Elwood Brehmer

Interior Department pilot payment system a success so far

A revised payment system implemented in May for Department of the Interior vendor pilots in Alaska seems to have done its job — it’s kept the pilots paid and flying. “Most of the vendors were paid within 72 to 96 hours from the time we got the invoice,” during this flying season, said Mark Vaughn, a National Park Service contract administrator in Anchorage. Vaughn said it was a rare exception for a vendor pilot to wait up to 15 days to be paid after the Park Service received an invoice for work. Last year, a complex electronic payment system within the department largely failed and left some small Alaska flight services being owed upwards of $250,000 by Interior Department agencies. Alaska Air Carriers Association Executive Director Joy Journeay said at the peak of the problem the number of vendors owed thousands of dollars was in the “dozens.” Changes in the payment system cut out procedures that sent paperwork and money to the Interior Department offices in Denver and Boise, Idaho. With money for Alaska operations being kept in state, Vaughn said Interior agency staff that handle the transactions, such as himself, were able to be more responsive to their vendors’ needs. Additionally, Vaughn said a big improvement in the system was allowing work invoices to be flexible, rather than for specific flight times, as had been done in the past. “We stopped going day-of-flight and started doing timeframes, which was better for the vendors and much better for us,” Vaughn said. “That way we could say we need to fly sometime ‘in here’ and when we had a weather break we could fly rather than saying we need to fly on the 25th, for instance.” Some flight services changed their business practices and stopped flying for the department prior to having office work completed after what happened last year, a move that also helped remove confusion from the system, Vaughn said. Journeay said she spoke recently with the officials in the Alaska Region office of Interior’s Office of Aviation Services and was told that the department had no long-term outstanding payments. After performing an informal survey of Association members, Journey wrote in an email that there are lingering issues with entering data into the electronic payment system, but vendors are getting paid in a timely fashion. The changes to the payment system were made specifically in Alaska after Interior agency directors in the state sent a letter in September 2012 to Interior Business Center officials in Denver requesting a procedural changes similar to the ones made. The letter stated that the “Alaska DOI bureaus spend $29 million annually, or approximately 47 percent of all DOI aviation expenditures nationwide.” At the time it noted that some vendor payments were as much as two years behind. Further, the letter noted that some pilots had flown in “good faith on verbal approval” that they would get paid when the payment system went awry and that the blanket system had damaged Interior’s credibility in Alaska. The high demand for aircraft services, combined with unpredictable Alaska weather prompted the Alaska-specific trial program. By “Alaskanizing” the system, Vaughn said everyone involved is now on the same page. After learning of the payment delays last fall, Sen. Mark Begich wrote a letter to then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar requesting prompt action to get Alaska pilots paid. After involvement from the state’s whole congressional delegation on the issue, the department reported it was caught up on payments in April.  Vaughn said money had been appropriated to pay vendors for late summer work in preparation for the federal government shutdown that began Oct. 1. The next step is to determine whether the program becomes moves from trial status to standard procedure in Alaska. When the government restarts and Interior officials get back to work he said they would meet and discuss the 2013 flying season and how the system can be further improved. He hopes it stays in place, Vaughn said, and he’s encouraged by the positive responses his agency has received from vendors this year. “One of the measures is kind of how much do you get yelled at and this year I didn’t get yelled at at all so that’s good,” he said. “Last year I couldn’t say the same thing.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Material cost, limited land makes tight commercial market

The demand for commercial real estate in Anchorage is high and the availability is low was commercial broker Brandon Spoerhase’s message to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce at its Aug. 5 Make It Monday forum. Spoerhase, a broker for Jack White Commercial, told the chamber that the current vacancy rate for large industrial space is at 3 percent, with about 580,000 square feet available for lease in the city. “Industrial (space) is by far the tightest product on the market, and it’s a direct result of the fact that it’s difficult to find quality clear-span, clear-height space for tenants,” Spoerhase said. He said new industrial developments are slow to materialize because of a lack of available land in the Anchorage Bowl and the cost of building materials. For building new industrial space to be feasible, a property owner would generally have to charge more than $1.50 per square foot on a triple net lease, or an agreement where the tenant pays the facility’s taxes, insurance and maintenance in addition to standard rent and utility costs. Class A office space is running at 5.3 percent vacancy and Class B is harder to come by with 3.5 percent of the market space available, Spoerhase said. “There are very few options left in excess of 10,000 square feet (of office space),” he said. Nearly 750,000 square feet of “flex” office and warehouse space is available in Anchorage, Spoerhase said, meaning that market is at 4.3 percent vacancy. Citywide there is about 930,000 square feet worth of office space in various stages of development, but not all of it will be available for lease, he said. Cook Inlet Region Inc., which recently announced it would be moving its corporate headquarters to a new office complex on the corner of Fireweed Lane and the Seward Highway in Anchorage’s Midtown, will occupy about 40,000 square feet of the 60,000 square feet available. The remaining space will be leased out, Spoerhase said. With the movement of wholesale retailer Sam’s Club from its Penland Parkway location to the Tikahtnu Commons development in Northeast Anchorage, the former Sam’s Club building on Penland has been purchased by the State of Alaska for $16.1 million, he said. When revamped, the property will house the state Geological Materials Center and provide 30,000 square feet of office space. The total project cost is estimated at $24 million, Spoerhase said, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Sam’s Club’s parent company, donated $2.5 million to the project. Despite a squeeze on easily developable land, Spoerhase predicted growth in commercial development. “I think we’re going to see a big commercial bounce from oil tax reform in the next two years. There are several groups looking to develop six to eight-acre sights as a direct result of the tax reform,” he said. Adding quality fill to sites with marginal soil is becoming an increasingly common way to expand developable acreage in the city, he said. Replacing poor, highly organic soil with buildable fill averages about $1.35 per square foot, Spoerhase said. Retail The market for existing retail space is running about $1.50 per square foot triple net, Spoerhase said. New retail is commonly being leased for $2.65 per square foot triple net and space in Tikahtnu Commons is going for upwards of $3 per square foot, he said. Spoerhase announced that Walgreens pharmacy company has plans to open a fourth Anchorage location on the corner of Lake Otis Parkway and 88th Street and that national restaurant chain Texas Roadhouse will be opening its first Alaska location in Tikahtnu Commons around the end of the year. Construction of sporting goods giant Cabela’s new 100,000 square-foot store on C Street in South Anchorage has spurred nearby projects. According to Spoerhase, the 27-acre parcel of undeveloped land on the west side of C Street, across from the Cabela’s location, is in the early planning stages for retail development. The Cabela’s store is set to open in the spring of 2014, according to the company. Bass Pro Shop’s, which is opening its first Alaska store in Northeast Anchorage’s Glenn Square, has moved its opening date back again, Spoerhase said. The store was original planned opening in June of this year was first revised to this coming October. “(Cabela’s) main competitor Bass Pro is pushing back their opening at Glenn Square until early 2014 as their construction schedule of opening this fall was, I think, a little aggressive for construction in Alaska,” he said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

FAA radio rules in area of 2011 crash nearly standardized

Uncertainty amongst pilots over proper radio frequencies west of the Susitna River is being resolved more than two years after a midair collision involving aircraft using different frequencies killed a family of four. “The confusion over (Common Traffic Advisory Frequencies) CTAFs has been that small airports west of the Susitna were given different frequencies about five years ago, and the areas of differing frequencies overlap,” Alaska Air Carriers Association Executive Director Joy Journeay said. The issue had tragic consequences July 30, 2011, over Sister Lake, near Trapper Creek when a Cessna 206 taking off from Sister Lake Collided with a Cessna 180. The Cessna 180 crashed and all four onboard were killed. The pilot of the Cessna 206 was able to fly to Anchorage for help after radioing to report the collision. A May 2013 National Transportation Safety Board report on the incident found that the pilot of the 206 was on CTAF 122.8, while the 180 pilot was using CTAF 122.9. The report does not assign fault to either pilot. Both were headed to land on Amber Lake, less than a mile from the crash. A review of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Supplement Alaska handbook and official chart for the area show conflicting instructions as to the correct radio frequency to use. The handbook and charts are both required to be onboard an aircraft during flight to comply with FAA regulations. The chart calls for CTAF 122.9 to be used over much of the flat west of the Susitna and specifies the frequency to be used May 15 to July 15 around the Deshka River Recreation Area, a popular flight path during king salmon season. Several private airports in the area are assigned CTAF 122.8, according to the chart. Page 402 of the Supplement Alaska reads as follows for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough: “CTAF assignment generally is accomplished according to the following: Airports south and west of the Parks Highway are assigned 122.8. Airports north and east of the Parks Highway are assigned 122.9.” Journeay said she’s been told by FAA officials that page 402 of the handbook, which is updated quarterly, will be removed in future printings and that future charts will be corrected. Until then, the discrepancy will still exist. FAA officials did not respond to requests for comment in time for this story. Air Carriers board member Danny Davidson said for years the area was understood to be a 122.9 area. Davidson operates his flight service, Davidson Aviation, out of Anchorage and lives near Trapper Creek. “The confusion, today, is still in effect. Pick a number,” Davidson said. Journeay said the Air Carriers Association brought the issue to the FAA’s attention shortly after the 2011 crash, and began taking action again this spring when association members said it had not been resolved. She added that the association’s members have been in consensus for two years that the area west of the Susitna River should be a 122.9 area. When it was brought to the attention of Anchorage FAA officials in the Airports and Flight Service divisions this spring that nothing had been done regarding the CTAFs, Journeay said action began immediately. She attributed the lack of response to “red-tape and inner-government process.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Pitch-on-a-Train brings entrepreneurs, investors together

