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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: 32 min 27 sec ago

Man accused of distributing child pornography arrested in South Carolina

Thu, 2015-08-13 11:48

Gene Geisler. Photo from LinkedIn.

Authorities have arrested the former computer network manager at the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation who is accused of possessing and distributing child pornography.

An Anchorage grand jury indicted Gene Geisler Wednesday and authorities said in the afternoon that the man’s whereabouts were unknown after he had fled the state.

He was arrested the Wednesday around 9:30 p.m. in Goose Creek, South Carolina and booked in the Berkeley County jail. He’s held on $200,000 bail.

Categories: Alaska News

Earthquake swarm hits Yakutat

Thu, 2015-08-13 11:32

About 30 earthquakes have hit the Yakutat area this week.

The Gulf of Alaska city, about 250 miles northwest of Juneau, is in a fault zone and quakes aren’t unusual.

But this swarm is caused by calving glaciers in a nearby bay, not movement of the Earth’s crust.

Alaska Earthquake Information Center Seismologist Natalia Ruppert says it happens all the time. But she says at least one of this week’s quakes were stronger than usual.

“Maybe the size of this particular ice chunk was very large and as it fell into the water it created lots of energy,” Ruppert said.

She says there’s no connection to the Yakutat Fault, and a block of the Earth’s crust that’s slowly moving under that part of Alaska.

Most glaciers are retreating and thinning as climate change increases melting.

Seismologist Ruppert says that could eventually lead to more quakes from moving blocks of crust.

“If the glaciers keep melting and if they keep losing the mass, the pressure on the surface of the Earth becomes less,” Ruppert said. “And so, on a very long time scale, the lessening of this pressure might actually influence the tectonic forces and the pressure on the faults in that area.”

Since Monday morning, 28 glacial quakes have hit the Yakutat Bay area. Another 11 hit Cape Yakataga, about 100 miles to the northwest. That’s as of midday Thursday.

Categories: Alaska News

Giant cruise ship to (briefly) almost double Unalaska’s population

Thu, 2015-08-13 11:26

The Celebrity Millennium. Wikipedia photo.

Unalaska’s population could nearly double Sept. 15 when the Celebrity Millennium docks here.

Community leaders are worried enough, they’re holding a town hall meeting on how to handle—and help—the onslaught of tourists at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Burma Road Chapel.

“It’s going to be overwhelming,” Unalaska/Dutch Harbor ports director Peggy McLaughlin said.

Cathy Jordan with the Unalaska Convention and Visitors Bureau said she’s expecting at least 2,100 passengers and 1,200 crew.

They will have spent three days at sea and will be spending five days at sea after their day in Unalaska.

“We expect all the passengers to disembark,” Jordan said.

The occasional cruise ship is nothing new to Unalaska, but this floating city is much bigger than usual.

“Typically, we’re in the hundreds, not in the thousands,” McLaughlin said. “This is the largest one we’ve seen.”

Alaskan towns like Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan often see their populations double when several big cruise ships come to town. Unlike those towns, Unalaska isn’t set up to handle a large influx of cruising tourists.

“Generally, cruise ships and industrial working ports is not really a good mix, unless you’re set up that way,” interim Unalaska city manager Don Moore said.

Moore told Unalaska City Council Tuesday night that there’s always a risk passengers will step off their cruise ship go wandering around docks where cargo handling and other industrial activities are going on.

“That is an issue that probably needs to be addressed,” Moore said.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau wants to hear people’s suggestions for how the community can help the throngs of people enjoy their eight-hour visit to Unalaska, and how the community can weather the storm of tourists.

They’re looking for bus drivers and volunteers to help out on the big day as well as businesses that might want to exploit a brief opportunity to have a large number of customers.

The Unalaska School District has offered its gyms and auditoriums for lectures, dances or other activities for the cruise passengers. Entrance fees would raise funds for the school district.

The 965-foot ship will dock at the U.S. Coast Guard dock off Ballyhoo Road.

“This is a new arena for us,” McLaughlin said. “It’ll be sidewalks full of people wearing the same jackets, is my guess.”

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage teen who hit, killed cyclist in court Friday

Thu, 2015-08-13 11:23

An Anchorage teen who ran over a cyclist with a pickup truck and drove away will soon find out whether her plea agreement will be accepted, putting her behind bars for up to three years.

KTUU-TV reports that 18-year-old Alexandra Ellis is scheduled to appear Friday in Anchorage Superior Court for the July 2014 crash that killed 51-year-old Jeff Holder Dusenbury.

Court documents say Ellis had just taken a friend home from a large party she hosted while her parents were out of town when she hit Holder-Dusenbury, an avid cyclist.

