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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: 5 min 17 sec ago

Wasilla VA Clinic Without Doctors

Mon, 2014-09-08 16:06

Verdie Bowen, director of the state’s Office of Veterans Affairs, says the Wasilla clinic’s doctors, who worked under contract this summer, have decided not to renew.

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The clinic is supposed to have two doctors on staff at all times, but the Wasilla clinic has used one doctor and a nurse practitioner, while a third, temporary doctor rotates in and out. Now, only the nurse practitioner remains to handle the one thousand case (load)s that the clinic handles in a year.

Bowen says the patients are in no danger of not getting care, however, thanks to agreements the VA has with Southcentral Foundation and Providence Hospital for their clinics in Wasilla:

“Southcentral Foundation is receiving up to 700 patients from that [Wasilla] clinic, and we also have another contract with Providence Care, which is also seeing patients as well. So what we have done is throughout the community of Wasilla we have diversified the patients. And those that live closer to the Anchorage side, say for instance, Peters Creek or Chugiak, have the option of coming into Anchorage to be treated at that larger facility.”

The Wasilla nurse practitioner works under the supervision of the VA doctor in Anchorage.   Bowen says that despite the shortage of staff, the Wasilla clinic is operating:

“We have few people that are still housed out of the clinic in Wasilla that are being treated by the nurse practitioner there. So the veterans are still reciving their care, there is still no waiting list for those veterans to receive their health care.”

Right now, the Wasilla clinic has openings for two doctors, but Bowen says it is difficult for the VA to attract new doctors, because of pay concerns.

“The VA is locked in with the amount of funds that they can pay. And I really don’t know what that is per doctor. And especially now, with the VA not paying incentive compensations, to keep people, you know, and the end of each cycle, then that’s causing a negative factor in retaining those doctors in those locations.”

Cynthia Joe, chief of staff for the Alaska VA Health Care System, said the VA is offering what it is allowed to offer for salaries. That level is capped at $195,000.

Bowen says often the Alaska lifestyle does not appeal to VA doctors who come here to work from the Lower 48, and that could be an additional reason doctors don’t stay.

He says the shortage of doctors is not simply a VA problem, that it is symptomatic of a problem in clinics nationwide, because (of) fewer students are graduating from medical colleges.


Categories: Alaska News

Support Alliance Endorses Sullivan for Senate

Mon, 2014-09-08 16:05

U.S. Senate challenger Dan Sullivan has won a rare endorsement from the Alaska Support Industry Alliance.

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Rebecca Logan, the trade association’s general manager, says the board made the decision last week.

“It’s the first time in about 20 years that the organization has endorsed a political candidate,” she said. “We typically don’t do that. But because we feel the outcome of this election has such a huge impact on resource development in the state of Alaska we felt it was important to do so.”

Logan says the board likes Sullivan’s experience fighting for resource development. It also hopes his election will put the Senate in Republican control, which would elevate Sen. Lisa Murkowski to important leadership roles. The Alliance represents service companies in the oil, gas and mining industries.

Incumbent Sen. Mark Begich disappointed the group by backing the EPA’s move to block development of the Pebble Mine near Bristol Bay. Logan says that was a factor in the decision to endorse his opponent.

Meanwhile, Begich continues to rack up endorsements from fishing trade associations. The Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association announced their support of him last week, praising his grasp of complex fisheries issues. Begich also has the endorsements from the Bering Sea Crabbers and United Fishermen of Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

NPS Proposes Permanent Ban on Predator Hunting Practices in Alaska’s Preserves

Mon, 2014-09-08 16:04

The National Park Service wants to permanently prohibit some predator sport hunting practices in all ten of Alaska’s national preserves.
(Credit National Park Service)

The National Park Service published a proposal in the national register last week that would permanently prohibit some sport hunting practices in Alaska’s ten national preserves.  The Park Service has sparred with the state for years over hunting in National Preserves.

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The National Park Service wants to permanently prohibit three predator hunting practices in all 10 of Alaska’s national preserves. John Quinley is the spokesperson for the National Park Service in Alaska. He says those practices were historically illegal in the state until recently.

“For instance, harvesting brown bears over back bear bait stations has historical been illegal,” says Quinley. “That changed a while back under state regulations and when it did, we put in place temporary restrictions so that practice would not occur in national preserves. We are moving to make that a permanent change rather than going back every year and proposing a temporary change.”

The Park Service’s proposal would also permanently prohibit sport hunting for wolves and coyotes in early summer. The use of artificial light to take black bear sows and cubs at dens would also become illegal in Alaska’s National Preserves. For at least the last four years, those practices have been temporarily restricted by the Park Service.

“As the Board of Game over the last eight to 10 years has increasingly liberalized predator uniting rules on National preserves, we have become increasingly vocal,” Quinley says.

Quinley says state laws aren’t in keeping with the Park Service’s federal mandate to maintain natural ecosystems and wildlife populations therein.

“Our opposition to their wildlife management methods is only on national preserves.  How the state of Alaska manages other lands is up to the state of Alaska.”

But Board of Game Commissioner Ted Spraker says he thinks the Park Service just doesn’t understand how the state manages wildlife.

“Well, the purpose of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is very clear,” Spraker explains. “They’re mandated to maintain healthy populations and if they’re harvested, to harvest at some level that sustains the population.  One of the things that’s always been said that’s true is ‘if they’re hunted they’re healthy.’”

In a press release, the Park Service argues that the state is “reducing native predators for the purpose of increasing numbers of harvested species.” Spraker says that’s just not the case.

