After Alaska’s second worst fire season on record, the state forester told a U.S. Senate committee the government should stop practices that he says needlessly sideline firefighting aircraft.Download AudioAlaska has seen record-breaking wildfire seasons in recent years. Credit: Division of Forestry. Healy fire.Sen. Lisa Murkowski called the hearing to discuss how to improve federal fire management. Alaska State Forester Chris Maisch says one long-standing problem is that both the Forest Service and the Interior Department require aircraft to meet certain standards for firefighting, and each agency certifies – or “cards”– separately. Maisch says the two agencies aren’t well coordinated.“It’s basically some bureaucracy,” he said.In program documents, the agencies say they accept interagency cards, but Maisch cited a handful of examples from around the country where aircraft were required to get recertified by a second agency, or state aircraft that couldn’t work on a federal fire due to disagreements over which rules apply. Two of his examples were from Alaska.“In Alaska, two National Guard Blackhawk helicopters doing bucket work on a Forest Service fire were not utilized for a second mission when it was determined they were not carded,” he said, reading from his list.Maisch, in addition to being the Alaska’s top public forester also spoke on behalf of the National Association of State Foresters. He says they’ve been asking for a seamless process between the agencies and have been frustrated for years.“They are carding to the exact same standards so it’s very perplexing to us,” he said.No one from the agencies testified at the hearing to explain their process or the particulars of the cases Maisch cited.
Last week, 14 educators from around the state met at Sitka High School to learn how to make shop and engineering classes more engaging. Supported by a grant from the Alaska Department of Education, the group had a few days to build and wire their very own electric guitars.Download AudioCasey Evens is a sophomore at Petersburg High School.Right now I’m just cutting out the head of my guitar into the shape that I want, or the basic shape that I want then I’m going to go in and sand it down to make it exactly how it’s supposed to turn out,” Evens said.Evens is joined by teachers in learning how to make an electric guitar from scratch.Evens is fascinated by computer aided design software. His teacher sent him to Sitka for the workshop so he could bring these skills back to the classroom.Before Casey started taking industrial arts classes, he thought he would go into a field where he could use his hands, like diesel mechanics, he says.But digital fabrication introduced him to other possible careers.“It kind of opened the possibilities to engineering or design or manufacturing or stuff like that,” said Evens.The classes are hands – and brains —on.Retired Sitka High School career and technical education coordinator Randy Hughey secured the state grant, which funded the professional development course. Teachers from the Lower 48, one whose class helped design a custom Seahwaks guitar for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, flew up to teach it.Hughey says in CAD classes 20 years ago, students used technology to draft blueprints of houses. His students were mostly disinterested because it was something intangible to them.Only when he started having his classes design their own logos for stickers did his students become more engaged.“My enrollment tripled in one year because they were suddenly doing something that was tactile and they were interested in having,” Hughey said.Expanding on that idea, Hughey thought students would be excited to apply design concepts to building their own electric guitars. But before they could get into the fab lab, teachers needed to learn how to do it first. Karl Jordan is the woodshop teacher at Blatchely Middle School.“We’re doing electrical, we’re soldering stuff,” said Jordan. “There’s a bunch of parts and pieces that I don’t even know what they’re called because I’m learning how to do it as we go. It goes from simple to complicated in one project.”He says the students also learn about tools, wood properties, electromagnetism, basic safety skills and other manufacturing ideas with the project.Sitka High shop teacher Mike Vieira uses his class as just the runway for design ideas and the electric guitar is one he hopes that will take off.“I’ve got students who are making keepsake wood prom tickets on the razor cutter,” Vieira said.Josh Arnold, who works at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, was as pumped as a teenager would be about his guitar, which he tricked out with a laser-cut logo of a Brave, the school’s mascot. He hopes to eventually paint it the school’s colors of cardinal and yellow.“We get excited about anything that we can show the kids,” said Arnold. “Hey if you can think it we can design it on a computer with CAD , with computer aided design and then the equipment exists in the world for you to make a real model, in this case we’re going to end up with a guitar that really plays.”In the end, after some trial and error, the group had fully functional instruments that they were excited to bring back to their classrooms. Now they just need to learn how to play them.
