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Alaska gets help from Lower 48 states in fighting wildfires

ANCHORAGE (AP) — Firefighters and equipment from the Lower 48 states and Canada are arriving to help battle wildfires burning in the nation's largest state. Weary firefighters welcomed the help as they struggled to keep up with two major fires threatening rural highway communities, even as lightning sparked nearly a dozen more blazes. Although firefighters are devoting most of their time and energy to a large fire in Willow, in the heart of sled dog country, and another on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage, it's important to attack the new, smaller fires quickly. "The idea is, if we can kick things when they're small, then they don't get big and expensive," Pete Buist, a state Division of Forestry spokesman, said from the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center in Fairbanks. Fifty-three fires were burning, Buist said, "which in Alaska terms is the not the end of the world, but business is certainly picking up." Three hundred firefighters from Lower 48 states and Canada were sent to the state. More supervisors, logistics personnel and 20 additional smokejumpers also are flying north, said Division of Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry. Four water-scooping aircraft from Alberta were due in to Anchorage on Wednesday evening, he said. After clearing U.S. Customs and having their tanks steamed for invasive species, they'll head to fires, Mowry said. In Willow, an unincorporated community spread out along the main road connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks, 12 square miles have burned, including 25 homes and up to 20 more structures. The 335 people assigned to fight the fire were able to limit its growth on Tuesday and were in line for reinforcements Wednesday. On the Kenai Peninsula, the blaze in a corridor between the Sterling Highway and the Kenai River, Alaska's most popular sport-fishing venue, has consumed six structures since Monday. The fire doubled in size Tuesday to about 4 square miles and had pushed east into the uninhabited Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Winds shifted later and pushed it west back toward homes, Buist said. Firefighters worked to protect structures and keep the fire from jumping the Kenai River to homes on its south side. The fire spread to areas of heavy spruce on the north side of the river. "Once it got into that, it was sort of creating its own wind and it developed quite a convection column," Buist said. "Spot fires became a huge issue. Embers rise up in that convection column and then drop out ahead of the fire." Among the new fires started by lightning were two 2-acre fires at Montana Creek north of the Willow fire. Firefighters attacked from the air with water and retardant before they could spread to threatened cabins. A lightning fire began at Russian Lake near Cooper Landing about 20 miles east of the Kenai Peninsula. The new fire burned 150 acres of mountain hemlock and spruce in steep terrain, and was threatening some homes along a highway.  

AJOC EDITORIAL: Restoring Alaska-hire is nothing to brag about

Accompanied by a strange amount of back-patting and revisionist history, Gov. Bill Walker issued a press release June 10 announcing the restoration of Alaska-hire requirements for state-funded construction projects. In an op-ed his office circulated June 11, Walker wrote that he was “proud” to restore the requirement that 90 percent of the jobs on state-funded infrastructure projects go to Alaska residents first. Here’s the catch: the only reason Walker can restore the Alaska-hire requirement is because the state unemployment rate was 6.7 percent in April compared to the national average of 5.4 percent in the same month. The Alaska-hire requirement was suspended statewide in August 2013 when the state unemployment rate was 6.5 percent and the national average was 7.3 percent; the determination is required every two years and at the time the state unemployment rate had been less than the national rate for four years. That had never happened before in state history, and under state law the “zone of underemployment” that allows Alaska-hire requirements to kick in only applies when the unemployment rate is significantly greater than the national average. At the time, 15 areas around the state with greater unemployment rates than the national average retained their Alaska-hire requirements. It was only the statewide designation that was suspended. In his press release, Walker’s office described the Alaska-hire requirement as being “terminated” in 2013. In his op-ed, Walker wrote, “Unfortunately, statewide Alaska hire requirements were eliminated in 2013. I’m proud to restore Alaska Hire, in the nonpartisan spirit of putting Alaskans first.” “Terminated,” “eliminated” and “unfortunately” are odd ways to describe a decision that was mandated under a state law that all governors are sworn to follow. Does Walker really think it was “unfortunate” in 2013 that Alaska’s unemployment rate was better than the national average? Is he really “proud” that Alaska has reverted to its traditional status of having higher unemployment than the nation as a whole? Walker blames “sharply declining” public sector employment and some layoffs in the oil and gas sector for Alaska’s unemployment rate diverging from the national average, but in reality the difference is only 0.2 percentage points from 6.5 percent in 2013 compared to 6.7 percent now. The fact is Alaska typically has a greater rate than the national average because of widespread poverty in rural areas and the seasonal nature of commercial fishing, the state’s largest private employer. Portraying the 2013 determination as anything other than upholding state law is a mischaracterization of the action by the Labor Department under former Gov. Sean Parnell. Here is what the former Labor Commissioner Dianne Blumer wrote in her own op-ed at the time: “According to state law, the Employment Preference Determination is in effect through June 30, 2015. The department will make a determination again in two years based on new unemployment data. My hope is that Alaska’s economy will be even stronger and there will not be a need for any zones of underemployment.” Leaving aside Blumer’s clear statement that nothing was being “terminated” or “eliminated,” Walker is treating the restoration of Alaska-hire requirements as some kind of an achievement. That is quite a contrast from the expressed goal of the previous administration to keep the state unemployment rate less than the national average. Walker also spent part of his op-ed talking about depressed oil prices and smaller capital budgets being a reality, but soon after wrote: “The Port MacKenzie rail extension, a $120 million project, probably will go to bid and be subject to Alaska Hire over the next year. So will the Seward Meridian Parkway extension, a $30 million project.” For some perspective, only $7.7 million of the 2016 capital budget was unrestricted general funds of the type that could fund an Alaska-hire qualified project. The $150 million total for the two projects Walker mentioned is equal to the entire capital budget he proposed this year, which was stripped down to little more than generating federal matching funds. It does not seem very realistic to portray $120 million to complete Port MacKenzie as being imminently funded given the state’s budget situation, but not much else from this announcement made sense, either.

