APRN Alaska News
As Alaskans grapple with the effects of a warming planet, they look to federal and state agencies to help with problems that are too big for an individual or even a community to tackle. But it’s not clear if statutes and regulations, and agency fundingare up to the task.
Dozens of agencies are working with communities trying to recover from disasters,rebuild infrastructure, protect against further damage, or relocate. But James Blowe, of Alukanuk, says agency funds often come with impractical or counterproductive requirements, and it can be hard to reach people.
“Getting people to talk with you is almost impossible,” said Blowe. “They either, ‘You gotta talk to this person,’ or ‘We don’t know what we should do,’ or ‘You need to call the Corps of Engineers,’ and they said’s it’s out of their hands. It’s just a big runaround.”
Civil Project Management Chief Bruce Sexauer, in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska office, says the Corps does have to work within certain limits – such as funding levels set by Congress. It has to evaluate projects to see that costs don’t exceed benefits. And it requires matching funding.
“A local community still needs to supply 35% of the cost,” said Sexauer. “So a $10 million project, that’s a significantly large project for a small community to be able to handle.”
Eugene Asicksick is the former mayor and current vice-mayor of Shaktoolik, a village of 230 people who live on a spit with Norton Sound on one side and the Shaktoolik River on the other. He says over the years, federal and state agencies provided studies with valuable information, and funds for some projects but not enough money for the big steps that seemed necessary. Asicksick says as the years passed, storms worsened and eventually one hurled drift logs too close to peoples’ homes.
“We encountered storms in 2009, 2011, and 2013,” said Asicksick. “And 2013’s storm was the first time the driftwood has crested over to where the houses were built.”
Terry Johnson, a Marine Advisory Program agent with the University of Alaska, says he and consultant Glenn Gray began working with Shaktoolik in 2011 to develop a climate change adaptation strategy. Johnson says the village had formed a committee with two representatives each of the tribe, the city, and the village corporation, and held open meetings during the planning process. He says community priorities were clear: to save lives in the event of inundation, and to protect property such as water storage and fuel tanks.
“What we did is listen to what the committee told us, and then we set out to find information that would help them decide what the best approaches were,” said Johnson. “And we kind of packaged that information. And we drafted what we called a decision document, which was really just a set of descriptions of the problem, descriptions of potential solutions to the problem, and then a set of questions, ‘do you want to take this approach, yes or no.’”
Asicksick says village leaders came to a decision. “We decided after several planning,” said Asicksick. “There was talks of evacuation, evacuation building, relocating, that all of them were pretty much cost-prohibitive because of the cost-benefit ratio requirement to get any federal dollars.”
Asicksick says the village received $620,000 from the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. And the local tribe, city, and village corporation pitched in with fuel, heavy equipment, and gravel to forge ahead with a project to protect themselves.
“Now we have a berm about a mile and a half long in front of the village and the gravel berm is about 8 to 10 feet high in places and 10 to 12 feet wide,” said Asicksick.
Asicksick says when it can afford to, the village will plant vegetation on the berm to strengthen it, and will soon be working with agencies to restore an area where erosion has brought the sea to within a hundred feet of the runway.
President Obama Makes Bristol Bay Off-Limits For Oil, Gas Development
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC
President Obama today extended an executive action that puts Bristol Bay off-limits to oil and gas development.
State Hires Project Lead for Medicaid Expansion
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
The department of health and social services has created a new position to help the state work toward the goal of expanding Medicaid. The job is Medicaid Expansion Project Director and it’s being filled by Chris Ashenbrenner, who spent two decades working for the department and came out of retirement to take on this challenge.
North Slope-Bound Tanker Wrecks, Spills 1,200 Gallons of Diesel, Catches Fire
Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks
A fuel tanker headed to the North Slope wrecked at a remote spot along the Dalton Highway Sunday, overturning and spilling more than a thousand gallons of diesel. The truck subsequently caught fire and burned.
