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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: 7 min 8 sec ago

Kodiak CommSta Killer Sentenced To 4 Consecutive Life Terms

Tue, 2014-07-08 17:21

The man convicted of a 2012 double murder at the Kodiak Coast Guard Base will spend the rest of his life in federal prison. Sixty-three-year-old James Wells was sentenced Tuesday to four consecutive life sentences in federal court in Anchorage.

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During sentencing, Wells maintained his innocence, saying “we all suffered for this tragedy.” His defense attorney, federal public defender Rich Curtner, said “the killer is still out there.”

However, in handing down his sentence, Beistline said Wells was a cold-blooded killer who has shown no remorse. He said Wells was the only person who had motive and opportunity in the deaths of his coworkers, Richard Belisle and James Hopkins.

The evidence was overwhelming, Beistline said, adding “the real killer is sitting at the table in front of us.”

U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said after the sentencing that justice was served.

“This was really one of the most planned, premeditated and cold blooded murders that we’ve ever seen,” she said.

The federal prosecutors’ case was largely circumstantial, as the murder weapon, a 44-magnum handgun, was never found, and there were no witnesses. Nevertheless, the jury found him guilty of first degree murder on April 25th after deliberating less than a day. The trial lasted 19 days.

The widows of both men Wells killed also spoke at the sentencing, and both told him to “rot in hell.”

Nicola Belisle said that no sentence would ever be enough.

Wells was not arrested until 10 months after the murders while the FBI tried to build the case against him. Belisle said she spent that time in fear of her life, worried Wells would also kill her or her children in an attempt to stop the investigation. She spoke of sitting in her home across the street from Wells’ house with a loaded firearm, waiting for him to come after her.

“I’m still having to look at his house every single day. I want to burn it down. It needs to go away,” Belisle said. “That’s my ultimate goal so that I don’t have to look at it for the rest of my life, and my children, my potential grandchildren that they don’t ever have to sit in our family home and see that house.”

Belisle may get that chance, as Judge Beistline said the victims’ families are due restitution.

Wells can appeal the sentencing within 14 days.

Categories: Alaska News

Helicopter Service To Diomede Halted Amid Contract Snag

Tue, 2014-07-08 17:20

Diomede, seen from the west. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Transportation to one of Alaska’s most remote communities has stopped, because of a contract delay that’s tying up funds.

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Helicopter flights to Diomede were suspended this week because a complicated system of state and federal subsidies expired June 30th–before the yearly re-authorization contract was inked. Rich Sewell is a planner with the Alaska Department of Transportation, and said the dollars paying for passenger flights to and from Diomede each Monday—weather permitting—come from three different sources.

“There’s part funding by US DOT, matching dollar-for-dollar what the state of Alaska provides, and this funding just ensures that the air-carrier gets to a break-even point. And, like I said, the individuals have to pay an airfare.”

The Diomede service is contracted with Erickson Helicopters—formerly Evergreen–and is subsidized at $337,520 a year. Half of that–$188,760–is paid by federal dollars from US DoT, and the state portion comes from a grant distributed by Kawerak. Passengers pay another $200 one-way on top of that, which one Diomede resident staying in Nome until flights resume said makes the service financially do-able for her.

Before weekly helicopter flights got subsidized, Sewell said, the situation was much worse.

“Every time they sparked up that bird it was $10,000,” he explained.  “So you can imagine, it got to the point it was pretty desperate out there. Say a mother would come in to Nome to delivery [a] baby, and then the problem was how does she get home to Little Diomede?”

The island, 28 miles west of Wales, is one of three communities in Alaska served by a modified version of the Essential Air Service program set up in 1978, as a way of ensuring rural residents wouldn’t be completely abandoned by commercial fliers. In Alaska, the program serves a total of 45 communities and will cost about $14,729,690 this year.

Sewell says there’s a reason why that doesn’t just amount to a giveaway to regional carriers.

“Air carriers must be profitable, of course, to be in business,” he responded.  “I mentioned 82% of our communities in Alaska are off the road system—there’s no other access, there’s no other practical access. So it’s not some kind of feather-bedding program. I think that it’s an essential—well, Essential Air Service.”

Diomede’s contract has to be renewed every year. Last year, flights were halted for weeks while documents were being signed. According to Heather Handyside, spokesperson for Senator Mark Begich–who has pushed for many of the aviation programs serving Bush communities–the holdup this time around was on the Federal side.

“Well the funding structure looks sound and reliable, and they completed their negotiations and a contract will be signed to make sure that the transportation will continue as normal service to Little Diomede,” said Handyside.

As of today, US DOT has issued an Order finalizing details with Erickson. Pearl Mikulski is in charge of Kawerak’s role in negotiations, and says the paperwork is on course to be settled in the next few days. And according to a pilot with Erickson, if that’s true, they could start bringing back-logged passengers to and from Diomede by the end of the week.

Categories: Alaska News

Merged Alaska Dispatch News Website Launches

Tue, 2014-07-08 17:19

The Alaska Dispatch and Anchorage Daily News websites Tuesday merged under a new name – Alaska Dispatch News. The new name will soon appear in the print edition as well.