“The reason the board implemented these hunting opportunities, is just that,” Spraker says. “These populations are healthy.  Predator numbers are healthy at least in all the cases we’ve been presented, if not abundant.  And what we did is just increased hunting opportunity.  That is for the bating of brown bears and the longer seasons for wolves and coyotes.”

This past spring, the Department of Natural Resources Executive Director of the Citizens Advisory Commission on Federal Lands sent a letter to the Park Service as part of a required public process to again temporarily restrict wildlife hunting in national preserves.

We do not support the adoption of these temporary restrictions,” wrote Stan Leaphart. “Nor will we support permanent regulation preempting State general hunting regulations.”

The letter goes on to say the state expected the National Park Service to “begin the process of preparing permeant regulations.”

“We knew it was coming.”

Ted Spraker says the Board of Game will likely submit comments on the most recent proposal published in the Federal Register.  The public comment period opens in October.  But Spraker also calls the process a ‘waste of time.’

“Absolutely,” he says. “When they’re saying they’ve been doing this for four years in a row and . a waste of the public time, it’s a waste of taxpayers dollars for these guys to do it.  I hate to see people give them a free pass.  People should go and testify, but don’t expect that they’re going to turn around and allow baiting or allow flashlights or allow the taking of wolves in May.”

John Quinley says the Park Service expects pushback from the state.

“We do expect a spirited conversation with the state of Alaska,” Quinley says,  “and we will be having formal consultation with the state of Alaska on eh proposals as well.”

The proposal also updates subsistence regulations and prohibits obstruction of lawful hunting or trapping on park service lands. Public hearings on the proposal will take place in various communities in Alaska in October.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage School District Questions 6th Grade Placement

Mon, 2014-09-08 16:03

The Anchorage School District is trying to decide if 6th graders should be placed in elementary or middle schools. Currently there are some in each. District staff have been weighing the options for more than a year because it impacts future school infrastructure upgrades. They’re also looking at what’s best for the students academically. 

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Sixth grader Janera Faaaliga enters the deafening lunchroom at Begich Middle School and sits down with her friends.

“So you’re all in 6th grade?” I ask the crowd of girls as they finished their pizza and peaches.

“Yeah,” they say, almost in unison.

“What do you think?”


“Do you like it better than elementary school?”


“Why?” I ask, trying to prompt somewhat longer answers.

“Because we get lockers!”

Students eat lunch at Begich Middle School.

Lockers are resoundingly the best thing about middle school according to this group and many others. Faaaliga says she wished they had them in elementary school, too.

“When we switch for classes, like reading classes in elementary, the person who is sitting in your desk may take something out of your desk,” she recalls from her experiences last year.  ”And I don’t like that because they’re invading your privacy.”

Seventh grader Leola Atkinson agrees–she loves the privacy of middle school and the chance to meet more people. She says she survived learning to open her locker and move between classes.

“I think that sixth grade is a good time to move to middle school because I think by 5th grade the elementary schoolers are done with walking in line and no lockers and stuff. So I think it’s good.”

Begich Middle School Principal Brian Singleton agrees. He says middle school is developmentally more appropriate for most sixth graders.

“I guess, in a nutshell, they have more responsibilities to be independent, even though we support them greatly, which I think is more relevant to their developmental age at this time.”

Singleton, who used to work at Government Hill Elementary, says some sixth graders are physically much larger, too, making them look out of place in elementary schools. He says the transition from elementary to middle school is hard for kids who enter both in 6th and 7th grades.

“It’s the differences and the change that seem to be more significant rather than how they respond to it based on their age.” But he says giving families options to keep the kids in elementary or move them up is a positive thing.

A 2007 study from Duke University shows that kids who stay in elementary school for 6th grade do better academically and have fewer discipline problems. The effects last through 9th grade. The researchers think it’s because impressionable sixth graders in the middle schools were mixed together with older adolescents who are more rebellious.

ASD Chief Academic Officer Michael Graham says he was surprised at the national data, but that’s not the only thing the district will consider when making the decision. He says they are also conducting local research, considering the financial impacts of changing the system, and asking community members to weigh in on the questions.

“Sixth graders certainly have a lot more opportunities to do some things in middle school,” he says. “But you’re also leaving behind that safe environment where there’s that couple of teachers who know you well, families are well connected, that kind of thing.”

Some 6th graders at Lake Otis Elementary, like Tommy Lee, say they think staying in elementary school is a mixed bag.

“Yes, because we still get to go outside and all that,” he says. “But, no because I still feel like I’m still a kid inside of elementary, and I want to get to the bigger stuff.”

Sixth grader Jesslyn Sene says she’s not sure if she would have been ready for the responsibilities of being a school role model last year, but she likes it now.

“You have a lot of responsibilities, but in a way it’s more fun because you have more freedom. Because you get sometimes a longer recess and more field trips. And people kind of look up to you, and that’s a cool thing.”

Nevertheless, Sene says she would have rather joined Janera Faaaliga in the middle school hallway. Faaaliga dodges her classmates on her way to her coveted locker.

“Here, I’m gonna show you how to open my locker.” She quickly flips open the combination lock like a pro.

The tall, grey-blue box is pretty empty.

“So… you’re not going to decorate your locker or anything?” I ask.

“No, I’m just gonna leave it.”

The school board plans to decide the future of Anchorage’s 6th graders by the end of October.  They’ll present local data on the 6th grade question during three community meetings this week. 