Anchorage marks a hundred years, a hundred languages

“English plus 99, so 100 languages.” That’s not how many languages are spoken in the country, or even Alaska. As of last count there were 100 different languages actively heard in the Anchorage School District, Philip Farson said. Farson directs the district’s English Language Learners program, designed to help students adapt to an English-centric learning environment. More than 1,000 new students enter the program every year, he said. As a result, he is one of the first people in Anchorage to see the city’s changing population through its new students and their parents. There are now 100 languages spoken in the Anchorage School District. From 1993 to 2015, Spanish remains tops in non-English languages spoken, and Lao is still fifth. Hmong-speaking students have jumped up to second place with 1,067. Currently, about 6,200 students are in the language program, 13 percent of the ASD student body. In all, more than 10,000 students are in, or have graduated from, English Language Learners; that’s one-in-five public Anchorage students. At the beginning of last school year, minority students comprised 57 percent the district, up from 45 percent 10 years prior, according to ASD. Farson said it’s more than just the surface data, however. What sets Anchorage apart from other districts nationwide is the diversity among traditional minority groups, he said. Often, a district will have a dominant second language, such as Spanish, and very few speakers of other languages, according to Farson. “There are many districts that have as many or more languages than we do,” he said. “It’s just that they don’t have them in the same kind of mix that we do.” While the number of students that primarily speak Spanish at home was second to English with 1,344 speakers last school year in Anchorage, Hmong, Samoan and Filipino speakers are not far behind. Yupik, the language of Western Alaska Natives, was fifth and spoken by 279 students, according to ASD data. The next highest Alaska Native language on the list was Inupiaq at eighth, spoken by 120 students. It is the language of Alaska Natives from the North Slope and Northwest Alaska regions. At every level, elementary to high school, ASD has some of the most diverse schools in the country as a result, according to U.S. Department of Education metrics. Farson and his staff of 150 teachers and paraprofessionals try to help each student understand English academically, while at the same time encouraging the students and parents to embrace their home language. He said some parents eliminate their primary language from their homes in an effort to immerse their children in English, a noble effort that can sometimes stunt a child’s vocabulary and language development. “We encourage (parents) to speak whatever language they are most fluent in,” Farson said. “We want the students to have models of rich language. The reason for that is, if you’re using a rich vocabulary at home that will transfer over.” The worldwide immigration to Anchorage is a relatively recent phenomenon. “I don’t think people realize just how diverse Anchorage really is, how much it’s changed over time and how much it continues to change,” Farson said. Historical census data backs him up. Nearly 84 percent of Anchorage residents identified as white or Caucasian in 1980. The next largest racial group was African Americans at 5.2 percent of the city’s population, followed closely by Alaska Natives or American Indians at 5.1 percent. People of Hispanic origin were 3 percent of Anchorage in 1980. By 2013, Caucasians made up exactly two-thirds of city residents. Asians, less than 3 percent of Anchorage’s population in 1980, were nearly 9 percent two years ago. The Alaska Native-American Indian population had risen to 8.1 percent and Hispanics or Latinos were all of a sudden 8.6 percent of the Anchorage population. Also, Pacific Islanders showed up on the list of the largest racial groups in Anchorage at 2.3 percent, while those identifying as bi-racial were nearly 8 percent of the city. African Americans were 6.3 percent of Anchorage in 2013. Nearly 10 percent of Anchorage residents were foreign-born in 2013, and 17.3 percent did not speak English, according to U.S. Census data. By comparison, about 78 percent of the U.S. population identified as white in 2013. Much of the growth of minority groups in Alaska’s largest city has happened within the last 15 years. Anchorage’s population increased 12.1 percent between 2000 and 2010. Its collective Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population grew almost 40 percent during the decade, and the Hispanic or Latino population increased by 23 percent. The Alaska Native-American Indian population kept pace with overall population growth at about 12 percent, while the number of Caucasians and African Americans each increased by less than 3 percent. About 10 percent of all Alaska businesses were owned by immigrants in 2010, according to the Immigration Policy Center, or nearly 3,400 statewide. The reasons behind the moves obviously vary as much as the people themselves, but a recent influx of Middle Eastern and North African refugees is sadly a result of conflict. Farson said he is beginning to see more Arabic-speaking individuals in his work, a trend he expects to continue. “Ten years ago we had no Sudanese; now we have 700 (in Anchorage),” he said. For many of the city’s residents, particularly refugees relocated by government officials, Alaska is all these newcomers know of the United States, Farson said. “America is whatever we are making it for them to be, and that’s true even for a lot of those that come here by choice,” he said. Cook Inlet’s earliest settlers, of course, were the Dena’ina. The Alaska Native people had permanent settlements north of the Anchorage Bowl at Eklutna, across Knik Arm from what is now Anchorage and along the western shore of the Inlet at Tyonek. Early immigrants to the city of Anchorage were primarily immigrants from Greece, Russia, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, according to a 2002 joint publication by U.S. Army staff at Fort Richardson and Colorado State University. They sought work building and operating the new Alaska Railroad. Anchorage residents referred to all newcomers as “Swedes” in the early days, Cook Inlet Historical Society President James Barnett said. Even in its early days, Anchorage was a place where immigrants were not marginalized like they were in other parts of the country, he said. Anchorage passed some of the America’s first anti-discrimination laws, according to Barnett. Its lack of social classes is partially a result of Anchorage being a young city and traditions that have always favored immigrants, he said. “We’re all newcomers,” Barnett said. “In every case as we’ve grown we’ve grown because we’ve embraced the newcomer.” The population explosion during World War II and the early Cold War was because of military expansion in the city, which brought soldiers and airmen with ranging backgrounds from all over the country north. As still happens today, many of the military personnel stationed in Alaska fell in love with the state and stayed, or came back when their service is complete. More than 15 percent of Anchorage residents are veterans, compared with an average of less than 10 percent nationwide, according to the state Labor Department. Alaska has the highest number of veterans per capita of any state in the union. More than 25 years ago, Anchorage resident and well-known community organizer Mao Tosi was one of the city’s newcomers. “I’m Samoan — warm everything — but my heart and my soul are rooted here in Anchorage, Alaska,” Tosi said. “So it’s to know that this place becomes home.” Tosi moved north from San Diego with his family in 1989 with the allure of jobs and a fresh start ahead, he said. Tosi was 12 years old at the time. Since, he has witnessed Anchorage become a more colorful community not afraid to discuss racial issues, Tosi said. “I moved here in 1989 and to see the changes from then to now, it’s what you hope for most cities, to grow in a way where there hasn’t been much in the news about the segregation or the division of our community,” he said. “That says to me that Anchorage, that Alaska, is much different from the rest of the country.” Malcolm Roberts is an advisor to the Bridge Builders of Anchorage board of directors. He helped found the group that focuses on bringing Anchorage’s communities together as a member of former Mayor Rick Mystrom’s staff in 1996. “It’s still that frontier mentality,” Roberts said, explaining Anchorage’s increasingly diverse population. His wife, Cindy Roberts, traced the attitude back to the area’s pre-Anchorage, gold rush days. “We need talent,” she said. Before transitioning to non-denominational Alaska Pacific University in 1978, Alaska Methodist University worked to bring Pacific Islander students to Alaska, part of the reason for Anchorage’s Tongan community, Malcolm Roberts said. People from all over the world continue to come to Anchorage for education, jobs and that welcoming attitude, according to Tosi. He said Anchorage also benefits from being a small city, in which newcomers can easily become involved and feel as though they are a part of the overall community. “Nowhere else in the country do I see any city move as quickly as we do when there are issues that we come together on,” Tosi said. The fact that Anchorage is often ranked among the best cities to call home in America is not lost on those worldwide. Many newcomers quickly encourage their relatives to think about giving the city a try, according to Tosi. “It’s spreading like wildfire that this is a good place to live,” he said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska film tax credit program coming to an end

JUNEAU — It’s a wrap for Alaska’s film tax credit program. Gov. Bill Walker on June 15 signed into law legislation repealing the program, established in 2008 as a way to encourage the growth of the film industry in Alaska. More than $50 million in credits have been paid out since 2009, when the program took off, and an estimated $30 million in preapproved credits are pending that the state has said it is committed to honoring, the former executive director of the Alaska Film Office, Kelly Mazzei, said June 16. Before lawmakers approved the bill repealing the program in April, it appeared on track to be idled; Walker, in his budget proposal, did not include funding for the three film office positions, and the administration recommended the film office be deleted as the state grappled with ways to cut costs amid projected multibillion-dollar deficits. All three have found other state jobs; Mazzei is in a section of the Department of Revenue that has been charged with handling any residual duties tied to the tax credit program, she said. In a release June 16, Walker said he supports the film industry in Alaska but the state is facing unprecedented financial times. He said it’s hard to justify continuing the program at a time when at least two trooper stations are slated for closure. The program had been scheduled to expire in 2018, and Walker said he didn’t see oil prices rebounding before then. Alaska relies heavily on oil revenues to fund government operations, and low oil prices have exacerbated Alaska’s budget deficit. Walker’s office said the state Commerce Department still would provide production assistance by connecting directors and producers with Alaska contractors and location scouts. The state will continue working with the Alaska Film Group, a nonprofit trade association, and look for ways to ensure that any film work done in Alaska “takes full advantage of Alaskans working in that field,” Walker said. Deborah Schildt serves on the board of the Alaska Film Group and is a production manager with Piksik LLC, a film and television production support service company. She said the film tax credit program was a tool the state had to diversify its economy and create job opportunities. The program was revamped several years ago but never really allowed to prove itself out, Schildt said, noting that legislation seeking to cancel the program was introduced on the heels of that. “That sent a chill not just down to Hollywood but around the world. Producers look for incentives, but they also look for a stable film environment,” she said. When legislation is continually introduced that threatens to end the program, there are questions about how stable the program is, she said. Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, sponsored the bill that passed this year and proposed similar measures while previously serving in the House. Carolyn K. Robinson, owner and executive producer with the production and production services company SprocketHeads, said by email that many lawmakers could not grasp that the film program “wasn’t about Hollywood coming in but rather Alaskans being able to stay home.” Her husband, Steve Rychetnik, is a cinematographer, and they just gave his agent the OK to start booking him out of state to shoot films and TV shows, she said.