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Since Alaska Dispatch took over the Anchorage Daily News in early May, merging the two websites has been a top priority.

So far, editor Tony Hopfinger says the transition to the new Alaska Dispatch News website has been fairly smooth…the process mostly consists of migrating content from the former Anchorage Daily News site to the renamed Alaska Dispatch News website, but he says more changes are expected in the future.

“We’ll still be tweaking things for the next several weeks, I think,” Hopfinger said. “And there are some features that we’re trying to add back in that readers might be missing from ADN and then also trying to keep the reader experience the way we had it for Dispatch fans as well.”

Some of those missing features include the online Sudoku and crossword puzzles, and the sunrise/sunset timer.

Hopfinger says the decision to rename the organization Alaska Dispatch News was made in part to retain the ADN brand, as well as to better-depict their mission and future goals.

“The next focus here is; how do we build out our news organization across the state? How do we cover more towns and more communities and more statewide news?” Hopfinger said. “So, the name is very important to us and it should reflect the state, not just reflect Anchorage.”

To bolster their news coverage, Hopfinger plans on gradually stationing reporters in Alaska’s hub cities, likely starting in Bethel, and eventually in Washington DC as well.

On Sunday, July 20th, the header of the print edition will change from Anchorage Daily News to Alaska Dispatch News.

Categories: Alaska News

National Geographic Remaps Melting Arctic

Tue, 2014-07-08 17:18

A new National Geographic Atlas of the World is coming out this fall, and it’s already controversial.

The tenth edition of the world atlas depicts Arctic sea ice during a record-low year. Some scientists say that’s not representative.

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“The ice cover during the summer in 2012—this is the record-low ice cover—is less than 50 percent of what it was in the 1980s,” says Josefino Comiso, lead researcher of the NASA satellite study. He says it is important to redraw the map, since the Arctic is changing so rapidly.

The map is controversial. It only shows multiyear ice, which doesn’t melt during warmer seasons. Cartographers didn’t want to include new ice because it might be too confusing.

New ice is still important to the Arctic landscape, providing shelter for animals and reflecting solar energy. It also poses risks to Arctic Ocean-going vessels.

“An ocean that’s covered with first-year ice—which is going to be a bit thinner—it’s still hazardous,”  says Andy Mahoney, Assistant Research Professor at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “You still can’t take a non-ice-reinforced vessel into those waters.”

Mahoney says showing an average of ice levels taken over a few years would make the map more representative than the record-low ice year.

“It’s also a very political issue. I think it behooves everyone to do the best job they can to make sure they’re using relevant and representative data when drawing a line on a map which can have profound implications sometimes,” he says.

New ice is becoming increasingly important to people in the Arctic, says UAF geophysics professor Hajo Eicken.

“Nowadays, if you go up to Barrow towards the end of summer, the closest ice may be several hundred miles away. You have open ocean out there, and for people in Barrow these days, the first-year ice is just as important as the multiyear ice,” he says.

But Arctic ice is changing so rapidly, the cherry-picking argument may be moot in a few years, Eicken says.

“Ten years from now we might say ‘Whoa, why did they pick 2012 when there was so much ice left? Why aren’t they updating this so much more quickly?’” Eicken says.

The new atlas comes out Sept. 30.

Categories: Alaska News

Study Says Wolf Deaths Have Implications For Pack

Tue, 2014-07-08 17:17

A new study indicates that the death of a wolf has implications for the rest of the pack, depending on the size of the pack and the dead wolf’s sex. The study is in response to the legal trapping of a breeding female that was part of a well-known wolf pack that was frequently spotted in Denali National Park.

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Categories: Alaska News

Southeast Housing Project Targeting Rural, Native Communities

Tue, 2014-07-08 17:16

What kind of housing will Southeast Alaska communities need in the future?

Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority is looking to answer that question with a housing needs assessment due out in September. The nonprofit says it will use the study to secure funds for housing projects, including some targeting rural and Native communities.

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Categories: Alaska News

Mushers Relieved As Kusko Fishing Restrictions Loosened

Tue, 2014-07-08 17:15

Dog mushers in remote Alaska are breathing a collective sigh of relief as fishing restrictions are being relaxed on the Kuskokwim River. Mushers along that Western Alaskan river feed their dogs fish because it’s nutritious and inexpensive. But this year, because of restrictions, they got a late start.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: July 8, 2014

Tue, 2014-07-08 17:00

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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Kodiak CommSta Killer Sentenced To 4 Consecutive Life Terms

Jay Barrett, KMXT – Kodiak

The man convicted of a 2012 double murder at the Kodiak Coast Guard Base will spend the rest of his life in federal prison. Sixty-three-year-old James Wells was sentenced Tuesday to four consecutive life sentences in  federal court in Anchorage.

Helicopter Service To Diomede Halted Amid Contract Snag

Zachariah Hughes, KNOM – Nome

Transportation to one of Alaska’s most remote communities has stopped, because of a contract delay that’s tying up funds.

