Metlakatla students with other rural Native students.
The third recipient was the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments, which received about $260,000 for video conferencing equipment to rural clinics. The equipment will allow face-to-face medical consultation.
The Sitka Tribe of Alaska has hired a new general manager. Lawrence SpottedBird, currently of Washington State, will start work on Monday.
STA’s previous manager, Ted Wright, resigned in October, after about two years on the job. Tribal Attorney Allen Bell has been serving as the interim manager since then.
Speaking with KCAW on Thursday, SpottedBird, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, said he has spent the last 34 years working with tribes and Native American entrepreneurs on business and economic development. He currently runs a consulting firm, SpottedBird Development.
“I consult with primarily tribes and Native American individuals in business development, with a focus on federal contracting development, looking for opportunities in contracting with the U.S. federal government,” SpottedBird said. “A lot of tribal governments and Native American entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the many incentive programs in the federal government and developing contracting enterprises to do so.”
SpottedBird has also spent time in Southeast Alaska: from 1999 to 2000 he served as general manager of Shaan Seet, the village Native corporation in Craig, on Prince of Wales Island.
Tribal Council Chairman Michael Baines said SpottedBird’s background in economic development is exactly what the Sitka Tribe needs. One key priority for STA in coming years will be finding new sources of revenue, Baines said.
“Getting a solid footing financially and budgetarily is very important,” he said. “So I will be focusing on looking at ways to address the budget and financial situation that any tribe – or any government really – faces around the country.”
Baines said the Council received about sixteen applications for the position, and flew in three finalists for interviews. All of the finalists came from outside of Sitka.
SpottedBird will be formally introduced to the Tribal Council and public at 6 p.m. next Wednesday, April 16, at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Na Kahidi, immediately before the council’s regular meeting.
The Alaska Legislature has finalized work on a bill that would name November 14th as Walter Soboleff Day in Alaska. He was a revered Tligit elder and religious leader.
Senator Fred Dyson from Eagle River carried House Bill 217 on the floor of the Senate and spoke eloquently about his friendship with Soboleff.
“Here’s a man who lived with dignity. He had a tremendous impact on individuals wherever he went. He was a magnificent example for all of us.”
Walter Soboleff was a well-known Tligik language translator and scholar and he was the first Native Alaskan to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister. The members of the Alaska Senate voted unanimously Saturday afternoon in favor of House Bill 217, which passed the House in late March. The bill now goes to the desk of Governor Sean Parnell for his signature.
As initiative supporters cried dirty tricks, the House narrowly passed a minimum wage bill that has the potential to knock their proposition off the ballot. The night only got more tense when the Speaker of the House fired back on the floor. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
The fight over the minimum wage bill got so ugly on Sunday night, legislators joked that they preferred debating abortion.
For about three hours, Democrats who have long advocated for increasing the minimum wage spoke against the bill, while free market Republicans said they had seen the light and believed the minimum wage should be increased as quickly as possible.
More than policy, the conversation focused on motive and trust. Fairbanks Democrat Scott Kawasaki acknowledged he was in an unusual position of voting against a measure he liked, because he believed the intention was to manipulate the upcoming elections. He’s worried that Republicans’ end goal is to keep minimum wage supporters from coming out to vote in August, when a referendum to repeal the new oil tax law is also on the ballot.
“It’s a strange vote, and it’s going to be difficult to justify to my voters,” said Kawasaki. “I simply think this is a disingenuous piece of legislation. I think it was brought into session in the last week of session in order for this to pass, so this issue can be taken off the ballot.”
The minimum wage bill was introduced a little over a week ago, and it was modeled after the initiative. It bumps up the rate over the course of two years, then pegs the wage to inflation.
Because of a sour history regarding the last minimum wage initiative, bill supporters added a number of provisions to make it more appealing to skeptics. In 2002, the Legislature preempted a minimum wage initiative, only to gut it a year later. So this time, bill supporters added a letter of intent saying they wouldn’t touch the policy for two years. They also adopted one amendment to outdo the initiative’s increase, hiking the current minimum wage of $7.75 to $9 in the first year, and then $10 the year after. They adopted another to make the wage go into effect earlier.
Rep. Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican, said the package was better than the one voters would see on the ballot.
“We are guaranteeing that the minimum wage will be increased,” said Johnson. “Whether you believe or not we’re going to change it, you’ve got to make that decision on your own. But we can guarantee that the minimum will be higher than the ballot initiative, enacted quicker than the ballot initiative.”