The summer scenery of Turnagain Arm, plus the nostalgia of a train ride, plus lunch at a world-renowned resort equals what? Undoubtedly the perfect setting for conducting business. The Anchorage Economic Development Corp. team combined those elements with investors and some of Alaska’s most promising entrepreneurs to form the first annual Pitch-On-A-Train business competition. The Aug. 1 event was the third leg of the group’s four-part Alaska Entrepreneurship Week, which ran from July 25 to Aug. 4. Five emerging startups were invited to present their ideas to a panel of eight Alaska business leaders and investors in the friendly competition as the Alaska Railroad train headed from Anchorage to Portage. Each person or pair was allotted five minutes to make their pitch. Altogether, 80 people gathered to take a train ride and do a little networking. Anchorage’s Brian McKinnon, with his company Aknuna Technologies and patent-pending design for a sealed high volume industrial fueling system, won the Pitch. In addition to the $5,000 business startup package, which included internet and phone plans and free advertising consulting, McKinnon said he came away with something even more valuable — dozens of business connections. “I think every single person that was involved is going to make it,” McKinnon said. “There were no losers (in the competition).” Other participants had beginning ventures in ranging fields. ArXotica is a Bethel-based is a company with skin-care products that incorporate salmon oils and extracts from native Alaska plants. Airlite Inflatable Snowshoes of Anchorage offers a patented inflatable snowshoe designed to be packed away for backcountry emergency situations. GearSpoke is an online gear rental startup that provides individuals with outdoor gear with a marketplace to rent their canoes, tents or skis when they aren’t in use. Finally, RLB Productions presented an idea for a reality TV show centered on what Alaska bed and breakfasts and resorts prepare for their guests. McKinnon said he had several contacts that could help his fellow participants and that their connections circled around. “We’re all going to be supportive of each other,” he said. AEDC Vice President John Bittner said the goal of the morning-long event was to enable the participants and spectators alike to make new connections. “What we were hoping would come out of this was, with putting the participants in the room with that collection of investors and business leaders and bankers — that they would really be able to hone in on, ‘OK, here’s what I’m good at, here’s where I need a little work and here are the people who can help me.’ And I think that is really what came out of this,” Bittner said. The format, with each pitch being made in front of the investor group gathered around a long table, mimicked an investor meeting or sales pitch to a large company, McKinnon said. After being the keynote speaker at AEDC’s economic forecast luncheon the day prior, Gallup Inc. CEO Jim Clifton rode the train to Portage and hopped the bus to Girdwood for lunch at Alyeska Resort with the rest of the group. Clifton said he has no doubt all five ideas can be successful, it’s whether or not the entrepreneurs are able to survive the tough beginning, or “winter season,” as he called it, that every business faces. He noted that AEDC’s encouragement of startup businesses could go a long way towards their eventual success. “I think what you see here is what every city’s got to do,” Clifton said. “It’s more about the energy and the engagement of the leaders because what you’re really trying to do is grow the entrepreneurial spirit.” Longtime Alaskan entrepreneur and head of angel investment firm Alaska Venture Partners, John Wanamaker was one of the panel of eight that judged the Pitch participants. Simply meeting and brainstorming with like-minded individuals is extremely beneficial for early-stage entrepreneurs, he said. “(The train) was a good environment. People were mixing and that in and of itself creates an environment for collaboration,” Wanamaker said. The participants were chosen because they had won or finished high in local or state emerging business competitions, Bittner said. McKinnon won the 2013 Alaska Business Plan competition in April with Aknuna Technologies. The ArXotica team recently received a $5,000 investment from Kiva, a crowdfunding website. His next step is finding investors that fit with his vision, McKinnon said. If he can raise the $400,000 he estimates he needs to start producing the fueling system, McKinnon hopes to be selling them to North Slope producers within six months, he said. “It’s a matter of finding the correct investors,” he said. “I’m going to spend the rest of my life with these people. I’d really like to find the right ones.” Wanamaker said he applauds what AEDC has done to showcase Alaska’s innovative and daring entrepreneurs. “I think (AEDC has) done more for entrepreneurs in the last year, year-and-a-half in particularly technology fields — they’ve brought a certain velocity to the environment that hadn’t existed before,” Wanamaker said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected] 

Zender wins environmental training grant for rural cleanup

June 20, 2013 A $200,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant will allow Zender Environmental Health and Research Group continue its environmental technician training program for unemployed rural Alaskans. Lynn Zender is the founder and executive director of the Anchorage-based nonprofit. “We recruit residents from rural Alaska villages to train them as environmental technicians to work within their communities,” Zender said. The training is focused on protecting local environmental health, she said. Trainees are instructed in proper contaminated site cleanup procedures, oil spill response and home and bulk fuel tank inspection. A large portion of the training is centered on solid waste disposal and landfill compliance. Zender said the isolation of many rural communities presents challenges for proper trash handling. “Rural Alaska villages deal with landfill issues not found anywhere else in the country,” she said. The 32 students are chosen after completing a detailed written application and a phone interview, Zender said. From there the applicants’ files are reviewed by a panel of EPA and Zender officials for final approval. “It’s a pretty arduous (application) process,” Zender said. A thorough application process is needed to assure those selected will complete the training, which can get challenging. The training consists of two intense two-week periods conducted over six weeks with a two-week break during which students can return home or stay in Anchorage where the courses are held. Zender said to get 168 hours of training into four weeks courses are conducted for up to 10 hours a day, six days a week if necessary. The application process for this round of training will begin in fall and courses will start in February 2014, Zender said. The group was awarded a similar grant in 2012 and conducted two rounds of training in 2012 and early this spring, she said. “Part of our program is to follow-up with our graduates for a year afterwards and help them with job placement,” Zender said. Most graduates gain employment with local governments or regional corporations, she added, in jobs with an average wage of about $18 per hour. Travel expenses for the students covered through the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s State Training and Employment Program, or STEP. Zender Environmental was officially awarded the grant on June 13 as a part of more than $3.2 million in EPA Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training grants awarded nationwide, according to an EPA press release. Zender was one of 16 groups throughout the country to receive such a grant, part of the agency’s larger Brownfields Grant Program. “These grants are provided to local community job training organizations that have demonstrated partnerships with employers who have expressed a willingness to interview and hire graduates,” EPA Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus said in a release. “I am happy to continue to support this important and tremendously successful EPA program that has successfully placed more than 71 percent of program graduates in environmental careers since the program’s inception in 1998.” Mary Goolie, EPA project officer for Zender Environmental, said Zender’s job placement rate is higher still, at 88 percent for the program about to enter its third year. She added that such a high percentage of the 35 graduates from the two previous training courses found work because Zender Environmental did its homework ahead of time. “(Zender Environmental) surveyed Alaska employers as to what kind of training they needed to hire people in their communities,” Goolie said. She added that the preparation helped the organization win what she called a “highly competitive” grant. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]  

Insurance rates drive high costs for state workers' comp

June 23, 2013 A team from the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board traveled the state June 17 to 20 holding public meetings to discuss rising medical costs associated with on-the-job injuries. “At our main meeting our board decided it wanted to get out in the community and get feedback from employers, employees, from doctors, from attorneys — from the stakeholders in the workers’ compensation system,” state Division of Workers’ Compensation Director Mike Monagle said at the June 18 Anchorage meeting. Other meetings were held in Fairbanks, Kenai and Juneau. Alaska’s total workers’ compensation system costs were $270 million last year, according to division statistics. A biannual study done by the state of Oregon found that Alaska carries the highest workers’ compensation insurance premium rates in the country, despite a 3 percent drop in premiums in 2012. In 2000, Alaska ranked 28th in workers’ compensation premium rates, but by 2006 it was the most expensive state in the country. Since then, Alaska has been first or second. Monagle said rising insurance costs are not related to incident rates, which have dropped from more than 30,000 reported workplace incidents in 1994 to less than 20,000 last year. Over the same period employment grew by nearly 90,000 jobs to roughly 320,000 statewide, he said. “Employment’s going up, (incident) frequency rate is going down. This frequency rate is really important because it’s the only thing that has been keeping Alaska’s premium rates in check,” Monagle said. The Oregon study found Alaska’s premiums to be 160 percent of the national median. Premium rates for workers’ compensation insurance tend to be cyclical, Monagle said, and nationally rates have increased over the last two years. So the 3 percent in-state decline may not become a trend. Despite being cyclical, rates never return to their previous bottom, he said. Monagle reported that nearly 75 percent of “total lost costs” in 2012 associated with benefit claims were medical costs. Of the $260.7 million paid out in Alaska during 2011, $160.4 million, or 62 percent, was for medical benefits. Nationwide, medical benefits make up 59 percent of total costs, with indemnity, or lost work time accounting for the remainder, Monagle said. He called the annual 8 percent-plus increase in premiums nationwide “unsustainable.” “Today, in all states, medical is the big cost driver,” he said. Monagle broke medical costs down into three categories: fees, over-utilization and prescription drugs. He said specialty medicine costs are disproportionately high in Alaska. This includes treatments such as physical therapy and chiropractor visits. Some states have mitigated medical fees by implementing fee schedules, which help regulate what clinics and hospitals charge. Most states that have fee schedules are on the lower end of the cost spectrum, Monagle said. Alaska, which has a fee schedule, doesn’t follow the trend. He likened a fee schedule to car shopping. “You don’t go into a car dealership and offer to pay full retail, nobody does,” Monagle said. High treatment cost and high insurance premiums go hand-in-hand, he said. He declined to offer specific suggestions for further regulatory measures to curb premium costs but said Montana, which had been battling Alaska for the highest workers’ compensation costs in the country, recently instituted legislation that dropped it in the rankings. In 2010, Montana was first in total cost and by last year it had dropped to eighth, according to the Oregon study. Other states have also looked at ways to mitigate the over-use of expensive treatments to mitigate medical costs, Monagle said. “Most states are moving towards utilization guidelines,” he said. “For example, ‘for this diagnosis, this is the recommended treatment.’” He added that many of the doctors his division consults with do not receive workplace injury treatment training, thus they don’t view workplace injuries differently. Monagle gave the example of an individual with a broken ankle being told to stay home for several weeks to allow the injury to heal. While that may be an effective treatment, he said, it is possible someone in that situation could receive a boot or air cast and return to work in some capacity “off their feet” and save thousands of dollars in indemnity costs. Monagle said costs associated with prescription drugs account for 20 percent of medical benefits paid in compensation claims. He said strong, opioid painkillers such as Oxycodone can have a debilitating effect on injured workers prescribed them for intense pain. Monagle said the drugs were never intended for general use, rather they were designed as “end of life” treatment. The drugs are of particular concern in workers’ compensation cases because patients are highly susceptible to dependency and subsequent depression and other mental health issues, Monagle said. While a worker may be physically healed, they are then mentally unfit for work, he said. Monagle noted programs that require patients who have been on opioids for more than 60 days without signs of physical improvement to enter treatment programs to prevent dependency. On the flipside, several states have also instituted drug testing to assure patients prescribed powerful painkillers are actually taking them and not selling them “on the street for $100 a pill,” Monagle said. Alaska does not have such programs. He cited state figures that estimate prescription painkillers account for 40 percent of all drug costs in Alaska. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Qualified mortgage rule still worries lenders after revisions

