Elizabeth Earl

Alcohol, marijuana officers still blocked from public safety networks

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to state that the chairs of the alcohol and marijuana control boards sent a letter to the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, who sent a letter to the state Attorney General. Enforcement officers with the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office are still struggling to work around the loss of access to the state’s public safety information networks. The office employs a number of enforcement personnel to inspect licensed premises and to investigate potential violations. The majority of the office’s work is in alcohol licenses, though marijuana licensees take up an increasing portion of staff time. Until December 2018, the enforcement staff members were considered peace officers and had access to the Alaska Public Safety Information Network and the Alaska Records Management System. However, last fall, the Alaska State Troopers informed AMCO that its enforcement officers would no longer have access to those networks because they were not considered peace officers. DPS could provide the information, but the AMCO staff would be locked out. About five months later, the AMCO staff members are still struggling to get the information they need to conduct investigations, said Executive Director Erika McConnell. “Some information has been provided in a timely manner,” she told the Marijuana Control Board during its meeting May 1. “Some requests have been ignored or go unfilled after repeated requests. This continues to be a frustration for the office.” The state provides access to the networks to criminal justice agencies and to peace officers. It is a debatable point whether AMCO is a “criminal justice agency,” McConnell said, but enforcement staff have always been considered peace officers. She said the reason the interpretation has been changed is still unclear. Though the chairs of both the Alcohol and Marijuana Control boards wrote a letter to the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development requesting that he send a letter to Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson requesting a clarification, there has been no response as of the May 1 meeting, said Marijuana Control Board chairman Mark Springer. Division of Enforcement Director James Hoelscher noted that the lack of access hampers the enforcement officers at AMCO despite the fact that the departments have the same goal. The investigators within AMCO have police backgrounds for inspection purposes. “It’s been burning — it’s been something in the back of my head for quite some time now and caused significant issues and questions,” he said “In my opinion, it is very clear that we are peace officers. What it boils down to is you have enforcement who is required to enforce Title 4 and Title 17 and we have been hamstrung on almost every level of the way to do that thing.” The Department of Public Safety did not reply to a request for comment as of press time. Impacts of legalization examined Meanwhile, AMCO is working on a data-sharing project of its own with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Division of Public Health. As part of the plan to legalize recreational cannabis in Alaska, the Legislature set up an excise tax with 25 percent going to marijuana education and treatment programs. The DHSS is working on issuing grants to promote youth education and substance abuse prevention, but as part of its education programming wants to conduct monitoring on the effects of marijuana legalization in the state, according to an outline submitted to the Marijuana Control Board. “Surveillance of youth and adult populations monitor trends in knowledge, awareness, attitudes, behaviors and use in the population,” the outline states. “We have incorporated marijuana-specific questions in our existing surveys to get a sense of how these attitudes and behaviors may change over time. Data from these surveys informs public health activities, providing the evidence behind evidence-based approaches to changing behaviors.” Part of the system for tracking commercial cannabis involved serial numbers for each plant, known as the Marijuana Enforcement Tracking Reporting Compliance, or METRC. DHSS wants to use the data there to track retail sales to see what types of products Alaskan adults are buying, while protecting licensee information. According to a draft data use agreement, the division wants information such as the price per usable gram, the value of sales, the number of transactions, the sales by product type, the average percentage of THC per gram and the number of sales by product type, among other data points. Eliza Muse, the acting director of the Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention, told the Marijuana Control Board that the division is keeping an eye on how use is affecting health of the Alaska population at large. “We’re also monitoring population health status to identify trends and potential health outcomes related to marijuana use,” she said. “We’re tracking data points such as marijuana-impaired driving or motor vehicle crashes, calls to our poison control hotline related to accidental ingestion, tracking emergency room treatment for children and the number of people entering treatment with marijuana identified as the primary substance of concern. “I do want to say that we have a lot of data points pre-legalization and post-legalization and we are not seeing an increase in any of those areas right now.” The Marijuana Control Board plans to review the data use agreement with DHSS at its July meeting. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

No plan for Seward coal terminal three years after last shipment

Nearly three years after it went dark, the future of the Seward Coal Loading Facility is still unclear. The conveyor-belt loading dock extends out into Resurrection Bay from a yard near the Alaska Railroad Corp.’s terminal in Seward. From 1984-2016, it was used to load export shipments from the Usibelli Coal Mine near Healy. At its peak in 2011, the railroad moved about 200 coal trains back and forth to supply export demands, and the operation employed about 100 people between operator Aurora Energy Services, the railroad and Usibelli, according to information from the Alaska Railroad Corp. That changed in 2016, when the railroad decided to shutter the facility indefinitely after years of coal export declines. By that time, exports had decreased about 95 percent from a peak of 1.1 million metric tonnes in 2011 to 68 tonnes in 2016, only serving one ship as opposed to the 18 required in 2011. Cheaper coal from Indonesia and Australia pushed down the market price, cheaper natural gas entered the scene and the U.S. dollar was very strong, making it harder for Usibelli’s export business to pencil out. With that little volume, the railroad corporation operated the facility at an approximately $1.2 million deficit, according to the 2016 document announcing the closure. The facility isn’t useful for much else, but would remain intact for now, according to the announcement. “While unsuitable for unloading passenger vessels or cargo ships, the SLF dock can provide mooring services,” the announcement stated. “In light of the railroad’s mission to foster economic development, the facilities will be left intact for now to facilitate resumed operations in support of our customer if new opportunities arise. That meant Usibelli’s coal would be kept in Alaska to supply the state’s six coal-fired power plants. At its peak, about half of the mine’s production was being exported, so the operations took a hit when the export market disappeared. The company still views it as a temporary halt in its exports and is constantly looking for ways to reenter the market, according to Lorali Simon, the vice president of external affairs for Usibelli. However, the railroad corporation’s decisions about its coal operations have made that a higher threshold, she wrote in an email. “The Railroad, who has experienced tough financial circumstances for many years, made certain decisions regarding the Seward Facility that make it difficult to respond quickly to export opportunities,” she wrote. “The Railroad sold the coal cars used for the export business; (and) the Railroad put the facility into ‘cold storage.’ It will take capital (both time and money) to get the facility back up and running.” In 2016, the railroad corporation estimated that it would cost about $200,000 to bring the facility back online, take a 30- to 90-day lead time and require about eight shiploads annually to break even. However, that was before some of the coal cars were sold. In its 2016 announcement, the railroad corporation stated that it offered the aluminum coal hoppers to Usibelli for purchase, but the coal company declined. The railroad corporation does still maintain a fleet of coal cars. Though the railroad corporation does not have updated figures, it’s likely more expensive than that to get the facility online again, said Tim Sullivan, the director of external affairs for the railroad. “It’s probably a little bit more than that now,” he said. “If you leave it to lay fallow for a while, the costs go up.” Sullivan didn’t have an estimate available for what it would cost to dismantle the facility. At this point, the railroad’s plans for the coal loading facility haven’t changed, he said. Though it can’t be used for much else, ships can moor to it if necessary although that has been infrequent. The railroad has been reevaluating its facilities in Seward in recent years, aiming at repairing the passenger and freight docks, but those plans don’t really affect the coal loading terminal at present. The loss of the coal exporting business hit both companies in the wallet. Usibelli, which in 2011 employed 150 people, today employs about 100 people. Most of those employees have been lost through attrition rather than layoffs, Simon said. “Since roughly 30 percent of our employees are second-, third-, and fourth-generation employees, and the average tenure was close to 15 years in 2011, many folks naturally retired,” she wrote. The railroad corporation has taken hits in several markets in recent years, with a decline in the coal export business and in the oil field. Freight makes up the majority of the railroad’s revenue, with much of that coming from shipping materials north for oilfield explorations. Though the oil patch has been rebounding with increased exploration on the North Slope and potential new exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the last few years have still been financial tough on the railroad; its workforce has declined by about 100 to 150 year-round employees, Sullivan said. “We’re focused on the services that we continue to provide,” he said. “We saw the export coal market reduced and went away, and at the same time we were seeing the refined jet petroleum coming down from the North Pole refinery … decline and then disappear as well. It was a couple big hits for the Alaska Railroad. We’ve taken measure of those issues and we think we’ve gotten to a point where we can continue to weather what’s going on.” Since the beginning of the year, average coal prices on the market have declined, with production so far in 2019 about 7.2 percent behind the production at the same time in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The long-term projections are for coal’s share in the U.S. energy generation sector to decline between the present and 2050, giving way to renewables and natural gas, according to the EIA’s 2019 Annual Energy Outlook. The U.S. is expected to continue to be a net coal exporter, but the actual amount of coal exported is not expected to increase because of competition from other producers closer to global markets, according to the outlook. At the same time, in the years since the Seward Coal Loading Facility closed, the federal administration has drastically changed to one much friendlier to coal. President Donald Trump’s administration has made several moves to change rules previously set in place during Barack Obama’s administration, including moving to reduce restrictions on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Congress also invoked the Congressional Review Act to repeal the Stream Protection Rule put in place during the Obama administration. Simon noted the repeal of the Stream Protection Rule and said the reduction in regulations “has allowed the mining industry to get back to work.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Study pinpoints trend toward fisheries specialization

Commercial fishermen in Alaska have gotten older in the past three decades. As it turns out, they’ve become more specialized, too. Fewer permits overall are in the water; between the early 1990s and 2014, commercial fishing permits in Alaska decreased by 25 percent. On top of that, fewer individual fishermen are moving between fisheries. From 1988-2014, the number of individuals holding multiple permits declined from 30 percent to 20 percent, according to a study published in the journal Fish and Fisheries. The bottom line: fishermen are increasingly putting all their economic eggs into one basket, and that makes them more vulnerable to the ups and downs of fishing. The study was born out of a workgroup that met through the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California Santa Barbara, said co-author Anne Beaudreau, an associate professor of fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The original intent was to study the long-term effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, but the data on fisheries specialization arose out of that work, she said. “As we worked on this, we realized there are so many things that have caused long-term changes in the Gulf of Alaska; in the fisheries, it’s really hard to see the long-term effects of the oil spill,” she said. “A lot of the focus of the working group was on the biological effects … this paper sort of came out of the end of that.” The group examined case studies in commercial fisheries: the Prince William Sound herring fishery, the statewide Pacific halibut fishery, salmon fisheries in Bristol Bay and in Prince William Sound, and fisheries in the region affected by the Valdez spill. All the fisheries have their own driving dynamics and factors of change, but common threads among many of them were long-term participation declines and increasing specialization. Some of that may be loss of opportunity; the cost of entering fisheries has steadily increased as limited entry and fishery rationalization have come into play in Alaska fisheries. Some of the fisheries in the case study are also not available due to losses in populations. The herring fishery in Prince William Sound, for example, crashed a few years after the Valdez spill and has never truly recovered. This is not an across-the-board trend, though. Some fishermen have been able to look elsewhere as their fisheries change, Beaudreau said. “I would say that fishermen are really good at diversifying,” she said. “I think that tends to be part of the nature of commercial fishing. You’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty — changes in fish populations, changes in regulations, changes in markets — all these are pressures that commercial fishermen are really good at responding and adapting to … For somebody, (finding opportunity) might mean specializing in something. For others, that might mean diversifying.” Specialization doesn’t always mean immediate impacts. For Bristol Bay, where sockeye salmon reign supreme, fishermen have actually seen less variability in their income and higher overall income. However, the point is the long-term fragility. Sockeye salmon are vulnerable to ocean forces, as was seen in the lower-than-expected returns across the Gulf of Alaska in 2018 that left fishermen in Kodiak, Chignik, Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound holding loose nets for much of the season. But the long-term warning flags of fishery instability remain, Beaudreau said. “I think it’s really more of the longer term concern,” she said. “If you’re putting all your eggs in one basket, what happens if there’s some major impact to sockeye populations?” The specialization study is the latest in a spate of research in recent years on cost of entry, reduction in opportunity and the increasing average age of commercial fishermen in the state known as the “graying of the fleet.” Fishermen statewide have noticed a trend among their peers that fewer young people are getting into the industry, but the studies lend statistics to back up observations and support potential legislative fixes. The study cites the work of another UAF researcher, Courtney Carothers, several times in reference to the impacts of the Pacific halibut fishery particularly. Carothers and a group of other researchers produced the 2017 “Turning the Tide” report, highlighting a number of the issues in loss of fishery access in rural communities and what that means for the future of those communities and the Alaska fleet. Since the implementation of limited entry programs in the 1970s, the number of rural residents holding permits in their local state fisheries has declined by 30 percent, and halibut quota holdings by locals in rural communities has fallen 50 percent since the implementation of the individual fishing quota, or IFQ, program in 1992 according to the Turning the Tide report. Much of that is due to the cost of permits in a limited entry fishery or shares in an IFQ fishery such as halibut or Bering Sea crab. Among the recommendations produced in that report were facilitating nonmarket-based access to commercial fisheries, establishing youth or student access licenses or mentorships programs, implementing programs to protect rural access to fisheries, supporting infrastructure to maintain fisheries and establishing a statewide fisheries access taskforce. Though lawmakers have expressed interest in it, legislation addressing these issues has yet to make it into law. One bill introduced in 2017, House Bill 188, would have established regional fisheries trusts allowing communities to form trusts to purchase commercial fishing licenses communally and lease them to fishermen who would otherwise not be able to afford them. After receiving a number of hearings, the bill was held in the House Labor and Commerce Committee and has not been revived in the current session. Beaudreau said her group’s study did not highlight potential solutions but rather shed light on the problem — and, among other items, how salmon fisheries can serve as a baseline fishery for commercial fishermen across the state. “Basically, we kind of saw salmon as a safety net, and it just speaks to how important it is for Alaskans,” she said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Emerging mariculture industry seeks to streamline permitting

