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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: 22 min 36 sec ago

Soldotna Lodge Opens Doors to Fire Victims 2 Years Running

Thu, 2015-06-25 17:35

The Card Street fire near Sterling is diminishing and many evacuees are returning to their homes this week. Across the central peninsula, hotels and restaurants that helped with relief efforts are getting back to business as usual. But for one hotel in Soldotna, this isn’t the first time they’ve stepped up and the community now knows where to turn for help, year after year.

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Hooligan’s Lodging and Saloon is an unassuming, vaguely frontier-themed hotel off the Sterling Highway in Soldotna.

Frances DeLisle is sitting in the middle of a puffy couch in the lobby. She’s tall and thin and is being leaned on by an enormous, panting, scruffy black dog.

“This guy here is my service dog. His name is Maximoose. He’s a labradoodle with a bad hair day,” says DeLisle.

Normally, you’d find DeLisle and Maximoose in their converted schoolbus house in Sterling.

But for the time being, she’s calling Hooligan’s home. She’s one of more than a dozen people who found shelter here after the Card Street fire evacuations began.

She says she got the notice at 2 am. She grabbed all of Moose’s toys and food and her own medications.

“It was funny because I was packing stuff up and throwing it out the backdoor of the bus and I couldn’t believe it, I was going I gotta get my mom’s ashes and I just stopped for a minute and thought, that’s ridiculous,” says DeLisle. “Why do you get ashes to leave something that’s going to turn to ashes. But I just couldn’t leave her behind. But, yep. That’s the most important things in my life.”

She spent the first night at the emergency shelter at the Sterling Community Center. It was there that they heard about free rooms at Hooligan’s for evacuees.

“It was nice to know because I’m alone and that’s a scary feeling when something like this happens,” says DeLisle.

April Strand is the hotel manager. She’s been working here for almost 10 years and credits owner Molly Poland with the idea to open it up as an emergency shelter.

“She’s got a really big heart. I mean, I couldn’t ask for a better boss. She’s just got a really big heart,” says Strand. “She tries really hard to help everybody not just here but in our community. She’s awesome for the fact that if you look at all this woman does. She’s a home and hotel owner, raising a family, has a bar, has a restaurant, she supports motocross, her kids in their band. She does a lot of amazing things that I don’t think she gets enough credit for.”

Poland says she was raised to think of others.

“It’s such a blessing to me that I can help people when they need help,” says Poland.

Last year, she took in more than a hundred evacuees and put them up, free of charge, for days. She gave them meal vouchers for her restaurant and set up a collection point in her lobby for shampoo, deodorant, toothbrushes, books, kids’ toys, pet food.

She makes it a point to welcome pets.

“And I get it, they’re your family. So, you can’t leave your family behind. You have to bring your family with you when you go,” says Poland.

That led to some unexpected situations last year, including a pregnant dog who birthed a litter the day after she arrived and a litter of kittens.

“Someone had a goat and I was like no, that’s where I draw the line. The goat can hang out outside your room but the goat’s not going inside your room,” says Poland.

And it wasn’t easy. She says there were some damages that came along with the animals. She had to replace some carpets, shampoo many others, fix scratches on the walls.

This year, she lost quite a bit of potential income. Guests like DeLisle know what she’s giving up.

“This is peak season. She’s right here by the river. I mean, she could be making a lot of money off of our rooms and she’s letting us have them for free. And I think that’s just an amazing blessing for us. She’s got a heart of gold and I know god is going to watch over her and really help her for her helping us.”

Poland says she lets the little things go, because helping her community in times of trial is the most important thing and she says, maybe, it’s meant to be.

She’s been trying to sell Hooligan’s for years and hasn’t been able to. So, she says, maybe this is just what she’s supposed to do.

And she’ll do it again if there’s a need, though she and all of her guests hope she won’t have to.

Categories: Alaska News

Historic Juneau park becomes an oasis for Alaska artists

Thu, 2015-06-25 17:32

Juneau artist Constance Baltuck paints in the rocky shoreline of Lynn Canal. The legs of her easel are getting wet from the incoming tide. On the canvas, details emerge from the colors.

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Baltuck says she’ll leave an easel for other artists this summer. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

“This is the barnacles and the kelp and the mussels, they’re just so beautiful the way they interact and cling to the rocks,” Baltuck says.

Baltuck is the first artist of a pilot program at the cabin run by Alaska State Parks. Located 26 miles from downtown Juneau, the cabin is where former territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening wrote the book “The State of Alaska,” making a case for statehood several years before it would happen. The cabin started out as a summer getaway for the family and later became a year-round residence. More than six decades later, the historic cabin is now used as a retreat for Alaska artists.

