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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: 2 min 49 sec ago

Minority Leader Beth Kerttula To Leave Legislature

Tue, 2014-01-21 14:59

Photo by Skip Gray – Gavel to Gavel.

House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula will be resigning from her seat.

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The Juneau Democrat has been chosen for an oceans policy fellowship at Stanford University, which begins this spring term. Kerttula made the formal announcement on Tuesday afternoon, during the first House floor session of the year.

“It’s really hard to leave this quickly,” said Kerttula. “It wasn’t the way I would have liked to do this. I know it’s going to cause some hardship, and it’s going to cause some hard feelings. My hope is that people will know that this seat will be filled by somebody incredibly capable. There’s a long line of people after 15 years.”

Photo by Skip Gray – Gavel to Gavel.

Her resignation is effective January 24, and she will start her fellowship in California on February 3.

The Democrats chose Rep. Chris Tuck of Anchorage as their new minority leader. He has previously served as the minority’s whip. Democrats are also expected to shuffle their committee assignments because of the vacancy, with Tuck leaving House Resources and Scott Kawasaki of Fairbanks taking his spot.

Kerttula was first elected in 1998, and she has served as minority leader since 2006. During her time in the Legislature, she championed the now-defunct coastal management program and sponsored legislation curbing cruise ship pollution. She said the fellowship with the Center for Ocean Solutions fit in line with those interests.

“Oceans have been part of my life for a long time, from my work at the attorney general’s office to just living in coastal Alaska to being honored to sponsor the first cruise ship bill. And I’ve always had a special place in my heart for these issues,” said Kerttula at a press conference.

Juneau Democratic party officials will provide Gov. Sean Parnell with a list of nominees for Kerttula’s seat. Parnell then has 30 days to make an appointment.

The House Minority will only have nine members during the vacancy period, but they need 10 members to be officially recognized according to the Legislature’s internal rules. Official recognition means committee assignments, extra staff members, and money for travel.

House Speaker Mike Chenault said in an interview that the majority plans to keep the minority’s privileges in place, even though they are not obligated to.

“It’s my intention to still recognize them and still allow them to have their current seats on committees, knowing that hopefully in a short time the Democrats put someone forward that the governor can agree to that the Legislature can approve of. And they’ll be back to their ten,” said Chenault.

He reiterated those sentiments during a rare — and affectionate — bipartisan press conference, which concluded with the Speaker offering Kerttula a bag of goodies from his past campaigns.

This is the second Democrat the House Minority has lost during the 28th Legislature. Last January, Lindsey Holmes of Anchorage changed her party affiliation to Republican.

Categories: Alaska News

Coast Guard, ADEC Respond To Sunken Tug

Tue, 2014-01-21 13:43

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Coast Guard are still monitoring the site where a tug boat sank and leaked diesel fuel near Wrangell last week.

The 60-foot towing vessel Silver Bay II sank in approximately 120 feet of water about five miles south of the city of Wrangell early last week.

The cause of the sinking is still unknown but it is possibly related to the winter storm that moved through the area that afternoon.

As of Friday morning, the vessel was leaking diesel fuel into the surrounding waters.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, or ADEC, estimates the amount of fuel onboard at 3,500 gallons, but the size of the spill is still unknown.

Sarah Moore is the ADEC state on-scene coordinator for spill response in Southeast.

She says at this time there are no beaches known to be contaminated.

“We haven’t gotten any reports of impacted shorelines, animals, etc. We did do several beach assessments of the Institute Creek area,” Moore said. “By Friday, we couldn’t find any sheen or indication of impact from the spill either on the beach or on the water off the creek.”

Institute Creek is a popular local shellfish harvesting area.

Scott Wakefield is a marine science technician, first class, with the U.S. Coast Guard.

He says divers were on scene by Friday evening to do an underwater assessment. They found the vessel upright and in good condition.

“It went very smoothly and everything was done in less than an hour,” Wakefield said. “Alaska Commercial Divers were able to cap off all of the fuel tanks as well as the hydraulic tank and they ended up closing the outlet valve for the hydraulic fluid that would supply the equipment.”

Wakefield says the Coast Guard reported very little sheening by Saturday morning.

The containment boom and sorbent material appear to be adequately containing the diesel.

Wakefield says what was left on the surface was mostly diesel that had collected near the dock earlier in the week.

Sarah Moore says the ADEC will continue to monitor the clean-up and recovery effort even though there doesn’t appear to be any more active leakage.

