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Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 5 min 16 sec ago

KSM mine targets richer ore while seeking investors

Wed, 2015-06-24 16:49

A Canadian mining company says it’s found richer deposits of gold and copper ore at its controversial KSM project. It’s spending $16 million to continue to explore for more at its site, upriver from Ketchikan, this summer.

The company, Seabridge Gold, is holding its annual meeting in Toronto this week. Tribal representatives from Alaska and British Columbia plan a protest.

Seabridge says it’s continuing to define the boundaries of a group of ore bodies at its Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell copper, gold and silver deposit.

The northwest British Columbia mine is upstream of two rivers that enter the ocean within about 50 miles of Ketchikan.

KSM spokesman Brent Murphy says this summer’s drilling will focus on what’s called the Mitchell deposit. The company is drilling past lower-grade copper ore to richer, deeper deposits.

“What we’re finding at KSM is where there’s copper, there’s gold. So, we’re also exploring for gold at the same time,” he says.

The KSM Prospect is inland from Southeast Alaska. (Courtesy SEACC)

Drilling will also further explore two other promising deposits.

Seabridge Gold says the depth of the richer deposits may allow for underground, rather than open pit, mining in some areas. It says that could save money, as well as reduce water use and surface disturbance.

Murphy says 40 to 45 people are working at the remote site right now, with about 20 more coming later. They’ll operate up to three drill rigs.

“It’s a little bit less than last year and the previous year. Two years ago we had I think five drill rigs turning. Last year we had four,” he says.

Exploration is only part of the picture. Seabridge Gold expects mine construction to cost more than $5 billion, Canadian, and continues to seek investment partners.

The company’s 2014 annual report shows that as one of its top goals for the year, as it is for this year. It says Seabridge has doubled the number of confidentiality agreements with prospective partners, though it didn’t give a number.

“What was certainly very promising and favorable to us was the granting and awarding of the federal environmental assessment approval in late December 2014. A few companies took notice of that,” he says.

Seabridge Gold won similar provincial approval last summer.

On the downside, the company acknowledges low metals prices continue to impact investments.

Also affecting the mine’s prospects is last year’s Mount Polley Mine disaster in east-central British Columbia. A tailings dam breach and subsequent flood led to recommendations for significant changes in mine-construction practices.

Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks, a national conservation organization, authored a recentcritical risk analysis of the KSM.

“They’re proposing to use the same discredited tailings dam technology as that used by Mount Polley,” she says. “They’re proposing to submerge tailings underwater after the mine closes, which is in direct conflict with what the expert panel recommended to reduce the potential for catastrophic failure.

She says a dry-tailings storage system would be much safer. That’s what’s used at Southeast Alaska’s Greens Creek Mine.

Murphy says the comparison is unfair. He says KSM’s tailings dam will be better built and far-less risky.

A rusty pipe marks the first drilling site at the KSM Prospect. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/ CoastAlaska News)

“These are much gentler slopes than what was evident at Mount Polley and are much more stable over the long term. We are also insuring that we will not have water built up within the impoundment. So water will be kept hundreds of meters away from the crest of the dam, unlike what we saw at Mount Polley,” he says.

The tailings dam is planned for a valley in the watershed of the Nass River, which enters the ocean south of the Alaska border. A mine-site water treatment plant will be within the watershed of the Unuk River, which drains into saltwater northeast of Ketchikan.

Seabridge Gold this spring announced it had raised about $16 million, Canadian, to fund this summer’s drilling program.

Categories: Alaska News

Bloom Boom: Juneau farmer joins Alaska peony rush

Wed, 2015-06-24 16:38

Interior Alaska has about 50 commercial peony farmers and now a Southeast grower is about to give the cash crop a shot. The flowers are supposed to be the next big boom in Alaska exports.

Peonies from Brad Fluetsch’s home garden. The shrubs can take up to five years to mature. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Brad Fluetsch’s home garden is pretty idyllic. Hummingbirds and bees flit around a colorful array of ornamental plants, yet the most valuable flower hasn’t even opened yet. It can take up to five years to get to this point.

“You grab it and you squeeze the bloom and if it feels like marshmallow, it’s just about ready to pick,” Fluetsch says.

Peonies are big and frilly. Picking one before it opens and refrigerating it can extend the flower’s vase life to more than 14 weeks. Its ability to withstand long travel is one of the reasons why some think peonies could be state’s next big export. Another reason is that the peony can’t be found anywhere but in Alaska in the late summer months.

Rainforest Peonies overlooks the Gastineau Channel on north Douglas Island. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

“That’s why we’re doing it,” he says. “Right now, there’s such a limited a supply of stems to the market.”

A short drive from Fluetsch’s house and a half-mile trek through muskeg, we arrive at 10 acres of beachfront property on north Douglas Island — the future site of Rainforest Peonies.

“This is basically a clearcut,” he says. “You have big old brush piles of stumps and logs. Some windblown trees and then some trees we haven’t cleaned up yet.”

Last year, Alaska-grown peonies were exported to 34 states. Each stem can fetch anywhere from $2-$7, and the buyer pays shipping costs.

Not too long ago the flower was considered old-fashioned, but like anything old, it can be made new again. Especially if the one selling it is America’s wedding tastemaker, Martha Stewart.

Fairbanks horticulturist Patricia Holloway says the celebrity has done a lot to promote and market peonies.

“That’s one of her favorite flowers,” she says. “And it is the number one bride’s flower in the United States.”

Holloway is a tastemaker in her own right. She’s known as the “godmother of Alaska peonies.” Several years ago, she caught wind that the flowers could grow here and fill a gap in the market.