A plea agreement reached by state prosecutors and defense lawyers would put the teen in jail for one to three years for negligent homicide.

The judge will decide whether that agreement is fair.

Categories: Alaska News

Ex-police officer, US Coast Guard officer accused of fraud

Thu, 2015-08-13 11:18

A former Southeast Alaskan police officer and an Alaska-based U.S. Coast Guard officer have been indicted for defrauding the state’s Permanent Fund Dividend system.

The Juneau Empire reports a grand jury on Friday brought indictments against Valent Maxwell, a former officer for the city of Klawock, and in a separate case, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Geoffrey Michael Barela.

Both men allegedly broke their Alaska residency but still continued to apply for PFD money.

Maxwell faces three felony counts for providing false information on his 2013-2015 applications to the state. Barela faces two counts for the same charge for his paperwork filed in 2011.

Barela and Maxwell are expected to appear in Juneau Superior Court at a later date. It is not clear whether they have attorneys yet.

Categories: Alaska News

VA secretary pays tribute to WWII Alaska Native militia

Thu, 2015-08-13 11:17

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald has paid tribute to those who served in the Alaska Territorial Guard during World War II.

McDonald addressed seven surviving members of the largely Alaska Native militia, thanking them during a brief ceremony Wednesday in the northwest Alaska town of Kotzebue. Event representatives say the veterans attending the ceremony came from Kotzebue and three villages.

Alaska was still 17 years away from statehood when the 6,400-member militia was formed in 1942 to defend the vast territory from the threat of Japanese invasion.

But members of the militia weren’t formally recognized by the Army at U.S. military veterans until 2004.

The unit was activated after Japan’s attack of Pearl Harbor and points along Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

The militia disbanded with little fanfare in 1947.

Categories: Alaska News

Coast Guard files charges against Portland protesters

Thu, 2015-08-13 11:16

The Fennica and its yellow capping stack in Alaska’s Dutch Harbor on July 18. (KUCB/John Ryan photo)

The U.S. Coast Guard says it is fining five Greenpeace protesters $5,000 each for dangling from a bridge over the Willamette River and blocking a Royal Dutch Shell icebreaker from leaving Portland for an Arctic drilling operation.

The protesters facing fines include three who dangled on lines below the St. John’s bridge for 40 hours late last month and two support staff on the deck of the bridge.

The violations have been referred to a Coast Guard hearing office in Virginia. The protesters have the right to appeal.

A Greenpeace spokeswoman told Oregon Public Broadcasting she was working to confirm the charges.

The icebreaking vessel Fennica arrived in Portland late last month for repairs to its hull after sustaining damage in the Aleutian Islands. More than a dozen Greenpeace protesters suspended themselves from the bridge, but the ship was able to leave the city on July 30.

Categories: Alaska News

Bering Air buys eight new planes to replace older Caravans

Thu, 2015-08-13 11:14

The first of Bering Air’s new planes touches down in Wales. The airline expects all eight caravans to be flying by November. (Photo: Laura Kraegel, KNOM)

Bering Air is upgrading its fleet with eight brand-new airplanes — Cessna Caravans worth about $2.5 million dollars each.

The regional airline — which flies to 32 communities in western Alaska — is replacing older C208B Caravans with the newer EX model, which has features that Bering’s director of operations, David Olson, says will improve safety and speed of travel.

The new planes are equipped with an anti-icing system, which prevents ice from forming and weighing down planes in cold conditions. That means easier handling for pilots and quicker travel for passengers. Olson says the anti-ice capability improves safety “very much.”

The Caravans also come with standard glass cockpits, new GPS technology, and bigger engines. While glass cockpits are not a recent innovation, they are new to the region and the company, according to Bering’s chief pilot, Fen Kinneen.

Paired with a new Garmin navigation system, the cockpits need less on-the-ground equipment and lower minimums for approach requirements like visibility — which Olson says is great for flying to smaller villages and in poor weather. The larger engines add nearly 200 horsepower and also help with taking off in bad weather and on short runways.

According to Olson, the new Caravans mean less maintenance, shorter inspections, and greater reliability. “It’s mostly done for the safety and convenience of the traveling public,” Olson said.

Bering Air already has three of the new planes flying, and the other five are expected by November. The older planes will be sold.

Categories: Alaska News

University of Alaska defines consent in new student code of conduct

Thu, 2015-08-13 11:12

The University of Alaska system updated it’s Student Code of Conduct to include a definition of consent.

