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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: 16 min 19 sec ago

Bethel Team Envisions Greywater Recycling

Wed, 2015-04-22 17:25

A greywater recycling system separates reusable water from sewage needing traditional treatment. Graphic courtesy Dump the Bucket.

A Bethel team is re-envisioning how household water is treated. They hope to build and test a custom greywater recycling system for hauled systems in Western Alaska that could steeply cut the amount of water households need to buy and reduce the amount of sewage they produce.

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Their “Dump the Bucket” project aims to treat and reuse water in specific parts of the house. Brian Lefferts is director of Environmental Health and Engineering for the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, which is leading the initiative.

He says a system like this would be much cheaper than building a centralized piped systems.

“In Bethel and the villages the most expensive part of the system is paying someone to drive around and deliver water. We’re hoping to reduce the number of deliveries and ultimately make water more affordable for people,” said Lefferts.

Many families on small haul systems end up rationing the amount of water and use a fraction of what’s needed to get the health benefit of clean water for bathing and waste disposal.

A greywater system involves routing plumbing so that waste from the toilet and kitchen sink go to sewage, while water from places like laundry, shower, and bathroom sink could be sent to an in-home treatment system.

“It would go into greywater holding tank that would run though a small treatment system with a really fancy biofiltration unit, and then ozonation or ultraviolet disinfectant, and then back to a gray water holding tank,” said Lefferts.

The water doesn’t have to go to offsite treatment and can be used several times in the home.

“Our plan is to try to retreat greywater in the home and provide it to taps that wouldn’t necessarily need potable water. We’d always have potable water available in the kitchen and bathroom sink from a community water treatment source,” said Lefferts. “We’d retreat greywater to actual drinking water standards, but we’d still classify it as gray water, and then provide it back into the home for other taps.”

The group is raising funds now to build a prototype in a lab setting and run it for a year. They’ll track household water usage and test for bacteria, phosphates, nitrites. They hope to keep the treatment system to about $10,000 but there would also be a certain level of re-plumbing involved. Lefferts says the technology exists for greywater systems, but they need to find out exactly how to build a system that works in rural Alaska.

“Every component is commercially available, but we’re putting it together in a way that’s never been tried before,” said Lefferts.

The group is trying to raise $15,000 on an online fundraising campaign and more for the test. More information is at dumpthebucket.org.

Categories: Alaska News

PSP: Tribal Partnership Seeks Modern Solution To An Ancient Problem

Wed, 2015-04-22 17:24

Esther Kennedy of the Resource Protection Department collects water samples every week from Starrigavan. Along with six other tribes in Southeast, the group is working to create an early warning system to protect shellfish diggers from PSP. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Of all the traditional seafoods in Southeast Alaska, none are more shrouded in myth — and genuine risk — than clams and mussels. Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP)killed two people in Southeast in 2010 and dozens more have fallen ill over the recorded history of the state.

For subsistence harvesters, there has been no way to measure the risk of clam digging — until now. In part 1 of a two-part series, KCAW reports on a partnership among Southeast tribes to create a regional water monitoring program.

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In Southeast, between Chicagof and Baranof Islands, there’s a waterway called Peril Strait. The name doesn’t come from winds ripping through the channel, but from a shocking event that happened in 1799.

“A Russian ship came in and the villagers had gone out and collected a bunch of clams from an area now called Poison Cove,” explained Jeff Feldpausch, the Resource Protection Director for Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

The incident he’s describing is the earliest documented case of PSP in the state. After eating the shellfish, 100 Aleut crew members of fur trader Alexander Baranof – died. Feldpausch added, “They only made it a few miles to the area that’s now called Dead Man’s Reach.”

Eat the wrong clam and you can die on the beach. That’s the grim pathology for PSP, which one state publication in 1982 called “Alaska Roulette.” In order to protect subsistence harvesters, the Sitka Tribe decided to invest in the latest science and to look really closely at what the clams themselves are eating.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is transmitted through bivalves, especially butter clams, mussels, and cockles. But it all begins in the water, in the naturally produced toxins of certain kinds of plankton. (Emily Kwong/KCAW)

I met Esther Kennedy of STA’s Resource Protection Department near the Starrigavan dock. She took note of the day’s conditions. “So it’s 10AM, it’s sunny, it’s calm.” Every Tuesday, Kennedy starts her morning by collecting water samples. From far away, it looks like she’s flying an underwater kite, dragging a net sedately through the water as microscopic creatures called phytoplankton get trapped inside.

“Most plankton is just beautiful and it looks like little Christmas ornaments and I have no problem with that,” said Kennedy. “But it’s a little bit unnerving to be looking at that and be like, ‘How many of those have I swum through in the past?’”

Alexandrium is a genus of dinoflagellates that leads to Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning. This cell was identified by a team of researchers at NOAA’s biotoxin testing lab in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of NOAA).

The vast majority of phytoplankton are totally harmless. But a few of them, particularly of the genus Alexandrium (they look like an acorn under the microscope) produce a chemical called Saxitoxin. Saxitoxin is 1000x more potent than cyanide, so potent it’s listed as a chemical weapon by the US military. Saxitoxin is what’s responsible for PSP.

The timer beeps. Three minutes are up and Kennedy pulls up net and bottle – now filled with water. She’ll take these drops of water back to a lab, and using a microscope, count what kinds of phytoplankton, toxic or not, are in the water that week.

So, how do these tiny creatures poison us? It works like this: when toxic-bearing phytoplankton accumulate in the water, it’s known as a harmful algal bloom, or a HAB. Some HABs are visible, even red, earning the nickname “red tide,” but many are not. As shellfish feed, the bloom’s toxins get trapped inside and have the potential to poison whoever eats the shellfish, whether a sea lion in Kodiak or a subsistence user in Klawock.

SEATT partners are monitoring for other kinds of toxic phytoplankton, such as Dinophysis. “It kind of looks like a pitcher filled with punch with Sangria,” said Kennedy. “We’re worried about that because it produced diuretic shellfish poisoning, which is very unpleasant but not high priority.” (Photo courtesy of Esther Kennedy)

“Here we are living with hundreds of bears wandering that will wander through the streets, but everyone is worried about the clams,” said Chris Whitehead, STA’s Natural Resource Specialist.

Chris Whitehead joined STA’s Resource Protection Department in the fall of 2013. In his former home of Washington State, there’s a hotline you can call to know which beaches are safe for shellfish digging.

WA HOTLINE: You have reached the Washington State Department of Health Shellfish Safety Hotline…

No such system exists in Alaska, so Whitehead wanted to create a local solution. He pitched the idea for a HAB monitoring program to several tribes. The response was instant.

