The borough assemblies from Haines, Skagway and Juneau will meet Friday afternoon in the Skagway Assembly Chambers for what’s being billed as “The Northern Lynn Canal Neighbors Summit.”
Whitehorse, Yukon officials are expected to attend as well, giving the gathering an international flavor.
First-term Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford has made reaching out to neighboring communities a priority for his first year in office. The rest of the CBJ Assembly backs his efforts. But the mayor credits City Clerk Laurie Sica with organizing the summit.
“This happened to come about because our City Clerk Laurie Sica is from Skagway and knows a lot of people up there,” Sanford says. “So, I kind of said something to her one day and she said, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea.’ And then she got on and started us moving in that direction, and here we are.”
The broad topics to be discussed at the summit include energy, transportation, harbors, and tourism. Specific items include shore power for cruise ships, an electrical intertie from Whitehorse to Juneau, the state ferry system, and a road north of the Capital City.
Sanford says he hopes the dialog leads to more dialog.
“My whole thing about doing this was just getting to know each other better,” he says. “You know, it’s not necessarily coming to some resolution on any topic, or coming to any decision on any topic.”
With as many as 30 elected officials from the four communities attending the summit, Skagway Mayor Stan Selmer jokes, “Probably the longest item on the agenda is going to be the introduction of members.”
Joking aside, Selmer agrees with Sanford that the meeting should focus on a continuing conversation.
“We’ve done these meetings before, we just haven’t had any ‘stick-to-it-iveness,’” says Selmer. “But I think Mayor Sanford wants to move in that direction and there’s certainly no reason not to proceed that way.”
Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is unable to attend the summit due to other commitments. The Canadian city will send Deputy Mayor Kirk Cameron and two other council members in his place. Curtis says he hopes to attend future gatherings of the neighboring communities.
“Juneau and Whitehorse have a lot in common, being capital cities of course. And Skagway, of course, being a port and being so close, we have a real kinship there as well, and Haines as well,” Curtis says. “There’s a lot of things that we think that we can work together on, and learn from each other, and kind of share ideas and suggestions, and solutions to some of our concerns.”
Haines, Skagway and Juneau are members of Southeast Conference and Alaska Municipal League, organizations that regularly facilitate conversations about regional issues. Sanford says what makes the neighbors summit unique is that it’s a one-to-one discussion, without constraints imposed by an outside group.
“We’re full grown adults and can make our own decisions,” Selmer says.
For his part, Sanford looks forward to holding similar meetings with Juneau’s neighbors throughout Southeast. He says that’s more important than ever since the region lost representation in the legislature through the recent state redistricting process.
“When you get to know somebody and talk with somebody, you know they’re not very much different than you are,” says Sanford. “And we need to make sure that we’re all in the same boat most of the time, and that we’re battling in the same direction.”
Juneau’s legislative delegation will take part in the meeting. Representative Beth Kerttula and Senator Dennis Egan, whose districts now include Skagway, will be on teleconference. Representative Cathy Munoz will be there in person. Sanford hopes Sitka Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who represents Haines, will be able to participate as well.
The agenda also includes an opportunity for public comment.
Kettleson Library in Sitka has been planning an expansion project for the past decade, using a combination of public and private funding. On Saturday, the library staff announced a big boost to that cause.
About two weeks ago, a man walked into the Sitka Public Library. It was Gus Adams, a Sitkan who uses the library everyday.
“He is Tlingit. He is a mature gentleman. He has a great smile.”
That’s the lead librarian, Sarah Bell.
“He likes the facility,” said Bell. “He uses what’s there. He’s very precise, so when he needs help, we offer help, and if we can’t do it at the moment, we work really hard to make certain that we can answer his needs and his questions.”
But that day was different.
“So, we were well-acquainted with him, but I had not anticipated anything like that,” said Bell.
Adams knew that the library was raising money for an expansion, and he wanted to make a donation.