The Gruenings moved to Juneau in 1939. The cabin, known by the family as Eaglerock, was built in 1947. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Park Superintendent Mike Eberhardt says the Ernest Gruening State Historic Park received $30,000 to run an artist-in-residence program for two years. The artists are required to hold a community workshop and contribute a piece of art to the park. Eberhardt hopes the program will generate more interest in the site.

“Whatever art comes out of there, whether it be written or music or paintings, using that to publicize the state park system and with notoriety hopefully comes additional funding, comes additional support,” Eberhardt says.

Eight artists from across the state applied for the residency and all were admitted for this startup year. Each will stay in the cabin for up to two weeks through September.

For Baltuck, the park has been one inspiration after another.

“This place is just alive, everywhere you look, there’s something flowering, jumping, creeping around in the woods, flying past the window,” Baltuck says.

And she’s trying to capture as much of it as possible. Baltuck describes it as gathering starts — the beginnings of paintings she’ll finish later.

Inside the cabin, unfinished works are laid on a bench or leaned against walls. She counts how many there are out loud.

“Eleven this first week, plus I’m doing a series of little wildflower drawings,” Baltuck says. “This is supercharged for me. I’m going to have to go back to town and get more canvas because I’ve just about used up what I brought that I thought would last the whole 15 days.”

Baltuck has done other artist residencies. She’s been in the middle of the desert at Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, in sand dunes above the Arctic Circle in Alaska’s Kobuk Valley National Park and once spent three months in Norway. Baltuck says each has shown her windows into different lives.

As the tide comes in, Baltuck gathers her art supplies. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

For this residency, when she’s not on the rocks painting or at the easel inside the cabin, she’s on the deck sipping coffee. She watches people fishing and “the eagles,” Baltuck says. “They’re sometimes right up in the trees right over here and the evening is when they swoop back and forth, and I can see whales. And it’s always changing, whether it’s a beautiful sunset or just the clouds, how deep they settle on the mountains.”

More than once, Baltuck calls the residency a gift – a gift of no distractions, no internet, no phone ringing, nobody waiting on you. It’s also a gift of time.

“It’s so neat to settle into an experience of observing nature for hours, just looking at the same scene for hours and just knowing you have that time. There’s no rushing out here,” Baltuck says.

The only concern, she says, is the tide. When the water comes up by your feet, it’s time to move.

Baltuck’s work during the residency depict scenes of the park. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Categories: Alaska News

Sled Dogs Safe, But Musher Stays To Protect Fire-Threatened Homestead

Thu, 2015-06-25 15:36

Silver, the lone dog left with Brent Sass in Eureka.

The Sockeye Fire caused evacuation of hundreds of sled dogs from Willow area kennels earlier this month, and now new fires have forced movement of huskies from a remote kennel north of Fairbanks.

Yukon Quest champion Brent Sass remains at his wildfire-threatened compound in Eureka, but his dogs are safe in Fairbanks. The Baker and North Fork wildfires are burning in the Eureka area,  west of the Elliot Highway between mileposts 131 and 137. Dog handler Tim Muto says Sass was away working Tuesday as flames began advancing, and he had to scramble to get dog boxes on trucks and move the animals.

Muto says the group of dogs trucked to a property Sass has in the Goldstream Valley includes several young puppies.

Muto says he’s impressed with how all the dogs handled the hectic trip.

Muto says the dogs have settled in well in Fairbanks.  He says he has no phone connection with Sass in Eureka, but suspects he’s working to fire prep the property, Muto says the Eureka property has a creek and pond on site that can aid in firefighting. He adds that as of yesterday, neighbors and fellow mushers Rick and Kelly Swenson planned to stay put in Eureka with about 20 dogs.

Categories: Alaska News

E. Coli Detected in Haines’ Water Supply

Thu, 2015-06-25 15:10

Haines residents are being told to boil their drinking water after E. coli was found in the municipal water system.

Local officials issued the notice Wednesday after a routine test turned up the bacteria.

Haines Borough Manager David Sosa says officials think the contamination might come from a spring that feeds into the water system.

“There could be a septic system that’s leaking into it. There are a number of other options it could be. And we want to make sure we hit the right answer on this.”

He says the community’s main water source is a lake south of town. If tests show it’s clean, it can supply the whole community, without the spring-fed system.

“What we can do is cut off the water from that system, introduce more chlorine into the system, purge the entire system and then fill the system up. That would take time but that’s the safest and best action we can take  for the community.”

Residents are being told to boil their water for two minutes, which will kill off the bacteria. Some are also using bottled water.