Alaska may be famous for its wild fish, but some are working to make room in the state’s waters for more shellfish, kelp and crabs on aquatic farms. Mariculture is a hot topic in fisheries right now. Essentially, mariculture can be defined as the cultivation of plants or animals in controlled saltwater environments, but in Alaska it doesn’t include finfish, as that’s illegal in the state. So mariculture farmers have stuck to primarily kelp and oysters so far, but they’re starting to get more adventurous. As of December 2018, 58 aquatic farms were operating in the state along with five hatcheries and seven nurseries, though only 41 of the farms documented production in 2017, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Oysters are still the most widely grown product, though kelp is gaining ground; after the first operations for kelp were permitted in 2016, four farms had produced 16,570 pounds of ribbon and sugar kelp by the following year. A major obstacle remaining, though, is the regulatory hurdle to get an aquatic farm permitted. A bill in the Legislature — House Bill 116 — would trim down some of that procedure with an eye toward getting more operations out the gate. The bill, sponsored by representatives Andi Story, D-Juneau, and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, would fast-track permit renewals for farms in good standing for their first renewal cycle, which covers 10 years. Story clarified in a hearing before the House Fisheries Committee on April 23 that it would make no changes for salmon hatcheries, which operate in the state largely without saltwater net pens. There’s been a recent surge in license applications to the state for aquatic farms, increasing the wait time, Story said. “Because of the recent increase in the number of aquaculture farm leases … it now takes on average 18 months or more to approve an aquatic farm lease,” she said. To obtain a permit, the applicant first has to apply to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources for the use of the tidelands, which requires a 30-day public review and comment period and may require a site survey by ADFG. After the public comments are compiled and evaluated, DNR and ADFG issue a final decision. If the permit is denied, the applicant can appeal; if it’s approved, the permit is good for 10 years. The DNR permit’s annual fees are $450 or $875 for the first acre and $125 for each additional acre, with a $2,500 minimum performance bond required and a commercial use requirement by the fifth year with $3,000 per acre or a $15,000 max per farm site. ADFG requires an annual operating report for each species cultured as well as permits to acquire and transport wildlife. On top of that, to harvest and sell food products, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation requires that the operator obtain a water qualify classification, conduct shellfish sampling for paralytic shellfish poison and obtain shellfish processing permits, according to documentation submitted to the Legislature. It can be expensive and time-consuming. Meta Mesdag, co-owner of Salty Lady Seafood Company in Juneau, told the committee members that it’s taken about $150,000 of investment so far for her family’s approximately 1-acre operation growing geoduck clams and oysters. “(Oysters) take about three years to grow, and the geoduck will take seven,” she said. “Unfortunately, we only have five years left on our lease so we won’t see any revenue from our geoducks before we have to go through the renewal process all over again.” The Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which promotes the exploration and development of fisheries throughout the state, credited the work of the state Mariculture Task Force with the growth in interest. In a letter of support for HB 116, the foundation noted that the vetting process for renewing a permit slows down the process for new applicants. “HB 116 is important step toward efficiently developing a mariculture industry in Alaska,” wrote AFDF Executive Director Julie Decker in the letter. “HB 116 will allow for one renewal of an aquatic farm site through a simpler internal process which does not require public comment, if the lease is in good standing/compliance. However, the second renewal would still be required to go through the extended process similar to a new application.” The Mariculture Task Force, established by Gov. Bill Walker in 2016 after the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation obtained a federal grant in 2014 to fund its Alaska Mariculture Initiative, developed a strategy released in March 2018 aiming to make Alaska’s mariculture industry worth $100 million in the next 20 years. The industry produced about $1.5 million in sales annually in the state in 2017. In the future, the primarily revenue drivers would be oysters, seaweed and geoduck clams, with smaller markets in mussels, sea cucumbers and king crab, according to the group’s Mariculture Development Plan. The primary recommendations the group produced are securing seed supply through hatcheries, passing state legislation to help fund hatcheries through the mariculture revolving loan fund and allow shellfish enhancement and filling several research and coordination positions for mariculture, among other goals. Alaska is significantly behind the Pacific Northwest in mariculture development. Some farms in Washington operate thousands of acres and employ hundreds of people. Taylor Shellfish Farms, which has been operating in the Seattle area since the 1890s, employs about 500 people and holds leases on more than 10,000 acres of tidelands in Washington. Some commenters raised a concern about the size of farms in the future. DNR does not currently have a size cap, other than that a farm cannot take up more than a third of the bay or inlet where it is located. Though the DNR considers risks like navigation hazards when reviewing farm permits, the agency is starting to consider ways to address concerns about farm size, said Christy Colles, who manages the shore leasing program for the Division of Mining, Land and Water, during the House Fisheries Committee meeting. “These new farms at this magnitude are by and large new to the state,” she said. “We haven’t really had much of a chance to think about how we can address those.” “Large” is a relative term in Alaska compared to the enormous operations in the Lower 48, said Mark Scheer, who operates Premium Aquatics near Craig, farming kelp and Pacific oysters. Though he said his lease is for more than 100 acres, he doesn’t use all of it at once. “I think it’s important to recognize that this is a new transition for Alaska,” he said. “The relative scale of what we’re doing here is modest at best.” HB 116 was passed out of the House Fisheries Committee to the House Resources Committee, scheduled for its next hearing on May 3. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet setnet buyback program gains support

Cook Inlet fishermen are again pushing for a bill that would authorize a commercial set gillnet permit buyback, but with the budget battles ongoing, it may not advance this year. Senate Bill 90 is the latest version of the plan to set up a buyback program for setnet permits on Cook Inlet’s east side. About 440 permits exist on the east side, targeting primarily sockeye salmon with secondary catches of king salmon headed for the Kasilof and Kenai rivers. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, aims to permanently remove up to 200 permits and their shore leases from the fishery. The fishermen have been debating a way to reduce the fleet for about four years, surveying stakeholders for support and working with Micciche to authorize a program to do so. The latest version of the bill would require a confirming vote by the fishermen, a voluntary signup for the program and would seek funding other than the state General Fund. With a set price of $260,000 per permit, the whole program would cost $52 million. “There are some private endowments that have mentioned some interest because of the conservation; there are federal programs that participate in conservation efforts,” Micciche told the Senate Resources Committee in a hearing April 22. “This is going to take some time to be ready with the election and settling any of the appeals and whatever goes with it, but the state is not paying for any of this. This is going to come from other sources that we’re not sure of at this point.” The conflict between fisheries user groups in Cook Inlet is notorious statewide. The Kenai River draws thousands of anglers from all over the world for its salmon runs, while commercial fishermen ply both the beaches and the Inlet. Personal-use dipnet fishermen come from all over the state each summer for the fisheries at the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. As king salmon runs declined and both commercial and sport fisheries have been restricted in response, the allocation conflicts have become more pitched. Micciche said this bill is intended to help reduce the allocation conflict, allow more king salmon to make it through to spawn and make the remaining setnetters more economically viable. In an example of rare cooperation, multiple groups have come together to support the effort, he said. If the Legislature approves the bill, the initiative would go to a vote among permit holders. If they approve it, permit holders could put their names into a lottery to be drawn for the buyback. The bill also redefines the areas of the buyback, sectioning off the Cook Inlet East Side setnetters as Upper Subdistrict fishermen that are distinct from setnetters in the Northern District or on the west side of the Inlet. In the past, the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, which represents the East Side setnetters, has been wary of bills establishing a buyback program. After taking surveys and working with Micciche on the language, the association offered its support for Micciche’s version of the bill, said Andy Hall, the president of the association’s board. That doesn’t mean every person in the fleet supports the concept, but the survey brought back about 70 percent to 80 percent support, he said. The price tag for the buyout may seem high to some people, Hall said, but it’s based on 10 years of average earnings and was closed to adjustment at the end of December 2018. Removing gear from the fishery will likely have an immediate financial benefit for the fishermen who are left. “We’re not looking to be martyrs; we’re business people,” he said. “If we’re going to step away, we want to be remunerated for it.” One source of contention is how so many fishermen wound up on the east side of the Inlet to begin with. Commercial fishermen are issued permits for Cook Inlet in general, and though they were more widely distributed across the west side, east side and Kalgin Island before the 1980s, they began migrating to the east side because of the accessibility of the fishery and the proximity of processing facilities in Kenai, Kasilof and Ninilchik. Fate Putnam, the chair of the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, told the Senate Resources committee that the days of the East Side fishery being highly profitable are gone, though. “I will say this: There was a time about 20 years ago that these fishermen were making about $100,000 (per permit),” he said. “Now they’re making about $11,000.” However, the Senate Resources committee members expressed some hesitation about forwarding the bill on. Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, who sits on the committee, proposed an amendment requiring anyone participating in the buyback to have held the permit for at least 10 years and have fished actively at least five of those years. Her goal was to prevent speculation or system-gaming, she said. Micciche said the amendment could effectively kill the program, as many of the fishermen who want to participate have held their permits for less than 10 years. Permits are swapped every year in fisheries; according to information provided by Putnam to the Legislature, an average of 58 setnet permits in Cook Inlet in general are transferred each year. The ratio of permits being transferred is similar to other fisheries and hasn’t changed much over the years, suggesting that there isn’t much speculation going on about the buyback, Putnam wrote in a memo to the Senate Resources Committee. Speculation may happen, but that’s normal in fisheries, Micciche told the committee. “People speculate on fishing permits. That’s what they do,” he said. “We don’t care which permits they are — we just want 200 out. And if you don’t pass the vote, you don’t get the buyback and you don’t get the extra fish in the rivers.” During an April 29 hearing, the Senate Resources Committee moved SB 90 out of committee after amending it to require anyone participating in the buyback to have held the permit for at least four years and have fished for two of those years. The new amendment, proposed by Giessel, was intended to be a middle ground to prevent speculation but to still allow the program to continue. Micciche said the adjustment better served the intention to prevent speculation, and the committee passed the amendment and the bill without objection. Ken Coleman, who fishes a setnet site near the Kenai River and is one of the proponents of the buyback program through the East Side Consolidation Association, said he hopes to see the bill climb through the Legislature this year, but it still has a long way to go through even the Senate before it goes to the House. Several committee members expressed concern about funding, and though Micciche said the fishermen have no intention to seek state funding, they need a program established by a bill first before they can apply for funding elsewhere. Konrad Jackson, Micciche’s chief of staff, said he plans to keep working to get the bill heard, but with less than three weeks left before the Legislature’s 121st day and major budget items still to be debated, it’s unlikely the bill will make it far this year. Coleman said they may be able to seek federal funding, even though the fishery is not in federal waters. “I’ve had several talks with the federal delegation about funding, and also had talks with (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) about their capacity reduction program,” he said. “To the extent we can seek funding, we have to have a work product. I’ve been in discussion with the federal delegation, and they’re amenable to seeking funding, but we need a bill.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Multiple bills aim to expand telehealth services in Alaska