“And I said, ‘Oh, great!’ And as time progressed, he decided on the figure of donating $20,000. That was a pretty great way to start off a capital campaign.”
Bell says the library’s wish list for the expansion includes: A humidity-controlled local history room, a conference room, a space with a 3D printer and high-end computer software, a couple of study rooms, and an area for computer instruction.
“We call it 60 percent expansion, 100 percent better,” said Bell.
So, last Saturday morning, when the library was celebrating National Library Week with a free community pancake feed, everything stopped at 10:30 a.m. for Adams to announce his donation.
“I think that people were pretty amazed,” said Bell.
Bell had gotten a huge $20,000 check printed out to hold up as part of the presentation.
“And I am not at all good with dimensions and so I said, ‘well, it seems to me maybe three feet by six or something like that.’ It kind of looks like a four by eight, a big piece of, but they printed it out and it came out beautifully. And when Gus came in, he said, oh, that’s really big, and I said, why yes, but you’re writing a really big check.”
And to top it off, Adams announced at the presentation that he would donate another $1,000 if the audience matched it. Community members tripled that number with $3,000.
Bell says the library staff has been working at the expansion for more than a decade. So far, money has come from the Friends of Kettleson Library, the state, a sizeable bequest, and most recently, Adams’ surprise donation.
“Every organization I’ve ever belonged to, I’ve tried to leave it better than I found it,” said Adams. “This may sound like a real lofty goal, but the thought, why not leave the community better than when you found it? So, I’m kind of drifting in that direction.”
The total budget for the expansion is 6.2 million dollars, and 5.7 million of that is from a state grant. Bell says that they’ve got just a little more than $175,000 left to go.
On May 20-22, 54 students across the US will assemble and compete in the 25th Annual National Geographic Bee in Washington D.C. Each year thousands students across the nation compete to win an opportunity to represent their state in the national championship.
Alaska hosted the 25th National Geographic Bee State Finals on April 5th. One hundred students in 3rd through 8th grade from across the state assembled at the Egan Center in downtown Anchorage to compete. Five groups of twenty students competed during the preliminary round to move forward to the State finals. A Central Middle School 8th grader won this year’s contest.
“My name is Kenny Petrini. You know I grew up here for a while; but I am originally from Thailand. So, I consider myself an Anchorage person,” he said.
Kenny has competed in the State Geography Bee for several years and described his studying strategy for each competition.
“I study probably at least…at least an hour a night. I do online quizzes and I look at atlases. I work with my dad…he…he asks me questions…he gets me materials to study with and my mom does too,” Kenny said.
When studying geography, Kenny enjoys learning about Alaska. And he believes geography is an important subject for all students to learn.
“Cause in today’s world everything is changing a lot…you know new countries um…revolutions you know like Africa North Africa that stuff. So, geography is pretty important,” he said.
Besides geography, Kenny plays the trombone, runs for the school’s track and field team and is a news anchor for Central’s News Broadcasting Channel
As the State winner, Kenny received: $100. He’ll represent Alaska in the National Championship in Washington, D.C. on May 20-22.
Work on the Susitna Watana dam will go forward this summer, according to a spokesperson for the state agency tasked with the project.
Emily Ford, public outreach liaison for the Alaska Energy Authority, says the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has give the okay to a dozen
study plans that have been waiting for approval since February of this year.
”And then this month, on April 1, they [FERC] approved the remaining studies. So a very significant milestone was achieved for Susitna – Watana hydro, because now FERC has approved all 58 studies for our environmental field effort ” she says.
Ford says the environmental field effort covers one hundred and eighty six thousand acres in the dam area.
“Actually, in the coming months, as we are approaching spring, early summer, some of the chinook studies and the early season studies will start beginning. We have multi – year studies dedicated to fish resources. And then, we also have some wildlife studies and even botanical resources and cultural resources that will begin this year as well, ” she says.
According to Ford, there are 385 individuals outside of AEA who are contracted to work on the Susitna-Watana project. She says the majorty of those people are Alaskans. 180 workers will be in the field this year.