“I was getting phone calls almost immediately from places like London wanting Alaska peonies because no one could believe that we had them in July,” she says.

Alaska Peony Growers Association already test marketed them to Taiwan. Red peonies are a favorite in parts of Asia and whites sell best in the U.S. and Canada. Alaska can’t support the international market just yet, but Holloway says that may change.

She estimates the number of commercial growers could double in the next few years.

“Just like the gold rush years and years ago. People came north trying to make some money,” she says. “There are going to be people who succeed and there are going to be people who fail.”

At the farm, Brad Fluetsch plunges a shovel into coffee-colored dirt.

“We could grow just about anything in this,” he says.

About 200 peony beds will be built on the site. He says one of the challenges of growing the flower in Southeast is soil drainage. He’s barged over several tons of sand to fix that. A fungus called botrytis could be another problem.

Once the operation is in full swing, Fluetsch says he could earn up to $800,000 in a year, but there are risks involved. Peonies have to freeze in order to bloom and warm winters could be detrimental.

“If it happens in the first year, you’re out $20,000 in one year,” he says. “But if it happens to a mature crop … then you’re out a lot money for the roots plus five years.”

Rainforest Peonies first crop is expected in 2019.

The company could employee up to 15 people in Juneau once it’s fully operational. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Categories: Alaska News

Wildfire Hinders Salmon Harvest on the Yukon

Wed, 2015-06-24 16:29

King and chum salmon are still slowly building a run up the Yukon this summer—and fishermen are contending with everything from gear restrictions to wildland fires in their efforts to fill their racks.

During the weekly teleconference with fishermen and managers in the U.S. and Canada—organized by the nonprofit Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association—fisherman all along the river say Alaska’s intense fire season is definitely hampering their season—turning an afternoon boating on the river into choking day in a smoke-filled oven.

Basil: “In the high 90s here, thick smoke.”

Norma: “The Marshall boys, the firefighters, are still out at the Card Street fire, so a lot of our subsistence activities were lower than in  previous weeks.

Fred: Fred Huntington in Galena, lots of forest fires.

Ellis Wright in Ruby: There’s a lot of fires in our area, so its pretty smoky.”

The fires may have hindered fishing, but they haven’t stopped the fish. The first pulse of Chinook was in the river in early June—and is now as far upriver as Koyukuk—but overall the numbers remain low: roughly 13-thousand fewer kings have passed the Pilot Station Sonar project near the river’s mouth when compared to this time last year.

It’s a different story for summer chums: they also began running just a week into June, and now two pulses have made it as far upriver as Holy Cross. But compared to last year, there are nearly 20-thousand more chums are in the water now.

Even with hundreds of thousands of chums swimming alongside thousands of Chinook, runs are still just average, and that means gear is still limited to dipnets, beach seines, and the occasional live-release fish wheel. An unfamiliar tool for many on the Yukon, dipnets have been for the most part ineffective—and many fishermen hoping to user smaller 4-inch mesh nets say they simply can’t get that gear in their communities. That’s turned what should be a busy summer along the river into a slow and frustrating season with little fishing.

“Yeah this is Sven with the tribe in St .Mary’s. Reports are people haven’t been able to get most of their ,or a lot of their, subsistence needs done.

Martin: This is Martin, very little subsistence activity, most racks riverfront have a few salmon hanging, we should be usually with hanging and drying salmon in Pilot.

Ken Chase in Anvik, subsistence fishing for salmon right now is just about nil, there’s no, no one out fishing.

Bill in St. Mary’s: This dipnet fishing, for subsistence, it ain’t, it just ain’t workin’ out.”

While subsistence has been slow, commercial chum fishing was open in the lower river with dip nets and beach seine gear. As of Sunday, commercial harvested almost 62,000 chums and released over 3,000 Chinooks. Sven in St. Mary’s says the gear limit—and overlap—should be reason enough to allow for a ‘round-the-clock opening for subsistence.

“Since we are doing subsistence and commercial at the same time, what are the chances having subsistence going 24/7. With the little amount of fish in the river, and people still have to meet their subsistence needs, imagine it should give them more chance for subsistence opportunity for these fishermen here, just to give folks a chance to have their subsistence needs taken care of.”

Fish and Game managers say that’s not likely: they say they are already holding subsistence-only openings in the morning prior to the subsistence and commercial openings in the afternoon and evening. They may open it up for subsistence-only in the lower river, but for now, limited chum salmon openings continue. New openings near Ruby and Galena are expected later this week—and only dip nets, beach seines, and fish wheels will be allowed.

Stepehanie Schmidt—the Summer Season Fishery Manager along the Yukon for Fish and Game—says strong winds are pushing more fish into the mouth of the Yukon, and test catches near the mouth Tuesday saw large numbers of both species. She hopes that means more fish—and more chances for subsistence users to finally start putting away enough of them for the winter.

“You know, one day makes all the difference. It now looks as though we’ve got a really, really good group of both summer chum and Chinook salmon moving into the river currently … And we’re gonna try and get folks fishing on those summer chum salmon when they’re there in abundance and there’s relatively low numbers of Chinook salmon.”

But what does that goal *really mean for people living on the river? One fishermen admitted on the teleconference—with a mix of pride and remorse—to sharing a small feast of just one prized Chinook with his fellow elders, saying the group of five “ate that king salmon, kind of like a ceremonial prayer” — likely the only king salmon they’d harvest this season, he added.