“This is kind of the first step or kind of the poster child for collaboration on environmental issues,” said Jeff Feldpausch. Six other tribes have signed on for the project. Together, they form Southeast Alaska Tribal Toxins group, or SEATT, with membership from Sitka, Juneau, Yakutat, Petersburg, Klawock, Craig, and Kasaan.

Matt Anderstrom does the water testing for the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe at the Yakutat Lagoon. Two weeks ago, the lab saw its first sighting of Alexandrium – that’s the one that makes Saxitoxin. It was spotted by his younger daughter, Nellie.

“I’ve got flashcards and identification keys,” said Anderstrom. “[My daughter] was asking what the bad ones look like and as soon as she seen it, she lit up and was like, ‘That’s it, right there!”

Identification keys from NOAA’s Phytoplankton Monitoring Network in Charleston, SC. Representatives came to Alaska to provide training to SEATT’s field workers. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Using the data field workers like Anderstrom and Kennedy are gathering, each tribe hopes to eventually create an early warning system for toxic bloom events in their area. In Sitka, Feldpausch imagines it will be a stoplight published in the daily paper.

“A green should be good to go, a yellow is proceed with caution, and a red, we have found saxitoxins out there,” said Feldpausch.

Right now, the Sitka Tribe is only testing the waters at Starrigavan. Feldpausch recognized that may not be enough for some harvesters.

“Eventually we may be able to grow and do other areas,” he said, “But I imagine there’s probably 50-60 beaches around here that people get their shellfish from. There’s no way to cover all those areas.”

Each tribe has focused their first year of fieldwork on one site and for Sitka, the choice of Starrigavan is strategic. In 2013, two locals suffered mild PSP cases in the middle of October.

White explained, “It used to be wintertime was somewhat safe, you didn’t have to worry about it. But because of climate change and warming conditions, the bloom may last all the way through October, November.”

So the old rule of thumb, that safe harvesting months had an “R” in them, basically September through April, is no longer true. In 2012, Alaska Magazine got in trouble with the state for saying otherwise. With PSP a threat any time of year, Whitehead says it’s more important than ever for communities to reclaim their beaches and know exactly what lurks in the water.

For more on PSP safety and prevention, check out the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation‘s fact sheet.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 22, 2015

Wed, 2015-04-22 17:23

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 Legislature In Limbo, Walker Calls For Action On Bills

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The Legislature blew past its adjournment deadline on Sunday, all but one committee meeting scheduled since then has been canceled or delayed indefinitely. Now, Gov. Bill Walker is calling on lawmakers to do work on bills for as long as it continues to be in session.

 

Sen. Sullivan Adds Amendment To Human Trafficking Bill

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Anchorage

Sen. Dan Sullivan added an amendment to the human trafficking bill the U.S. Senate passed Wednesday. Sullivan says it addresses a problem he faced as Alaska’s Attorney General.

 

Rep. Young Advocating For Transfer Of Air Force Land To Galena

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Yukon River community of Galena could be relocated out of flood danger if a land transfer being pushed by Alaska Congressman Don Young goes through. The village, which is still recovering from a major flood two years ago, will likely approach moving with multiple steps over time.

 

The Blind Spot: Harm Reduction at the Transit Center

Zachariah Hughes & Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

If you’re a teenager in Anchorage struggling with homelessness, hunger, or addiction there are few places to turn. All week we’ve been hearing about a wide gap between early exposure to drugs and alcohol, and the crises that bring people into treatment, part of our series called “The Blind Spot”  KSKA’s Zachariah Hughes visited one of the few organizations in Anchorage helping at-risk teens on their own terms, hidden in plain sight in one of the city’s busiest buildings.

Unalaska’s Geothermal Hopes Stall Without City Backing

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

A years-long effort to bring geothermal power to Unalaska may be on its last legs. The city government is draining its accounts for exploring Makushin Volcano, saying the project is too expensive and risky to pursue any further. The private trust that owns the resource disagrees, but they’re stymied without local support.

Two Face Felony Charges for Alleged $25,000 Theft from Nome Schools

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

Two Nome residents are facing felony charges for theft and falsifying business records after allegedly stealing more than $25,000 from Nome Public Schools.

Bethel Team Envisions Greywater Recycling

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

A Bethel team is reenvisioning how household water is treated. They hope to build and test a custom grey water recycling system for hauled water systems in western Alaska that could cut steeply the amount of water households need to buy and how much sewage they produce.

PSP: Tribal Partnership Seeks Modern Solution To An Ancient Problem

Emily Kwong, KCAW – Sitka

Of all the traditional seafoods in Southeast Alaska, none are more shrouded in myth — and genuine risk — than clams and mussels. Paralytic shellfish poisoning — or PSP — killed two people in Southeast in 2010 and dozens more have fallen ill over the recorded history of the state.

For subsistence harvesters, there has been no way to measure the risk of clam digging — until now.

Categories: Alaska News

With Legislature In Limbo, Walker Calls For Action On Bills

Wed, 2015-04-22 16:18

Since the Legislature blew past its adjournment deadline on Sunday, all but one committee meeting scheduled since has been canceled or delayed indefinitely. Now, Gov. Bill Walker is calling on lawmakers to do work on bills for as long as it continues to be in session.

In a letter sent to Senate President Kevin Meyer and House Speaker Mike Chenault on Wednesday, the governor urged them to “use this time wisely,” and suggested they continue work on Medicaid reform and expansion. He also asked the Legislature to make progress on three specific pieces of legislation: a bill advancing an interior energy project, a bill dealing with the state’s child support program, and a bill — known as Erin’s Law — that would establish a sexual abuse prevention program in schools.

In an interview in the Capitol stairwell, Senate President Kevin Meyer said one of the reasons bills were not being heard was that his caucus hopes a deal will be struck on the budget that will allow them to adjourn soon. The Anchorage Republican also said that he wants to limit legislative gamesmanship, and cited an effort by Senate Democrats on Tuesday to roll Erin’s Law into a bill establishing Children’s Day.

“When we did take up a simple bill, people tried to hijack it and put something on there. A lot of mischief happens,” said Meyer. “So, we might be better off, if mischief is going to occur, not to hear any more bills.”

Meyer also said the Senate has met its constitutional obligation to pass an operating budget, and that its agenda for the session is complete. He blamed the adjournment delay on House Democrats, who are trying to secure more education funding at a time when the state faces a four-billion-dollar deficit. But he said if lawmakers cannot make a deal on the budget within the next few days, they may consider holding committee hearings again.