A 2,500-pound terrorist has been surprising sport and commercial fishermen outside Sitka harbors. There’s one thing he’s after—fish — and the season is just ramping up. This federally-protected mammal is causing more trouble than his weight for the city.A Steller sea lion has been frequenting the Sealing Cove fish cleaning station for more than a month now. When anglers cruise into the floating dock to fillet their catch, the animal beelines toward them for what he hopes is an easy meal.The sea lion in question has a distinguishing scar on the left side of his back. (Photo courtesy of Stan Eliason)Download AudioPolice Lt. Lance Ewers had his own run-in with the sea lion, after a day out on the water with his kids. He says he saw his friend cleaning fish by the runway on his way back into Sealing Cove and asked what was up. The sea lion had chased Ewer’s friend away from the cleaning station. So, like any good detective, Ewers had to find out what was going on. He drove over to the dock and left his kids on the boat.“All of a sudden the sea lion jumps up out of the water on to the fish cleaning station on the dock,” Ewers said. “And you would be surprised how agile they are even out of water. It doesn’t hop around you see on national geographic the walruses – don’t be fooled by the sea lion they get around just fine.”The sea lion didn’t see any fish, so it hopped back into the water, but not before sizing him up.“It did not fear me there was no fear whatsoever it knew it was a sea lion and I was a human and I was in its neck of the woods,” Ewers said.And NOAA law enforcement says that is the problem. The animal is accustomed to humans and has come to associate the cleaning station with food.Al Duncan is the assistant special agent in charge with NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement in Sitka.“It’s really a learned behavior on the sea lion’s part in particular because some of the reports we have received is people are actually taking fish carcasses and feeding the sea lions,” Duncan said.Duncan said the NOAA talked to the city about possibly moving the fish cleaning station until the sea lion dissociates it with food but that could cause further problems. Fish waste near the runway attracts birds, which causes safety hazards for airplanes. And cleaning fish inside the harbors is prohibited.“We posted some signs: Do not feed,” Duncan said. “We posted some additional signs making the public aware that there’s an aggressive sea lion that seems to be running about this location so that they’re aware of it and they can use extreme caution when using this facility.”And really that’s the best they can do. The sea lion is federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. That means the city and state have to stay hands off. Wildlife Trooper Tim Hall said if a bear was showing the same aggressive behavior the state would consider destroying it.Stan Eliason, the city’s harbormaster, said he can’t even haze the sea lion away from the station without proper permits.“It seems like they’ve got more protection than we do but it’s just how it goes,” Eliason said.He says he’s working with NOAA’s protected resources division out of Juneau to figure out the best course of action with the sea lion.“They’ve recommended putting scarecrows out there I don’t think that’s going to work he’s too comfortable with humans,” Eliason said.Sitka and Southeast have had problems with the massive marine mammals before. In 2014, a sea lion lunged out of the water and bit a commercial fisherman on his backside. A similar thing happened in Petersburg, too.Eliason said the sea lion’s behavior is the worst he’s ever seen. And now the animal has been reported in each of the city’s five harbors. He’s worried about the safety of harbor users, especially children. In one recent instance, this sea lion jumped aboard a man’s boat, startling him to the point he fell over and caught his hand in a hook.There is one option to get rid of the sea lion without federal intervention – subsistence harvest. Alaska Natives living on the coast are allowed to hunt the animals.“It’d be a win-win situation for me again so I don’t have to worry about the sea lion charging adults and children and pets,” Eliason said.But until if and when that happens, Eliason said: “Don’t feed the darn thing.”It is illegal to feed or attempt to feed sea lions in the wild. NOAA fisheries law enforcement will issue citations to those violating the law.