Anchorage School Board Puts Money into Savings, Rilke Schule Facility
Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage
The Anchorage School Board decided how to spend their unexpected $24 million fund balance during a lengthy Monday night meeting. Most will be saved to make up for next year’s anticipated deficit. The money was originally budgeted for this year, but the district spent less than planned on salaries because they had difficulty hiring and retaining highly experienced teachers.
Juneau School Board to Decide if Montessori Borealis Should be its Own School
Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau
Montessori Borealis has been part of the Juneau School District for 20 years as an optional program.
After a couple years of planning, the Montessori Borealis community submitted a proposal last spring to become its own school. The school board will decide tonight.
Troopers Release Names of Missing Kuskokwim Travelers
Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel
Alaska State Troopers have released the names of the two other travelers that remain missing on the frozen Kuskokwim River.
Alaska Power Company Customers Will See 11 Percent Rate Hike
Margaret Friedenauer, KHNS – Haines
Thousands of rural Alaskans will see their power bills go up after the first of the year. That’s because the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, or RCA, approved an 11 percent rate increase last week for Alaska Power Company customers.
That’s lower than the hike the company asked for. But it’s still more than many residents in Southeast and the Interior say they can afford.
Are Agencies Prepared for Effects of Climate Change?
Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage
As Alaskans grapple with the effects of a warming planet, they look to federal and state agencies to help with problems that are too big for an individual or even a community to tackle. But it’s not clear if statutes, regulations and agency funding are up to the task.
Today we’re trying to sell cookies online. Last week the Girl Scouts of America announced that in 2015 they will introduce the Digital Cookie program. The program will allow Girl Scouts to sell their cookies online. The only problem? Alaska won’t be participating.
“Everybody else is getting charged normal rates, except Alaska and Hawaii,” Sue Perles, CEO of Girl Scouts Alaska, said. “We’re getting charged a $20 fee per order.”
She’s referring to the $20 flat rat that would have been applied to all Alaska orders. That means if an Alaskan Girl Scout were to sell a box of cookies to a friend online, it would cost the usual shipping rate, plus a $20 fee. That single box of thin mints could end up costing more than $30. While Alaskans are no strangers to higher shipping costs, Perles says we have our limits.
“We’ve already had discussions with the appropriate people at the National Headquarters of Girl Scouts about signing a different kind of contract next year,” Perles said. “And they’ve assured us they will work hard to do that because they want all girls to have the opportunity to participate in Digital Cookie.”
Alaskans buy about 650,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies each year, and Perles is confident those sales will see a healthy increase once rural troops have the ability to sell online.
“We have troops selling in Unalaska, Dutch Harbor; we have troops in Bethel and Cake. We have troops in communities large and small,” she said.
Perles also points out that a large number of Girl Scouts come from military families.
“And they have friends and relatives all over the world, and Digital Cookie will be an enormous tool for those girls,” Perles said.
With more kids becoming tech-savy every year, Perles is sure that the program will eventually be a key addition to the Alaskan scouts.
“We want our girls to be ahead of the curve and to really learn how to apply their Digital knowledge to a business situation,” Perles said. “And they will at some point learn that through Digital Cookie.”
Although we’ll have to wait at least a year to order our cookies online, Perles says Alaskans will at least be able to sample the two new cookie flavors coming out in January; Rah-Rah Raisin, and the group’s first ever gluten-free cookie Toffe-tastic.
850 pounds of icing, 40 houses of gingerbread and chocolate – Joe Hickel has been creating Marina’s Village in the lobby of The Hotel Captain Cook for 35 years. Last year’s creation took six days to build and features a new country scene.
The Anchorage School Board decided how to spend their unexpected fund balance during a lengthy Monday night meeting. Most will be saved to make up for next year’s anticipated deficit. Some charter schools will also get some help.
The board is putting aside $17 million to soften the anticipated budget deficit for the 2015-2016 school year. ASD CFO Mark Foster said during a work session that this will mean the district should not have to lay off any teachers or instruction support staff next year. Superintendent Ed Graff told the board the money will help teacher and student morale so they can focus on the classroom.