The minimum wage bill ultimately passed 21-19, with nine members of the majority caucus breaking ranks and siding with the minority. Some of those opponents from the majority said they did not like the politics surrounding the bill, while a couple had concerns that increasing the minimum wage could hurt businesses.
The bill has been a priority for House Speaker Mike Chenault. While the Nikiski Republican was one of the legislators who gutted the minimum wage law after passing it, he says he’s “matured” in the decade since and would oppose any effort to weaken the bill that’s currently before the Legislature.
Shortly after the vote, Chenault stepped down from the dais so he could freely comment on one of the initiative sponsors. He suggested that organized labor, which has contributed to the minimum wage initiative, was leaning on legislators inappropriately.
“We will not be coerced, threatened, or strong-armed into any other decision,” says Chenault.
Chenault also pointed legislators to a photograph of Ed Flanagan — a former labor commissioner and lead organizer of the initiative — taken at the bill’s only hearing. In the photograph, Flanagan is holding up a notepad, with a dollar sign scribbled on it.
Chenault said he did not know what Flanagan was trying to communicate, but that flashing a symbol like that at lawmakers was wrong given the Legislature’s history with bribery convictions.
But Flanagan says Chenault is taking things out of context. He says he was trying to get the attention of a legislators to ask why the bill had not gotten a fiscal note. That would have slowed the process down by requiring the bill to get another hearing, instead of just the one that was scheduled.
Flanagan says Chenault approached him after the hearing — something this reporter witnessed at the time — and explained what he was trying to communicate with the notepad. Now, Flanagan thinks Chenault is using the incident to distract from the vote itself.
“I think it’s a smokescreen,” says Flanagan. “He got a 21-19 vote. That’s pretty embarrassing for the Speaker in his majority, and it’s because of the hypocrisy that this vote represents.”
The bill now gets sent to the Senate, where members of leadership have said they are reluctant to take the bill up.
The Legislature has narrowly passed a bill that putting limits on state Medicaid payments for abortion.
The bill defines the term “medically necessary,” so it only covers physical harm – not psychological harm. Doctors would need to choose from a list of conditions like epilepsy and sickle cell anemia before the state covers the cost of the procedure.
Advocates for the bill, like Anchorage Republican Gabrielle LeDoux, said the point was to keep the state from paying for elective abortions.
“We’ve got the right to travel, but it doesn’t mean the government buys us a ticket to Paris,” said LeDoux. “We’ve got the right to bear arms, but the government doesn’t buy us a Sturm Ruger.”
Critics of the bill believe it will make it harder for low-income women to have access to abortion. Rep. Geran Tarr, an Anchorage Democrat, also suggested that the bill will not save money, because the law will inevitably end up in court.
“Litigation will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, just as it has in the past,” said Tarr.
The Department of Health and Social Services introduced similar abortion regulations last year, but a judge put a stay on them after a lawsuit was filed on the grounds that the regulations violate the Equal Protection Clause.
The bill ultimately passed 23-17, splitting mostly on party lines. Republicans Lindsey Holmes of Anchorage, Paul Seaton of Homer, and Alan Austerman of Kodiak broke with their party and voted no.
The bill passed the Senate last year, with a provision establishing a women’s health program. Because the House stripped that program, the bill was sent to Senate for concurrence on Monday morning. The Senate passed the bill 13-7, nearly on the same margins as before. ***Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat, changed his vote to no after the family planning language was taken out. Sitka Republican Bert Stedman and Juneau Democrat Dennis Egan also joined a bloc of Anchorage Democrats in voting no.
The bill will now be sent to the governor for his signature.
This story has been updated to reflect the Senate’s concurrence vote.
Republican senate candidate Dan Sullivan has kept up his fundraising momentum. Sullivan’s campaign reports he raised $1.3 million in the first quarter of the year.
That’s a bit more than Sullivan, the former state attorney general and natural resources commissioner, raised during the prior quarter.
Incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich also reports raising more than a million dollars during the first quarter.
Other challengers in the race haven’t yet announced their totals, which aren’t due until next week.
The Legislature has made little progress on Gov. Sean Parnell’s goal of addressing the state’s looming retirement problem. Parnell hopes to change that by filing a bill that reintroduces his plan to deal with Alaska’s $12 billion unfunded liability.
Gov. Sean Parnell’s retirement bill dropped on Thursday night, with little more than a week before lawmakers gavel out.