State purchase of Fairbanks Natural Gas should shave rates

Nearly six months after the idea was announced, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority board of directors approved the $52.5 million purchase of Fairbanks Natural Gas during a special meeting June 11. Included in the purchase price are all of the companies under Pentex Alaska Natural Gas Co., the parent company to Fairbanks Natural Gas and Titan Alaska LNG, which operates the small natural gas liquefaction facility at Point MacKenzie. The two LNG-powered trucks used to transport LNG to Fairbanks are also part of the deal. AIDEA estimates transitioning the ownership structure of the Fairbanks utility from private to public will save customers more than 13 percent on their bills nearly immediately. “We expect the Pentex acquisition to be a short-term strategic investment that can play a significant role in helping achieve the long-term success for the Interior Energy Project,” AIDEA Executive Director John Springsteen said in a formal statement. “This acquisition will promote an integrated gas distribution system that can be built and operated in a more efficient manner for the benefit of Interior Alaska residents and businesses.” AIDEA and Pentex leaders tentatively agreed to the deal back in late January, and in the meantime have been negotiating finer points while the authority has done its due diligence on the deal. The current management structure at Fairbanks Natural Gas, which serves about 1,100 customers in the heart of Fairbanks, is expected to remain in place to operate the utility after the sale. Resolutions passed by the AIDEA board allow for up to $54 million to be used from the authority’s Development Finance Program fund, with the added money above the purchase price for working capital. The sale, separate from but related to the Interior Energy Project, also includes Hilcorp’s $15.1 million deal to purchase and operate the Titan facilities. That deal is under review by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska and Attorney General Craig Richards and is set to close by late September if it passes the regulatory inspections. It would also lessen AIDEA’s total investment in Pentex to $38.9 million. Deputy Commerce Commissioner Fred Parady, who serves on the AIDEA board for Commerce Commissioner Chris Hladick, said purchasing Pentex is not a perfect solution, but rather a step towards lower cost energy in the Interior. He also noted that AIDEA has done a complete commercial-grade evaluation of the transaction. “This deal cash flows on its own merits,” Parady said. It is set to close by July 31. The proposed Pentex purchase came under fire when it was announced from some Southcentral Republican legislators who questioned whether it is appropriate for the state to purchase a private company and potentially compete with other companies that might want to supply natural gas to the Interior. While AIDEA is a state entity within the Commerce Department, it is a financially self-sustaining development organization in terms of its day-to-day operations. The Alaska Gasline Port Authority attempted to purchase Fairbanks Natural Gas in 2009 under the leadership of now Gov. Bill Walker, as a way to finance a North Slope gas trucking operation. That deal, which required local approval from Fairbanks North Star Borough residents, eventually fell through. The current deal is “government at its best,” former state senator and AIDEA board member from Fairbanks Gary Wilken said. Wilken likened it to a kick-starter project to support the Interior Energy Project, a hedge against fuel oil prices that will eventually rise again and a way to improve winter air quality in the region. Local Interior government leaders have voiced broad support for the plan. AIDEA leaders have said they plan to sell Fairbanks Natural Gas to a local entity within two years — likely the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which controls the developing Interior Gas Utility. Combining the utilities could provide additional operational and capital efficiencies and subsequent savings to customers, those knowledgeable with the work have said. Fairbanks Natural Gas President and CEO Dan Britton, also a minority owner in Pentex, said in an interview that he has always believed a single gas utility is the most efficient way to serve the small Interior market. Fairbanks Natural Gas competed with IGU before the RCA for the North Pole and broader Fairbanks service area in 2013. Britton and Fairbanks Natural Gas have absorbed criticism over the years for not expanding its customer base. He has long said larger, long-term gas supply contracts from Cook Inlet were not available for the small, start-up utility. The uncertainty over Cook Inlet gas supplies led to the first iteration of the Interior Energy Project, which attempted to truck LNG south from the North Slope. High capital costs ultimately doomed that endeavor. Britton, who has worked to get additional natural gas to the Interior for more than a decade, said he is excited continue working with AIDEA to see a project that has been such a large part of his career to the end. “For me, as I look back at the end of the day, we’re the only entity that’s ever done anything as far as get natural gas to Fairbanks,” Britton said. “We’re proud of what we’ve done.”

Dakotas Tribal leaders pitch pot as economic opportunity

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Marijuana companies in California and Colorado have tabbed prominent American Indian leaders from the Dakotas to help prod tribes across the nation into the pot business. Tex Hall, the former chairman of the oil-rich Three Affiliated Tribes, and Robert Shepherd, former chairman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe in northeastern South Dakota and southeastern North Dakota, are trying to recruit and assist tribes in producing high-grade marijuana products. “Those who want to get in early are the ones who will really succeed,” said Shepherd, the tribal relations officer for Denver-based Monarch America Inc. With 566 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States, the potential revenue for marijuana businesses is big, even though many native leaders remain skeptical, Shepherd said. Elders especially are wary. “It’s hard to deny the medical properties in cannabis,” Shepherd said. “But the federal government has done a good job of portraying it as a horrible drug. There is going to be a huge educational period for tribes.” The prospect of pot on tribal land is made possible by a U.S. Justice Department decision in December that allows Indian tribes, which are considered sovereign nations, to grow and sell marijuana on their lands as long as they follow the same federal conditions laid out for states that have legalized the drug. Hall, the former chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes in the heart of North Dakota’s booming oil patch, and Tim Wright, president of Redding, California-based Wright Family Organics LLC, announced this month that they have formed a partnership to “provide cultivation, manufacturing, dispensing, processing, testing and regulatory support” for tribes interested in marijuana businesses on reservations. Hall “has the power of influence, he is a wonderful leader and a wonderful spokesperson,” Wright said. Hall did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment. “Throughout my career, I have fought for advancement and sovereignty of Indian tribes,” Hall said in a statement. “And a lot of that time was focused on economic development because that is what our people need and deserve.” Hall is a three-time chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes on the Fort Berthold Reservation, which accounts for about a third of the 1.1 million barrels of oil produced daily in North Dakota. He was defeated in the tribal primary last year, after increased criticism from tribal members over his personal business dealings, alleged conflicts of interests, how his administration spent money earned from oil and a lack of transparency in government. Money from the marijuana enterprises — which backers believe could dwarf tribal gambling revenue in time— can be funneled back to the tribes to address shrinking federal grant dollars, much of which is needed for substance abuse programs in Indian Country, Shepherd said. Wright and Shepherd said their companies have yet to ink any deals with tribes. A few other Native Americans also are attempting to get tribes into the marijuana business, but Shepherd said he and Hall are likely the only ones who have held national-level posts with Indian organizations. Shepherd is a former secretary of the National Congress of American Indians and Hall has served two terms as president of the group that bills itself as the “oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization.” Wright said his company is focusing on tribes in 23 states that have laws allowing medical marijuana. In those states, he also sees medical marijuana clinics to help native and non-natives deal with various maladies, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Pot remains illegal in all forms in the Dakotas. Sam Deloria, board chairman of the American Indian Law Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said he knows of no tribes that have successfully started a marijuana business on tribal land. Most tribal leaders are split over whether the idea is “marketing tribal sovereignty” or “marketing a vice,” said Deloria, member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border. “Nobody has put together a package yet to get that money without a downside,” he said. “In a way I’m proud tribes are thinking about this but I hope everybody has moral concerns. If I were a tribal chairman, I wouldn’t do it. It might mean losing the next election.”

Team to study extensive toxic algae bloom along West Coast

SEATTLE — Federal biologists have embarked on a research expedition to examine the largest toxic algae bloom along the West Coast in more than a decade, an occurrence that has prompted the closure of some shellfish harvests in Washington, Oregon and California. The bloom involves some of the highest concentrations of the natural toxic domoic acid ever observed in some parts of the coast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said June 15. Local blooms of marine algae are common in spring, but the harmful algal bloom that began earlier this year has grown into the most severe in a more than a decade, the agency said. It stretches from Central California into Washington and possibly as far north as Alaska. In early June, dangerous toxin levels prompted the closure of recreational and commercial Dungeness crab fishing off the southern coast of Washington. Shellfish managers in Oregon and Washington also have closed the coasts to recreational razor clamming. And recreational shellfish harvests have been shut down along Oregon’s northern coast. “This is unprecedented in terms of the extent and magnitude of this harmful algal bloom and the warm water conditions we’re seeing offshore,” said Vera Trainer, with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. “Whether they’re related we can’t really say yet, but this survey gives us the opportunity to put these pieces together.” Domoic acid is a natural toxin produced by certain types of marine algae. It can be harmful or even fatal if consumed in enough quantities. Fish such as anchovy and sardines that feed on the algae can accumulate the toxin. Sea lions and birds that eat those fish can get sick. On June 15, a team of scientists set out from Oregon aboard the NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada to survey the algae bloom along the West Coast. They joined a previously scheduled research mission to assess the sardine and hake populations along the coast. The scientists will examine levels of marine toxins and collect water and algae samples, hoping to understand what’s happening. NOAA is working with the University of California-Santa Cruz, the University of Washington as well as the Quileute and Makah tribes in Washington.

Lightning sparks new fires in Alaska, but help is on the way

Sixteen new Alaska wildfires — most started by lightning — are putting added pressure on the state's already strained firefighting resources. Alaska Division of Forestry spokesman Pete Buist says state and federal agencies at one point Tuesday ran out of smokejumpers as new fires began in interior Alaska and areas north and south of Anchorage. More than 300 firefighters from other states and Canada were expected by Wednesday. The state's primary concerns are two fires threatening rural communities on its highway system. The Sockeye Fire at Willow has burned 25 homes but none since Sunday. The Card Street Fire has burned six structures near Sterling, on the Kenai Peninsula. Buist says winds had been pushing the fire east into federal refuge land. But he says they shifted Tuesday, and the fire again threatened homes near the Kenai River.