“And so the spill is more or less contained, however there’s still going to be an unknown amount of product in the vessel and various engine and lube oils,” Moore said. “So, we’re still working with the owner of the vessel to get it raised and we’ll continue working on the project until that objective has been met.”

Moore says there isn’t a set timeline for raising the vessel yet.

The tug is owned by Silver Bay Logging but hasn’t been used commercially in about five years.

Categories: Alaska News

Kensington Tops Coeur’s 4th Quarter Production

Tue, 2014-01-21 12:47

Nearly half of Coeur Mining’s 2013 fourth-quarter gold production came from Juneau’s Kensington Gold Mine.

Company gold production for the months September through December totaled 80,780 ounces.  Kensington produced 37,404 ounces for the quarter, a 29 percent increase over Kensington’s third quarter, due to higher grade ore.  Cash operating costs for the quarter are expected to be 24 percent lower than the third quarter at $746 per ounce.

The mill at Kensington Gold Mine. Photo by Rosemarie Alexander.

Coeur Mining, Inc. released its fourth-quarter report on Friday.

Fourth-quarter gold production at the company’s Palmarejo mine in Mexico also was strong. Coeur Mining’s 2013 fourth-quarter silver production totaled 4,340 ounces, the most coming from Palmarejo.

Kensington, which is about 45 miles northwest of Juneau, produces only gold.  For the year 2013, the  mine produced 114,821 ounces of gold, at an average price of $1,387 per ounce.

Coeur Mining estimates its Alaska mine will produce 105,000 to 112,000 ounces of gold in 2014.

According to the Coeur report, operating costs at Kensington are going down.

Coeur owns gold and silver mines in Australia, Bolivia, Mexico, and the U.S.

Categories: Alaska News

New Data Offer Few Clues To Declining Beluga Whale Stocks

Tue, 2014-01-21 12:31

Fisheries scientists gathered in Soldotna Thursday for a presentation on years-long study of Cook Inlet Beluga Whales. The information those scientists shared provides a baseline for future studies of Belugas.

Jennifer Dushane has a thing for Beluga whales. She’s a marine biologist based in Anchorage, and she’s one of many scientific minds who came together to produce one of the largest bodies of research yet on Cook Inlet beluga whales.

A stranding of several Cook Inlet Belugas in August had biologists concerned. All of the whales were able to leave the area at high tide and appeared to be fine.

“The purpose of this study was to provide a first description of this large catalog of records. That included how many [strandings], where were they, when did they occur, by live and dead stranded and by gender and age class when we had that [information],” Dushane said.

Dushane examined records of stranded whales. That’s one of the few areas of study with any real data. Very little exists prior to about 20 years ago, when Cook Inlet belugas were put on the endangered species list. But records of strandings go back to the 1940s. There are two types of strandings reported, live and dead. Dushane found that dead stranded whales were found basically all over the Inlet. But the live ones tended to be more concentrated.

“For the vast majority, when a stranding occurs or stranding events occur in a given year, they generally are occurring in the same area, the same region within that one year,” Dushane said.

Why that is is still up for debate. Like much of the research presented Thursday, it only offers some basic facts, upon which more questions can be raised. Dushane found that June, August and September tended to have the high number of reported strandings. There are a couple likely causes for that. One is that there are more eyes on the Inlet during those summer months. And the other is that strandings are statistically nonexistent in the winter months. We just can’t see them because of snow and ice. Dushane says an increase in reports of dead stranded whales is probably due to the same factors.

“It could be tempting to think perhaps there are more dead whales showing up. But the level of effort at (the National Marine Fisheries Service) to document these strandings has been increasing since the 1980s,” Dushane said. “The public has been getting more well informed about what’s been going on through the media and with the endangered species listing. NMFS has also reached out to the public and informed them about how to report beluga strandings. So the discoverability of these carcasses has probably increased over time.”

Keeping better tabs on what’s washing up on shore is just one angle for researchers.

An oral history was constructed by doing more than 200 interviews with people who had personal experiences in some ways with Belugas. Seeing huge pods of them in Homer years ago, or watching them feed for several days around the mouth of a river. All of those stories went into an exhibit currently on display at the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward.

Researchers also looked at what is in Cook Inlet that could have some effect on belugas. That includes what they eat, and a variety of hydrocarbons, collectively referred to as PAH.

This work was done by the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, or CIRCAC. They wanted to see what hydrocarbons were present in the waters of Cook Inlet and where they were concentrated. CIRCAC also studied the prey of belugas for evidence of PAH’s. They looked at beluga blubber and liver samples for those hydrocarbons and found some interesting things.