“We are trying to make sure that we do what’s right by not having to go through this churning of staff and employees and decision-making unnecessarily.”
The board also narrowly voted in favor of advancing $2 million to the German-immersion charter school for building a new facility. Some board members questioned the merits of using a large chunk of money to help a small percentage of ASD students. Others wondered about the school’s financial transparency and the apparent opposition within the school community to the building project.
Senator Bettye Davis voted against giving Rilke Schule the money in this fiscal climate, though she does support the school.
“At this point I can’t see me even making a loan just to give this particular charter just to build a building when they can’t agree if they need it or not.”
The board set aside another $1 million for a charter school facility fund that will sunset in 2016.
That left nearly $4 million to use during the second semester of this year. The district will spend more money toward hiring teacher’s assistants, paying substitute teachers more, and providing summer school. They will also try to recruit more special ed teachers. Graff says these measures will help with classroom crowding.
By law, Alaska’s governor is required submit a budget by December 15. Having been in office for only two weeks, Gov. Bill Walker opted to submit his predecessor’s $5.2 billion operating budget on Monday, without endorsement. But he did make some changes to former Gov. Sean Parnell’s capital budget. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
The capital budget Gov. Sean Parnell was working on was already slim. At $200 million in state spending, it was a fraction of the $1 billion and $2 billion appropriations Parnell authorized early in his administration, when oil prices were high and the state treasury was flush.
With oil prices now crashing, Gov. Bill Walker has halved Parnell’s proposal to $106 million in unrestricted general fund spending — the money that legislators can appropriate with no strings attached.
“This is ground zero on the capital budget,” says Pat Pitney, the new director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The capital budget submitted on Monday is largely made up of items that come with federal grant money. Only a few items — a couple of water treatment plants, a sewage project, a school project in Kivalina that the state is legally mandated to complete because of a lawsuit over rural education disparities — have no federal funding attached.
“This is an unendorsed budget,” says Pitney. “We haven’t had time to evaluate all of the projects. We did know we want to keep the transportation funds and those projects that rely heavily on matched funding.”
According to the new capital budget, the state will seek $1.2 billion in federal grants, mostly for airport and road improvements.
Not everything with matching federal funds survived the new budget. A half-million dollars for maintenance on shooting ranges was slashed, even though it was mostly federally funded. Walker’s budget also cuts funding for megaprojects like the Susitna-Watana dam and a 200-mile road to the Ambler mining district — megaprojects that have received considerable design and development money in the past. A line for the Knik Arm crossing was also zeroed out, even though Parnell’s budget only included federal funding for the proposed billion-dollar bridge. Pitney says that’s because in the long run, it is a “major, major commitment.”
“It’s one of the large projects the transition has to take a harder look at,” says Pitney.
The Walker administration will review that project, and others, between now and the legislative session to see if they should be put back in. The governor has until February 18 to make changes to his budget.
But Pitney’s not expecting a lot of projects to get added. She says that any extra items should neutralize the revenue spent on them in some way.
“Are there things now that if you invest in can either return revenue or reduce costs in the future?” Pitney asks.
Spending on a pipeline to get the state’s natural gas reserves to market could fall into that category.
After the governor’s budget is submitted, it gets sent to the Legislature, where lawmakers can add in their own budget priorities. Last year, Parnell’s original budget proposal included $430 million in state spending, but the final budget grew to nearly $600 million.
Pitney says there isn’t a hard cap for legislators to keep in mind when it comes to infrastructure spending this year.
Rep. Steve Thompson, co-chair of the House Finance Committee, is also undecided on a target spending number. But the Fairbanks Republican expects appropriations to be substantially reduced from previous years, with critical projects for health and safety getting the most consideration.
“I don’t think people are going to be wanting to flex their muscles too much with the financial situation the state is in,” says Thompson.