E. coli can cause diarrhea, cramps and vomiting. Young children, older people and those with weak immune systems can experience kidney failure.

Borough Manager Sosa says informational fliers were posted around Haines and delivered door-to-door. He also informed the local clinic.

“I went over to SEARHC and I spoke with the administrator there and with the staff so I could advise them of the situation so they could be prepared to look for potential symptoms that might be associated with this.”

Officials are unsure how long it will take to drop the boil-water notice. But it could easily last through the weekend.

Categories: Alaska News

State Applauds Supreme Court Ruling On Subsidies

Thu, 2015-06-25 12:17

More than 16,000 Alaskans will keep their health insurance subsidies under a ruling issued Thursday by the United States Supreme Court. The Court ruled 6 to 3 in favor of the argument that the Affordable Care Act allows residents in states like Alaska to access federal subsidies on healthcare.gov.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the King v. Burwell case argued the law only allowed for subsidies in states that established their own health insurance exchanges.

Lori Wing-Heier directs Alaska’s Division of Insurance. She’s relieved by today’s decision.

“We were prepared we think with anyway the Supreme Court would have ruled, with a backup plan, but are very pleased that they ruled in favor of Burwell,” she said.

In a press release, Senator Lisa Murkowski says she’s glad Alaskans won’t lose their subsidies, but maintains the Affordable Care Act is bad for the state.

About 90 percent of Alaskans who buy insurance on healthcare.gov receive a subsidy that averages more than $500 dollars a month.

Categories: Alaska News

Searching for Sheep in Denali

Thu, 2015-06-25 11:04

Dall Sheep played and important role in the creation of Denali National Park. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always easy to find. Each year, the National Park Service conducts ground-based and aerial surveys to identify sheep population trends in an effort to ensure effective management within the National Park.

Video: Eric Keto
Music: Starship Amazing
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Categories: Alaska News

Fires Grow in Middle Kuskokwim

Thu, 2015-06-25 10:05

A large fire is burning west of Aniak. (Photo courtesy of Mark Leary /NVN)

Fires are growing quickly in the middle Kuskokwim. The North Aniak fire has reached the river below Aniak, threatening the Crow Village area.

The Native Village of Napaimute sent a fire pump and crew to help protect the small settlement of Crow Village from a fire that was approaching. Young volunteers knocked down trees and wet down the area to protect structures.

A crew from Kalskag also responded to the more than 2,500 acre fire. 36 firefighters are now doing site protection work around Aniak. A Salt Lake City Type 2 IA crew arrived into Aniak yesterday, along with the Kalskag crew to help begin the site work. The fire is burning areas normally resistant to burning.

Fire crews are in short supply all around the state. They are only responding to fires that risk villages and human lives. 70 fires burn in southwest Alaska, and 291 statewide. A burn ban is in effect for southwest Alaska. More than 600-thousand acres have burned, including 166,000 in the southwest region.

Categories: Alaska News

Border crossing between Hyder, Canada open again

Thu, 2015-06-25 09:57

After more than two months of limited access to services in Canada, Hyder residents will once again be able to cross the border at any hour.

The Ketchikan Daily News reports that the gate has been raised on the lone road between Hyder and Stewart, British Columbia. It had been temporarily closing from midnight until 8 a.m. as part of a Canada Border Services Agency cost-cutting measure.

The change had restricted Alaskans’ access to emergency medical care and officials in both countries say it had the potential to disrupt residents’ lives.

Hyder is about 2 miles away from Stewart, where the region’s only hospital is located.

At night, the crossing will allow unrestricted access to the U.S. from Canada and require those traveling into Canada to check in by phone.

Categories: Alaska News

Governors of 10 Western states to meet to discuss drought

Thu, 2015-06-25 09:27

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval is playing host to nine other Western states’ governors and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to try to reach a consensus on region-wide issues such as drought.

Sandoval chairs the Western Governors’ Association, which is holding its annual meeting in Lake Tahoe from Wednesday to Friday.

The governors will tackle a number of topics throughout the three days, including a newly released report detailing best practices for states to mitigate the effects of drought.

Jewell is scheduled to give a keynote speech and take questions from the governors Wednesday.

Sandoval will be joined by governors from Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, North Dakota, Alaska and Guam.

Categories: Alaska News

Body found in lake tentatively identified as Las Vegas man

Thu, 2015-06-25 09:26

A body found in an Alaska lake has been tentatively identified as a Las Vegas man who went missing after his canoe overturned in late April.

Alaska State Troopers say in a web posting that the body found Tuesday in Trail Lake in the Seward area has been tentatively identified as 33-year-old Matt Asturi.