“Often times, the large, long-lived males show higher concentrations than females, because females periodically get pregnant, and they can dump their toxins, unfortunately to their fetus. Through loss of milk and metabolizing a lot of the fat that they have, they tend to have lower concentrations of a lot of the contaminates,” CIRCAC’s Susan Saupe said.

Specifically, CIRCAC wanted to know what effect the oil and gas industry is having. A lot of these hydrocarbons occur naturally. Like in Kachemak Bay. Even though there’s no industry there, levels are high. Which stands to reason for an area that used to be known as Coal Bay.

But they found the highest concentrations in the industrial zone: that area of the Inlet between the forelands and Tyonek, where lots of drilling rigs are stationed.

They didn’t find much evidence of hydrocarbons in the beluga’s diet. Or at least what they know of as the beluga’s diet. What they eat in the winter remains largely unknown. But salmon turned up mostly clean.

“This study does not show that PAH’s are inhibiting recovery of the stock, but it does raise, we believe, sufficient concern about potential effects to reproduction that warrants further studies, especially on a population where recruitment of one or two whales can make or break things,” Saupe said.

Each researcher ended on a similar note. We’ve learned a lot of very basic information about belugas and their environment. But more research is going to need to be done to get a better handle on what all that information means.

This was the first presentation of all this research and it will be finalized and released as whole later this spring.

Categories: Alaska News

International Maritime Organization Working On ‘Polar Code’

Tue, 2014-01-21 12:13

A “polar code” for shipping vessels traveling in the Arctic could be agreed upon this week by a committee of the International Maritime Organization.

Right now, insurance for vessel owners sending ships into the Arctic can be very expensive, and an international agreement on standards for safety and construction would be expected to lower those rates.

Last year about 71 vessels traveled the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast but an estimated total of one thousand vessels ventured into Arctic waters.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature Prepares To Gavel In

Mon, 2014-01-20 18:20

Tuesday, the Legislature gavels back in, and for lawmakers things look a lot different than they did last January. There’s no oil tax legislation to tackle, and the state’s budget outlook is not quite as rosy as it’s been in past years. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez will be heading up our capitol coverage, and she’s here today to talk to us about what’s at stake over the next few months.

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Categories: Alaska News

Begich Takes Stand Against Pebble Mine

Mon, 2014-01-20 18:19

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich has taken a definitive stand against the Pebble Mine. He told the Anchorage Daily News over the weekend that he can’t support the proposed mine in Southwestern Alaska. In doing so, he’s broken away from the rest of Alaska’s congressional delegation and his three Republican challengers.

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Categories: Alaska News

Thayer Named Administration Commissioner

Mon, 2014-01-20 18:18

Curtis Thayer has been named commissioner for the Alaska Department of Administration.

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Gov. Sean Parnell named Thayer to the position Monday. Thayer had been filling in as acting Commissioner since last month following the resignation of Becky Hultberg.

Before that, Thayer served as deputy Administration commissioner. His responsibilities as deputy commissioner included the divisions of general services, personnel and labor relations, administrative services, and motor vehicles.

According to Parnell’s office, Thayer’s prior work includes serving as a deputy commissioner in the state commerce department, working for ENSTAR Natural Gas Co. and serving as a congressional aide.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislative Session Gives Juneau Businesses Temporary Boost

Mon, 2014-01-20 18:17

Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage.

Dozens of lawmakers and their staffers are relocating to the capitol city for Tuesday’s start of the legislative session. Lobbyists and reporters will also spend at least part of the 90 day session in Juneau. The temporary population influx provides an important revenue boost to many local businesses.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaskans Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Mon, 2014-01-20 18:16

Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage.

Alaskans celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior’s birthday with songs and remarks from state and local leaders.

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Categories: Alaska News

Rohn Buser Crowned K300 Champion

Mon, 2014-01-20 18:15

Twenty-four-year-old Rohn Buser of Big Lake won the K300 Sled Dog Race on Sunday crossing the finish line in Bethel at 9:18 a.m.

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Rohn beat out Jeff King by seven minutes after battling out for the last 100 miles. Buser took the lead when King had trouble finding the trail in the dark where some markers were missing.

“I figured he’d try to catch me so I had to push a little bit myself because I know his team has a lot of speed too but my guys….they went fast,” Buser said.

While looking for the trail, 58-year-old King says his dogs tangled up on glare ice. But he says that can be the way it goes when you’re leading the race.