Thompson adds that he wasn’t surprised to see the capital budget stripped mostly to projects with matching funds.
“I didn’t think there was going to be anything other than possibly federal grant match money,” says Thompson. “I’ve been warning people that’s what it was starting to look like prior to this coming out.”
Thompson adds that operating expenditures, now budgeted at $5.2 billion, pose an even greater challenge to lawmakers.
With North Slope crude now below $60 per barrel, lawmakers may have to draw nearly $7 billion in savings to pay for the budget that passed this year, along with the new one they will be drafting. If no changes are made to the spending plan submitted Monday, the Department of Revenue expects the state to run a $3.2 billion deficit.
Gov. Walker Submits Capital Budget
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
By law, Alaska’s governor is required submit a budget by December 15. Having been in office for only two weeks, Gov. Bill Walker elected to submit his predecessor’s operating budget Monday, without endorsement. But he did make some changes to former Gov. Sean Parnell’s capital budget.
Sullivan Delighted with U.S. Senate Committee Assignments
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC
The Republicans in the U.S. Senate on Monday announced their committee assignments for the next two years. Alaska’s Dan Sullivan will come in with the lowest seniority of the 100 senators, primarily because he’s never held elected office before. But it doesn’t seem to have hurt him on the committee score.
Ballot Measure to Combat Corruption Has A Year To Gather 30,000 Signatures
Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage
While election season may have just ended, there’s already a push to gather signatures for a new ballot measure in 2016.
UA President Announces Retirement Date
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
University of Alaska President Pat Gamble will step down at the end of the school year. Vice President of University relations, Carla Beam says Gamble announced his plan to retire on June 1st 2015, to UA Regents, during an executive session Friday.
EPA To Use North Pole Air Data
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The Fairbanks area continues to struggle with fine particulate pollution from wood smoke and other sources. Wintertime air inversions trap emissions at ground level, dropping air quality below federal Clean Air Act standards. Much of the North Star Borough is classified a federal non-attainment area by the Environmental Protection Agency, based on air quality monitoring in Fairbanks. But, the EPA plans to begin using monitoring data from North Pole, where pollution is typically much worse.
Bethel Winter House Reopens with New Rules
Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel
After a bumpy start, Bethel Winter House has opened its doors, once again, with new rules. That’s after a newly hired volunteer coordinator quit and organizers shut the homeless shelter down for three nights.
Akeela House Celebrates 40 Years of Successful Sobriety Treatments
Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage
The Akeela House in Anchorage turned 40 this year. It’s one of Anchorage’s oldest substance use treatment facilities. Now it has programs in communities and prisons across the state.
Friends, Family Mourn Avalanche Victim; Expert Advises Recovery Operation Delay
Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks
Memorial services were held over the weekend for Erik Petersen, the Delta Junction man killed in an avalanche in the Alaska Range.
An avalanche expert who’s surveyed the area of the eastern Alaska Range where the deadly slide came down says the snow pack on mountainsides near Rainbow Ridge remains unstable. That’s delayed efforts to recover Petersen’s body.
Climate Change And Alaska Natives: Health
Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage
Alaskans have heard a lot about the effects climate change has had on land in the state. But new studies suggest it’s also having a big impact on the health of residents.
University of Alaska President Pat Gamble will step down at the end school year. Vice President of University relations, Carla Beam says Gamble announced his plan to retire June 1st 2015, to UA Regents, during an executive session Friday.
The Fairbanks area continues to struggle with fine particulate pollution from wood smoke and other sources. Wintertime air inversions trap emissions at ground level, dropping air quality below federal Clean Air Act standards. Much of the North Star Borough is classified a federal non-attainment area by the Environmental Protection Agency, based on air quality monitoring in Fairbanks, but the EPA plans to begin using monitoring data from North Pole, where pollution is typically much worse.
Memorial services were held over the weekend for the Delta Junction man killed in a avalanche in the Alaska Range. Friends and family gathered to remember 35-year-old Erik Petersen, who was skiing with friend Michael Hopper when the slide came down Dec. 6th.