Categories: Alaska News

Aleutian Risk Assessment Unveils Spill Prevention Plan

Mon, 2014-09-08 16:02

The Selendang Ayu broke apart a decade ago just off Unalaska Island. (Courtesy: USCG)

For years, shipping safety advocates have called for better protections against oil spills in the Aleutian chain. Now, the plan for a new response system is finally finished. The Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment’s draft report recommends some familiar solutions in new places – all at a cost of almost $14 million a year.

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The Risk Assessment started in response to a major disaster just off Unalaska’s shores. Ten years ago, the bulk carrier Selendang Ayu ran aground near the island, killing six people and spilling fuel into the Bering Sea.

It was the worst shipping accident in the region’s history – and the Risk Assessment was designed to make sure it couldn’t happen again.

Since 2009, researchers and stakeholders have been studying everything from tugboat locations to shipping routes to weather conditions – all while marine traffic in the Aleutians continued to increase.

“I certainly wish it hadn’t taken as long as it has,” says Tim Robertson, a lead author of the new report. “There’s been frustration, I think, from all levels, that — why aren’t we doing more, and studying less?”

But he says they wanted to make sure they had all their bases covered before they came out with their recommendation: create a nonprofit organization to manage better monitoring systems, spill response plans and salvage tools in the Aleutian Islands.

“We think there should be one organization that essentially provides all of these services,” Robertson says.

The nonprofit would hire contractors to run equipment like a dedicated rescue tugboat or a heavy-duty helicopter. And it would manage the cost of the whole system. It comes out to about $13.6 million a year.

Robertson says about half of that cost would come from the users themselves: the operators of big vessels heading through places like Unimak Pass, the busiest channel through the Aleutians. In 2012, for example, operators would have had to pay about $13,000 for each ship they sent across.

The Risk Assessment report says that would be lower if they could charge every ship that used that route. But a little less than half of those vessels are only passing through on their way to and from foreign ports – and there’s no way to make them chip in for a domestic response system.

So Robertson says it should fall to the federal government to cover that part of the cost – about $15 million.

“We think it’s probably most feasible if there was a one-time appropriation, instead of trying to get ongoing operational funding,” he says.

Their first purchase would be an emergency towing vessel, which would be permanently stationed in the Aleutians to head off shipping mishaps. The idea’s been on the table for years – but now, researchers are saying it should go in Adak. It’s a town of about 300 people in the western Aleutians.

That recommendation came as a big surprise to Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt. She’s been involved with the Risk Assessment from the beginning.

“When we started first looking at this, we were focused on the marine traffic that is compressed into a part of the region,” Marquardt says, “primarily because they’re either coming or going from our port, or they’re all transiting directly through Unimak Pass.”

The pass is right next to Unalaska, along the popular Great Circle Shipping route. As that track curves around the globe, it leads vessels through the Aleutians a second time – near Adak.

And that’s where they can run into trouble. There are more crossings to choose from in the area, and Adak city manager Layton Lockett says some are too sensitive for commercial traffic – like Buldir Pass. Lockett says it’s an important spot for fishing and seabird habitat.

“If something were to, say, happen in Buldir Pass, through no fault of anyone but the vessel, it could have profound impacts in a number of different industries that we’re all reliant upon, just because someone decided to take the scenic tour,” he says.

To address that, the Risk Assessment wants to close down some offshore zones to shipping traffic. And it calls for expanding the vessel tracking systems that are already in place.

But Lockett says that hosting the dedicated tug in Adak would give him the greatest peace of mind. The Risk Assessment report says if something went wrong in that area, there probably wouldn’t be tugboat close by to assist.

In Unalaska, there are tugboats working near the port year-round. But Mayor Shirley Marquardt isn’t convinced that’s enough. She says Unalaska started out as the Risk Assessment’s priority — they had several residents advising the study over the years.

Now, Marquardt’s afraid they’re getting left behind.

“It just seemed like the focus just kind of shifted — to, we’re no longer trying to prevent this happening in the first place, as to, ‘Well, gee, response out far West might difficult,’” she says. “I was really cognizant of that, this whole way through, all these years doing this, that we don’t shift. If that’s an important issue, then it needs to be addressed on its own.”

It’s concerns like that that researchers are hoping to hear before they go any further with their work. They’ve started taking public comment on their draft report. And they’re planning to visit Unalaska soon to present it in person — and explain how it’ll come together to cover the entire Aleutian chain.

UPDATE: The Unalaska meeting set for this weekend has been canceled and will be rescheduled.

The public can read the Risk Assessment report and comment online through the end of the month.

Categories: Alaska News

Does Vigor Still Need Local Tax, Utility Breaks?

Mon, 2014-09-08 16:01

As Ketchikan’s shipyard continues to grow and attract contracts, questions arose last week about whether the community should continue to offer tax and utility breaks for the property.

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Ketchikan’s shipyard is owned by the Alaska Industrial Energy Development and Export Authority, but it’s operated by Vigor, a Pacific Northwest company that owns shipyards in several states.

Ketchikan’s shipyard is seen in 2012. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld)

Vigor bought the operating rights a few years ago, and the Vigor Alaska operation is very likely about to get a lucrative contract to build two new ferries for the State of Alaska.

With that in mind, does the shipyard still need financial support from the community? That’s the question asked at two recent events, a Ketchikan Borough Assembly meeting and the regular Chamber of Commerce lunch.

Here’s Borough Assembly Member Agnes Moran, who said the community should look into developing an exit strategy.

“We now have a very large company running that shipyard that essentially has a monopoly on the West Coast,” she said. “It recently bought a shipyard, it recently bought an ironworks. You’re looking at a subsidy of a million and a half dollars every year, coupled with the fact that the city’s looking at bonding for infrastructure projects.”

