More than 30 states across the country have gotten waivers from No Child Left Behind. That lets them judge schools with their own measures instead of the federal standards. Today, Alaska joined that bunch. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
Last year, more than half of Alaska’s schools got a failing grade under No Child Left Behind. Next year would have been even worse, according to the state’s Department of Education and Early Development. Deputy Commissioner Les Morse says that not a single school in the state would have passed.
“Next year, every school had to have all their students — 100 percent of their students — at proficient. That includes every student who might be struggling in learning, a brand new student to the country who might not know English … All of the them would have to score proficient on the assessments. Otherwise, the school would be deemed as a failing school under the current law.”
On top of the black eye of getting a failing grade, schools would have had to tie up funding in federally mandated tutoring programs. And they would have had to put money toward letting kids transfer to passing schools. Morse says that would have been tricky if there weren’t any passing schools.
“If every school is failing, it’s at a point where that just doesn’t make sense.”
So, like a lot of states, Alaska applied for an exemption from the federal education law. What that means is that instead of being judged primarily on math and reading proficiency tests, things like attendance, the number of kids who take the SAT, and the annual improvement that students show will also be taken into account. And instead of passing or failing, schools will get star ratings, with five being the best — kind of like movie reviews.
Morse says that because the state will now be taking a more complex approach to gauging student achievement, some of the tests will even be harder. The difference is that schools won’t be faced with an automatic failing grade if some students don’t pass the standards test, and they’ll be given a chance to target specific areas of improvement.
“By no means is the waiver is the waiver saying that we think we ought to give up on any child,” says Morse. “Actually, we’ve raised the standards, but now instead of saying we want kids to meet a minimum, we’re actually going to build supports and targets to help make sure kids, when they graduate from high school are ready for college if they want to go to college or any post-secondary training opportunity.”
Opinion on the waiver has been generally positive. The Alaska Council of School Administrators says they’re embracing it, while the Alaska Association of School Boards calls it a step forward. But Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski did show some skepticism toward the waiver, suggesting that it could be a “half measure” that replaces federal regulations with a similar set of requirements.
Anchorage School District administrators are reacting to the U.S. Department of Education’s announcement that Alaska will receive a waiver from the ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB) law.
Vernon Campbell is Executive Director of Federal Programs for the ASD. He says the district is pleased that the state got the waiver, mainly because, under NCLB, the district had to set aside money to help low-income students, even if they were highly proficient.
The waiver will allow the district the flexibility to concentrate those funds on the academically neediest, not just the poorest.
“There’s more flexibility for the district to utilize, I’m gonna say about 30 percent of its funds in ways that make better sense to the district. Following the previous formula we were required to say tutor students while they were low income they might have been highly proficient but under rule we had to tutor them. Under waiver we’ll have more flexibility of concentrating those funds on students that are the academic neediest,” Campbell said.
He says the district has been implementing changes, working up the waiver, for some time.
“The adoption of common core standards is part of the waiver package. The other thing is the new teacher and principal evaluation system, which will find student achievement being a feature of their evaluation. That’s been around since December of this past year. And so folks need to realize that those are features of the waivers. They’re assurances that the state gave in order to receive the flexibility waivers,” Campbell said.
Campbell says students will still be required to take the Alaska Standards Based Assessment test, but the waiver will eliminate some testing. The waivers go into effect at the beginning the school year next fall.
Alaska Pacific University is lowering their tuition more than 30 percent. The president of the Anchorage private liberal arts college says the change will make a college education more affordable for Alaskans, and hopefully, boost their enrollment.
Around the country, college tuition has been going up, outpacing the income growth of average Americans. Don Bantz, the President of Alaska Pacific University, says the APU Board decided to end that trend at their school.
“Affordability is the number one issue in higher education today. There’s a lot of talk about student debt and questioning the value of a higher education. We’re trying to make private, quality, liberal arts education affordable for Alaskans. And the $29,000 sticker price turned a lot of people off. They didn’t even wanna go any further,” Bantz said.
APU’s board decided at their regular meeting on May 16 to reduce tuition by nearly $10,000 per year– from $29,600 to $19,950. The 33 percent cut, Bantz says, makes APU more competitive with out-of-state colleges.
Bantz has been president at APU for three years. Before that he worked at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Bantz says APU has been giving students discounts on tuition for some time now, in order to make it affordable. Instead of continuing to discount, he says, the APU board decided to reduce tuition to what students were actually paying.
