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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: 40 min 53 sec ago

Legislators View Palmer Meat Plant

Fri, 2015-08-28 17:52

Palmer’s Mt. McKinley Meat and Sausage is the only US Department of Agriculture approved slaughterhouse in Southcentral Alaska. But the facility may only have one more year in operation, if a financial evaluation plan does not pencil out in favor of keeping it in business.  A tour of the meat packing plant by state officials this week was designed to educate legislators on the key role the plant plays in an emerging Alaska industry.

Buzz saws rang inside Mt. McKinley Meat and Sausage on Thursday, and butchering and packing went on as usual, despite the gaggle of state lawmakers observing all the action. Thirty or so State representatives and department commissioners, wearing obligatory hairnets and MMMS regulatory blue smocks, were being guided through the plant by manager Frank Huffman, much as a docent leads a museum tour.

“Let’s go out this door right here, folks “, he said, leading the way.

Mt. McKinley is under the state’s budget cutting gun: legislators have looked at the one hundred thousand dollars it loses most years, and have decided not to continue subsidizing the plant in the next fiscal year. But Huffman says closing the doors will hurt Southcentral’s fledgling livestock industry, and with no local livestock some retailers will be hurt.

“All the product at Carr’s Market, Safeway, Fred Meyer, etc, etc, is USDA inspected someplace.”

Meat butchered for commercial sale must have a USDA stamp, and can come only from a USDA approved packing house, and if Mt. McKinley shuts down, the Southcentral livestock producers could use one of two others near Fairbanks. But that would mean  heavy additional costs to Southcentral producers and is not a likely option.

How will no meat packing plant hurt consumers? Well, those reindeer hot dogs are big sellers everywhere in Alaska, Huffman says.  No local slaughterhouse could change that.

“Well, the reindeer dogs you are probably buying now, a lot of it…. Canadian reindeer.. Canadian reindeer. We kill reindeer here from the Reindeer Farm here in Palmer for Alaska Sausage. We bone ’em out and process them for them, and they make their product with it. And you see it in all the stores. That Alaska grown product, that is going to go away.”

Huffman says a reindeer industry could flourish in Alaska. Huffman says local farmers produce pigs, goats, beef, and even yak for commercial sale, all of which are processed at the Palmer facility.

Danny Consenstein, state director of the federal Farm Services Agency, says a meat industry is possible in Alaska.. but at present, there’s just not enough of it being raised.

“We have the capacity to supply Alaska and to supply the rest of the country with high quality reindeer meat, high quality beef, pork, all of this. But we need a plan. We need a plan to support the production side of growing more meat.”

Consenstein says more and more consumers are demanding locally produced product.

“I hear this all the time: ‘where can I buy locally produced meat?’.  It’s just a matter of the supply side. I think the state can recognize the opportunities and start to put a plan together.”]

Just what that plan could be is still up in the air.

Earlier this summer, the state Board of Agriculture and Conservation, [BAC] approved a move to bring in an outside company to evaluate the financial health of the slaughterhouse, with the aim of deciding whether or not to put it into private ownership. Although supporters of the plan to privatize the slaughterhouse says it will save the state money, opponents of the move say that state general fund dollars do not pay for slaughterhouse operations. That money comes from interest on the state’s Agricultural Revolving Loan Fund. Last year, Mt. Mckinley made a 40 thousand dollar profit.  

















Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Friday, August 28, 2015

Fri, 2015-08-28 17:47

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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Judge denies injunction; Medicaid to roll out Sept. 1

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

An Anchorage Superior Court Judge ruled Friday afternoon that Medicaid expansion can go forward in Alaska as planned next week. Judge Frank Pfiffner denied the Legislative Council’s request for a temporary restraining order to stop the program.

Policy promises and more on the presidential docket 

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Anchorage

Details are finally shaking out about the president’s Alaska visit. The White House says the president will announce new policy initiatives while he’s here, but as a senior advisor described it today, they aren’t aimed at cutting off access to Alaska’s natural resources, as some state leaders fear. At least, that’s not the “principal” thrust.

USARC presentation hints at a relocation initiative in the president’s policy plans

Emily Russel, KNOM – Nome

The U.S. Arctic Research Commission was in Nome this week discussing Arctic issues ranging from international shipping to climate change. One presenter in particular unveiled a key detail about an initiative President Obama is expected to announce during his visit next week — involving relocation efforts for rural villages in the face of climate change.

3 homes, community library lost in the Chiniak fire near Kodiak

Jay Barrett, KMXT – Kodiak

The wind-whipped wildfire that threatened Chiniak on Kodiak Island may not turn out to be the community-wide disaster it appeared it might become when officials ordered the evacuation of all residents Thursday night.

Town Square gardeners pick up the burden of city homelessness

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

An unlikely group of employees are on the front-line of dealing with the impacts of homelessness in Anchorage. In Town Square Park, the Parks Department is picking up some of the responsibilities of working with people who have few other places to go.

Belugas sightings persist in the middle Yukon

Tim Bodony, KIYU – Galena

Residents of the middle Yukon River from Kaltag to Ruby have seen several groups of beluga whales over the past few weeks.

AK: Setting sail with a tot in tow

Monica Gokey, KSKA – Anchorage

This is a story about living the life you want after having a kid. Buying a sailboat is one way to keep things exciting. That’s what Anchorage couple Devon and Melissa Bradley did. Here’s a spoiler: their family is happier than ever. We send an audio recorder on board one weekend while they cruised around Kachemak Bay.

49 Voices: Leah Zumwalt of Anchorage

This week, we’re hearing from Leah Zumwalt, a first-grade teacher at Inlet View Elementary in Anchorage. She’s originally from California, but has lived in Alaska for eight years.