Despite federal agencies taking steps to tweak and adopt the qualified mortgage and ability-to-repay rules set to go into effect in January 2014, private industry officials are nervous about the impact they will have. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Federal Housing Finance Agency-run mortgage buyers announced in a May 6 agency statement that they will only purchase loans that meet the requirements for a qualified mortgage, or QM, when the rule is implemented. The pending regulatory changes are part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act passed in 2010 in response to the housing market crash of 2008. To meet general QM requirements loans must be fully amortizing, or have a set pay-off timeline; have a term of 30 years or less; and have borrower fees less than 3 percent of the total loan amounts. Under nearly all circumstances “balloon loans,” or loans that must be paid off or refinanced before the loan term ends, do not meet QM requirements. “Adoption of these new limitations by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is in keeping with FHFA’s goal of gradually contracting their market footprint and protecting borrowers and taxpayers,” the Housing Finance Agency stated May 6. Denali Alaskan Federal Credit Union Vice President of Home Loans Jim Picard said some of the finer points of the regulations have changed after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, the regulatory agency in charge, put them out for public comment in late April. “What just changed, or was reinterpreted was the elimination of counting certain fees twice in the 3 percent (borrower fee) cap,” Picard said. “That seems pretty intuitive and pretty obvious, but we’re talking about a federal agency that’s making rules and putting them out for comment and seeing these rules aren’t practical and don’t work.” While lenders will not be required to issue loans under QM guidelines, loans that meet the requirements are referred to as “safe harbor” loans, which all but insulate lenders from possible predatory lending accusations. The rules will further constrict an already conservative lending market, Picard said. Changes could be coming to the ability-to-repay requirements as well. As the future regulation is currently comprised a borrower must prove a debt-to-income ratio of no greater than 43 percent. The basis of the requirement will still stand. The CFPB’s proposed revisions awaiting confirmation include removing requirements forcing creditors to determine the probability of a borrower’s continued employment. Rather, a creditor would just need to examine past and current employment status. A rule limiting income in-residence, or “roommate” rental income counted towards the 43 percent ratio to roommates “related by blood, marriage, or law” is also up for elimination, according to CFPB amendment documents. When the QM rules initially go into effect, a loan approved using Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac’s delegated underwriting may exceed the 43 percent debt-to-income cap, Picard said. However, that exemption is set to expire in 2021 and is an issue he called a “sleeping giant down the road.” “I don’t think a lot of people are getting concerned about something that will be taken away from us in seven years,” Picard said. Officials on the real estate side of the housing market have said the QM and debt-ratio rules will be devastating to a slowly rebounding but still fickle housing market. Picard said the reduced volumes of loans being handled now compared with several years ago will only diminish further with QM. The announcement that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will only accept QM loans adds to the challenge for individuals with good credit looking for loans that fall outside the debt or QM limitations. “If the demand is out there for QM loans, why would you stick your neck out there and do a non-QM loans that are going to challenge by the regulatory agency and the borrowers if they run into trouble down the road,” Picard said. He added that all of the private mortgage purchasers Denali Alaskan deals with have indicated they will not service non-QM loans in the near future. Some credit unions, such as Denali Alaskan, may continue offering portfolio loans, but those will be “few and far between,” he said. A portfolio loan is one that is kept on the originator’s books and not sold to a mortgage investment firm. The current low-interest rate climate makes issuing portfolio loans even more difficult, Picard noted. “We have to do what we can to lessen the impact of (QM) so we can still give loans to people with credit of good quality that may go over the 43 percent ratio,” Picard said. He estimated that about 10 percent of loans issued industry-wide currently don’t meet QM guidelines — something that will change and affect first-time homebuyers the most, Picard said. The 10 percent non-QM figure represents about 40 people per year not getting home loans through Denali Alaskan that would have previously, he said. At larger institutions the number of loan applications turned away could be in the hundreds to thousands a year, he said. “Ten percent is a big number given the fact that we’re nationally still trying to recover our housing market,” Picard said. “Another 10 percent is a few more nails in the coffin, so to speak.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Defendants in port suit hold their ground

All three defendants in a lawsuit the Municipality of Anchorage filed March 8 over the bungled Port of Anchorage expansion project have firmly denied liability and asked for dismissal in court responses to the municipality’s claims. PND Engineers, Inc., designer of the Open Cell Sheet Pile dock system at the center of the controversy, and CH2M Hill, owner of former port consultant VECO Alaska, filed responses April 17. Integrated Concepts and Research Corp., or ICRC, filed a motion for dismissal in U.S. District Court in Anchorage April 15. ICRC was hired by the U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD, in 2003 to oversee the port construction. The Port of Anchorage project was at the time the first large construction project MARAD had led. CH2M Hill recently released two studies that claim PND’s sheet pile design is inadequate for use at Anchorage’s port and offer construction alternatives. The engineering firm was engaged by the municipality to conduct the studies for about $2.6 million. PND has refuted CH2M Hill’s findings claiming that the firm did not follow the same engineering criteria that PND was ordered to follow when it fabricated the sheet pile design for the port. PND’s stance continues to be that shoddy installation of the sheet piles by subcontractors caused the dock structure to not meet seismic and stability standards. The municipality originally filed suit in state court but the case has since been moved to federal District Court. Federal Judge Ralph Beistline is presiding over the case. While the suit does not specify specific damage amounts, it states the municipality has suffered “damages in excess of $100,000” because of actions by each of the defending parties. CH2M Hill and PND both ask for the case counts of negligence against them to be thrown out and request the municipality be required to pay all legal fees they incurred as a result of the suit. CH2M Hill claims it is no longer liable under VECO’s 2006 contract with PND because the statute of limitations on such an agreement has expired. Alaska law requires action over a disputed work contract be taken within three years under most circumstances. In its motion, ICRC disputes the municipality’s claim of a breach of contract by stating that it never actually entered into a contract with the municipality. Rather, ICRC purports that its role was to “provide discrete contract management assistance in support of the project,” the document states. ICRC adds that it never stepped outside the bounds of the contract it signed with MARAD. The municipality entered into a memorandum of understanding with MARAD to manage the engineering and construction of its port shortly before MARAD brought ICRC into the fold. ICRC also contends the municipality did not follow proper procedure by leaving MARAD out of the suit. “If the claims against ICRC are allowed to continue, MARAD would be a party to this litigation all but in name and in right,” the motion asserts. According to the ICRC, MARAD is obligated to pay its legal fees in accordance with the contract between the two. Lastly, ICRC states that because MARAD is largely immune from litigation because of its standing as a sovereign government agency unless a contract or law was broken. This means, from ICRC’s view, that because the municipality cannot go after MARAD for damages, ICRC is also safe. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Volunteers help seniors, low income residents prepare taxes

Despite a spring snowstorm, Anchorage residents assembled at the Crosspoint Community Church on the city’s west side April 6 for the opportunity to have their taxes done free of charge. Three such “Super Saturday” events are held each year in Anchorage during tax season when Internal Revenue Service-certified AARP tax aide volunteers are made available to the city’s low income and senior populations. During the 2011 tax season, AARP volunteers helped more than 5,600 Anchorage residents not only save an estimated $860,000 in tax preparation costs but also pocket more than $9 million in refunds, according to United Way of Anchorage, which coordinates the events. “The tax preparers are very in tune with making sure the taxpayers that they’re helping get all the tax credits they deserve,” said United Way Director of Community Action Maureen Haggblom. While the snow may have deterred some individuals, there were 25 to 30 people waiting for help from one of six AARP volunteers throughout most of the six-hour, April 6 event. Balloon tiers and face painters volunteered to help children pass the time as their parents worked on their 1040s and W-2s.  United Way tracks the demographics of those who have their taxes done at the events, Haggblom said, and the majority of people seeking help have an income of between $20,000 and $25,000 per year, or are senior citizens. Several years ago, Rene Leach went to a similar event in Palmer; now she volunteers for AARP in Anchorage. Leach said she was a new widow at the time. “I had shattered nerves because my husband had taken care of that stuff and I’m in my 60s,” she said. “I went in very nervous, very unable to do anything really and the gal said, ‘It’s OK, we can do it for you. Tell me your name.’” Leach said the simple reassurance provided her with the knowledge that her someone was there to help her. This year marked her fourth year of volunteering as a greeter and coordinator for AARP. Leach said she tries to calm down those people who may be uneasy or unsure about what they should and who is going to help them with something as important as their taxes. “If you smile at them and get them to smile back it usually helps,” she said. IRS Senior Tax Consultant Kris Ashley has been working at the tax preparation days for nearly 25 years, she said. “It’s really a great program. It’s all volunteers on a shoestring,” Ashley said. Coinciding with tax season, April is national Financial Literacy Month. Haggblom said United Way tries to maximize the opportunity provided by people gathering to have their taxes done by inviting other organizations that offer financial management advice and programs tailored to those who may not have had anyone offer sound money advice to them in the past. Rick Thomas is a counselor for Money Management International, a nonprofit credit counseling firm with locations in 26 states across the country. His organization offers debt management options and helps people solve issues with their credit history that they may not know exist or how to handle properly. On this day, Thomas was offering free credit reports. “We’re here to help support the tax preparation and it helps us get more involved in the community,” he said. “It also helps us gain exposure when we’re at these kinds of wonderful events.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]  