Medical providers may have more options for offering services digitally if the Legislature approves a set of bills targeted at expanding telehealth availability. Telehealth includes a variety of services delivered by the provider communicating digitally with a patient or transmitting data such as imaging scans. In a state like Alaska, where much of the population is spread thin and medical providers are concentrated in urban areas, telehealth has the potential to connect those who live in rural areas or without reliable or affordable transportation to regular medical care. When the Legislature reformed the Medicaid program in 2016, one provision required the state Medical Board to create regulations for physicians to diagnose, prescribe and administer prescriptions without conducting a physical examination on a patient. That allowed doctors to begin offering a broader array of services. In the intervening years, a number of telehealth services have popped up in the state and some insurers, including Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield, offer coverage for telehealth services for members in Alaska. A suite of bills in the Legislature would expand telehealth services further. House Bill 29, sponsored by Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, would allow providers to bill state-regulated insurers for health care services delivered by telehealth without an initial in-person appointment. HB 97 and its companion legislation Senate Bill 44 would allow physician assistants to deliver telehealth services under the same statutory regulation as physicians. None of the bills have received much opposition, and providers and insurers have come out in support. Telehealth is billed as a way to improve access to care and potentially decrease costs by delivering them more effectively and through preventative care visits. “We need to look at the overall cost of health,” said Division of Insurance Director Lori Wing-Heier in a House Labor and Commerce Committee hearing on April 24. “We need to look at ways to reduce the cost of health care while expanding access … This is an excellent way to do that.” Spohnholz told the House Labor and Commerce Committee that the bill allows for reimbursement to any provider who delivers services via telehealth, not just telehealth-specific companies. Teladoc, a New York-based telemedicine company, already offers services in Alaska and supports the bill. The company contracts with Premera and the AlaskaCare Employee Health Plan, which covers State of Alaska employees, among other health plans. Claudia Tucker, the vice president of government affairs for Teladoc, told the committee in an April 29 hearing that telemedicine services saved Alaskans $3.5 million in health care costs in 2018. One of the concerns committee members had is where the doctors who are answering the calls are located. Tucker said while the company has a preference in the state for doctors who live in Alaska, they aren’t always available. “About 30 percent of (Alaska-based) calls were answered by physicians who lived in Alaska,” she said. “All of them are answered by physicians licensed in Alaska.” Robin Minard, the chief communications officer for the Mat-Su Health Foundation, said two of the major barriers to care identified in the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center’s Community Health Needs Assessment are lack of access to care and transportation. Expanded telehealth options would help address both, she said. The Alaska Commission on Aging also noted this in a letter of support. Medicare does not currently allow for telehealth visits to be reimbursed, but an expanded program from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services called Medicare Advantage would allow telehealth services delivered in a recipient’s home to be reimbursable, commission chair Gordon Glaser and executive director Denise Daniello wrote in the letter. “Medicare Advantage is not yet available in Alaska, however, there has been growing interest in exploring managed care plans as a means to control costs in our State,” they wrote. “The Commission on Aging will be following these developments.” HB 97, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, and SB 44, sponsored by Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, both seek to include physician assistants in the regulations on telehealth delivery. The intent of the original revision to Medicaid was to include them, but the state Medical Board wanted specific mention of physician assistants, according to a letter to Giessel from board President Catherine Hyndman. Most of Interior Alaska is considered a medically underserved area with a health professional shortage, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. Physician assistants are allowed to prescribe schedule 2 to 5 substances and be supervised by a doctor in order to practice medicine. The House Labor and Commerce Committee passed HB 29 out of committee but was waiting for amendments on HB 97, which were due May 2. The Senate Finance Committee passed SB 44 out of committee on April 15. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Reps apologize after last-minute charges sink Johnstone nomination

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a list of names provided to the governor by the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association for the Marijuana Control Board. Last Wednesday night was a strange one for the Legislature. In a joint session of the House and Senate on April 17, the members confirmed most of Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s nominees for state boards and commissions and all of his cabinet appointments. Seven appointees were not confirmed, though, with one not being voted on and six being rejected. Although some were rejected based on their resumes, last-minute accusations of sexual harassment against one blew up the confirmation process. Karl Johnstone, one of Dunleavy’s four nominees to the Board of Fisheries, was voted down 24-33 late that night. Earlier in the day, Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, surprised the members of the Legislature when she said during her comments that she had received texts from two women alleging sexually harassing behavior from Johnstone during his previous service on the board. The allegations were not mentioned during multiple previous confirmation hearings, when hundreds of people testified for and against Johnstone based on his past service with the board. After Spohnholz’s comments, the Legislature voted narrowly to table Johnstone’s nomination but brought it up again later that night, at which point he was voted down. The allegations were a surprise to many in the room, and Spohnholz did not identify the two people who put them forward, nor were they identified later. No formal investigation was conducted into the allegations, and Johnstone did not have the opportunity to make comments on the record about any allegations. Andy Hall, the president of setnetting group the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association and a setnet fisherman, wrote public testimony to the Legislature opposing Johnstone’s nomination but said he was surprised by the process of the vote. “It would’ve been cleaner if it was a vote based on the testimony provided to the Legislature about him,” he said. “That last incident may or may not have changed things. I don’t know.” Hall and many others who testified to the Legislature against Johnstone offered anecdotes about intimidating behavior, both toward members of the public and toward Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff. Commercial fishermen opposed Johnstone primarily because of a record of voting for sportfishing interests and his public commentary about the need to prioritize sportfishing and personal use fisheries over commercial fisheries, particularly in Cook Inlet. The United Fishermen of Alaska, which does not usually oppose or endorse Board of Fisheries candidates, made a point to oppose Johnstone’s nomination because of his record. The UFA did not have any connection to the allegations of sexual harassment that arose, wrote Executive Director Frances Leach in an email. “We feel it was unfortunate timing that these allegations came out on the floor right before the vote as Mr. Johnstone was not provided time to respond,” she wrote. However, according to UFA’s tracking, it didn’t change the ultimate outcome. Political organizations regularly keep track of how legislators have said they would vote in a record called a chit sheet, and UFA’s chit sheets made before the joint session showed that Johnstone would have been defeated anyway, Leach added. In a statement to KTVA, Johnstone wrote that, “I believe that legitimate claims should be taken seriously and investigated. But let me be clear, I never made inappropriate sexual comments as stated by Rep. (Spohnholz) … I have thick skin and can take the hits, but it stings to know my four daughters have been hurt by this. My appointment to the Board of Fisheries is no longer at stake. My hope is that the truth comes out because the only thing at stake now is my reputation. All Alaskans should be concerned that the truth comes out. What happened to me can happen to anyone.” The vote left a bad taste in some mouths, even among those who did not vote for Johnstone. Reps. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, and Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, issued a joint apology to Johnstone and another appointee, Bob Griffin, for what they said was inappropriate behavior from the Legislature impugning nominees’ characters without giving them a chance to respond. Both Vance and Carpenter hail from the Kenai Peninsula, which is rife with fisheries conflict but home to most of Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen, who heavily opposed Johnstone’s nomination. Both are members of the House minority. House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, and Spohnholz did not return calls for comment. “Neither Rep. Carpenter nor I voted to confirm Mr. Johnstone to the Board of Fish, but our decisions had nothing to do with the unfair accusations levied against him on the floor,” Vance said in a statement. “To wildly throw out such offensive accusations with a clear intent to derail someone’s nomination is a sick political stunt, and I hope Mr. Johnstone and Mr. Griffin will accept our apologies on behalf of the body.” Stiver shot down for Marijuana Board In a cleaner, but narrower, vote, the Legislature also turned down the nomination of Vivian Stiver of Fairbanks to fill a seat on the Marijuana Control Board. Members of the cannabis industry heavily campaigned against her based on her past participation in a campaign to ban commercial marijuana activity in Fairbanks and her lack of background in the industry. She was to replace Brandon Emmett, also of Fairbanks, who had represented industry on the board since its inception in 2015. The Legislature did confirm Dunleavy’s second appointment to the board, Alaska Wildlife Trooper Lt. Christopher Jaime of Soldotna. Stiver was turned down in a 29-30 vote, one shy of what she needed for a majority. Carey Carrigan, the executive director of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, said the members of the industry were relieved at the vote and that “common sense prevailed.” “We’re not trying to oppose people to oppose them,” he said. “(For) that second seat that everyone’s considering a public seat, I’d like to see two seats for industry on the board. To have two seats on the board representing industry on the board is not unreasonable.” The industry group has assembled a group of suggested individuals for appointment to submit to Dunleavy’s administration, Carrigan said, aiming for a person with industry background and knowledge, he said. That list, submitted Wednesday, includes Bruce Schulte of Anchorage, Joseph Martin of Anchorage, Rebecca Rein of Houston, Michael White of Anchorage and Gary Evans of Fairbanks. Schulte served on the board from 2015–2016, including as chairman, until former governor Bill Walker dismissed him. “I don’t know if there’s going to be any desire to accept our assistance,” he said. “I hope there is.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

State hopes to launch industrial hemp program by fall

Though the state legalized a pilot project for industrial hemp agriculture more than a year ago, some hurdles still stand between farmers and authorized grows. Hemp and marijuana both come from the same plant, but the variety that produces hemp is significantly lower in the psychoactive component, THC. Hemp can be used in a variety of products, from textiles to cosmetics to animal feed. One of its most widely known uses is in the dietary and medicinal supplement cannabidiol, or CBD. Former Gov. Bill Walker signed Senate Bill 6 into law in April 2018, authorizing the state to move forward with developing a pilot project for industrial hemp growers. The program is authorized under the 2014 federal farm bill, which essentially allowed states to take the helm on developing these projects if they chose to without fear of federal raids. For the past year, the Alaska Division of Agriculture and the Alaska Department of Law have been working together to hatch both a plan and regulations for that plan to allow farmers to start their own hemp grows. Officials say they hope to get the program rolled out this fall. David Schade, the acting director of the Division of Agriculture, told the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee in a hearing April 18 that the division aims to have a regulation package out for public review by May 15. “Everybody is working really hard to get this along because we’re very well aware of the high level of interest in this project,” he said. “That is a really optimistic timeline but it’s one we’re going to do our best to push forward to meet.” Like marijuana, industrial hemp is complicated to regulate because it has been illegal at the federal level for decades. Unlike marijuana, though, the federal government delisted hemp as a Schedule 1 substance in the 2018 farm bill, defining hemp as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration (THC) of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.” The farm bill provided no effective date for the delisting, but based on research, the Drug Enforcement Agency is no longer enforcing Schedule 1 regulations against hemp products, said Joan Wilson, the assistant attorney general with the Department of Law who is working with the Division of Agriculture on the hemp program. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed that any parts of the marijuana plant that have that concentration level will be defined as hemp and will not fall under the DEA’s purview. For now, people can’t grow hemp in their backyards the way they can under the state’s recreational cannabis rules. It will still have to be authorized through the pilot program, said Rob Carter, the manager of the state’s Plant Materials Center. As the Division of Agriculture works on the regulations for permits. the Plant Materials Center is working on growing its own cycle of hemp for research and testing purposes at the facility in Palmer. “Without the regulations in place and absent the opportunity to register, producing or marketing industrial hemp … is still illegal,” he said during the House Community and Regional Affairs hearing. “It is to be noted that industrial hemp seeds are much harder to come by than one would expect and at a great cost.” There’s a lot of interest among potential growers, Carter said; he estimated that more than 1,000 people had told him they were interested in growing industrial hemp. Optimistically, they would be able to apply and start growing in indoor facilities in the fall, he said. However, that depends on the state’s ability to get the regulation package approved, which will take about six months if everything goes smoothly, Schade said. There are a number of roadblocks to that. For one, Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s proposed fiscal year 2020 budget cuts most of the Division of Agriculture’s existing budget, though neither the Senate nor House proposed budgets include his initial cuts. But one missing item so far is the receipt authority the division estimates it will need to adequately regulate an industrial hemp program. Schade explained that the intent of SB 6 was for the hemp industry to pay its own way, but the division needs the receipt authority from the Legislature for the fees from the industry. Right now, the division estimates the needed authority at $500,000. Rep. Harriet Drummond, who co-chairs the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee, said she would be willing to introduce a bill to grant the division that receipt authority. “Otherwise it sounds like you’d have to come to a screeching halt waiting for receipt authority,” she said. The regulations package also needs to clarify exact laws on hemp, Wilson said. That’s part of what the Department of Law is working on. “Technically we could be requiring registration from any individual who goes to Natural Pantry and buys CBD oil,” she said. “I don’t believe that was (the Legislature’s) intent.” CBD oil has boomed in popularity nationally, including in Alaska. Because industrial hemp is not being grown in Alaska, the oil is being moved across state lines, which is technically a violation of the federal interstate commerce laws. In February 2017, the state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office raided a number of retailers and seized CBD oil under a 2017 law defining CBD as a marijuana product. The 2018 Farm Bill changed that definition as long as CBD retains a low enough THC concentration, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration retains authority to regulate it under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Under that law, introducing into interstate commerce food products to which CBD or THC have been added is illegal. Schade noted that despite its questionably legal status, it’s easy to find CBD products marketed around Alaska. “That creates a lot of angst for those of us who have to regulate this potential industry,” he said. “The issue is under the FDA guidelines this is still illegal for interstate commerce, and yet we see these products out there for both animal and human consumption. We are taking this very seriously.” Several aspiring industrial hemp growers also testified to the committee during the April 18 hearing. Shawn McDonough, who said he purchased several properties on the lower Kenai Peninsula with the express intent to grow hemp. Beyond just the CBD use, he said he’d seen uses for hemp in bioplastics and clothing, though he said he intends to use his grow for CBD extraction. “It seemed like things were moving forward and then we kind of had the rug pulled out from under us and things kind of came to a standstill in recent months in the industry,” he told the committee. “We’d love to see things get back on track.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Copper River opener to kick off salmon season in week of May 12