Merged Alaska Dispatch News Website Launches

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

The Alaska Dispatch and Anchorage Daily News websites Tuesday merged under a new name – Alaska Dispatch News. The new name will soon appear in the print edition as well.

National Geographic Remaps Melting Arctic

Sarah Yu, KTOO – Juneau

A new National Geographic Atlas of the World is coming out this fall, and it’s already controversial.

The tenth edition of the world atlas depicts Arctic sea ice during a record-low year. Some scientists say that’s not representative.

Study Says Wolf Deaths Have Implications For Pack

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

A new study indicates that the death of a wolf has implications for the rest of the pack, depending on the size of the pack and the dead wolf’s sex. The study is in response to the legal trapping of a breeding female that was part of a well-known wolf pack that was frequently spotted in Denali National Park.

Southeast Housing Project Targeting Rural, Native Communities

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

What kind of housing will Southeast Alaska communities need in the future?

Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority is looking to answer that question with a housing needs assessment due out in September. The nonprofit says it will use the study to secure funds for housing projects, including some targeting rural and Native communities.

Mushers Relieved As Kusko Fishing Restrictions Loosened

Charles Enoch, KYUK – Bethel

Dog mushers in remote Alaska are breathing a collective sigh of relief as fishing restrictions are being relaxed on the Kuskokwim River. Mushers along that Western Alaskan river feed their dogs fish because it’s nutritious and inexpensive. But this year, because of restrictions, they got a late start.

Dairy Farm Doubles As Educational Opportunity

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

A determined woman named Louise Kellog established a dairy farm in Palmer in the days after World War II.   These days, Spring Creek Farm honors her legacy with educational programs that operate on the original dairy site. Alaska Pacific University, which manages the land, is balancing  expanding the farm’s viability as an educational center, with keeping it’s open spaces undisturbed.

Categories: Alaska News

For Seattle Cops, Marijuana Biz Is Business As Usual

Mon, 2014-07-07 17:57

The first marijuana retail shops are opening up in Washington this week. It’s the last big piece of a citizens’ initiative passed in 2012 that regulates the drug like alcohol. With Alaska voters considering a similar ballot measure this fall, APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez checks in with Seattle law enforcement to see how they’re dealing with the new policy.

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Seattle Hempfest is like stoner Lollapalooza … if Lollapalooza weren’t already friendly to stoners. Every year, musicians, actors, activists, and a quarter-million attendees come out to express their support for legal marijuana.

(Alexandra Gutierrez/APRN)

Last summer was the first time attendees who had the drug on them weren’t necessarily breaking state law, and the Seattle police department was ready for it.

“We basically crashed that party,” says Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, with the Seattle Police Department. “We gave out a thousand bags of Doritos with little informational stickers on them.”

Whitcomb handles public affairs for the department, and he still has one of the baggies on his desk nearly a year later. He gets a kick out of the do’s and don’ts plastered on the chips.

WHITCOMB: Don’t give, sell, or shotgun weed to people under 21. Don’t use pot in public. You could be cited, but we’d rather give you a warning. Do’s: Do listen to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ at a reasonable volume. Do enjoy Hempfest.

Since Washington voters passed a marijuana initiative, possession crimes are a thing of the past. If you’re an adult, you can buy, hold, and smoke marijuana without running afoul of the law.

In a lot of places, this would be revolutionary from a policing standpoint. But in Seattle, not so much. The city stopped prosecuting minor drug crimes a decade ago, and Whitcomb says the passage of the initiative wasn’t a drastic change for his department.

“Yeah, not that big of a deal for us, because we already triage to go after those criminal events that are going to be jeopardizing people’s well-being.”

In the year since the initiative passed, Seattle’s violent crime rate has gone down two percent, while the total crime rate is up a single point. Whitcomb doesn’t say either of these shifts have anything to do with marijuana legalization. If anything, he thinks the lack of major movement on crime stats shows that Seattle hasn’t become a stoner paradise or gone to hell in a hemp-woven hand-basket.

“You are not going to be walking into a giant green haze of smoke. Seattle hasn’t really changed that much with the passage of I-502.”

But Whitcomb says that even if legalization opponents’ worst fears haven’t come to life, he gets where they were coming from.

“There was some reasonable fear that there might be increases in crime events. People had been concerned that there would be more underage use, people we concerned that there would be more dealing that had been driven underground. So, we wanted to make sure that we were letting people know what the changes were in law,” says Whitcomb. “And guess what: Kids have been smoking pot for years. They will continue to smoke pot for years. And it’s still a misdemeanor.”

Not every police officer within the Seattle PD is on board with the Department’s attitude, though. Last month, Seattle public radio station KUOW reported that two detectives left the media unit over disagreements involving marijuana legalization.

In Alaska, some law enforcement officials are also raising concerns. Last month, the Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police announced it would take $6 million to train officers to recognize marijuana crimes like driving under the influence. That number does not factor in money lost from drug forfeiture on the cost side of the balance sheet. But it also doesn’t take into account money not spent processing minor drug crimes or the potential of increased tax revenue for departments, savings touted by marijuana advocates.