The University of Alaska system has defined “consent” for the first time when it comes to sexual misconduct terminology. The definition is in the university’s new student code of conduct, which is the basis of university disciplinary proceedings. One expert calls the definition good, but thinks it could go further.

“Consent is defined as being clear, knowing and voluntary. It can be withdrawn at any time. It’s defined as being active, not passive and cannot be given while an individual is incapacitated,” says Michael Votava, reading from the  University of Alaska’s updated Student Code of Conduct.

Votava is the director of student conduct and ethical development for the University of Alaska Anchorage. He was part of the working group that established the definition.

“Past consent does not imply future consent. And that silence, or an absence of resistance, cannot be interpreted as consent,” Votava adds.

It can be words or actions that create mutually understandable clear permission.

“So in other words, UA is not requiring a verbal yes,” Votava says.

He gives this example:

“If there were two parties that were involved in a romantic encounter and one party started removing their clothes and started motioning with their finger for the other party to come toward them and had a smile on their face, that’s in my mind, I think a reasonable person would argue that that was a form of nonverbal consent,” Votava says.

“Why not start with verbal? Because verbal is the most common way we make agreements for anything,” says Mandy Cole, deputy director of AWARE, Juneau’s domestic abuse and sexual assault prevention nonprofit.

“What I would like to see and what I think is kind of a best practice is that we get more used to getting verbal consent and that we get more used to saying the words, ‘Do you want to have sex with me?’” Cole says. “Because honestly if you feel comfortable enough to have sex with somebody, you should be comfortable enough to say the words.”

Cole says UA’s definition of consent has the necessary elements. Other higher education institutions like The State University of New York, Northwestern University and University of California have similar language defining consent as either words or actions.

Cole says it’s difficult to require a verbal agreement, but she’d like society to move in that direction.

“It’s kind of a new thing really. When I went to college, no one said a word to me about consent. Certainly no one ever said a word to me about getting verbal consent before sexual contact, so I think this is developing,” Cole says.

One company Consent Game Changers has gone beyond verbal by selling consent kits. Each pouch comes with a contract card, breath mints and a condom. The company’s website says the contract gives both parties “the confidence of a documented consensual encounter (or to at least remind you to have the consent conversation).”

Cole says she’s happy UA has defined the term and is part of a national conversation, even if it was prompted by an increasing number of sexual assault reports in colleges.

More than a year ago, the U.S. Department of Education put UA on a list of about 60 colleges nationwide being investigated as part of a compliance review or for mishandling sexual assault complaints. That list is now at about 130.

Cole says advancing the conversation about consent keeps people safer and more prepared to discuss sexuality.

“So that we don’t continue propagating this idea that sex is about power,” Cole says. “So if we talk about sex being more about consent and agreement, and it’s freely and knowingly decided by both people, then it takes away some of the old thinking about what is legal and what’s not legal.”

Cole says it’s more about what’s right.

Categories: Alaska News

Alakanuk woman killed in ATV crash

Thu, 2015-08-13 11:09

A woman has died in Alakanuk after crashing an ATV into a shipping container.

Alaska State Troopers say 21-year-old Cecila Chikigak of Alakanuk was driving fast near the city office when she left the roadway, crashed, and was thrown from the ATV. Investigators say she died on impact. She was the only person involved.

Alakanuk is a village of around 700 located about 160 miles northwest of Bethel. Her body will be sent to the State Medical Examiner’s Office for an autopsy. Chikigak’s next of kin have been notified.

Categories: Alaska News

President Obama: Alaskans Are On the Front Lines Of Climate Change

Thu, 2015-08-13 08:48

Alaska is ground zero for climate change — that’s the message of a new video issued by the White House detailing president Obama’s upcoming visit to the Last Frontier.

“In Alaska, glaciers are melting.  The hunting and fishing upon which generations have depended—for their way of life, and for their jobs—are threatened,” the president says. “Storm surges once held at bay now endanger entire villages.  As Alaskan permafrost melts, some homes are even sinking into the ground.  The state’s God-given natural treasures are at risk.”

President Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Alaska Arctic. He will also be visiting Anchorage, where the U.S. has called a summit to discuss climate change with representatives from other Arctic nations.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Wed, 2015-08-12 17:49

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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Former YKHC Network Manager Indicted for Child Porn Distribution

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

A former computer network manager at the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation is accused of possessing and distributing vast amounts of child pornography.

Berkowitz Moves to Unravel The ‘Gordian Knot’ of City’s Homelessness Problem

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

The city of Anchorage is hiring a new coordinator to deal with issues associated with homelessness. Though the topic is usually framed as an urban issue, politicians often complain the city is shouldering the burden of a state-wide problem.