Categories: Alaska News

News of Obama Initiative on Village Relocation Pops in Nome

Fri, 2015-08-28 17:34

The village of Kivalina is one of several Alaska locales threatened by eroding coastlines and rising sea levels. APRN file photo: Joaqlin Estus KNBA

Word is out already on one initiative President Obama is likely to announce while he’s here — a plan to put the Denali Commission in charge of a project on village relocation. That came out in Nome this week, at a meeting of The U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

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Renewable energy, climate change, and port development were all highlighted at the U.S. Arctic Research Commission’s second day in Nome, but it was a special announcement about the President’s upcoming visit to Alaska that got the room buzzing.

“So next week when the president is here, he’s going to announce that the Denali Commission is going to be the lead agency to look at the environmentally threatened communities in Alaska,” says Lorraine Cordova, project manager of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Alaska Deep Draft Arctic Port Study. She broke the news Wednesday. The Denali Commission is an independent federal agency that has provided infrastructure and economic support throughout Alaska since 1998.

The project will focus on 31 communities throughout the state, from Barrow on the North Slope down to Port Heiden on the Bering Sea and east to Eyak. Over a span of three years, the Denali Commission’s efforts will help determine whether each community should “protect in place” or relocate due to the effects of climate change.

“It’s a difficult community question to answer. Do we move or do we stay. What parts do we move? What moves first, I mean, it’s not as easy as one might suggest.”

In a public teleconference organized by the Denali Commission this morning, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot says the White House intends to put Sen. Lisa Murkowski at the reigns of the project.

Denali Commissioner and President of the Alaska Federation of Natives Julie Kitka chimed in with her approval about the historic announcement

“I think that this is unprecedented to have the president of the United States mention the Denali Commission and be willing to engage and have his administration step up the effort to meet community needs and I really do think that what we’re doing today and as we move forward is going to be incredible. I really do think it really is pretty darn historical.”

President Obama is expected to unveil more details about the Denali Commissions role in the project during his visit to Kotzebue on Wednesday.

Categories: Alaska News

3 homes, community library lost in the Chiniak fire near Kodiak

Fri, 2015-08-28 17:33

Photo by Scott Wight. Shared via KMXT.org.

The wind-whipped wildfire that threatened Chiniak on Kodiak Island may not turn out to be the community-wide disaster it appeared it might become when officials ordered the evacuation of all residents Thursday night.

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Kodiak Fire Chief Jim Mullican made an overflight of the community this morning and was surprised at what he saw.

“Very surprising compared to some of the pictures that were out on the internet and such of that huge wall of flame we could see from Deadman’s,” he said. “There obviously are some burned areas out there but it’s not the devastation you would think. It surprised me.”

He said three homes and the Chiniak Library were burned to the ground, and other homes and structures were visibly damaged.

“The loss of property, personal property doesn’t appear to be substantial,” Mullican said. “There are people who lost their homes, absolutely, and my heart goes out to them. But overall, we really lucked out, because this was setting up to be a very bad thing.”

The Chiniak K-8 School, on the same street as the library, was not hurt.

As of 2 p.m. the blaze had settled down enough that Chiniak residents were being allowed back into their homes, though the road is still closed to non-residents at the Roslyn Beach Bridge.

There is no immediate cause identified as the start of the fire, estimated to have covered over 2,000 acres, but it may have been a power line or transformer damaged by the winds. Kodiak Electric Association CEO Darron Scott said that reports of outages in the Chiniak area began coming in just before the fire around 9 p.m.

Kodiak City Manager Aimee Kniaziowski, who serves as the joint city-borough emergency management coordinator, said no injuries were reported and everyone from Chiniak appears accounted for.

Categories: Alaska News

Belugas sightings persist in the middle Yukon

Fri, 2015-08-28 17:31

Beluga close-up, photo from NOAA, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Residents of the middle Yukon River from Kaltag to Ruby have seen several groups of beluga whales over the past few weeks.

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Beluga sightings so far upriver are uncommon but not unheard of.  A group of belugas made it past Hughes on the Koyukuk River in the fall of 2001 – more than 550 miles from the ocean.  And a single juvenile beluga was found dead over a thousand miles from the sea on the banks of the Tanana River near Nenana in 2006.

Fish and Game Marine Mammal Biologist Lori Quakenbush in Fairbanks explains that going upriver is not a problem for belugas.

“Depends on how shallow the water gets, how high the water levels are, how high they can go and whether there is anything interesting up there.  If there are fish going up and they can catch the fish either along the banks or concentrated in certain area, that would certainly be a place of interest and belugas might go there.  They are not obligated saltwater animals, fresh water is fine for them.”

Quakenbush does not have a firm explanation for the apparent increase in belugas sightings on the Yukon this year.  But elsewhere in the state, belugas have been known to escape into rivers to avoid one of their main predators.

“One of the things that belugas have to worry about are killer whales, who are a major predator of the beluga.  Killer whales are quite a bit bigger than belugas and need deeper water, so one of the main escape behaviors for belugas is to go into shallower water than the killer whales can get into.  So if there were killer whales at the mouth of the river when the belugas were eating chums, it is a possibility that the belugas would go up the river to get away from the killer whales and stay up there.”

Belugas use sonar to navigate and find food – which often includes copious amounts of fish.  Quakenbush says that a dead beluga from Cook Inlet was found with 12 coho salmon weighing close to 100 pounds in its stomach – and that was just one of multiple feedings that a beluga could do in one day.

With about a month left before ice starts forming on interior rivers, Quakenbush doesn’t think that the belugas will have much trouble getting back to the ocean – as long as they don’t go too far upriver.

“The problem for them could be if the water drops and they stuck above some sandbar or something like that and they can’t get past it and get down. That might be what happened to the beluga that was found near Nenana.”

The hunting of beluga whales and other marine mammals is regulated by the National Marine Fisheries Service, under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  As with the harvest of other marine mammals, beluga hunters must be at least one-quarter Alaska Native. But according to NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Officer Les Cockreham, a beluga that swims upriver is not subject to any additional hunting restrictions.