AACOP Executive Director Kalie Klaysmat is generally wary of the measure, and of some of the positive news from Washington and Colorado.

“Anything that anyone is telling you there is purely anecdotal,” says Klaysmat. “It’s purely their sense of things, and that may or may not be accurate.”

Klaysmat’s preferred course of action would be to wait at least another election cycle to let the legalization experiment play out in other states.

“I mean it might not change the fact that we are going to have costs,” says Klaysmat. “But I think everybody would feel a lot better about it being able to have hard data from other states who have done it, rather than be in this world of speculation where one side is saying, ‘Oh, everything will be wonderful,” and the other side is saying ‘We’re not so sure.’”

Back in Seattle, the city’s former police chief thinks the experiment is playing out pretty well.

Norm Stamper meets me at a downtown coffee shop, and the only drug anyone seems to be consuming is caffeine. He served as a cop for 34 years, with six of those in charge of Seattle’s police department. Now, he’s involved with the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

Stamper says he first started taking issue with anti-marijuana laws after getting a call where he had to kick a door in to arrest a high 19-year-old from his own home.

“That was my ‘a-ha’ moment,” says Stamper. “I would now spend three hours processing that arrest. I would have to inventory the soggy remains of his stash. I would have to write a case report, a narcotics impound report, and an arrest report. So, I was no longer available during those three hours to the men and women and children of my assigned area, my police beat.”

Stamper’s not surprised that some Alaska police chiefs are worried about training costs, and he even points out that a quarter of those surveyed don’t anticipate any problems. So far, he hasn’t really seen any in Seattle.

“The sky is still above us. You do not see crazed druggies accosting people on the streets or running naked down Fifth or Fourth Avenue,” says Stamper. “Life continues much as it has.”

Categories: Alaska News

Bears Maul Hiker Near Bird Ridge

Mon, 2014-07-07 17:47

A bear mauling in the Bird Creek area has sent one woman to an Anchorage hospital. At about 10:20 Monday morning, Alaska State Troopers got a call for help from a hiker on the Penguin Ridge trail.

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Alaska State Trooper’s spokeswoman Megan Peters says  Troopers from Girdwood and emergency responders reached the scene, to find Suzanne Knudson, of Indian,  age 59, with serious injuries, after having been attacked by a bear sow with two cubs.

 ”Ms Knudson told us that while she was jogging she saw two brown bear cubs essentially come out of the brush onto the trail in front of her. One of the cubs started to come towards her, and while that was happening she said she was hit from the side of behind by the mother bear.”

Some ATV riders found Knudson moments after the attack, and when Troopers arrived, an ATV driver  gave the responding Trooper an ATV and guided him to Knudson. She was later medevaced to Anchorage.

Peters says the woman was jogging alone about a mile up the trailhead from a popular campground when she encountered the bears. Knudson suffered puncture wounds to her neck and back injuries, but her injuries are not life threatening.

Troopers say the woman was wearing headphones at the time of the attack and was not carrying bear deterant.

Alaska Fish and Game has closed the trail due to bear activity.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Police Arrest Suspect in Gold Street Racial Incident; May Also be Suspect in Celebration Case

Mon, 2014-07-07 17:46

Alexander Logan Libbrecht is currently being held at Lemon Creek Correctional Center on a $25,000 bond. (Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Corrections)

Juneau police believe they have a suspect in connection with a racial incident that marred the parade at the end of last month’s Celebration.

The Michigan man also is being investigated by the Secret Service and is wanted in Hawaii for threatening people.

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Alexander Logan Libbrecht, 32, is being held on $25,000 bail in Lemon Creek Correctional Center on charges of fourth-degree assault.

Juneau Police Lt. Kris Sell says Libbrecht yelled racist slurs and threatened a black woman last week on Gold Street.

“He didn’t access a weapon or touch her, she was in fear based on the fact that he was calling her the ‘N’ word and saying he was going to bash her head in, and he’s in a rage walking up and down the street,” Sell says. “She was very frightened.”

Libbrecht’s behavior was similar to that of a man who allegedly yelled racist slurs during the June 14 Celebration parade, grabbed an American flag carried by an Alaska Native veteran, then ran, shoving people in his way, even knocking a woman down.

“We are working with some photo line ups with witnesses to that. Also his behavior is very consistent with what happened at Celebration,” she says.

Police believe he was the same man that knocked over Main Street traffic barricades just before the flag incident.

It’s not clear how long Libbrecht has been in Juneau, or why he came here. On June 26th, the U.S. Secret Service asked JPD for assistance in contacting him for an interview regarding threats he made against President Barack Obama as well as a New Jersey attorney. Lt. Sell says the threats were left in voice mails during telephone calls made from Juneau to the New Jersey attorney.

“Mr. Libbrecht was interviewed about a couple of things – first his threats against the president of the United States and also his threats to kill an attorney in New Jersey, who had previously represented Libbrecht in a different case. He threatened to stab and kill that attorney along with the attorney’s wife,” she says.

Libbrecht was arraigned in Juneau Superior Court late last week for the Gold Street incident.