State releases draft of amended Bristol Bay land use plan

Groups opposing Pebble Mine are not happy with an amended 2005 Bristol Bay Area Plan released Jan. 4 by the Department of Natural Resources. The amended land use plan is the result of a 2009 joint lawsuit filed in state court by Trout Unlimited, the Alaska Independent Fisherman’s Marketing Association and five Bristol Bay area village and tribal councils against the Department of Natural Resources, or DNR. The 2005 Bristol Bay Area Plan designated use for more than 19 million acres of land in the Bristol Bay region. Trout Unlimited Alaska Director Tim Bristol said an agreement was reached in August between the two parties to settle the dispute rather than continue in court. The settlement outlined proposed changes to the Bristol Bay plan that DNR agreed to consider. “We just thought that it was better to go out to the public again and gather as much information and disseminate as much information as possible and leave it up to DNR to do the right thing,” Bristol said. DNR Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels said the lawsuit was an unnecessary avenue to attempt to make changes to the 2005 Plan because all area plan adjustments go through what he called “administrative channels” that give an opportunity for public input. A 90-day public comment period on the amended plan is now open until April 4. “We think the State has a lot more work to do to get this thing right,” Bristol said. Fogels said DNR takes public comments seriously. “I venture to say it’s very, very rare that we go through a public comment period and don’t make any changes (to a plan) as a result of the comments,” Fogels said. The petitioners will use take full advantage of the comment window, Bristol said, and assert their concerns “vigorously.” Pebble Limited Partnership joined DNR as a voluntary defendant intervenor against the suit. Officials at Pebble declined to comment on the amended BBAP. According to court documents, the original complaint included eight “causes of action.” It alleges the DNR did not follow its own regulations in defining wildlife habitat land and that the Area Plan or, BBAP, land classifications that include Pebble planning units “violate sustained yield and are arbitrary, capricious and abuse discretion.” DNR defines wildlife habitat as “land which is primarily valuable for fish and wildlife resource production.” The 2005 BBAP was a revision of a 1984 plan. The 1984 BBAP classified about 11.5 million upland acres as wildlife habitat land. In 2005, land classified as wildlife habitat was revised to 786,000 acres, a 93 percent reduction. All of Pebble’s planning units were reclassified from habitat to mineral land under the 2005 BBAP. The amended BBAP reclassifies 723,000 acres of land primarily in the upper Nushagak and Mulchatna river drainages to wildlife habitat. Plan changes turn land next to the mineral land in the Koktuli River valley, a Mulchatna tributary, to wildlife habitat. The changes do not alter any of the mineral land designations made in 2005 surrounding the Pebble area. The complaint states that 9.1 million acres co-classified as habitat and recreation land prior to 2005 were changed to resource management land. Habitat and recreation areas are required to be retained in public ownership; resource management lands are not. Land use designation was changed on such a large area in 2005 because the 1984 BBAP forced land managers to work with a “black map,” Fogels said. What resulted, he said, was the 2005 BBAP that focused on designating land for its greatest value. “It’s indentifying key resources on that land. If the Pebble area is staked with mining claims and there’s obviously high mineral values there, then (miner land) is an appropriate classification for that land,” Fogels said. He also noted that just because land is designated a certain way doesn’t mean it must be used for that purpose. Tom Tilden, chief of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham said in a press release that DNR needs to reach out further than a comment period. “DNR must start listening to the people, and it should hold multiple public hearings in the region before the end of the public comment period. Salmon and wild game are the lifeblood of Bristol Bay communities,” Tilden said. A DNR press release announcing the amended BBAP stated that the request to “reclassify nearly all of the Bristol Bay planning area for wildlife habitat and reclassify much of the planning area to public recreation” was denied. Additionally, it stated the principle of and area plan is to offer “opportunities for multiple use of state land, not just one or two uses.” That portion of the press release was “highly inaccurate,” Bristol said. The goal of the reclassification request was to establish “even footing” between fish and wildlife and related activities and mining. According to Bristol, DNR had tilted the playing field in favor of mining with the 2005 BBAP and the petitioners wanted to return to the 1984 version. In the amended plan DNR notes that the 1984 BBAP used 22 management units to cover over 19 million acres of upland and tidelands, while the 2005 BBAP is broken into 276 management units. Accordingly, designated use classifications are more specific in the 2005 version.  Much of the land classified as wildlife habitat and public recreation areas in the 1984 plan was co-classified for other uses such as forestry, settlement, and transportation corridors, according to DNR. The petitioner’s third cause of action requested that the requirement for anadromous, or salmon, streams be navigable in order to qualify as wildlife habitat be removed from the 2005 BBAP. That request was denied in the amended version. It states: “DNR uses navigability and the presence of anadromous or high-value resident fish in determining those streams to classify as wildlife habitat, but the habitat values of all anadromous streams, navigable and non-navigable, are protected through other Plan provisions.” Bristol said the amended plan doesn’t properly explain the other protections. “I don’t think there’s enough protection in there for fish. Salmon end up going places that aren’t necessarily accessible by boat. The fact that you just stop protections where the boat would run aground doesn’t make any sense,” he said. Fogels said even though DNR may not list the small anadromous streams as habitat, any development done that might affect them requires permitting from Department of Fish and Game. DNR granted a request to add sport hunting and fishing to the definition of recreation activity. It also adjusted BBAP language to clarify that wildlife habitat includes an entire navigable water body, not just spawning and rearing grounds. Streams in Mineral Closing Order 393 are now classified as wildlife habitat if they weren’t already. This includes the Nushagak and Mulchatna river drainages and those flowing into Iliamna Lake. A Mineral Closing Order closes the designated area to mineral entry. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

State energy audit shows potential savings

An energy audit of Alaska public facilities uncovered some of the most, and least, energy efficient buildings in the state. The study, conducted by Alaska Housing Finance Corp., evaluated 327 investment grade audits performed on public facilities. The study estimates there are 5,000 public buildings in Alaska, spending more than $641 million on energy every year. If appropriate measures are taken, the study calculates a potential energy cost savings of  $125 million yearly to the State. An investment grade audit examines a building’s energy use history, design, location and includes a cost-benefit analysis of options to make the building more energy efficient, according to Nathan Wiltse, a project manager and building energy economist for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center. It found Anchorage School District buildings average an energy use index, or EUI, of 121,000 British thermal units per square-foot per year, while Fairbanks North Star Borough buildings average 70,000 EUI. This is despite Fairbanks being in a much colder climate. Factoring in climate differences increases the heating energy use gap. That is done with what is called a heating degree-day: the number of degrees a day’s average temperature is below 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Fairbanks has roughly 14,000 heating degree-days per year, and Anchorage about 10,000, Wiltse said. When climate is factored in, the gap widens. Fairbanks North Star, or FNSB, district buildings average 4.8 EUI per heating degree-day. Buildings in the Anchorage School District, or ASD, average a use of slightly more than 11 EUI per heating degree-day. The average for public buildings audited in the study is 9.7 EUI per heating degree-day. Mike Abbott, assistant superintendant of support services for ASD, agreed that the numbers show a clear gap in heating energy use between the two districts, but said they don’t tell the whole story. “The comparison with (FNSB) is useful, in that it definitely will help us identify opportunities for further improvement, but because of the way the analysis was conducted it might lead you to believe we use twice as much energy per square-foot as Fairbanks, and that’s not necessarily the case,” Abbott said. He noted that a disparity in the number of school buildings in Anchorage and FNSB could account for at least part of the energy-use difference. Abbott said about 30 schools were audited in each district, accounting for roughly 75 percent of schools in FNSB and only 25 percent in ASD, leading to a partially complete data set. Wiltse, who helped prepare the data, concurred. He also said FNSB schools had a “tight range” of EUIs providing a reliable average and Anchorage schools had a “very wide range,” possibly skewing the final average. Despite using less energy in the audited buildings, FNSB still pays more for it, at a cost of $2.38 per square-foot per year, than ASD at $1.92. This is due to much higher fuel prices in Interior Alaska. “There are boilers in some (ASD) schools that have not received maintenance in several years because they just don’t have the money for it,” Wiltse said. The report comes at a time when ASD is facing large budget shortfalls. The district recently announced plans to cut or leave vacant 100 administrative and support positions, saving approximately $4 million. Abbott said the district has an incentive-based program already in place in which schools can reduce energy bills over the prior year and receive a check for 25 percent of the savings. That money then goes directly into the school’s supply budget. “It gives the school a chance to buy textbooks or other instructional supplies,” he said. The program usually returns money to about 20 schools a year, Abbott said. Statewide, Arctic and Northwest region schools spend the most on energy per student with yearly costs approaching $3,000. Interior and Southeast schools spend slightly less than $2,000 and Southcentral and Kodiak schools pay about $1,500 per child. Climate, energy prices, building size and school enrollment all play a large part in those costs, according to the report. The real problem for ASD may be a lack of money to invest in energy, and subsequent cost-saving, upkeep, according to Wiltse Alaska Housing Finance Corp.’s Energy Program Information Manager Jimmy Ord said the audits were done with specific criteria in mind. “This is a biased, non-random sample of public buildings. We chose the higher energy users and the ones that had a higher square-footage to them,” Ord said. “The audits were focused on some of the high energy users to identify some of the problems and where we could make our buildings more efficient.” The report, funded by 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars, provides “benchmarking data” that had not been available before, Ord said. The study makes more than 50 recommendations for increasing energy efficiency. Above all else it pushes for education in proper energy-saving procedures. “Auditors found controls bypassed and operating in the ‘hand’ and manual mode to make them operational. This occurs simply because the technician has not been trained in building operations or the trained technician has moved on and (the) replacement does not know how to operate the systems,” the report states. It also encourages building managers to look for “low-hanging fruit,” or quick and inexpensive ways to reduce energy usage. This could include shutting down appliances seasonally when they are not needed or reducing ventilation when buildings are vacant to prevent unnecessary heat loss. Abbott says ASD is evaluating all of the findings and will move forward with proposals to the school board on how to improve its energy efficiency within a few weeks. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Born from community effort, Hilltop celebrates 30 years