Every spring, Alaska commercial fishermen hold their breaths before taking the plunge of salmon season and the unpredictability of what the runs will bring. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game does its best to forecast what fishermen might expect, but as it’s a prediction, fishermen have to take it with a grain of salt. This year, ADFG is forecasting fairly average sockeye salmon runs, even in Bristol Bay. However, pink salmon and chum runs may help make up for some of the lackluster sockeye runs and still-struggling king salmon runs across the state. Prince William Sound, traditionally the first salmon fishery to hit the markets, is expected to open the week of May 12 in the Copper River and Bering River districts, with the subsequent areas opening in June. The sockeye salmon are the most famous fish from the Copper River fishery, but the kings kick off the season with the annual airplane ceremonies in Anchorage and Seattle for the first king deliveries. The forecast for a return 55,000 Copper River kings is about 20 percent above the recent 10-year average run of 46,000 fish, according to the Prince William Sound 2019 forecast. The forecast for sockeye salmon in the Copper, which is regarded as the most accurate forecast in the region, is about 1.4 million wild fish and 98,000 hatchery fish, about 31 percent and 69 percent below the recent 10-year averages respectively. But ADFG warns caution there as well; last year, the summer brought about 1 million fewer fish than the forecast predicted and there were just a handful of openings for kings. “This forecast is uncertain and should be interpreted with caution as poor runs of many Gulf of Alaska sockeye salmon stocks in 2018 suggest there is considerable likelihood of over-forecasting in 2019,” the forecast states. Pink salmon may be a bright spot as the summer moves along for Prince William Sound, though. ADFG’s forecast projects about 23.5 million wild-run pink salmon to come back, largely based on good escapements in 2015 and 2017. That’s on top of an estimated 22.3 million pinks estimated to return to Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association facilities and an estimated 20.1 million to return to the Valdez Fisheries Development Association’s Solomon Gulch Hatchery. Pink salmon runs have been unreliable in recent seasons, though. The 2018 season was disappointing for salmon fishermen all over the Gulf of Alaska. Pink salmon catches were dismal and sockeye runs were late, if they appeared at all. The 2016 pink salmon season was disastrously poor for Gulf of Alaska fishermen as well, with the federal government appropriating disaster funds to help make up for some of the loss. Fisheries scientists have drawn possible connections between the poor pink salmon returns and persistent warm water conditions in the Gulf of Alaska through 2015 and 2016. Bristol Bay benefited from some of that downturn in sockeye salmon, though. While the rest of the Gulf of Alaska struggled to meet escapement goals and still allow for commercial fishing, Bristol Bay fishermen and processors could barely keep up with record-breaking sockeye salmon runs last year. Things might return to a little more normal this year, though. The 2019 projected total run of 40.18 million would allow for a commercial harvest of about 26.1 million to 27.6 million in Bristol Bay fisheries, according to Fish and Game’s forecast. For comparison, the total run in 2019 would be smaller than just the harvest in 2018; commercial fishermen hauled in 41.3 million sockeye in 2018, with a total estimated run of 62.3 million sockeye to all river systems. The dearth in sockeye elsewhere helped keep prices higher for Bristol Bay fishermen, who caught all those sockeye and were able to sell them for an average ex-vessel price of about $1.26 per pound, according to Fish and Game. “2018 prices were strong, Bristol Bay processors and fishermen were able to move a lot of product at a pretty high price,” said McDowell Group seafood economist Garrett Evridge. “Part of that high price came from weakness in other areas of the state, so that’s a factor. In terms of the 2019 price, the market appears to be pretty stable when you consider the level of inventory. We haven’t heard too many reports of significant existing inventory out there.” Salmon prices fluctuate wildly in-season, with prices typically starting higher early in the season and moving down as more fish hit the market. Before the season begins, processors work on contracts both domestically and internationally, and though ADFG clearly states that salmon forecasts are subject to change, they do affect markets and prices, Evridge said. “The bottom line is these forecasts can be off significantly and sometimes they’re right,” he said. “We should recognize that these are forecasts … Those Fish and Game forecasts are talked about at the highest level of negotiations and they do impact expectations.” Forecasts aren’t the only thing that impact prices. Internationally, farmed salmon production can also affect how consumers demand and purchase fish. Producers like Norway and Chile have not increased production dramatically in the last few years and struggle with pests like sea lice, but other countries are working on expanding their industries. Iceland, for example, has been taking steps to expand its aquaculture industry dramatically over the next decade. Evridge said outlook over the long term is for farmed salmon production to increase as high prices attract investment into aquatic farming. Trade conflicts between the U.S. and China and talk of new tariffs in the European Union on American seafood due to a trade dispute may also affect prices, though nothing is solidified. The issue with forecasting prices is that many factors affect them, and the bottom line is that it’s never a clear projection, Evridge said. “It’s just unknowable,” he said. “But I can say that in recent years we have seen strong prices basically because demand has been strong and demand has been stable. You have the industry that’s marketing and you have ASMI that’s investing significant time and resources into telling the story of Alaska salmon. We generally think that the Alaska name has value to the consumer. Thinking long-term, there are certainly challenges right now with salmon management, but we do have a robust, scientifically managed, sustainably harvested fishery. We are endeavoring to preserve these fisheries in perpetuity.” One bright spot this year may be an exceptionally large run of chum salmon, with a potential harvest of 29 million chums, potentially the largest in the state’s history. Last year brought huge numbers of chum salmon to Norton Sound, and this year may bring a burst of them to Southeast Alaska. Between the region’s hatcheries, an estimated 18 million chum may return. The Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association alone is forecasting almost 9 million chums to return, with just shy of 8 million available for commercial harvest. That may help make up for some of the other disappointing forecasts in Southeast. Pink salmon forecasts are weak, with only 18 million forecasted, and king salmon stocks in the Chilkat, King Salmon and Unuk rivers not even projected to meet their escapement goals. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Education health care costs a roadblock to budget reductions

As the Legislature battles over cuts in the fiscal year 2020 budget, K-12 education is set to be one of the biggest items of contention. Districts around the state are bracing for major cuts and layoffs, but working around one major cost item largely out of their control: health care benefits. School district representatives have repeatedly identified health care benefits as one of their major cost drivers for increasing significantly each year. High health care costs are a problem for all employers, but for school districts, which depend heavily on state and local funding, the cost is coming under increased scrutiny as Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy proposes cutting more than $300 million from K-12 education and municipalities wrangle with other cost shifts that could reduce their own contributions to their school districts. Health care in Alaska in general is the most expensive in the country, and thus in the world. With a limited market, remote geography and high cost of living, providers in Alaska regularly charge many times more than providers in the Lower 48. Some school districts self-fund their insurance plans, and though public education is one of the largest employers in the state, the insurance pools are still relatively small. It’s a thorny problem for school districts, said Tim Parker, president of the Alaska chapter of the National Education Association. “NEA-Alaska is a steadfast in our resolve to provide the highest quality education to every student in Alaska but health care costs continue to be one of the primary obstacles to creating an educational environment that will allow us to hire and keep the best and brightest educators in the country,” Parker wrote in an email. The cost of health care benefits is pushing down teacher salaries, making Alaska less competitive in attracting teachers to work in the state, said Dr. Dayna DeFeo, the director of the Alaska Center for Education Policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute for Social and Economic Research. In a presentation to the House Education Committee, she outlined a number of the reasons education in Alaska costs so much, one of which is health care. “Alaska has a teacher turnover problem,” she said. “It’s like a perfect storm. In the Lower 48 … we have fewer teachers coming from the system. Alaska hires most of its teachers from the Lower 48. The economy in the Lower 48 is booming, so districts are adding positions and offering more competitive salaries. Since we import most of our teachers from the Lower 48, we are competing in a national market.” Salaries for teachers in Alaska, adjusted for the cost of living, are 23 percent less than the national average. However, the cost of benefits are 11 percent greater than the average, the fourth highest in the country, she said. When school districts start with a fixed budget, the increasing cost in one sector means cuts in another part. Other driving factors include energy and the cost of staffing schools in the smallest communities. Districts have been grappling with the cost of health care for a long time. One of the pitched solutions is to create an Alaska Health Care Authority, which would pool together all state, municipal and school district employees into a single state-run health care plan in a bid to increase bargaining power to negotiate with providers for lower costs. In 2017, a feasibility study estimated that a health care authority could save the state about $200 million annually. The Legislature has not yet taken any action to establish an HCA. Rep. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage, told DeFeo during the committee meeting that he would be interested in exploring the option to move all school district employees to the state’s insurance plan, which serves state employees and the Legislature. However, some administrators of current health care pools say this would be a mistake. Rhonda Prowell-Kitter, the executive director of the Public Education Health Trust, said a state HCA would likely be more expensive than anyone anticipated because of the state’s lengthy procurement process and other legal roadblocks, and in the future could be politically swayed depending on the feelings of another governor. “This idea of pooling together for health care services doesn’t really play out,” she said. “You would see Medicaid, Medicare, Tricare being very successful (if they did). They are not sustaining the hospitals. They need commercial payers to come in and sustain them. I would prefer the state look at cost containment strategies, not pooling strategies.” The Public Education Health Trust serves school districts of various sizes in Alaska with eight different plans. Over the course of the 20 years since its founding, the trust has been able to negotiate lower costs for plan members. The average cost of health care went up about 3 percent for members last year, Prowell-Kitter said, while for others it went up 10 percent to 12 percent. That results in savings. She cited examples from Oregon and Washington, where the states have established HCAs. Both states are now debating what to do as the funding has been undershot — Washington by about $900 million. Most of the Public Education Health Trusts’ ability to reduce costs is because of the trust’s ability to move quickly, Prowell-Kitter said. “We’ve pulled together and been able to have great successes in tackling this problem,” she said. “I feel that the tactics and strategies that we’ve implemented over the last four or five year is finally bending the curve.” One major move that has helped reduce costs in the last few years and may shift the tide of health care competition in the state is the introduction of BridgeHealth, a third-party medical company that negotiates discounts for patients in elective non-emergency surgeries to fly elsewhere in the U.S. for surgeries. For Alaskans, that means flying to Seattle and staying in a hotel for a surgery and still saving money compared to having the surgery done in Alaska. Prowell-Kitter said the providers in Alaska were upset at first but now are starting to negotiate as they have to compete with prices three, four or five times lower in Seattle. BridgeHealth Alaska Region Vice President Sarah Brown said the company has been in Alaska since 2007 but significantly taken off in the last five years or so. Nationwide, the company operates in 34 states, with 50 employers and approximately 600,000 employees. The company only contracts with Centers of Excellence and provides transparent costs to members and patients, which help them foresee costs. “To encourage competition and we make it easy,” she said. “The plan sponsor doesn’t have to negotiate with the facilities themselves. We do it for them … We try to make it seamless and easy for the three individuals involved in our transactions.” Prowell-Kitter said the program saved her members $1 million alone last year. While that money is being spent out of state with other providers, it saves the cost of health care premiums going up the following year. Fred Brown, the executive director of the Pacific Health Coalition, agreed that a state HCA would likely not pan out with cost savings. In Oregon, school districts have wanted to opt out of the Oregon Health Authority but have not been allowed to, leaving them with a disadvantage to compete for teachers as that plan becomes more expensive, he said. “If you know (the Alaska state government’s) procurement process at all, it’s cumbersome,” he said. “Nimbleness is a good term describing the ability of those who are parts of smaller plans not to be bound by the restrictions that exist in the state’s procurement process but being able to seize opportunities almost immediately as they present themselves and be able to obtain substantial savings.” The Pacific Health Coalition has had a similar experience with BridgeHealth, using the program starting in 2012 and saving significantly on non-emergency surgeries for its approximately 110,000 Alaska members, which includes members beyond just public education. Greg Loudon, who consults for Pacific Health Coalition in Anchorage, cited a recent example of a negotiation the coalition made with an orthopedic surgery practice in Anchorage to reduce charges for members of the coalition’s health plans. “We’ve used BridgeHealth as almost a tool with a very sharp edge to negotiate with the local providers,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we were able to negotiate a good deal with the local orthopedic surgeons.” Fred Brown, Loudon and Prowell-Kitter all cited some existing problems in Alaska driving up health care costs — the 80th percentile rule and a perceived lack of competition among them. However, all three also said they’ve been seeing some changes in the provider market due to efforts like BridgeHealth and their collective bargaining power. School districts have begun some of their own efforts as well: the Anchorage School District opened its own health clinic in 2017; the Fairbanks North Star Borough and school district employees are pooled together in a health trust; and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District began offering BridgeHealth services to its employees in 2018. “We’re the innovators,” Prowell-Kitter said. “Don’t interfere with what’s working.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Council committee struggles with federal Cook Inlet salmon plan