“The Senate feels like we’ve finished our work, and we’re ready to go home,” said Meyer. “Boxes are packed. We feel guilty, too, about getting paid a per diem for being here, because we want to be home and our work is done. But again, we’re kind of held hostage here by other side, because they can’t get an agreement. So, if it looks like that agreement can’t be reached anytime soon, then yeah, let’s just keep working.”

House Speaker Mike Chenault was occupied by negotiations and was not available for an interview.

More than 300 bills have been introduced this legislative session, but just 36 have passed both chambers.

Each day the Legislature goes past its statutory deadline costs the state approximately $30,000 — with $13,000 going to lawmakers in the form of per diem. While Wednesday was Day 93 of the Legislature’s 90-day statutory session, it can meet for up to 121 days, as provided by the Alaska Constitution.

Categories: Alaska News

The Blind Spot: Harm Reduction at the Transit Center

Wed, 2015-04-22 09:10

(Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

If you’re a teenager in Anchorage struggling with homelessness, hunger, or addiction there are few places to turn. One of the few organizations in Anchorage helping at-risk teens on their own terms is hidden in plain sight in one of the city’s busiest buildings.

The POWER Teen Center is up a flight of stairs in the hectic Downtown Transit Center. Just past the glass doors is a walkway, and from there Calesia Monroe can see everyone downstairs waiting for their bus.

Calesia is 17, and has been employed as an outreach worker at Power–which is what everyone there calls it–for almost three years. On a tour one Friday, close to 5pm, the staff was closing up for the weekend, ushering dozens of young people out the door.

(Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

In the front room people hang out, watch TV, and can sign up on a clipboard to see a nurse for STD/STI testing.

“People just sit out here and child out,” Calesia tells me. “And then we also have the condom giraffe,” she adds, opening a giraffe-shaped cabinet stocked with prophylactics for clients to take.

Condom giraffe, I should mention, is a giraffe shaped-cabinet stocked with condoms for clients to take.

The Power Teen Center is one component within Alaska Youth Advocates, a non-profit targeting an at-risk population between the ages of 14 and 24. It offers basic services like food and clothing, and connects at risk kids to resources like housing, counseling, and even treatment. Last year, the on-sight medical clinic tested more than 400 young people for sexually transmitted diseases.

Paid youth staffers like Calesia work at the center, but they also carry backpacks full of food and supplies doing street outreach in downtown Anchorage, and as far away as the Dimond Center.

“I think that we’re much more on the side of safety and linkage, as far as being the first line of contact,” says Chris Mortinson, who supervises the center and its staff.

“We use a harm reduction model, meaning we’re not going to kick out youth either because of them using or because of other different difficulties they may have,” Mortinson explains. The goal for him is looking past barriers young people may face in order to get them to reach other services.

(Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

As Mortinson and I are talking inside the pantry, a young man pokes his head in and asks if he can fill up a bag of food. Mortinson immediately obliges, and helps him pick out dry-goods and a package of lunch-meat from a freezer.

Power’s approach is similar to the Housing First model, which is based on the idea you can’t help people in crisis with big life issues if immediate concerns like hunger and safety aren’t being met. That is part of the reason the center is located in the bus station.

“Our youth are here,” Mortinson said, “whether we’re here or not, our youth are downstairs and hanging out here.” One of the peer outreach works had recently told Mortinson that even on the days Power is closed, Saturday through Monday, there are often regulars leaning against the center’s glass doors.

Calesia is more candid about how the location fits with the mission. Many of the clients she works with are surviving poverty, addiction, and trauma. The geography of downtown and the bus system play a prominent role in that, so the center makes sense.

“A lot of drug-related activity is going on downtown, a lot of illegal activity is going on, a lot of people in need, and a lot of people coming in and out,” Calesia explained.

(Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

Power does not have data on how many young people they pull out of trouble. And that is intentional. They do not ask for IDs from clients or do any kind of tracking, because they know that for one reason or another some of them do not want to be found. But Mortinson and Calesia both say that at the anecdotal level they see the center making a huge difference in the lives of the young people it serves.

Some of Calesia’s perspective on what clients at the center face came from running away when she was 14 and her family was homeless

“I didn’t run away from home because it wasn’t a home,” she said. “But when I ran off to the Covenant House they immediately contacted my mother and she put me in a girl’s home.”

She liked the stability at the girls home, but then her mother pulled her out.

“So I was back on the streets,” Calesia said. Many of the housing and shelter resources for adults felt off-limits because she was still a minor. She doesn’t know what she would have done, or what she’d now being doing if she hadn’t been for the center. “I probably would have been doing some of the stuff that the clients here at Power are doing, and getting really deep into.”

(Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

Still, hers is a happy story: in the fall Calesia is starting college at the University of Hawaii. She plans on majoring in Peace Studies, focusing on women, gender, and race, because she thinks it will help her work on behalf of underrepresented groups, including young people.

“Power has opened that door for me to be an advocate, a leader in my community,” Calesia said, her eyes brightening.

You can hear in her voice that this work is a double-edged sword for Calesia. It makes her laugh, gives her a sense of purpose, but it is exhausting, and she’s had to leave the job three times to give herself breathing room. She can tell she’s approaching burn out, and she’s not even legally an adult.

Anne Hillman and Zachariah Hughes received Alaska Press Club data journalism fellowships, which helped them produce this story. The training program was funded by the Alaska Community Foundation and Recover Alaska.

 

Categories: Alaska News

As Budget Negotiations Continue, Lawmakers Defend Position On Education Cuts

Tue, 2015-04-21 19:47

It is Day 92 of the legislative session, and lawmakers still have not reached a compromise on the state’s budget. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports from a very quiet Capitol.

You know it’s bad when even lawmakers are taking to Twitter to vent about having to “hurry up and wait.” Since the Legislature failed to gavel out on Sunday, no standing committees have met, and only one bill — an act creating Children’s Day — has been put to a vote. A few key negotiators are very busy, but most everyone else is on the sidelines.

Outside of a 20-minute Senate floor session, the only scheduled activity that took place on Tuesday was a Senate Finance committee press conference, led by Fairbanks Republican Pete Kelly.

“The cavalry of funding is not coming over the hill to rescue us,” said Kelly. “We don’t have the money.”

A handful of majority members said their purpose in calling reporters together was to convey how dire the fiscal picture really is, and to explain their position in budget negotiations. They reiterated that the state faces a nearly $4 billion deficit, and their reductions were not severe when put in that context.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon, an Eagle River Republican, expressed dismay over public opposition to their committee’s budget cuts.

“We really need the dialogue to change so people understand what’s going on,” said Sen. MacKinnon. “At least how my e-mails are tracking, people are shouting about adding more money, and they believe the more e-mails that are sent to us shouting and asking or demanding more money, that somehow we’re going to be able to deliver that.”

