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Southeast Alaska News

New ADOT deputy commissioner named

Tue, 2013-12-31 01:06

John Binder was named deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation Monday.

“John brings to the department proven leadership and management from his time with the Air Force. He has a wealth of aviation education and experience and strong Alaskan roots,” DOT Commissioner Pat Kemp said in a statement.

Binder will be responsible for overseeing the State of Alaska international airport system and the Division of Statewide Aviation, which includes 252 state-owned rural airports.

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Handful of new laws taking effect in new year

Tue, 2013-12-31 01:06

JUNEAU — Several new laws are taking effect in Alaska with the new year, the biggest of which centers on the state’s oil production tax.

The oil-tax cut pushed by Gov. Sean Parnell and passed by lawmakers in April was the biggest legislative story of 2013 and could be one of the biggest political stories of the coming year. The tax cut is the subject of a referendum, and voters will decide in August whether to keep or repeal it.

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Feds announce test sites for drone aircraft

Tue, 2013-12-31 01:06

LAS VEGAS — Six states were named Monday by federal officials to develop test sites for drones — a critical next step for the burgeoning industry that could one day produce thousands of unmanned aircraft for use by businesses, farmers and researchers.

Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia will host the research sites, providing diverse climates, geography and air traffic environments as the Federal Aviation Administration seeks to safely introduce commercial drones into U.S. airspace.

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Sitka in 2013: Shaking earth, falling mountain

Tue, 2013-12-31 01:02

The former site of the Redbout Lake Cabin, photographed a day after it was destroyed in a landslide on May 12, 2013. (Kevin Knox photo)

In Sitka, the earth moved under our feet in January — like everywhere else in Southeast — but one couple in particular will probably be choosing their campsites pretty carefully from now on.

2013 started with an earthquake, and the wild ride never quite ended. An amazing fishing season plus a surge in industrial activity pushed the regional economy to new highs, but not everyone cashed in — especially those affected by federal budget cuts.

Here’s a look back at some of the top local news stories of the year.


Listen to iFriendly audio.

The natural world often makes headlines in this part of Alaska, and 2013 was no exception. When the dust settled, the January earthquake and tsunami warning were anticlimactic for humans.

Tinaa survived for 24 hours in an abandoned well in Yakutat, following January’s earthquake.

for one lucky and fearless dog in Yakutat, the episode went down very differently.

“So the poor dog had been standing on her hind legs in that well for 24 hours, trying to stay alive.”

That’s Ron Buller, talking about his blue heeler mix Tinaa, who fell down a well in the aftermath of the 7.4 quake. Tinaa was rescued.

Humans also managed to get into some water, though it was a little bit hotter. In March, the Sitka assembly suspended municipal administrator Jim Dinley after a personnel complaint. He served out the suspension and subsequently resigned. Former Blatchley middle school principal Joe Robidou’s case is still unresolved. In February, Robidou was indicted on six counts of felony sexual assault based on charges brought by female staff members. Robidou’s trial is scheduled for early 2014.

Richie Davis is taken into custody at the Pioneer Bar. The 55-year-old Juneau man is skipper of the fishing vessel West Bank. He faces charges of assault and misconduct involving a weapon. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

A pair of Sitka fishermen, Richard Davis and Tyler Westlund, are also awaiting trial, for a September shooting incident in the men’s restroom in the Pioneer Bar. No one was injured in the altercation, but many were surprised. Despite the rough-and-ready personalities in the iconic Sitka watering hole, brandishing firearms is very rare.

Keith Widmeyer was in the restroom when Davis entered.

“When he pulled out the gun, I didn’t waste too much time. I jumped over his head like a rabbit and was scrambling out the door.”

An exceptional fishing year contributed to the boisterous atmosphere on Sitka’s waterfront. Although herring fishermen came up short, salmon trolling for kings and chum was amazing, and the pink salmon return broke state records. Seafood prices and public infrastructure projects created a mini-boom in the region. Economists in September reported that Southeast’s population and payroll had hit record highs. In October, the Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau and Sitka Fine Arts Camp hosted the Alaska Travel Industry Association conference — the single largest meeting ever held in town.

But something even bigger came to Sitka.

“It will set on the right abutment here and it will reach all the way across the dam to the left abutment. It is a huge… It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before!”