The “subsidies” Moran referenced are through local property tax breaks from the city and borough, and a deal on electricity through the city-owned Ketchikan Public Utilities.

Assembly Member Bill Rotecki agreed with Moran that the discussion should take place.

“If the local municipalities and their taxpayers are subsidizing them substantially, it shouldn’t be forgotten,” he said. “It should be looked at and evaluated. I agree with that wholeheartedly.”

During the Chamber of Commerce lunch, candidates for Borough Assembly were there for a candidate forum. An audience member asked what they thought about maintaining or eliminating Vigor’s tax and utility breaks.

Borough mayor candidate David Landis said a conversation needs to happen.

“Obviously, the shipyard is a cornerstone of the business in this community and it’s vital to keep it here,” he said. “That being said, you don’t want to give everything away.”

Incumbent Assembly Member Mike Painter, who is running for re-election, agrees that the issue needs to be revisited. Incumbent Glen Thompson, also seeking re-election, said local subsidies should go away when the shipyard is self-sustaining.

“I think we’re very close. The Alaska Class Ferry demonstrates the ability of the system, there’s now about 150 people working there on a year-round basis,” he said. “I think last year, there was about $2.5 million of profit. The city and borough subsidized about a million and a half of that, but even if you take that subsidy away they still would have made a profit. Is that enough to sustain a business going forward? That’s question is where we are. We need to answer that.”

Assembly candidate John Harrington suggested that the state exempt the shipyard from paying property taxes, which the state does for an AIDEA property further north.

Lewis Armey Jr. is running for borough mayor. He was generally critical of the shipyard, but didn’t have an answer to that specific question.

Vigor Alaska’s Director of Shipyard Development Doug Ward attended the Chamber of Commerce luncheon. After the event, he said he felt the candidate’s answers were reasonable, and he’s willing to have the discussion.

Ward said the issue of self-sufficiency is always on his mind.

“We’re still operating a complex manufacturing activity in a region and in a state that lacks the basic industries that goes along with supporting these kinds of complex projects,” he said. “I think the question gets to how much employment do we want to create through shipyard investment.”

Ward said the employment projections are 300 to 350 workers once all the facility infrastructure is in place. They’re about halfway there as far as employees go, and the last big piece of infrastructure needed is a large, dedicated ship repair hall.

He noted that the agreements with the city and borough include a profit-sharing component.

“We’d like nothing more than to increase our profitability to the point where AIDEA can begin spinning off our payments to AIDEA back to the community through revenue sharing,” he said. “We’d love to make that happen.”

Ward said it’s a complicated issue, and one that he’s sure the community will be talking about a lot over the next year.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: September 5, 2014

Fri, 2014-09-05 17:05

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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Tour Bus Rollover on the Parks Highway Results in One Fatality

Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna

A tour bus rollover near Mile 173 of the Parks Highway has resulted in at least one fatality.  Alaska State Troopers say the report of the rollover came in just after 8:00 a.m. Friday.

Kiana Teacher Arrested on Missouri Child Sex Abuse Charges

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

A Missouri man who spent the last four years teaching throughout Western Alaska has been arrested on charges of sexually abusing his adopted daughter—and is alleged to have subjected his other adopted children to “years of physical abuse and neglect.”

Huge Increase For  Healthcare.gov Insurance Rates In Alaska

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Alaskans who buy health insurance on the Affordable Care Act marketplace will have to pay a lot more next year. The state Division of Insurance says consumers can expect an increase of more than 30% on average for coverage.

Snow Falls In Near Tok

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

This week’s cooling trend brought snow to the Alaska Range.

Mayor Calls For Federal Review of Fairbanks Four Case

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The mayor of the city of Fairbanks is calling for federal review of long questioned murder convictions of 4 Native men. The mayor joins numerous leaders and groups pressing for review of the Fairbanks Four case.

Reaction to Alaska Voting Rights Ruling

Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel

Plaintiffs in a voting rights lawsuit are reacting to news that a Federal Court Judge has ruled in their favor. Wednesday a judge ruled that the State of Alaska violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to provide translations into Native languages.

Foundation Swoops in to Save Sacred Alaskan Artifacts at Auction

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

As early as the 1700s, European visitors and explorers in Alaska wrongly took objects that were sacred and important to the indigenous people. Several of these items were set to be auctioned off in Paris last December, despite protest from tribal groups. It was a done deal, until an anonymous buyer stepped in.

AK: Military Training

Monica Gokey, KSKA – Anchorage

In a forested area outside of Fairbanks, the U.S. Army operates a remote facility where military servicemen and women train in a cold, mountainous environment. It’s called the Northern Warfare Training Center. And in August, they hosted an elite unit of Army Rangers.

300 Villages: Edna Bay

This week we’re heading to Edna Bay, a tiny community on its own large island near Prince of Wales Island. Myla Poelstra is the treasurer for Edna Bay.

Categories: Alaska News

Tour Bus Rollover on the Parks Highway Results in One Fatality

Fri, 2014-09-05 16:52

A tour bus rollover near Mile 173 of the Parks Highway has resulted in at least one fatality. Alaska State Troopers say the report of the rollover came in just after 8:00 am on Friday. 

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The bus belongs to Princess Tours, and trooper spokeswoman Megan peters says that three people were on board, including the driver.

EMS and troopers responded to the scene from Cantwell, Trapper Creek, and Talkeetna.