Hopper survived the slide, and he and his wife Annie hosted a memorial service for Petersen at their lodge at Black Rapids Saturday. Another service for Petersen was held in Anchorage yesterday.
Meanwhile, an avalanche expert who’s surveyed the area of the eastern Alaska Range where the deadly slide came down says the snowpack on mountainsides near Rainbow Ridge remains unstable. That will delay any operation to recover Petersen’s body.
Sarah Carter with the Alaska Avalanche Information Center Carter says a 600-by-150-foot expanse of snow engulfed skiers Erik Peterson and Mike Hopper, and his dog, carrying them all about a third of a mile down the mountain.
“As it moved downslope, it was funneled into a steep creek drainage,” she said. “And so it piled up quite a bit deeper, down in the steep creek.
Carter surveyed the slide area around Rainbow Ridge from the air and on the ground in the days after the December 6th incident, to better gauge the scale of the avalanche that slammed into the two backcountry skiers.
“It did release quite high on the slope. They triggered it from lower down” she said. “They were maybe a third of the way up the slope, or so, and the avalanche fracture line, where it actually detached from the mountainside, was way up near the ridge, almost 500, 600 feet above them.”
Carter says this season’s unusual weather has made the area’s snowpack unstable and susceptible to avalanches. The first significant snowfall came in early December, and that formed into a crust or, as she calls it, a “wind slab” on top of an unusually unstable base layer. All of which came crashing down on the skiers.
“And that’s ultimately what was triggered by Erik and Michael,” she said.
Carter says those dangerous conditions still exist in the eastern Alaska Range.
“It takes time for the snowpack to change,” she said. “And this particular set-up could last weeks, or months.”
She says that makes it unwise to attempt a body recovery operation now.
Carter is the education-outreach coordinator for the Alaska Avalanche Information Center. And she’s also the forecaster for the Valdez Avalanche Center. She says she believes climate change is a major factor in the unusual weather of recent years, and that it contributes to greater avalanche potential.
“A lot warmer weather. More moisture. That does affect avalanches, and creates larges avalanche events. And having a few of those within just a few years kind of gives us a heads-up that maybe we might be dealing with this more and more.”
That can make it hard for those who traverse the back country to predict and prepare for the conditions they’ll encounter. Carter says that’s compounded by a lack of real-time data for snow and weather conditions on the Alaska Range, compared to the extensive state and federal data-collection sources for the area south of Anchorage, around Alyeska ski resort.
“There’s not a forecast center that is responsible for the Alaska Range,” she said. “So it is a data-sparse area.”
Carter says aside from the sometimes-sporadic information from a few weather stations along the Alaska Range, outdoor recreationalists and others don’t have a lot of data about conditions there.
She says the Alaska Avalanche Information Center website has a page for those who want to share their observations about conditions in the area.
She says that’s essential information, and she encourages anyone who’s out and about along the Alaska Range to post their observations.
“Even if it was just a photo, or a brief couple of sentences saying where they were and what they saw. If they saw avalanche activity, that’s bulls-eye information that other users can utilize and say ‘Well, maybe that might not a great place to head to right now.’ ”
Carter says center official hopes to expand that and other information resources in the future.
Alaskans have heard a lot about the effects climate change has had on land in the state, but new studies suggest it’s also having a big impact on the health of residents.
The Republicans in the U.S. Senate today announced their committee assignments for the next two years. Alaska’s Dan Sullivan will come in with the lowest seniority of the 100 senators, primarily because he’s never held elected office before. But it doesn’t seem to have hurt him on the committee score.
Sullivan will serve on Armed Services, Veterans Affairs, Commerce, and Environment & Public Works, and he says he can hardly pick a favorite.
“Well look, I’m pleased with all of them,” he said. “These were actually the four committees that I requested.”