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” said Dean Orbison of the 365-foot crane installed for the Blue Lake Dam project. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

That’s Electric Department engineer Dean Orbison giving a presentation to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce last February about the Blue Lake Hydro project. Orbison’s powerpoint subsequently was viewed on the KCAW website over 3,000 times. In 2013, Sitka’s Blue Lake Dam became an economic engine. The much talked-about crane — taller than a football field is long — is the biggest in the state. The price tag for the project — $157-million — is the biggest in Sitka’s history. The $10-million widening of Sawmill Creek Road happening at the same time compounded the economic boost. Blasting for that project broke water mains in Sitka at least two times this fall, prompting the local Public Works Department to issue conservation warnings.

As usual, KCAW traffic reporter Bill Foster is first on the scene, when there’s a threat to the smooth flow of cars & trucks. (Daily Sitka Sentinel photo/James Poulson)

A community with over 100 inches a year of precipitation, we weren’t very well prepared to handle a water shortage, as Public Works Director Michael Harmon discovered when he announced the town had a twelve-hour supply.

“You know I heard stories about people filling up their bathtubs and different containers with water. That was just the opposite effect that we wanted to have.”

Despite all the industrial activity, 2013 was not a completely rosy year economically. Federal sequestration touched many agencies in the community — especially the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, which was already experiencing budget problems. SEARHC closed programs, including its successful inpatient substance abuse facility — the Bill Brady Healing Center — in April. For Charlie Bean and the close-knit staff there, it was hard to pack up and let go.

Charlie Bean uses fish boxes to pack up his workspace at the Bill Brady Healing Center. He jokes that people in other states probably don’t use fish boxes like this. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

“I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’ve had close friendships and stuff before, but not a group of people like this.

Bill Brady has since been replaced with a less expensive outpatient program. SEARHC expanded its primary care capacity when it purchased the Sitka Medical Center in January. Nevertheless, a number of SEARHC’s long-time physicians and nurses — including medical director Marty Grasmeder — subsequently departed.

And economics — as a statistical tool — is sometimes not a very accurate way to measure how well we are really living. KCAW’s Emily Forman visited the Salvation Army at the beginning of the holiday season, and learned something about Sitka that the economists missed.

Evadne Wright manages the food bank.

“It takes a lot of courage to walk through those doors and admit that you are not doing okay. That you need a hand.”

A volunteer sorts food at the Salvation Army. (KCAW photo/Emily Forman)

The Salvation Army distributed 90 baskets of food before Thanksgiving this year, 85 last year. 79 in 2011, and 35 in 2010.

And just as there was struggle in 2013, there was loss. In February, the body of a 13-year-old girl, Mackenzie Howard, was found in Kake. State troopers later arrested a 14-year-old boy for homicide. That summer, KCAW sent reporter Erik Neumann to Kake to get a sense of how the town was healing. He found Mike Jackson, and a culture camp that more than two decades ago helped Kake end a suicide epidemic. The community had experience putting itself back together after tragedy.

Shawaan Jackson-Gamble cleans a halibut for the Kake culture camp. Photo by Erik Neumann, KCAW – Sitka.

“We will never sleep on the idea saying we’re going away from suicide prevention. Our first priority out there is suicide prevention.”

Tenakee also made headlines, as it fought to hang on to its school. Advisory board chair Gordon Chew said that keeping the school’s enrollment over 10 — the minimum for state support — was an ongoing challenge.

“Our outreach to bring families here, and to increase our employment base, and to increase our student count, has largely been successful over the last eight years that I’ve been on the board. We’ve kept the school open against the odds.”

But not this year. The Chatham School District is maintaining the Tenakee school building. All supplies and equipment remains on hand in the event student numbers increase next year.

And what may be the last chapter of the story of Coast Guard helicopter 6017 was written in 2013. Lt. Lance Leone, co-pilot and lone survivor of the 2010 crash that took the lives of his three crewmates from Air Station Sitka, was removed from the Coast Guard promotion list in May by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Leone was investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing in a military court, but the Coast Guard command nevertheless decided to terminate the young pilot’s career.

Senator Lisa Murkowski during an unexpected visit to Sitka on Monday morning. (KCAW photo/Erik Neumann)

A US senator was watching, though, and she was not feeling good about the outcome.

“I think about people like Lance as being those everyday heroes, who are willing to give up so much to serve. And to never really give up. And I kind of feel our Coast Guard gave up on him — and that’s hard for me to say because I’m a huge, huge fan of all our Coast Guard men and women.”

That’s Senator Lisa Murkowski, during a brief layover in Sitka in August.

Smokey, an orphaned black bear cub, has gone viral on Facebook. Sitka’s Fortress of the Bear has offered to house the animal.