Troopers say that the driver, Brian Lanning of Trapper Creek, initially reported that both passengers had suffered “significant injuries.”  Just before 9:30, one of the passengers was declared deceased.  The other passenger is listed as having life-threatening injuries. Lanning sustained injuries that are not believed to be life-threatening.

Neither passenger’s identity has been released by the Alaska State Troopers.

Julie Benson, a spokeswoman for Princess Cruises, says that all three people on board the bus are Princess employees.

Categories: Alaska News

Kiana Teacher Arrested on Missouri Child Sex Abuse Charges

Fri, 2014-09-05 16:51

The Kiana School on November 14, 2011. Photo: Justin Rummel via Flickr Creative Commons.

A Missouri man who spent the last four years teaching throughout western Alaska has been arrested on charges of sexually abusing his adopted daughter—and is alleged to have subjected his six other adopted children to “years of physical abuse and neglect.”

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On Friday, Aug. 29, Alaska State Troopers arrested 42-year-old Owen M. Miller in Kiana, where he had been teaching language arts to middle and high school students in the community of more than 350 people just east of Kotzebue.

Miller faces an extraditable warrant from the State of Missouri on five felony counts of child sex abuse, stemming from allegations from one and testimony from at least two more of his adopted children.

“We were contacted by the Missouri authorities,” said Kotzebue Trooper Nathan Sheets. “They provided us a copy of his arrest warrant and said they had been told he was in Kiana working as a teacher.”

State teaching records show Miller has been teaching in Alaska since 2010, first in the Yupiit School District along the lower Kuskokwim River for three years. Miller said he worked at the Akiak and Tuluksak school sites (both communities of fewer than 400 people)  before moving on to the Kiana School in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District since fall 2013.

In an interview at Nome’s Anvil Mountain Correctional Center Thursday, Sept. 4, Miller said he was a teacher before he came to western Alaska, and said he moved to the state in 2010 “to pursue a lifelong dream” of living in rural Alaska. Missouri court records, however, list a Wasilla apartment as his home address dating back to November 2003.

Though he claimed to have moved to Alaska “with his family,” he said he and his wife soon divorced and she moved to Wasilla.

“I planned a new life in Alaska,” Miller said.

But Missouri court documents allege Miller and his wife left a dark past behind them. Citing as witnesses a Missouri sheriff’s deputy, two Missouri State Highway patrol officers, a Wasilla police officer, Miller’s seven adopted children, and others, the Missouri court’s statement of probable cause alleges Miller and his wife were responsible for years of “sexual and physical abuse” of the couple’s adopted children, abuse the sheriff’s deputy claims occurred “in many jurisdictions throughout Missouri and Alaska.”

Miller faces five felony charges, including statutory rape, sodomy, two counts of child molestation, and incest. All charges have been filed in Missouri; no criminal charges have been filed in Alaska. Miller’s wife has not been charged with any crimes.

A sworn statement from the Andrew County Sheriff’s Department in Savannah, Missouri, alleges Miller and his wife routinely locked their adopted kids in attics, basements, and outdoors, leaving them without food for days. At other times, with their siblings padlocked inside their rooms, the children had to crawl through holes in the wall to steal food from a freezer and heat it up on a wall furnace.

In August of last year, the Missouri court documents describe one of Miller’s adopted daughters reaching out to a Wasilla police officer to disclose more than a decade of physical and sexual abuse. The documents describe “a marriage ceremony in Savannah” in August 2002, but exactly who was married is unclear. After the ceremony, the adopted daughter—who at the time court documents say was under 12 years old—alleges Miller sexually abused her, beginning more than ten years of such abuse, with Miller said to have routinely plied the victim with alcohol.

Miller’s wife told the same Wasilla police officer in August 2013 that she knew of the physical abuse but denied any sexual abuse.

“I didn’t do what I’ve been charged with,” Miller said from jail in Nome Thursday. “I don’t know what to say beyond that.” He denied the charges, refusing to talk about his children, and said he had had trouble contacting family members and a lawyer in jail. Miller said he had not even seen a full list of charges a week after his arrest.

Susan Morgan, a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, said Alaska adoption officials were unable to comment on whether or not Miller’s children were adopted in Alaska due to the state’s confidentiality laws. Miller said his children were all adopted in Missouri.

Prosecutor Steve Stevenson in Andrew County, Missouri, said the initial reports regarding the abuse came to his office in October and November of last year. Stevenson said Miller has other offenses in other Missouri counties. “There were several problems in other places,” he said.

Stevenson credited the state’s “longer statute of limitations for sexual offenses” with making the warrant for Miller possible. “In cases of physical abuse only, we don’t have as long to prosecute someone on late-arriving information.”

Miller has no criminal history in Missouri or Alaska. Sondra Meredith, who administers teacher certificates for the Alaska Department of Education, said that means he had no trouble passing the mandatory background check for his teaching certificate in Alaska.

“In the case of Mr. Miller, there is no indication that any of those checks resulted in any of those red flags in our office,” she said Thursday, going so far as to run another background check that day. “Basically he came through with a clean background check.”

Annmarie O’Brien, superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District where Miller most recently worked, said there was no record of any concerns of child welfare during Miller’s time with the school.

“The staff has expressed surprise, but there haven’t been any concerns [expressed] of Mr. Miller while he was working in Kiana,” O’Brien said.

Norma Holmgaard, the superintendent of the Yupiit School District, refused to release any information on Miller’s three years with the district.

James Seitz, executive director of Alaska’s Professional Teaching Practices Commission—the body that enforces the code of ethics on the state’s teachers—said Miller had never been sanctioned by the teaching commission. Seitz added that privacy concerns prevented him from disclosing if complaints had ever been filed against Miller during his time teaching in Alaska.