The idea is identical to the proposal he introduced going into session. It transfers $3 billion from the state’s savings reserves into the retirement trust fund. It also commits the state to making a half-billion dollar payment into the system every year. It’s been likened to taking on a 15-year mortgage instead of a 30-year one. Except instead of paying off a house, the goal is put less pressure on future state budgets and guard Alaska’s credit rating.
But the plan didn’t go anywhere. Lawmakers were reluctant to deal with the pension issue without a separate bill in front of them.
Parnell does not agree with that line of thinking.
“Actually, they did see a bill from me,” says Parnell. “I submitted my proposal in our budget proposal. So, to act concerned about not having a bill from the governor when we submitted one by December 15 as required by the Constitution is a little disingenuous.”
As Parnell’s plan languished, members of the House Finance committee tried to push forward their own way of dealing the pensions of public employees. Their proposal would have stretched out teacher retirement payments over a longer span of time, and they unsuccessfully tried attaching it to the education bill. Parnell described the outcome of the plan as “immoral” when it was initially introduced.
“I strongly oppose that particular plan, because I thought it was unjust that future generations have to pay for our debt and the debt of those before,” says Parnell. “I apologized to members who I offended in that, because my comment was not directed at them. It was directed at the result of that proposal.”
But Parnell says even if he doesn’t like that specific idea, he’s willing to hear other proposals in an effort to come up with an agreement that works for both the executive and legislative branches.
“I am open to a bill and working with legislators on that whether it’s something that I file or whether something they file,” says Parnell. “I just want the problem fixed for Alaskans.”
The governor’s retirement bill will get its first hearing on Saturday.
The Inuit Circumpolar Council is holding a meeting in Nome next week. The topic is food security, and the goal is to create a framework to understand the issue from an Inuit perspective.
Carolina Behe is the ICC Alaska Traditional Knowledge and Science Advisor and is organizing the event.
“Overall, it’s to teach how to take a food security lens to the entire environment,” Behe said. “Food security is synonymous with environmental health.”
Communities and organizations across the Bering Strait Region elected traditional knowledge experts to serve as representatives at the session. Behe says the meeting evolved after the ICC identified food security as a top priority for Alaska Natives but did not have a community understanding of that term.
“And so we started doing the research, and we found that there’s over 800 definitions to food security,” Behe said. “Only one of those that I have found so far is from an indigenous community and none of them are from the Arctic.”
These alternative definitions, Behe says, are based on purchasing power—how much money an individual has to buy food—and the nutritional and caloric value of that food.
Those things are really very, very important, but within the Inupiat and Yupik culture, food means a lot more than how many calories you’re getting,” Behe said. “It includes spirituality; it includes the clothes that you’re getting; it includes transfer of knowledge; it includes language; it includes you’re relationship within the environment or how you’re taught to be within that environment.”
“So all of these things have to be considered if you’re to consider food security.”
Two previous meetings were held in Barrow and Kotzebue and another meeting is scheduled for Bethel later this year. The collected information will be peer reviewed by a traditional knowledge advisory committee and then dispersed to tribal councils, industries, agencies, and the Arctic Council.
Behe says ConocoPhillips has already expressed interest in the project, and Inuit communities want to share the information with developers.
After two months of protests, Delta Western fuel workers in Unalaska have voted to unionize. The Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific got the support of a slim majority in an election on Thursday night.
Evidence used to get a conviction for a 1987 Fairbanks murder trial is in question. The Alaska Innocence Project is pursuing post conviction relief for Michael Alexander, who was imprisoned for the March 23, 1987 kidnapping and killing of Fairbanks teenager Kathy Stockholm. The Innocence Project request challenges biological evidence that helped convict Alexander, and the group’s Director Bill Oberly says the FBI has concurred it could be suspect.
Wildland firefighters are gearing up for the upcoming 2014 fire season. According to the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service, fire season could come fast to parts of the Tanana Valley and Southcentral Alaska.
The BLM Alaska Fire Service will work with U.S. Army Garrison Alaska through early June to conduct routine prescribed burns over nearly 60-thousand acres.
Mel Slater is the Public Affairs officer for the Fire Service. He says the plan is to reduce fire danger as summer weather heats up.
“Well, these are areas over the years that have had debris, fallen trees and over the years, those things have built up,” Slater said.
The BLM and the Army have worked together in years past to conduct prescribed burns to prevent fires that could be associated with military training. Slater says the two agencies are reevaluating their practices prior to the upcoming fire season and in response to the nearly 90,000-acre Stuart Creek 2 Fire that was ignited during an Army training mission northeast of Fairbanks last summer.