For Janet in Rampart, that spiritual connection to the Chinook is what’s being lost with the king closures—and it’s something she fears will be lost to new generations if they can’t harvest the sacred fish.

Janet: “We’ve been doing due diligence of trying to preserve the king salmon. And we keep saying “for our grandchildren,” but when you think about it, our grandchildren are not even getting … or we’re depriving them of eating king salmon … of the taste of such a wonderful food … then how are they even going know?

If the tight conservation on kings continues, Schmidt says they’ll be on track to meet escapement goals for Chinook this year. And that *could mean very limited openings for incidental take of kings. That’ll help fishermen meet subsistence needs without a significant impact to the Chinook population—but Schmidt says no decisions has yet been made.

Categories: Alaska News

5.8-Magnitude Quake Rattles Mainland Alaska

Wed, 2015-06-24 16:06

A 5.8 magnitude earthquake was felt across much of much of mainland Alaska this afternoon.

Photo by USGS.

It occurred at 2:34 this afternoon, when Anchorage mayor elect Ethan Berkowitz was live on the radio at KSKA, talking with host Charles Wohlforth and a caller:

“Hi there. I think we’re having an earthquake. We’re having an earthquake right now! I’m getting shook around. Yeah it’s moving around. Let’s see what we can find out about that.”

The earthquake was centered 64 miles west of Willow. Alaskans from a large section of the state — from Seward, Fairbanks, Denali and the Mat Su Valley reported the shaking. State Seismologist Michael West at the Alaska Earthquake Center felt the temblor at his office in Fairbanks. He says the earthquake occurred about 70 miles underground, and that’s the reason it was felt so widely:

“The earthquakes that happen up in the top part of the crust have to travel through all the complexities of the surface of the earth. When they occur down deep, they are spared a lot of that, they travel cleanly through the interior of the earth and then some of those waves show up at their destination.”

West say the depth of the quake also minimizes the chance for any damage. He says the earthquake happened in roughly the same area as a 6.2 quake last September, the most significant shaking in Anchorage in more than a decade.

Categories: Alaska News

Young a Lonely GOP Voice for Puerto Rican Statehood

Wed, 2015-06-24 16:00

Photo: U.S. Government

Alaska Congressman Don Young took some flack for holding a fundraiser in Puerto Rico last week, just days before chairing a subcommittee hearing on statehood for the U.S. territory. But at the hearing  back in Washington this afternoon, Young made it clear he’s no Johnny-come-lately to the question.

“On a personal level, I’ve been involved in this project since 1994,” he said at the start of the hearing. “I believe very strongly, right up front with you, in statehood. That’s no hidden secret. But that’s up to the decision of the Puerto Rican people.”

It’s a divisive question on the island. Young likened their status to Alaska’s struggle to become a state, which occurred 92 years after Alaska’s purchase.

“And Puerto Rico is still waiting 117 years later, to be recognized as Americans, full rights as Americans,” he said.

Young is a rare Republican in Congress who supports statehood for Puerto Rico. The Caribbean island is the size of Kodiak Island but it’s home to 3.6 million people. If it was a state, it would have two U.S. senators and five representatives in the House, all predicted to be Democrats.

According to an article in Politico last week, Puerto Rican residents have contributed $147,000 to Young’s re-election campaigns over more than 20 years. That doesn’t include the fundraiser a pro-statehood political action committee held for him at a San Juan restaurant on Friday.

According to Politico, Young got angry when one of its reporters asked about the propriety of holding the fundraiser a few days before the hearing. The political news outlet reported his response as “So what?” and “I’m not talking to you anymore.”

Categories: Alaska News

Surveyors Climb Denali to Recalcuate Its Height

Wed, 2015-06-24 15:57

Denali, photo by the National Park Service

A dispute over the height of North America’s tallest mountain may be resolved this week, as surveyors climb to the top of Mount McKinley.

McKinley – recognized throughout Alaska by its Koyukon Athabascan name, Denali – has long been thought to stand at 20,320 feet, a measurement recorded in 1953. That number was contested in 2013, when the United States Geological Survey (USGS) used radar technology to re-calculate the mountain’s height. The result was a mere 20,237 feet… 83 feet lower than the previously recognized elevation.

“Oh, people didn’t like the lower number. And I was bothered by it myself. I mean I had people say, ‘It’s still over 20,000 feet, I hope?’ And I said, ‘Yes it’s still over 20,000 feet, but I don’t know how much over 20,000 feet.’”

Dave Moune is senior project manager with Dewberry Geospacial Products and Services – a company contracted by USGS to perform the 2013 survey. Moune says the “new” elevation, in addition to being controversial, may not be entirely accurate.

He says the measurement was taken from the air using radar frequencies, to create 3D images as part of an ongoing mapping project around the state. And while that technique is great for mapping complex terrain in 3D, Moune says its single-point elevation measurements could be off by several meters.

He adds the most accurate way to measure height for a specific peak is to use GPS. But for that, you need old-fashioned boots on the ground…

“Hey there, this is Blaine. We’re up at 14,000 feet on Denali on the summit survey expedition.”

Blaine Horden is leading those boots – and a team of three surveyors – to the summit of Denali this week. Their mission: To set the record straight.

As of Monday night, the team had settled in at 14,000 feet… with plans to push for the summit as early as Wednesday. But Moune says the task of measuring a mountain isn’t an easy one.

“These guys are not just taking themselves to the top of the mountain. They are carrying a lot of equipment with them. That all has weight associated with it. Some of it is stuff they have to keep inside their coat so their bodies will help keep it warmer. That all adds to the complexity of the climb.”