“Because that’s where you find out where the problems are and I ran smack into one and by the time we got her fixed I was a big knot and my snaps were all covered with ice and I couldn’t get them untangled and Rohn zoomed right on by,” King said.

Conditions were everything but cold this year with temperatures mostly above freezing. Teams traversed bare tundra, glare ice, and over 100 miles of water-covered river. Nearly all mushers called it a tough race including third place finisher Cim Smyth who is 37.

“The biggest challenge was all that water going from Bogus to Kalskag that first night, it was just horrendous,” Smyth said. “You never knew how deep it was going to be and you just had to go find out by going in it.”

“My feet are all clean now, I don’t have to wash them (laughs),” 10th place finisher Tony Browning who is 56-years-old said. “It was a tough trail all the way around. Swam all the way up and most of the way back. And then bounced across the moguls the rest of the time.”

Fourth place finisher Paul Gebhart lost the back part of his sled going over bare tundra in the first 25 miles. The 57-year-old says he saw other musher’s sled-parts along the trail too.

“It was really bumpy,” Gebhart said. “Fortunately I salvaged my cooler before it broke off and then I drug it along up to Tuluksak.”

But Browning says it’s just what mushers expect when they sign up for the K300.

“This is the best race going. You don’t just race your competitors, you got to race the weather too, all the elements,” Browning said. “That’s what cross country, mid-distance is all about.”

Twenty-four teams competed this year.

Categories: Alaska News

With Drop Bags Delivered, Yukon Quest Mushers are One Step Closer to Race Day

Mon, 2014-01-20 18:14

Mike Ellis spent more than a week organize food and gear for his drop bags. Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks.

On Saturday, volunteers with the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race gathered drop bags from mushers in both Whitehorse and Fairbanks.

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Over the next two weeks, race personnel will deliver the bags to nine checkpoints along the 1,000 mile trail. Packing more than 1,500 pounds of food and gear for a remote sled dog race is a long, logistically-challenging process.


Fairbanks Musher Mike Ellis will run the Yukon Quest for the 6th time in 2014. Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks.

“So you get your beef and your kibble and your snacks and there all the heavy stuff down there on the bottom,” Fairbanks Musher Mike Ellis said.

Ellis spent more than a week filling large white bags with all the things he needs along the Yukon Quest trail.

“And then a glove bag so I’ve got nice dry warm gloves,” he said. “I always throw some hand warmers in because it’s bound to be 50 below somewhere on the Quest.”

We’re standing inside his guest cabin.  Various piles of food and gear cover the floor and fill the corners.  Across the yard, boxes filled with all different kinds of things sit on the front porch of his house.

“That looks like the burrito box – about 10 different kinds of burritos made up – breakfast burritos,” Ellis said.

There’s been gear spread all over the place for a week or two.  Behind us, white ice cube trays were also stacked high along the outside wall of his house.

“Those are electrolyte cubes that get sent out for the dogs if it gets really warm,” Ellis said.

If it gets really warm.  Ellis and a team of charismatic Siberian huskies will start the race for the sixth time this year.  He’s run the Quest enough to know he should be prepared for anything.  It’s kind of a logistical nightmare.  When the weather is warm, dogs need more water.  If it’s super cold, they’ll want more fat.  So, Ellis has to pack two different kinds of food.

“Fish and chicken skins,” Ellis said. “If it’s warm, I’m feeding the fish and if it’s cold I’m feeding the chicken skins and one or the other of them is just going to get set aside and you know that right off the bat.”

Sled dogs also go through some big changes as they travel farther down the trail.

“In the beginning of the race, you’re feeding a lot more protein and then at the end of the race, or middle to end of the race you’re feeding  lot more fat because the dog’s metabolism changes and shifts to burning fat,” Ellis said.

So, drop bags Mike Ellis packs for the beginning of the race are different from those waiting for him at checkpoints near the end. There’s also human food in those bags.  Ellis says he’s learned over the years that there are some things he just can’t leave home without.

Cody Strathe’s gear bags are filled with firestarters and fist aid items for dogs. Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks.

“I used to go off coffee for the race and I find that messes me up way more than staying on it for the race,” Ellis said. “I eat a lot more bread and carbs on the race. I used to think I was a little more doggy, and able to just eat fat the whole way and that wasn’t very kind to my body.”

There’s also one food in particular that’s become wildly popular among mushers in recent years.