“The Secret Service agent testified telephonically in court that the first interview was with Mr. Libbrecht in 2010. There was a subsequent interview, I believe, in 2012, then this most recent interview,” Sell says.

She says police have no indication that Libbrecht has ever gotten close to the president.

Libbrecht also is wanted in Hawaii on charges of terroristic threatening.

“The charges in Hawaii stem from an incident where he threw large rocks at people on a beach, ultimately clearing that beach of people who were recreating there,” she says.

JPD investigators knew about the Hawaii charges when they started investigating  Libbrecht for the Celebration incident.

Hawaii court records indicate Libbrecht was arrested last October, held on $9,000 bail then released when bail was paid by a family member. The court ordered a mental evaluation, the results of which were not part of the accessible record.

According to court records, the prosecutor in that case had to get a stalking protective order against Libbrecht, because he threatened her.

After he failed to appear for a hearing in March, a judge issued a $100,000 bench warrant, meaning if he were to be arrested again in Hawaii, bail would be set at $100,000.

JPD Lt. Sell says she believes Libbrecht is dangerous. In addition to $25,000 bail set in the Juneau case, he can be released only to a third-party custodian.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Highway Projects Likely Safe Despite Federal Shortfalls

Mon, 2014-07-07 17:45

News that the Federal Highway Trust Fund is running out of money is worrying a lot of states, but not Alaska. 

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 In a letter to transportation departments all over the country earlier this month, the federal Department of Transportation announced that if Congress did not take immediate action, the trust fund would be depleted in a matter of weeks, forcing federal highway officials to institute cash management procedures in August. At that time, federal officials will use a formula established by law to determine how much money each state will receive.

But the shortfall in federal funds is not likely to disturb Alaska’s highway projects.  Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, says that Alaska has cash management tools that other states don’t have.

“We’ve been working with the department of revenue to ensure that we will be able to fund current projects that are under construction. The state of Alaska is in a good position because our projects are funded out of the general fund.”

Woodrow says Alaska has a financial buffer zone that allows its transportation department to continue, mainly because of the state’s savings account. Alaska pays contractors out of state funds, then bills the Federal Highway Administration for reimbursement. Woodrow says there may be a slowdown in reimbursements at worst. He also says it is not likely that any large Alaska projects will be affected long term.

“Well, large projects such as Juneau Access or the Knik Arm Crossing may be affected in the short term, but if the federal government doesn’t find a solution for a long term, it might affect those projects or the funding of those projects moving forward. But in the near term it shouldn’t affect them too much, because what we are looking at is just a temporary portion of time where we won’t be receiving reimbursements.”

US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx expressed confidence that Congress would act to avoid the shorfall in his July 1 letter to the states. If Congress does not act, federal transportation officials will have to adopt similar restrictions in mass transit reimbursements to the states by fall of this year.

The federal highway trust fund was established in 1956 to finance the country’s highway system. It was expanded in 1982 to include mass transit systems.

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Local business benefits from employing refugees

Mon, 2014-07-07 17:44

Businesses in Anchorage have a tough time finding entry level employees. For some employers, the solution is hiring refugees — individuals who fled violence or persecution in their home countries and are trying to enter into life in the United States. Catholic Social Services uses money from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to help run programs that connect refugees with employers. However, Congress has voted to redirect $94 million from that program to help unaccompanied children who are arriving in the United States. President Obama will decide whether or not the money should be taken from the program soon. It could impact CSS’s activities.  The non-profit recently gave an award to P&M Gardens for their willingness to employ refugees.

Diwt Gerewakl plucks leaves off tomato plants  

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Diwt Gerewakl is a short, slight man with a faint beard and springy black curls. He walks between the massive greenhouses of P&M Gardens in Eagle River, where he’s worked for two years.

“Morning first, I finish that house,” he explains in broken English, pointing at a greenhouse where he trains pickler vines to go up plastic mesh.  ”Then I come into here….”

He enters a greenhouse filled with rows of tomato plants and begins pulling off the extra large leaves. ”You need every day check check. Maybe it comes in big — like that — then you come in…see.” He plucks off leaves with expert hands.

Gerewakl has never raised vegetables before or even farmed. Now he’s responsible for tending 40,000 geraniums, 4,000 plant baskets, and 1,500 tomato plants in cages.

He was born in Ethiopia but spent most of his life traveling from country to country in northern Africa. He’s not allowed into Eritrea, where his family is, because of political reasons. So two years ago, when he was 21, he was relocated as a refugee to Alaska and got a job with the gardening company.

He works alongside Issa Ali Abdul, who comes from the Sudan.

Abdul farmed before fleeing his home in Darfur. Through his co-worker, who also speaks Arabic, he explains that in the hot, mountainous area they grew fields of sesame seeds and other foods. He says it’s nothing like working in the greenhouses here, where trays teaming with bright purple pansies grow in plastic houses.

Issa Ali Abdul with his friend and translator

“He says this is Alaska,” translates Simone. “You just have snow. You don’t have nothing.”

But Abdul says he does enjoy his work.