“If you want to send your kid outside to any of the big publics on the west coast – Washington, Oregon, all the way down. You’re gonna pay, out of state, about the same that you would pay here now for this private education. And you’re going to be in class sizes of 8, 9, 10 to 1 versus 300, 400, 500 to 1,” Bantz said.
The university has income from other sources, endowments and land holdings to off set the loss of tuition revenue.
Bantz says APU would like to grow, but emphasizes that the University intends to keep class sizes small.
Tuition at University of Alaska Anchorage is much cheaper, at around $4,000 for Alaska residents and around $14,000 for out-of-state students. Alaska Pacific University is four-year liberal arts college with around 600 students. The secular university, which is affiliated with the Methodist church, opened it’s doors in 1960. It offers two-year, four-year, master’s and doctorate level programs. The tuition cut only applies to undergraduate tuition. In-state and out-of-state tuition are the same at APU. The tuition cut goes into effect at the beginning of the 2014 school year.
A Homer flightseeing operator with visions of operating a heliport on the Homer Spit is one step closer to his goal. The Homer City Council narrowly defeated an effort to exclude heliports form a series of new zoning rules.
In front of the council Monday night was a pair of ordinances dealing with what types of businesses and structures are allowed in the city’s marine industrial and commercial zones, in keeping with the 2010 Homer Spit Comprehensive Plan.
The process to come up with the changes began a year ago with several city commissions taking part in its development.
The city Planning Commission original decided against the inclusion of heliports in the new zoning rules, citing concerns that the noise of helicopter operations might have on visitors and businesses, as well as the local bird population.
Public testimony on the matter also centered exclusively on heliports with some folks – like Homer Air owner Dave Rush – opposed.
“I think it would give the current operators a disadvantage,” said Rush.
Eric Lee is a pilot and manager of Bald Mountain Air, a floatplane flightseeing operation that takes off from Homer’s Beluga Lake. Lee said it was partly his idea to someday build a heliport out on the Spit.
“Homer wants more money (and) more participation from tourists … Homer wants cruise ships (and) tax revenue,” said Lee. “And to eliminate the possibility of further business activities seems to go against that idea.”
It was council member Beau Burgess who moved to strike the planning commission’s wording excluding heliports from the new zoning rules. He claimed responsibility Monday night for starting a ruckus over the issue.
“I feel the role of government should be limited so far as there is a clear public mandate and a discussion for addressing this,” said Burgess.
Council members went back and forth on the issue for the better part of an hour. They voted down a motion by David Lewis to allow helicopter take-offs and landings with certain restrictions and also struck down – by a tie vote – another motion to restore the original language that would have banned heliports.
When it came time to vote on the overall ordinance, the absence of Mayor Beth Wythe became a factor. Because Wythe was not there to exercise her right to break a tie vote, a 3 to 3 tie among council members meant that the whole ordinance tanked.
When council member Bryan Zak moved for immediate reconsideration of the vote, the debate intensified, with Burgess pointing out that the council was about to throw out months of work by the planning commission.
After rejecting a motion by council member James Dolma to postpone the matter, the council finally voted 5 to 1 – with Dolma the only holdout – to approve the zoning changes.
It’s important to note that heliports were already allowed on the Homer Spit, but only after their operators applied for and received a conditional use permit from the city. Those same rules are still in effect after the changes were passed Monday.
Alaska continues to add jobs to its seasonal economy.
The preliminary statewide unemployment rate for April is 6 percent, the lowest since mid-2007. It dropped a full percentage point from April 2012.
Nationally, unemployment last month was 7.5 percent.
Once again, Juneau and the North Slope Borough boast the lowest rate in Alaska, at 4-point-4 percent.
But it’s the actual numbers that tell the story, and in Southeast this time of year, jobs are being added in the seafood, construction, and tourism industries.
Caroline Schultz is an economist for the state labor department.
“Juneau added about 100 jobs in accommodation and food services and 400 in all of leisure and hospitality from March to April, so that’s pretty good growth over the month in leisure and hospitality, about 15 percent growth,” Schultz says. “And it will keep growing until it peaks in the mid-summer.”
She says 300 construction jobs were added between March and April, a 20 percent increase for that industry. And the Southeast seafood industry also grew by 300 jobs for the month.
The seasonal employment throughout the state may help lessen the blow of a statewide loss of federal jobs.
The federal jobs are tracked over the year rather than monthly. The loss in Southeast Alaska is slower than the rest of the state, according to Schultz.
She says Interior Alaska lost 500 federal jobs over the year.