But he dam plan has raised some concerns in the Talkeetna area, which is down river from the project. Richard Leo heads the board of the Coalition For Susitana Dam Alternatives, a group that opposes the dam.
”There were a number of problems with the studies that FERC approved, and FERC only approved them after recommending many modifications to those studies, which included greater attention to climate change and glacial runoff, to fish passage, to salmon escapement, and issues that indicated the studies continue to be flawed. What AEA is going to do to make those studies more effective is yet to be seen. “
One of the concerns posed by Leo’s group is the impact the dam is likely to have on salmon, which are a major source of Matanuska Susitna Borough sport fishing related income. Leo recently returned from a trip to Juneau, where he lobbied against the dam.
At this time, [Wednesday ] heavy equipment is being shipped North on the Alaska Railroad to be used to bulldoze an airstrip at the Stephan [ STEP han ] Lake Lodge, a remote fishing and hunting lodge closer to the dam site. The lodge will be the headquarters for the AEA personnel conducting the studies.
John Madsen, owner of the lodge, confirms the plan to build an airstrip at the lodge. Madsen says he has the DNR and Tyonek Native Corporation permits to drag the equipment overland in a cat – train to the site. He says that work will begin tomorrow.[thursday]
But Mike Woods, a resident of Chase, says [on wednesday ] the plan took him and his neighbors by surprise.
”It’s news to us. We only saw the vehicles at the Alaska Railroad yesterday [tuesday] evening, yesterday afternoon and evening, and then started to explore where they were going. “
Woods says the terrain there is not suitable for heavy equipment. He says he only recently traversed the cat trail route by snowmachine.
“There’s been no plan to create an ice road. This is just adventure travel across the tundra to establish a road in what has been roadless areas. The permit specifies that they cannot touch ground. They can only be on snow travel. But if they are, like, disturbing the ground and the waterways leading into the Susitana River in anyway, that immediately violates their permit, ” Woods says.
Woods says the equipment could leave permanent scars on the landscape, because there isn’t a protective layer of ice and snow. He says the public has not been informed of this recent development regarding the dam. “The public notice process totally failed. “ he said.
Work on the Susitna-Watana dam will go forward this summer, according to a spokesperson for the state agency tasked with the project.
The Anchorage School District has opted to dissolve its girls hockey program after 10 years, citing low participation numbers as the primary reason.
ASD’s supervisor of high school education, Derek Hagler, says even though there is certainly interest in girls hockey in Anchorage, the school program just wasn’t sustainable.
“The hope, and certainly the goal, was to grow that program so each high school could field a competitive team,” Hagler said. “As the numbers have not increased and as the interest has not grown, as shown by the activities and athletics survey ASD administers each year, it became necessary to look at discontinuing this program.”
Hagler says 83 girls participate in high school hockey. He says even without the program the district will still be in compliance with Title IX – which grants equal athletic opportunities to men and women.
This year, there are 16 girls’ sports and 15 boys’ sports in Anchorage high schools, and last year over half of the athletes competing in high school sports were female.
Brent Vandenbos has been the head coach of the Dimond-West girls’ hockey team for the past two seasons. He says he has a number of upset players who he has talked to over the last couple days – including his daughter.
“My daughter will be a senior next year, and this will be her last year, and she was really looking forward to playing it again one more year,” Vandenbos said. “She played the last couple years and really improved and enjoyed it.”
Vandenbos has talked with parents as well, some of whom won’t have a daughter in high school for the next year or two, but are still upset by the cancellation of the program.
“That’s what they were looking forward to was to go to a girls high school hockey game, and their team being on there,” Vandenbos said. “You know, high school is a pretty big thing up here.”
Derek Hagler says even though the program is gone for now, the district will continue to reevaluate the situation, and if the interest level in girls hockey rises in the future, the program could be reinstated.