Shell Ready To Drill For Arctic Oil As Delayed Icebreaker Arrives

John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska

Shell’s wayward icebreaker made it to the company’s Arctic Ocean drilling site Tuesday.  The arrival of the Fennica after a month’s delay means the company could get to drill for oil beneath the Chukchi Sea this summer.

 

Looking (And Listening) For Alaska’s Rarest Whale

John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska

It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. But at least these needles make noise. Researchers are cruising the Gulf of Alaska looking, and listening, for one of the world’s rarest animals. It’s the North Pacific right whale.

As The Final Dock Pilings are Drilled, a Hoonah Controversy is Put to Rest

Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO – Juneau

The final pilings for a new cruise ship dock are being driven at a Hoonah tourist attraction, marking an end to the nearly decade-long saga that split the community.

Marijuana Regulators Run Low on Time And Money

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

The group setting up Alaska’s rules for commercial marijuana is on pace to finish regulations by a November 24th deadline. But just barely.

 

A Two-Wheeled Crusade Against Transphobia Hits the Road

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Reports show that violence against transgender people is rising nationwide. But one Anchorage woman is trying to fight transphobia locally by raising awareness that they’re part of the community, too. Her plan involves a bike, flashy pink nails, and an achingly long ride.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Former YKHC Network Manager Indicted for Child Porn Distribution

Wed, 2015-08-12 17:36

Gene Geisler. Photo from LinkedIn.

A former computer network manager at the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation is accused of possessing and distributing vast amounts of child pornography.

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An Anchorage grand jury on Tuesday indicted 38-year-old Gene Geisler on 76 counts of child pornography possession and distribution.

Prosecutors allege the man used the hospital’s network infrastructure to distribute the pornography as well as his home computers. Officials say Geisler is at large and a warrant has been issued for his arrest.

Adam Alexander is an assistant attorney general with the office of special prosecutions for the state of Alaska. He says information first came up in August of 2014 and they issued search warrants in September.

“Over 500 pounds of digital devices were seized that examination involved an examination of over 80 digital devices, each requiring a pretty serious expenditure of resources and time,” said Alexander.

Of the 76 counts, 20 are for distribution. Prosecutors say he shared videos with an investigator through peer-to peer-software. Investigators identified 56 children in photos that prosecutors believe represent known victims of child sexual exploitation identified through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In total, Geisler is charged with possessing two million images and 13-thousand videos, amounting to 29 terabytes of child pornography.

“This is, as alleged one of the more significant cases just in terms of the raw quantity of data and the number of images of child sexual exploitation involved,” said Alexander.

Alexander says there’s no indication or charges related to Geisler being involved in making of child pornography but he says the investigation is ongoing.

YKHC officials confirm Geisler was employed at YKHC in the IT department, but did not want to comment further, other than to say that they are cooperating with law enforcement on their investigation.

Geisler’s LinkedIn profile says he worked at three IT positions at YKHC after March 2011. YKHC officials could not say when Geisler left YKHC, but did confirm that he is no longer employed there. The profile says from July 2013 to September 2014 he worked as a network, telecom, server, virtualization, and systems manager for YKHC, managing a team of ten people. A spokesperson says the dates on Geisler’s LinkedIn profile look accurate.

In August of last year, investigators saw videos coming from a location in Bethel. When they came to town, they visited YKHC and Geisler’s home. There they saw a computer downloading images. He explained that he could piggyback on the hospital’s network from home.

He initially denied involvement in child porn, but in a later interview admitted that he had images and videos on his computers. In later search warrants, investigators examined dozens of devices, including a private server he installed at YKHC for use. During the investigation, he fled the state.

For the last six months, his profile says he’s worked for the Navy in North Charleston, South Carolina, in the advanced technology SPAWAR group.

Officials ask people with information about Geisler to contact the Alaska Bureau of Investigation. He faces two to 12 years in prison for each count, if convicted, and could face 99 years behind bars.

KYUK’s Daysha Eaton contributed to this story.

Categories: Alaska News

Looking (And Listening) For Alaska’s Rarest Whale

Wed, 2015-08-12 17:33

A right whale in the southeastern Bering Sea in 2005. Photo: Brenda Rone/NOAA Fisheries.

Researchers are cruising the Gulf of Alaska on the lookout for one of the world’s rarest animals: the North Pacific right whale.

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Their needle-in-a-haystack quest is made slightly easier by one fact: These needles make noise.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration left Kodiak on Sunday for a month-long research cruise to track down the critically endangered whales.