“Fairbanks has the bases and there are also a lot of natural resource-oriented federal jobs up there too, like Park Service and Denali, those kinds of jobs,” she says. “But definitely the military bases are probably the biggest driver.”
Schultz says it’s still too early in the tourism season to know the extent of job loss of federal jobs in Alaska’s national parks and preserves.
Bill Hanson is the Field Supervisor of the Juneau Field Office for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Southeast Alaska. His office is responsible for recovery efforts and restoration programs in Southeast Alaska.
“Sometimes we look at species and we think ‘well does it make a difference if one disappears or another one disappears’ and the main thing to remember this is that each of those species represents some portion of that ecological network. So if you look at one species disappearing it’s not just one species disappearing it’s actually all the interactions that relate to it.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife manages some marine mammals including the polar bear, walrus and sea otters. They also manage almost all of the endangered terrestrial species of animals and plants as well as freshwater fish. They work in conjunction with the National Marine Fisheries Servicewhich also has a field office in Juneau. (Here’s a full list of endangered, threatened and candidate species in Alaska)
Marine Fisheries manages all of the other endangered marine mammals including whales, sea lions, seals, saltwater fish, and turtles.
Hanson says that Southeast Alaska doesn’t have very many endangered species compared to other parts of the country or Alaska, but a there are number of species including the Short-tailed Albatross, sea otters and a variety of whales that are monitored.
“A species doesn’t become listed unless it’s in real trouble. Once it’s listed, we go into the next phase which is recovery. Recovery doesn’t just mean getting it above the line which would be it’s either threatened or not threatened. It’s getting it back to healthy populations. That can take a long time and in some cases maybe it’s not possible. We don’t ever know the full answer to that. Success can be measured in a lot of different ways. Ideally, complete recovery is the measure of success and in other cases it maybe that we simply prevent it from becoming extinct.”
The specific reasons that a species becomes endangered can vary widely but most fall into one of two categories: either the species has lost its habitat for some reason or something has caused the species to not be able to function normally such as pesticides or pollution.
There have been success stories. In the Lower 48, the Bald Eagle was once on the edge of extinction due to pesticides, but after it was added to the Endangered Species List and pesticides were more carefully cleaned up and regulated, the birds bounced back.
In Alaska, the Arctic Peregrine Falcon and the Aleutian Canada goose were both successfully recovered.
Hanson says the most important thing to remember is that it’s never just one species that’s in danger because everything in an ecosystem in connected. When one species is endangered, they often represent a broader range of species than just themselves.
The Coast Guard opens an investigative hearing into January’s grounding of the drilling rig Kulluk off Kodiak Island today.
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, formerly part of the Minerals Management Service, will also participate, as well as the National Transportation Safety Board, all wanting to know how come a powerful tug lost power in the Gulf of Alaska and the huge rig repeatedly broke its tow.
First up today will be Shell, followed by teleconference testimony from Offshore Rig Movers, International.
Ice on the Yukon River at Eagle began to move early Friday morning resulting in the second worst flood on record since a devastating flood wiped out the community’s waterfront and a nearby Alaska Native village in 2009. Damage this year was minimal in comparison and residents are relieved.
Giant chunks of ice and silt-rich water overflowed the banks of the Yukon River at Eagle near dawn Friday morning, but by mid-day, the water had receded.
National Weather Service Hydrologist Scott Lindsey was on the scene to survey the damage. He says this year’s is the second worst flood in recorded history.
“I’ve been coming here for 12 years,” he said, “and it’s by far the worst, other than 2009 that I have seen.”
Water bubbled from the ground, creating an eerie boiling sound along the floodplain.
“Yeah, this is pretty substantial!” called Claude Denver, the Response Manager for Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “Well, what we’re seeing here is large pans of ice that have been lifted by the high water and deposited on Mission Road here,” he explained. “This is the only road between Eagle Village and the City of Eagle, so it’s a primary conduit and it’s really important that we can maintain it so it stays open.”
At least six homes, a number of wood and tool sheds, vehicles and heavy machinery were damaged by truck and trailer sized blocks of ice. A handful of telephone poles were knocked over or snapped in half as well.
David Helmer works for Alaska Power and Telephone in Eagle.
“There’s some poles that we have to take care of, cut the wires down and keep it safe for the people in the area,” said Helmer. “Other than that, it will take homeowners rebuilding their homes before we can reconnect to them.”
Helmer was helping Falcon Inn Bed and Breakfast owner Marlys House clean up after nearly three feet of mucky water filled the bottom floor of her business. The B&B was moved off its foundation and heavily damaged in the largest flood on record back in 2009.