“Basically there is no permit required, there is no season, and they can take as many as they want.  However there is one law that we look at very heavily that is in play, and that is a “no waste” issue.  In other words, if they kill an animal they have to utilize it.”

Cockreham cautions against hunting belugas without prior experience, due to the high risk of losing the animal after striking it.

The Yukon River belugas are likely from the Eastern Bering Sea stock, which sustains a healthy population level despite subsistence hunting pressure.  The Cook Inlet population of belugas, however, is listed as an endangered species and cannot be hunted.

Categories: Alaska News

Judge thwarts council’s move for an injunction; Medicaid to roll out Sept. 1

Fri, 2015-08-28 15:23

An Anchorage Superior Court Judge ruled Friday afternoon that Medicaid expansion can go forward in Alaska as planned next week. Judge Frank Pfiffner denied the Legislative Council’s request for a temporary restraining order to stop the program.

Judge Pfiffner spoke for more than 45 minutes in court, unpacking the complicated legal arguments each side presented to make its case. To win a restraining order to stop Medicaid expansion, the Legislative Council had to prove the legislature would face “irreparable harm” if the program went ahead on September 1. In denying that argument, the judge made several points, including the fact that the state won’t spend any money expanding Medicaid.

“For this fiscal year, with acceptance of Medicaid expansion, nobody disputes that the federal government is picking up 100 percent of the tab,” Pfiffner says. “It doesn’t cost the state one single dime. Not one farthing.” (A farthing is equal to a quarter of an old British penny.)

In his preliminary decision, Judge Pfiffner also concluded the Legislative Council failed to prove it was likely to win on the merits of the case if it moves forward. The case centered on whether the Medicaid expansion population is mandatory or optional. If the expansion group is optional, that would require legislative approval.

Health Commissioner Valerie Davidson smiled with relief when the judge wrapped up his decision. She says many Alaskans have waited a long time for Medicaid expansion and she’s glad they don’t have to wait any longer:

“You know it isn’t about us, it’s about Alaska and Alaskans who are going to get what they need. They deserve good health care coverage. We all do.”

A spokesperson with the Legislative Council said no lawmakers were available to respond to the ruling. The Council hasn’t said yet whether it will appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

The state will begin enrolling newly eligible Alaskans in the Medicaid program starting Tuesday.

Categories: Alaska News

Chiniak fire claims library, spares school; Residents evacuated

Fri, 2015-08-28 11:47

Photo by Scott Wight. Shared via KMXT.org.

A growing, wind-whipped wildfire continues to burn out of control in Chiniak. The latest report is that while the Chiniak library has burnt down, the nearby Chiniak K-8 School survived.

The blaze began sometime around 9 p.m. Thursday night, and may have been sparked by downed powerlines. All night flames of the rapidly growing fire were clearly visible from Kodiak City, 10 miles across Chiniak Bay.

Kodiak City Manager Aimee Kniaziowski, who serves as the joint city-borough emergency management coordinator, said winds gusting to 60 mph caused the fire to quickly grow, forcing evacuation of the small community.

“We don’t know where the fires at. We don’t know how big it is… about 4:30 this morning it was about 2,000 acres. And that was just an unprofessional estimate, so we expect that it’s even larger than that now.”

She said the U.S. Coast Guard was planning to send a helicopter to the scene to make an aerial survey of the area burned. Air travel to, from, and around Kodiak has been hampered by the strong westerly winds, which whipped up ash from the Katmai-Novarupta volcanic explostion over 100 years ago, just across the Shelikof Strait. Numerous commercial airline flights were canceled yesterday evening and so far this morning.

We were concerned about the ash in the air that was why when we contacted the state operations folks requesting assistance, they knew they couldn’t send any firefighters or anybody out, at least certainly last night because of the ash and so forth.”

Several school buses were sent to Chiniak last night to help evacuate residents. A few were brought to the Kodiak Middle School and spent the night. Kniaziowski said many others checked in and nobody is reported missing.

“We’re not too concerned about any one individual. It looks like most people have accounted for. At last count it looks as many as 75 people have reported in and at the shelter. We only had a couple at the shelter at the middle school.”)

Kodiak Fire Department Chief Jim Mullican told KMXT that people are not being allowed past a certain point several miles from the fire.

“We have a roadblock set up at Roslyn Beach. Residents will not be allowed beyond that point. We are encouraging residents to not even to go out to that area. The fire is still burning and is still out of control.”

Residents of the nearby community of Pasagshak have been warned to prepare for evacuation in event the winds change. The forecast calls for westerly winds calming a bit today, but still gusting to 40 mph. A small chance of rain is in tonight’s forecast, with a slightly greater chance Saturday.

This is a developing story, and we’ll update it as more information becomes available.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Mayor: Obama Visit to Cause ‘Minimal Disruption’ Downtown

Thu, 2015-08-27 18:25

Next week, downtown Anchorage will be crawling with dignitaries, in town for an international conference hosted by the State Department. Secretary of State John Kerry and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell are coming, as are a boatload of Nordic diplomats. The foreign ministers of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland are all on the agenda for Monday’s conference. Oh, and the president of the United States will be here.

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz today announced which street will close for security. He said residents should be flexible when visiting downtown for the first half of the week, but he says the event won’t shut down commerce. As he described it, it’s a chance for Anchorage residents to show the world they can be great hosts.

“For a bit of time, downtown Anchorage is going to be a little more of a walking community than it has been,” he said. “But businesses are going to remain open, the disruption is going to be minimal and our opportunities to show off our city are going to be rather profound.”

The street closures focused on two buildings: The Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center, and the Hotel Captain Cook. Streets bordering them will close to traffic. Some parking spots will be off limits and some stretches closed even to pedestrians.

The closures begin Monday at 6 a.m. They’ll remain up around the Captain Cook until noon Wednesday, presumably because that’s where the president is staying while he visits Seward, Dillingham and Kotzebue. (The White House has so far provided few details about his itinerary. The opacity is a typical feature of high-level security.)