“Candied bacon.  Yeah I don’t even think it’s possible to go down the Quest trail without that stuff,” Fairbanks musher Cody Strathe said. “It’s so true.  Sometimes at the beginning of the race you don’t really want it, but by the end of the race you just crave it ,that’s all you want.”

He also spent the last week frantically piecing together his drop bags for a second run down the Quest trail.  He’s standing in front of a freezer in his arctic entryway.  It’s stuffed full of food prepared by friends.

“We’ve got peanut butter bars, and peanut butter cookies and smoothies!” Strathe said.

Outside the house, a giant meat saw ran all week.  Strathe and his handlers cut countless, 50-pound frozen blocks of beef, lamb and other meat into chunks for his dog team.  They also sliced up chunks of fish.

Aside from all the food, mushers also stuff drop bags with extra runner plastic and other parts for their sleds. They also have to pack required gear like dog booties.  According to the race rules, mushers must have eight booties for every dog on the trail.  Back inside, there are rows of bags stuffed with booties sitting on Strathe’s couch.  He’ll also bring along extra boots, boot liners and socks for his own feet.

“I’ve got enough socks to have a fresh pair of socks at every check point,” Strathe said.

Ziploc bags filled with first aid items cover Strathe’s kitchen countertop.

“I’ve got stuff for vet care in here,” Strathe said. “I carry homemade fire starters with wax and sawdust so in case I get in trouble, I can start a fire real quick; matches, lighter, lithium batteries for my headlamps.”

In the end, he packed roughly 40 drop bags for the Yukon Quest.  Mike Ellis says he usually sends out 35.  But neither musher wants to consider the cost of all this food and gear.

“This time of year, we try not to look at it because it’s too depressing,” Ellis said. “It’s a lot, I don’t even want to think about it really!”

Yukon Quest staff and volunteers will deliver drop bags from the 19 mushers signed up for the race to various checkpoints along the route.  The 31st Yukon Quest starts in Fairbanks on Feb. 1.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 20, 2014

Mon, 2014-01-20 18:03

Individual news 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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Legislature Prepares To Gavel In

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Tuesday, the Legislature gavels back in, and for lawmakers things look a lot different than they did last January. There’s no oil tax legislation to tackle, and the state’s budget outlook is not quite as rosy as it’s been in past years. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez will be heading up our capitol coverage, and she’s here today to talk to us about what’s at stake over the next few months.

Begich Takes Stand Against Pebble Mine

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich has taken a definitive stand against the Pebble Mine. He told the Anchorage Daily News over the weekend that he can’t support the proposed mine in Southwestern Alaska. In doing so, he’s broken away from the rest of Alaska’s congressional delegation and his three Republican challengers.

Thayer Named Administration Commissioner

The Associated Press

Curtis Thayer has been named commissioner for the Alaska Department of Administration.

Legislative Session Gives Juneau Businesses Temporary Boost

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Dozens of lawmakers and their staffers are relocating to the capitol city for Tuesday’s start of the legislative session. Lobbyists and reporters will also spend at least part of the 90 day session in Juneau. The temporary population influx provides an important revenue boost to many local businesses.

Alaskans Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Alaskans celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior’s birthday with songs and remarks from state and local leaders.

Rohn Buser Crowned K300 Champion

Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel

Twenty-four-year-old Rohn Buser of Big Lake won the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race on Sunday crossing the finish line in Bethel at 9:18 a.m.

With Drop Bags Delivered, Yukon Quest Mushers are One Step Closer to Race Day

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

On Saturday, volunteers with the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race gathered drop bags from mushers in both Whitehorse and Fairbanks.  Over the next two weeks, race personnel will deliver the bags to nine checkpoints along the 1,000 mile trail. Packing more than 1,500 pounds of food and gear for a remote sled dog race is a long, logistically-challenging process.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Attorneys Give Free Legal Advice for MLK Jr. Day

Mon, 2014-01-20 17:45

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Anchorage attorneys provided free legal services at the Mountain View Community Center in Anchorage.

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Krista Scully is the Pro Bono Director at the Alaska Bar Association. She helps organize the event, which is in its fifth year.

“So what we’re looking at right now is room of about 30 tables and close to 50 attorney volunteers that are all meeting with clients that have issues ranging from family law, landlord tenant, public benefits, some criminal matters and various housing issues,” Scully said.

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

The event is a public service project of the Alaska Bar Association, Alaska Court System and Alaska Legal Services Corporation. Attorneys meet with clients for free for 15 to 20 minutes to discuss legal issues.