Two-and-a-half years after a federal court directed the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to develop a fishery management plan for the Cook Inlet salmon fishery, there is still a lot of work to do. The commercial salmon fisheries of Alaska are primarily managed by the state, including in Cook Inlet, where part of the fishery takes place in federal waters. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council for years deferred management of the salmon fishery there to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, finally removing Cook Inlet completely from its FMP in 2012. The United Cook Inlet Drift Association and the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund sued, saying the federal government had a responsibility to manage that fishery to ensure it complies with the Magnuson-Stevens Act. In 2016, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and the council reluctantly turned back to developing a management plan. Many of the commercial fishermen there have a longstanding dissatisfaction with the Alaska Fish and Game and the Board of Fisheries, stemming from a belief that the department’s allocation decisions governed by the board are politically rather than scientifically motivated and that the escapement goals for sockeye salmon on the Kenai River are too high. They sought to exercise federal influence over state management through the lawsuit, and now are running into roadblocks on federal authority to do so. The Cook Inlet Salmon Committee, which the council convened to gather stakeholder feedback on developing the FMP, has been hung up on philosophical differences at meetings. Council staff Jim Armstrong, who serves as the plan coordinator for the Cook Inlet salmon FMP, told the council during its meeting on April 7 that there are still some major points of disagreement between the stakeholder council members, the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee and the council staff. “There’s a lot of frustration and they have perspectives on the way that these salmon fisheries should be managed and how escapement goals are set and the biological impacts of spawning stock reaching the carrying capacity, and they feel it has,” he said. “That’s the theme that has woven through my report and experience of these meetings. We’re not just going in there with an agenda and checking boxes. They’ve come in with a certain plan and we’re trying to reconcile that with what’s possible under the federal system and the council process. It’s taking some time.” One of the core tenets of the fishermen’s grievances is the belief that ADFG’s sockeye salmon escapement goals on the Kenai are too large, exceeding the carrying capacity of the system and thus reducing the overall return of fish as well as commercial harvests and therefore not delivering the required maximum sustainable yield. The committee requested a scientific analysis of how different stock-recruitment models fit the Kenai River and at what level the river could be considered overcompensated — essentially, how many sockeye salmon it would take for the stock to begin crashing rather than producing more fish. Dr. Curry Cunningham of the Fisheries, Aquatic Science and Technology Laboratory at Alaska Pacific University developed the analysis. The Kenai River is the largest sockeye salmon-producing system in Cook Inlet, replete with large lakes and gravel bottoms for sockeye spawning and rearing. Cunningham’s results concluded that an escapement of between 1.03 and 1.78 million sockeye would achieve a maximum sustainable yield of 2.97 million to 3.55 million sockeye on the Kenai River. After looking at multiple models, he found that the model that best fit the data from the river — called a Beverton-Holt relationship — offered limited support for overcompensation in the river. “Given that a Beverton-Holt function does not provide for overcompensation, this indicates limited evidence for the overcompensation hypothesis with respect to the Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon stock,” he wrote. This is not necessarily the same case for the Kasilof River, a separate but nearby stock. Upper Cook Inlet fishermen harvest both stocks of sockeye, and while the Kasilof River produces fewer sockeye, it is important to the commercial fishery and sustains a sportfishery of its own. Fitting a model to the data on the Kasilof, Cunningham wrote that the model does not confirm that the Kasilof is overcompensating, but that it can’t be rejected. His results suggested a maximum sustained yield of 629,000 sockeye for an escapement of 235,000 on the Kasilof. Cunningham’s findings about the Kenai River generally agree with ADFG’s calculations about escapement on the river. In a memo released March 26 detailing proposed escapement goal changes for Upper Cook Inlet, department staff indicated that results based on the traditional Ricker model indicate that the current escapement goal is too low and recommended raising the goal by 50,000 sockeye on the lower end and by 1 million on the upper end. Fish and Game noted that the data the department has doesn’t conclude anything about overcompensation but noted that escapements after 1979 are more consistent than those between 1968 and 1978, and so excluded the earlier years in model estimations. Using data from years 1979 to 2012, a goal that would produce 90 percent of maximum sustainable yield would be between 774,000 and 1.7 million sockeye, according to the escapement goal memo. The committee members have repeatedly said they wanted the federal government to influence the state’s escapement goal development, Armstrong said. “This was framed as a fundamental question, as in if this can’t happen, what’s the point of this whole exercise?” he said. “That’s not a committee statement, that’s just a flavor (of the discussion).” The state has jurisdiction over inland waters and out to three nautical miles from shore. The court decision doesn’t give the federal fisheries managers rights to manage inside the state waters, nor does it allow them to overrule state management of fish in those waters. That is another fundamental disagreement between the stakeholders and the council, Armstrong said; some members of the committee believe the federal government should extend its management into the freshwater salmon habitat. Some council members expressed frustration at the delay in the work so far. Council member Bill Tweit of Washington noted in his comments that the council has specific rules under federal law. “I think the more time the committee spends debating those kinds of issues, the longer this process is going to take and the longer it’s going to take to actually develop an FMP,” he said. “If the committee members want a salmon FMP, they’d be well advised to play within the boundaries of the ballfield that is the Magnuson-Stevens Act. None of us get to play outside those boundaries.” Committee member Hannah Heimbuch, who commercially fishes in Cook Inlet, told the council that there is still significant confusion among stakeholders about the council process, as the state management process is more familiar to them. “Some are fairly hopeless and think federal management is the only way to manage the fishery,” Heimbuch said. “Some are understandably frustrated that we even went down this road. And some are very confused … That all with a 40-year low harvest (of salmon in 2018). I think understandably there is a lot of emotion and tension. For me that meant selling my boat last week and leasing this year. “To the extent that the council would be able to do any community outreach that communicates that beyond the scope of the committee, I think that would be helpful.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Battle brews over return of Johnstone to Board of Fisheries

Unsurprisingly, there is likely to be a tense vote in the Legislature over at least one of Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s appointments to the Board of Fisheries. A pair of resignations from the board added with the end of member terms give Dunleavy a chance to select a majority of the board’s seven seats with four up for confirmation. One — Marit Carlson-Van Dort of Juneau — drew some raised eyebrows because of past work with the Pebble Limited Partnership, and another — Karl Johnstone of Anchorage — sparked a fiery opposition from commercial fishermen and vocal support from sportfishermen. The other two, Israel Payton of Wasilla and Gerad Godfrey of Kodiak, drew little to no controversy. The members of the Board of Fisheries serve three-year terms and determine fishing allocation and opportunity in the state. The appointments are always controversial, with the governor selecting candidates and the Legislature interviewing them intensively before either confirming or rejecting them. While there are no dedicated seats on the board for either region or user group, stakeholders keep track of where members’ experience and interests lie and calculate the balance of the perspectives. This time, the commercial sector loudly objected to the governor’s appointments, saying the balance would heavily tip toward sportfishery interests. Bob Penney of Kenai, who has spent decades fighting for sport priority over commercial in Cook Inlet, was a major financial supporter of Dunleavy during the 2018 election. Johnstone, a retired Superior Court judge and a friend of Penney’s since the 1970s, was the main flashpoint of the group of appointments. Following seven years of serving on the board, he resigned in 2015 after then-Gov. Bill Walker told him he would not be reappointed after former House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, objected to how Johnstone handled the board’s interview process for candidates for commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Johnstone told the Senate Resources Committee in a hearing on April 10 that he was interested in taking up Board of Fisheries service again because he’s been keeping up with fisheries issues and he finds the work rewarding. “There’s an enormous amount of work involved if you do it right, and an enormous amount of time spent … I choose to consider the rewarding part of it, and that’s why I reapplied,” he told the committee. “I have the time and the energy and the desire to continue this work.” Johnstone comes with a heavy wake of controversy. During past service, records from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game showed that the department spent more money on lodging for Johnstone than any other member during board meetings in Anchorage, despite that Johnstone has a home in Anchorage. He maintains a home in Prescott, Ariz., and frequently travels out of state, though he told the Senate Resources Committee that he spends “much more time in Anchorage than I do elsewhere.” In 2000, he was publicly reprimanded by the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct for violating the legal parameters of hiring a coroner and was once recommended for nonretention by the Alaska Judicial Council in 1988 for being unqualified, ranking low in integrity, judicial temperament and overall performance. Within the fisheries world, he’s a polarizing character. Sportfishing advocates testified to the committee that he maintained a professional demeanor and always came prepared to meetings, running them fairly for the four years when he served as the chairman. On the other end of the spectrum, commercial fishermen ardently oppose his nomination because they say he is irreversibly biased in favor of the sportfishing industry and say that he created a hostile atmosphere at board meetings. A joint House Fisheries and Resources committee meeting April 15 attracted more than 100 commenters and ran for nearly four hours, with testifiers on both sides. The Senate Resources Committee meeting on April 10 similarly attracted a large number of testifiers on both sides, though the majority opposed Johnstone. The United Fishermen of Alaska, an organization representing 37 commercial fishing groups in the state, doesn’t usually endorse or oppose Board of Fisheries candidates because of the potential for repercussions if the person they opposed is confirmed anyway. In written comments to the committee, UFA noted it hadn’t opposed a board member nominee since 2006. Executive Director Frances Leach told the Senate Resources Committee that Johnstone’s record shows that he is aware of fisheries regulation processes through the board but has disregarded them. “We understand the risk that we are taking in opposing someone such as Mr. Johnstone because we understand there are repercussions that could cause us harm,” she said. “His blatant bias against commercial fishermen was illustrated heavily throughout meetings.” Commercial set gillnet fishermen on Cook Inlet’s east side have a particular axe to grind with him. As chairman, he oversaw an Upper Cook Inlet meeting in 2014 in which a board-generated proposal was introduced to set significant restrictions on setnetters paired to restrictions on the Kenai River king salmon sportfishery, which commercial fishermen saw as a violation of the public process because the proposal was introduced, deliberated and passed without public input during committees or public comment. A number of Kenai Peninsula setnetters testified against his reappointment to the board, with a number saying he used his position to belittle Alaska Department of Fish and Game scientists and members of the public. “My experienced with Judge Johnstone has been anything but fair and balanced,” said Ken Coleman, a Kenai-area setnetter. Though he’s been absent from the Board of Fisheries since 2015, Johnstone occasionally wrote in opinion pieces to Alaska newspapers focusing on fisheries. Some highlighted a belief that personal-use and sportfisheries needed to take precedence over commercial fisheries and referring to commercial fishing in the state as “the aged and fading sibling.” Sportfishing supporters wrote in and testified in support of all the candidates Dunleavy appointment, but particularly for Johnstone. The Kenai River Sportfishing Association hosted a letter-generating form on its website, producing a large volume of form letters from individuals, and other organizations noted that the Legislature awarded Johnstone a citation for his service on the Board of Fisheries in 2015. “We much appreciate that Chairman Johnstone prioritized managing for the sustainability of our fisheries resource first and foremost as well as his efforts to provide reasonable harvest opportunities for all user groups, particularly Alaska residents, most of whom do not own commercial fishing permits,” wrote Martin Meigs, the chairman of the Alaska Sport Fishing Association, in his public comment to the House Fisheries Committee. “People as experienced if (sic) fisheries and as dedicated and competent as Karl Johnstone are few and far between!” During the hearings, a number of legislators showed skepticism about Johnstone, in part because of concerns about how much time he spends in Alaska. Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, asked if Johnstone would release his 2019 Permanent Fund Dividend application — which details how many days a person spends out of state as a qualifier to receive the dividend — as a way of quelling public debate about whether he primarily lives in Alaska or Arizona. Johnstone, who said he was calling into the hearing from Arizona, said he did not have an objection but wondered “why you want it.” Applicants for the PFD who are gone from the state for more than 90 days must document their absences and must reside in the state for at least 185 days per year. According to Permanent Fund Dividend Division records, Johnstone did not apply for the PFD from 2002 to 2009, did apply for it while on the board from 2010 to 2015 and did not apply for it in 2016 and 2017 before applying for it once again in 2018. “By all standards, I’m a resident,” he said. “I do spend time outside Alaska. My interest in the winter at my age has waned a little bit, although I still enjoy it once in a while. I do travel quite a bit. I also travel to other states and countries in the winter … From every point of view I can think of, I’m a resident.” Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, who chairs the House Fisheries Committee, passed the gavel at the end of the April 15 meeting to explain why she would vote against Johnstone in the joint House and Senate confirmation hearing. Saying she was “morally and ethically compelled” to oppose him, she added that she understood the governor would not appoint a commercial fishing representative to the seat but wanted to at least see an appointment from outside the Anchorage area. “I firmly believe that Mr. Johnstone’s reputation and history of biases show that he is not the right person for this board,” she said. A few commenters said they opposed Carlson-Van Dort because of her work with Pebble, though others supported her because of her background in environmental science and familiar with fisheries. Payton, who currently serves on the board, attracted a number of supportive comments from both sport and commercial interests. The committees forwarded the names to a joint hearing for consideration. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