“We were sitting out there thinking it was gonna be a replay of 2009,” she smiled. “But it came up and came up and we hauled everything out of the bedroom. We got about three feet of water. And Charlie’s working on the boiler and we’re just drying things out.”
The Falcon Inn stands at the river’s edge above a retaining wall along Eagle’s historic Front Street. Marlys’s husband, Charlie House has since raised the building by four feet. Despite the high water this year, he was in good spirits.
“We had to open the doors to let the water out, but we’re gonna have it all going here in a few days, so it isn’t anything like last time,” he said with a sigh of relief.
No personal injuries have been reported in either the City of Eagle or Eagle Village, 12 miles down the road. The village did report high water, but no serious damage. Emergency Response Manager Claude Denver says it’s unlikely the state will provide individual financial disaster assistance to those affected because damage is not widespread.
There are a lot of rules if you want to gather signatures to get a question on the ballot. You have to be at least 18. You can’t share your petition booklet with other people. And you have to be a resident of the state of Alaska. Now, a man from Wisconsin wants that last part of the law struck down, and he’s taking his case to court. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
Meet Robert Raymond. He’s in his late fifties. He lives in a picturesque Milwaukee suburb. And in his spare time, he runs for office.
RAYMOND: They call me a perennial candidate. *laughs*
Raymond has never been to Alaska. But he’s suing the Division of Elections for the right to circulate petitions in the state.
Because he’s not an Alaska resident, any booklet he distributed would be tossed out, even if all of the signatures in it came from Alaskans. Part of the logic behind that policy is that you want people influencing laws to have a stake in the process. It’s to help keep outside groups from promoting their causes by flooding the state with signature gatherers in order to get on the ballot.
But for Raymond, that’s not a good justification.
“Are people probably going to probably maybe use this in a disingenuous way? I don’t know. But I shouldn’t be deprived of my rights because of other people and what they do.”
Raymond filed his lawsuit last September. Because higher courts have already found similar laws in states like Arizona to be unconstitutional, he figured he would have a good case. He’s even using the same lawyer who won that Arizona case, who was representing third party presidential candidate Ralph Nader at the time. But because Raymond didn’t have a specific initiative that he wanted to collect signatures for, the District Court dismissed his case this spring.
Libby Bakalar is the assistant attorney general handling the case for the state. She says they’re only looking at the issue of legal standing, and that for now, they’re refraining from taking up the substance of the case.
“The idea is before you get to be a plaintiff, you have to have an injury. You have to perfect a claim. What he did is write a letter to the Division and say ‘I might circulate a petition some day.’ And that’s not enough in our view, and that was not enough in the judge’s view.”
Raymond is fighting that decision, and the Ninth Circuit Court is expected to consider that appeal this summer. Raymond argues that even though he lives in Wisconsin and even though he’s not trying to promote any specific cause at the moment, he might want to come to Alaska some day and volunteer on something like the recreational marijuana initiative or the referendum to repeal the state’s new oil tax system.
But with the residency law on the books, Raymond says he having to censor himself, and that violates his First Amendment rights.
“They said, ‘Well, you can’t sue us. We haven’t hurt you yet.’ Well, you know, screw you. You know, if I come up there and it’s important to me, and I want to participate in a ballot initiative or help a candidate get on the ballot, I don’t need to get hurt or harmed first so that I have a cause of action before I sue you. Because you’ve already told me you’re going to harm me.”
For their part, the organizers behind the “Repeal the Giveaway” referendum are only using Alaska residents to circulate their booklets, and they’re not really following Raymond’s case.
But other people in the initiative world are watching it closely. Ken Jacobus is an Anchorage attorney involved with the recreational marijuana initiative. He’s also worked on a number of other initiatives through the years.
JACOBUS: Oh my gosh, I’d probably forget a lot of them. Official English for Government. Anchorage Tax Cap. The latest one, which allows the municipal government the right to raise the individual property tax exemptions on residential property … There have been a lot of them.
Jacobus says the residency provision exposes initiative movements to the risk that their books could be tossed out if they unwittingly used an out-of-state circulator. And in his opinion, the circulators shouldn’t matter because in the end, only Alaska signatures count and only Alaskans get to vote on the issue.
Jacobus says that even if Raymond’s case fails because of lack of standing, there are Alaskans who would take up the cause.
“The constitutional issue is going to be reached at some point, whether or not Raymond does it or not, or whether or not we have to do it.”
It could take months, a year, or longer before that happens. Lt. Gov Mead Treadwell says that the state does plan to enforce the residency requirement in the meantime.