Miller is currently awaiting extradition to Missouri in Nome’s correctional center, pending $250,000 bail.

Kenny Ragland with The Savanna Reporter contributed to this story.

Categories: Alaska News

Huge Increase For Healthcare.gov Insurance Rates In Alaska

Fri, 2014-09-05 16:50

Alaskans who buy health insurance on the Affordable Care Act marketplace will see a significant rate hike for next year. The state Division of Insurance says consumers can expect to pay an increase of more than 30 percent on average for coverage.

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Two insurers offer individual plans on the marketplace – Premera Alaska and Moda. Premera’s plans will increase the most – an average of 37 percent. Premera spokesperson Eric Earling says even that increase is not enough to pay for customers’ claims.

“We do have a pretty clear influx of folks with some very significant medical costs that in the past was spread across the insured market, including employers,” Earling said.

Earling says the way the individual market is structured under the Affordable Care Act is not sustainable in a small population state like Alaska.

“Before the ACA took effect in January, people could access coverage through a state high risk pool or through a state high risk pool,” Earling said. “Many of those folks are now purchasing coverage on the individual market and we believe Premera probably picked up a disproportionate share of those folks with really significant medical needs.”

Premera is working with the state on a solution that would spread the risk of those high cost customers across the insurance market. The state is analyzing the plan and hasn’t yet taken a position on it.

Premera serves 7,000 customers in the state who bought marketplace plans. Earling says the company expects to lose four million dollars insuring those customers this year. He says a small number of enrollees account for a huge amount of claims.

“We’ve seen since January first through June 30th, seven million dollars in medical claims from only 33 members out of those 7,000,” Earling said. “So that’s about 1/3 of all of our medical claims costs for those 7,000 members are coming from 33 individuals.”

Earling says Premera would have to increase rates by more that 70% next year to break even. That’s the rate increase the company first proposed when it approached the state Division of Insurance, according to director Lori Wing-Heier. After looking at the company’s data, she agreed with their financial assessment. But Wing-Heier says through discussions they were able to compromise on a lower rate increase:

“And we felt that they could sustain another year of significant loss,” Wing-Heier said. “They’re indicating they’ll lose 5 million dollars in 2015 in addition to what they lost in 2014. But they are financially strong and they’re willing to take that loss to see what the data looks like when we go through rate filling next year.”

Moda, the other company offering individual plans on the marketplace, will increase rates by an average of 27 percent. Rates increase for both companies will vary depending on age and geographic region. Wing-Heier says state statute prohibits her from releasing the specific rates until they go into effect on January 1st.  She says she hopes in a year or two, the rates will stabilize.

“We are being asked through a federal program to price a product that some people cannot afford,” Wing-Heier said. “And we’re doing the best we can to keep the cost of that product down.”

The federal government points out that many Alaskans will be able to use subsidies, and that will help lessen the impact of the rate increases. In Alaska, almost 90 percent of consumers who bought plans on healthcare.gov in 2014 qualified for financial help to purchase the plans.

Categories: Alaska News

Snow Falls In Near Tok

Fri, 2014-09-05 16:49

This week’s cooling trend brought snow to the Alaska Range.

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“I went cross country skiing; decided to break out the skis and go down the trail,” John Ruysniak, owner of the Log Cabin Wilderness Lodge on the Tok Cutoff, said.

He says more than 9 inches of snow was on the ground there Wednesday, enough to ski, build a snowman and block the road into the lodge.

“We had about 20 trees that had bowed down to the ground and so we had guests that wanted to leave, so we had to go down with a chainsaw ahead of them and clear out the trees before they could get out,” Ruysniak said.

Ruysniak says the trees are still fully leafed out, and the snow is one of the earliest he’s experienced in the Tok area.

“September snow is common, but September 3rd is real early,” Ruysniak said. ”We’ve seen it on Labor Day before, but it’s been probably since around 2000 or maybe 1998 that we had a big dump like this — ’92 is another year.”

“It’s not very normal that my garden get snowed on before it gets its first frost. My neighbor has been in this area 38 years and she doesn’t remember ever going in August without a frost.”

Ruysniak says that’s allowed his garden to keep going, adding he was able harvest some lettuce from under the snow, which had started melting some yesterday. The rest could go this weekend, with rain forecast for the eastern Alaska Range.

Categories: Alaska News

Mayor Calls For Federal Review of Fairbanks Four Case

Fri, 2014-09-05 16:48

The mayor of the city of Fairbanks is calling for federal review of long questioned murder convictions of 4 Native men. The mayor joins numerous leaders and groups pressing for review of the Fairbanks Four case.

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Categories: Alaska News

Reaction to Alaska Voting Rights Ruling

Fri, 2014-09-05 16:47

Plaintiffs in a voting rights lawsuit are reacting to news that a Federal Court Judge has ruled in their favor. Wednesday a judge ruled that the State of Alaska violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to provide translations into Native languages.

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Judge Sharon Gleason found the State of Alaska violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to provide translations of voting materials to voters whose primary language is Gwich’in or Yup’ik.

Benjaman Nukusuk is the Tribal Chief for the Native Village of Hooper Bay, a plaintiff in the case.

“I was very pleased because the elders of the Y-K Delta want to know what they’re voting on and who they’re voting for and why and our elders by nature are very articulate and precise in what that want, especially when it comes to things that matter for our people and the things of our Y-K Delta.”