Conference organizers have warned reporters to expect security checkpoints at entrances to the Dena’ina Center, but Police Chief Mark Mew says officers aren’t going clear city parks, search handbags or turn downtown into an airport-style security zone.

“There will be places where we will tell you you can’t walk. You just can’t go there. But we’re not setting up some sort of screening stations for pedestrians,” Mew said.

Chief Mew says he can’t provide an estimate of how much the increased police presence will cost, citing security reasons. He says the city’s request for federal reimbursement hasn’t been successful.

Municipal traffic engineer Stephanie Mormilo says she knows people will want to come downtown and participate in the presidential excitement, and she says they should.

“I hope everybody is patient and respectful,” she said. “Obviously,there’s going to be impacts. Hopefully they will be minimized as much as possible. But traffic patterns are going to be different than normal. So pay attention to signage, pay attention to barricades, and just be respectful of those who are trying to direct you and of other drivers and pedestrians around you.”

The municipality’s homepage has closure maps and schedules. You can find a link on our website, AlaskaPublic.org.

Links: www.muni.org/Departments/Mayor/PressReleases/Pages/RoadClosuresGLACIERConfPresidentialVisit.aspx

Dena’ina Closures

Hotel Captain Cook Closures

Categories: Alaska News

Cleaning Up to Be with His Kid — Stories from Brother Francis Shelter

Thu, 2015-08-27 17:47

The dorm room at Brother Francis Shelter. (Photo courtesy of Catholic Social Services.)

The morning at Brother Francis Shelter starts with a sleepy bustle. Guests wake up at 5 am, start gathering their belongings, drink some coffee and help clean the shelter. One morning in late July, in the back dormitory shelter guest William Teal wiped down the plastic sleeping mats with cleaning solution.

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50-year-old Teal chats a little about his life at the shelter – his job is to disinfect the mats, but he also volunteers to help unplug the toilets and pick up trash. He’s been at Brother Francis for about four months this time—he arrived with nothing but a change of clothes and $14. He’s been in and out of the shelter for decades.

“I used to be one of the guys out here, drinking, drugging, living out in the campsites. In the same clothes days on end,” he says. “Now, I shower every day, change my clothes everyday, I shave. It’s the small things… when you don’t got that for a long time and now you got that everyday, it makes me feel good.”

He says he’s rediscovered God and is working hard to stay sober. It takes him less than three minutes to turn the conversation to his favorite topic – his three-year-old son. Teal launches into stories about the mischievous boy’s antics: how he protects his lunch from marauding geese, darts through library bookshelves to elude his father, and battles the puppet embodiment of the Big Bad Wolf.

“Well, he smacks the puppet with his fist, and it comes off the lady’s hand and drops,” he recalls the library story time incident. “He steps back and field kicks it across the room. Thrity kids in there, ages probably 3 to 8, all turn around with their arms up in the air screaming ‘Yeah!’ He turns around and looks at me and says ‘Bad doggy!’ Because it looked like a little dog, and it scared him.”

Teal is trying hard to regain custody of the boy from the Office of Children’s Services. He’s working part-time, putting away money, securing housing, and taking fatherhood classes from Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

“I’m doing whatever I can to keep me with my son. That’s my foundation and my rock right now.”

He tries to stay occupied from the moment he wakes up, leaving the shelter as soon as he’s done with his sanitation jobs.

“I hate to say it, but it’s the truth. If sit down here all the time and with all these people, I start feeling depressed. I start listening to their stories, you start feeling sad. And it makes you want to drink or do something or be lazy. So I get up and go. If I don’t have anything else to do, I try to make good with my time or I go to the library.”

He reads, goes to church twice a week, works on his resume and meets with case workers who he says are helping him out, despite their massive case loads.

“They can’t take the time everyday to sit down and say hi and be cordial or nice. But when they do take the time” and you make an appointment, it goes well. “It has to be our effort. We have to be ones to be willing to take the effort to do it.”

He says his son gives him the motivation to get his life back on track. “This is my last chance,” he says of the son he didn’t plan to have. He has older children as well. “So now I’m actually going to watch this kid grow up. I don’t know how much time God’s got left for me in this world, but my plan is to be with him and help raise him.”

And Teal says thanks to the skills he’s learning, that may happen very soon.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Thursday, August 27, 2015

Thu, 2015-08-27 17:46

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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Judge strikes down law restricting Medicaid-funded abortions

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

The Alaska Superior Court today struck down a state law that would have limited Medicaid coverage of abortions for low-income women. The judge found the law, which imposes a strict definition of “medically necessary abortion” violates the equal protection guarantees of Alaska’s constitution.

Judge hears arguments in anti-Medicaid lawsuit; Plaintiff’s attorney joins by Skype

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Superior court judge Frank Pfiffner heard oral arguments this afternoon in Anchorage in the Legislative Council’s case against Governor Bill Walker to stop Medicaid expansion. The Council filed suit Monday to stop the program from going forward as planned next week, saying the governor doesn’t have the authority to expand Medicaid on his own.

BC official says they’re open to more mine treaty talks

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

British Columbia’s top mining official says he’s open to involving his federal government in transboundary mine conflicts. That’s a change from earlier statements.

Anchorage prepares for a stately crew of visitors

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Anchorage

Next week, downtown Anchorage will be crawling with dignitaries who will be in town for an international conference hosted by the State Department. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz today announced which streets will be closed for security. He says residents should be flexible when visiting downtown for the first half of the week.

Science takes center stage at USARC meeting in Nome

Laura Kraegel, KNOM – Nome

Science was in the spotlight when the U.S. Arctic Research Commission came together in Nome for its second and final day of meetings, covering a range of topics — from fire forecasts and walrus tagging to sea ice loss and the nutritional value of reindeer meat.

For hungry bears, it’s open season on garbage

Madelyn Beck, KRBD – Ketchikan

Local garbage bandits have been making their bi-yearly rounds in Ketchikan, leaving messes in their wake.