Break up is starting to happen on Interior rivers. The Yukon River ice began moving early this morning at Eagle. It jammed and caused some flooding of low lying homes and roads. Six homes and a handful of sheds have been hit by truck size chunks of ice.
At least three homes have been picked up and moved off of their foundations. 15 miles downriver from Eagle a cabin and a summer home have been completely destroyed, sandwiched between enormous chunks of ice. The water levels receded quickly this morning and the immediate threat to homes appears to be over.
It’s the second largest flood on record after the devastating 2009 river break up. And the National Weather Service is worried snow melt in the mountains could increase the flooding potential again in the coming days.
National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb says additional problems are expected as the break up front progresses downstream.
“The problem now we have is the water is coming down the Yukon and it’s gonna be moving towards the west, where it’s actually been colder, and the ice is a lot stronger because it hasn’t been as warm out west. We got a call from Fort Yukon from our observer this morning, and said the ice is strong, there’s still some snow on the ice and there’s actually some people still riding down in Fort Yukon, and the farther west you go, the stronger the ice is down towards Tanana, Galena and even farther downriver,” Plumb said.
Plumb says colder air moving across the region will slow break up over the weekend, but an expected warm up into the 60’s next week could cause rapid melting and raise the potential for ice jams and flooding. There’s been ice jam flooding on the Tanana River at Salcha, pushing water into a flood prone neighborhood along the Old Richardson Highway.
A new report from the FBI’s “Internet Crime Complaint Center” shows an increase in the number of cybercrimes in Alaska.
Bike to Work Day in Anchorage was soggy and cold this morning. But that didn’t stop hundreds of hearty Alaskans from participating.
Those who did hit the trail were rewarded with several “treat” stations at key bike commuter spots around the city. APRN intern Evan Erickson staked out a spot at the popular “bacon station” at the intersection of the Seward Highway and the Chester Creek Trail.
This week, we’re going to Tuluksak, a community of almost 400 people near the Kuskokwim River. George Lamont is a resident of Tuluksak.
“I’m George Lamont and I live in Tuluksak. We’re about 30 miles away from the Kobuk Mountains. We live in a vegetated area…quite flat…about a mile and a half away from the Kuskokwim River up a river called the Tuluksak River.
Right now, there’s a possibility of another flood since 2009, I think.
The conditions are quite bad right now since the snow has been melting, we have a lot of puddles and we have no road maintenance or anything like that. We have no water and sewer. We still live off what they call a ‘honey bucket,’ and we still have to pack our own water.
Electricity is around 65 cents per kilowatt-hour. And our fuel prices, well, last time I heard, it was $10 a gallon and then it went down to $9.50 a gallon.
People mostly play bingo and most of the time there’s what they call ‘fiddling.’ And what fiddling is, is they have a band in the meeting – the group meeting – most of the people in the village go to that fiddling and plus there’s some basketball games
It’s pretty hard living out here in this remote village here.”
Salt Lake City Police Assistant Bureau Commander Bryce Johnson has been selected to head the Juneau Police Department.
City Manager Kim Kiefer announced Johnson’s hire Wednesday afternoon. He was one of three finalists for the job, who visited Juneau last month. They went through what’s known as an assessment center process, where they encountered situations like those they will deal with as chief. They were rated by criminal justice and public safety officials as well as the city manager.
Kiefer says the raters felt confident Johnson had the necessary experience and attributes to lead the 90-person department. She says he also was favored by Juneau Police Department staff.
Kiefer says Johnson was offered the position several weeks ago, but the announcement could not be made until background checks were complete.
Johnson has worked his way through the ranks at Salt Lake PD over the last 20 years, and says he is looking forward to the challenge of being a police chief in what he calls a “neat department.”
He says JPD is intriguing because of Juneau’s isolation.
“For a department that size, it has so many different things going on, from its own tactical SWAT team, its own explosive ordinance unit, its own dispatch center. Even though it’s smaller it still has all the same functions and that’s really one of the things that drew me to Juneau, because you got functions that other departments of that size just don’t have,” he said in a telephone interview with KTOO on Wednesday.
In addition to his police work, Johnson has been a Reserve Intelligence Specialist for the U. S. Naval Reserve, and taught criminal justice and law enforcement at Salt Lake City high schools. Johnson earned a bachelors’ degree in political science from the University of Utah and a Masters of Public Administration from Brigham Young University.
Johnson will be in Juneau next week to work with Chief Greg Browning, who is retiring at the end of the month. Johnson takes over the post on June 3rd.