In those five years, Scully says the event has served more than 1,200 clients. Jonathan Katcher is an attorney who has volunteered at the event all five years. He says it’s part of a trend to give back to your community on the holiday.

“As a national trend people are starting to consider this day not just as a holiday or a day off but as a day of public service that’s consistent with the philosophy and ideas that Martin Luther King represented that we’re all just trying to carry forward in our own way,” Katcher said.

Katcher says the event is a small way to help close the justice gap in Alaska. Booker Lenoir came to the event to get advice on a custody issue. He was pleased with the service.

“They gave me real good advice. You ask a lot of questions and they’re forward and on hand with you. And I like that about that. Cause most lawyers charge fees,” Lenoir said. “So this was a good thing to come actually not to pay for that sitting cost to talk to a lawyer.”

Similar events took place in Juneau and Fairbanks. There is more information about free legal resources around the state on the website of the Alaska Bar Association.

Categories: Alaska News

Panel Will Target Tongass Plan Rewrite, Timber Transition

Mon, 2014-01-20 12:21

The Forest Service is setting up an advisory board to help rewrite the Tongass National Forest’s management plan. It’s somewhat similar to another panel that shut down last year without completing its work.

Tongass managers have a couple big jobs ahead of them.

A dog explores part of the Tongass National Forest’s Treadwell Ditch Trail on Douglas Island, part of Juneau. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News.

They’re reviewing and updating the land-management plan for the 17-million-acre forest. They’re also working on a roadmap for a transition from old-growth to young-growth timber harvests.

So, the agency has decided to recruit 15 people for an advisory committee.

Tongass Supervisor Forrest Cole says they’ll take about a year developing proposals for the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and the chief of the Forest Service.

“What we’re really trying to do is find folks who have experience working in collaborative groups, knowledge regarding Southeast Alaska issues and willingness to work closely together (and) come up with a solution,” Cole says.

They’ll include representatives of the industry, state and federal agencies, environmental groups and tribal organizations.

That sounds a lot like the Tongass Futures Roundtable, a larger group with a somewhat similar mission. It began around seven years ago and shut down last spring after some timber and environmental groups quit.

Cole says it broke ground that should ease the way for the advisory panel.

“We had never had all of the interests in Southeast Alaska sit down in the same year together. So it was a fairly lengthy process, probably three of the six years it was around, it took to get people to physically be able to sit in a room, have a conversation and listen to diverse opinions,” Cole says.

“Collaboration is the watchword,” says former Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, who moderated the group and tried to keep it moving forward.

“Even though the roundtable did not perhaps achieve a lot of what it had initially set out to do, it created I think a climate of discussion between parties who needed to be talking to each other but historically did not,” he says.

Roundtable organizers hoped to develop a comprise to ongoing Tongass timber battles. But Cole says it did more than meet.

“There was a bridge timber proposal that was put together by Tongass Futures that got us out of a number of heavily-litigated projects and provided timber along the way to keep the current industry alive,” he says.

The Southeast Conference, a regional development organization, was part of the roundtable. But it joined the exodus of timber and state government representatives that led to its dissolution.

The conference last year proposed its own Tongass management plan. Leaders hope to advance that as part of the advisory group’s discussions.

“I’m excited about it. I guess I should say I’m ready for another round, because you just can’t stop trying,” says Shelly Wright, conference executive director.

She says the new panel has a better chance of succeeding.

“The roundtable really was not (an) official advisory group, so I think it may be a little bit different. The undersecretary has actually said this is for his information, so I think that’s going to give it a little more weight, so to speak,” she says.

Those interested in joining the Tongass Advisory Committee need to apply by February 27th. Details are here.

Cole says the Forest Service will chose members using its own standards.

“They’ll work among themselves to see if they can come up with a consensus-based recommendation that the Forest Service will take under advisement to further along the transition or the forest-plan modification,” he says.

But he doesn’t expect to make absolutely everybody involved in these issues happy.

“In fact there’s a number of federal advisory committees that have been established that never came to fruition. So there’s still a possibility that we can’t get a recommendation out of this group. And if not, we’ll proceed on.

He says the panel’s work will not delay the review of the land-management plan. That’s expected to be completed in 2016.

Categories: Alaska News

Southeast Commercial Halibut Catch Increased For 2014

Mon, 2014-01-20 11:52

Southeast Alaska’s commercial halibut catch limit is going up.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission concluded its annual meeting Friday in Seattle and approved catch limits for Alaska, British Columbia, and the West Coast of the U.S.