Mountains and skiing go together like kids and snow. Hilltop Ski Area combines all four. Situated on the edge of Anchorage where the city meets the Chugach, Hilltop is a place for novice skiers to practice the downhill craft. “We do a lot of after school programs — Kinder Ski, Hotdoggers, that sort of thing. We’re a beginner area,” Hilltop CEO Steve Remme said. The Kinder Ski and Hotdoggers programs offer after school lessons for kids from ages 4 to 16 years old. A lifelong skier himself, Remme said he never envisioned running a ski area as his career, but he said it has its own built-in rewards. “There’s a certain amount of gratification standing out there and watching these little four and five year-olds coming down the hill for the first time just grinning ear to ear,” he said. “It’s such a pleasure to know that those kids probably are never going to stop doing that.” A nonprofit, Hilltop is owned by Youth Exploring Adventure Inc. This winter marks 30 years for the ski area, but its origin goes back to the late 1960s, Remme said. It was then that a group of parents from the Hillside neighborhood formed Hilltop Youth Inc. “Mostly, along the Hillside here, it was all homesteads and they were all pretty far apart and there wasn’t really any organized activities for all the kids,” he said. Hilltop Youth Inc. began with a donated milk truck that parents filled with books to make what Remme called a “roving library.” Shortly after, a neighborhood playground was constructed and a towrope was installed near the entrance to what is now the ski area. Remme said the 160-acre parcel that makes up Hilltop Ski Area was originally a military tract, donated to the Anchorage Municipality in the late 1970s. In 1982, with the state “flush with oil money,” Remme said Hilltop Youth Inc., the precursor to Youth Exploring Adventure Inc., received grant money to purchase the chair lift, which allowed Hilltop Ski Area to come into being. The following year another grant was awarded to complete construction and that’s when Remme joined the organization. Installing the chair lift left Hilltop Youth Inc. at a crossroads, Remme explained. What had been a towrope overseen by volunteer parents on weekends was about to become a seven day-a-week operation. “We wanted to have rentals so people could rent some gear, go out and get a lesson and learn a lifelong sport,” Remme said. “In addition to that, something unexpected, was we created all these jobs.” Hilltop Ski Area employs more than 100 people every winter. Most are high school and college-aged; some have never worked before. “For a lot of my employees — and I’ve been here 30 years — it’s their first job ever, but they love it. We try to create a pretty good atmosphere for people that have never worked before and instill good work habits from the very beginning,” he said. Hilltop operates on an annual budget of about $1.2 million. Remme said roughly half of that goes out in employee compensation. The remainder goes into updating rental inventory, and when conditions require, making snow to cover 33 acres of runs. Remme said years with little snow accumulation, such as this year so far, can be a challenge for Hilltop. “The poor snow years do affect us even though we make our own snow because it’s top of mind. When (people) don’t go out to their driveway and shovel their walk they don’t think about all the snow and going skiing,” he said. Hilltop’s youth oriented nature and its location on the edge of the city make it a perfect “babysitter,” Remme said. Parents often drop their kids off for a day of skiing and then head into Anchorage to run errands. Others stay and get some exercise themselves. The Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage maintains a network of cross-country trails that begin right alongside Hilltop’s driveway. “I see it all the time. Parents come in and drop off their kids, put them in a lesson, go back to the car and put on the cross country gear and take off and do like a 10K and come back and have hot chocolate with their kids and go,” Remme said. Hilltop offers 12 different programs for parents who want to get their kids involved in downhill skiing, or who want to learn themselves. The programs are broken down by age and ability level. Mark DeHertogh is the ski school director at Hilltop. He said the full-day ski camp, run on weekends and over the holidays, will usually include up to 100 kids learning how to ski. Hilltop also offers private lessons for children and adults every day of the week along with its after school programs. For him, Hilltop is a way to get active during a long winter, DeHertogh said. “The reason I like it is, living in Alaska, if you don’t get out and do something in the winter you’re going to go stir-crazy,” he said. DeHertogh began his tenure there when Special Olympics Alaska moved its training program from Alyeska to Hilltop seven seasons ago. He was coaching Special Olympics skiers at the time. “We do five days a week with Special Olympics,” he said. Special Olympics Alaska holds its annual ski and snowboard competitions at Hilltop and in 2001 it was the site for the ski and snowboard events in the winter Special Olympics World Games. Remme said hosting the World Games provided Hilltop an opportunity to update its facilities. The ski area received a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the efforts of Special Olympics to build its current pro shop. “We hosted the snowboard venue for the first time that it was ever in the games,” Remme said. “It was a real exciting thing for us. We got a new building, we upgraded our lift from a double to a triple, and we had people from all over the world come here.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Anchorage, Fairbanks recognized as top winter destinations

Alaska has long been an iconic tourist destination in summer. Now, the state’s largest cities are garnering attention for their winter attractions. Anchorage was ranked No. 1 on a list of “America’s Hottest Cold Cities” by Livability, an online travel magazine. According to its mission, Livability’s goal is to find “the good stuff in small to medium-sized communities all across America.” The Fairbanks area recently received similar honors from two travel information outlets. National Geographic magazine listed the Chena River State Recreation Area as a top 10 winter trip for 2013. The nearly 400 square-mile area of primarily wilderness begins about 30 miles east of Fairbanks near the end of Chena Hot Springs Road. Travel guide website Lonely Planet named Fairbanks its No. 2 domestic destination for 2013. “A lot of it is about the aurora, that’s what really captured their attention,” said Deb Hickok, president and CEO of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. Lonely Planet noted that this year ends an, “11-year (aurora) cycle, when sunspots are particularly feisty, making for a big show in the Fairbanks sky.” Hickok said preliminary numbers she’s seen from the State of Alaska estimate about 50,000 people traveled to the Interior last winter with roughly 17,000 of those being vacationers. That marks a 6 percent increase from the last survey done in the winter of 2006-07 she said. “I personally think that’s a little low, because we know on the Japan Airlines charters we got 7,800 (visitors) alone,” Hickok said. In addition to viewing the northern lights she said visitors head to Fairbanks for the Chena Hot Springs, dog mushing and the World Ice Art Championships beginning in late February and running through March. The ice sculpting competition features about 100 exhibits produced by artists from around the world every year. Fairbanks winter temperatures can be a deterrent to some prospective travelers, Hickok said, but for those who embrace the weather she calls it a “notch in their travel belt.” She said guided tours and mushing outfitters often provide gear for those who might not otherwise be prepared for a sub-Arctic winter excursion. “We advise people to dress in layers. If you’re out at the ice park and it’s minus-30 you go around for a half-hour, an hour, and then you go inside and have a cup of hot chocolate and you go back out again,” Hickok said. “It’s just getting over that perceived notion of what the cold is like.” Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau spokesman Jack Bonney said late winter offers visitors a number of unique winter attractions. The Fur Rendezvous Festival begins in mid-February and bills itself as a “10-day celebration of life in Alaska.” The festival was named as a top winter event by National Geographic Traveler in January 2012. Shortly after the Iditarod begins in Anchorage and the Tour of Anchorage cross-country ski marathon happens in early March. “We kind of package those as a tour when we talk about winter visitation,” Bonney said. “They’re right next to each other in that same couple of weeks, so it makes a really good time to visit Anchorage.” Bonney pointed to traditional summer activities such as hiking and sightseeing flights as options for winter activities when conditions allow. An Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development economic impact study of the state’s tourism industry reported that in the fall and winter of 2008-09 visitors spent $197 million in Alaska. $128 million was spent in Southcentral and nearly $37 million was shelled out in the Interior. That compares with $1.3 billion spent by visitors to Alaska in the summer of 2009. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Port MacKenzie project back on track