State Labor Dept. teamed with Apple for coding skills workshops

The state government is trying to give Alaskans a leg up into tech industry work — specifically, coding. Coding describes a broad array of jobs, ranging from back-end web development to network engineering. Though coders are generally thought of in the context of technology companies like Apple or Microsoft, many industries now have jobs for people with coding skill sets. In March, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development hosted a set of workshops in Wasilla, Juneau and Anchorage titled “Every Alaskan Can Code” to introduce anyone to the basics. One of the things they learned was how accessible coding can be, said Department of Labor Deputy Commissioner Cathy Muñoz. “When you think of coding you think of a skill that’s complicated,” she said. “What we saw is that coding is accessible and that … coding affects all aspects of the economy. That was one of the main takeaways of this workshop—anybody can code.” The three workshops were co-hosted by Apple, which provide the personnel, Muñoz said. The Department of Labor approached multiple technology companies in search of a partnership to open up coding opportunities, and Apple showed “the most enthusiasm,” she said. Each workshop attracted around 40 to 50 people, with the largest turnout in Wasilla. The department intentionally scheduled them during spring break in Alaska’s school districts in an attempt to attract young people, but participants of all ages came, Muñoz said. Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy touted the workshops during his recent budget roadshow as an opportunity for economic growth. “Computer coding will help to diversify our economy and provide good-paying jobs for Alaskans anywhere there is an Internet connection,” Dunleavy said in a recorded video. While Alaska is not home to any major tech firms, proponents hope to attract employees who work remotely to live in the state while providing services elsewhere. That’s already the case in some of Alaska’s cities, like Juneau, where a number of remote workers share an office space downtown while working on their own various projects. Called Juneau Coworking, the space is an iteration of a well-established trend in the Lower 48 for online and remote workers who want to share a space with other professionals instead of working from home. Conroy Whitney, one of the founders of Juneau Coworking, said that was his own interest when he started the organization in Juneau. A remote technology worker himself, he relocated to the state in 2016 and spent a winter working alone at home near Talkeetna before trying out a coworking office space in Anchorage called The Boardroom. “I got plugged into the startup and entrepreneurship community,” he said in an email. “And most importantly, I was insanely productive! My freelancing career took off! That black and white contrast between that first winter working from home, and the subsequent summer working out of a coworking space, was what convinced me that coworking is really a game-changer.” After relocating to Juneau because of its geography, outdoor recreation opportunities and high-speed fiber internet connection, he worked on starting a similar coworking space in Juneau. April 5 marked Juneau Coworking’s six-month anniversary, with about 100 people coming to use the space from intermittently to regularly during that time. Though many of them are remote tech workers like Whitney, others are life or health coaches, he said. He noted that remote tech workers import paychecks to the state from elsewhere, as opposed to local jobs that circulate paychecks. “If I work with people in LA, Austin, and NYC, I’m exporting my time and experience, and taking money from those huge hubs and spending it at my local grocery store, restaurants, and theatre,” he said. “The fact that Alaska is naturally so spread out only works to our advantage: the same skills we use to communicate intrastate can be used to communicate globally.” Opportunity in remote areas is a huge issue for Alaska. Many Alaskans are spread out over a vast geographic region off the road system, with few local economic opportunities besides resource extraction, commercial fishing or government jobs. Muñoz said providing opportunity in rural Alaska is a major motivation for the Department of Labor’s coding trainings. Tech companies often end up turning to hiring foreign workers for positions that require coding experience because of the lack of the same skill sets and levels in the U.S. The Department of Labor wants to seize that opportunity, she said. “We see this as an opportunity to engage the public in a range of flexible work opportunities that can be done anywhere there is a high-speed internet,” she said. “There’s just a huge opportunity in this country.” High-speed internet is an issue for many areas of Alaska, as are energy costs. The places where high-speed internet is available and the cost of energy is lower tend to be the urbanized areas, such as Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley, Juneau and the Kenai Peninsula. However, GCI has been building out internet infrastructure across Western Alaska as part of its TERRA network since 2011, and a new fiber optic cable system laid along the coast of the North Slope promises high-speed internet to communities from Nome to Prudhoe Bay. Muñoz added that the Department of Labor is feeling out interest among technology companies to host two-week coding academies in the future, and advised Alaskans to watch out for announcements of further opportunities in more communities. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Senators push for personal-use priority after board turned it down

Four senators have introduced a bill to set an allocation priority for personal-use fisheries in the state during emergency restrictions or closures. Senate Bill 99, introduced by Sens. Shelly Hughes, R-Palmer, David Wilson, R-Wasilla, Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, and Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, amends the statutes governing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to require the Board of Fisheries to “place restrictions on all other fisheries before restricting personal use fisheries” when the department has enacted restrictions to meet a management goal. There are personal-use fisheries all over the state, ranging from spearfishing for whitefish in the Chatanika River to tanner crab fishing in Homer. The main sources of conflict, though, are the popular personal-use dipnet fisheries in Southcentral Alaska for salmon. Alaskans fished more than 20,000 angler days in the Kenai River dipnet fishery alone in 2018. Only Alaska residents qualify for the fisheries. SB 99, introduced March 25, is similar to a proposal struck down by the Board of Fisheries less than two weeks before. The group of senators had been working on the bill for some time before the board took up the proposal at its statewide meeting, but waited to introduce it until after the board members decided, Kawasaki said. Kawasaki said he’s been working on the issue of setting a priority for personal-use fisheries for several years, beginning when he served in the House of Representatives. “I was personally waiting for some kind of action by the board,” he said. “We waited for the board to turn down the proposal (before introducing it).” Despite living far inland, many Fairbanks residents drive the 6 to 7 hours south to fish at the Chitina personal-use fishery for sockeye on the Copper River. It’s a tradition for Kawasaki’s family, too, he said. But the unpredictability of fish availability and possible closures, makes it difficult for families to plan for that trip. If passed, the bill would not mandate fishery regulation, but would require that ADFG close personal-use fisheries last during times of conservative management. The board turned down the proposal 2-5, with the opposing members saying they felt it was unnecessary and would tie managers’ hands. Large numbers of commercial fishermen, particularly in Cook Inlet, testified to the board that pushing up the personal-use fishery would promote conflict among user groups rather than defusing allocation fights. This isn’t the first time the Legislature has debated the topic, either. Former Sen. Bill Stoltze and Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Wasilla, introduced a bill in 2015 that would have required the department to restrict sportfisheries and commercial fisheries before personal-use fisheries. The opposition then was similar, with concerns from the commercial fishermen and processors about the impacts to their industry as the demand for personal-use fisheries grows. There is no set allocation for personal-use fisheries, nor any permit cap. The group of co-sponsors on the current iteration of the bill all represent areas with a stake in increasing personal-use fishing opportunities. Wielechowski represents part of Anchorage, where many residents drive south to either the Kenai Peninsula fisheries or Chitina to participate. Hughes and Wilson both represent the Mat-Su Valley, where many of the residents drive to the Kenai River to participate. There is a personal-use fishery at Fish Creek, but the fishery is muddy and is not open every year, and dipnetters stand a greater chance at catching their limit on the more productive Kenai River, so many choose to go south. Wilson said he had been participating in the discussions with the other senators for some time before the board proposal came up. It’s important to his constituents, the majority of whom are “regular Alaskans,” he said. “We’re talking in times of emergencies and closures,” he said. “The greater impact is done by the commercial fishery. All we’re asking for is we want a priority for (personal use) fishermen. Please take a look at the smallest group possible that’s not making a real dent on the fishery.” The sponsors include two members of the Republican-led Senate Majority and two members of the Democrat-led minority. Kawasaki said the bipartisanship showed that fishing does not necessarily adhere to the same political lines as other issues. While the board is not subject to the same political structure as the elected members of the Legislature, it’s still a politically appointed and confirmed body and notoriously rife with politics. “It’s clear the Legislature is a political body, but the Board of Fisheries is a political body as well. The appointments to the board are some of the most controversial appointments we have,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican if you like fishing and your constituents like fishing.” Wilson and Kawasaki both said they hoped the bill could move through the Legislature despite the budget taking up the majority of the Legislature’s time. Wilson said he thought it would likely be next year before it could earn approval, though Kawasaki said he hoped it could get a hearing this year. So far, it has been referred to the Senate Resources committee but has not been scheduled for a hearing. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Hilcorp delays Cook Inlet seismic work

Hilcorp will delay a planned seismic survey in Lower Cook Inlet this summer until after the peak of the summer season. The Houston-based company had planned to conduct a 3-D seismic survey in federal waters off Homer, where it holds leases on 14 federal oil and gas lease tracts. The seismic survey would have covered eight of the lease blocks, according to a survey plan the company submitted to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. However, a number of snags held up the process. The company says the delay is in part due to holdups during the lengthy partial federal government shutdown, which spanned the New Year and lasted more than a month. Hilcorp also says it will delay its planned work until after the height of the fishing and tourist season. Those two industries are primary drivers of the economy in Homer and the surrounding area. Homer attracts tourists from all over the world each summer, many of whom come to fish for the region’s famously abundant Pacific halibut. A large commercial fleet based in Homer and the surrounding communities also fishes for halibut between March and November and for Pacific salmon during the summer season. Hilcorp external affairs manager Lori Nelson did not give a precise date when the company plans to take up the seismic work again, but that the company understands that “the waters of Lower Cook Inlet are a shared resource.” “We are actively engaged in discussions with our contractor to delay the survey,” she said in an email. “Our commitment to keep the community’s interests and concerns at the forefront will continue as we work to revise our schedule and work plan.” Hilcorp Senior Vice President Dave Wilkins said in a January presentation that the company expects the seismic survey to take between 30–45 days and would survey about 175 square miles. Unlike the upper part of Cook Inlet, Lower Cook Inlet has seen little to no oil and gas exploration in the last few decades. When Hilcorp bought its 14 lease tracts for approximately $3.03 million in 2017, it was the first time a federal oil and gas lease sale had attracted industry interest in the area since 2008. According to the survey plan submitted to BOEM, Hilcorp planned to contract with United Arab Emirates-based Polarcus and survey 24 hours per day with three- to five-hour data acquisition periods and 1.5-hour turning periods before performing another pass. The survey would be shot parallel with Cook Inlet shorelines in a north-south orientation with a total of 14 airguns. In addition to concerns about fisheries, Lower Cook Inlet is also home to a large population of northern sea otters and an endangered population of beluga whales, among other marine mammals and fish. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently collecting comments for a permit for incidental take of northern sea otters over a five-year period. The company applied for the permit in May 2018, according to the federal register, though the notice was not published until nearly a year later on March 19. The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting comments until April 18. Cook Inlet beluga whales mostly spend their summer in Upper Cook Inlet, away from the proposed seismic survey area, according to Hilcorp’s survey plan. National Marine Fisheries Service surveys have shown that most of the whales spend their time near the Kenai River and further north in the summer. During an Apache seismic test in Redoubt Bay in 2011, 33 beluga whales were sighted during the work, according to the plan. In its initial plan, the company noted that the survey would be finished before the Lower Cook Inlet commercial salmon gillnet season opened in early June and that any effects would likely be temporary. “It is likely that commercial fisheries, charters and individual sport fishers would be able to use alternative fishing grounds,” the plan states. “Overall, impacts to fish harvests are expected to be minor, and limited to the immediate area of the surveys and to the hours of survey operations.” Hilcorp was scheduled to hold a public meeting in Homer last week but cancelled it. Bob Shavelson, a longtime environmental activist and the advocacy director for environmental nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper, said the company has not been very open with the community. “They’ve been very poor with their communications, especially with the commercial fishing fleet in Cook Inlet,” he said. “This is the first foray in probably 40 years in Lower Cook Inlet. If they hit reserves … you’re talking about the industrialization of Lower Cook Inlet.” Shavelson said Cook Inletkeeper may become increasingly involved with the proposed seismic survey in the future, as Hilcorp works to reschedule it.   Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]  