The combined commercial and charter catch for Southeast’s Area 2C will be 4.16 million pounds. That includes a commercial catch limit of 3,318,720 pounds, that’s an increase of about 11 percent from last year. Southeast is the only area that will see an increased catch from 2013.

The commission also approved a catch sharing plan recommended by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and implemented by federal fishery managers for Southeast and the central Gulf. That’s a first. The catch sharing plan allocates pounds to the charter fleet and replaces the old system of a guideline harvest level for charter anglers. It’ll also allow annual purchases of commercial quota by the charter fleet.

That plan will mean a limit of over 761,000 pounds to the Southeast charter fleet for 2014. As a result, charter clients will have a one-fish daily bag limit in Southeast with what’s called a “reverse slot limit.” Charter anglers in the Panhandle can keep a fish up to 44 inches, or 76 inches and longer, but not anything between those lengths.

Coast-wide the commissioners did not go with the roughly 30 percent catch reduction as presented by staff in December. The so-called “blue line” numbers, presented to the commission by staff, applies long-standing harvest percentages to the estimated legal-sized halibut for each regulatory area. Instead the commission approved a larger coastwide catch limit of over 27 and a half million pounds.

U.S. Commissioner Jim Balsiger, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries in Alaska, called it the toughest halibut commission meeting he’s attended.

“We’re in a trying position with the resource, the halibut resource not rebuilding as rapidly as we’d like it to,” Balsiger said. “We have some issues with that. I think it is important to note, and we went over this earlier but, the decision table which contains the blue line, the entire table contains recommendations from the staff on how to set the catch limits.”

“Where we operate in that decision table is really a reflection of the conservative nature of the various halibut commissioners, because they’re all valid positions it just depends on how much risk is deemed appropriate, how much conservatism has to be cranked into those tables.”

The commercial catch in area 3A, the central gulf, will see a big cut this year, about 33 percent, down to 7.3 million pounds. And the charter fleet’s limit in the gulf was set at 1.7 million pounds. Charter clients there will have a two fish daily bag limit with a 29 inch limit on a second fish.

The commercial and sport catch in British Columbia will see a small reduction, but not the 29 percent cut initially considered in the “blue line” number presented by IPHC staff.

The commission approved a season start date of March 8 and fishing will be open through Nov. 7.

Categories: Alaska News

Project Aims to Turn Homer Into Tidal Energy Testing Site

Mon, 2014-01-20 11:36

Work is continuing on Homer’s Tidal Energy Incubator Project. Those involved, which includes scientists from around the state and University of Alaska engineering students, are trying to find out if they can turn tides into electricity sold on the market. They’ve been studying the tides near Homer’s Deep Water Dock.

Some of the equipment that’s been installed at Homer’s Deepwater Dock. Photo courtesy of the Tidal Energy Incubator Project.

“And the question is, why Kachemak Bay,” said State Representative Paul Seaton. “Well, we have strong tidal currents in here. Not the strongest in the world, but… they fit that realm where there’s docks all around the state that have the kind of tidal velocity that we have. So, if we can develop technology that works here, it will work in numerous places.”

And that’s the project in a nutshell. Seaton told the Homer City Council during its Monday night meeting that the hope is to turn Homer into a testing site for the technology and attract hi-tech industries.

Kris Holderied is a physical oceanographer with NOAA. She said the tidal conditions around the deep water dock could translate into a sort of cookie-cutter approach for other areas around the state and beyond.

“This provides the place to be able to test technology or to create things that we don’t even know about yet. We can’t even imagine yet. We’ve got the right place to do that for applications to a lot of places around the state and on the west coast and the northeast,” she said.

Seaton said the existing infrastructure in and around Homer also helps make this location attractive to researchers or companies.

Holderied said the existing data about Kachemak Bay concerning the shape of the bottom, the currents and the habitat also is a draw.

“So if you want to come and you want to develop something, you already have all this information,” she said.

Photo courtesy of the Tidal Energy Incubator Project.

She said the education component is key, too. After the Homer City Council appropriated a $100,000 reimbursable grant for the project, the city basically “hired” a group of UAA students and their professor to create a 35 percent design for the project. This will be used as part of the requirements for their engineering degrees. They were in Homer early last year to tour the dock and give a presentation at City Hall.

“This whole concept of bringing bright, excited minds to this challenge and creating something that does not exist now, you saw it when those students were in this room,” Holderied said.

Seaton said the group has enough information at this point to start seeking out developers to help gauge interest in the project. That includes the ability to show how fish interact with the devices.