Marc Van Dongen is a big man with bigger plans. As director of Port MacKenzie he oversees all operations across Knik Arm from Anchorage, including the largest project at the port since it was built in 1999: the rail extension from Houston to Port MacKenzie. Work on the rail line had been suspended due to an Oct. 1 stay issued by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. On Nov. 28 the three-judge panel reversed the stay, allowing work to resume and denying a petition for review filed jointly by the Sierra Club and Cook Inletkeeper. The groups questioned the Surface Transportation Board’s 2011 finding that the rail extension project met all National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, guidelines. The court’s written opinion states that “the (Surface Transportation Board’s) ‘purpose and need’ statement complied with NEPA and that the Petitioners no longer raise ‘serious questions’ on this point.” The ruling also cited an estimate — provided by Alaska Railroad Corp. and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough — of $10 million to $12 million added to the cost of the publicly funded project if the work stoppage continued as a reason to lift the stay. “There’s a lot of false claims out there about how we’re hurting wetlands and the fish, and by what they’ve got planned it’s anything but that,” Mat-Su Borough Public Affairs Director Patty Sullivan said. With the ruling, Sullivan said the borough can resume advertising contracts for the project and 200 construction workers will be able to return to work at winter’s end. The quicker-than-expected ruling allowed the project to stay on track. “By the end of 2016, that’s what our goal is, to have the rail line completed,” Van Dongen said. “So far, we’ve received 54 percent of the funding for the project. We’re asking for the full amount in the next legislative cycle. If we get it, we can get the project done faster.” The borough needs $126 million to fully fund the 32-mile, $272.5 million undertaking. Over a 50-year period, the rail line is expected to provide a 23-fold return on invested state dollars if it’s fully utilized, according to a University of Fairbanks study. Van Dongen said that filling the rails won’t be an issue and he believes adding a new export route will spur mine development along the rail corridor. Talk of limestone and gold expansion near Livengood and Fairbanks is well under way, he said. “It’s going to impact the Interior more than it impacts the (Mat-Su) Borough. These mines, as they’re developed, there’ll be a lot more jobs created in the Interior from that,” Van Dongen said. “That’s where the jobs are going to be, and on the railroad. It’s a positive thing what we’re doing here. It’s a makes-sense sort of thing.” A 2011 University of Alaska Fairbanks study of the rail line looked at revenue generated by shipping 3 million tons of materials yearly to Port MacKenzie. Estimating 3 million tons of exports yearly is based on port operating capacity with current infrastructure, one deep-draft dock. Van Dongen said the next project in line is adding a second deep water landing. The study estimates State of Alaska revenue at $70 million per year in royalties and fees, with another $72 million being generated by the Alaska Railroad. For the railroad, that represents a nearly 40 percent increase total revenue over 2011. Port income is projected at roughly $5 million per year. Van Dongen said he has briefed the legislature and the governor as to the benefit the rail line will provide Alaska. “They understand the benefits, the jobs, revenue and economic development available to the state by having a rail line come down to our port.” When finished, Van Dongen said the rail line will terminate with a mile-long loop at the port where companies “can stockpile commodities on both sides of the rail.” Port MacKenzie offers 14 square-miles of land available for development and material storage. Van Dongen noted that large quantities of material could be accumulated to wait for large ships or optimal shipping times. Vitus Marine, the company that coordinated the emergency fuel shipment to Nome last winter, is set to construct tanks for storing 5 million gallons of fuel at the head of the Port MacKenzie rail loop. Initial exports shipped down the rail will be coal from the Usibelli coal mine near Healy, Van Dongen said. Lorali Simon, spokeswoman for Usibelli, said the company currently ships about 1 million tons of coal out of Seward every year, and is excited about the chance for expansion. “We would love to be able to use Port MacKenzie as a supplemental port for Healy coal. We don’t have any intention of dropping the Seward facility and only using Port Mackenzie, but we would like to use both. That certainly gives us the opportunity to increase our export,” she said. Though large ships have delivered to Port MacKenzie, the current dock and conveyor system is designed primarily for exporting raw materials. Adding to the existing infrastructure would ease the importing of goods and make future port operations nearly limitless, Van Dongen said. Plans for the expansion add 1,450 feet to the current 1,200-foot deep-draft dock. A 20-acre gravel pad and second conveyer will make additional exporting or roll-on roll-off importing simple exercises, he said. “It’s eight to 10 years down the road before I’d expect to have that project completed,” Van Dongen said. “I intend to be retired, sipping mai tais somewhere, but I intend to get the permit for it.” Despite the long-range timeline for completing a second deep-draft dock, Van Dongen said the need for it is obvious when one looks at the potential it holds for Alaska with goods both coming and going. The need magnifies if the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline is built. If built, the pipeline would terminate at a site roughly 20 miles from Port MacKenzie. The line would carry twice as much LNG as Southcentral initially needs, providing export opportunities. “There’d be a long-term export of natural gas liquids, that’s a reason I’m trying to get a permit to expand our dock because we could bring in LNG ships to export,” Van Dongen said. The port commission sees the space at Port MacKenzie as a prime location to build a gas processing plant if the pipeline comes down from the North Slope, he said. Van Dongen pointed to a partnership with Klondike Concrete to import cement as a glimpse of what expanded port operations could mean for Alaska. “Three years ago we started importing cement. With the first ship we brought in, guess what happened to the price of cement. It went from $176 a ton down to $125 a ton,” he said. In early November the port proved it could move scrap steel, a commodity spread throughout Alaska. When the Thai ship Billesborg left Port MacKenzie with 8,000 tons of steel for South Korea, it was the first time a deep-draft vessel had carried scrap steel from Southcentral and the first time the steel went directly to its destination. Previous exports of steel left Anchorage and barged to Seattle, where they were consolidated before being sent to the West, Van Dongen said. “They proved that we could do it. I expect future shipments — you’ll see bigger ships,” he said. “You save over a quarter to a half-million dollars (shipping direct) versus bringing it down to Seattle.” NPI LLC is one of several companies currently leasing property at Port MacKenzie. NPI spent $7 million to build the half-mile long, multi-use conveyor system at the port prior to exporting wood chips to South Korea in 2005. In 2010, the company coordinated a test-run coal shipment from the port, as well. Van Dongen said the partnership with NPI to build the conveyor benefits everyone involved. NPI has exclusive rights to move materials on its conveyor and leases it out to other companies with materials to export. Usage fees are set by a group of five Mat-Su Borough and NPI individuals, with the borough holding the majority. It’s an example of the efficiency of the port and how to best utilize your assets, he said. NPI Manager Dane Crowley said his company invested in the port because operations there look promising. “(Van Dongen) has done a fantastic job in developing the infrastructure of the port. His future plans that he’s got laid out are all very well thought-out and certainly the rail extension to Port MacKenzie is going to be a huge driver,” Crowley said. “I really expect that we’ll see Port MacKenzie grow significantly in the next few years.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Anchorage unemployment at five-year low

Unemployment in Anchorage fell to 4.7 percent and a five-year low in October, according to a report from the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. It’s the lowest monthly unemployment figure since November 2007. “4.7 percent is crazy-low unemployment – that compared to the rest of the country is pretty amazing,” said Bill Popp, president and CEO of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. Popp said Anchorage’s unemployment rate compares to that of oil-boom North Dakota and government-influenced Washington, D.C. The yearly unemployment average for Anchorage stands at 5.7 percent. Statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment was 7.1 percent for October and has averaged 7.2 percent in 2012, according to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. For the year Anchorage has gained 1,680 jobs, a 1.1 percent increase over 2011, according to the AEDC report. Of those, nearly 1,400 were in service industries. A year-over-year increase of 2,100 jobs equates to 1.3 percent growth in the Anchorage workforce. The year-to-date gain already surpasses AEDC’s 1,500 job gain projection for the year. Popp said this could mean closing in on 2,000 jobs added to Anchorage in 2012. Health care remains a strong growth-sector for Anchorage, accounting for nearly a third of the city’s jobs added since the beginning of the year. “In the last decade health care has accounted for almost 45 percent of job growth in Anchorage. We’re up about 500 jobs from last year,” Popp said. Business and professional service industries have added 480 so far. Popp said that growth is three-times what AEDC had expected and could be a sign of continued growth in the future. “That’s your architects, permitters, lawyers, engineers. These kinds of jobs can sometimes be interpreted as a leading indicator of where things may be headed in the next 12 to 18 months,” he said. “They tend to be the ones who get first-dibs on large projects – construction, design projects, civil engineering work.” Along with the possible forecast of an increase in development projects, Popp said construction was up 500 jobs in October alone, making construction employment flat for the year. While those numbers are not particularly encouraging by themselves, he noted that the industry had been in near constant decline since 2006. Commercial development, such as the Tikhatnu Commons project, is the biggest reason for the construction job spike, Popp said. The AEDC report shows modest retail growth of nearly 200 jobs, or 1.1 percent for the year, which Popp expects to continue as new to Anchorage such as Verizon and Bass Pro Shops add to recent retail expansion in the city. At 4.7 percent unemployment, Anchorage’s October workforce was approximately 158,000 strong, leaving less than 8,000 unemployed individuals in the city. In Anchorage’s uniquely isolated situation, this makes for a much shallower labor pool. Popp said he’s starting to refer to it as a “labor puddle.” As qualified professional help becomes harder to find, some companies are being forced to offer steep incentives to draw in employees from Outside. “We’re now return to where we were before the national recession, in terms of companies spending as much as $10,000 to $15,000, sometimes $20,000 in costs associated with acquiring one employee for some of these skilled jobs,” Popp said. Uncertainties regarding the federal budget, oil taxes and Anchorage’s energy supply could slow economic growth, but are also near impossible to predict. With that in mind, Popp said AEDC feels good about the future of the city’s economy. “Right now we’re still optimistic for the next two-to-three years,” he said. “We’re on the street right now with our business confidence index survey. We’re polling local businesses to see what their perspective is on the coming year.” The business confidence numbers will be released in late January. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Biomass saves big bucks to heat and power rural schools

Rural entities across Alaska are looking for alternative sources of energy as a solution to unsustainable fuel and power bills. The Gateway School District, headquartered in Tok, appears to have found its answer to both in the woods. In October 2010, the district installed a wood biomass-fired heating boiler system in Tok School. Before installing the boiler, district Superintendant Todd Poage said the school burned an average of 55,000 gallons of heating oil every year. Heating oil currently goes for about $4 a gallon in Tok. “When we just had the boiler section running in 2010 we were saving between $6,000 and $7,000 per month as compared to utilizing heating oil,” he said. Those savings go right back into everyday operations. “We started a lot of programs with stimulus funds we got four years ago and with the savings from this biomass project we put in preschools at every school in the district,” Poage said. “We hired a music teacher and were able to keep our music and counseling programs.” Last fall, the district looked to further its energy savings by adding a low-speed electric steam turbine system to the steam boiler. The school uses about 530,000 kilowatts of electricity per year. The current rate for power in Tok is 52 cents per kilowatt. Poage said the school’s utility bill without the combined heat and power system, or CHP, is roughly $350,000 per year. Assistant superintendant turned CHP project manager Scott MacManus said the addition of the steam generator to the boiler has been a challenge but he hopes to have the entire system fully operational by the end of November. Currently, CHP system is not running. “The generator requires more wood so we’ve had problems with chip feeder, and integrating three power sources to all work together is difficult,” MacManus said. “It requires a lot of switches to work in unison.” The second and third power sources are the school’s backup diesel generator and the traditional power grid. According to MacManus, plans are for the school to generate an average of 70 kilowatts per hour to cover its consumption. That will allow for power to be sent into the grid when the system is generating more than the school needs and to draw from it at peak demand, such as when the gym lights are turned on. MacManus estimated the CHP system will save the district more than $300,000 per year when it’s full up and running. MacManus and Poage both stressed they’re not in the power business and that Alaska Power and Telephone, who supplies the area with power, understands the need for the system. “This is not a pie-in-the-sky project. It’s about finding a long-term solution to an economic problem,” MacManus said. Generating electricity will produce far more heat than the school can use and initial excess heat will be let-off to the outdoors. Hopefully, that be the case won’t be for long. Gateway School District received $140,000 in legislative grants earlier this year to build a greenhouse alongside the Tok School. The greenhouse will be heated with surplus heat from the CHP system and provide fresh produce to the entire district. “We have the design done and we just have to build it this spring,” Poage said. The district spends $18,500 on produce every year. It estimates the 2,400 square-foot greenhouse could provide up to 20,000 pounds of produce and nearly eliminate its fresh grocery bill over a nine-month growing season. A $2.8 million grant is also under review by the Alaska Energy Authority, or AEA, to extend a heat loop from the school to the Tok fire department, senior center, low-income housing and two state buildings, Poage said. The loop will use the remaining heat generated that the school cannot use. “We can provide them with heat for half the cost they’re currently paying,” Poage said. AEA has funded construction of biomass heating projects in Delta and Thorne Bay, along with Tok. In partnership with the U.S. Forest Service AEA has funded more than 30 pre-feasibility studies for similar projects since 2011, with another 16 scheduled for next year, according to AEA spokesman Karsten Rodvik. In Tanana, the city shop, teacher housing and water treatment facilities have already received biomass upgrades thanks to AEA dollars. City Manager Bear Ketzler Jr. said the city’s school project is expected to be up and running before the new year. “We have a number of properties already operating with biomass, but the is by far going to be the biggest biomass system in the community. For that matter, on the Yukon River,” Ketzler said. The furnace is designed to cover 80 percent of the school’s heat at peak draw. That equates to a savings of roughly 80 gallons of heating oil on Tanana’s coldest days. “The school normally burns about 15,000 gallons a year and that’s down from about 25,000 before we did the weatherization project a couple years ago,” Ketzler said. “By burning wood we’ll be saving 10,000 gallons a year, that’s $50,000 to $60,000.” Most of the wood the city burns in its other buildings is driftwood pulled from the Yukon River. Ketzler estimates buying the extra 80 cords of chipped wood to supply the school’s needs will cost the city around $20,000 per year. Even with the additional cost, the boiler should pay for itself within 6 years at today’s price of $5.50 for a gallon of heating fuel in Tanana. Promise of a road to Tanana as a part of the governor’s Roads to Resources initiative could provide the city with a long-term supply of biomass fuel. Ketzler said he has been in discussion with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities about saving material cleared from the 39-mile long corridor. “(DOT&PF has) been receptive to the idea – instead of the old traditional way of digging holes and burying all the organics – of looking at how we can save the material that’s three-to-four inches in diameter and stockpile it along the way,” he said. Officials with the department said they expect construction to begin on the road in early summer 2013. Possible charges to the city for using the wood haven’t been resolved. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