In addition to challenges faced by all high-altitude climbers, the team will need to clear a few logistical hurdles. For example: finding the physical peak of Denali – rock that has been buried under feet of ice and snow.

This is an ambitious goal. No survey of the mountain so far has calculated elevation using its natural peak… all measurements have been taken from ice resting on *top* of the mountain. Which, Moune says, could have contributed to some level of error in the past.

“People want to know how high is Denali. And perhaps the best we can do is tell them how high the ice and snow is in 2015 on the day that we surveyed it. Recognizing that the thickness of the ice and snow may change whenever it snows and rains up there. Or melts for that matter.”*

Moune says even if Horden’s team also measures from the ice at Denali’s summit, the data they gather will still provide an improved estimate of the mountain’s true height.

The expedition could take as long as three weeks to complete, but Moune reports that the surveyors are currently ahead of schedule – and could begin their descent by the end of this week.

And the height of the continent’s tallest mountain isn’t the only thing up for debate. The name of the famous Alaskan peak has long been a point of contention – both in, and out, of state.

Alaskans have filed several federal bills since 1975 to change the name from Mount McKinley – after former president William McKinley – to Denali, a traditional Koyukon Athabascan term meaning “high one” or “great one.”

That effort has been largely opposed by representatives from McKinley’s home state of Ohio – with Rep. Bob Gibbs filing a bill that would stop theU.S. board of Geographic Names from changing the mountain’s title as recently as March 2015.

Last month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced yet another bill to change the name to Denali in honor of the region’s Native heritage. It remains unclear whether either legislator will succeed in pushing their bill through the House or the Senate.

Categories: Alaska News

Sen. Sullivan: VA Must Own Up to Alaska ‘Crisis’

Wed, 2015-06-24 15:39

A new Veterans Affairs program aimed at reducing long wait times for health care has had the opposite effect for scores of Alaska vets. At a congressional hearing today, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said the Veterans Choice program is undermining older systems that helped Alaskans use their VA benefits to get treatment outside the VA. He called the implementation of the Choice program a developing crisis for Alaska.

“It’s Phoenix all over again,” he said. “People are having their appointments cancelled at the last minute. Showing up for surgery — and the VA in Washington has to take responsibility. It can’t blame this on the Congress.”

Congress mandated the Choice program last year after a scandal erupted in Phoenix over long waiting lists. Congress also put $10 billion into the Choice account, so VA officials in Alaska have been requiring vets to use that program to get appointments at private clinics. Veterans, though, say the program is difficult  to use and that too few providers are signed on.

Sullivan says the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee will hold an Alaska field hearing in August. Sullivan said he considered putting a hold on a VA nominee last night, blocking the confirmation of the undersecretary for health, but decided against it after securing his commitment to come to Alaska for the hearing.

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Police Chief: Secondhand goods ordinance ‘extremely successful’

Wed, 2015-06-24 10:12

The crime rate in Juneau went down in 2014, according to an annual report released by the local police department.

Police Chief Bryce Johnson presented the report to the Juneau Assembly on Monday and noted that the underlying crime statistics show two clear trends.

“Property crime is down significantly, but violent crime is up,” he said.

In property crime cases, Johnson said an ordinance the Assembly adopted last August to curb fencing of stolen goods through certain businesses has become investigators’ primary tool.

Bryce Johnson

“So on average, twice a month, the secondhand ordinance is the main reason we’re able to clear a criminal case,” Johnson said. “So from our perspective, it’s an extremely successful ordinance. We’re still working a little bit on the compliance part for some secondhand dealers. But it has been as productive or more productive than we actually thought it would be. It’s really helping us to clear some crimes.”

Since it took effect in September, Johnson said the ordinance has led to recoveries of jewelry, electronics and firearms in 11 separate cases.

The ordinance targets shops that buy and sell secondhand goods and is similar to state laws requiring pawn shops document and hold inventory.

Assemblyman Loren Jones said jewelry taken from his household ended up in the new system.

“When the police officer was in our entryway getting the information from my wife, a picture of the pawned item showed up on his phone. So she could identify it. It’s now sitting in the PD’s property,” Jones said. “It worked as it was supposed to.”

A massive spike in heroin seizures also drew attention. Police seized $4.7 million of heroin in 2014, about eight times more than in 2013. Meanwhile, OxyContin and oxycodone pill seizures fell to about 1 percent of 2013 levels.

Johnson said the spike in heroin seizures is likely driven by addiction, and partially from increased police presence at the airport. Juneau police replaced private firms for round-the-clock security at the airport in October 2013. The airport is a primary point of entry and hub for regional trafficking.

Another trend Johnson mentioned to the Assembly was the use of body cameras.

“Every agency in the country is trying to get body cameras right now. So I may come back at some point to talk body cameras. It’s the future; I don’t see how we don’t go forward with that,” he said.

Finally, Johnson also noted that the department had lost its professional accreditation because the credentialing organization it used no longer exists. The department is seeking a new credentialing agency. Accreditation essentially means that a third party can verify that a department meets professional police standards.

Categories: Alaska News

Crews continue containment work on Kenai Peninsula fires

Wed, 2015-06-24 10:10

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But in this case, smoke from the Card Street Fire on Tuesday was from an intentional burn, one meant to prevent the fire from coming any closer to recreational facilities in the Skilak Lake area.

Firefighters planned a burnout operation on the southeast corner of the fire Tuesday, in the vicinity of the Skilak Lake boat ramp. The goal was to ignite about 2,000 acres of unburned spruce to strengthen the fire line in the area.