The 57-year-old Browning came to the department 13 years ago from Amarillo, Texas, where he’d been on the police force for more than 20 years. He started in Juneau as assistant chief and took over as chief in 2006. Browning has said Juneau has been the “highlight of his career.”
JPD Assistant Chief Page Decker is also retiring at the end of the month.
Step by step an Alaska couple and their two children are making their way along the coast of Cook Inlet, from Seldovia, up and down Turnagain and Knik Arms, and down the west side. Reaching Anchorage, they’re connecting with you, on the next Talk of Alaska.
HOST: Steve Heimel
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LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.
Sentencing is scheduled for May 31st in King County Superior Court for a Seattle-area man convicted of the 2012 murder of 22-year-old Ashton Reyes of Juneau.
A King County jury earlier this month found Jacob Andrew Mommer guilty of first degree murder and second degree assault, while armed with a deadly weapon.
“Under Washington law we can add a firearm enhancement, which is what we did and that’s what the jury came back with on both the assault as well as the murder charge,” said Dan Donohoe, spokesman for the King County prosecutors’ office.
Donohoe said Mommer’s sentence does not allow parole.
“His standard sentence range for both charges, which include the firearm allegations, is 357 to 443 months in prison, which is about 30 to 37 years,” he said.
Reyes was shot on Jan. 3, 2012 in a Subway parking lot at 9305 Rainier Avenue South, during what police described as a drug sale.
Court documents indicate Mommer and another individual allegedly attempted to rob Reyes and her boyfriend, Jason Rose, who were sitting in her car. Police said Rose had arranged to meet Mommer to sell him an ounce of marijuana.
Rose told police and said he testified during the trial that he and Reyes were ambushed as Mommer and the other man robbed them at gunpoint. Rose said he gave them Reyes’ purse and left the vehicle then gunfire erupted. He was struck in the buttocks as he fled across the street. Police found Reyes sprawled across the front seat of her car with a gunshot wound to her torso. She died a short time later at Harborview Medical Center.
Police said Reyes was not a participant in the crimes.
Mommer is 20 years old. He is being held on $1-million bail in the King County Jail until his sentencing, according to the prosecuting attorney’s office.
Donohoe said the second man allegedly involved in the incident has not been identified and the investigation continues.
Reyes was a 2008 graduate of Juneau’s Yaakoosge’ Daakahidi Alternative High School, and daughter of Rick Reyes of Juneau and Terri Reyes of Oregon.
In November 2011, Ashton Reyes graduated from Everett Community College and was a registered dental assistant.
It’s been more than 70 years since Unalaska came under attack during World War II, but you don’t have to look hard to find the remnants. The community is littered with old gunnery installations, battered Quonset huts and bunkers – some of which are being preserved for posterity.
But there’s history, and then there’s hazard, and the shells and bombs that keep washing up on Unalaska’s shores fall somewhere in between.
Out on a quiet beach at the edge of the island, Unalaska’s shooting range is where local gun owners go for target practice.
But the team of Army and Air Force munitions experts that have converged on the range aren’t here to practice anything.
They’ve flown in just to examine a mysterious shell that may date back to World War II.
“Let’s go ahead and take a couple minutes and try to get a quick ID,” Air Force Sgt. Luke Mefford said.
He’s the head of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.
The EOD team has come out to Unalaska, Adak and other Aleutian communities over the years to identify and safely destroy leftover munitions from the war.
Usually, these items get picked up beachcombers or fishermen. Even though they’ve have been swimming in salt water for decades, that doesn’t mean these they’re inert.
Army Sgt. Joe Potocki explains:
Potocki: “Some old explosives use, like, nitroglycerin which is highly sensitive. Being so old, not in the state it’s supposed to be in? You mess around with it, it could definitely go off.”
Rosenthal: “That’s scary!”
Potocki: “It is. That’s why we’re around – it’s why we’ve got a job.”
The job that brought them to Unalaska this time was an effort at historical preservation – gone wrong.
The Ounalashka Corporation runs the World War II museum. Their manager, Dave Gregory, says he was out at lunch one day when an employee of a local fish plant dropped off a donation.
“It was about – oh, what – 20 inches long, six inches at the base. And then it kind of tapered down. Kind of a greenish, dirty color I guess,” Gregory said.
Gregory is no stranger to ordnance. He says the museum does like to collect small pieces, to put in its displays. They add some color.