ADFG proposes sweeping changes to Cook Inlet salmon goals

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s recommendations for salmon escapement goal ranges in Upper Cook Inlet are out significantly earlier than they have been in past years. Upper Cook Inlet, which reaches north from the Kasilof River, encompasses a number of heavily fished salmon stocks, including the Kenai and Susitna rivers. ADFG reviews the escapement goal ranges for the rivers every three years or so and makes recommendations before the Board of Fisheries takes up the proposals for the area during the in-cycle meeting. For several rivers in the Mat-Su Valley, ADFG is recommending decreasing the lower end of king salmon escapement goal ranges, meaning that fewer salmon would have to make it up the river before ADFG determines the goal had been met. On the Kenai and Russian rivers, the sockeye sustainable escapement goals would tick up slightly. The goals are recommended for the 2020 season, so the current goals would remain in effect for the 2019 season. The sustainable escapement goal for sockeye on the Kenai River, which is the largest sockeye salmon river in the region, would increase slightly to 750,000 to 1.3 million. The Kasilof River’s sockeye biological escapement goal would decrease slightly to 140,000 to 320,000 fish. The early-run sockeye goal for the Russian River — a popular sportfishing river on the Kenai Peninsula — would remain the same, but the late-run sustainable escapement goal would adjust to 44,000 to 85,000, which is an increase in the lower end but a decrease in the upper end. The sockeye salmon goals in the Susitna River drainage would remain unchanged. The king goals in the Susitna drainage would change substantially, though. ADFG is recommending consolidating and revising the Susitna River king stock escapement goals into four “sub-basins”: the Deshka River, the Eastside Susitna River, the Talkeetna River and the Yentna River. Consolidating the goals would have advantages over the current single aerial survey model as they are based on total escapement as opposed to an index, derived using stock-recruit analyses and could account for years in which surveys were not conducted, according to the memo. “Each sub-basin is unique in terms of geography, harvest and accessibility, and therefore the regulatory structure varies between areas; streams within each sub-basin tend to share the same set of regulations,” the memo states. The Deshka River would have a biological escapement goal of 9,000 to 18,000; the Eastside Susitna River would have a sustainable escapement goal of 13,000 to 25,000; the Talkeetna River sub-basin would have a sustainable escapement goal of 9,000 to 17,500; and the Yentna River sub-basin would have a sustainable escapement goal of 13,000 to 22,000. Alexander Creek and Chulitna River would keep their own separate sustainable escapement goals of 1,900 to 3,700 and 1,200 to 2,900 king salmon, respectively. The Little Susitna River arial survey goal would be lowered slightly to 700 to 1,500 kings, and the Crooked Creek king salmon goal would be increased slightly to 700 to 1,400 kings. The Kenai River’s king goals would remain unchanged. The coho salmon goal in the Deshka River would remain the same, while the Jim Creek and Little Susitna River coho goals would be lowered slightly; the Jim Creek goal’s upper end would increase, according to the memo. Escapement goals are complicated, with multiple types and methodologies for determining them. At its most recent meeting, the Board of Fisheries noted that there is significant confusion around how escapement goals are developed and why certain rivers have one type while others have another. The Upper Cook Inlet escapement goal memo was released several months earlier than originally intended, in part because of public requests for the goals to be released before proposals for the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet meeting are due. “The department recognizes the importance of releasing escapement goal recommendations earlier in the year so the public may submit proposals relative to goal recommendations before the deadline of (April 10),” the memo states. “Thus, department staff completed their review on an accelerated timeline, and developed recommendations for UCI salmon escapement goals.” Kevin Delaney, a former fisheries biologist for ADFG and currently a consultant for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said the early release of the escapement goal recommendations allows stakeholders to gather more information as they finalize their proposals and review them for the next year before the meeting in early 2020. “This is the first time ever (ADFG has) gotten them out before proposals were due,” he said. “That should be applauded.” The slight uptick on the Kenai River sockeye goal doesn’t necessarily shift any more fish toward the sportfishery, Delaney said. The recommended lower end of the goal is only 50,000 fish more than the current lower end, and the Kenai River can see 50,000 fish come through on a single day during the peak of the sockeye run. The lowering of the goal on the Kasilof River might be a concern, but the Kenai River is the major driver in the region for sockeye salmon, he said. “The big issue is the Kenai River, and 50,000 fish isn’t going to make a huge difference,” he said. The Kenai River’s sockeye salmon management plan is immensely complicated, with three management tiers based on the strength of the forecasted run and an in-river escapement goal as well as the sustainable escapement goal. The in-river goal is set at 900,000 to 1.1 million sockeye, which accounts for a sportfishery harvest of about 200,000 sockeye in the river above the sonar. The recommendation included in the escapement goal memo only updates the SEG; adjusting the in-river goal would be up to the Board of Fisheries, as that’s an allocative decision compared to escapement goals which are management decisions. Mike Wood, a Northern District setnet fishermen, said it was interesting how some goals decreased in the Susitna River drainage while others increased in the Kenai River drainage. The Susitna valley has struggled with decreasing returns in recent years, with closures for salmon fishing, and the users are concerned that not enough fish are making it past the commercial fisheries in Kodiak and central Cook Inlet to return to spawn. Wood said he was glad to see the department address goals in the Lewis, Theodore and Chuitna, smaller rivers on the west side, and noted that better genetics data from ADFG has helped the staff separate the Cook Inlet west side rivers into individual stocks. “I was glad to see that, because it does have implications,” he said. “They’ve kept the king salmon closed to anything above Tyonek for just about 20 years now to let more fish return to the Susitna River. It’s good to see the Chuitna is bouncing back, and it does make sense to lower it a little bit in the Theodore and not have it at all in the Lewis. The Lewis doesn’t even reach (Cook) Inlet anymore.” Lowering escapement goals for Susitna drainages is concerning, he said, in part because of the nature of the stream. Spawner-return analyses — which calculate how many offspring return on average per spawning salmon — have shown that the Susitna is not as productive as a river like the Kenai, and thus would need more spawners to produce the same volume of return, he said. Wood, who also chairs the Mat-Su Borough’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, said the group is looking at the recommendations and working on a Northern District management plan and how that connects to regulations on setnetters in the area. “Maybe things will come back they way they’re supposed to,” he said. “But just lowering our goals, our expectations, I don’t think is wise in general. I’m cautious of it. Does it mean that we should lower them and then allow people to kill more of them? I don’t think that that really works to the advantage of the fish.” Proposals for the Upper Cook Inlet meeting are due April 10. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

ADFG leaders tout $11 billion return on agency spending

Though it’s a relatively small percentage of the state budget each year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game wants to show that it’s a worthwhile investment. Each year, the state spends in the neighborhood of $65 million to $70 million from the General Fund to pay for the department. Combined with user fees and federal grants and matches, the total budget clocks in at about $197 million. According to a number of studies conducted in-house and by the McDowell Group, that supports an economic return of about $11.8 billion annually. It’s not a huge surprise, even though the numbers are large, said ADFG Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang. Some of the wages estimated in the industries certainly do leave the state, but much of it stays as well, he said. The numbers are useful to the department as well as for the public to know what the spending is bringing in, he said. “(About) seven or eight years ago, I think the department slowly started realizing we needed to have a better idea of what our return on investment was,” he said. “I think the Sportfishing Division did a study looking at its benefit to the state of Alaska, then the Division of Wildlife Conservation … not too long after the Subsistence Division got into it, then of course commercial fisheries has been doing it for a long time.” Commercial fishing is the largest private sector employer in the state, with about 60,000 direct jobs provided by the industry. The vast majority of those jobs are in salmon — about 60 percent — followed by groundfish, halibut and crab, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Sportfishing supports 15,879 jobs, while hunting supports 27,000, according to information provided by the department. Sam Rabung, the director of the Division of Commercial Fisheries, cited a McDowell report and noted that commercial seafood harvesting contributes about $5.2 billion in economic output to the Alaska economy annually in testimony to the House Finance Committee’s subcommittee on ADFG on March 14. “Managing our fish and wildlife resources comes at a cost that is dwarfed by the return on investment,” he said. “The comfish division’s budget is about $70 million annually, and about half of that is (general fund). But what that does for the state is the direct economic value of commercially harvested seafood contributing to the state’s economy.” Commercial fisheries contribute about $146 million annually in local taxes, fees and self-assessments while the sportfishing industry contributes about $246 million in taxes. Hunters and wildlife viewers paid a total of $3.87 billion in 2019 inflation-adjusted dollars. Roughly $35 million to $37 million of the taxes paid by commercial fishermen are directed back into the Commercial Fisheries Division, while the rest goes into the general fund or to pay for other services like aquaculture through a self-assessed fee, Rabung said during the House Finance Committee hearing. Anglers and hunters also draw down federal funds into the state through license purchases. In 2016, the Legislature passed a bill to increase hunting and sportfishing license fees in response to a stakeholder-led effort to do so, thus allowing the department to access more federal match funds through the Dingell-Johnson and Pittman-Robertson fund programs. According to ADFG, 281,823 Alaskans bought sportfishing or hunting licenses in 2018, or more than half of the state’s adult population. The department also enumerated the economic impact of subsistence resources. Alaskans harvest about 18,000 tons of wild food annually, according to the department. Calculated at about $6 per pound, subsistence provides between $200.8 million and $391 million in 2019 dollars each year, according to a 2014 report from the Division of Subsistence. Going into the fiscal year 2020 budget, ADFG received one of the smaller proposed reductions at about 5 percent. Vincent-Lang said he thought it showed that the department is already well-managed and provides a good return. “When you look at the department budget overall, we came out of the budget scenario largely intact,” he said. “We are having a good return on investment, and I think there was a good understanding by the governor’s office that commercial fishing, sportfishing and subsistence fishing as a key part of the Alaskan identity.” The department’s default is to manage more conservatively when less information is available to managers. However, cutting the management side can also cause the department to manage more conservatively, Vincent-Lang said. Significant reductions to the budget would certainly impact the economic benefit the department sees, but a significant increase doesn’t necessarily mean a significant increase either, he said. However, an increase in funding could result in increased opportunity in fisheries like herring or crab, which are currently conservatively managed, he said. Commercial fisheries are major drivers in communities across the state, especially in coastal communities where there are often not many other economic opportunities. Vincent-Lang said he is planning to work with processors to try to increase seafood processing capacity in communities like those around Norton Sound, where there have been harvestable surpluses of salmon in recent years but not very many processors to buy them. During the House Finance subcommittee meeting on March 14, Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, noted that the reductions to the department were concerning because the loss of funding could mean more conservative management, and thus lost opportunities for fishermen. “I would like to see you have not only a focus on the impact to the economy but the impact to the fishermen themselves,” Stutes said. “That should be the number one concern of this state: allowing these fishermen to go out and fully prosecute the fisheries. The state wins when that happens.” ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Road shows kick off in Kenai: Dunleavy advocates for budget while House goes own way