The fire is estimated at 7,352 acres, or 11.5 square miles, and is about 25 percent contained. Crews continue to construct and strengthen fire lines around the perimeter and are working to put out any hot spots found within 300 feet of structures. The west end of Skilak Lake Loop Road to Engineer Lake remains closed. There are 451 personnel still fighting the fire, including 16 fire crews, eight fire engines and three helicopters.

The Stetson Creek Fire south of the Sterling Highway near Cooper Landing held at just over 200 acres Tuesday, with crews getting to about 60 percent containment. Crews are in mop-up mode, focusing along Copper Creek at the existing containment line to the north and south.

Across the highway, the Juneau Lake Fire was 573 acres Tuesday and about 40 percent contained. Over 100 personnel are still working those two fires, including helicopter support. Conditions are expected to be sunnier and drier today and the rest of the week, with humidity 10 to 15 percent lower today than Tuesday.

Residents with damaged homes, essential personal property and transportation losses from the Card Street Fire might be eligible for help from the State Disaster Individual Assistance program. Registration for the program began Tuesday and continues through Aug. 18. There’s a hotline set up to apply, at 855-445-7131, or go online toready.alaska.gov.

Description of damages, insurance information, proof of ownership and the like are required. Be sure to take pictures of any damages before cleaning up, and keep receipts from any costs incurred.

Categories: Alaska News

Spike in number of female prisoners at Alaska prisons

Wed, 2015-06-24 10:08

The increase in the number of women prisoners in Alaska more than tripled that of male inmate growth between 2004 and 2013.

The Alaska Dispatch News reports the statistics released Monday by University of Alaska Anchorage researchers show that the female inmate population grew by about 87 percent over the 10-year period, while the number of male inmates grew by about 24 percent.

The state has responded by increasing the number of beds for women at Anchorage Correctional Complex and at the state’s women-only facility, Hiland Mountain Correctional Complex.

Lawmakers recently announced that a nonprofit would help review Alaska’s criminal justice system and propose reforms in order to decrease the total prison population, which has grown by more than 50 percent in 10 years.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tue, 2015-06-23 17:34

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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Conservation Groups Say Shell’s Drilling Plan Violate Walrus Rule

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.

Environmental groups say they’ve found a fundamental flaw in Shell’s plan to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer and they’re asking the government to rescind its approval.

Interior Alaska Ablaze With Lightning-Ignited Fires

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Smoke is spreading over a large area of the state, as wildfire activity grows. There were 56 new wildfires Monday statewide, and 238 active, mostly in interior and southwest Alaska.

Crews Stage in Kalskag to Quell An Upshot in Wildfires

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

Fire officials are moving crews off the Whitefish Lake fire to Lower Kalskag as a staging area for protecting homes and other communities threatened by fires.

55 Homes Destroyed by Sockeye Fire, According to New Estimate

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

Officials with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough say 55 homes were destroyed by the Sockeye fire. That number is more than twice what was estimated last week as the fire still raged.

Two Volcanoes Under Watch in the Aleutians

Emily Schwing, KUCB – Unalaska

Two volcanoes in the Aleutian chain have been showing signs of activity for years, but recent satellite images prompted the Alaska Volcano Observatory to raise its alert level and aviation color code.

A Collaborative Classroom Drives Team Learning

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

What happens when you throw a mix of middle school kids who all learn at different levels into one class then hand them a couple of college-level texts? An innovative, collaborative approach to teaching that gets students to pay attention.

Guide Academy Helps Locals Land Jobs At Sportfishing Lodges

Matt Martin, KDLG – Dillingham

A week on at a sport fishing lodge in Bristol Bay costs tourist thousands of dollars. It’s a major regional industry but it is largely owned and operated by outsiders. The Bristol Bay River and Guide Academy seeks to bring a slice of the pie home by training local kids in the art of fly fishing.

French Company Courts Petersburg As A Cruise Destination

Angela Denning, KFSK – Petersburg

A French tour boat carrying about 250 people is visited Southeast Alaska last week.

Categories: Alaska News

Fire Threatens Tanana; Voluntary Evacuations Underway

Tue, 2015-06-23 16:53

A fire burning near the interior village of Tanana has prompted voluntary evacuations in that community for elders and people sensitive to smoke.

The Tozitna fire started from a lightening strike late Sunday about six miles northwest of the village. It exhibited “extreme behavior” according to Jennifer Costitch, a public information officer with the Division of Forestry.

She says in less than 24 hours, the fire grew to 25,000 acres. It’s now growing more slowly but is moving toward the town and is about four miles away. Three crews, including one Type 1 hotshot crew are fighting the fire.

Listen now:

Categories: Alaska News

Two Volcanoes Under Watch in the Aleutians

Tue, 2015-06-23 16:42

Two volcanoes in the Aleutian chain have been showing signs of activity for years, but recent satellite images prompted the Alaska Volcano Observatory to raise its alert level and aviation color code.

Shishaldin Volcano with a typical steam plume, pictured on Sept. 14, 2013. Photo by Joseph Korpiewski, U.S. Coast Guard.

Satellite imagery shows elevated surface temperatures in the summit crater at Cleveland Volcano, roughly 140 miles west of Dutch Harbor. John Power is the Scientist in Charge at the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

“So, we’re seeing warm ground, increased thermal activity at the summit.  Some of the radar images that we have suggest that new lava has been extruded forming a small lava dome in the volcano summit crater.”

Scientists at the AVO have raised the alert level for Cleveland to ‘advisory.’  The aviation color code has also been set to yellow.