“There’s so few of these animals, and we know so very little about them,” spokesperson Maggie Mooney-Seus with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle said. NOAA’s fishery survey vessel, the Reuben Lasker, cruised up from California studying gray whales. Now it’s turning its attention to the scarcest whales known to science.

“It’s going to be definitely difficult,” Mooney-Seus said. “We actually did hear this morning that they had heard a right whale call, that gunshot call that we have a recording of up on our website.”

Here’s that gunshot call of a right whale.

Underwater microphones can usually hear the deep tones of a whale call much farther away than the human eye can pick out a whale when it surfaces.

“Even if they hear an animal, by the time they locate it, the animal’s moved on,” Mooney-Seus said.

The best estimate is that about 30 right whales survive today in the eastern Pacific Ocean, with perhaps 20 males and 8 females.  A few hundred live in the western Pacific and a few hundred more in the North Atlantic.

Nineteenth-century whaling and illegal Soviet whaling in the mid-20th century decimated the populations, and they have not bounced back.

Researchers spotted a young right whale off Kodiak in 2012 and heard others in 2013. The vast majority of eastern North Pacific right whales have been detected in the Bering Sea between Bristol Bay and the Pribilof Islands.

Interior Department funding for right whale studies in the Bering Sea dried up after the Obama administration put plans for drilling in Bristol Bay on hold in 2009.

NOAA still has four mooring buoys that listen for whales in the Bering Sea. Researchers gather data from the buoys annually.

Bioacoustician Ana Širović with the Scripps Insitution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, studies right whales. She has heard the up-calls, down-calls and shotgun calls of right whales in the Gulf of Alaska, but said she’s never seen one.

“They’re very rare,” she said. “There’s been a lot of effort studying right whales in the Bering Sea, and very little in the Gulf of Alaska. Given how small their population is, it’s important to know what their range truly is.”

If NOAA researchers can get close enough, they hope to get photos, tissue samples and even attach satellite tags to whales to monitor their movements.

The NOAA cruise will run a zigzag pattern from Prince William Sound almost the full length of the Alaska Peninsula and out to about 200 miles offshore.

Mooney-Seus with NOAA could not provide an estimate of the cruise’s cost.

Whalers considered the species the “right whale” to hunt because they would swim slowly and close to shore and because their carcasses float.

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union carried out what NOAA scientists call a “massive campaign of illegal whaling.” Soviet ships killed 372 right whales in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, severely depleting what was likely a recovering population.

Today, the biggest threat to the tiny population’s survival may be collisions with ships.

“These whales cross a major trans-Pacific shipping lane when traveling to and from the Bering Sea; their probability of ship-strike mortalities may increase with the likely future opening of an ice-free Northwest Passage,” NOAA scientists warned in a 2010 study in Biology Letters.

The right whale was declared an endangered species in 1970, under the precursor to the 1973 Endangered Species Act. A recovery planfor the North Pacific population was not issued until 2013, 40 years later.

Map of NOAA’s 2015 right whale survey route. Photo: NOAA.

Categories: Alaska News

As the final dock pilings are drilled, a Hoonah controversy is put to rest

Wed, 2015-08-12 17:32

The final pilings for a new cruise ship dock are being driven at a Hoonah tourist attraction, marking an end to the nearly decade-long saga that divided the community. The publicly financed dock is being built where it serves a local Native corporation’s interests, only indirectly benefiting residents — although many are also shareholders.

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On the grounds, tourists wander in and out of a historic salmon cannery turned museum. They skim the treetops on more than a mile of zipline and bask in front of a crackling wood fire that an employee keeps going.

The location of the new dock at Icy Strait Point. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Tyler Hickman is the vice president of Icy Strait Point, owned by the Huna Totem Corp. He says it’s important to maintain the cannery’s off-beat charm.

“It just starts feeling fake when you overdo something,” he says. “We try to make sure that everything we do is authentic.”

Part of that is making sure visitors feel comfortable when they arrive and leave. About 150,000 cruise ship passengers travel to Hoonah each year. To get to Icy Strait Point, they have to schlep over on a small tender boat. There’s no place for the big ships to dock.

Tender boats drop off passengers from the ship. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Hickman points to 60 people on a cruise ship waiting for a tender to transport them to shore. In the future, he says, those passengers will be able to grab their raincoat and wander off the boat on their own.

From there, they could walk through second-growth forest. Not everyone is as enchanted with the location of what Hickman estimates is a $22 million dock, paid for primarily by a grant from the state.

Ken Skaflestad is a shareholder in the Native corporation. He says before the cruise ships started arriving back in 2004, the village felt like a different place. Its population was around 750.