It’s through committees that senators can shape legislation, and their assignments define their sphere of influence. The Commerce Committee is of particular interest to Alaska because it oversees fisheries, as well as the Coast Guard and civil aviation. Alaska’s Ted Stevens chaired the panel near the end of his career. Sullivan says Environment and Public Works Committee doesn’t get as much attention.
“But over the course of the last several months I said that was a committee I’d be very interested in, just because of the oversight role it has with regard to certain federal agencies, particularly the EPA,” he said.
Sullivan, like other Republicans, made fighting the EPA a pillar of his campaign.
It should be an interesting time for the EPW committee. Its incoming chairman, Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe, believes man-made global warming is a hoax. The committee is also responsible for writing the multi-year transportation bill.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski becomes the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources in the new Congress. She’ll also keep her other three assignments: Appropriations, Indian Affairs and the so-called HELP Committee — Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Murkowski says Sullivan’s committee list is a good counterpart to hers.
“Between what he has been assigned and I have retained, I think we cover everything across the state. I think it’s a great, great pairing,” she said.
Sullivan will be sworn in Jan. 6. Until then, Mark Begich remains in office, and he’s in the Capitol longer than expected while the Senate tries to wrap up for the year.
While election season may have just ended, there is already a push to gather signatures for a new ballot measure in 2016.
A small group of supporters behind an effort to criminalize what they see as corruption in Alaska politics gathered at the Division of Elections Friday, for a training on how to collect the 28,545 signatures they will need from across the state.
“This initiative will make it a crime for legislators to vote to appropriate money or deliver economic benefits to themselves, their employers, their families,” said Ray Metalf, director of the push to bring the issue to voters. ”When they’re conflicted they need to recuse themselves from voting.”
Such laws exist in other states, but Metcalf says without them Alaska is continually near the top of the list when it comes to corruption. In the absence of more explicit measures making it officially illegal to wheel-and-deal, Metcalf sees actions that are felonies elsewhere, but par for the course here. Like, he believes, the recent Senate Bill 21 oil tax vote in the legislature.
“You had two employees of ConcoPhillips voting to give their employer a billion dollar tax break,” Metcalf explained. “That would not be permissible under this law.”
Presently, the initiative has broad party support from the Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, and even some Tea-Party members. According to Metcalf, the Republican Party has not endorsed the measure.
Supporters have a year to gather all the signatures needed. Once submitted, a comprehensive certification process begins within the Division of Elections as they check line by line and signature by signature, that enough Alaskans support the idea to send it to the Lieutenant Governor for approval.
After a bumpy start, Bethel Winter House has opened its doors once again, with new rules. The all-volunteer shelter’s board, organized under a Lion’s Club, met Thursday to sort out problems that closed it last week.
Organizers said clients were breaking rules and sneaking in alcohol. One volunteer claimed police did not show up or showed up too late when called.
Bethel’s Police Chief, Andre Achee attended the meeting and said his department was short staffed but did respond to all calls for service. A handful of shelter guests also attended the meeting. They said there were indeed problems with people sneaking in alcohol and also with guests mixing hand sanitizer and other products containing alcohol into water bottles.
The shelter reopened Friday with the new procedure of checking guests’ backpacks and coats at the front door for alcohol and other prohibited intoxicants . Eva Malvich is the Bethel Winter House Lion’s Club President.
“We monitor who we take in and if the people who come in don’t want to comply with the rules then we’ll ask them to leave,” said Malvich.
One woman left the shelter rather than go through the new check-in procedure Friday night. Another shelter guest said he was grateful for the new rules. He added that he spent the nights the shelter was closed roaming the streets seeking warmth at the hospital emergency room when he got too cold. Temperatures dipped into the single digits last week and snow fell overnight Friday.
Volunteers formed Bethel’s only homeless shelter after six deaths by exposure in 2012. In 2013 they provided a safe place for more than 80 regular guests to be out of the elements and there was only one death that year. The winter shelter opened December 1st and has been serving 15 to 20 guests nightly. Organizers say they hope the new rules curb the problems and that safety is their top priority.