Movers & Shakers 6/21/15

Jeremy Bauer and Jason Clifton of Bauer/Clifton Interiors in Juneau received seven 2014 Interior Design Society Designer of the Year Awards on May 20 in Fort Myers, Fla. For the designed spaces, judges took into account client needs, functionality, aesthetic, craftsmanship, obstacles, budget, and specification. Bauer and Clifton placed in the following categories: 1st place, Kitchens $50K & Under; 2nd & 3rd places, Kitchens $50K & Above; 1st place, Baths $30K & Above; 1st & 2nd places, Bedrooms $30K & Above; and 1st place, Foyers. Their winning designs were home renovations located in Juneau and Fairbanks, as well as in Palms Springs, Calif. Bristol Bay Native Corp. announced the hiring of Mark D. Nelson as president and CEO of BBNC’s newly-formed oilfield and industrial services holding company. Nelson holds a law degree from Stanford University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama. In addition, Nelson brings many years of industry experience and knowledge to his new position. Most recently, he served as the senior vice president, oil & gas, at Quanta Services, a Fortune 500 company in the electric power and oil and gas industries. Prior to that, Nelson spent five years at ASRC Energy Services, serving as general counsel and chief operating officer. BBNC’s oilfield and industrial services business line currently includes wholly-owned subsidiaries CCI Industrial Services, Kakivik Asset Management, and Peak Oilfield Service Co. Nelson began his new role at BBNC June 8. Sealaska Heritage Institute has chosen Hoonah student Amelia “Tlaagoonk” Wilson as the 2015 recipient of the Judson L. Brown Leadership Award. She is a Chookaneidi (Eagle/Bear), Kaach.adi Yadi (Child of the Raven/Land Otter). She is pursuing a master’s degree in rural development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, College of Rural and Community Development and has a 3.8 grade point average. The $5,000 scholarship goes to students who have demonstrated academic achievement and leadership skills, and only one person wins the annual award.
Wilson served as director for Upward Bound through the UAF’s Interior Aleutians Campus and currently serves as an advisor to the Cultural Leadership Club and the Future Educators of Alaska Club in Hoonah. She serves as vice president of Hoonah Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp 12 and sits on the Hoonah City Council. Amelia is a member of the Hoonah Liquor Board and Chairman of the City of Hoonah Budget Committee. She is a member of the Gaaxw Xaayi Dance Group and Member of the Alaska Native Dialogues on Racial Equity Project with First Alaskans Institute. She also works as the librarian at the Esther Greenwald Public Library. SHI also administers a scholarship fund for Sealaska, which just announced that $459,000 in Sealaska scholarships were issued this year. John Parrott, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport Manager, has been elected to serve on the American Association of Airport Executives’ board of directors. The election took place at the AAAE’s 87th Annual Conference and Exposition in Philadelphia. Parrott was selected, among others, from a prestigious peer group of airport executives from around the nation. He has been a vital piece Ted Steven’s Anchorage International Airport’s growth and success as an economic engine of Alaska. Founded in 1928, AAAE is the world’s largest professional organization representing the men and women who work at public-use commercial and general aviation airports. Kevin Martin is the new director for Fire & Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest and Alaska regions. Martin is currently the forest supervisor on the Umatilla National Forest. He helped create and serves as a coach for agency administrators at the National Fire Training Center, and is currently the national lead for re-working National Fire Management Leadership. Martin’s report date is July 12. Margaret “Marg” Volz was recently announced as the 2015 recipient of the Mat-Su Health Foundation’s “Bertie” award: the Bert Hall Award for Commitment to the Health of the Community. The Bertie is presented annually by the Mat-Su Health Foundation board of directors to an individual who consistently exemplifies commitment to improving the health and wellness of people in the Mat-Su Borough. Volz co-founded the Children’s Place, Mat-Su’s child advocacy center. She also began a shaken baby prevention project in collaboration with Wasilla Rotary Club that targets middle-school children who are starting to babysit and who will eventually be parents. This program is still in existence today. She initiated and provided training for Abusive Head Trauma Prevention Programs at both Mat-Su Regional and Providence Hospitals, and she has helped coordinate a number of child abuse-related conferences in Alaska.

Willow wildfire quickly grows, forces homes to evacuate

HOUSTON, Alaska (AP) — An Alaska wildfire that's mushroomed in size was prompting help Monday from people offering their homes to scores of displaced residents and their animals. The human-caused fire reported north of Anchorage Sunday led to the voluntary evacuation of up to 1,700 homes. One firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion. Gov. Bill Walker announced he planned to travel to Palmer Monday for a briefing and then take an aerial tour of the fire, which burned at least 25 homes and up to 20 other structures including sheds and outhouses. Fire information spokesman Tim Mowry said 210 residents signed in at evacuation centers in Houston and near Talkeetna. Residents with properties away from the fire have been taking to Facebook on a site dedicated to the fire to offer their homes and properties to displaced people. Among them was Kendra Zamzow, who was offering space for people and animals on her 2-acre property in the community of Chickaloon about 50 miles southeast of the fire. "I have plenty of room," she said. The blaze struck the heart of sled dog country, including 15 or so mushers who call Willow home. On Sunday, when the fire began raging, the word went out that dogs needed rescuing, said Steve Charles, a member of the Willow Dog Mushers' Association. People went out with dog boxes on the backs of their trucks to help rescue hundreds of dogs, according to Charles, who spent the day doing that. When he returned to his home south of Willow, the fire began threatening his neighborhood. "I didn't realize I would have to be evacuating myself," he said at the American Red Cross evacuation center at Houston Middle School. His own dogs were along a chain line attached to a fence. Charles said he's heard from neighbors that his house was spared. Also taking refuge at the school was Robin Edgell, who had time only to grab one thing when fleeing her home in Willow: "Pictures, the only things that can't be replaced," she said outside a motorhome parked in the school's lot, and where she slept Sunday night. Her home survived a fire four years ago and she heard from a neighbor Monday morning that the home was not damaged this time around either. The blaze was reported at just 2 acres Sunday afternoon and had burned through more than 10 square miles by early Monday, officials said. It chewed through forest and brush around Willow, in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough about 40 miles from Anchorage. "It's got a little wind behind, it has a lot of fuel and it's grown," said Tim Mowry, spokesman for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. Evacuations grew along with the blaze: Officials first reported residents of 10 homes fleeing, then 20. Mowry said the voluntary evacuations applied to the 1,700 residential structures in the Willow area. More than 2,000 rural residents are spread along about 20 miles of the Parks Highway, which was intermittently closed. Even when the highway was open, traffic was delayed as drivers were guided by a pilot car. Even an evacuation center had to be evacuated. Emergency officials set up the shelter at a community center on the highway, but news reports said later that the people there were sent to a middle school. One firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion, Matanuska-Susitna Borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan said. No additional details were released. The fire jumped to both sides of Parks Highway and was moving south, Mowry said, but firefighters were expecting that its growth would slow with higher humidity. People started the blaze, but Mowry did not have additional details. The blaze has been dubbed the Sockeye Fire for the avenue in Willow where it started and where homes were evacuated quickly after it was reported. The response was swift and strong because of the fire's proximity to homes. "We're throwing everything we can at it at this point," Mowry said. Tankers unloaded retardant, and a helicopter dropped loads of water as more aircraft planned to join the fight. Nearly 200 personnel were battling the blaze and more expected, Sullivan said.  

Kayak protesters detained; Polar Pioneer heads north

SEATTLE (AP) — The U.S. Coast Guard detained several protesters in kayaks who formed a blockade Monday to try to stop Royal Dutch Shell's drill rig as it left Seattle on its way to explore for oil in the Arctic Ocean. Several people were taken into custody, mostly for violating the safety zone around the vessel, Coast Guard Lt. Dana Warr said. The agency did not immediately have a number, but Greenpeace says 13 were detained. About a dozen "kayaktivists" paddled out around 4 a.m. and tried to prevent the massive 400-foot long rig from leaving, said Cassady Sharp, a spokeswoman for the environmental group. Several dozen supporters in kayaks and canoes lined up behind them, she said. Seattle Councilman Mike O'Brien was among those scooped up from their kayaks. He and others paddled into Seattle's picturesque Elliott Bay before dawn to oppose Shell's plans to open a new frontier of fossil fuel exploration off Alaska's coast. "That monstrous rig is headed to the Arctic to attempt to do something unconscionable," he said in a text message while being processed by the Coast Guard at its offices. "I had done everything I know how to do as a citizen, an activist, and as a councilmember to stop Shell from drilling in the Arctic." O'Brien said he knew the action comes with risks, but "that is nothing compared to the climate risks to billions of lives if Shell is successful in drilling Arctic oil." The petroleum giant has been using the port to load drilling rigs and a fleet of support vessels with supplies and personnel before spending the brief Arctic summer in the Chukchi Sea, which stretches north from the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said Monday that the vessels are on the way to Alaska. "We remain committed to operating in a safe, environmentally responsible manner and look forward to exploring our Chukchi leases in the weeks to come," he said in an email. The Coast Guard said the protesters were not arrested. Some may be issued notices of violation, Warr said. Monday's blockade was the latest in a string of protests since the Polar Pioneer arrived in Seattle in May. Activists say they are concerned about the risks of an oil spill in the remote Arctic waters and the effects that tapping new oil and gas reserves will have on global warming. Activists also have chained themselves twice to a support ship in Bellingham, north of Seattle. They have tried to block entrances to the Seattle terminal where the rig was loaded. Several have been arrested. Officials in Alaska, including the governor, have touted the economic benefits that drilling could bring there and to the Pacific Northwest. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates Arctic offshore reserves at 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Shell says developing these reserves could increase domestic oil supplies by more than 1 million barrels a day.  