Farmer in Homer tries to cultivate a north-hardy strain of garlic

Shady Grove Oliver, KBBI – Homer

A farming couple in Homer is trying to change the way the state grows garlic by developing special strains resilient in the northern climate.

Cleaning Up to Be with His Kid — Stories from Brother Francis

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

The morning at Brother Francis Shelter starts with a sleepy bustle. Guests wake up at 5 am, start gathering their belongings, drink some coffee and help clean the shelter.

Categories: Alaska News

Judge strikes down law restricting Medicaid-funded abortions

Thu, 2015-08-27 17:37

The Alaska Superior Court today struck down a state law that would have limited Medicaid coverage of abortions for low-income women. The judge found the law, which imposes a strict definition of “medically necessary abortion” violates the equal protection guarantees of Alaska’s constitution.

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Laura Einstein is a legal counsel for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, which filed the lawsuit.

“We’re extremely gratified that low-income women in Alaska can continue to get assistance in paying for an abortion if they need to have one and their doctor agrees that it will be beneficial to their health.”

Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of abortions in Alaska. In 2014, it administered about 1,400. Of those, about 400 were covered by Medicaid.

In order to qualify for Medicaid reimbursement, a procedure needs to be medically necessary as determined by a physician. In 2014, the Alaska Legislature defined medically necessary with a list of specific health conditions. The court struck down that definition.

“What the court found was that requiring women to have a health condition that was dire, that was essentially one where their life was at risk, was too high a standard and too fundamentally different than the standard that would be applied for the provision of other health services in the Medicaid program.”

Republican Sen. John Coghill sponsored the bill that defines what’s medically necessary. He says he’s very disappointed with the court’s decision, although he hasn’t read it yet.

“I think it does show that quite often judges come to a decision based on their own political philosophies. I think it’s just very, very evident in this particular case.”

Coghill says the state shouldn’t pay for abortions that don’t meet the criteria under his law.

“When it’s medically necessary, there’s a reasonable cause. When it’s not medically necessary and it’s more optional, then I think people should carry the load of their own decisions.”

A spokeswoman with the state attorney general’s office says the agency is still reviewing the decision and doesn’t know if it will appeal.

Categories: Alaska News

Judge hears arguments in anti-Medicaid lawsuit; Plaintiff attorney joins by Skype

Thu, 2015-08-27 17:36

State attorney Dario Borghesan. Photo: Annie Feidt/APRN.

Superior court judge Frank Pfiffner heard oral arguments this afternoon in Anchorage in the Legislative Council’s case against Gov. Bill Walker to stop Medicaid expansion. The Council filed suit Monday to stop the program from going forward as planned next week, saying the governor doesn’t have the authority to expand Medicaid on his own.

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Erin Murphy, a lawyer for the Legislative Council, spoke by Skype from Washington, D.C., where she is based. She said the case wasn’t about whether Medicaid expansion was a good thing for the state of Alaska but about, “who has the power to make that decision.”

Erin Murphy, a lawyer arguing on behalf of the Legislative Council, joined the hearing by Skype from Washington, D.C. Photo: Annie Feidt/APRN.

Lawyers for the state argued the Council failed to prove the legislature would face ‘irreparable harm’ if Medicaid expansion takes effect on Sept. 1. That’s required for the judge to issue the temporary restraining order the legislature is seeking.

Judge Pfiffner says he’ll issue an oral decision Friday at noon.

Both sides—and the judge—agree no matter how Pfiffner rules, the case is headed to the state’s Supreme Court.

Categories: Alaska News

BC official says they’re open to more mine treaty talks

Thu, 2015-08-27 17:35

British Columbia’s top mining official says he’s open to involving his federal government in transboundary mine conflicts. That’s a change from earlier statements.

B.C. Mines Minister Bill Bennett went into this week’s mine meetings saying the U.S.-Canada Boundary Waters Treaty wasn’t the right place to address mining concerns.

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B.C. Mines Minister Bill Bennett discusses the week’s mine meetings as Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and other state officials listen during a Wednesday press conference in Juneau. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News).

The treaty would allow the countries to convene a commission to examine and resolve the potential for B.C. mineral extraction to damage Alaska fisheries.

Then, Bennett spent three days touring the transboundary Taku River and meeting with tribal, fisheries and environmental critics, as well as state lawmakers and officials.

At a Wednesday press conference with Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, Bennet said he’s more open to the idea.

“We think that we can resolve most of the uncertainties by working more closely with Alaska. I think you get more done at kind of the local state-province level. But I would not foreclose or dismiss the future opportunity to involve the federal governments if they can help,” he said.

Mallott is actively pursuing federal involvement.

At the press conference, he said he’ll lobby the U.S. secretary of state during his upcoming trip to Alaska.

Salmon Beyond Borders’ Heather Hardcastle reacts to the week’s mining meetings while Rivers Without Borders’ Chris Zimmer, center, and the Douglas Indian Association’s John Morris listen. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/ CoastAlaska News)

“I will seek a meeting with Secretary Kerry in order to hopefully gain the commitment of the secretary that his department will maintain an awareness [and] will be ready to engage if and when asked, because we never know where this ultimately will take us,” he said.

Mallott admitted a meeting is unlikely.

But he said he’ll push for the State Department, which must initiate a request, to leverage involvement of the International Joint Commission, which addresses cross-boundary water issues.

Mallott and Bennett said their meetings were productive and built trust. Both brought up plans for a memorandum of understanding addressing exchanges of information and expanded Alaska involvement in B.C.’s permit system.

Mine critics, in a follow-up press conference, agreed that the meetings were a step in the right direction. But they weren’t enough.

John Morris of the Douglas Indian Association and the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group said a memorandum of understanding is no more than a formal handshake.

“We have to move beyond that and start getting something in writing [such as] a good, solid legal contract between our parties to prevent these kind of disasters from happening,” he said.

Morris was joined by environmental and fisheries leaders.