The body has been sent to the state medical examiner’s office in Anchorage for positive identification.

Asturi’s overturned canoe was found in the lake April 20, and he was the only known occupant. Troopers say witnesses told them he had been drinking and wasn’t wearing a life jacket.

Search efforts continued for a week until being called off.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Wed, 2015-06-24 17:36

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

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.

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 Wednesday, 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.

Rep. Young – A Lonely GOP Voice for Puerto Rico Statehood

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.

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.

Surveyors Climb Denali To Settle Dispute Over Its Height

Francesca Fenzi, KNOM – Nome

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.

5.8-Magnitude Quake Rattles Mainland Alaska

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

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

Juneau Police Chief Calls Secondhand Goods Ordinance ‘Extremely Successful’

Jeremy Hsieh, KTOO – Juneau

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

HIV Testing Events Open Access For Those Unsure

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

About 15 percent of people who are infected with HIV don’t know their status.

Wildfire Hinders Salmon Harvest on the Yukon

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

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.

KSM Mine Targets Richer Ore While Seeking Investors

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

A Canadian mining company says it’s found richer deposits of gold and copper ore at its controversial KSM project.

Bloom Boom: Juneau Farmer Joins Alaska Peony Rush

Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO – Juneau

About 50 commercial peony farmers are located in the Interior. 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.

Categories: Alaska News

HIV Testing Opens Doors, Disease Still A Problem in Alaska

Wed, 2015-06-24 17:19

About 15 percent of people who are infected with HIV don’t know their status. And the number of new cases in Alaska rose in 2014. Local organizations are trying to re-ignite awareness of the disease during National HIV Testing Week by offering free tests around the community. One woman spoke about how testing positive for HIV changed her life.

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Diane Timberlake is buxom and robust, clunky jewelry adorns her wrist, a gold cross shines from her necklace. But she didn’t look much like this seven years ago.

“I was very, very small,” she recalls. “You could look through me. I looked like a toothpick.”

She was serving time in a federal prison in California for selling drugs. She had no idea she was sick. While she was there, she took bible study classes and a drug rehab course. One day, she was called into an office to talk to a therapist.

“They called me in there and they told me [I was infected] and I just kind of flipped out because I couldn’t believe it.”

Health officials from Alaska had contacted the prison because one of her former sexual partners had tested positive for the disease. Timberlake says she didn’t know she was being tested until she was given the results. When she found out, she was in shock. Soon word got around the prison camp where she was living, and no one wanted to be near her.

“I mean, it was rough. They would spray out their showers, and scrub it down with bleach. They would scrub out the washer and dryer with bleach. Or if they really had a feather up their behind, they would turn around and throw all my clothes in the garbage. You know, things like that,” she describes matter-of-factly.

Timberlake says she received medical treatment, but she felt like she wasn’t worth anything. She left prison with a comment from a prison worker on constant replay in her head – she was going to die. But then she visited the Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association, or Four As.

“When I first came here…” She pauses, fingers near her mouth. “I was real scared. But then my case manager helped me through.”

Her case manager connected her to medical treatment, housing, and other resources. She realized she could live a normal life with the disease. She got re-married. And now she encourages others to know their status.

“I think it’s okay to get tested. It doesn’t mean you have it, you’re just getting tested. That’s like being responsible because what if you do get into a relationship or you’re doing drugs and stuff.”

The Center for Disease Control recommends that everyone from ages 15 to 65 get tested on a regular basis. Jamez Terry with the 4As says that only younger gay and bisexual men tend to get regular tests – most of the population doesn’t even think about it.

“I sometimes talk about what I do for work and people will say ‘Oh, is HIV still a problem?’ They stopped hearing about it and thought it went away. And it hasn’t. Rates of infection haven’t gone down since the mid-90s in this country.”

Terry says testing is helpful no matter what the result. “Whether people test positive or negative, it leads to steps they can take to maintain a healthier life after that.” Like receiving treatment, which can also drastically reduce transmission, or taking preventative steps.

For Timberlake, her status is now part of her identity and her life. “I’m not ashamed of having HIV. Okay, I’m not. I’m not surprised that I’ve lived as long as I have. I’m okay with where I’m at with it.”

National Testing Week runs through Saturday. Free rapid tests are always available from the 4As and other organizations in the state.

Special testing events in Anchorage this week include free tests and a raffle at Alaska Native Medical Center from 10 am to 2 pm on Friday, June 26. You can also be tested at the Listening Post at the Downtown Transit Center from noon to 4 pm on Saturday, June 27 and get chocolate and a free massage.

Categories: Alaska News

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