$33M upgrade expands training and adds housing

Construction of more than $33 million worth of new facilities at Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna is moving ahead as scheduled, College Director Gary Turner said. Kenai Peninsula College, or KPC, is adding a $17.8 million student housing building along with a $15.25 million Career and Tech Center to its Kenai River Campus. The projects are expected to be finished in August 2013, just time for fall classes. “It’s a significant amount of money that’s being injected into our local economy and that’s aside from the fact that it’s going to allow the college to expand some of its most popular programs,” KPC Advancement Program Manager Suzie Kendrick said. The 19,000 square-foot Career and Tech Center will allow the college to expand its training for Alaska’s high-demand fields of oil, gas and electricity production, Kendrick said. KPC expects opening the building to have long-term workforce development implications for the state. Turner said the center will further what is already a strong process technology program at KPC. “We conduct the best training in the process tech field in the country and the major producers have told us that time after time,” he said. The interest oil companies show in the school’s students prior to their graduation is a testament to KPC’s reputation and why providing opportunities for more students with new facilities will pay off, Kendrick noted. She said the school currently has waiting lists for students hoping to get into its process technology programs. “We just had ExxonMobil here giving tests to our students hoping to hire them before BP and Conoco can,” she said. The Career and Tech Center will free up a significant amount of space in existing buildings, Kendrick said, giving the school more room to expand health services education. She said KPC is adding a firefighter-training program for the upcoming spring semester as well. The Kenai Peninsula College campus in Soldotna is situated along the scenic Kenai River and is adding student housing set to open in fall 2013. The site of the $17.8 million housing project, seen at bottom left, will have space for 96 students and six resident assistants. (Photo/Courtesy/KPC) Situated just 300 feet from the Kenai River, KPC’s student housing facility under construction at its Kenai River Campus will be the first of its kind for the college. The school also operates a campus in Homer and extensions in Seward and Anchorage. “KPC, historically, has not had residential on-campus housing available,” Kendrick said. “It will allow students who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend the college to attend, that’s what’s so exciting for us.” The housing will give prospective students from rural Alaska an opportunity to continue their education without having to move immediately to a large city or worry about a place to live, she said. “KPC is a great fit for students from small places. Here, they can get their feet wet and see if college is right for them,” Kendrick said. The two-story dormitory will be broken into 24, 1,030 square-foot apartments. Each apartment will have 4 bedrooms, a bathroom, full kitchen and a common area. It will be home for 96 students and 6 resident assistants. The building site is part of a wooded, 309-acre tract of land owned by the college and is within walking distance to the rest of the campus, according to KPC publications. Housing will cost each student $3,200 per semester and applications will be taken in April on a first-come first-serve basis, Turner said.  Students must first register for classes in order to be eligible for on-campus housing, he said. While initial funding for the new buildings at KPC was approved through legislative grants, Turner said all housing in the university system is self-funded and KPC housing will be no different. Plans are for the dorms and other university buildings to be rented out for training events and conferences in summer when students are gone. “There isn’t a conference center on the central peninsula and it’s been a need for many years and folks are talking about it a lot,” Turner said. “I think we can fill some of that niche through our facility.” The school has the support of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, he said. Turner recently announced an agreement between KPC and Alaska Christian College for the school to offer meal plan options to some of KPC’s new on-campus residents. Under the agreement, Alaska Christian College will offer breakfast, lunch and dinner to the first 30 students who apply. Meal plans will range in cost from $1,200 for 100 meals up to $1,725 for 200 meals, Turner said. The agreement is part of a long working relationship KPC has had with the school, he said, and gives students at the two colleges the “opportunity to break bread together in Alaska Christian College’s inviting dining hall.” Turner said he’s excited about the prospect of opening the new facilities and what the mean for the future of the Kenai Peninsula as a whole. “It’s a win-win-win,” he said. “That’s such a darn cliché but it’s true for our campus, for our community and for business and industry.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]  

Gas line projected to generate thousands of in-state jobs

Alaska Gasline Development Corp. CEO Dan Fauske provided figures estimating a major impact to Alaska if the proposed in-state gas pipeline is built. “It will be the largest project in North America. It will supply 8,000 direct and 15,000 indirect jobs,” Fauske said Nov. 9 in a presentation to the Associated General Contractors of Alaska annual conference. The numbers expand on those in the final environmental impact statement released Oct. 26. The estimated $7.52 billion construction cost will involve moving 10 million cubic yards of soil, assembling 335,000 tons of pipe and 4 million miles of truck travel to transport equipment and supplies, according to ADGC statistics. As previously reported, the 24-inch diameter pipeline will stretch 737 miles from Prudhoe Bay to an extraction plant on the northern edge of Cook Inlet. In his presentation, Fauske added that state regulation requires an additional facility to be built at mile 458 of the pipeline. That’s where a 12-inch lateral line is planned to supply Fairbanks. “We must build what’s called a straddle plant to pull impurities, or those rich natural gas liquids out and you must ship utility grade gas down the line.” Fauske said. A straddle plant will cost $250 million and be paid in a tariff charged to gas customers in Fairbanks. While some in the city aren’t happy with the expenditure, Fauske said the status quo will not hold. “Fairbanks is in an absolutely chaotic economic situation in terms of energy cost,” he said. “You have people paying more for their monthly heating bill in the dead of winter than for their mortgage payment.” AGDC projects the Fairbanks tariff to be $10.45 per million Btu worth of gas. Current tariffs for gas trucked to Fairbanks are in the $23 range, Fauske noted. An Anchorage tariff is expected to be slightly lower simply because of dispersal over a larger population. “You’re going to pay $9.63 (in Anchorage) after you built a $7.5 billion pipeline, put thousands of people to work, and secured energy for the next hundred years and your energy prices are going up less than a buck. That’s pretty impressive,” Fauske said. The tariff for gas from Cook Inlet, he said, is in the $8 range right now. A project timeline provided by ADGC forecasts engineering, financing and permitting to continue for several years. Construction is expected to begin in early 2016, with the first gas reaching Fairbanks in late 2018 and a full flow of 500 million cubic feet of gas per day to Cook Inlet beginning in 2019. The state of Alaska will be expected to cover the first $400 million in design and permitting costs. Fauske said the costs up front will be recovered through gas taxes and royalty fees. With gas supplies from Cook Inlet dwindling and shortages expected as soon as 2014, Fauske made his feelings about the importance of the gas line clear. “I joke in speeches we’re going to be in our basements burning our Permanent Fund checks to stay warm,” he said. “I don’t care what project we do, I just want a project.” He added that the in-state line is not meant to compete against the idea of a much larger commercial export pipeline. It is meant to supply Alaska with its gas needs. If a second gas pipeline is built in the future, Fauske said, it will be done by large oil and gas companies, not by the state. Costs for a 48-inch export line are estimated to be $45 billion to $60 billion. “If in their work they determine that someday, tomorrow or maybe 50 years from now, it makes sense for them to spend that kind of money to ship gas to either the west coast of the United States or the Far East, they’ll do it,” he said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Partnerships working to reduce moose collisions in Alaska