Heather Hardcastle of Salmon Beyond Borders and Taku River Reds said she will continue pushing for both countries’ federal governments’ involvement.

“The International Joint Commission, to us, is the best forum …, with equal numbers of experts on both sides of the border, to look at what has gone on already in the region and what can go on in the future, given these proposed and operating mines,” she said.

Hardcastle and others said they were encouraged by British Columbia’s leaders’ willingness to listen during the week’s meetings.

They also praised the Mallott-Walker administration for opening up its own process to get a broader view of B.C. mining’s potential impacts to Southeast Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

For hungry bears, it’s open season on garbage

Thu, 2015-08-27 17:32

One of the many bears to have figured out the nuances of the bungee cord. (Photo by Rita Leighton, shared via KRBD)

Local garbage bandits have been making their bi-yearly rounds in Ketchikan, leaving messes in their wake.

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There are grizzly bears. And brown bears. And black bears. And there are garbage bears.

More than a few Ketchikan residents have woken to the sound of garbage can lid banging, a can tipping over, quite aware that it’s probably a bear looking for a free meal.

“We moved in in the winter, so we really had no clue. And then the first summer hit, and it just got bad.”

That’s Jenn Tucker. She lives near the landfill in an area she affectionately calls “dump hill.” She says she has been plagued by bears nearly every night of every summer.

“And we’ve been here seven years now. It would be almost every two hours and the bears would be back.”

She says one night she had a bear pushing his nose against the screen door of her house, and she zapped it with an electrified fly swatter. Even that didn’t keep the bear away.

“And then later that night he broke into my car and ripped out my seat, and took a nap in the back seat. And I don’t think he was after food, because there was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich he didn’t eat.

“Just revenge?

“Yup, revenge.”

She says she’s given up on fortifying her garbage cans, and taken up another method.

“We’ve built an enclosure, he ripped that apart. We used to use chains and straps on the trash can, and he actually literally ripped a lid in half. And so we’ve kind of given up. This year we just go to the dump every day.”

Ketchikan’s Solid Waste Superintendent Lenny Neeley says that Tucker’s case is unusual, and he has only ever seen one bear-destroyed garbage lid. He says the best bet is to buy a ratchet strap.

“It’d keep the lid tightly sealed, and it minimizes odors or materials from falling out. I mean, I’ve seen them flip the cans over, jump up and down, and they’re like ‘Enough of this,’ and they just head on down the street.”

Jen Tucker’s vehicle after a bear broke in on Aug. 5th. She says he likely got in through the unlocked passenger door. She now locks her doors while at home. (Photo courtesy of Jenn Tucker)

Neeley says putting stinky meat or fish garbage in the freezer until garbage day is best, better even than having an expensive bear-proof can. He says big bears can dent the lids on many of those so-called bear-proof containers and render them useless.

However, he says that using only bungee cords and ropes won’t cut it because they are often easy for a bear to stretch open a little bit, and once a bear gets a whiff of that garbage, they’ll go for it.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Biologist Boyd Porter says that the first taste is what leads to problem bears. Oftentimes, he says it’s bad for the bears in the end.

“Once people train them, then a lot of times, either myself, the Alaska State Troopers or the Ketchikan Police Department will have to go in and kill the bear.”

Porter says they’ve killed as many as 15 bears during a particularly bad year. He says there are about 30 bears around the Ketchikan area this year, and he really doesn’t want to kill any of them. He says if garbage cans are secure, with either ratchet straps or an enclosure, a bear might look around, but won’t stick around.

Ketchikan Police Chief Alan Bengaard says it’s the bears that start standing their ground that must be shot.

“After a period of time, they get so familiar with being around humans that they don’t back down and they stand their ground on territory, and they’re becoming a danger.”

Bengaard says there’s usually only one or two bears a year in the city that need to be killed, but police end up chasing off a lot of bears with rubber bullets and even Tasers.

He says there is one bear in town right now hanging around 3rd Ave. that is becoming a problem.

“I actually ran into one of the bears that we’ve been having an issue with. And he’s a big bear. I mean, he’s probably upper 300-pound range.”

“Just walking down the street?”

“Yeah, in broad daylight. So he’s pretty comfortable around people.”

Bengaard says the law states that garbage is supposed to be put out no earlier than 4 a.m the day of garbage pick-up. He says they have some leniency with that, but that they’re serious about people who don’t secure those garbage cans. Citations are $200 each. So far this year, he says he’s only given out warnings, but also says this is one of the busiest times, and is getting busier.

Jenn Tucker says she knows bears will be around foraging every night for at least a few more weeks, but she says she doesn’t mind too much.

“It’s worth it. I mean, look where I get to live. I don’t know, other places have raccoons, rats, but we have bears. Our rodents are just bigger.”


Categories: Alaska News

SBA To Offer Sockeye Wildfire Relief

Thu, 2015-08-27 16:19

Those who suffered losses in the Sockeye Fire earlier this summer will be getting some financial help from the (SBA) *Small Business Administration. Wednesday’s announcement covers both residences and businesses.

Governor Walker’s request for a FEMA disaster declaration for the Willow area after the Sockeye fire torched more than 7000 acres has been turned down, but the good news is that the Small Business Administration has automatically offered disaster help to wildfire victims. SBA Administrator Maria Contreras – Sweet made the announcement on Wednesday.  Richard Jenkins, an SBA public information officer, speaking from Sacramento, California,  says the SBA disaster declaration means that anyone who has suffered damage as a result of the Sockeye fire from June 14 – July 22 are (now) eligible to apply for a low interest disaster loan from SBA to help recovery.

“Even though we are the US Small Business Administration, we still help homeowners and renters recover from disasters as well, so we are not just available to businesses impacted by this fire. ”

Anyone who owns a primary residence, or who rents, can borrow up to two hundred thousand dollars for repairs. Those who lost personal property can borrow up to 40 thousand dollars.

