BULLETINS 01/20/13

Wed, 01/16/2013 - 10:40am
In this Dec. 26, 2012 photo, Lyutyik, one of two polar bears at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, rolls in snow and yawns in his enclosure. On Jan. 10, a federal judge threw out the designation of more than 187,000 square miles on the North Slope as critical habitat for polar bears and instructed the Fish and Wildlife Service to correct “substantive procedural deficiencies.”

Judge tosses Alaska polar bear habitat designation 

A federal judge in Alaska has thrown out a plan designating more than 187,000 square miles as habitat for threatened polar bears.

U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline, in a written order dated Thursday, said the designation was too extensive and presented “a disconnect between the twin goals of protecting a cherished resource and allowing for growth and much needed economic development.” He sent the matter back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to correct “substantive and procedural deficiencies.”

The federal government declared the polar bear threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, citing melting sea ice. The move made the polar bear the first species to be designated as threatened under the act because of global warming.

A designation of critical habitat was required as part of a recovery plan, and more than 187,000 square miles in and near the Beaufort and Chukchi seas — an area larger than California — was set aside.

A coalition of Alaska Native groups, oil and gas interests and the state of Alaska sued, calling the designation an overreach.

Beistline, in his order, said that Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision didn’t comply with a requirement under the law that critical habitat include physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species. The agency didn’t show that two of the land units had all the required features, the judge said.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell hailed the decision.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s attempt to classify massive sections of resource-rich North Slope lands as critical habitat is the latest in a long string of examples of the federal government encroaching on our state’s rights,” he said in a statement. “I am pleased the State of Alaska was able to fight off this concerted effort to kill jobs and economic development in Alaska.”

Bruce Woods, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman in Alaska, declined comment, saying the agency had just learned of the decision Friday afternoon and was still reviewing it.

Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty said protecting polar bears “is a priority for us all, but such measures must carefully comply with the requirements of the statute.”

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Beistline made the right decision, calling the bear populations “abundant and healthy.”

“The only real impact of the designation would have been to make life more difficult for the residents of North Slope communities, and make any kind of economic development more difficult or even impossible,” she said in a statement.

— Becky Bohrer, Associated Press

Alaska Housing Finance Corp. announces energy rebate changes

The Alaska Housing Finance Corp. has expanded its home energy rebate program, so Alaskans who have already participated in one of two programs are eligible for a new rebate.

As of Jan. 11, participants in the Home Energy Rebate program or the 5 Star Plus New Home Rebate Program can be eligible for a new rebate if they have built or purchased a new or existing home.

“This is big news for Alaskans who have recently or are moving,” wrote AHFC Executive Director and CEO Dan Fauske in a statement announcing the change. “Since 2008, almost 31,000 families have received energy ratings on their homes and the majority have followed through and are living more comfortably, each receiving an average check of more than $6,300 and saving more than $1,000 in annual fuel costs.”

The home energy program focuses on energy efficiency upgrades with a rebate to homeowners. The 5 Star program provides a rebate of $7,500 for new construction.

— Molly Dischner

Contact Discher with tips and story ideas at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

Alaska Air, Horizon carried more passengers in 2012

Alaska Air Group recently released its December and 2012 operational results, showing healthy growth for both Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air.

Alaska Airlines reported an 8.4 percent increase in December revenue passengers over December 2011. Despite the increase in customers Alaska saw a decrease in passenger load over the same time because it increased its capacity 9.9 percent.

Year-end results for Alaska Airlines show a 4 percent increase in passengers carried from 17.8 million in 2011 to a record 18.5 million in 2012, according to the report. That led to a record load factor as well, with Alaska Airlines averaging 86.6 percent capacity for 2012.

On-time arrivals for the airline did not fare as well as passenger activity. For all of 2012, 87.5 percent of Alaska Airlines’ flights landed as scheduled, down 0.7 percent from 88.2 percent in 2011.

Horizon Air increased its passenger traffic 5.3 percent in December and increased its load factor 0.7 percent to 79.4 percent for the month over December 2011, too.

Horizon carried 6.7 million passengers in 2012, a 2.1 percent increase over 6.6 million in 2011. The result was a fully-year record load factor of 78.3 percent, up 0.1 percent from 2011.

Horizon’s on-time arrivals increased to 91 percent in 2012, up from 86.1 percent in 2011.

— Elwood Brehmer

Brehmer covers transportation for the Journal. Contact him with tips and story ideas at elwood.brehmer@alaskajoural.com.

Fish bill among prefiles

Salmon could be the benefactors of a new Alaskan endowment.

The second round of prefiled bills for the 28th Legislative Session, released Jan. 11, included one from Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, that would create an endowment fund for chinook salmon research and restoration.

While chinooks can’t receive a permanent fund dividend in the mail, Herron’s endowment would create a fund, grant account and oversight body that are designed to benefit chinook salmon in perpetuity.

The money in the endowment would come from state appropriations, donations, and income earned from investing the fund’s assets. A portion of the returns would be used to fund chinook research and restoration projects each year. That portion would be determined using an averaging formula, like the state’s permanent fund.

A seven-member board would decide how to distribute those proceeds.

A grant account would also be established, so that a certain portion of the fund’s investment earnings could be used for various projects. As written, the grants could go to research and restoration projects, be used as matching funds for private and federal grants, reimburse other state departments for managing the fund, and to solicit contributions to the fund. Donations to the fund could also be used for chinook research and restoration, if those were the donor’s wishes.

As drafted, the board would include the commissioner of Fish and Game or designee, and six public members, one from each region of the state. Much of the board’s structure would be modeled on the North Pacific Research Board.

The first session of the 28th legislature began Jan. 15.

Herron is the second lawmaker to introduce a fish bill among the prefiles. The first batch, released Jan. 7, included an effort to prioritize personal use over other types of fishing. That was drafted by Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak.

— Molly Dischner

Dischner covers fisheries for the Journal. Contact her with tips and story ideas at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

Princess Cruises best in Alaska, again

Princess Cruises continues its reign for a sixth straight year as the “Best Cruise Line in Alaska,” according to Travel Weekly Readers’ Choice Awards. The award is given by the magazine’s travel agent readers based the quality of a line’s cruises and cruise-tours.

“Alaska is a special destination for us, so we’re honored that our program continues to receive accolades year after year. It’s especially gratifying that travel agents – the true travel experts – continue to choose Princess as the best way for their clients to experience the breathtaking beauty of this amazing state,” Princess Cruises Executive Vice President Jan Swartz said.

Princess Cruises has operated in Alaska for more than 40 years and carries more passengers than any other cruise line in the state on its Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska tours, according to a company press release. Princess Cruises also offers land tours of Alaska’s Interior to Denali and Wrangell-St. Elias national parks.

For 2013 Princess will run a seven-ship fleet in Alaska. New to the West Coast scene, the newly remodeled Grand Princess will sail north from San Francisco.

In a statement on the publication’s website, Travel Weekly Editor in Chief said, “Our readers can be confident that these winners represent the best this industry has to offer.”

The magazine recognizes the industry’s best in 59 different categories for worldwide travel.

— Elwood Brehmer

Brehmer covers tourism for the Journal. Contact him with tips and story ideas at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.