“There are agreements in place between the army and BLM Alaska Fire Service that says who provides what kind of services and those negotiations are just taking a look at those agreements and making modifications when they’re necessary,” Slater said.
Forecasters expect the fire season to come on strong in parts of Alaska’s South-Central and Western regions due to low snow pack and above normal early spring temperatures. Parts of the Tanana Valley prone to warm winds, also known as Chinooks, may also see heightened fire danger in May, but Slater says fire prediction is complicated.
“Trying to predetermine what kind of fire season we’re going to have is a pretty difficult guess at best. Right now it’ kind of hard to say, I mean we still have snow on the ground, so we’re still trying to figure out how we’re going to do our prescribed fires right now,” Slater said.
Prescribed burns are planned for the Donnelly Training area, Yukon Training Area, Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, but recent snowfall has pushed back the burning.
Slater says it was supposed to start this week, but the Fire Service and the Army are reworking that schedule.
It’s been both praised and maligned. Praised by scientists as a tool to gain knowledge about Earth’s ionosphere; maligned as a secret means to develop an ultimate weapon. The HAARP resembles a giant radio antennae. It’s 180 towers are 78 feet tall and have been beaming radio waves into the atmosphere since 1997. The facility covers about thirty acres of Department of Defense land just off the Tok Cutoff, not far from Gakona Junction. The news of its imminent shut-down has alarmed the scientific community. Bob McCoy directs the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.
“We’re up here in the subarctic, and we can see how the sun connects to the Earth along the magnetic lines at high latitudes. It would be a shame if this facility went away. “
McCoy says there are only three facilites like it in the world.
“One in Norway and one in Russia. But HAARP is much more flexible. It’s got a wider frequency range, it can go something like less than three up to ten megahertz, and has quite a bit more power.”
HAARP and UAF research projects have been linked for years. And major universities throughout the US remotely access the HAARP facility and it’s information – Cornell and Rice among them. That’s why recent news that the Department of Defense plans to abandon HAARP galvanized McCoy and fellow scientists to make their case to save HAARP to the secretary of defense earlier this year.
“So a lot of us realize how important it is, how powerful, how significant the facility is. So we’re trying to figure out ways to keep it alive as an active scientific tool. Last March the National Academy did a workshop and invited in forty- something scientists to testify about the value of the science that has been done and could be done in the future from HAARP.”
It is a question of money. In these federal budget – cutting times, the roughly four million dollars a year needed to maintain the facility is getting scrutinized.
HAARP is owned by the Air Force Research Laboratory, but was until recently operated by an Anchorage contractor, Marsh Creek.
Steve Floyd is the principal systems engineer for Marsh Creek. He says HAARP’s money woes started with last year’s sequestration cuts.
“Our contract through Marsh Creek to run the facility, came to an end in the middle of June of 2013. And I guess it’s the sequestration cuts that really squeezed the budget and the Air Force Research Lab decided to save some money and take it dark for a while. “
He says the cost cutting measures are ill-advised, because the research done there is valuable. Floyd says the ionosphere has a strong impact on satellite communications, but not enough is known about how that works.
“So we’ re transmitting out with a focused beam, doing a very, very, very minute but detectable stimulation of the plasma of the ionosphere with these what are really very standard short wave radio transmissions, but it is just enough to do a cause and effect study of the ionosphere.”
Floyd says the research conducted in Gakona has far reaching implications for both military and commercial communications systems.
“HAARP is in Alaska because we wanted to be underneath a region of concentrated ionosphere called the auroral oval. And we all have marvelled at the Northern Lights, and what that is doing is painting out this hollow ring of concentrated ionosphere, that’s caused by the Earth’s magnetic field. And we wanted to be underneath that auroral oval a good percentage of the time. “
He says there’s no better site than Gakona for the research facility. Bob McCoy agrees. McCoy and his fellow researchers argue there’s a lot more science to be done in Gakona. McCoy says there’s a possibility that the defense department could find an entity willing to share the costs of HAARP’s upkeep.
The Air Force is paying for HAARP ionospheric research now going on through this month and in May of this year. During that time, HAARP will be inventoried to determine if some of its equipment can be used to support other scientific activities elsewhere. Meredith Mingledorff, a public information officer with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirkland AFB in New Mexico, says in an email,
“The Air Force favors the transition of the HAARP facility to a basic research organization.”