[“And for businesses of any size, we can lend up to two million dollars to repair or replace disaster – damaged or destroyed real estate, machinery and equipment, inventory or any other business asset that they may have lost in the disaster.”]

Jenkins says when SBA declares a disaster, the designation covers areas contiguous to the affected area. Businesses outside Mat Su, that do business within the fire area, and suffered losses as a result, can apply for a loan as well. For example, a Kenai business that sells to Willow can qualify, if it suffers losses directly related to the Sockeye fire.

Home – based businesses can apply as for both residence and business recovery loans, Jenkins says.  99 structures, 55 of them homes, were burned during the fire. 

The deadline for a loan to repair physical damages is October 26. But owners of small businesses can apply for economic impact loans until May 26 of next year .

SBA is setting up a temporary disaster loan outreach center in Willow on Thursday starting at 1 pm. Jenkins invites Willow residents who lost property to come in an talk to a customer service agent.

“And we’ll help them apply for our program right there in the center. We do it electronically, and we’ll sit down and help them go over it line by line.”  

The center is at ambulance station 12 – 3   at 24927 West Willow Creek Parkway and will be open 9 am to 6 pm on weekdays through September 10.  


Categories: Alaska News

Farmers in Homer cultivate a north-hardy strain of garlic

Thu, 2015-08-27 15:57

Synergy Gardens freshly harvested garlic – Photo by Shady Grove Oliver/KBBI

A local farming couple is trying to change the way the state grows garlic by developing special strains resilient in the northern climate.

Lori Jenkins and her husband Wayne live on a farm tucked away in the Fritz Creek area outside of Homer called Synergy Gardens. She loves organic farming. But she really loves garlic.

“When I was little, one of the funnest things was pulling a carrot from the ground and digging a potato and seeing how many and how big. And it’s that same thrill – obviously I get cheap thrills – of digging garlic. It’s just, is it there? Is it perfect? Did something happen to it? Or- there it is, and it’s like little white pearls in the soil,” says Jenkins.

She’s standing in a large shed. On the back wall, rows and rows of garlic are hanging to dry. She pulls some of them down.

“Well, the softnecks- this is a Nootka Rose variety. I’ve already dried them for three weeks and cleaned off the root and cleaned the stems and I’m going to make some braids.”

She deftly weaves them together with rosemary sprigs. She says nowadays, people are used to buying pre-peeled garlic at the store and sometimes are a bit wary of buying a whole head. But the braid makes it extra special.

“To me there’s nothing like a garlic braid. Not only are you bringing something beautiful to their kitchen, but something that tastes delicious. Then, when they go and cook it, it smells so good,” says Jenkins. “I just think it’s so fun when you reach for a braid and twist off a bulb and there’s still some left. It’s almost like you get to harvest again.”

The Nootka Rose that she’s using today is one of three varieties of softneck garlic she’s growing this year along with Silverskin and Red Toch.

Garlic is grown around the world, from Siberia to Guatemala, with different varieties acclimating best to warmer or colder environments. The standard grocery store garlic is a softneck- usually artichoke or silverwhite, much of which is grown in Gilroy, California, known as the Garlic Capital of the U.S. Softnecks do well in warmer places, mature quickly, and stay good for a long time.

“Most Alaskan gardeners advised me not to grow the soft neck. They said it won’t grow good in Alaska,” says Jenkins.

Typically, hardnecks fare better in areas with cold winters, often making them the go-to type for Alaskan growers. Jenkins is growing three of those as well: Georgian Fire, Chesnok Red, and Romanian Red, along with a turban, or hybrid, called Xi’an. But she didn’t want to stick with just those.

“I realized, more research needs to be done. Our weather is shifting, global warming is happening and the change is causing earlier springs and longer falls. And with that, the success of softnecks is possible. I thought, well, instead of importing our seed from the lower 48, for our resilience in Alaska, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a grower who sold varieties that were successful in Alaska?”

That was the start of what she’s named, the Alaska Garlic Project. She wants to develop strains of garlic perfectly suited to both the cold winters and long summers of this state.

We walk outside behind the drying shed where she has several high tunnels filled with tomatoes, veggies, and garlic.

“These first four rows is where I experimented with my silverskins and Nootka Rose softneck garlic. I did outside trials and inside tunnel trials and they sized up equally good but the outside silverskin is still not ready; these ripened a little sooner,” says Jenkins.

But, she says next year, she won’t dedicate her prime tunnel space to garlic; she’ll just wait a little longer. Out in the open air garlic beds, her husband Wayne is digging up heads.

“So I’m using a broadfork which speeds up the harvest of the garlic, getting it broken up out of the soil, so that you can pull the roots without breaking off the stem, so they can be hung up to be dried,” says Jenkins.

He knocks the excess dirt off of one and lays it down in the long row of garlic behind him.

He says, he wishes they could grow several times what they have now, but they are still in the research and development phase of their project.

“It’s all dependent on markets. If we can find out which varieties perform the best for our area of Alaska and then build a website and find out what the size of the market is for fresh garlic cloves, you could refer to it as seed if you wanted to,” says Jenkins. “You know, we’re not just going to go crazy and overplant. It’s all dependent on whether or not we can develop different markets for it.”

Cultivating business is the next step. For now, Lori has already graded out the best of this year’s crop, which came from last year’s which was seed from two years ago. That means, come next summer, she’ll have third year Alaskan-cultivated garlic.

“It’s like apples, you know, we grew up on Red Delicious and Granny Greens. And all of a sudden now, we’re in love with Galas and Pink Ladies and the different varieties of apples are more popular than your old-time favorites. So, just because we knew garlic was good from Gilroy, I think we’re ready to try new varieties for flavor, taste, and sensations,” says Jenkins.

And she wants to show it can be done right here on home soil.

Categories: Alaska News

Researchers share local science with the U.S. Arctic Research Commission in Nome

Thu, 2015-08-27 13:58

Science was in the spotlight when the U.S. Arctic Research Commission came together for its second and final day of meetings, covering a range of topics — from fire forecasts and walrus tagging to sea ice loss and the nutritional value of reindeer meat.