Activists arrested for trespass on Shell support vessel

BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) — Two activists spent about six hours Friday suspended from the anchor chain of a Royal Dutch Shell support ship docked north of Seattle to protest the petroleum giant's plans to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean. The protesters sitting in cloth slings attached themselves around 3:30 a.m. to the anchor chain of the American Trader at the Bellingham harbor. A spokeswoman for the group said they were comfortable, in good spirits and excited to be there. The Coast Guard reported they helped Bellingham Police remove the protesters around 9:30 a.m. Friday, and then the police arrested them for trespassing. They were cited for trespassing, a gross misdemeanor and released, police Lt. Bob Vander Yacht said. The activists were on private property, Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener said. Vander Yacht described the police interaction with the protesters as peaceful. "We talked to them. Told them what they were under arrest for and explained the circumstances. They voluntarily detached themselves from the anchor and let us get them on to a boat so we could get them off the water," he said. This is the second Arctic drilling protest in the Bellingham harbor in about a month. The oil company's proposal also has drawn large protests in Seattle, where a drill rig is being prepared to explore for oil off Alaska this summer. Sawyer Joy and Erika Osland, both students at Western Washington University, said they were trying to raise awareness about the hazards of Arctic drilling and climate change. "People need to step up and put a stop to this madness," Osland said in a statement. "If not us, who? If not now, when?" Two other protesters attached themselves to a different Shell support ship late last month for the better part of a weekend. They voluntarily left their perch with the help of the Coast Guard after days aboard. The agency has initiated penalties against some protesters over violating the 100-yard safety zone around the Arctic Challenger. The Coast Guard became aware of Friday's situation just before 5 a.m., Petty Officer 3rd Class Amanda Norcross said.  

Federal appeals court affirms Shell Arctic drill plan decision

A federal appeals court panel is siding with a lower court that ruled federal officials did not act unlawfully when they approved two oil spill response plans created by Royal Dutch Shell PLC for oil leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska's coast. The decision Thursday by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the oil spill response plans approved were not arbitrary, capricious or unlawful. Environmental groups who sued in 2012 argued the approvals violated Clean Water Act standards and the Endangered Species Act. The government countered that the groups' claims were based, in part, on a misreading of the laws and Shell's response plans. Oceana attorney Michael LeVine said after Thursday's ruling that if Shell's plans satisfy the law, "then the law is broken." Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Alaska Senate, House approve compromise budget

The Alaska Legislature approved a compromise budget Thursday, paving the way for adjournment of special sessions that have lasted eight weeks past the original 90-day session. The state House voted 32-7 for the $5 billion measure with a handful of Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, voting no. The Senate vote was 16-3, with three Democrats dissenting. The budget was the top issue in the Legislature as lawmakers tried to agree on a spending plan in the face of a dramatic fall in oil prices. Alaska general fund spending is upward of 90 percent dependent on revenue from the petroleum industry. Approval of the budget would avoid a partial shutdown of state government starting in early July. Gov. Bill Walker was in a meeting Thursday afternoon and not immediately available to comment on the compromise. Both bodies also voted to draw money from a giant state savings account, the Constitutional Budget Reserve, to cover the difference between projected revenue and spending. That required three-fourths approval by both bodies and minority Democrats used the requirement as leverage to restore some proposed cuts. Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said in an announcement after the vote that the budget reduces spending by $800 million, or $1,086 for every Alaskan. He said government had to shrink. "Government has had a good run, but circumstances have changed," Kelly said. State Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, voted no. Wielechowski noted education will take a $32.5 million hit, while the Legislature made no cuts to millions in tax credits to the oil industry or even to the rent lawmakers pay on their rebuilt Anchorage office. "There's no cuts to this Legislative Information Office that has caused our rent to increase by millions of dollars per year while we still continue to cut some senior benefits," he said. Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner said she couldn't vote for the measure because it doesn't include Medicaid expansion that would help more low-income Alaskans in need of health care, provide jobs and help struggling hospitals. After the budget passed, however, both voted in favor of the draw from the reserve account. Gardner said she didn't want to add a single day to the special session while public servants continued to fear losing their jobs. The governor earlier issued notices of possible layoffs to some employees as the budget uncertainty dragged on. The compromise asks Walker to not negotiate raises in the future, but does allow for negotiations to reopen if oil goes above $95 a barrel or below $45 a barrel. Rep. Reinbold, R-Eagle River, who was booted from the majority for not supporting an earlier version of the budget, maintained her objections and said not enough was done to reduce spending. "We are spending way too much today at the expense of tomorrow," she said. The University of Alaska could be doing more to develop its land holdings to become more self-sufficient, she said. Federal government requirements in education standards are costing the state millions, she said. "My vote 'no' today is to protect Alaskans from unnecessary taxes" that are sure to come, Reinbold said. Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said people worked across party lines for the compromise budget. The document is a reflection of reflects both parties' values, he said. "I'm not going to vote 'no' just because there are things I disagree with," Gara said. The compromise will allow elderly Alaskans more money for medicine and other expenses and children to have "a better chance for a fair shake." Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, was a no vote. The budget, he said after speaking to the Anchorage School District, is likely to result in the loss of 40 to 50 employees. The district will try to avoid cutting teachers, he said, but classrooms are likely to be more crowded. Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, said future budgets will have to look at the other side of the financial ledger: additional revenue. "I do not know a way that we can cut our way to a balanced budget," Edgmon said. The "no" votes included Republican Reinbold and Josephson along with his fellow Anchorage Democrats Chris Tuck and Harriet Drummond. Also voting no were Democrats Dave Guttenberg and Scott Kawasaki of Fairbanks and Sam Kito of Juneau. In the House, only Reinbold voted no to withdrawing money from the Constitutional Budget Reserve.  