This shell was different, though. It was heavier and bigger than anything Gregory had seen, it didn’t seem like a good thing to keep around. So he called his friends at public safety. They took custody of the shell, and contacted the EOD team for disposal.
In Unalaska, the team is coping with miserable weather. They take turns snapping photos on the windy, snowy beach. One by one, they dart into a running fire truck for warmth while they consult munitions manuals.
Finally, Sgt. Mefford walks up. They have an ID.
“It’s an artillery round, more than likely fired from a naval ship out in the water somewhere,” Mefford said. “Either for target practice, depending on the exact time period, it may have been used against enemy actions.”
Mefford says he can’t share any more information than that, because the rest is classified.
“I can’t really give you specifics on it, just due to our disclosure rules on it,” he said.
The team wastes no time setting up the blast site.
“Are we gonna have enough antenna to get up on top of this, Scotty?,” Mefford asked.
“Yeah we should, because those caps,” Scott Rice, from the U.S. Air Force, said.
They pack the shell in a hole, and cover it with about 6 pounds of C4, a plastic explosive. They poke in some blasting caps, which are tuned into a remote control.
Once it’s set up, we’re directed to take cover several hundred yards away, behind two gravel berms. We’re waiting for the remote control to warm up, when the team asks me if I want to be the one to set off the explosives.
Rosenthal: “Can I?”
Rice: “Yeah, absolutely! It’ll be ready to go in about 30 seconds.”
Mefford: “We’re not doing it yet. We’re gonna let him set his camera up and then give him the go-ahead.”
While we wait for fire chief Abner Hoage to set up his video camera, I get some basic instructions.
Rice: “Alright, so when we get ready to fire this thing, under this cover is one fire button. You just get ready to press and hold one of them, and then press and hold the other. There will be a two second delay and the shot will go off.”
Potocki: “Do you want to tell her what she has to yell?”
Rice: “Ha, oh yeah. Before you set that off, you have to yell fire in the hole three times as loud as you can. Once forward, once off to your left, once off to your right.”
Air Force Sgt. Scott Rice and I trade. He takes my microphone and recorder, and I take his remote detonator.
Without further ado:
Rosenthal: “FIRE IN THE HOLE, FIRE IN THE HOLE, FIRE IN THE HOLE.”
Rice: “Hold it up nice and high! There you go.”
Rosenthal: “Oh whoa! That is a giant plume of smoke. Whoa. That’s a rush.”
Bits of shrapnel rain through the air – some of them even flying past the berms, carried by the high winds.
Once the dust settles, the team tells me they like to let visitors detonate the explosives when they’re working in the field.
Rosenthal: “Well, thanks for letting me do that, it was really fun.”
Rice: “Alright, we’re good to go. We can go and check it out.”
All that’s left of the shell, is a 4-foot round hole. They measure it and pack up their equipment pretty fast.
Rice: “Alright well, that’s fun.”
Mefford: “That’s Jenga.”
JBER Pilot: “I know the aftermath isn’t as exciting. There’s a hole in the ground!”
The team heads back to the Unalaska fire house for a quick debrief. I ask if any of them thought about the history of the shell before they blew it up, and they say they did.
Mefford: “It’s just neat to come across something your granddad or great-uncle or whatever might have shot 70 years ago.”
Christopher McDonald, US Army: “Probably looked a lot better, though.”
Mefford: “Yeah, probably shinier back then.”
The EOD team is pretty sure that ordnance will keep washing up in Unalaska for a while.
That’s why, when it it’s time for the team to fly back to their base in Anchorage, saying “see you later” seems like a more appropriate than saying, “goodbye.”
A new, smaller Sealaska land-selection measure faces opposition from the federal government.
The legislation would transfer 3,600 acres of the Tongass National Forest to the Southeast-based regional Native corporation.
Sealaska’s timberlands have been logged of much of their harvestable trees. Officials say the acreage will keep timber operations going.
At a Congressional hearing Thursday, U.S. Forest Service official Jim Peña objected to a requirement to transfer the land within 60 days of passage.
“These two parcels would be conveyed without the carefully negotiated replaced to special use authorizations and public access that many stakeholders view as essential,” Peña said.
Peña spoke before the House Committee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. The bill’s author, Alaska Congressman Don Young, chairs that panel.
The acreage is also part of a much larger measure that would transfer about 70,000 acres to Sealaska. (Scroll down to read earlier reports on both bills.)
That bill was also before the committee.
Young said it’s a compromise. (Read the larger bill.)
“First introduced over six years ago, this bill has undergone an extensive vetting process throughout the region. It has resulted in meaningful changes, such as providing for continued public access to lands, and modified certain lands among them,” he said.