Dozens of residents turned out to provide public testimony at the Feb. 27 Homer City Council meeting.(Photo: Shahla Farzan / KBBI)Homer City Council heard a resolution on Monday that would have officially expressed the town’s commitment to fighting discrimination and maintaining a safe, inclusive city.Listen nowOver 100 people packed into Cowles Council Chambers and overflowed into the lobby, waiting to testify on a controversial resolution promoting inclusivity.The resolution, which was co-sponsored by Council Members Donna Aderhold, Catriona Reynolds and David Lewis, cited recent violence targeting religious groups, minorities, and the LGBTQ community.It also officially rejected discrimination against any group with regard to “race, religion, ethnicity, gender, national origin, physical capabilities or sexual orientation” and expressed a commitment to creating a safe, inclusive community.The Council rejected the resolution in a 5 to 1 vote, with Council Member Reynolds voting in favor.“I have witnessed people who live in our community who have already had to endure an increase of hate and bullying,” Reynolds said. “When you aren’t [on] the receiving end of abuse because of religion or skin color or sexual orientation, it’s easy to think it doesn’t happen here. But it does happen here.”Before voting, the Council heard three and a half hours of public testimony from just over 90 people. The majority strongly opposed the resolution.“The fact that this room is filled with people that are here in opposition to this resolution should be a reminder to you that you are elected officials,” John Butcher said. “As an elected official, your position can be filled in the next election cycle or sooner if you don’t do your job.”Much of the controversy stemmed from a draft resolution posted to social media, which included several clauses critical of President Trump. Those clauses were removed before Monday’s council meeting.Local business owner Coletta Walker argued the resolution would hurt the town’s image and negatively affect tourism.“You have done a great harm to this community,” Walker said. “I for one am appalled that someone thinks that they need to dictate to me how to be hospitable and community-minded. It is not the responsibility of government to dictate to its people to be kind.”The resolution emphasized the city’s commitment to cooperating with federal agencies in detaining undocumented immigrants, but a number of residents expressed concern that it appeared to be advocating for providing sanctuary.Others voiced support for the resolution, including Lindsay Martin.“I am a Korean-born citizen of the United States who is new to Homer. Positive and welcoming interactions with my fellow Homer citizens make up a majority of my day,” Martin said. “However, the negative experiences I have had are significant enough and based in my ethnic identity that I support this resolution.”Julia Person said she originally thought the resolution was unnecessary and wasn’t planning to give public testimony. What she heard in the audience at last night’s City Council meeting, however, changed her mind.“When I heard people talk about tolerance and then when the word Muslim came up and they made all these derogatory remarks, I realized the illusion of tolerance in this town is very deep,” Person said.Despite the controversy, much of the proposed resolution is already embedded in state and federal law, said Homer resident and lawyer Andy Haas.“This is a Rorschach test. We look at this and we all see different things. As a lawyer, when I look at this, I can tell you that the body of the resolution merely restates the law,” Haas said.Alaska’s criminal code does not define hate crimes as a distinct offense. However, AS 12.55.155 does allow for the possibility of a more severe sentence if a “defendant has knowingly directed the conduct constituting the offense at a victim because of that person’s race, sex, color, creed, physical or mental disability, ancestry or national origin.” Bias due to sexual orientation is not included as an aggravating factor.The next Homer City Council meeting is scheduled for March 13.
The borough Solid Waste Division will close a North Pole transfer site, at 2740 Old Richardson Highway, at noon Wednesday and reopen it at 7 a.m. Thursday after a cleanup and with greater on-site management. (Photo: PDC Engineers)Fairbanks North Star Borough officials plan to clean up a North Pole transfer site the same way they cleaned up the Farmer’s Loop East Transfer Site last month. They plan close the North Pole facility Wednesday and reopen it Thursday with Solid Waste staff on-site to survey users and prevent unsafe or illegal activity.Listen nowSolid Waste Director Bob Jordan said borough staff have been getting complaints from people who use the North Pole Transfer Site at 2740 Old Richardson Highway that sounded a lot what they heard a few months ago about another transfer site at the east end of Farmer’s Loop Road.“Individuals spray-painting the containers. A lot of drug activities, finding a lot of needles strewn all over the place. Unauthorized, abandoned vehicles left at these transfer sites,” Jordan said. “And also just some general safety concerns.”Jordan said those problems convinced borough officials to the same thing they did with the previously problem-plagued Farmers Loop Site: close it temporarily, clean it up, and reopen it with new hours.“The transfer site will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week, all the way through ’til Friday, July 28th,” Jordan said.During that trial period, the borough will assign a staffer to work at the site to keep it neat, answer questions – and ask a few questions of their own. Others will help with on-site work, including workers with Alaska Waste, the borough’s solid-waste contractor, and the Fairbanks Youth Litter Patrol.“We’ll be taking surveys again, and any other types of comments and feedback from users,” Jordan said. Respondents will be directed to an online survey site.Jordan said the on-site staffer also will keep an eye out for the kinds of illegal and unsafe activities that have been going on at the site.“Just the presence of someone there seems to elicit much-improved behavior from our residents,” Jordan said.Jordan said the borough may extend the trial period, if it gets a lot of positive feedback on the arrangement from users. He concedes it’ll cost money. Borough officials last month decided to keep a staffer at the Farmers Loop site for 90 additional days, at a cost of around $20,000.Jordan said the borough spends a million dollars annually to clean up trashed transfer sites. And he said having a staffer on-site, even temporarily, should help reduce those costs.