Anti-setnet group scrubs site after submitting signatures

After the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance submitted 43,000 signatures on June 10 to the Alaska Division of Elections seeking a 2016 ballot initiative that would ban setnets in urban areas of the state, the organization scrubbed its website to remove a link to a group it has previously claimed isn’t related to the effort. Although the AFCA shares several board members with the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, including the latter’s founder Bob Penney, the group has strenuously denied the two groups are linked based on their different tax-exempt status. AFCA is a 501(c)6, which allows it to take part in political campaigns and issue advocacy while KRSA is a 501(c)3 that is not. As of the morning of June 10, the AFCA website was offering an invitation and discounted entry to the Kenai River Classic run by KRSA for corporate level sponsors donating $25,000 or more. When asked about this connection by the Journal at a press conference following the submission of signatures, Penny explained that law would forbid such an offer. “AFCA is a 501(c)6 organization,” Penny said. “KRSA is a 501(c)3. It is not allowed by law to do any such action like this.” After the press conference, the offer was taken off the website but the Journal was able to take a screen capture earlier in the day. According to Clark Penney, executive director of the AFCA and the son of Bob Penney, the board of directors asked Northwest Strategies to take that offer down months ago, but it had not done that until Wednesday. Northwest Strategies has been paid $11,000 so far by AFCA to “monitor, assess and coordinate” media coverage for the group. Pending the outcome of an Alaska Supreme Court ruling, the initiative could be on the Alaska Primary Election Ballot as early as August 2016. After the initiative was filed in late 2013, former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell rejected it in January 2014 as an allocative measure, which is prohibited under the state constitution. The group appealed and won a reversal in Superior Court that allowed it to begin collecting signatures. The State of Alaska, however, is appealing the lower court decision, and AFCA attorney Matt Singer said June 10 there will likely be an oral argument Aug. 26 or Aug. 27, during which AFCA will argue that the initiative has nothing to do with allocations. “This ballot initiative is about one way of catching fish,” said Singer. “It’s just about this one irresponsible way to catch fish.” By law, AFCA needed to submit 31,000 signatures from three-fourths of Alaska’s House districts, or 10 percent of the amount of Alaskans who voted in the last general election. The signatures were collected statewide, but the money behind them is not. To get them, AFCA paid Scott Kolhaas, chair of the Alaska Libertarian Party, $87,000, or $2.02 per signature, according to transaction reports from the Alaska Public Offices Commission. The reports also show that AFCA raised $116,500 for their statewide initiative as of the end of the first quarter. Of that, $97,000 was a direct contribution from Penney, and the vast bulk of the rest came from sources on the Kenai Peninsula or Anchorage. The only money that didn’t was $200 from two donors in Oregon. Other large donors include AFCA board member Earl Frawner and Ed Rasmuson of Anchorage; each donated $8,700. When asked why the ballot initiative had no grassroots financial supports from any of the four other non-rural, non-subsistence areas AFCA is targeting for setnet bans, Penney said they simply needed juice to get going. “The start of this has to start someplace,” said Penney. “We haven’t reached out for any further financial donations until this passes the Supreme Court. Once that passes, then we’ll be in a position to have this on a ballot, and that’s what we’re all waiting for.” AFCA has mounted the campaign against setnets for declared conservation purposes, although commercial fishermen have assailed the measure as simply a means to reallocate salmon from their industry to the guide industry. Cook Inlet would be disproportionately impacted as the only area covered by the initiative where commercial setnetting occurs on any substantial scale. At their press conference, AFCA members cast setnets in hellish imagery, “predatory means of fishing,” “walls of death,” and “indiscriminate killers” that must be banished to ensure the future of chinook salmon. “AFCA was formed with conservation in mind,” Penney said. “In fact, it’s part of our middle name.” AFCA President Joe Connors, a former setnetter from 1978-1983 and current Kenai River sportfishing lodge owner, said, “It’s time for setnets in urban Alaska to go away. Setnets are decimating other fish species in Alaska. They are more appropriate for rural subsistence fishing because there is less pressure on the resource.” On AFCA’s website in the description of the initiative, the group says that setnetters are wasting incidentally caught fish. “Commercial set nets indiscriminately catch any fish that passes upstream, including species that are threatened or in decline,” the website states. “When non-targeted species are caught, these fish are considered by-catch and legally cannot be sold or used, thus going to waste.” Under their permits, setnetters are allowed to retain and sell all five Pacific salmon species that are caught in their nets. When asked by the Journal if commercial setnetters are allowed to retain and sell incidentally caught chinook salmon, the board members present answered in the affirmative, but Connors said, “It’s not the primary goal for salmon fishing. King salmon have traditionally been a sport fish.” The members are quick to point out that eight U.S. states have banned setnets already, and that Alaska is simply the latest to take up the issue. Texas, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, New York, and California have all banned setnets, and Washington and Oregon have enacted severe setnet restrictions. Response from Kenai River Sportfishing Association: KRSA does not have any involvement in the initiative or AFCA, although some members are supportive and have been working with the campaign as is their right as private citizens. Bob Penney is actively involved in the initiative and is one of the people responsible for initiating it, but this does not relate to his involvement with KRSA or his participation as a KRSA Board member, of which he is currently one of eighteen. Many Alaskans take active political stances and also serve on boards, but that does mean the boards they sit on subscribe to their political views on all things. KRSA does not support the initiative, although a small number of members have asked us to, and continues to remain neutral in every aspect of the initiative including internal discussions and public comments. KRSA never agreed to any offer through AFCA of a discounted registration or sponsorship for the Kenai River Classic. KRSA was never told of the offer in question and had no knowledge of it until it was brought to our attention by the article. As a 501 (c) 3 charitable non-profit, KRSA is not allowed to make such an offer or to coordinate with AFCA on such an offer. KRSA is very mindful of its (c) 3 non-profit status and would not risk the thirty-plus years of investment as an organization by agreeing to such an offer or to coordinate with a process that would jeopardize our (c) 3 designation. AFCA can register and purchase at full price any number of people for the Classic event (just as any other organization is able to do) and then bring them to the event as a guest of AFCA. Without any coordination, KRSA had no way of knowing about the offer and if we had, KRSA would have immediately asked to have it removed. I would suggest you contact Clark Penney (AFCA) and / or Northwest Strategies to find out why it was thought appropriate to make such an offer without receiving our approval (which, to reiterate once again, would have been denied.) This issue rests fully on the shoulders of AFCA and NWS.   DJ Summers can be contacted at [email protected]

North Pacific council will seek changes to recusal process

SITKA — The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted on series of cuts to the Bering Sea groundfish fleet on June 7 without two of its members from Alaska. It’s the second time recusals have influenced the outcome of a controversial issue with a close vote, and the council is willing to take up the issue with Congress to reexamine the entire determination process. “It’s time to rethink how we go about making these decisions,” said council member Simon Kinneen, “particularly when they have effects on council process.” Kinneen was recused from the June meeting based on his employer, the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., or NSEDC. NSEDC is one of six Community Development Quota, or CDQ, groups who receive 10 percent of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands harvest. NSEDC also owns subsidiaries that collectively harvest more than 13 percent of the nearly 2 million-metric ton Bering Sea groundfish harvest, according to the Commerce Department legal opinion that led to his disqualification from the halibut bycatch vote. NSEDC wholly owns Siu Alaska Corp., which partially owns Glacier Fish Co., BSAI Partners LLC, and Glacier Bay Fisheries LLC. Glacier Fish is part owner of Iquique U.S. LLC. Fellow council member David Long of Wasilla works for Glacier Fish Co., and was recused for the same cluster of financial interests. According to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs all federal fisheries, council members must be recused when they or their employer control more than 10 percent of the harvest, marketing, or processing of the fishery on which they are about to vote a final action. Both members appealed the recusals, along with Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, but the appeals were denied. Both council members and members of the fishing industry objected openly about the exclusion of Long and Kinneen. Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, called the recusal process “inconsistent,” a sentiment echoed by Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association lobbyist Mateo Paz-Soldan. CBFSA is the CDQ group for St. Paul. Fellow CBFSA lobbyist Heather McCarty, whose husband, Jim Balsiger of the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region, routinely must recuse himself from votes based on her clients’ interests, used the recusals as part of the rationale for requesting a postponement of the decision. Balsiger was replaced on the halibut bycatch vote by NMFS Alaska Region Assistant Administrator Glenn Merrill. Council member Kenny Down of Seattle, who voted against the final motion that Kinneen and Long stated they would have supported had they been allowed, said the recusals hobbled the council process on an important issue. “We had four Native elders that came to testify,” said Down. “They chose to speak as one voice, and it was stronger for that. The council is muted in this respect. The regulations that are in place that determine whether a person has substantial or predictable benefits are a bit misguided, because they’ve left me here today with a bit of sadness that they aren’t here for this process.” Council member Duncan Fields of Kodiak attributed the entire outcome of the controversial decision to the absence of Long and Kinneen. “It is my perspective that the advice for recusal was a misguided extension of an agency policy not reflective of the intent of the MSA recusal language,” said Fields. “Let me say this again: the recusals of two council members have substantively changed the council’s action on this issue.” Lauren Smoker, the council’s General Counsel, said the recusals were made in the same manner they always are, and that the contentious nature of June’s final action has simply led to more scrutiny. Since recusals began in 1999, they have made 10 or 15 recusals, she said, out of the dozens of North Pacific council meetings. “General Counsel does the recusal determinations for each meeting,” Smoker said. “There’s nothing selective about it.” The council, however, still wants a fix. During the staff tasking portion of the meeting, council agreed to send its legislative liaison to the U.S. Senate to propose a series of changes to the recusal procedure. Kinneen suggested that council members simply be required to state their conflicts of interest and vote on the issue anyway, reasoning that the concept of fisheries councils was to have experienced fishermen run the fishery and that disqualifying them for being successful could be counterproductive. Members also would like to revisit the 10 percent financial threshold and how that threshold is interpreted, whether by overall quota, sector, gear type, or some other metric. Finally, Kinneen suggests instituting an alternate system for recused appointed council members. Currently, alternates are available for the state and federal representatives on the council, but the appointed members like Long and Kinneen have no alternates to vote in their stead. “It would be easy enough to have an alternate system,” Kinneen said. “The governor makes alternate name suggestions when he’s appointing members. Why not have them serve as alternates?” DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Citizens struggle to bridge budget gap at fiscal summit