Over the course of 45 minutes, they defended their position. Most of their energy focused on one $50 million cut, which has triggered an especially large outcry and caused disagreement with the Alaska House of Representatives in negotiations to adjourn the session.

“The loggerhead, as everyone knows in the room, is with education,” said Hoffman.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat who caucuses with the majority, responded to public criticism the their committee clawed back school funding that was committed last year.

“They may have been a promise, but that promise was made in completely different financial times for the State of Alaska,” said Hoffman.

Hoffman went on to say that even though it was causing the hold up on gaveling out, the cut was small in the grand scheme of things.

“The difference between where we are in the House and Senate is a pittance — a pittance! — in comparison to the problem that this state is facing,” said Hoffman.

But opponents of the education reduction believe that it cuts both ways — that the Legislature is going long because of an appropriation that will neither make nor break the budget. Chris Tuck is the House Minority Leader, and he believes the Senate Majority is trying to paint his caucus as obstructionists.

“Yeah, I mean that’s fair to say,” Tuck told two reporters. “But we’re not holding public education hostage. We’re not holding kids hostage. We’re not holding seniors hostage. We’re not holding the sick hostage.”

House Democrats are in an unusual spot, in that they are involved in budget negotiations at all. Because the budget deficit is so large, lawmakers are looking at tapping the state’s constitutional budget reserve. The Legislature needs a three-quarter vote in each body to tap that rainy day fund, and votes from at least three minority Democrats are needed to get there. This means you have the House Minority, the House Majority, and the Senate Majority all with their demands at the negotiating table. The House Minority has said it wants more education funding and Medicaid expansion as conditions for their support, the Senate Majority wants to maintain the cuts that it put in place, and the House Majority is somewhere in between.

Tuck said that having more parties involved in negotiations complicates the dynamics, and that Republicans are still adjusting to it.

“They’re not used to being in this position, that’s for sure,” said Tuck.

As far as when negotiations should end, that’s unclear. Tuck said the earliest the Legislature will be out is tomorrow night. It’s the same answer he gave yesterday, and could be the same answer he gives tomorrow.

Categories: Alaska News

Lawmakers Still Searching For Elusive Budgetary Compromise

Tue, 2015-04-21 17:30

It is Day 92 of the legislative session, and lawmakers still have not reached a compromise on the state’s budget. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez joins us from a very quiet Capitol.

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Lori: What exactly has happened today?

Alexandra: It would be wrong to say nothing, but it feels like it. You know it’s bad when even lawmakers are taking to Twitter to vent about having to “hurry up and wait.” Since the Legislature failed to gavel out on Sunday, no standing committees have met, and no bills have been put to a vote. All activity is concentrated around a few key negotiators, with everyone else mostly sitting around as a deal – hopefully – gets brokered.

Lori: What is the holdup, exactly?

Alexandra: There are a few major sticking points with the budget right now. Because the state is facing a $4 billion deficit, the Legislature and the Governor have been in cutting mode. But there’s disagreement on what to cut and how deep to go. The biggest disagreement has been over education. At the very last stage in the committee process, the Senate Finance committee cut nearly $50 million in classroom funding. They originally said it was for leverage, but now they’re sticking to those cuts. They even called a press conference to defend their position, which the House and the Governor have both argued go too far. They said that because the state is in such a fiscal crisis, even education needs to feel some of the cuts. It’s also worth nothing that as of 4pm, this press conference was the only organized event to happen in the Capitol today. It’s also worth noting that at no point did the senators at the presser say we were on the verge of a budget deal.

Lori: Can you walk us through the dynamics between the negotiating parties?

Alexandra: This has been a somewhat unusual year in that House Democrats are even involved at all. Because the state is facing such a major revenue shortfall, the Legislature realistically needs to withdraw money from the state’s Constitutional Budget Reserve. That’s the state’s rainy day fund, which requires a three-quarter vote to tap. The Republican majority can’t get that vote without bringing some House Democrats along, so they actually have some leverage. This means you have the Republican Senate Majority, who is committed to their cuts to the operating budget; the Democratic House Minority, who want to see Medicaid expansion and increased school funding as part of a budget deal; and then the House Majority, who is somewhere in between.

Lori: So, how long is this going to take?

Alexandra: It’s anybody’s guess, and there is a friendly betting pool for bragging rights going in the capitol. Lawmakers and staff are having to continually reschedule their plane and ferry tickets. The strongest statement I’ve heard is from House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, who said the soonest the Legislature could gavel out is tomorrow night. But then again, he gave me the same answer yesterday, and could give me the same answer tomorrow.

Categories: Alaska News

Investigators: Suspect Tampered With Slain Troopers’ Guns

Tue, 2015-04-21 17:29

Alaska State Trooper investigators say the father of the man suspected of shooting two officers removed the slain officers’ handguns from their holsters and cocked them to make it appear as if his son had acted to save his life.

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The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports investigators testified Monday in the Nenana trial of Arvin Kangas, who is charged with evidence tampering.

His son, Nathanial Kangas, faces murder charges in the deaths of Sgt. Scott Johnson and Trooper Gabe Rich.

They were shot May 1 in Tanana as they attempted to arrest Arvin Kangas.

Trooper Ramin Dunford testified that audio recorders worn by the fallen troopers picked up sound of Johnson’s handgun being cocked. He says he also heard what sounded like the pistol being placed under Johnson’s body.

Categories: Alaska News

Snaring Death Of Denali Wolf Prompts Push For Protection

Tue, 2015-04-21 17:28

There’s renewed push for greater protection of declining Denali National Park wolves.  The effort follows news that a Park wolf was discovered dead last month from a snare injury.

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Categories: Alaska News

Raven Landing Gets Financing to Expand, Meet Growing Need for Senior Housing

Tue, 2015-04-21 17:25

Retirement Community of Fairbanks officials say work will begin soon on a new building on the Raven Landing Senior Community complex that will provide 35 additional housing units.
Credit Explore Fairbanks

Raven Landing Senior housing facility in Fairbanks will begin work soon on an expansion project. The Retirement Community of Fairbanks has secured a loan to help finance a $7.4 million 35-unit addition to the facility off Airport Way. The expansion is aimed at meeting a growing need for senior housing in the Interior.

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It’s lunchtime at Raven Landing, and residents have packed the dining area in facility’s airy, sunlit Community Center to enjoy the food and the company.

“Nutrition and socialization are the two biggest factors,” says Raven Landing General Manager Susan Motter. “Once the nutrition is in them, they’re able to do more. And they need to interact with people.”