Judge Gleason issued the partial decision after presiding over a two-week trial in June and July. Native American Rights Fund Attorneys argued the state’s voting materials in Yup’ik and Gwich’in were inaccurately translated and poorly distributed. NARF Attorney Natalie Landreth says the law the state was supposed to be following passed in 1975.

“We’re obviously extremely pleased and relieved but the reality is that the case, the decision and the changes that it’s supposed to bring are 40 years overdue.

JudgeGleason gave the state until Friday to indicate what changes they can make before the November 4th general election. Landreth says she hopes the state will deliver comprehensive translations.

“There’s a hundred-page voter information pamphlet that goes out every election in English and the reality is that Yup’ik speaking voters are entitled to all of that information before they go vote and so what we want to see is some plan to make sure that Yup’ik speaking voters will learn about the candidates, the ballot measures, the bond measures, the judges, everything on there.”

The Department of Law has said it will work with the Division of Elections to draft a proposal. Judge Gleason has not yet ruled on whether the state intentionally violated voter’s rights on the basis race or color.

Categories: Alaska News

Foundation Swoops in to Save Sacred Alaskan Artifacts at Auction

Fri, 2014-09-05 16:46

Archivist and collection manager for Sealaska Heritage Institute Zachary Jones holds up the wood panel, which arrived last week. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

As early as the late 1700s, European visitors and explorers in Alaska wrongly took objects that were sacred and important to the indigenous people. Several of these items were set to be auctioned off in Paris last December, despite protest from tribal groups around the U.S. It was a done deal, until an anonymous buyer stepped in.

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Sealaska Heritage Institute president Rosita Worl flips through a printed catalog of items that were up for bid at a Paris auction house last December. She points to several Native items taken from Southeast Alaska a long time ago.

“That one. This is probably from the northern area. This is another Northwest Coast piece, another Northwest Coast piece, something that should be here at home,” says Worl. “This makes me sad when I see them.”

Sealaska Heritage and other tribal communities around the country had written letters to protest that Paris auction and another, which featured sacred Native objects. The U.S. Embassy in Paris got involved but nothing could legally stop the auctions.

“So we thought it was a done deal and then all of a sudden, a couple days later we got a call from the Annenberg Foundation,” says Chuck Smythe, culture and history director at Sealaska Heritage.

A carved wooden panel painted with a Chilkat design would be returning home to Southeast Alaska.

“They had purchased this item unbeknownst to us, so it came as a huge surprise,” Smythe says.

Little is known about the panel, which is 20 inches tall, 18 inches wide with wood nails and detailed carving. It was likely part of a Tlingit bentwood box that could’ve belonged to a shaman or used by a clan to keep ceremonial objects and regalia. Sealaska Heritage officials think the panel could date back to the early 1800s, a time when many outsiders wrongly took Native objects.

The Annenberg Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in Los Angeles,anonymously purchased 27 Native objects from two Paris auction houses last December, the majority of which will be returned to the Hopi and San Carlos Apache tribes in Arizona. Besides the wood panel to Sealaska Heritage, another object was repatriated to the Chugach Alaska Corporation. The two Alaska items were purchased for several thousand dollars each, according to the foundation.

Carol Laumen was one of the foundation’s bidders during the auctions. She says this isn’t normal practice for the foundation, but there was a great interest to repatriate the items.

“These artifacts were in some cases over a hundred years old and it was suspect in some cases how the artifacts actually ended up in private hands, so to return them to the rightful owner was the right thing to do,” Laumen says.

Since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act took effect in 1990, Worl says Sealaska Heritage has been active in bringing sacred items back to Southeast Alaska.

“The objects that we are trying to get back are what we call at.óow. That means they’re owned or purchased property. They belong to clans. They represent our ties to our ancestors and spirits of our ancestors are associated with our at.óow and we know that our ancestors want to come back home,” Worl says.

Sealaska Heritage has repatriated dozens of objects from museums on behalf of individual clans. But thousands more remain in museums and private collections.

Worl remembers being part of a group visiting the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum for the first time.

“The curators thought they were doing a wonderful thing in letting us see their collection. There was about 10 of us and when we saw our at.óow, I saw 10 Tlingits just crying over those objects,” Worl says.

A large part of repatriation is educating people on the cultural significance of objects to indigenous people, Worl says. She recognizes that people pay a lot of money for these items and wants to figure out a financial incentive for collectors.

“For example, a tax credit. Could the government provide a tax credit to a collector for donating it back to a tribe?” Worl says.

In some cases where objects are repatriated from museums, Worl says tribes have given back.

“Cape Fox — they repatriated a totem pole from the Harvard Peabody Museum and in return, they carved a totem pole and left a totem pole there,” Worl says.

She’s thankful to the Annenberg Foundation for bringing the wood panel back to Southeast. It arrived at Sealalaska Heritage August 29.

“We couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe that an organization would do this on our behalf,” Worl says.

Sealaska Heritage doesn’t know the panel’s origins but hopes to find out and return it.

Categories: Alaska News

AK: US Army Rangers Train In Alaska’s Rugged Interior

Fri, 2014-09-05 16:45

In a forested area outside of Fairbanks, the U.S. Army operates a remote facility where it trains military servicemen and women in cold, mountainous environments. It’s called the Northern Warfare Training Center. And in August, they hosted an elite unit of Army Rangers.

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A U.S. Army Ranger ascends a rock face at the Northern Warfare Training Center in Black Rapids. Soldiers from the 75th Army Ranger Regiment visited the facility for two weeks of training.