UPDATED STORY: The body of an Akiak man has been recovered from the frozen Kuskokwim River near Kwethluk.
Bethel Search and Rescue searchers Sunday found the body of Ralph ‘Jimmy’ Demantle, one of three people who disappeared while traveling by four-wheeler from Bethel to Akiak. Searchers continue to search for another man and a woman.
The missing travellers were reported to troopers at around 5:00 p.m. Friday. They were last seen in the Kwethluk area Thursday night. Bethel Search and Rescue says the three were traveling at night in snowy weather.
On Saturday BSAR and State Trooper Air Assets began a search. BSAR says in an online post that from the air Saturday, searchers saw an open hole above Kwethluk with a single set of ATV tracks leading into it.
Earl Samuelson is a pilot with the Alaska State Troopers.
“There was a lone trail, four-wheeler, went off by itself. They appear to be … to have gone into that water hole. From there we contacted Bethel Search and Rescue, Kwethluk Search and Rescue to do a survey of that. A couple hours later they had pulled a four-wheeler from that water hole,” said Samuelson.
Mike Riley with BSAR confirmed that crews will continue searching for the bodies of the other two travelers today (11/15). The families of the missing have been notified of the situation. The names of the other two travelers have not yet been released as of Monday morning at 9 a.m.
It’s been a big week for Alaska in Congress. Lawmakers removed the Alaska exemption in the Violence Against Women Act, a significant gain for advocates of tribal authority.
The Senate is still considering a $1.1 trillion bill to fund the government through next fall.
Among its Alaska items are $50 million for the missile defense system housed at Fort Greely and $3 million for the Kodiak spaceport. Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she pleased the bill properly reimburses tribal health care providers for contract supports costs. It also has $10 million for sanitation in rural Alaska and another $10 million for the Denali Commission. It does not buy any new icebreakers, but it has $25 million for sonar mapping of the U.S. coastline, with emphasis on the Bering Straits and the Arctic.
The bill, though, zeroes out the Secure Rural Schools program. It paid $12 million last year to Alaska school districts, primarily in Southeast.
The Senate has to pass the bill in the coming days to avoid a government shutdown. It has until Wednesday night.
A bill transferring about 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to Sealaska has passed Congress.
The measure is attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, which is on its way to the President’s desk after a Senate vote.
The legislation completes the Southeast regional Native corporation’s land selections, promised by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Sealaska could have chosen other lands earlier. But this bill gives it access to more valuable timber stands, economic development locations and heritage sites.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who authored the measure, says it will help more than Sealaska.
“You also have the aspect of the economic benefit that is conveyed when these lands, that were in federal hands, are now transferred for an opportunity for increased recreation, tourism and also for economic interests such as timber harvests,” she says.
Critics have called the bill a giveaway that will damage fish and wildlife habitat. It’s been strongly opposed by environmentalists, sportsmen’s groups and communities near potential logging sites.
“Sealaska Inc. and Southeast Alaska’s other ANCSA corporations have already picked over those areas, taking the best timbered areas,” says the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community in a statement posted online. “Now, Sealaska wants to cast off the rest, for more of the best elsewhere.”
The corporation has come close to shutting down its timber division in recent years, as it’s run through forests on earlier land selections.
“This is a monumental step to achieve our strategic plan of growth and profitability while maintaining important cultural priorities,” said Sealaska President and CEO Anthony Mallott, ina press release.
Murkowski, interviewed after the vote, says she hopes the bill will help turn around the industry.
“I hope it’s not too little too late. It has been a long, long time in coming. If you haven’t had an opportunity to visit with anyone in Southeast lately, it’s pretty skimpy down there,” she says.
Rep. Don Young sponsored the bill’s original version. Sen. Mark Begich co-sponsored Murkowski’s legislation.
Nineteen AmeriCorps volunteers throughout the state were told this week their positions, including stipends and benefits, could end on Monday.