Motter says Raven Landing enables residents to avoid the hassle and expense of maintaining a household. And to instead enjoy such senior-friendly amenities as on-call attendants, a beauty salon, even wi-fi.

And all that contributes to residents’ quality of life, says Karen Parr. She’s president of the Retirement Community of Fairbanks, the nonprofit that developed Raven Landing.

“Many people get healthier when they get here. In fact, most people do,” Parr said. “They’ve got something to do, people to talk to. A positive environment.”

Retirement Community of Fairbanks President Karen Parr, left, and Susan Motter, Raven Landing general manager.
Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC

Parr has spearheaded development of the 60-unit facility and was among the first to move in when it opened in 2010. She says it’s the only senior housing facility of its kind in Fairbanks, and one of only a handful in Alaska – which is why its apartments always are occupied, and its waiting list now has 156 names.

“They’re always full,” she said. “They’ve been full from the beginning, they’re always full. Long waiting list.”

Demographics are driving that demand. The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development says Alaska has more Baby Boomers per capita than any other state. It says Boomers age 65 and older will be Alaska’s fastest-growing population segment over the next 25 years.

Parr, who’s lived in Fairbanks since 1961, says the demand for housing like Raven Landing also is driven by a desire by many seniors to stick around.

“A lot of us, my friends and I, didn’t want to leave Fairbanks at all,” she said. “This is where our lifelong friends are. This is where our families settled.”

Parr says that’s why the facility is named after the iconic bird that stays here, and doesn’t migrate.

“This is a landing for ravens. The survivors. This is where we land.”

Parr says the Retirement Community of Fairbanks wants to expand Raven Landing to help meet that demand. She says it’s the only senior independent-living facility, not an assisted-living facility, which offers a higher level of care. It’s for seniors who can care for themselves and who have a lot of life to live.

“This is a place you come because you want to enjoy the last 10 or 20 years of your life. And have it be productive, and fun, and free of as many responsibilities as possible.”

Single-bedroom apartment rents begin at around 2,000 a month. Parr says the 35-unit expansion project will include a few studios that’ll cost less.

She says the lender notified her Friday afternoon that it has approved financing for the project. She says work will begin work right away, and that the project will be completed in time for the first tenants to move in around January.

Categories: Alaska News

Town Hall Meetings Tackle Alaska’s Food Security Issues

Tue, 2015-04-21 17:23

Since January 2014, representatives of the Alaska Food Policy Council have been crisscrossing the state, getting a taste of local foods, food issues, and food successes.

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The first meeting was held in 2014 in Nome, followed by Juneau, Fairbanks, Bethel, and Palmer, then Homer and Anchorage this year.

The events have attracted Alaskans from all walks of life.

“Well I mean food affects everyone every day. So I think definitely from the farmer working in his fields that day or her fields that day to the mom who wants to be able to feed her kids healthy food,” says Chelsea Ward-Waller, a project manager with Denali Daniels & Associates contracted with the council to lead the town hall meetings and process the feedback.

She says there are a few issues of concern to the entire state because of how remote it is, like general food security in case of emergency. But the regional differences have been significant, too.

“For example, Nome has some interesting issues with their reindeer herders that they’re trying to get some legislation, regulations changed so that they can have some better, easier processing within the state and within the local community. And then Bethel of course really has a champion, Tim Meyer, there, but the rest of the community really struggles and so that’s an interesting dichotomy,” says Ward-Waller. “And then Fairbanks is really proud like Homer of all the local farmers.”

Kyra Wagner is one of those proud people, but she says there’s still lots to be done. She works with the Homer Farmers’ Market and the Sustainable Homer initiative. She came out to share her interest in seeing locally-grown food in school lunches as well as affordable or home-grown food for low income families.

“The more people we can have growing food is going to make us more secure as a community as far as food security but also, in people’s pocketbooks it’s much more affordable and it’s healthier. So, it’s the best of both worlds,” says Wagner.

The Kenai Peninsula, like the Mat-Su region, is known for its fertile land and strong independent agriculture businesses. But some of its communities, like Homer, are also heavily dependent on the maritime industry.

That’s where this meeting took a bit of a turn from some of the others. Emma and Claire Laukitis, also known as theSalmon Sisters, are lifelong fishermen who also own their own fishing-themed clothing line.

“It’s a gem of a protein and a food source and it’s the healthiest thing that you can be eating,” says Emma. “So, to have that at your doorstep and not utilize it is a silly thing, I think.”

They are vocal advocates for sustainable and traceable seafood sourcing and they’ve come to the meeting to make sure fishing is part of the food conversation.

“I mean you’re supporting your local economy. I don’t understand why you would transport subsidized product all the way from the Midwest when you have a bay full of fish that you can start a fish to school or farm to school program that you travel two miles from the base of the spit to Homer High,” says Claire.

Partnerships between agribusiness and the seafood industry in Alaska are just logical, says Kelly Harrell. She works for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council which is co-hosting this meeting.

“If we’re talking about protecting food security, you know it’s salmon with a lot of Alaskans. That’s one of our major food sources there. So, we definitely recognize the need for more fisheries- and seafood-minded folks to be engaged with the Food Policy Council and make sure the discussion wasn’t just about agriculture but it was about seafood and how to get more local seafood into schools and into the hands of consumers,” says Harrell.

She’s also a governing board member for the food council and says the next step is collating all the research and feedback from the communities. Then, she says the council will likely reach out to its various member organizations to prioritize possible projects or focus areas.

“We have a common interest in working to overcome and building a better food system, so I think the sky’s the limit and a lot of collaboration to be had in the future,” says Harrell.

And the ultimate goal is two-sided. To ensure all Alaskans have access to affordable, healthy, sustainable foods. And, to engage those same Alaskans so they can help make the decisions that could affect their food system far into the future.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 21, 2015

Tue, 2015-04-21 17:20

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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Lawmakers Still Searching For Elusive Budgetary Compromise

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

It is Day 92 of the legislative session, and lawmakers still have not reached a compromise on the state’s budget. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez joins us from a very quiet Capitol.

 

Investigators: Suspect Tampered With Slain Troopers’ Guns

The Associated Press

Alaska State Trooper investigators say the father of the man suspected of shooting two officers removed the slain officers’ handguns from their holsters and cocked them to make it appear as if his son had acted to save his life.

 

Snaring Death Of Denali Wolf Prompts Push For Protection

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

There’s a renewed push for greater protection of declining Denali National Park wolves.  The effort follows news that a Park wolf was discovered dead last month from a snare injury.