The Forest Service’s Peña said the larger measure is much improved. But he wants further changes before the administration lends its support.
Southeast hunting guide Jimmie Rosenbruch spoke for sportsmen’s groups opposing the land transfers.
He said Sealaska’s logging will reduce access, as well as wildlife numbers.
“It’s kind of Sealaska to offer access for guides to utilize these lands for a 10-year period after their Forest Service permit expires. (But) I don’t know there will be much benefit. Having access to clearcut areas wouldn’t be worth anything. There’s no wildlife there. They are D-O-N-E … finished,” Rosenbruch said.
Last year’s version of Young’s bill passed the House, but not the Senate.
And the Senate’s latest version, sponsored by Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, has undergone more negotiation and changes.
Sealaska board member Bryon Mallott said that measure is more likely to be the final legislative vehicle.
But he prefers the House version.
“In my personal judgment, there is more equity and justice in the House bill. But I also know from long, long experience, that what the Native community can easily and passionately feel is equity and justice for others is often very hard to ultimately make possible,” Mallott said.
Young’s Sealaska bills now head to the full House Resources Committee. If either passes, it will go to the House floor for a full vote.
It would most likely be packaged with other legislation. That’s what happened last year.
Read earlier reports on the legislation:
- New Sealaska land bills introduced in Congress
- SEACC backs Sealaska bill, 9 towns oppose it
- Congress Looking At Sealaska Lands Bill
- Second bill proposes smaller Sealaska land transfer
The Arctic Council – the association of the world’s polar countries – has agreed to grant observer status to six non-Arctic nations.
Some people fear the countries are trying to secure long-term commercial interests.
The Arctic Council will now allow China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India and Italy observer status.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski attended the biennial Arctic Council Ministerial this week in Kiruna, Sweden. She says the new observer countries will not vote on policies and agreements, but they will have a voice in negotiations.
“It allows you to be in the discussions, to help formulate the papers that will be reviews,” Murkowski said. “It is more than allowing you to sit in a room with a credential pass around your neck.”
Voting on new partnerships, like the one on oil spill prevention agreed to this week, remains in the hands of the eight polar countries.
And alongside those are six permanent participants – groups representing Arctic natives.
Charlie Ebinger directs the Energy Security Initiative at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. He says people are justifiably concerned that these new countries are using observer status as a stepping stone.
“Obviously those countries want observer status because they believe they have long term commercial interests,” Ebinger said. “The Chinese have interest in mineral deposits in Greenland, both rare earths and uranium.”
And it’s not just mining the countries are interested in. James Collins is a former ambassador to Russia. He says the Arctic is still an emerging market, and more resources will become available as climate change opens the ocean.
“There’s shipping, there’s energy, there’s resource extraction,” Collins said. “And exactly which companies are going to actively pursue those is only beginning to be defined.”
Canada takes over the chair of the Arctic Council this week. And the United States follows suit, so for the next four years, the chair will be in North American control.
Luke Coffey is a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and he says it’s a good sign of U.S. involvement that both Secretary of State John Kerry, and his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, attended the Arctic Council meetings. They are the first two Secretaries of State to do so.
But it should not stop there. He says the United States should start to consider a diplomatic post to handle Arctic negotiations.
“For the U.S. to show they are serious about the Arctic it needs to be at a very senior level, which very well may mean a more senior level than ambassador,” Coffey said.
Coffey suggests a deputy secretary of state for the Arctic. Both Senator Murkowski and Senator Mark Begich have called for an Arctic ambassador. Senator Murkowski says the administration does not support the position.
As for the expanding council, Senator Murkowski says the observer issue is resolved after it dominated much of this week’s gathering.
She says no countries will be added to the list of observer states, nor will the European Union, which is seeking the designation.
Still, there are major global players located far from the north that will now have a hand in Arctic policy.
“There’s a lot of discussion about ‘well what do you think their motives are?’ I look at it and say they see that the Arctic is filled with opportunity and promise. Things are happening up there. They want to know what’s going on. They want to be on the inside,” Murkowski said.
She says a country’s observer status is up for review every four years, though she acknowledges no country has lost it since the Arctic Council formed in 1996.
ConocoPhillips says it’s reviewing spending in Alaska, a month after the legislature passed Governor Sean Parnell’s oil tax reform. The tax cut is worth billions of dollars to oil companies in Alaska. ConocoPhillips executives talked about the state’s new tax regime during their annual meeting and an analyst presentation earlier this week.