“He’s saying ‘I like working shipping because I bring flower, I put it in truck. and then I sometimes go with truck. I help him go over there and I come back.’”

P&M manager Debbie Bacho, says they both learned the new skills very quickly and now work for her year round, even though she and Abdul have to speak through a translator. She says this year she employed about 20 refugee workers during the growing season. She taught them a few necessary words, like “same,” for matching labels to plants.

“And then a lot of it is just visual. Showing them what needed to be done. I was totally amazed at how fast they could get it done.”

Bacho says she spends time with the refugees helping them with things like getting bank accounts and drivers licenses and applying for PFDs. ”Those are the things that you help them do. And in turn they are committed to you to do a good job for their pay. And that’s hard to find in the seasonal world any more. It really is.”

According to CSS, which helps refugees settle into Alaska, on average more than 85 percent of refugees are employed within six months of arriving in the state. Karen Ferguson is the State Refugee Coordinator for the organization. She says her agency works with refugees to help find them jobs.

“What they most desire is to be independent, to be able to take care of their family, to be able to pay the bills. And they are ready to work. They have often been not allowed to work. So it is a very eager workforce. And they most of the time do understand that they are going to start as a dishwasher, or they’re going to start in janitorial, cleaning a hotel room.”

Ferguson says they have a network of businesses who are willing to work through the initial communication struggles to find good employees.

Diwt Gerewakl and Debbie Bacho in a P&M Gardens greenhouse.

“It’s so exciting when we get that next call that says ‘Okay, we’ll take some more of your refugee candidates.’”

That’s what Bacho did. She’s been employing refugees for four years. She says it’s not always easy to overcome some of the cross-cultural differences and some of her customers make disparaging comments about employing refugees. But she says she doesn’t let it bother her as she’s watching her business grow.

Categories: Alaska News

Nonprofit Touts Alaska Dental Therapists As Oral Health Pioneers

Mon, 2014-07-07 17:43

Bobby Curtis is a Dental Health Aide Therapist in Shishmaref. (Photo by Matthew F. Smith, KNOM – Nome)

Dental health aide therapists have been providing mid-level dental care in the Norton Sound region for about a decade. Now a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts highlights Norton Sound Health Corporation’s dental therapist program as one of the leading efforts in the nation for increasing access to dental care.

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Bobby Curtis has been a dental therapist for more than 15 years—and for the past five years has worked to emphasize preventative dental care to kids in Shishmaref.

“In Shishmaref, what we do is during the school year we do a school program,” Curtis said. “We get the kids in, we do the exams and cleanings, and we do a weekly fluoride rinse program out there. So that they’re not just seeing us in the clinic, they’re seeing us outside the clinic also, at the school.”

The Pew report notes that dental therapists have been operating in dozens of other countries before coming to the U.S., but their success in Alaska has led to them being trained and certified in Minnesota and, recently, dental therapists have been approved in Maine. As many as 15 other states are looking to license their own dental therapists.

Categories: Alaska News

The Silver Screen Comes Back To Bethel

Mon, 2014-07-07 17:42

The customer line snaked its way from the entrance to the concession stand. (Photo by Charles Enoch, KYUK – Bethel)

The new movie theater in Bethel lit up its screens last week on Independence Day. It was the grand opening for Suurvik Cinema, the only theatre for hundreds of miles in a vast stretch of Alaska.

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A long line of excited moviegoers are ready for the first big screen viewings in Bethel for over thirty years. Bethel resident Ronald Jennings Jr. says it’s a big deal for him.

“It’s like one of the first movies that I get to watch in a movie theater. I only did it a couple of other times and that was in Juneau so I’m pretty excited for it being here in Bethel, and that they had the courtesy to bring anything like this to a rural area,” say’s Jennings.

The theater is a part of the Kipusvik Complex, which is owned by the Bethel Native Corporation. President and CEO Ana Hoffman opened the theater with a ribbon cutting ceremony, she presented BNC board members who used traditional ul’uaqs to cut the ribbon.

After buying their tickets customers move into one of the two theaters with their snacks. Most adults and couples choose the comedy “22 Jump Street”, but Alexis Kinegak chose the children’s adventure: “How To Train Your dragon 2, it was fun and little bit sad,” Says Alexis.

Alexis’s mom is Yvonne Kinegak says she was an employee at the last movie theater in Bethel; the Swanson’s Theatre, which closed in the early 80s.

“It feels really good to be in Bethel and watch a movie. I used to run the movies at the old theater, so it feels really good to have a theater back here, a place to hang out for the kids and it’s just exciting so I’m very happy,” says Kinegak.

Suurvik is the Yup’ik translation for “movie theater.” Suurvik Cinema will be open weekdays in the evenings, and begin operations early afternoon on weekends.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Dispatch News debuts Tuesday

Mon, 2014-07-07 17:41

The Anchorage Daily News is slated to become the Alaska Dispatch News tomorrow (Tuesday), according to a story published over the weekend on the organization’s website.

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If you’re going to miss calling the city paper the Anchorage Daily News, tonight might be the night to save a couple of screen shots and hold a little funeral.