The Alaska Moose Federation, or AMF, is partnering with state agencies and private industry to implement new strategies to reduce the number of vehicle versus moose collisions. AMF Executive Director Gary Olson said heavy snowfall last winter pushed more moose into urban environments and onto plowed roadways. That led to more than 1,000 confirmed moose collisions last winter totaling more than $35 million in damage. In one 24-hour period in early February, the federation’s moose salvage program picked up 17 dead moose. “Those are just quantifiable numbers with X amount on vehicle damage, personal injury and loss of work to about $35,000 per collision. So, it costs a lot not doing a program,” Olson said. As a testament to cost of moose accidents, Olson said, Allstate Insurance donated $25,000 to the federation in 2011 to support the nonprofit’s work. The programs AMF is focused on are designed to encourage the animals to stay in their natural habitat by reducing the benefit for them of traveling in road corridors. Moose are drawn to roadways because they provide easy walking and access to young trees, a primary food source, along their edges. “The moose are there because we’re compelling them to be there. It’s an easy place to walk; some of the best habitat, sad to say, in Mat-Su and the Kenai (Peninsula) is within 75 feet of the asphalt,” Olson said. “If you took that mentality and moved it away from the roads, but you always put it on a rotation — 15 or 20 years before it’s cut again — it’s a never ending resource.” Last winter AMF cut 157 miles of diversionary trails near the Parks Highway in the lower Susitna valley. The cut trees and brush were then formed into 11 feeding stations. Early returns on the work indicate a 50 percent drop in moose collisions in the final two months of the winter, according to the AMF website. At the same time Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities also widened the visible right of way to 200 feet on a 12- mile stretch of the Parks Highway near Willow, giving drivers a wider field of view and pushing the browse line farther away from traffic. If everything works out, Olson said he hopes the federation can cut up to 400 miles of trails statewide this winter. While most work has been done around Alaska’s population centers, AMF is working all over the state to reduce moose collisions. “We’re working in Tok right now. This is a statewide deal. We’re pretty much going where the blizzards tell us to go,” Olson said. “If you have a really deep snow year, you’ll be doing more with cutting trees and snow machines. If you have a light snow winter, we’re doing more with dozers and heavier iron. There’s really no down time.” Doug Vincent-Lang, director of wildlife conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said AMF is issued permits before doing any work and that the federation has a working relationship with Fish and Game. “I see the Moose Federation being a key partner in helping us increase moose production on state lands, at least, because in many areas we haven’t had fires in many years because of public safety concerns,” Vincent-Lang said. A big reason moose are heading to road corridors to feed is the lack of forest fires in their natural habitat, Vincent-Lang said. Fires initiate the new growth moose need for food and cover. ADFG and AMF are trying to determine effective alternatives to the historical widespread blaze. “Is there a way we can develop fire barriers and let some of those fires burn, or short of that, are there ways we can go in and physically manipulate habitat and make it more productive for moose?” he said. The type of partnership AMF has formed with Fish and Game is critical to the success of its goals, Olson said. What the Moose Federation needs is for the agencies to determine what needs to be implemented and when and then put the wish list out to us to go out and get it done, he said. Last winter AMF teamed up with local snow machine clubs on the Kenai Peninsula to cut birch trees which, when down, provided moose with otherwise inaccessible food and kept them in the woods. Olson said 200 trees were cut by a small group of volunteers with snow machines and chainsaws in one day. “There are so many people that have their own testimonial as to why it’s important to them. Our primary strength is our grassroots support,” Olson said. AMF currently has approximately 1,200 members paying its $20 yearly membership. Olson said he hopes to have 2,000 members “by next calving season.” Recently AMF has been cutting brush inside the fence on the New Seward Highway corridor near the Dimond Boulevard interchange with the help of volunteers. Olson said 48 cadets from the Alaska Military Youth Academy donated time to assist in removing moose food. “Some day there’ll be zero reason for the moose to live inside that corridor,” he said. The federation is also reaching out to private industry for help providing equipment to facilitate roadway cuts and diversionary trail clearing. Olson said AMF has purchased wood chippers and auxiliary equipment to be coupled with bulldozers and other large equipment through state grants. Olson wants the moose federation to become specialists with attachments used on donated equipment, he said. “If we can get that public private partnership kick-started with equipment from industry that’s going to be a win-win for everybody involved. There’s a lot of dozers that sit all winter long with snow on them,” he said. “If they were out working with Fish and Game or the (Department of Natural Resources) or the Moose Federation, for enhancing critical wintering habitat out there, there’d be less moose here on the roads and rails.” Dave Cruz, president of Cruz Construction in Palmer, said his company is happy to provide anything AMF asks for. Cruz Construction has donated trucks, bulldozers and specialized Sno-Cat vehicles for federation work, he said. Over the past five years Cruz Construction has donated roughly $35,000 to AMF. “We’ve been involve with Gary since the Moose Federation got going. We’ve hauled equipment, we’ve donated money, we’ve done multiple things and it’s a good business partnership because it’s a good cause,” Cruz said. “I just don’t want to see a nonprofit that’s actually doing something lose steam.” Olson has headed AMF since it’s formation in 2002. While AMF relies heavily on donations, Olson said the work it does pays for itself every time a moose collision is avoided. Numbers he’s seen report up to 11 emergency response personnel are called to every moose collision with injuries. Olson calls the costs “just staggering” and says that’s why AMF’s work is so important. Olson said the moose salvage program the federation implemented has been successful in shortening accident disruption time but hopefully won’t be needed nearly as much in the future. “We don’t want to be the best at just picking up dead moose off broken cars and hurt people,” he said. “We want to try to put ourselves out of a job when it comes to the salvage program.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Wood biomass project to power Tok appears promising

Alaska Power & Telephone’s feasibility study for a wood biomass plant in Tok should be finalized by the end of November, Thomas Deerfield, project coordinator, said, and the initial findings for the proposal look promising. Deerfield owns Dalson Energy, an Anchorage-based energy consulting firm that specializes in the use of wood biomass energy systems. Wood biomass systems traditionally burn wood harvested as a renewable fuel to power a boiler system, which transfers heat through steam to warm individual buildings, Deerfield explained. The proposed project will use a combined heat and power, or CHP, plant to generate electricity for Tok and the surrounding area. Alaska Power & Telephone, or AP&T, now operates a diesel-fired power plant in Tok. “The bottom line is that technically, operationally and financially, it’s positive. Everything is going to look good. It’s going to be a viable project,” Deerfield said. The current cost of power in Tok is unsustainable, he said. “Fifty cents a kilowatt-hour is slowly strangling the life out of Tok, Tetlin, Tanacross and Dot Lake,” Deerfield said. “The status quo is not viable. We’ve established that in our feasibility study.” Some residents are paying in excess of $400 every month for electricity, he said. The high price of power in the area has caused what Deerfield called “demand destruction.” AT&P’s Tok facility presently burns roughly 750,000 gallons of diesel per year to produce up to two megawatts of electricity at peak production, Deerfield said. In the past the plant burned upwards of a million gallons fuel to meet power demands. “If your product is so expensive it doesn’t matter if people need it or not, they will cut back, and that’s exactly what’s happened,” Deerfield said. Bill Arpin owns Burnt Paw Cabins & Outback in Tok. To power the seven one-room cabins and 1,400 square-foot gift shop costs Arpin about $2,000 a month despite taking measures to reduce electricity usage, he said. “That’s watching it really close. I mean, we don’t just leave lights on arbitrarily, or all the time. There’s timers on some lights and photo sensors on others,” Arpin said. “We had halogens in and we switched to compact fluorescents and we cut our electric bill in half.” Arpin said all one has to do is take a tour of the town to see the impact of high energy costs on Tok. “If you drive around here, right now is a good time to do it. We just got a little snow, and you’ll see driveway after driveway and there’s no tracks going in or out,” he said. “Those houses are boarded up. They’re not for sale or trying to rent them or anything; they just can’t afford the electricity or heating oil.” Deerfield said AT&P operates extremely efficiently, garnering “more kilowatt-hours per gallon of diesel than anyone in Alaska,” and is not to blame for electric cost problems. It comes down to the cost of diesel, he said. After fuel is trucked in from Fairbanks, Ben Beste, internal project manager for AP&T, said the company is paying a total cost of about $4 per gallon for diesel. AP&T is an employee-owned company with fixed profits, Beste said, and it doesn’t benefit from high power costs. Rather, the power company wants to lower rates for its customers and do what’s best for the communities it serves and looking into a wood biomass plant is one way to do that, he said. Deerfield and Beste concurred that a biomass plant to replace the current operation would require roughly a $15 million initial investment. Deerfield said that specifics haven’t been worked out, but he sees at least partial state or federal funding as a distinct possibility. “We looked at many options, hydro, wind, (natural gas), but in the Tok area biomass seems to be much more viable just because of the local nature of the fuel,” Beste said. Dalson Energy has been working with AP&T for several years to determine which of Alaska’s cities and villages are good candidates for wood biomass power, Deerfield said. “It quickly became apparent that of all the options, Tok is the place to do biomass energy,” he said. “In fact, in terms of biomass CHP, Tok is the best place in Alaska.” Not only are the mature forests in the Tok area a prime fuel source for power, but according to Deerfield, they’re also a prime fuel source for a forest fire. “The foresters (in the Tok area) say the forest is going to burn. It’s just a matter of whether it burns on its own or whether it’s going to be harvested and burned in a biomass boiler,” he said. Rick Jandreau, a resource forester for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, said the forest surrounding Tok is comprised mainly of highly flammable black spruce. While cutting the spruce creates an initial fire barrier, he said, encouraging certain re-growth could provide long-term benefits. “What we’re proposing to do in those areas is getting rid of the spruce and promote the regeneration of the aspen at the expense of the spruce so you’ve got more of a hardwood forest there which would make the area around Tok much more fire retardant,” Jandreau said. He added that encouraging the fast growing aspen to replace spruce in a cut area is often as simple as cutting what aspen are already there. “That’s what’s cool about aspen. If you cut it will shoot up from multiple root sprouts and it’s very good at that,” Jandreau said. Both Deerfield and Jandreau said the current proposal calls for a harvest of 35,000 tons of green wood per year. Data from forestry surveys indicates a necessary harvest of 700 to 800 acres of forestland every year to provide for a biomass power plant in Tok. Jandreau said the annual allowable harvest for the area is roughly 1,200 acres per year, providing for other interests to use the remaining harvest allotment. The plan is to harvest from 181,000 available acres around Tok. Forestry studies put re-growth to maturity times at 70 years for aspen in the nearby Tanana Valley State Forest, making for a sustainable biomass harvest, essential to any forest management, Jandreau stated. “The harvest that’s planned is on state land designated for settlement. That settlement land happens to be the parcels closest to town,” Jandreau said. “We’ve talked with our sister agencies, they don’t have a problem with the plan so we’ll be concentrating our efforts — at least the first five years — within that area because that’s the most critical area for developing a good fire buffer.” Deerfield said any cutting would be done in a manner to preserve the attractiveness of the area surrounding Tok. “It’ll be designed to where you’ll have to get up in a helicopter or airplane to see where we’re harvesting,” he said. With the promise of a positive feasibility study on the horizon, the biggest immediate challenge is working out a harvest contract with the state, Deerfield said. AP&T needs a 25-year contract to assure a reliable fuel source, he said. The typical harvest contract awarded by the state is for a relatively short time, with few reaching five years, Jim Eleazer, forester for DOF said. “Our contracts are good for two or three years. We haven’t really looked at it as, ‘is this contract good for a 25-year period?’” Eleazer said. “Nobody’s really done a project of this magnitude (in Alaska) to have anything to measure it against.” Deerfield said he thinks a contract will be worked out because he believes “the future of forestry in Alaska is biomass energy.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]journal.com.

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