“We have heightened the alert levels at Cleveland so that folks are aware that there is the possibility of increased hazards associated with any eruptive activity that might occur beyond what’s apparently already gone on.”

Cleveland volcano has been extremely active for the past decade. Power says it’s one of the most active volcanoes in the Aleutian Chain. But the majority of that activity has come in the way of small, long-term, low-level eruptions.

A similar scenario is playing out roughly 125 miles to the east of Dutch Harbor at Mt. Shishaldin.

“What we see there is Shishaldin has a very deep summit crater and down in the bottom there’s activity going on. We see increased temperatures again in satellite imagery and we believe that there’s active magma pooling deep inside that summit crater.”

Shishaldin is the tallest volcano in the Aleutians, towering more than 9000 feet above sea level. The alert level there is currently set to ‘watch.’ The aviation color code is orange. Power says the volcano occasional emits small amounts of ash.  He says Shishaldin has been in a low-level state of eruption for over a year.

Despite the recent increase in activity, Power says there’s no indication of any major eruptions from any of the volcanic centers throughout the Aleutian Chain.

Categories: Alaska News

55 Homes Destroyed by Sockeye, According to New Assessment

Tue, 2015-06-23 15:47

Officials with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough say 55 homes were destroyed by the Sockeye fire. That number is more than twice last week’s estimate before responders had contained the blaze.

The original number came before crews had access to the worst affected areas.

“They’ve been able–over the last few days–to get out, and for 13 hours a day walk properties, look around,” said Borough spokesperson Patty Sullivan, “and… look at what was actually destroyed.”

In addition to the homes, assessment teams logged another 44 properties with substantial damage to outbuildings.

“Sheds, or green houses, or even out-houses,” Sullivan listed. “Sometimes valuable things were stored in sheds, such as dog sleds. So while it might be an out-building it might still contain very dear items.”

338 properties have been assessed within the fire zone, the majority–238–of them showed no signs of structure damage. However, there are still some remote properties officials have not been able to reach.

Borough officials are holding a meeting Tuesday on next steps in the damage assessment process for those affected by the fire at the Willow Community Center from 4-8pm.

Categories: Alaska News

Interior Alaska Ablaze With Lightning-Ignited Fires

Tue, 2015-06-23 15:46

Smoke is spreading over a large area of the state, as wildfire activity grows. There were 56 new wildfires Monday statewide, and 238 active, mostly in interior and southwest Alaska.

One of the top priority blazes in the interior is the Rex Complex Fire, burning off the Parks Highway north and south of Anderson. Alaska Interagency Coordination Center public information officer Timothy Evans says the complex consists of two fires: the over 4,000-acre  Fish Creek blaze, north of Anderson, and the much larger Kobe Fire to the southwest.

Evans says firefighters focus is on structure protection, adding that some homes have already been lost.

Meanwhile, Evans says two fires north of Fairbanks, off the Elliot Highway prompted evacuations in the Eureka area, while another blaze far to the west, threatens the Yukon River village of Nulato.

The fire spotted into Nulato yesterday, but Evans says fire fighters were able to save the community.

Numerous other interior blazes continue to crop up daily, primarily due to lightning. Those close to structures are getting responses, while others burning unchecked in remote country send smoke into populated areas. The 13 thousand acre Blair Fire, 40 miles south of Fairbanks is blamed for a dense haze that blankets the city.  With so many wildfires raging, Division of Forestry spokesman Jim Schwarber says the response is getting more complex.

So far this season, just under 500 wildfires have burned 324,000 acres, an early season total Schwarber describes as relatively modest.

National Weather Service meteorologist Don Aycock says fire conducive weather is forecast to continue this week, and smoke is expected be an issue for several days.

Aycock says some weather anticipated for later in the week could help the situation, and that weather systems could bring rain to the eastern Alaska Range and interior, but its unclear if that will extend west to Fairbanks.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Crews Stage in Kalskag to Quell An Upshot in Wildfires

Tue, 2015-06-23 15:21

Fire officials are moving crews off the Whitefish Lake fire to Lower Kalskag as a staging area for protecting homes and other communities threatened by fires. Crews had been working to establish a fire line on the northern edge, but are now changing strategy.

More than 70 wildfires burn in southwest Alaska. Map from Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

Francis Mitchell is with the state Division of Forestry.

“They would be there available for quick response to Kalskag, Chuathbaluk, Aniak, because there are fires near those communities,” said Mitchell.

Crews removed hose from along the western interior line so that it could be redeployed for structure protection. The fire grew more than 1500 acres going into Monday. It’s not controlled and has gone beyond the perimeter.

There are now more than 70 active fires in southwest Alaska, and 20 started Monday from lightning.

Because firefighters and aircraft are dealing with hundreds of fires around the state, only fires that directly threaten communities or occupied structures will receive staff.

Mitchell says the Kalskag crew is stationed near the runway to be ready to move.

“Ever changing and fluid, that’s kind of the way operations are today. The focus is on getting the few crews in the southwest area at staging points where they can be quickly deployed to fires that threaten life,” said Mitchell.

In Crooked Creek, crews laid down hose, set up sprinklers, and prepped the town for point protection. Fire personnel will continue to focus on the western edge of the town, while securing multiple structures and sites. The fire is still 3.5 miles from Crooked Creek.

The Yukon village of Nulato was evacuated yesterday as a fast moving fire threatened the villages. Residents traveled by boat to Galena. KTUU reports that about 50 people evacuated, and another 100 sheltered in place. The airport is socked in with smoke, so the only way to travel is by boat.