Greenpeace is trying to coax would-be whistleblowers to come out against the Arctic oil companies they work for. The environmental group launches a website today called Arctic Truth.
Women make up half the U.S. population but just 20% of the Senate. So the relationships among female senators tend to be close, regardless of party.
In fact, the women of the Senate gather regularly at one another’s houses for dinner. Senator Murkowski told a gaggle of energy reporters she was slated to play host this week.
“We were planning on serving halibut. Then on Monday we got the call saying the president wanted to invite the women over to his house” she said.
And that house is the White House.
“‘I said wait a minute ‘we’ve got halibut thawing for 16 people. What are we going to do?’” she recounted to the crowd.
She offered to take the fish to the White House.
Murkowski noted it was wild caught in Alaskan waters, though it’s unclear whether she or her husband caught the fish.
It turns out, you can’t just bring fish into the White House, even if you’re a United States senator. Beyond normal protocol, security is especially tight these days, with a ricin-laced letter addressed to the president intercepted last week.
“My husband then gets the call from the Secret Service saying we need to come over and inspect your halibut,” she went on.
That proved too much of a hassle, so the White House bought its own Alaskan halibut. Murkowski said it turned out well.
Sure there were substantive things discussed at dinner – ice breakers, Arctic diplomacy and energy to name a few – but Murkowski clearly preferred explaining Alaskan fish – and freezing to Lower 48 reporters.
“We start September off with a lot of fish. This is the time of year you’re looking to move that halibut.”
As for those 16 fillets: It’s been confirmed they never completely thawed, and are back in the freezer safe for consumption.
An autopsy report confirms a Fairbanks man found on fire in a downtown Post Office died of burn injuries, but does not explain the origin of the flames that killed Johnny Wallis.
Listen to the full story
Students at Sitka’s alternative high school have decided to confront the methamphetamine problem head on, and they’re encouraging the rest of the community to join them at an event in early May.
Paulette James is a junior at Pacific High School. She’s been working since the beginning of the school year to understand meth, and the particular risks of this addiction.
“When you go in to look at the stories of meth and everything, they didn’t know that their life would completely turn over, that they’d lose their job, lose their family, and everything that they had or cared about — within months, or a year.”
Pacific High is tackling the meth problem by throwing light on it — first in a science class taught by Eric Matthes, and then in a community engagement class taught by Mandy Summer.
James and another student became interested in exploring the upside of meth recovery early in the school year with an event of some kind. That student left Pacific High, and James has decided to continue her effort solo. She says talking about meth can be difficult , but the stakes are high.
“This whole class has actually been a Debbie Downer, but when it comes to the positive side, it becomes a passion for the teachers and myself because there are people that we care about who are affected directly by meth. And we want to get that message out before it affects all the people we care about, and the community.”
James and the other students in Pacific High’s Community Engagement class have organized an event in early May at Sitka’s Crescent Harbor. It’s called “Got Resiliency?” They’re planning a performance by the Gaja Heen Dancers, a film screening, and a concert by local musicians, including Silver Jackson.
Resiliency means that there is a way to resist meth, and support to find your way back.
“The biggest message that we want to get out there is that, We care, and that you have value. That things may be rough, but you can always bounce back. There’s always something you can do better for yourself and you don’t need to turn to drugs or alcohol because we have resources, and if you need them, we can help you find them.”
This entire Pacific High program — the science class, the community engagement class, and the “Got Resiliency?” event — are not a project of any government agency, nor are they the result of any grant funding. The initiative for the project came from within — from Pacific High’s students and faculty.
Hillary Seeland, another teacher at the school, says, “We’d identified that meth was becoming an issue, and decided to face it head on.”
Cruise ship season has officially kicked off in Kodiak. The Crystal Symphony called on Alaska’s emerald isle early yesterday morning, and brought with it 480 passengers and 550 crew members. Despite the rain, hundreds of tourists were able to explore the downtown area. KMXT’s Brianna Gibbs caught up with some of them and filed this report.