“I remember a day when somebody might wear their pajamas down to pick up the newspaper or groceries on a Saturday morning. If a cruise ship’s in town, that’s changed now,” he says.

A mile past Icy Strait Point’s traffic gate is the city of Hoonah. Tourists shuttle through for bear watching tours and to ride the zipline.

Back in the mid-2000s, the city proposed a multi-use dock located closer to the city center.

An employee in uniform answers tourists questions about a real halibut carted around the boardwalk. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

“This commercial dock that was going to help with barging, that was going to help with freighting, was going to be a place for fishing boats to tie up to,” he says.

Cruise ships weren’t the main focus, but Skaflestad says the conversation shifted after the success of Icy Strait Point as a tourist destination. A public-private partnership was created. The state put in $14 million to build the dock; the corporation put in $8 million. Although the inclusion of cruise ships was decided, the location of the dock wasn’t.

Skaflestad says the Icy Strait Point developers disagreed with where the community wanted the dock, which was about 800 feet toward town from their existing facility.

The city selected Shaman Point. He says the argument became not only about where it should be, but also what: a multipurpose dock close to downtown or a cruise ship dock on private land.

“I can say that I was one … that adamantly took opposition to that whole initiative.”

And the town, he says, was split down the middle.

“I refer to it as World War III. It was horrible,” he says.

Tourists explore the grounds of Icy Strait Point. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

A Royal Caribbean executive sent a letter to the city stating that if the dock was built at Shaman Point, cruise lines might not moor there. Skaflestad says the cruise ship passenger experience outweighed the community’s interests in the dock.

“The opinion of the customer’s experience was touted to far outweigh the community’s need to all of the other uses other than a cruise ship dock,” Skaflestad says.

Eventually, the city council turned over. A new mayor was elected and it was decided the dock would be built at Icy Strait Point. Skaflestad says he never did agree with how everything went down. But when he became mayor in 2014, he wanted to make the best of it.

“I had to really work to be open minded about this and listen to the other points of view. The other opinions were that right now the important thing is the development of this industry and that those other uses are really relatively small uses. They’re not going to be big booms to our economy or anything,” he says. “Truthfully, this dock, it’s primarily income that’s  going to come through the cruise ships.”

As the final pilings go in, Tyler Hickman says there’s no need to discuss what happened in the past.

“To me, it’s about today. When you go and walk around the corner, it’s being installed where it is and it’s in the right place,” Hickman says. “The experience the cruise ship guest is going to have is going to be the best in the world.”

The new dock could attract more cruise lines such as Disney, which would mean more visitors to Icy Strait Point and Hoonah.

Skaflestad says he’s trying to be welcoming. He leads the bear watching tours when they get overbooked. He says before, the locals just wanted the tourists to pass right through.

“This metamorphosis has happened and the town is saying ‘I can make a buck here,’ ‘Hey, I’m finding a little niche over here,’ or ‘I’m just going to sit here like I used to sit and watch the birds on the beach and now I’m going to watch tourists,’” Skaflestad says. “There’s this significant change that the presence of these visitors has brought to Hoonah.”

The dock is expected to be completed in October just as Icy Strait Point closes for the season.

Categories: Alaska News

Marijuana Regulators Run Low on Time and Money

Wed, 2015-08-12 17:31

Cannabis Plant. (Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The group setting up Alaska’s rules for commercial marijuana is on pace to finish regulations by a November 24th deadline. But just barely.

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The Marijuana Control Board is running out of time and money as it builds the framework for legal sales.

The board’s five members spent two full days discussing line after line of new marijuana rules with state regulators, lawyers, and members of the public. It is not glamorous work developing what could be described as the nitty-gritty particulars of industry regulation. The second day–all eight hours–was dedicated to just one topic area.

“And that was basically licensing and fees,” said Bruce Schulte, chair of the Marijuana Control Board, and one of the two appointees representing industry concerns. “It’s all the process and parameters around the licensing and renewals.”

Schulte concedes that the Board’s schedule of holding public meetings that share chunks of new draft rules, then switching over to re-drafting with public input is not particularly straightforward, though so far it has been expedient.

“It’s very confusing,” Schulte said, “I have to make notes myself.”

And it’s not just complex–it’s time consuming. The board got through just one of the three topics it was scheduled to address on Tuesday. To make up for that, they agreed to convene again before their planned September meeting. In spite of it, the Board has not fallen behind.

“We just had so much public comment to get through on all three of these articles, it was probably optimistic to think we would finish them all,” Schulte said. “But it’s not a problem: we’re still on track.”

Meetings, however, cost money, and that is creating some unexpected issues.