Starting Tuesday, the Anchorage Daily News is slated to become the Alaska Dispatch News, according to a story published Sunday on adn.com.

Online visitors can still access the paper’s content using adn.com and alaskadispatch.com, but the two websites are expected to redirect to a single site, according to the article. So how will Alaskans cope with the change?

At a Fred Meyer in town, Yvonne Brown says she’s not in favor of scrapping the paper’s name.

“I think they should leave it. I like Anchorage Daily News better, because it’s been that way since day one,” Brown says.

For Sara Reubenowitz, the blending of names is emblematic of blending the two media organizations.

“I like the Dispatch. I’ve liked it a lot. And I think it’ll add a good addition to the Daily News.”

The change comes nearly three months after newspaper’s publisher announced the $34 million sale of the Anchorage Daily News to a local online startup, the Alaska Dispatch.

Editor Tony Hopfinger declined a request for an interview about the change until Tuesday.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: July 7, 2014

Mon, 2014-07-07 17:07

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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Bears Maul Hiker Near Bird Ridge

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

A bear mauling in the Bird Creek area has sent one woman to an Anchorage hospital.  At about 10:20 Monday morning, Alaska State Troopers got a call for help from a hiker on the Penguin Ridge trail.

First Marijuana Shops Open In Washington

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The first marijuana retail shops are opening up in Washington this week. It’s the last big piece of a citizens’ initiative passed in 2012 that regulates the drug like alcohol. With Alaska voters considering a similar ballot measure this fall, APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez checks in with Seattle law enforcement to see how they’re dealing with the new policy.

Juneau Police Arrest Suspect in Gold Street Racial Incident; May Also be Suspect in Celebration Case

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau

Juneau police believe they have a suspect in connection with a racial incident that marred the parade at the end of last month’s Celebration.

The Michigan man also is being investigated by the Secret Service and is wanted in Hawaii for threatening people.

Alaska Highway Projects Likely Safe Despite Federal Shortfalls

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

News that the Federal Highway Trust Fund is running out of money is worrying a lot of states, but not Alaska.   In a letter to transportation departments all over the country earlier this month, the federal Department of Transportation  announced that if Congress did not take immediate action, the trust fund would be depleted in a matter of weeks, forcing federal highway officials to institute cash management procedures in August.  At that time, federal officials will use a formula established by law to determine how much money each state will receive.

Refugees Finding Employment Opportunities In Anchorage

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Businesses in Anchorage have a tough time finding entry level employees. For some employers, the solution is hiring refugees – individuals who fled violence or persecution in their home countries and are trying to enter into life in the United States. Catholic Social Services recently gave an award to P&M Gardens for their willingness to employ refugees.

Nonprofit Touts Alaska Dental Therapists As Oral Health Pioneers

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

Dental health aide therapists have been providing midlevel dental care in the Norton Sound region for about a decade. Now a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts highlights Norton Sound Health Corporation’s dental therapist program as one of the leading efforts in the nation for increasing access to dental care.

The Silver Screen Comes Back To Bethel

Charles Enoch, KYUK – Bethel

The new movie theater in Bethel lit up its screens last week on Independence Day.  It was the grand opening for Suurvik Cinema, the only theatre for hundreds of miles in a vast stretch of Alaska.

Alaska Dispatch News Debuts Tuesday

Monica Gokey, KSKA – Anchorage

The Anchorage Daily News is slated to become the Alaska Dispatch News on Tuesday, according to a story published over the weekend on the organization’s website.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: July 4, 2014

Fri, 2014-07-04 16:57

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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Holly Brooks Reclaims Mt. Marathon Title

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Seward

Tens of thousands of spectators were on hand in Seward for the start of the 2014 Mount Marathon race Friday.

Historic Quake Disrupts Life, Habitat In Aleutians

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

At a magnitude 7.9, last week’s deep-sea earthquake was the most powerful to hit the Western Aleutians in 50 years. The quake didn’t cause any structural damage — but it was a reminder that life in the islands can change in an instant.

White House Makes Economic Case For Expanding Medicaid In Alaska

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Anchorage

The White House has issued a report laying out the costs of not expanding Medicaid. Alaska is one of 24 states that rejected federal dollars to increase access to Medicaid, preferring instead to study how those who would have qualified are currently receiving care.

Atka Camp Serves Up Subsistence Lessons

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

A pop-up subsistence school has opened in a remote corner of the Aleutians. Atka’s second-annual culture camp is meant to keep Unangan traditions going strong.

Smithsonian Channel Program Attempts To Encapsulate 49th State

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

A program airing this Sunday on the Smithsonian Channel tries to capture the majesty of the 49th state. Toby Beach is the producer and director of Aerial America. The show features all 50 states, but only Alaska was given a two hour treatment rather than one. Beach says the program cuts through the distorted view of Alaska that people may get from the flood of so-called reality TV shows about the state.