 

The Blind Spot: A System of Order Over Chaos

Anne Hillman & Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

This week on APRN we’re exploring the Blind Spot – how youth who are part of and outside of the juvenile justice system are getting help for substance abuse. One option is residential treatment, such as what’s offered through the ARCH program in Eagle River. ARCH stands for Adolescent Residential Center for Help.

 

Raven Landing Gets Financing to Expand, Meet Growing Need for Senior Housing

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

Raven Landing Senior housing facility in Fairbanks will begin work soon on an expansion project. The Retirement Community of Fairbanks has secured a loan to help finance a $7.4 million 35-unit addition to the facility off Airport Way. The expansion is aimed at meeting a growing need for senior housing in the Interior.

 

Town Hall Meetings Tackle Alaska’s Food Security Issues

Shady Grove Oliver, KBBI – Homer

The Alaska Food Policy Council is wrapping up more than a year of food system research across the state. As part of the survey, the council held a series of town hall meetings from Nome to Juneau to find out how these diverse communities felt about food in their areas.

 

Cultivating Native Values, NYO Tournament Continues Growing

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

The 45th Annual Native Youth Olympics wrapped up in Anchorage this weekend. More than 500 athletes from the furthest corners of the state were joined for the first time in decades by a foreign delegation, a team from the Yukon Territory in Canada.

Categories: Alaska News

The Blind Spot: A System of Order Over Chaos

Tue, 2015-04-21 09:21

This week Alaska Public Media is exploring the Blind Spot – how youth who are part of and outside of the juvenile justice system are getting help for substance abuse. One option is residential treatment, like the kind offered through the ARCH program in Eagle River, which Anne Hillman toured with one young resident.

Summer walked me through the crisp white, high-ceilinged halls of the ARCH substance abuse treatment facility. Summer is a minor, so we aren’t using her real name. We pass artwork painted by some of the center’s residents, and stops at a massive whiteboard covered with rules and notes.

“This is our reflections board,” Summer told me.

“What’s that mean?” I ask.

“Basically,” she replied, “if you’re on reflections with someone you can’t actually talk to them. You kind of pretend that they don’t exist.”

The exterior of the ARCH building. (Photo via Volunteers of America – Alaska/Adolescent Residential Center for Help website)

The idea is to stop having unhealthy conversations or codependent relationships. Sometimes all 24 young people living in the house are on reflections, and are only allowed talk to each other during allotted times, like group therapy. Summer hasn’t been allowed to talk to one of her friends for months.

“Do you miss talking to him?” I ask.

“Yes. He’s a good friend.”

“What’s it like to be in the same room with him and not–”

“Talk to him?” Summer leaps in. She explains that because they’re both in the facility they still get to see each other and gauge one another’s progress. “And you still support them by moving forward.”

Summer is completing six months of treatment for substance abuse. She started using drugs when she was 14. Her older boyfriend gave them to her. She says no one in her family noticed because she was still involved in activities at school and had a job. Then she started abusing prescription drugs, and eventually alcohol and pot. Her relationships with guys were unhealthy. By 17, she was acting out and her parents kicked her out of the house. Last summer, she chose to come to ARCH because she knew her friend would be here.

“It was nothing like I expected,” she admitted. “I expected it to be lots more loose-fitting. A bunch of kids just slumming it out, not really doing anything.”

Instead, she found an extremely structured and restricted environment.

Program director Julia Jackson says there are reasons for that.

“We create a system of order rather than chaos here,” explained Program Director Julia Jackson. It’s partly to help the residents feel safe, “But we also indirectly reinforce that there’s a sense of ownership, self responsibility, an obligation to interact in socially appropriate ways, and there’s a sense of law and order here, just like there is in societies.”

The rules are meant to keep the teenagers focused on their treatment. To that end, even reading books and listening to music require special permission.

“Adolescents want to escape,” Jackson said. “We have lost many a child to The Hobbit.”

She maintains the program works because it teaches the clients to respect and understand themselves, and how drugs affect them. It gives them skills to resist using substances, and provides a group of counselors they can call as a safety net. Most of the people who leave the program relapse at least once.

“But,” Jackson clarifies, “the number is very high–and getting higher–of individuals who leave, have minor difficulties and struggles, and get back on track and stay on track.”

However, the organization doesn’t have data showing this. It is up to former residents to self-report how they are doing, and the center lacks a complete picture. The evidence is anecdotal.

Unlike Summer, most of the clients at the ARCH program are referred by the Department of Juvenile Justice, which for many of them prompts a strong motivation to participate.

“It’s sometimes a lot easier to rely on legal consequences and rely on external factors, especially when you’re dealing with the adolescent brain, where it’s about instant gratification,” Jackson concedes. “It’s about short-term sight, what’s right in front of you–not seeing the long-term goal.”

Summer and I walk into the girls’ wing. Her room has a small bulletin board covered with pictures but otherwise it’s pretty bland. Residents can only have more decorations or other personal items if they have special permission called an “intervention.” From an outsider’s perspective, the room seems austere.

But Summer doesn’t see it that way. She’s currently transitioning into living with her grandparents, which brings with it passes off the ARCH facility.

“When I came back from my home pass I was like ‘Oh, I’m home! My bed,’ she said, lighting up. “It’s like a house full of family here.”

Summer is getting ready to leave the program. She’s nervous, but likes the idea of being back in the real world. She has plans for the future: Stay away from most of her old friends, finish high school, learn a trade, then travel. And she wants to focus on healthy relationships.

“It took me three months to realize that I was important,” she said. She’s realized that guys treated her poorly, allowed her to hurt herself.

“I didn’t deserve it,” Summer said. And that is the lesson she will take with her for life.

Zachariah Hughes and Anne Hillman received Alaska Press Club data journalism fellowships, which helped them produce this story. The training program was funded by the Alaska Community Foundation and Recover Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

As Spending Talks Continue, House Takes Crack At Capital Budget

Tue, 2015-04-21 02:42

After a day of stalled and canceled meetings, the Alaska Legislature made small advances on a capital budget.

The Alaska House considered the appropriations bill on Monday evening — the 91st day of the 90-day legislative session — but did not actually pass it. The House version of the capital budget funds $1.5 billion in projects. Federal money makes up the bulk of the spending, with less than 10 percent coming from the state’s unrestricted general fund.

Democrats offered six amendments, all of which failed on caucus lines or were withdrawn. Their top amendments would have restored education funding that had been stripped out by the State Senate. Rep. Les Gara, of Anchorage, spoke to his own experiences as a foster child when arguing for the money.

“Schools give people a chance in the world. I know that from my own life. I would not have had a chance in the world without schools,” said Gara. “The idea that we can’t afford this — it’s self-imposed poverty.”