Listen to the full story
Alexis Will, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, calls herself a “Ninja of the Night,” but it has nothing to do with martial arts.
Listen to the full story
The Spanish oil company, Repsol is reporting it has found oil on state leases in the Colville Delta at three of its wells on the North Slope. In a short press release the company calls the prospects “promising” and says changes in the state’s oil tax will improve development prospects. The wells are near the existing Kuparuk field. Repsol has leases both onshore and offshore in the area. It had two spills during its exploratory drilling, which is restricted to the winter season.
The city of Hoonah has responded to a lawsuit by the widow of one of the two police officers slain by John Marvin by saying Marvin was the responsible party and the other officer’s conduct was not negligent. Haley Tokuoka, widow of Officer Matthew Tokuoka, is contending that the city should have trained Sergeant Anthony Wallace better on how to handle Marvin. Wallace was also slain. Marvin was sentenced to two consecutive 99-year prison terms for the 2010 killings, which seemed to be related to a grudge he had.
Shell Oil had to postpone its Arctic drilling for a full year after one of its oil rigs ran aground off the Alaska coast this winter. But Shell’s efforts to open a new frontier of oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean continues with work conducted in Puget Sound.
The oil giant passed a key test with federal regulators last month in the waters off Anacortes, Washington.
Listen to the full story
While things like oil taxes and education funding may get the most news coverage, every year the legislature passes plenty of bills that amount to housekeeping. Mostly, they do unexciting things, like cleaning up administrative code. And then sometimes, they lead to parking ticket holidays in cities across the state. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
This is a story of unintended consequences.
When the legislature took up a bill standardizing police-officer paperwork three years back, there wasn’t really talk of language requiring law enforcement to personally serve citations. Less explicit versions of that provision had been on the books since the 1980s, and the idea behind it is you want officers to get the right guys when they issue tickets for things like speeding or underage drinking.
“The Department of Law, the Department of Public Safety, the legislature were thinking about rules that apply across the state for when a police officer wrote you a citation face to face, and making sure that everybody got treated equally and fairly,” says Jesse Kiehl, a member of the Juneau Assembly. “They were not thinking about parking tickets.”
Juneau is just one of many cities across the state that lets the courts handle parking ticket appeals. But as of this month, the court system won’t bother with any case where an officer stuck a ticket under someone’s windshield wiper. They offered their interpretation of the statute in a rules order that went into effect April 15.
Kiehl says that a number of cities have been caught by surprise. That list includes Kenai, Sitka, Seward, and Valdez, to name a few.
“The concern that a whole lot of communities are going to have is that if a police officer or a parking officer — a meter reader — has to write a parking ticket, either they need to wait around for the vehicle owner to come back, or cities are going to have to scramble pretty fast here to change their laws and the way parking violations are treated.”
For a city to keep leaving parking tickets on cars, they’re going to have to work out appeals through a municipal parking authority or city administrator instead of directing any contested ticket to the court. Anchorage and Ketchikan already have systems like that in place, and Fairbanks issues civil fines instead of citations in most — but not all — cases.
To complicate matters, there isn’t any way to get an emergency exception to the personal service statute. The court order clarifying the matter went into effect just a day after the legislature gaveled out; lawmakers aren’t scheduled to come back until next January.
“It’s of those bureaucratic nightmare sort of things,” says Robin Koutchak, the city attorney for Sitka.
So if this bill passed three years ago, how did this issue fall through the cracks?
Rep. Mike Hawker carried the measure on behalf of the Department of Public Safety. He says his office wasn’t that involved in the drafting of the legislation, and that it didn’t spark any controversy when it went through committee. Nobody suggested it would require cities to rewrite their parking ordinances.
“Yeah, I don’t recall any anticipated problem there,” says Hawker. “You know, bills like that get heard. We’ve got a lot of good people in the legislature that look at them. But it appears that there was an unintended consequence of the language that was inside that bill.”