SOLDOTNA — The members of the House Finance Committee and Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy are both on the road this week, hitting many of the same communities but talking about two different budgets in two very different meetings. Dunleavy kicked off his roadshow in Kenai on March 25, talking to a crowd of about 150 people about his budget plan and the three constitutional amendments that accompany it. Three nights before, Reps. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, hosted a packed meeting to gather public input before the House develops its own budget. The House Finance Committee is dispatching members to communities all over the state to hold town hall meetings. So far, the meetings have reportedly all been packed with residents; in Kenai, more than 200 people filled the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex to deliver public testimony. Johnston, who serves as vice chair of the House Finance Committee, said she kept a tally in her notes of what the testifiers supported. “I think it was fairly civil,” she said. Though people spoke both for and against Dunleavy’s proposed budget, the majority opposed the cuts and asked for the Legislature to look at taxes and using the Permanent Fund Dividend to pay for government services. Johnston said she noted a lot of support for reducing the PFD. These House Finance meetings are part of the process as the House builds its own budget, she said. The majority of people opposing the cuts mentioned concern about the reductions to K-12 education spending. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, which operates 43 schools for approximately 8,800 students, is proposing to cut the majority of its extracurriculars and close five schools, among other cuts, to balance the budget. Pegge Erkeneff, the communications liaison for the district, told the committee members that that doesn’t even meet the cuts they expect. “I’ve been accused of (these projections) being a scare tactic,” she said. “I can assure you it is not. It’s still $5 million shy of $22.4 million if we implemented everything on this sheet.” Several people also noted that they appreciated the opportunity to speak at the House Finance Committee meeting, as Dunleavy’s planned meeting on March 25 would not be as open a forum. Dunleavy’s administration also received some pushback after it became public that his roadshow was organized and hosted by Americans for Prosperity. The governor’s meeting was held at the Cannery Lodge, a private facility in Kenai. Attendees were admitted by a Kenai Police Department officer and the gate at the front of the property was closed shortly after the meeting began. While there was no open planned public comment, attendees at the meeting submitted written questions that could be asked during a panel Q&A session. Ryan McKee, the Alaska state director for Americans for Prosperity, said the group approached the Dunleavy administration several months ago about doing a speaking tour with them and that the timing of the announcement just happened to fall as the House Finance Committee announced its own tour. Dunleavy has worked with AFP in the past, so the organization didn’t feel the meeting was out of place, McKee said. “The governor is going to be the one who goes out and does the big town halls; it’s not really our place to host that for him and have this big space,” he said. “We’d rather have this small space where we can have these questions asked … and everyone can walk away feeling like they got something. I’m sure he’ll have bigger events, but that’s not really what we were looking at.” Dunleavy said the partnership with AFP helped the state save money while enabling him to travel and speak to residents about the budget. The organization offered a venue and time, and the administration is willing to work with other partners, he said. “We didn’t want to spend money from the government to go and do a very expensive roadshow,” he said. “…I know there are some who would prefer we partner up with other outfits. Let us know who they are.” Dunleavy brought Alaska Department of Revenue Commissioner Bruce Tangeman, Office of Management and Budget Director Donna Arduin and Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson with him on the tour to talk about both his proposed fiscal year 2020 budget and long-term plans. Much of the discussion lingered over the Legislature’s spending habits, with Dunleavy asserting that the state’s problem is primarily overspending. One of his three proposed constitutional amendments would set a new state spending cap, tying it to inflation and the state’s population. The other two amendments — one enshrining the PFD in the state constitution and the other requiring a public vote before the institution of any new broad-based taxes — are also part of the administration’s long-term fiscal plan. While Americans for Prosperity doesn’t take a formal position on the PFD issues, the group strongly supports a spending cap and the vote before new taxes, similar to Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights. “(This year), you’re having meetings, the House is having meetings — on the budget, we’re supporting the process,” he said. “The spending cap, we support that 100 percent, and the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.” Clarkson explained that the Legislature has to approve the resolutions for constitutional amendments by a two-thirds majority before they go to a public vote to be ratified. “If you have legislators out there who you are in contact with, you need to let them know that they should be voting for the governor’s amendments,” he said. Tangeman said what the administration has heard is that the House is starting with the fiscal year 2019 budget and planning to go closer to status quo and look at implementing taxes. “There is no way you can tax $7 billion out of our economy,” he said, referring to long-term projections of what would be required to pay for the budget at current annual increases if the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve account is depleted. Both Dunleavy and the House Finance Committee planned meetings throughout the week in various communities around the state, while the Senate began holding hearings on the first of the constitutional amendments on March 21. ^

PWS Tanner crab fishery gives winter season a boost

A rejuvenated Tanner crab fishery in Prince William Sound is showing positive signs of finishing out its second season in 30 years. The fishery opened for the first time since 1988 in 2017, operating on commissioners permits. A test fishery operated as an information-gathering pot fishery in the area in 2016 to a limited number of vessels. Based on Alaska Department of Fish and Game survey data, the stocks were good to go for another season this year, opening March 1 and closing either by EO or on March 31. So far, 11 vessels have landed about 16,850 Tanner crabs, totaling about 28,699 pounds. Harvest has been better than expected in two areas, said Jan Rumble, the area management biologist for commercial shellfish fisheries in Prince William Sound. One, in federal waters off of Cape Puget, had a harvest of 14,754 pounds and the Icy Bay/Whale Bay area harvested 7,042 pounds. “Fishing for the first week of the fishery has been more spread out than last year, and not as focused in one statistical area, with 10 statistical areas fished to date,” she wrote in an email. Fishermen in the area are feeling fairly optimistic about the catches and catch per unit of effort so far, said Chelsea Haisman, the executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United. “The weather has been the biggest buzzkill,” she said. “(One fisherman has) sat out 11 days so far. It’s been hardly any fishing at all. It’s part of the game, I guess.” There was enthusiasm on the docks when the fishermen first came in with the crab in Whittier, Seward and Cordova, she said. The catch provides a new seafood opportunity for residents before the summer fishing season kicks into gear. It also fills in some of the space for the Prince William Sound fleet before the summer salmon season starts — there are several quiet months right now around December and January, and the salmon season doesn’t start in earnest until early May, she said. “It sounds like right now, the fishery can keep going as long as the biomass is there,” she said. “The fleet is seeing some smaller crabs that they are releasing back.” Deliveries have been made in Whittier, Seward and Cordova, she said. Tanner crab, often marketed as its cousin the snow crab, is a fairly valuable product for fishermen. In 2017, the average ex-vessel price was $3.53 per pound, the highest price since 1994, according to ADFG records. The scientific species name of Tanner crab is C. bairdi, though another species of crab — C. opilio — is also often marketed as snow crab and sold for more than $4 per pound at the dock in 2017, according to ADFG. The commercial Tanner crab fishery in Prince William Sound boomed from 1968 until the late 1970s, when the catch began to decline before the fishery was closed in 1988. At its peak, fishermen brought in 13.9 million pounds, according to a March 2017 memo from Fish and Game. That was before the minimum carapace width of 5.3 inches was set, though. By 1988, fishermen only brought in about a half-million pounds, with little to no harvest in the Eastern District because there were fewer legal males available. The collapse of the stock could be due to overharvesting and changes in environmental conditions, according to the memo. The early fisheries on legal-size males were limited by season rather than by Guideline Harvest Level, which is the current limit set by the Board of Fisheries for Tanner crab fisheries. “Handling mortality of undersized and female crab may have contributed to the decline, particularly during fishing seasons of seven months duration, which encompassed some of the molting and mating seasons,” the memo states. “Changes in environmental conditions, documented on a Gulf of Alaska-wide basis, may have caused high mortality of Tanner crab larvae, impaired growth and reproduction, and coincided with increased production of crab predators such as gadoid fishes.” The fishery depends on daily call-ins from fishermen on the grounds for tracking and port sampling of the catch. At the beginning of this season, ADFG asked fishermen to call in faithfully to provide accurate information so the fishery can stay open. In the face of less information, ADFG tends more conservative in its management in the best interest of stocks. So far, fishermen have been providing regular reports, Rumble said. “The mandatory call-in compliance has been good and has allowed harvest and effort tracking by the statistical area; harvest has been relatively stable,” she said. “The fishery will continue to be closely monitored via the call-in reports and deliveries for the next weeks to determine if any management action is necessary.” At this point, Fish and Game feels confident enough in its information that there are no immediate plans to close the fishery early, she said. Without early intervention from Fish and Game, the fishery will close March 31. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Stakeholders seek ways to grow outdoor rec economy

A group of business owners and advocates are pushing for Alaska to place more of an economic stake in its outdoor recreation economy. Alaska boasts a massive number of tracts of undeveloped public land. Most Alaskans take advantage of all that land for various activities all year, and the summer brings tourists from all over the world, especially to fish. The founders of Confluence, an outdoor recreation advocacy group begun under the umbrella of the Valdez Adventure Alliance, think the state could advertise the outdoor economy better and enable more businesses to cater to it. A new study from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Center for Economic Development establishes a numerical sketch for the industry’s impact as well. The study estimates that participants in outdoor recreation spend about $3.2 billion annually, excluding equipment purchases, and that the industry provides about 29,000 direct jobs and about 10,000 indirect and induced jobs. The report estimates that equipment purchases could be a similar sum. “A majority of Alaskans say that opportunities to get outside are a reason they choose to live or remain in the state, and a similar share of visitors come to Alaska to experience the great outdoors,” the report states. “Both locals and visitors spend money in the course of their activities that circulates throughout the state economy, making outdoor recreation a substantial industry.” During a House Resources Committee meeting on March 6, committee members heard testimony in support of legislation enhancing the outdoor recreation industry in the state. Lee Hart, one of the co-founders of Confluence, told the committee that Alaskans have long shown support for spending state resources on outdoor recreation, including taxing themselves for trail maintenance. “Since at least the year 2000, residents of this state have been clamoring for more access to the public lands and waterways that surround their communities,” she said. Nolan Klouda, the director of UAA Center for Economic Development, presented the study to the committee and noted that outdoor recreation is also an attraction for workers. An economic strategy for a geographically isolated state like Alaska may not necessarily be to attract firms, but to attract talented workers to live here because of the quality of life and thus lure the businesses to where the workers are, according to the study. Klouda said businesses often identify hiring talent as a major obstacle to operating. “Economic development increasingly is about attracting talent and keeping talent in your area,” he said. “Just the ability to hire any workers at any skill level that can fill the positions that you have, and Alaska businesses will tell you that that is a major challenge.” Exploring ways to attract and retain residents is one of four recommendations included in the report. The others include gathering better data about outdoor recreation consumers, adding an economic impact component to state recreation development and supporting entrepreneurship. The report points to efforts such as the Anchorage-based Launch Alaska and the Seward-based Alaska Ocean Cluster as examples of incubators for businesses in particular sectors. The study also references programs like the state of Vermont’s grant program for remote workers, which grants prospective residents up to $10,000 for living in the state while performing remote work, and to an effort in Valdez to start a telework center meant to attract tech workers from crowded, expensive areas like Seattle and Silicon Valley based on the local outdoor recreation opportunities available. In a handout presented to the committee, Confluence identified four priorities: raising awareness of emerging sectors, creating a blue ribbon commission to identify ways to reduce regulatory burden for outdoor industries, leveraging federal matches to fund outdoor recreation access, and management and preserving the Snowmobile Trails Grant Program. A number of stakeholders also wrote letters to the committee in support of the SnowTRAC program, in which snowmachiners pay an increased license and registration fee in exchange for maintained trails. Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s fiscal year 2020 budget proposes reorganization for the state recreational trails program, under which the snowmobile trail grant program is administered, by eliminating a position, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Michele Stevens, who represented the Petersville Community Nonprofit Corporation, said the snowmobile trails provide more than just recreational opportunity — they are important for search and rescue operations, as people are less likely to get lost. Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly member Dan Mayfield wrote a letter to Dunleavy that he was surprised that funding for the snowmobile trail program, known as SnowTRAC, was not included in the budget. “The money funds trail care, safety and grooming activities that, in turn, bring increased business through recreational visitation to each of the communities throughout the state who have qualified for these funds,” he wrote. “Failure to fund this program means the end of SnowTRAC, increased hazards on the trails, the failure of several non-profit organizations who work to support snowmobile activity and decreased business/revenue for communities up and down the trail system.” ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

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