House Finance Co-Chair Steve Thompson, a Fairbanks Republican, opposed the measure, in light of the state’s multi-billion-dollar deficit.

“This amendment was proposed with the best of intentions,” said Thompson. “However, it is irresponsible in our current fiscal environment.”

After about two hours of debate on the failed amendments, House leadership pulled the budget legislation before it could be considered in its entirety. The bill is both a bargaining chip and vehicle for change in ongoing negotiations between the Republican majority and the Democratic minority over government spending and the use of the state’s rainy-day fund.

While the House Majority did not allow the Democrats’ education amendments to advance, their leadership has said they would ultimately like to see some of the Senate’s cuts to school funding reversed.

Categories: Alaska News

Cultivating Native Values, NYO Tournament Continues Growing

Mon, 2015-04-20 18:36

Kim Gumera of Unalaska kicking at 110″. Gumera won the award for Best Overall Male Athlete. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

The 45th Annual Native Youth Olympics wrapped up in Anchorage this weekend. More than 500 athletes from the furthest corners of the state were joined for the first time in decades by a foreign delegation, a team from the Yukon Territory in Canada. The tournament continues to grow, which organizers believe is a reflection of more deliberate efforts to promote traditional values across the state.

The seal-hop is one of 10 events jammed into three days of competition, held for the first time ever on the arena floor of the Alaska Airlines Center. And while it’s thrilling, it can be hard to watch high-schoolers in push-up pose bounce on knuckles and fists for dozens of feet before collapsing. It’s supposed to hurt.

“Seal hop is an endurance game,” explained Marjorie Tahbone, a coach from Nome and former NYO champion. “It also is a game that tests your ability to handle pain.”

The NYO games are adaptations of traditional practices and competitions rooted in subsistence.

“If you can imagine a long time ago, the young hunters would have to go out and they would have to stalk the seal, and they would have to get as close as possible in order to harpoon it,” Tahbone said, “the seal-hop was invented just for that purpose.”

The games were a way for hunters to keep their bodies in shape during the cold, dark winter months. Some, like the Indian stick-pool, were good practice for the strong wrists you need grabbing salmon by the tail on a fish wheel. Others have evolved to carry different lessons. The one foot high kick was originally a way to signal a successful hunt from far across the sea ice.

Though nowadays, Tahbone said, the real lesson is concentration, “Which was and is still is so important to surviving out in the Arctic when you’re hunting, and when you’re waiting for that seal patiently and trying to stay focused. Because if you don’t pay attention you’re going to miss it, you’re going to lose your chance to feed your family, you’re going to miss it. And that directly applies to our life now.”

Tahbone and many of her fellow coaches believe the games are a way of protecting and reinforcing the value system that was built into the subsistence cultures spread across Alaska. And though the hunting methods have changed, the values are durable.

“The games still definitely connect us to the way we hunt today,” said Nick Hanson, who has coached in Unalakleet for six years, “it is driven by the ancestors and by the traditions that we’ve held for years and years and years, but we now hunt with boats and guns instead of ice-hopping…but we still want the other hunter in the boat to be just as strong as we are, we still want to share what we catch with our community, and that’s what the games are all about.”

Nick Hanson using his third jump on blanket-toss to exhibit control and focus during a backflip, and sticking the landing. (Photo: Hanna Craig, Alaska Public Media)

Hanson is a bit of an NYO super-star. He holds records, received an award this year for embodying traditional values, and even did a back-flip during the blanket-toss. He’s also appearing next month on the TV show American Ninja Warrior. But the athletics for him are just a fringe-benefit to the cultural connections that are part the games. One of his athletes, Makiyan Ivanoff, a senior in the Bering Strait School District, thinks NYO is different from other sports he plays because fundamentally it’s not about competition.

“I mean we’re competing against each other,” Ivanoff said after winning one-foot high kick, “but everybody is trying to max out, and everybody wants each other to max out and do their best.”

Makiyan Ivanoff studying the target before making his first-place kick at 110 inches. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

At the end of the tournament, Ivanoff also took home the Sportsmanship award.

Nicole Johnston is one of the chief organizers for the NYO, and held the record for women’s two-foot high kick for 25 years. Since her days competing, the tournament has tripled in size, in part because Alaskans are working more deliberately to protect Native values.

“People are a lot more concerned about preserving the culture now, with Western influences or influences from the Lower 48–they want to make sure that everybody is holding on to what they’ve learned from their elders,” Johnston said between hugs from athletes, parents, and coaches after the awards ceremony. “The games have actually grown because of that.”

Even the podium stresses the value of mutual strength. The top spot is too high to climb up without help from someone you beat on your way to the top.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 20, 2015

Mon, 2015-04-20 17:48

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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The Blind Spot: Spaces Between Statistics

Zachariah Hughes & Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

In Anchorage, the number of criminal offenses by minors referred to the Department of Juvenile Justice has dropped by nearly half in the past decade for almost every offense type — except severe drug and alcohol offenses. That number has stayed fairly steady. In fact, as a share of the whole, substance abuse cases in Anchorage are up. But the numbers only tell part of the story. Each day this week, Alaska Public Media’s Anne Hillman and Zachariah Hughes are bringing you voices from behind the statistics in Anchorage, part of a series we’re calling “The Blind Spot”. To start, we’ll hear what that number of juvenile drug and alcohol offenses really means.

Lawmakers Still Searching For Budgetary Consensus

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The Alaska Legislature missed its adjournment deadline on Sunday night, after failing to reach agreement on the state’s budget.

Bill Establishing Marijuana Control Board Poised To Become Law

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

In spite of the session extension in Juneau, the status of new legislation dealing with commercial marijuana for the year ahead is clear.

Federal Government Proposes Taking Humpback Whales Off Endangered Species List

Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka

The federal government is proposing to remove most humpback whales from the endangered species list.

Migrating Birds May Carry Viral Baggage

Lauren Rosnenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

Right now, a lethal strain of bird flu is wreaking havoc in the Lower 48. It’s clear that migrating flocks have something to do with spreading the illness between farms and across continents – but exactly what is still fuzzy.

A remote spot in southwest Alaska may hold some clues.

Long-Term Weather Models Point Toward A Warm Summer

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

With the last of the snow melting off, and Alaska headed toward summer, long range forecasts indicate it could be a hot one.

Homer Road Sloughs After Rain

Shady Grove Oliver, KBBI – Homer

A bluff near the Homer waterfront partially collapsed Sunday morning. No one was injured, but portions of road are now closed indefinitely.