Officials say one secondary structure has been destroyed and 100 home are threatened. A burn ban remains in effect for southwest Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

Enviros: Shell’s Arctic Plan Violates Walrus Rule

Tue, 2015-06-23 14:38

Environmental groups say they’ve found a fundamental flaw in Shell’s plan to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer and they’re asking the government to rescind its approval. In a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the groups say Shell’s plan to use two drill rigs at once violates a 2013 Fish and Wildlife regulation aimed at protecting walruses. The regulation says rigs have to be 15 miles away from each other during exploration work. The sites Shell plans to drill are just nine miles apart.

“Shell and the government may have backed themselves into a corner that neither can get out of compliant with the existing rules,” says Michael LeVine, a Juneau-based senior attorney with Oceana.

The government insisted on Shell using two rigs per season as a safety measure. That’s so one rig could drill a relief well in case of a blowout, and also to shorten the number of seasons needed for exploration. LeVine says requiring Shell to just keep one rig idle isn’t a solution.

“The plan that Shell submitted contemplates two rigs drilling simultaneously,” he said. “It’s not clear whether the government has or could approve a different plan.”

An Interior Department official said today the Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing Shell’s program to ensure it complies will all laws and minimizes any disturbance to walruses.

Shell spokeswoman Megan Baldino says the company is still working with the government on the terms of the letter of authorization it requires to begin operations.

“All of our permit applications are based on sound science,” she said in an email.

Shell has received most of the approvals it needs. It has leased two drilling rigs for its Chukchi Sea work. The Polar Pioneer is already en route from Seattle to Dutch Harbor.

Environmental groups have repeatedly challenged the Chukchi Sea leases in court. The letter sent today suggests they haven’t given up.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Innovative Summer School Class Helps Students Succeed, Together

Tue, 2015-06-23 12:54

Students working on presentations at Central Middle School. From left: Edward Hazelton, Draven Maynard, Alissa Steinbich, and Kayleigh Godbee. Photo courtesy of Aura Beatty.

What happens when you throw a mix of middle school kids who all learn at different levels into one class then hand them a couple of college-level texts? An innovative, collaborative approach to teaching that gets students to pay attention. That’s what happened at a summer school class at Central Middle School.

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Soon-to-be ninth grader Draven Maynard didn’t choose to go to summer school.

“I failed social studies, and my mom said that I should go to summer school,” he admits. “I’m guessing as kind of a punishment rather than actual keeping up with classes, I guess.”

It’s the start of the second week and Maynard acts low-key, almost apathetic. He says forced writing isn’t his thing but for this summer….

“I like the writing class because it’s actually– most of the stuff that they are covering are things that I don’t mind writing about.”

The topic? Omnivore’s Dilemma–how do humans decide what to eat, especially in a world with factory farms, huge variety, and a changing food culture.

Two weeks later, Maynard’s apathetic front has trickled way. He’s taken over editing the PowerPoint slides for a group presentation on the merits of genetically modified foods.

“I’ve been the person who’s been going to each one and re-writing them to sound better, I guess,” he says while typing on his school laptop.

“He’s a hard worker,” chimes in Edward Hazelton, his new friend.

The pair had never met before this summer because they go to different schools. “I didn’t know them. I just imposed upon their group of friends,” Hazelton quips.

“He’s a good friend, though. Don’t worry,” Maynard assures me.

The students are a mix. Some are on the gifted track. Others have individual learning plans. Some just fly under the radar. But in summer school it doesn’t matter. Everyone has the same lessons, the same expectations.

The class is working from the young readers edition of Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, though some kids are sneaking in chapters of the adult version on the side. They’re also reading articles that challenge Pollen’s arguments.

Teacher Aura Beatty says the material is sparking conversations. “And they don’t always all agree with each other, but they’re still talking and thinking about their world. And they’re making connections about their world and their role in it.”

Reading teacher Amanda Brueschke, who is collaborating with Beatty, says the high level of interest from the mixed up group of kids is pulling the disengaged students into conversations because they see value what they’re doing.

They’re also asking the students to read chapters from a college-level book about the history of uranium.

“And I have kids who are no where near that as far as their reading level, but they’re so interested because the other kids are talking about it,” Brueschke says.

The two teachers say their high expectations are helping the kids take ownership over their work and their group presentations. But some students, like Hazleton don’t really realize it.

“There’s always the freeloaders and then there’s the really hard workers and then there’s the middlemen,” he says, reflecting on typical school group dynamics.

He says he falls somewhere between the middlemen and the freeloaders, Maynard, the self-appointed group leader, doesn’t see Hazleton that way.

“He does try,” Maynard says assuredly as Hazleton chats with another classmate. “And we really appreciate it. He’s a problem solver. He thinks of things that could help him do better work, and I think it’s a good trait to have.”

Though the material is complicated, Maynard thinks its good for everyone.”I think everyone of every variety can be in this class and actually learn something.”

But some students, like Madison Hill, will never agree. She says she would never take a class like this again.

“I actually don’t like language arts,” she confesses, though she tests very highly in the subject. “I mean, I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just not my thing.”

Anchorage Middle School Summer Academy ends this week.

Categories: Alaska News

Fire crews stage in Lower Kalskag

Tue, 2015-06-23 12:38

Fire officials are moving crews  off the Whitefish Lake fire to Lower Kalskag as a staging area for protecting homes and other communities threatened by fires. Crews had been working to establish a fire line on the northern edge, but are now changing strategy.

Francis Mitchell is with the State Division of Forestry.