The agency — which advises the White House and Congress on Arctic issues — gathered Aug. 26 at Nome’s Mini Convention Center to hear from researchers working at the regional and federal levels.

Greg Finstad presents on the social and economic impact of reindeer herding at the U.S. Arctic Research Commission’s meeting in Nome. Finstad works with the reindeer research program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Photo: Laura Kraegel, KNOM.

Local researchers were up first. Gay Sheffield with the Marine Advisory Program discussed subsistence needs and food security in the Bering Strait, while Jack Omelak of the Alaska Nanuuq Commission emphasized using local knowledge to guide polar bear management strategies.

Federal researchers also focused on the local angle, highlighting what makes their work relevant to the region. Karen Murphy is coordinator of the Western Alaska Landscape Conservation Cooperative, which is developing a model to predict storm surges, tides, ice movement, and more in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas.

“When the National Weather Service says ‘expect a storm surge of four feet over mean-high water levels,’ what does that mean on the ground? What does that mean, actually affecting the communities? These maps will help people interpret that,” said Murphy.

Murphy said the goal is to get information to the people who will use it — in a format they can use easily. That means maps and other tools will be available online. Murphy said the information will also be broken down by region, so locals can find forecasts specific to Norton Sound or the Seward Peninsula rather than all of western Alaska.

The National Park Service is also doing research on the Seward Peninsula, monitoring the migration of brown bears, muskox, caribou, and other animals. Jim Lawler does research with the National Park Service and said tracking species provides valuable information for locals as well as larger agencies.

“If local subsistence users aren’t getting caribou, is it because there aren’t many caribou?” asked Lawler. “Or is it because the caribou are in a different location than the people are?”

The National Park Service is creating caribou migration maps that can answer that question. But Lawler said professional biologists aren’t the only ones getting involved. The National Park Service has recruited students at the Shishmaref School to help photograph migratory birds to get better on-the-ground information and engage local people.

Fran Ulmer is chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and said gaining local insight is key to successful Arctic policy.

“In Alaska particularly — where subsistence is such an important part of life — to understand how changing ecosystems, species, populations, [and] migrations connect with choices that are being made on the ground by managers, but also [by] subsistence hunters, fishers, and gatherers, is a really important way of making sure the federal government is spending its money wisely when it comes to research.”

The Commission wrapped up its meeting with presentations on renewable energy and port development.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska judge blocks law to limit Medicaid funds for abortions

Thu, 2015-08-27 13:41

A state court judge in Alaska has ruled that a law further defining what constitutes a medically necessary abortion for purposes of Medicaid funding is unconstitutional.

Superior Court Judge John Suddock ordered that the state be blocked from implementing the law, passed last year, and a similar regulation.

The lawsuit was brought by Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, which hailed the decision Thursday.

Categories: Alaska News

Smartphone app identifies weeds invasive to Alaska

Thu, 2015-08-27 08:31

Common toadflax is native to Europe, but is an invasive species in Alaska. (Creative Commons photo by Oxana Maher)

A new smartphone application is helping researchers learn where plant species invasive to Alaska are growing.

The Peninsula Clarion reports that when someone using the Alaska Weeds ID app finds an unknown plant, they can use their smartphone to both identify it and alert a professional botanist of its location.

Users take a photo of the plant and submit it to a team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension service. One of five team members across the state then identifies the plant and replies.

According to invasive plants instructor Gino Graziano, if the plant is invasive he then calls the appropriate land manager depending on who owns the property.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wed, 2015-08-26 17:45

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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With VA problems clear, Sullivan summons officials for solutions

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

Senator Dan Sullivan held a field hearing in Eagle River yesterday focused on healthcare for veterans in Alaska. It was an effort, he told the modest crowd, to bring D.C. to Alaska.

GOP candidate Rand Paul drums up support in Alaska

Robert Hannon, KUAC – Fairbanks

Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul spoke in Anchorage and Fairbanks Tuesday, kicking off a swing through western states for the Kentucky conservative.

YWCA races to close the gender pay gap in Alaska

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

The YWCA Alaska is one year into their initiative to eliminate the gender pay gap in the state by 2025.

Final Sitka landslide victim recovered

Robert Woolsey, KCAW – Sitka

Search crews have recovered the final victim of the August 18 Sitka landslide. The body of 62-year-old William Stortz was found Tuesday afternoon

Speaking at Assembly, officials say: ‘Thank you, Sitka’

Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka

At the first meeting of the Sitka Assembly since last week’s landslides, city officials spoke emotionally about the loss of three local men — and said they had been overwhelmed by the response of city staff, volunteers, and ordinary citizens.

Bethel preschool re-opens after a monumental cleanup effort

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

The Bethel M.E. preschool is 95 percent back to normal after a week of cleaning up after vandals ransacked the school, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

Juneau protest looks to give BC mines a classic Alaska ‘boot’

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

Xtratuf boots are ubiquitous in Southeast Alaska and often associated with fishing. On Wednesday, about a hundred pairs of the brown rubber boots along with photos of Alaskans were on the steps of the Capitol building to protest mines in British Columbia.

Hoonah hyrdo project cuts energy bills for local businesses

Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO – Juneau

Alaska’s newest hydro power project has been generating electricity since the beginning of August, but it only recently had its ribbon cutting ceremony. The city of Hoonah is cutting diesel consumption by about a third which could help the local economy.

Voices From Nome’s Dream Theater

Kristin Leffler, KNOM – Nome

Back in 1944, an Alaska Native 15-year-old girl named Alberta Schenck stood up against the segregated seating policy at Nome’s Dream Theater. Her case, paired with Elizabeth Peratrovich’s, was instrumental in the passing of the 1945 Anti-Discrimination Act in Alaska. That was 10 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and nearly 20 years before the Civil Rights Act passed.

Categories: Alaska News