But that depends on funding. If no other organization can be found to pay expenses,
”The Air Force plans to decommission the research site…and initiate divestiture in June 2014.”
The cost of the deconstruction has not been established yet.
Haines seems like a quintessential Southeast Alaska town. There are eagles, bears, salmon, big mountains and rough water. It’s a picture-book no stoplight, no movie theater, low crime type of community. But there’s a seedier and eclectic side of Haines that emerged late this winter: the underground puppet scene.
We aren’t talking about Muppets. Those fuzzy, funny and googly-eyed characters are not the same as puppets. Not in Haines, Alaska.
Here, there are at least three puppet troupes, dozens of self-taught puppeteers and puppet makers and one artist who has traveled to Europe to explore the history of puppetry, Byrne Power.
“What I saw was a puppet troupe who was doing a show – it looked like stuff from their backyards, stuff you’d find at the Salvation Army, rusting metal, old toys – and I said ‘We could do that,’” Power said, at the Sheldon Museum in Haines where he helped curate the puppet exhibit Strung Up and Reconfigured.
Power is sort of the father of puppetry in Haines. Almost 10 years ago he gathered a group of artists and formed a puppet troupe. Here’s artist Debi Knight-Kennedy explaining how she fell into the puppet scene.
“Byrne came up to me one day before I knew him very well and he said ‘So, you’re a doll maker.’ And I said, ‘No, I make figurative sculpture.’ And he said ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. So you can make your dolls talk. I’m starting a puppet troupe.’ And that was it. It was all over for me,” Knight-Kennedy said.
After a few years, Power stayed with traditional puppetry, while some in the group wandered in a different direction. Now the group is called Geppetto’s Junkyard and consists of more than a dozen people including a plumber, a yogi, a boat builder, retired teacher, jujitsu instructor and others.
This winter, they created a show called “Space Lust.” It was described on posters as a cross between steam punk, space cowboy and puppet space opera. It was wild scene of live music, special effects, acting and of course, puppets.
The puppets are all hand-made and usually assembled from found objects, like bicycle parts, kitchen gadgets, vacuum hoses and carved wood.
Knight-Kennedy’s husband, Gene Kennedy is also in the troupe. He’s a handyman and plumber, but is drawn to creating puppets, like the carved wooden horse he made, with multiple moving parts.
“It’s all wooden cut out plywood,” Kennedy said. “Basically there are four parts to the body and two levers that work in tandem. And the head swings on its own and it’s counterweighted with lead weights so it always comes back to the same place.”
Geppetto’s Junkyard has their fans. They pack in the sporadic shows. But no one – especially the puppeteers and actors, pretend they are traditionalists. Power is more so. Back at the museum he says he doesn’t think anyone in Haines is true to traditional puppetry.
“There are some puppet styles for instance that take real skill to manipulate. It’s not as simple as you stick your hand up and wiggle it around,” Power said. “You learn very definite things about how to move your hand and it takes months and months of training, years, to be good.”
Of the more than 100 puppets in the exhibit, about two-thirds were made locally. There was even one that might be local from several generations ago. It’s a bone, shell and sinew Tlingit puppet on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Puppets, Power said, cross all cultures.
In Haines this winter, puppets were everywhere. Besides the museum exhibit and Geppetto’s Junkyard show, Power also put on a show. Students at the Haines School created their own puppets. There was even a visit from Carlton Smith of Juneau who performs Tlinigt ventriloquism with his puppet, Charlie.
Power says he’s drawn to puppets because they still surprise people. He says when he goes on the road with a show, he’s not pigeon-holed because puppets are still edgy and intriguing enough to cross all ages and interests.
“Because if you have a music group, you say to someone, ‘Oh what kind of music do you have?’ and they say whatever style of music it is and you say ‘Oh, then you play here.’ But if you have a puppet troupe, the first question is ‘Is it for children?’ and I say, ‘Well, not really.’ And they look kind of blank and say ‘OK’ and you can play for anybody.”
And maybe that’s why puppets and Haines go together. For puppeteers like Melina Shields with Geppetos Junkyard, it makes perfect sense.
“I think that there’s just something inherently creative that happens by taking these found objects and letting the puppets be born into whoever they are,” Shields said. “And it’s just magic.”
This week, we’re heading to Kasaan, located in Southeast Alaska on Prince of Wales island. The coastal Native village is home to the oldest Haida building in the world. Frederick Otilius Olsen Junior is from Kasaan.