Staff Sergeant Michael O’Brien looks on as Private First Class John Carrmill readies his rope system to ascend a 50-foot rock face next to a waterfall. He goes over his equipment under O’Brien’s watchful eye.

“I’m going to put this around my foot, tie a prussick knot in the rope, clip into my locking carabiner and lock in,” Carrmill says.

“What’s the difference between this rope and this rope? Which is for your waist and which is for your foot?” O’Brien asks. “This one’s for my waist, this one’s for my foot,” Carrmill nails it his first try.

Two NWTC instructors look on as a U.S. Army Ranger readies himself to ascend the rock face.

Between the waterfall and a steady drizzle of rain, the rock is slick.

Carrmill has been a U.S. Army Ranger for about a month. He says coming to the middle of cold, wet Alaska for training is exactly the kind of thing he signed up for.

“I love it so far,” Carrmill says.

When it’s Carrmill’s turn to head up, he’ll have to shift his weight between two loops of cord to shimmy up the climbing rope. It’s a new skill for him.

O’Brien keeps quizzing him. “What’s the distance you want to keep between these two prussicks?” About a fist’s width, Carrmill replies. “What are you going to do when you get 8-10 feet off the ground?” Carrmill says he’s going to tie a safety knot, a figure-eight. “Go ahead and ascent,” O’Brien tells him.

The Rangers here are an elite unit of Army special operations forces. Alongside other Army special ops groups, like Delta Force and the green berets, they’ve had boots on the ground in nearly every major U.S. war. They were some of the first to head in to Iraq and Afghanistan, and some of their exploits have been immortalized in Hollywood movies like “Black Hawk Down.”

For two weeks in August, the Georgia-based Rangers are testing themselves against the rigors of the Alaskan Interior. This facility at Black Rapids is called the Northern Warfare Training Center. It offers crash courses in alpine and glacier travel, cold-weather survival and high-altitude operations.

A U.S. Army Ranger backs off the rock wall after rappelling down. Approximately 150 Rangers came to the Northern Warfare Training Center in the Interior for two weeks of training.

Lt. Col. Mark Adams, who oversees the facility, says the year-round training they provide gives soldiers hands-on experience in an Arctic climate that can’t easily be simulated elsewhere.

“We offer some very extreme temperatures up here,” Adams says. “Every place has some unique differences about it, but this place is one that offers some extreme conditions.”

And even though the center is an Army facility, it’s at the disposal of all Department of Defense personnel and affiliates. They’ve trained up Navy SEALS, groups from the FBI, and more.

The center also doubles as a kind of testing lab for Army gear. Earlier this summer they tried out mosquito nets for troops to use on deployment in malaria-prone areas. Mosquitoes, Adams says, are in copious supply in this neck of the woods. Later on this winter, they’ll be testing different gloves for the Army.

But their primary mission is training.

Back on the rock, private first class Carrmill has just finished his ascent and successful rappel down the slick rock face. Once back on the ground, he yells, “OFF THE ROPE!” to those still above.

When I ask him about how it went, he shrugs and says it was fun. Carrmill was actually faster than a lot of the guys once he got off the ground. I ask him about it and all he says is, “Yeah, once you get used to doing it, it’s fun.”

Carrmill, like a lot of the guys here, is a man of few words. One of the Army PR guys chocks it up to Ranger culture — be quiet, and let your actions do the talking.

Across a small creek, another group of Rangers is doing a basic climbing and rappelling exercise. One Rangers yells up to his buddy about a foothold that’s just within his reach.

Staff Sergeant Joel Rockhill has already been up the wall and back again. Since becoming a Ranger nine years ago, he’s been to airborne school — jumping out of planes and stuff — but scaling a rain-slicked 50-foot rock wall still gets his adrenaline going.

Two U.S. Army Rangers scale a rock face at the Northern Warfare Training Center in Black Rapids. It’s the first time the Rangers have been to NWTC for training since the War on Terror began in 2001.

“I mean it was… I’m scared of heights, not going to lie,” he laughs. “It can be pretty difficult.”

Rockhill says coming to Alaska for cold-weather warfare training is a change of pace for the group. In his time with the Rangers, he’s been deployed nine times, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for exercises like this.

“It’s a unique training opportunity. We haven’t really gotten to do a lot of this stuff because of the wars. But coming out here and doing this, getting exposed to the different environments than Iraq and Afghanistan, and really kind of starting to prep for the future, it’s really good.”

With fewer deployments on the horizon as national military focus shifts away from the Middle East, trainings like this one, Rockhill says, help keep the Rangers a close-knit group.

“Obviously we get new guys a lot, and different guys move to different squads and stuff like that, but you build that cohesiveness through training and different situations that happen on deployment,” Rockhill says. “A lot of these guys, these peers of mine, we stay pretty close knit… we hang out on the weekends and such.”

Getting to travel to Alaska together and rough it in the mountains, Rockhill says, isn’t a bad way to spend two weeks with your friends.

Categories: Alaska News

Wasilla’s VA Clinic Operating Without Doctors

Fri, 2014-09-05 16:45

The Veterans Affairs clinic in Wasilla is without doctors, after the three physicians working under contract over the summer decided not to renew those.

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A nurse practitioner, who transferred from Anchorage last week, now has to carry the 1,000-patient caseload.

The clinic is supposed to have two full-time doctors but has been down one since 2012. KTVA reports the last full-time doctor left in May.

Cynthia Joe, chief of staff for the Alaska VA Health Care System, said the VA is offering what it is allowed to offer for salaries. That level is capped at $195,000. She said there are also incentives and cost-of-living allowances.

There are no applicants.

Categories: Alaska News