The Board is supposed to reflect state-wide interests, and as such it’s members reside state-wide: From Bethel, to Juneau, to Fairbanks. While teleconferencing is an option, Board members say it does not work well: it’s slow, they miss out on important facial cues, and one of them can only call in–video isn’t available for him. But the amount of money set aside by Legislators is firmly set.

“The budget covered the cost for five meetings in a fiscal year,” said Cynthia Franklin, Director of the Alcoholic Beverages Control Board, which oversees its marijuana counterpart. “This is requiring extra meetings. We did not build that into the budget.”

The newly added meeting will be at the end of August. Schulte thought it was so important he even offered to pick up the extra expenses himself, using air miles. Ultimately, it is likely to be digital.

The state’s latest round of draft regulations are open for public comment on the DCCED website.

Categories: Alaska News

Out With the Summer Chum, In With the Fall Chum on the Yukon

Wed, 2015-08-12 16:34

Summer chum salmon drying on a fish rack. Fall chum are starting to show up on the Yukon. Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM.

After a slow start to the fall fishing season on the Yukon, fall chum are finally making their way up river. That’s good news for subsistence fishermen, who say they’re busy along the banks of the river, both fishing and fending off unwanted visitors.

“Fish camps are coming to life again. There was a break between the summer chum and the fall chum, but now the fall chum are starting to show up, so all the bears are starting to come around to the fish camp. If we’re not dealing with flies we’re dealing with bears.”

That’s a fisherman named Basil in Pilot Station. The latest estimates from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game point to about 336,000 fish in the river so far—and the run should see that number more than double before the end of the season. But beyond buzzing fish camps, the healthy amount of fall chums now in the water means commercial fishermen on the lower river are also eager to fish—but many want more time.

“I don’t know where they’re coming up with this 4-hour opening. I know you guys needs to let some fish pass, but with these short 4-hour openings when there’s hardly any fish … you guys should reconsider. Try giving us a 6-hour when there’s fish out there.”

Others, like Marvin in Kotlik, say they just want to be able to catch more fish.

“Wishing that fish and game would allow for more commercial harvest as there’s plenty of fall chum entering the river at all mouths right now.”

But as lower river fishermen are a flurry of commercial and subsistence harvests, the fall chum are still tracking slightly behind schedule—leaving fishermen like Andrew in Ft. Yukon waiting.

“Yeah, I just spoke to a few fishermen this week, and I don’t think there’s a whole lot of fishing activity. We’re kind of between the king run and waiting for more silvers to show up, so people could get back to fishing again.”

Jeff Estensen—the fall season manager on the Yukon for the Alaska Department of Fish and Games—hopes that changes as a third pulse of fall chum entered the river in early August. He says they’re now near Grayling and Kaltag.

“It does take a while for the front end of the migration to make its way upriver. I just talked to some fishermen in Kaltag yesterday, and the report that I got from them is that the fish looked really good, they were really silver, and they were big.”

And Estensen says more fall chum are on the way.

“For the most part fall chum entry into the Yukon River has been very steady. Somewhere in the 3,000-4,000 fish pass past sonar on a daily basis. But as of yet we have not really seen the big pulse, except for that may have changed as of yesterday. We’ve seen two drifts now at our Lower Yukon test fishery, that have had pretty good numbers being caught. Definitely an indication another pulse is coming in,” Estenen says.

To take advantage of those increasing numbers, Fish and Game is liberalizing subsistence schedules to 7 days a week in the upper river.

As for commercial fall chum harvests in the lower river, Estensen says as of this week about 69,000 fall chums have been harvest, alongside about roughly 11,000 coho.

Categories: Alaska News

Bethel Council Axes City-Run Liquor Store Vote in October

Wed, 2015-08-12 14:20

Bethel voters will not have the option to go into local option this October and open a city-run store like Kotzebue, pictured above. Photo by City of Kotzebue, shared via kyuk.org.

There will not be a vote this October for Bethel to go into local option status and pursue opening a city-run liquor store. The Bethel City Council by a vote of five to one rejected sending the vote to citizens.

Council member Chuck Herman cast the only vote in support, citing the ability for more local control and the opportunities for partnering with villages that are possible with a version of local option.

“We can work together with them as a community and figure out what regulations and restrictions they need so we’re not providing a massive space for importation to flow straight down the river. This would be medium that I personally think would be the best for the Delta as a whole. The people in the city would be able to purchase alcohol from the store and they would not feel like a criminal going into the city-run store,” said Herman.

Bethel left local option in 2009 and citizens voted again in 2010 to stay out while still rejecting local sales. That developed a liquor status that allows for unlimited importations and no local sales.