Erin’s Law Stuck In Senate Education Committee

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

The House passed a version of Erin’s Law on Saturday. Now, three versions of the child sexual abuse prevention bill are stuck in the Senate Education Committee as the legislature winds down for the year. Majority leadership has indicated there’s no rush to pass the bill.

Cama-i Celebrates Tradition For All Generations

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

The Cama-i festival packed the Bethel regional high school gym for a weekend of dancing, singing, and celebrating life in the YK Delta.

Categories: Alaska News

Bill Establishing Marijuana Control Board Poised To Become Law

Mon, 2015-04-20 16:59

In spite of the session extension in Juneau, the status of new legislation dealing with commercial marijuana for the year ahead is clear.

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Only one bill passed in both the House and Senate. The governor’s bill to establish a marijuana control board similar to the body that regulates state-wide alcohol permits is slated to become law. Regulators and marijuana policy advocates listed the legislation as their top priority for the session, since it funds staff positions within the Alcoholic Beverages Control Board to begin writing rules before the first commercial licenses are issued in 2016. The total cost to fund the board is $1,574,400.

Other important pieces of Legislation, including a broad change in the legal statutes governing marijuana as well as a bill that would have given municipalities more control overseeing new marijuana businesses, either stalled in committee or were voted down.

Categories: Alaska News

Federal Government Proposes Taking Humpback Whales Off Endangered Species List

Mon, 2015-04-20 16:58

(Credit: NOAA)

The federal government is proposing to remove most humpback whales from the endangered species list.

Forty-five years after the whales were first listed, federal scientists say that most humpback populations – including those common in Alaska – are stable and growing.

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Donna Wheating, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, calls it “quite a big deal.”

“To be able to bring a species to a point where their population is doing well and they no longer meet those standards for protection …I think that’s a really important success for us as a nation,” Wheating said.

NOAA announced the proposed rule Monday, after a five-year review of humpback research worldwide.

Humpbacks were hunted almost to extinction during the mid-20th century. One estimate puts the total population in the North Pacific at fewer than 1500 whales by the mid-1960s. They were added to the Endangered Species List in 1970.

Now, scientists estimate there are more than 21,000 humpbacks in the North Pacific, and as many as 85,000 worldwide.

NOAA says that most protections will remain in place, even if humpbacks are delisted. Whales in U.S. waters will still be protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, while outside the US, the International Whaling Commission maintains a ban on commercial whaling.

NOAA’s Angela Somma says, for the most part, there will be no change in how the species is managed.

“We don’t anticipate that there will really be much difference between how they were protected under the Endangered Species Act versus the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” Somma said.

NOAA’s proposal would split the species into fourteen populations, and take ten of those populations off the endangered species list entirely.

That includes most of the whales that feed in Alaska waters. Among those slated for de-listing is the Central North Pacific stock, which breed in Hawaii and feed in Southeast Alaska. The State of Alaska petitioned to remove that stock from the list in 2014.

The public has ninety days to comment on the proposal, and NOAA has about a year to review public input and issue a final rule.

Categories: Alaska News

Migrating Birds May Carry Viral Baggage

Mon, 2015-04-20 16:57

The Izembek Refuge sits between two major flyways for migrating birds.

Right now, a lethal strain of bird flu is wreaking havoc in the Lower 48. It’s clear that migrating flocks have something to do with spreading the illness between farms and across continents — but exactly what is still fuzzy.

A remote spot in Southwest Alaska may hold some clues.

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The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is pretty far off the road system — unless you count the avian highways that run overhead.

“Izembek provides wonderful staging habitat for large numbers of migratory birds both from Eurasia and North America,” says Andy Ramey, a geneticist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “So there’s potential for viruses to mix and be spread among birds at that location.”

Ramey and his colleagues recently published a new study on bird flu. To figure out how migration might be helping the virus get around, they visited the Izembek Refuge every fall when Emperor Geese and Northern Pintail ducks were passing through.

Over four years, the researchers collected almost 3,000 swabs and fecal samples. None of them contained deadly flu, like the kind that’s killing off poultry at farms in the Midwest.

But Izembek did show an exact match for a harmless strain of bird flu that’s only been found in China and South Korea.

After some genetic tests, Ramey says, “what we found was these viruses were sort of hybrids. That is, they’re essentially half-Eurasian and half-North American.”

These mixed-up viruses aren’t uncommon at the edge of the continent. Moving further inland, Ramey says you’re more likely to find pure ones. And those are what researchers have been looking for to prove that migration’s spreading bird flu.

There’s been a lot of effort “to find an apple in the basket of oranges, or an orange in the basket of apples,” Ramey says.

Finding a half-apple, half-orange virus in birds on both sides of the Pacific Ocean has never happened before, according to Hon Ip. He’s with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin.

“One possible mechanism of how this happened is that a Eurasian virus was brought by wild birds into Alaska and a reassortant virus emerged from a co-infection there that now generated this combination virus — which has a little bit of Eurasian genes and a little of North American genes,” Ip says.

From there, it might’ve hitched a flight back to Asia with a migrating duck or goose. Or the hybrid virus could have spread out from Russia.

Either way, it’s a long journey. But Ip and Ramey say there might be more versions of the bird flu out there taking a similar path.

Going forward, Ramey wants to continue testing birds in the Izembek Refuge — to find out what kind of viral baggage they’re bringing with them and what happens when it gets unpacked across borders.

The study on avian flu at the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge will appear in the August edition of the journal Virology.

Categories: Alaska News

Long-Term Weather Models Point Toward A Warm Summer

Mon, 2015-04-20 16:56

With the last of the snow melting off, and Alaska headed toward summer, long range forecasts indicate it could be a hot one.

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National Weather Service Alaska climate science and services manager Rick Thoman uses computer models to generate long term forecasts.

“All point strongly towards significantly warmer-than-normal temperatures,” he said.

Thoman describes extremely warm surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific and Gulf of Alaska as continuing to drive a balmy trend in Alaska. Thoman says the other half of the weather picture, precipitation is much harder to predict.

“Some weak indications of potentially wetter-than-normal across, at least, the eastern Interior and perhaps Southcentral and into Southwest Alaska as well,” he said. “But, those signals are much weaker than the very strong indications for significantly warmer-than-normal temperatures for both May and the early summer.”

The mix of warmth, lightning and rain determines wildfire potential, and Thomans says that’s even harder to forecast.

“Whenever we see a significant indication for warm, definitely our ears perk up, but as we’ve seen recently, for instance in the 2013 season, it can be very warm, but doesn’t necessarily translate to a big fire season,” he said.

Wild fire season also fizzled last summer as the interior experienced wetter than normal conditions, including in Fairbanks, where a June, July August rain fall record was set.

Categories: Alaska News

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