“They would be there available for quick response to Kalskag, Chuathbaluk, Aniak, because there are fires near those communities,” Mitchell said.

Crews removed hose from along the western interior line so that it could be redeployed for structure protection.  The fire grew more than 1,500 acres going into Monday. It’s not controlled and has gone beyond the perimeter.

There are now more than 70 active fires in southwest Alaska, and 20 started Monday from lightning.

Because firefighters and aircraft are dealing with hundreds of fires around the state, only fires that directly threaten communities or occupied structures will receive staff.

Mitchell says the Kalskag crew is stationed near the runway to be ready to move.

“Ever changing and fluid, that’s kind of the way operations are. The focus is on getting the few crews in the southwest area  at staging points where they can be quickly deployed to fires that threaten life,” Mitchell said.

Upriver in Crooked Creek, crews laid down hose, set up sprinklers, and prepped the town  for point protection. Fire personnel will continue to focus on the western edge of the town, while securing multiple structures and sites. The fire is still 3.5 miles from Crooked Creek.

A burn ban remains in effect for Southwest Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

Guide academy helps locals land jobs at sport lodges

Tue, 2015-06-23 11:44

David Parks Jr. gives some casting tips to his client Sarah Pearl in the Kulik River. Credit Matt Martin/KDLG

For the past seven years, a mosaic of organizations including Bristol Bay Land Trust, Trout Unlimited, and BBEDC have run the Bristol Bay River and Guide Academy to train local kids in the art of fly fishing. The students spend a week at a lodge learning to be guides.

Jet boats hydroplane up the Kulik River and floatplanes skip across Lake Nonvianuk as Kulik Lodge comes alive for a day of fishing. David Parks Jr. of Iliamna is one of the 15 students at the academy. He stands in the crystal clear water of the Kulik with Sarah Pearl.

Sarah: “Could we possibility catch something right now?” David: “Well, I am trying to teach you how to cast first.”

Pearl works as a housekeeper at the Kulik Lodge but today she’ll pretend to be a client so Parks can test out the fly fishing and customer services skills he’s learned this week.

Before this week, Parks had never fly fished. He always liked fishing but grew up only with a typical rod and reel.

“It was either that or ice fishing,” added Parks.

The first time he had ever picked up a fly rod was the first day of class.

“The next day we had to come out here and fish so I spent like half the time just swaying my rod back and forth just trying to get that perfect swing,” said Parks.

The students had a week long crash course in fly fishing and what it takes to be a guide.

“Like tying flies, and making leaders, and making sure we had all out customer service skills down,” said Parks. “Making sure we got it down in our heads.”

Sonny Peterson is the owner of Kulik Lodge. He currently doesn’t have any Bristol Bay locals working for him but says they add a great value to services that a lodge like his can provide.

“People come up there and ask where you’re from and your guide says he’s from New York or Florida, you know, it doesn’t sound as good if he says he’s from Igiugig or Nondalton,” said Peterson.

The Bristol Bay River and Guide Academy was founded in part by Tim Troll. He also is the head of the Bristol Bay Land Trust. Troll says the time is about right for locals to play a bigger role in the lodge industry.

“It took 70 years in the commercial fishery before locals really broke into the commercial fishery and now the lodge industry has been here about 70 years,” said Troll.

Troll also used to be the President of Chogguing Limited in Dillingham. The native corporation owns a sport fishing lodge and he says shareholders would often ask him why no locals worked in the lodge.

“And I asked the operator that and he said, ‘Well, I need guys who fly fish.’ And Bristol Bay wasn’t producing any local fly fisherman,” said Troll. “There were maybe a handful. So that sort of planted the idea in the back of my head that if we are going to serve the industry, we have to produce somebody who can fly fish.”

In 2008, Troll was finally able to see that idea come to live with the first guide academy. This is the 7th academy and roughly 80 students have gone through the program and 4 have been placed as permanent employees and a few other internships at sport lodges in the region.

Troll says that even if most of the students don’t get jobs at a lodge, they can learn about an industry that is all around them. He says many of these students may someday be leaders in their native corporations, which often own or lease land to lodges.

“Just understanding the industry, how it works, how it operates, and also lodges from the other side understanding what village corporations are all about,” said Troll. “And trying to deal fairly with everybody and make it work.”

He also says it’s a way for the kids to get exposure to people from all over the world.

“The business leaders of the world come here. You get to mingle with these people. And who knows where that could take somebody,” said Troll.

Troll doesn’t think the lodge industry will ever be a major employer in the region but it could be a significant one.

Sonny Peterson, owner of Kulik Lodge, says a major hurtle to hiring locals as guides is that the work is only seasonal.

“You know, a local kid here, it’s tough for them because once this is over, that’s it. And unless they can figure out something to do the rest of the year,” said Peterson.

“It’s hard to have just a seasonal jump with a box of Tide costing 30 or 40 dollars,”echoed David Parks.

Parks will be starting a new job at the post office when he gets back to Iliamna but he would love the chance to work at a lodge if he could.

“If I had a job that would allow me to take a month off in the summer. Maybe I’ll work in the schools. Work at the schools in the winters, be a guide in the summer,” said Parks.

Whatever career path lays ahead for Parks, it’s evident that this academy has left an impression on him. He smiles wide as he talks about his experience at the camp.

“The best part about it was catching that fish with that fly rod with a fly that I tied myself,” said Parks.

Each student at the academy gets a fly rod to take home. Even if it doesn’t work out that Parks can be a guide someday. He says fly fishing is a new skill he’ll enjoy showing off to his friends at home.

Categories: Alaska News

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