FAIRBANKS — Using a sophisticated interactive computer model, 155 Alaskan citizens, all volunteers, worked mightily through a sunny Fairbanks weekend June 5 through 7 to close a gaping state fiscal deficit. Income and sales taxes, changes in oil taxes, budget cuts, use of Permanent Fund income, were all thrown into the stew pot. Most of seven working groups engaged in the project failed to close the gap, although most came close. Some who closed the gap saw it reappear a few years later. The meeting was the “Sustainable Future” conference on the University of Alaska campus organized by Gov. Bill Walker as a test run of public reactions to the various revenue options. A handful of legislators attended but only two from the legislative leadership, Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, and Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy, who is the House Resources Committtee co-chair. The budget numbers are tough. “We have a $5 billion spending plan and a $2 billion checkbook. Where are we going to get the other $3 billion?” state budget director Pat Pitney asked the group in its opening discussions. At the outset Walker was clear that the meeting was about discussing things, not to make hard-and-fast recommendations. “Our goal is not to grind this to a conclusion. For me, the discussion is the value. We have put together a group of Alaskans who are not timid, and we want these things discussed,” the governor said. Discuss it they did, and in some group sessions things became heated, to the point where Vic Fischer, one person attending and a delegate to the state Constitution convention, stepped in to cool things down, saying, “Look, this is only a model. We’re not making decisions here.” Meanwhile, the Legislature, struggled with the budget issue for real in its continued special session in Anchorage. A House-Senate conference committee met briefly June 9 and was scheduled to meet June 10. A proposal was put on the table for more education spending but other contentious issues like a scheduled pay-raise for unionized state employees are still on the table. Back in Fairbanks, day one of the weekend exercise was “right-sizing” government, or reviewing the major functions of state agencies and their budgets to gain a litmus test of how a group of citizens, with limited information, judged their value. Agency programs were given red, yellow and green dots on sheets pasted to walls and programs that got a lot of green dots showed that their value was appreciated. Reds dots showed where cuts might be made, but the hazard of limited information showed up when regulatory functions of the Department of Commerce and Economic Development garnered more than a few red dots. That these programs include state regulation of banks and the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, which has a strong consumer protection function, was obviously not well understood. After a day of struggling with budgets and possible cuts, however, the total of recommended reductions was just $20 million, the conference moderators announced. Not all who attended felt the gains were limited in spending cuts, however. Vince Baltrami, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, said he believes there could be savings in consolidations of state and university-sponsored vocational training, perhaps as much as $40 million per year. Baltrami, an Anchorage resident, knows a lot about workforce training because that is a core function of organized labor. Another participant, businessman Bernie Karl from Fairbanks, felt there could be large savings from major privatization of state functions. Karl is particularly critical of state corrections spending, with prisons that are high-cost mainly because of union agreements. Contracting out the prisons on a larger scale than is done now would save a lot, Karl said. Generally, most groups supported the core functions of state agencies — there were a lot of green dots on the charts — but also felt more cuts should be made to gain public acceptance before revenue options like new taxes were called on. Groups tackled revenue options on the second day, using the interactive model put together by the Department of Revenue. The model included 20 options of revenues and department staff were on hand to help the groups make adjustments to fit possibilities not previously programmed in. One group, chaired by Karen Perdue of Fairbanks, came up with about $1.5 billion per year in possible new revenues from taxes, about half of what is needed to fill the gap. “We felt we did not have enough information to understand the complexities of these, however, or the costs of collection,” Perdue said in a concluding session Sunday afternoon. Perdue’s group turned to Permanent Fund earnings but suggested a portion of earnings be used only if needed and then as a “bridge” to future gas pipeline revenues. Her group urged caution in tinkering with the dividend but underscored a potential value in using the dividend as a way to link state fiscal decisions to ordinary citizens. A second group, chaired by Dennis McMillan of Anchorage, set up the Permanent Fund as an endowment (using a payout mechanism different than the Fund now uses to calculate income) and reserved 70 percent of annual earnings to public services and 30 percent to support the dividend. McMillan’s group also urged a “functional” state capital budget of $150 million to $300 million a year (it is about $100 million this year). A group headed by Robin Brena, an Anchorage attorney, was aggressive on new revenues. “We voted 14 to zero for an income tax,” Brena reported in the concluding session. “We feel it is time for Alaskans to have some skin in the game.” The assumed tax rate used was 15 percent of the federal income tax. A majority of Brena’s group also supported, but with some members dissenting, use of Permanent Fund earnings. “An underlying theme in our discussion was that government has to be seen as lean. We are also concerned about the distrust now evident among many stakeholders,” in budget issues, he said. “People have to get more information.” Brena’s group also opted to adjust oil taxes, ending tax credits paid to companies and raising the base state tax rate. There were a number of increases in “sin” taxes, on tobacco, alcohol and marijuana. “But at the end of all this we were still $250 million short,” Brena said. One group, headed by April Ferguson, managed to get the computer model to go green. It came with the combination of an annual “school” tax, a personal income tax, higher oil and gas taxes, and a $1,250 “cap” on the Permanent Fund dividend. On oil taxes, Ferguson’s group was concerned that Cook Inlet oil production pays no state production tax. Another group, chaired by Tim Navarre, of Kenai, got to $2.99 billion in new revenues, “as close to green as you can get,” ($3 billion) done with a switch of the Permanent Fund to an endowment and a 5 percent annual payout, a $1,050 cap on the dividend, an income tax and other new taxes like a health provider tax. “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” on the fiscal problem, Navarre said. It was hard work, and it gave people a sense of the struggle for the Legislature, which has to do the real work on this, had to do this spring when the state operating budget was cut for the first time in years. The Legislature was still struggling on June 10, with a final budget deal still elusive for upcoming fiscal year 2016.

EDITORIAL: Citizens, Congress wake up on gov't encroachment

The revised eavesdropping program that the U.S. Senate finally passed on June 2 and sent to the president doesn’t go as far as some civil-liberties advocates wanted, but it’s the first time that Congress has placed limits on the government’s ability to spy on Americans after 9/11. That alone should bring a measure of satisfaction to Americans who fear that the national-security apparatus of the government in Washington has gone too far in the direction of snooping, at the expense of the legitimate privacy rights of U.S. citizens. The USA Freedom Act, as it is now called, will end the National Security Agency’s wholesale phone-records collection program and replace it with a more-restrictive measure to keep the records in the hands of phone companies. Most of the programs of the old Patriot Act will remain intact in the new law, but significant, and welcome, changes have been enacted. Now the government will need court orders to obtain data connected to specific numbers from the phone companies, which typically store them for 18 months. That represents a meaningful improvement in the law. Moreover, the new law creates a panel of outside experts to advise the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which up to now has largely gone along with whatever the Bush and Obama administrations have requested. To their credit, members of the Senate also resisted a push by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to strike a provision that would declassify some significant opinions by the secret surveillance court. In the end, Sen. McConnell, who fought against all the improvements in the House-passed version of the bill that the Senate ultimately approved, was effectively rebuked by members of his own party, who refused to follow his lead on a variety of bad amendments. Beyond the actual changes in the law, the best aspect of the months-long effort to revise the old Patriot Act is that the people’s representatives in Washington actually held a long-overdue public debate on the fundamental question of the struggle between privacy and national security. The revelations of Edward Snowden showed that the government had stretched the provisions of the Patriot Act to a point that shocked many Americans, not to mention more than a few members of Congress, and it was all done in secret. Repeated assertions by intelligence officials, and even President Obama — that it was all “for our own good” — did little to erase suspicions that the government was enhancing its powers of surveillance and intrusion without regard to the rights of citizens and the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. There is a lesson here for future administrations, and for future generations. The first is that if the government wants Americans to accept a controversial program, it must never fear to present its arguments in public, where they can be subjected to the rigor of debate and skeptical inspection. That’s basic democracy. The other lesson is that citizens who are stampeded into accepting encroachments on their liberties wake up one day and find the government has gone too far. In the wake of 9/11, there was little public support for those who questioned whether the Patriot Act was an overreaction that did more harm than good, posing a threat to basic liberties. The public’s fears were understandable, but, with the advantage of hindsight, it now appears the skeptics were right.