Hawker wonders why cities didn’t registered their concern over the law earlier. The court system had a long review period before making their rules official. Nancy Meade, who serves as their general counsel, says that notice of the rules change was sent on three separate occasions to police chiefs and city officials, along with every attorney in the state.
“It depends on how closely they read the e-mails, and I just don’t know, but apparently some missed it,” says Meade.
The Alaska Municipal League, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s cities, was also notified of how the rule would specifically affect parking tickets a month before the legislative session wrapped up.
With no easy fixes, many communities are in limbo until they change their laws to treat parking tickets as a civil fine, if they even want to do that. Kenai, for one, is worried that they’re going to have to dedicate more staff time to handling appeals.
“We’re in a spot where we may have to raise parking ticket fees to deal with that,” says Scott Bloom, Kenai’s city attorney. He adds that the city will probably have to start towing and booting more cars if there isn’t a fix before the summer season.
As far as Juneau goes, the city’s already drafting an ordinance that would make parking tickets a civil fine, but they’re limited in the ways they can enforce parking rules until that passes.
Kiehl says that’s not ideal, but he’s not expecting mass chaos.
“The republic will not fall,” Kiehl laughs. “People by and large will park and play nice and watch their two hours or whatever the rules are. Might some scofflaw take advantage? The possibility is always there, but I think we’ll deal with this as fast as we can, and I’m sure other cities will, too.”
The state reported the first case of rabies in Alaska’s interior today. A trapper killed a wolf in the Chandalar Lakes area south of the Brooks Range in late March.
Listen to the full story
The state of Alaska officially calls the continent’s highest peak by the native name Denali. Mount McKinley – which is what the federal government calls the mountain – sits inside Denali National Park.
So you can be forgiven if you mix up the names.
Peggy O’Dell, deputy director for operations at the National Park Service, said if Congress wants to rename the mountain, it can go right ahead.
“We don’t object. We’re happy to institute whatever decision they choose to make,” she said after the meeting.
Passing through Congress won’t be easy. This very exercise happened last year, as it has for decades, unsuccessfully.
The business meeting of the National Parks subcommittee passed with few sparks.
Colorado Democrat Mark Udall chairs the subcommittee. As he was concluding the meeting, he recounted his climb of Denali; and he’s okay with officially recognizing it as just that.
“Senator Portman hails from Ohio. I think President McKinley was Ohioan. I think we’ll have to work with Senator Portman to assure President McKinley gets the respect and attention he deserves. But I think this is a suitable step to take,” he said with the gavel in his hand.
As Udall said that, the lone Ohioan on the subcommittee entered the room. Senator Rob Portman hadn’t been seen yet, and he almost missed his chance to speak.
So the ever courteous Portman took the microphone and said he wanted to talk about just two of the 14 bills before the committee.
“A memorial to commemorate the mission of the Peace Corps, here in Washington, D.C. on federal land,” he began.
Many assumed he’d continue with the bill renaming McKinley, native son of Ohio, 25th president of the United States.
“We’re also reintroducing a bill to allow a plaque on the World War II memorial inscribed with the words of that President Roosevelt he prayed with the nation on D-Day,” he concluded.
And that was it. No mention of Denali.
For years, the Ohio delegation has successfully defended the Mount McKinley name. And the Alaska delegation has routinely failed in swaying them to give up that fight.
This first step might look like a step in the Denali direction, but because of the numerous fails in the past, it’s no sign things will be different this Congress.
If the bill manages to pass the subcommittee, whole committee and full Senate – it goes to the House, which is lead by Speaker John Boehner, who hails from the Great State of Ohio.
Frank Matumeak was born in Barrow in 1948. His mother was required to move there to attend the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. Though his family had to conform somewhat to the American education system, he said his childhood was still ruled by the seasons. As part of our series looking at culture in Alaska, APRN’s Anne Hillman spoke with Matumeak about what life was like when he was growing up.