Charter Vessel With Exotic Dancing Gets Mixed Reception

Jay Barrett, KMXT – Kodiak

A lot of fishing boats were removed from the Bering Sea crab grounds after rationalization prompted a huge surge in quota stacking and consolidation of the fleet. Some crab boats sit unused in harbors around the state, others are being used as tenders in other fisheries, but in Kodiak, one has been turned into a strip club.

AK: Farming

Johanna Eurich, APRN Contributor

The dream of homesteading and living off the land is part of the Alaskan mystique. Few succeed. The couple who owns Chugach Farm, have made it work on only one acre in the middle of the woods in Chickaloon.

300 Villages: Tanana

This week, we’re visiting the interior village of Tanana. Donna May Folger is mayor of Tanana.

Categories: Alaska News

Holly Brooks Reclaims Mt. Marathon Title

Fri, 2014-07-04 16:46

Holly Brooks hugs fellow competitor Charlotte Edmondson before race. (Photo by Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Seward)

Tens of thousands of spectators were on hand in Seward for the start of the 2014 Mount Marathon race Friday.

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Holly Brooks after the race. (Photo by Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Seward)

After coming in second last year, Olympic skier Holly Brooks has reclaimed her title as winner of the women’s Mountain Marathon race. She finished the 3,000-ft climb in 52 minutes and 49 seconds, with 2013 champion Christy Marvin right behind her.

“It was a tough field. This was the deepest women’s field in a long time,” she said. “So, I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Brooks has competed in Mount Marathon six times, and come in as the runner-up in half of those runs.

“You know I’ve been second three times in this race,” she said. “Twice, I’ve gotten passed on Main Street right here, and that was all I could think about. I didn’t want to have to think about that for another year.”

The 3-mile race is always grueling, but the dry weather this year meant runners had to contend with dust and heat. Brooks was the first to finish the uphill portion, but says the descent was a struggle.

(Photo by Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Seward)

“I’m coming downhill, I just felt like a marionette going down a mountain,” she said. “I just could barely hold myself up.”

Seventeen-year-old Allison Ostrander, of Soldotna, made history in the junior’s race as the first girl to ever win it. She came ahead of all the girls and boys with a time of 28 minutes and 54 seconds, with a 40-second lead to spare.

Eric Strabel has again won the men’s division. Coming in just before 4 p.m. with a time of 44 minutes, 46 seconds. Matias Saari came in second and Benjamin Marvin in third.

Categories: Alaska News

Historic Quake Disrupts Life, Habitat In Aleutians

Fri, 2014-07-04 16:45

At a magnitude 7.9, last week’s deep-sea earthquake was the most powerful to hit the Western Aleutians in 50 years. The quake didn’t cause any structural damage — but it was a reminder that life in the islands can change in an instant.

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The first tsunami warning issued after last Monday’s earthquake didn’t include Unalaska. In fact, the quake’s epicenter was far away from the town – deep underwater, 600 miles across the chain.

But that didn’t stop residents from taking notice.

“A lot of folks might have just caught a little — tidbits of it, such as the word Aleutians — earthquake — evacuation, when the warning was further down the chain,” says Unalaksa public safety director Jamie Sunderland.

He says they started getting calls about the quake and the tsunami risk almost immediately. They only had one dispatcher on duty, and had to scramble to bring in extra staff.

When a tsunami advisory was issued for Unalaska a short time later, he says it was tough to get the message out – that residents didn’t actually need to evacuate. Some were already heading for high ground.

Of course, Unalaska had practiced for a day like this during the statewide tsunami drill just a few months before. But Sunderland says their experience this time, showed some things are out of their control.

“Think back to grade school where they had you do a little exercise where you whisper a certain phrase into someone’s ear, and by the time it comes around the room, the message is completely changed,” he says. “The same thing happens as we pass messages through our various systems, as we try and abbreviate things.”

In Adak – just a couple hundred miles from the quake’s epicenter — the message about getting to high ground was a lot clearer:

“Given the duration and intensity of the earthquake, most people didn’t need much warning to go up there,” says city manager Layton Lockett.

He says they sounded their tsunami siren right after they felt the quake. And together, about 100 Adak residents stopped what they were doing and headed for the town shelter, an old church on a hill.

“It actually worked very well,” Lockett says. “Better than any drill we could have planned for.”

Despite the strength of the quake, Adak didn’t see any damages. In fact, the disaster’s only victims may not have been people or property at all.

Seabirds on nearby Buldir Island build their nests in rocky cliffs. When the earthquake hit, parts of those cliffs collapsed or slid away – crushing some eggs and killing chicks in the process.

Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge director Steve Delehanty was visiting Adak during the quake. He says there’s no way to tell how many of Buldir’s kittiwakes, murres and auklets were lost. But he also says it’s part of the natural cycle – the birds are well adapted to a changeable environment.

“There’s a short-term impact to birds, but it’s the very forces of nature that those birds depend on in the long run to provide their habitat,” Delehanty says.

The same is true of the people that live on the chain. Life in the Aleutians means expecting the unexpected – from volcanic eruptions to earthquakes and tsunamis – even when all that washes ashore is a wave less than a foot tall.

Categories: Alaska News
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