Movers & Shakers 6/14/15

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has announced recipients of the 2015 Emil Usibelli Distinguished Teaching, Research and Service awards. David Newman, professor of physics, received the teaching award; Hajo Eicken, professor of geophysics, received the research award; and Pat Holloway, professor of horticulture, received the service award. All three will be honored at a reception this fall. Newman joined the UAF faculty in 1998, after working for five years as a Wigner Fellow and then research scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He teaches courses across the physics curriculum. Eicken arrived at UAF in 1998, after 10 years as a student and researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany. His recent work focuses on Arctic sea ice in the context of a changing Arctic and global climate and he serves as interim director of UAF’s International Arctic Research Center. Holloway first came to UAF in 1975 as a research aid at what was then the Agricultural Experiment Station. After a three-year stint at the University of Minnesota, she returned to UAF in 1982 as a lecturer and instructor. She is best known for two projects that have made their mark on the community and the state: The Georgeson Botanical Garden and Alaska’s peony industry. Rasmuson Foundation announced that Jeff Baird has been promoted from his position as senior program associate and Roy Agloinga will join the Foundation June 22. Baird joined the Foundation in 2011. He has a law degree and bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. Before joining the Foundation, Baird worked as a law clerk for the Alaska Court System in Anchorage and Bethel. Previously, he spent six years reporting for daily newspapers in North Dakota and Minnesota. Baird currently serves as board president of thread, Alaska’s statewide child care resource and referral provider. Agloinga has extensive experience in nonprofit management. He served three years as COO and interim president/CEO at Norton Sound Health Corp. and was also employed as Tribal Affairs Director with Kawarek, the nonprofit regional organization in Nome. He has a bachelor’s degree in English with a teaching emphasis from University of Alaska Fairbanks. Agloinga previously served as rural director for the Municipality of Anchorage under former Mayor Mark Begich, is a current board member of Western States Arts Federation, and is a fluent Iñupiaq speaker. Coffman Engineers announced the following promotions of new corporate leadership: Will Veelman, SE, to chairman; Dave Gardner, SE, to CEO; and Dave Ruff, PE, to president. Company founder Dave Coffman, SE, moves into a new role as “Founder and Director” of the firm. Coffman founded Coffman Engineers in 1979 and has served as CEO and Chairman since its inception. Veelman has been with Coffman Engineers for 34 years. He is a principal in the Anchorage office and works on a variety of commercial and oil and gas projects. Gardner joined Coffman Engineers in 1990 and has more than 32 years of experience as a civil/structural engineer, during which time he has largely focused on federal projects in Alaska and throughout the Pacific Rim. Gardner is a Principal and served as the Anchorage office General Manager since 2011. Ruff has been with Coffman Engineers for nearly 20 years. He is a mechanical engineer with a largely industrial focus. Ruff is a principal and served as the Spokane, Wash., office General Manager from 2007 through 2014. Matthew Haymes, civil designer, recently joined Hanson Alaska LLC in Anchorage. He will assist with ongoing railway and roadway projects in Alaska, including the Alaska Railroad Corp.’s Port MacKenzie rail extension in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the widening of the Glenn Highway in Anchorage. Haymes received a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Melbourne. Jun Mendoza, EIT, of CRW Engineering Group LLC completed and passed the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam on May 20. This exam is the first of two exams and a minimum of four years of work experience necessary to complete before becoming a Licensed Professional Engineer (PE) in the State of Alaska. Jun graduated in spring 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical egineering and a minor in mathematics from the University of Alaska Anchorage. After six years in the U.S. Air Force and achieving the rank of staff sergeant, he moved his family from Las Vegas to Alaska and enrolled in the University of Alaska Anchorage. Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities employees were recognized for their exceptional service to the State of Alaska during the Denali Peak Performance Awards ceremony at Centennial Hall Convention Center in Juneau. Winner of the Exceptional Performance Award–Individual is DOT Maintenance Specialist Electrician William Giltner. Honorable Mentions for DOT employees were the following: Innovation in Cost-Saving–Individual: John Frison, Mechanic, Fairbanks International Airport; Exceptional Performance–Individual: Shad Parker, Driller, Design and Engineering Services. Resource Data Inc. has hired Mark Breunig a project manager/senior analyst to our Anchorage branch. He has more than 10 years of experience in project management and consulting in a variety of industries. Brening has a targeted focus and experience in corporate IT security audit, remediation, and compliance. Frank Thomas “FT” Bell has returned to the firm F. Robert Bell and Associates as operations manager. Bell recently graduated from Alaska Pacific University with a master’s degree in psychology; he served as an intern at both the Alaska Human Services and Alaska Pacific University Counseling & Wellness Center for two years. Bell has eight years of experience of land surveying with F. Robert Bell in the Prudhoe Bay office as a head chainperson, instrument person and occasionally as a party chief. He has various North Slope training including: including NSTC, hazmat, hazwoper, wildlife, driving safety, manlift training, helicopter underwater escape training, and many site-specific facility training. Rick Wolk, chief growth officer at Rosewood Coaching, has completed his Ph.D. at Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom. His dissertation focused on fast-growth sustainability entrepreneurship in rural Alaska. Wolk is an executive coach, marketer and teacher whose passion is helping business owners successfully establish themselves–both economically and ecologically. Wolk is the chair of the very first Vistage Chief Executive Group recently established in Alaska. The premise of Vistage International is gaining experience through coordinated, organized peer networks of CEOs. CEOs share their personal successes and failures in a confidential setting, and work together as a group to enable their individual businesses to thrive. Allan Hayton has been named director of Doyon Foundation’s language revitalization program. Hayton, who assumed the role in late May, will lead the program, which was established in 2012 to revitalize Interior Native languages and make language-learning opportunities available to all Doyon, Limited shareholders and other interested learners. A Doyon Foundation alumnus, Hayton studied theatre and film at Haskell Indian Nations University and the University of Kansas, finishing his bachelor’s degree in 1992. He continued at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, graduating in spring 2013 with a master’s degree in applied linguistics. Hayton previously served on the Doyon Foundation board as vice president, and was chair of the language revitalization committee. The Mat-Su Health Foundation recently welcomed Ray Michaelson to its team as a program officer. Michaelson came to the foundation from the State of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, where he held a series of management positions of increasing responsibility in the field of juvenile justice. As a program officer, Michaelson is responsible working with the program team to design and implement strategic initiatives to advance the foundation’s goals and vision. He is leading the foundation’s Healthy Minds focus area, which is aimed at supporting optimal behavioral health for Mat-Su residents. Michaelson’s hiring follows the January 2015 promotions of Dr. Melissa Kemberling to director of programs and Desiré Shepler to program officer. Kemberling leads the program team, and Shepler leads the Healthy Foundations for Families focus area.

Repsol releases flow data, results show 'significant' potential

Repsol released encouraging results June 2 from testing two exploration wells drilled this spring on the Colville River delta on the North Slope. It’s good news for the State of Alaska, which owns the lands, and for Arctic Slope Regional Corp. of Barrow, which shares in ownership of the mineral rights. ASRC would receive a share of royalties from any oil and gas production. One well, Qugruk 8, or Q-8, flowed 30 degree API gravity oil at rates of up to 2,160 barrels per day. A second well, Qugruk 301, or Q-301, flowed 4,600 barrels per day from a horizontal test well. Repsol has a 70 percent stake in the leases with 22.5 percent owned by 70&48 LLC, a subsidiary of Armstrong Oil and Gas, and 7.5 percent owned by GMT Exploration Co. Additional drilling is planned in the area next winter, Repsol said in the June 2 announcement. “We are very satisfied with the latest results from Alaska,” said Luis Cabra, Repsol’s executive vice president for exploration and production. “The positive news from this year’s exploration campaign, combined with the recent changes in the state’s tax structure, make Alaska a compelling area to continue to invest and generate the potential for development.” Significantly, the production test from the horizontal well segment experienced “minimum bottom hole pressure drawdown,” according to a statement by Armstrong Oil and Gas, a minority partner in the well. Little change in the reservoir pressure during the test indicate that the reservoir has good potential. The results were better than anticipated, Repsol said in a statement issued from Madrid, Spain, where the company is headquartered. The 30 degree API gravity is similar to the oil quality in the Kuparuk and Prudhoe Bay fields farther east. “Added to the positive results from previous (drilling), this confirms the significant development potential of the area,” the company said. In its statement, Armstrong Oil and Gas said wells penetrated a reservoir section that was 95 feet thick at a depth of 6,500 feet, with a porosity of 15 percent to 25 percent. Seismic data information from other wells shows the pool covers over 15,000 acres. Armstrong called the reservoir “Alpine East,” indicating that it is similar, or perhaps a broken-off part, to the large nearby Alpine field operated by ConocoPhillips A separate formation discovered, called Nanushuk, is estimated to cover 25,000 feet at a depth of 4,100 feet, with an “oil column” of 650 feet, meaning the depth of rock containing oil, with 150 feet of “net pay”, a section of that that is conducive to commercial production. Porosity was measured as 25 percent on average. An API gravity measurement was not given for the shallower Nanushak oil, leading some independent analysts to believe the oil may be cool and thick, being near the permafrost layer that extends down from the surface. That kind of formation has been encountered elsewhere, such as in the West Sak viscous oil in the Kuparuk field or the Torok formation near the Oooguruk field west of Kuparuk. Earlier this spring Repsol said it would submit applications for development permits in June with state and federal agencies. The company has reported positive results with 16 exploration wells and “sidetracks,” or separate wells drilled off a vertical well from the surface, over four winter seasons, but has not previously released results of flow tests, however. In its statement Armstrong said, “Additional drilling is needed to confirm the ultimate size of some discoveries, this season’s results justify moving forward with development, and two of the (newly discovered) fields are in the process of being permitted for development, one in the Nanushuk and the other in the Alpine.” The area Repsol is exploring is north and east of the producing Alpine oil field owned by ConocoPhillips and Anadarko Petroleum. It had long been known that oil is present in small accumulations scattered across the Colville River delta area but it was not known if the deposits were big enough to develop commercially. Repsol faces environmental and technical challenges in developing the discoveries, however. The oil finds are in ecologically-sensitive wetlands area, which will pose challenges in siting production facilities, pipelines and roads. The company has not released details of its development plan but at least one stand-alone production facility is planned, according to sources familiar with Repsol’s planning.

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