As a second year AmeriCorps member, Maia Wolf volunteers at Discovery Southeast, a nature education nonprofit. She got the news the same way fellow AmeriCorps volunteers in Juneau, Anchorage, Homer, Seward and Cordova did – in a teleconference Tuesday.
The volunteers thought they had secure positions through July. Wolf says they’re frustrated.
“It’s financially difficult for a lot of people. We’re coming out of college. We don’t have a lot of savings and so not having something lined up and having so little time to look for a new position is difficult,” Wolf says.
The volunteers affected are specifically AmeriCorps members with Southeast Alaska Guidance Association, or SAGA. The Juneau nonprofit is ceasing operation of its AmeriCorps program due to financial troubles, and hopes another program in the state can take it over. SAGA has been bringing AmeriCorps volunteers to Alaska for 20 years to work on service projects on public lands and volunteer with schools and nonprofits.
Discovery Southeast Executive Director Shawn Eisele says the organization plans to support Wolf for the full length of her contract, regardless of what happens to the AmeriCorps program.AWARE hopes to do the same for its AmeriCorps volunteer.
Saralyn Tabachnick is the executive director of Juneau’s domestic abuse and sexual assault prevention nonprofit. She says the AmeriCorps volunteer at AWARE serves as a children’s advocate and fills a real need.
“She works with kids who are living in shelter, acclimates them to shelter, spends time with them, safety plans with them, facilitates groups for them, helps them feel like the unique people that they are,” Tabachnick says.
She says if SAGA’s AmeriCorps program doesn’t get picked up by another organization, AWARE will try to raise funds to keep its volunteer on as long as possible.
Faith Lee is the coordinator of Sitka AmeriCorps, the program that might take on SAGA’s volunteers. If it’s financially viable, Lee says Sitka AmeriCorps could ensure SAGA members had support to complete their terms.
“We would take on all of the reporting, filing, payroll, health insurance,” Lee says.
The Sitka School District runs the community’s AmeriCorps program. Lee says the administration is figuring out what the budget implication of doubling the number of AmeriCorps members will be to the district.
SAGA receives $250,000 in federal funds as well as community contributions to run its 11-month AmeriCorps program.
Lee hopes Sitka AmeriCorps can help out.
“I felt really bad that 19 young adults were maybe not going to have an advocate and that’s something that I really take to heart because I want them to have a great experience. I want them to leave a footprint and make an impact and feel good about their service. And hopefully continue to volunteer for the rest of their lives,” Lee says.
Sitka’s 6-year-old AmeriCorps program and SAGA’s have had a great relationship in the past, Lee says.
“They actually mentored us and shared everything when we first took on AmeriCorps. They were wonderful. Without them, we would’ve really struggled. SAGA has contributed to our state for many years. If I can help in any way, I’m more than happy to put that extra time in,” she says.
SAGA board member George McGuan says faced with a $350,000 debt and no way of repaying it, the board is seeking legal counsel to figure out what to do next.
The University of Alaska Board of Regents has approved a policy banning smoking and other tobacco use on its campuses statewide.
The language passed by regents during a meeting in Anchorage Thursday says, “The University is committed to providing a safe and healthy environment for its students, employees, and visitors, by prohibiting tobacco use and smoking, including the use of electronic cigarettes and similar products, within its campuses and facilities.”
No funding is attached to the policy which will be up to campus communities to implement.
Tobacco use will be allowed inside private vehicles.
The ban takes effect December first 2015.
Jay Butler is returning to his job as the state’s top doctor.
Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson says in a release that Butler will be both the state’s chief medical officer and director of the Division of Health.
Davidson also announced Jon Sherwood will be deputy commissioner for Medicaid and Health Care Policy.
Both appointments are effective immediately but subject to legislative approval.
Butler was previously the chief medical officer from 2007-09. He left to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Before he returned to the state position, he was senior director of the Division of Community Health Services at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage.
Sherwood is a 25-year veteran of the state health department.