Vice Mayor Leif Albertson said that’s agreeable for many.

“That was something that a lot of people felt they could live with. Moving forward, we don’t know what the state’s going to allow us to do. I think for many of use, before we’d make what I’d consider a drastic decision to go into local option, I think it’s important to know what our options are. And we’d have a better idea after the advisory vote, after we hear from the ABC Board,” said Albertson.

The city is seeking an appeal of the state liquor board’s rejection of their formal protest of Bethel Spirits application, which is still pushing for the first liquor store in Bethel in four decades. The Alaska Commercial Company is also applying to open a liquor store.

Among the many moving pieces, the Council will send Councilmember Zach Fansler to the next ABC board meeting in September in Kotzebue. The board will holding a hearing in Bethel in October. That’s the same month as the advisory vote.

And on that ballot, Bethel voters decide whether to tax future marijuana sales at 15 percent.

The council passed an amendment to raise it from 12 to 15 percent sales tax. Mayor Rick Robb opposed the higher rate.

“We’d be in danger of driving a legal product to being an illegal produce. Instead of getting 15 percent, we’d get zero percent and we also continue with crime and the associated economic crime that comes with illegal drug crime,” said Robb.

The council could lower it in the future without putting it to citizens in a public election.

Leading up to Alaska’s first legal marijuana sales in 2016, municipalities have options for regulating the commercial industry. And there will be local option provisions that could opt Bethel out of local sales or manufacturing, but the city hasn’t taken that up.

The city can also implement an excise tax, which doesn’t need to be approved by voters.

The council also established a marijuana advisory committee to run from September of this year through the start of 2017. The panel is tasked with making marijuana recommendations to the council.

Categories: Alaska News

Shell ready to drill for Arctic oil as delayed icebreaker arrives

Wed, 2015-08-12 10:56

The Fennica and its yellow capping stack in Alaska’s Dutch Harbor on July 18. (KUCB/John Ryan photo)

Shell’s wayward icebreaker made it to the company’s Arctic Ocean drilling site Tuesday. The arrival of the Fennica after a month’s delay means the company could get to drill for oil beneath the Chukchi Sea this summer.

Currently, Shell only has permission to do shallower drilling into non-oil-bearing rocks off Alaska’s northwest coast.

With the Fennica steaming toward the Arctic, Shell submitted an application to the Interior Department on Thursday for permission to drill into deeper, oil-bearing rocks.

Climate-change activists are pressuring the Obama administration to reject Shell’s application to modify its drilling permit.

The Fennica icebreaker hit a rock and tore a three-foot hole in its hull when leaving southwest Alaska’s Dutch Harbor for the Arctic on July 3.

The icebreaker then sailed to Oregon for repairs, where protesters blocked its path for about a day and a half.

Shell has to stop drilling by late September.

Federal inspectors are on board both of Shell’s Arctic rigs.

Only the Polar Pioneer rig is actually drilling. It finished digging a 40-foot-deep cellar in the sea floor over the weekend for holding a blowout preventer.

Another key piece of oil-spill equipment, the capping stack, is on board the Fennica.

Shell had planned to have both its rigs drilling at the same time, nine miles away from each other.

Federal officials rejected that plan in order to protect walruses from widespread drilling noise.

Even as Shell pursues oil in the Arctic, with climate activists nipping at its heels, Shell officials acknowledge that climate change is a problem.

Last week, Shell became the latest oil company to announce it would sever ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council. The conservative group tries to block government action on climate change and other issues.

“ALEC advocates for specific economic growth initiatives, but its stance on climate change is clearly inconsistent with our own,” Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said in an emailed statement.

A study this year by energy researchers at University College London found that global climate change can only be kept to less than 2 degrees Celsius, as international negotiators have been aiming for, by leaving Arctic oil in the ground.

Categories: Alaska News

State senator rescinds subpoena for video in inmate death

Wed, 2015-08-12 10:35

A Republican state senator is appealing to the Department of Corrections commissioner in an effort to get surveillance video related to an inmate’s death.

The Alaska Dispatch News reports 20-year-old Davon Mosley died in 2014 while in solitary confinement at an Anchorage jail. The mother of his three kids says the state settled a lawsuit with the family for $625,000 earlier this year.

The settlement ordered lawyers in the case to keep the video confidential. The Senate Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena to get the video, but Senate President Kevin Meyer rescinded it less than a month later over concerns that the request may have impacted other pending cases.

Sen. Lesil McGuire chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her husband’s law firm represented the Mosley family, which also worried Meyer.

McGuire says she’ll reword the subpoena if her appeal is unsuccessful.

Categories: Alaska News

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