“One of the biggest problems that we’re going to have, and you can’t do it in the Upper Inlet and you can’t do it in these muddy rivers, is see how whatever device is tapping the energy interacts with salmon,” he said.

He said without that information there’s no way to move forward with the project.

Categories: Alaska News

Spending Bill Includes $75 Million For Fisheries Disaster Assistance

Fri, 2014-01-17 18:04

Alaska’s congressional delegation has been churning out press releases to trumpet Alaska-bound funds in the trillion-dollar spending bill President Obama is expected to sign Saturday.

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Among them is $75 million in fisheries disaster assistance. That could bring help to Alaskans who lost out in the failed 2012 commercial king salmon fisheries on the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Cook Inlet. But Ciaran Clayton, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says fishing communities in New England, the mid-Atlantic, the Gulf Coast and Samoa are also eligible.

“NOAA and our parent agency, the Department of Commerce, will be working with each individual state’s governor’s offices and industry folks on next step for allocation of that funding,” Clayton said.

The money could ultimately go out as direct aid to fishermen but also on retraining, infrastructure or projects to prevent a future fish disaster.

Alaska’s congressional delegation had been pressing for $150 million in fish disaster funds. Among the other projects they’re highlighting in the spending bill: More than $100 million for construction of aviation buildings at Fort Wainwright and $82 million for a building at Fort Greely. The bill includes $10 million for the Denali Commission.

Categories: Alaska News

US, Russia Drafting Voluntary Bering Strait Passage Regulations

Fri, 2014-01-17 18:03

Vessel traffic is increasing through the Bering Strait, and no regulations exist to monitor that movement. The United States Coast Guard wants to change that.

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No country owns the Bering Strait waters, and no international law manages vehicle movement through the passage. As ice melts and traffic increases, this absence of regulation creates hazardous conditions for vessels.

United States Coast Guard Admiral Thomas Ostebo says the growing risk is his primary concern for the Arctic.

“There is no traffic light. There’s no traffic lane. There’s no northbound on this side, southbound over on this side reporting in requirements at all for going through the Bering Strait,” Ostebo said.

With no standard routing or reporting requirements, the risk for accidents increases.

Last year, Ostebo says, the Bering Strait saw the largest number of ship and cargo traffic in the strait’s history and the Coast Guard expects an even higher rate this year. In fact, international traffic is projected to reach such heights that Ostebo compares the Bering Strait to the Panama Canal in future global use and status.

“A major international strait that’s emerging—I would submit the biggest one since the Panama Canal,” Ostebo said. “It’s happening right in front of us.”

To implement preventative measures, the Coast Guard and its Russian counterpart are drafting voluntary regulations for passage through the Bering Strait. Ostebo says the voluntary agreement would become standard practice through insurers incorporating the measures as terms and conditions in their policies.

“Clearly, if you’re in the shipping business and you’re not following best practice standard, although it’s voluntary, and if you have a problem, culpability follows shortly behind that from a legal perspective,” Ostebo said.

The voluntary system would serve as a placeholder until the International Martine Organization passed laws to govern the strait, a process expected to take many years.

Ostebo says the United States is sponsoring the law and is seeking support from Russia to help the move the ruling forward.

Categories: Alaska News

Early Bills Tackle Lawsuits, Medical Care

Fri, 2014-01-17 18:02

With the legislative session getting ever closer, lawmakers have released another batch of bills for consideration.

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The second round of early bills is smaller than the one released last week, with fewer than 20 bills filed. There don’t seem to be any big-money bills or sweeping reforms among them. Most instead deal with specific situations.

In the House, a few bills concern health care, lawsuits, and the intersection of the two. One bipartisan piece of legislation would create a directory of living wills. Another bill would make it so that a health-care provider’s apology couldn’t be admissible evidence in a malpractice case. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a bill that would give parents the right to sue if someone’s at fault for the death of an unborn child. That includes language excepting abortions and deaths caused in the course of standard medical care.

There is also a bill in the House to limit what sort of data could be collected on students. A different item would create a simple taxpayer receipt of what the state spends its money on, to be issued when Permanent Fund dividend checks are sent out. Rounding that all out is legislation to ban genetically engineered crops in the state, to license private investigators, and to regulate drones.

Only two bills were introduced in the Senate. One would allow officers to leave parking tickets on windshields, a practice the Legislature unintentionally banned in 2010. The other would reject pay raises for the governor and his commissioners.

Categories: Alaska News

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