Listen to the full story
As the Alaska Marine Highway System approaches its 50th anniversary, the ferry is struggling with its identity. Under intense pressure to cut costs, the ferry’s managers are trying to get back to basics — transporting Alaskans and their freight.
That’s why the state is trying to phase out wildlife naturalists, on all ferry routes. It’s not clear what that means for riders.
It takes the Tustumena three and a half days to sail from Homer to Unalaska. Along the way, passengers will see kittiwakes and puffins, orcas and foxes.
The route has been named a national scenic byway, but the volcanic terrain can be foreign to both for lifelong Alaskans, and visitors passing through from the Lower 48.
That’s why naturalists, like Doug Stuart, travel on the ferry. Stuart says he’s there to provide context for the scenery.
Stuart: “Of course, we give a lot of informational programs, and cover everything that goes on in the Aleutians — from World War II to the seabirds and marine mammals, and cultural issues with the Native Unangan people that have populated the Aleutians for 9,000 years.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service has employed Stuart as the Tustumena’s naturalist for more than a decade. But he won’t be on the ferry this summer.
The ferry system has given a lot of different reasons for wanting to eliminate the program. One is federal budget cuts.
Federal money covers the naturalists’ salaries. Poppy Benson, who administers the program for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in Homer, says money was tight for the program this year, but she managed to scrape it together by asking other refuges to chip in.
Benson: “So between Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Cold Bay and Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, and Alaska Maritime, I came up with enough money to fund a season.”
Woodrow: “We were surprised to even see that they had the funding for an interpreter.”
That’s Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation. According to Woodrow, the state wasn’t expecting the refuges to come up with the money with the federal sequester in place.
Benson says the wildlife refuges thought it was just a misunderstanding — but it isn’t. As Woodrow puts it, the State of Alaska has decided that the space the naturalists take up should be sold to residents instead.
Woodrow: “It all comes down to cost. And does it help meet our core mission, which is to help move people between points A and B.”
On the Tustumena, naturalists get free room and board from the ferry system. For an entire summer, that’s about $5,000 worth of support.
But Woodrow says it’s not just about the price tag. The state isn’t convinced that the naturalists bring any business to the ferry system.
Woodrow: “From a marketing standpoint, the Marine Highway System doesn’t see an actual –- I don’t want to say a benefit, but doesn’t see that having an interpreter on board will help fill seats more, especially with the Tustumena where it’s sold out anyways.”
<p:=>Staterooms on the Tustumena are already selling out for the summer run. But according to Stuart, the Tustumena naturalist, it’s not just residents buying those rooms.
Stuart: “Quite a few people ride that ship as tourists! I would say by the time we’re out of Kodiak, we’re probably roughly 50/50 tourists and then the other 50% a mix of commercial fishermen and residents. So it’s a pretty big ridership.”
It’s gotten bigger, in recent years. Frommer’s, the famed guidebook, listed the state ferry as one of the top 100 attractions in America for families with kids. One of the big draws? The naturalists.
Stuart says he was always a big hit with tourists. But the naturalists weren’t all about serving visitors. As the ferry progressed on its trip, Stuart says naturalists made an effort to keep all of the passengers in the loop — even if they were locals.
Stuart: “It’s a very interesting area, but without having anybody explaining it to the people on board, frankly, they don’t have a clue what’s going on out there — particularly if the weather gets bad. Onboard programming, and having that information flow from me to the passengers, is important.”
To replace that, the Department of Transportation is considering adding interpretive displays, or interactive exhibits. They aren’t sure exactly what it will look like, and it likely won’t be in place in time for the ferry’s 50th anniversary this summer.
The Alaska Marine Highway System is planning a celebration, with community festivals throughout southeast and southcentral Alaska.
Stuart was planning events for southwest Alaska on the Tustumena, before he found out the naturalist program was canceled. With no one on board to help the Tustumena celebrate, the anniversary sailings in through southwest Alaska might look a lot like the ferry’s future, in all state waters.