Health Commissioner Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson speaks during a discussion on Medicaid in February 2016. Medicaid costs are $92 million more than budgeted this year. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)Gov. Bill Walker’s administration provided a final number on the amount of extra money it plans to spend this year beyond what the Legislature budgeted: $178 million.Listen nowMost of this cost — $92 million — is from Medicaid. Roughly a third of that cost is due to the Legislature funding Medicaid at a lower level than state officials projected costs would run. On top of that, those projections were too low. Officials say more people enrolled in Medicaid due to the recession.Health Commissioner Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson described this in a recent Senate Finance Committee meeting.“These are unprecedented times for our state,” Davidson said. “The downturn in the economy has resulted in more folks enrolling in Medicaid than we anticipated. “Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon told her that lawmakers are concerned about the spending.“I’ve heard conversations in the halls of the Legislature that this administration, not specific to your department but including your department, is ignoring the Legislature’s intent to try to control costs and hold down the operating budget,” MacKinnon said.Davidson said the costs couldn’t be avoided.“I certainly haven’t been provided a directive or a nod and a wink from anyone in the Walker administration that it is OK not to control our costs,” Davidson said. “We certainly have those conversations about efficiencies. They are an agenda item in every cabinet meeting we have with the governor.”Some lawmakers raised the possibility of narrowing Medicaid eligibility.One potential approach is to require recipients to be employed.State officials said three-quarters already work.And many of those who don’t must look for work to receive other public benefits.
The nearest homes are now just 40 feet from the edge of the Ninglick River. The village could lose that amount of land in just one or two storms. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)The state and federal government have announced $1.7 million in funding to buy out seven homes in the eroding village of Newtok in Western Alaska.Listen nowNewtok is threatened by a combination of thawing permafrost, flooding and coastal erosion. Residents worry the village could be uninhabitable within a few years. The community has been trying for years to relocate to a new site upriver, a process the Army Corps of Engineers has estimated could cost $130 million.The new grant comes just months after the state refused to submit a previous application from Newtok for federal disaster funding, saying it was incomplete. The Newtok Village Council protested that decision and accused the state of blocking access to much-needed aid.The grant is funded by both the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. It’s part of FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, a special fund aimed at reducing the risk of future disasters.In a statement, Mike Sutton, the new head of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said the program is not designed to move whole communities. But, he wrote the fund is crucial because the erosion threatening Newtok and other Alaska villages does not qualify for traditional disaster relief.Without this grant, he wrote, “it is likely the residents would see their homes taken by the river without any financial help.”
An oil rig in Cook Inlet, Feb. 22, 2009. (Creative Commons photo)In Hilcorp’s permit application to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the company said it wants to update 40-year-old seismic data in a 370-square mile lease site offshore from Homer and Anchor Point.Seismic data helps companies like Hilcorp locate untapped oil and gas deposits. But the sound waves used to capture the data can harm marine mammals and fish.Hilcorp hoped to start its survey in lower Cook Inlet in late March, which concerned halibut charters like Mike Flores who fish in the area.“In their own words, when they fire those air cannons off, there would be nothing within a couple miles of those air cannons going off,” he said. “They say everything would migrate to shallower waters. Wherever that thing would be working on a day-to-day basis, there would be no halibut.”Commercial salmon fishermen have also raised concerns about the timing of the survey. Roland Maw of the Upper Cook Inlet Drift Association said returning and outgoing Cook Inlet salmon stocks generally pass through the area April through June.“Those sound waves can actually be lethal to the fish, both adults and to the outgoing smolt, especially the outgoing smolt,” Maw added.In an emailed statement, a Hilcorp spokesperson said the company was forced to start its 45-to-60-day survey in late March because of permitting delays caused by the recent federal government shutdown. The company said it’s now delaying the survey until after “the height of fishing and tourist season,” due to concerns raised by fishermen like Maw and Flores.However, Hilcorp requested to begin the survey this spring when it filed for its permit with BOEM in October, long before the shutdown began in December and the approval of the permit is still pending.The company canceled a community meeting in Homer this week and said it will update area residents once it has more information about the survey’s timeline.Environmental advocates like Cook Inletkeeper’s Bob Shavelson want Hilcorp to hold a meeting before it begins work.“From our perspective, it’s much better if Hilcorp sits down with fishermen and other user groups and talks about what’s the best timing,” he said, “what’s your local knowledge, what are the impacts going to be and how do we do this in a way that’s going to work collaborative with your groups and your interest?”Still, the company will have to wait until BOEM approves its permit. That timeline is also unknown. However, under Hilcorp’s request, it could conduct the survey until Oct. 31. Hilcorp said it’s holding off on plans to conduct seismic exploration for oil and gas in lower Cook Inlet because of potential conflicts with halibut and salmon fishermen. The company also lacks a crucial permit to conduct the work, and it’s unclear when it may get the green light to move forward.