Wildlife stories captured much of our online audience’s attention this year. A story about an orphan black bear cub named Smokey, who was rescued in Seward, and sent to Sitka’s Fortress of the Bear, has been shared and seen by over 60,000 people.

A story about an invading dove didn’t go quite that viral, yet managed to touch a nerve — or maybe just my nerves, if David Bonter at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology is to be believed.

“You’re the first person I’ve ever heard complain about the song of the Eurasian Collared Dove. A lot of folks really enjoy it. Really appreciate it.”

But the one natural story that tops them all — and, like the Lituya Bay tidal wave, will probably enter folklore — is the day in May that Kevin Knox and Maggie Gallin outran a landslide at Redoubt Lake cabin.

Kevin Knox and his Border Collie, Luna, at the Redoubt Lake Cabin site before the slide. Luna possibly escaped with Knox and Gallin, but remains missing. (Maggie Gallin photo)

“We were running along the lakeshore and got thrown into the water, trees kind of toppling on top of us. We both popped up about three or four feet from each other, tried to get our wits about us, and hunkered down.”

Knox lost his border collie in the disaster, but there’s already a grassroots movement to name the new body of water formed by the rock fall “Lake Luna.”

Here at the Cable House, we even made a little news: Some human skeletal remains discovered in our basement during renovations in 2011 were exhumed in December. DNA testing identified them as Southeast Alaska Native, and they are likely far older than the century-old Cable House. The bones are now in the custody of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

Cast members listen as director WT McRae gives notes during a rehearsal of “Seussical the Musical” this week at the Sitka Performing Arts Center. The full-scale musical will open Friday night after just two weeks of rehearsal. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

And finally, a living person left the building. Ed Ronco, our reporter of four years, went on to produce Morning Edition at KPLU in Seattle in October. We were Ed’s first job in radio, and he caught on pretty quickly. He usually carried every story right into the end zone, and in July, in a piece about the Fine Arts Camp production of “Seussical the Musical,” he even managed to spike the ball.

“I hope you’ll forgive me for using this voice/ but when dealing with Seuss one hasn’t much choice/ I promise I won’t make the rhyming a habit/ Reporting in Sitka, Ed Ronco dag nabbit.”

Rachel Waldholz will have some big shoes to fill — especially since we took her thesaurus away.

Thanks for the great news year. We’ll be back in 2014.

Timber, election districts among region’s top stories

Mon, 2013-12-30 18:36

The Southeast portion of the final redistricting map, which shuffles the region’s election boundaries.

2013 finally brought firm election boundaries to the region. A redistricting plan shuffled communities for the 2012 elections. But a judge ordered changes.

The new boundaries move Haines to a downtown-Juneau-Douglas-Gustavus-Skagway district. They also put Petersburg in with Sitka and some villages. And they kept Wrangell in with Ketchikan.

“We’re all together and we just need to make sure we’re all paddling in the same direction so we don’t get left behind,” said Sitka Senator Bert Stedman.

He’s the only Southeast lawmaker not on the 2014 ballot. The other five incumbents have indicated they’ll run again. At least three will face challengers.

2013 was another year for logging battles in the Tongass National Forest.

Shelly Wright, of the Southeast Conference, introduced a plan to make more timber available for harvest.

“Rather than set aside a big chunk for logging and a big chunk for no logging, open up all of the regulated set-asides and use it as a flexible forest,” she said.

On a different side of the issue, about 230 scientists petitioned Congress to protect more than 75 watersheds they consider critical salmon habitat.

And an Oregon group released research saying there’s enough second-growth stands to keep the industry going without cutting older trees.

Dominick DellaSala is with the Geos Institute.

“The faster we can get the Forest Service to move out of old-grown logging, the better it will be, because the Tongass is such a global resource,” he said.

The Logjam timber sale area on Prince of Wales Island.

Meanwhile, new legislation to turn more timberlands over to the Sealaska Region Native Corporation came before Congress.

New compromises brought an endorsement from a former foe, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. But nine communities near the proposed selections continued their opposition. The Senate measure passed its only committee, but moved no further.

In other Sealaska news, Chris McNeill, CEO for the past dozen years, announced plans to retire by the corporation’s 2014 annual meeting.

The Alaska Marine Highway System had some rough times in 2013, with breakdowns that cancelled LeConte and other ferry sailings. It also restructured, hiring a new top official, who oversaw a scale-back of plans for two Alaska Class Ferries serving Lynn Canal.

On the upside, the system celebrated its 50th anniversary — with a commemerative voyage on the Malaspina, port-city parties and a songwriting contest.

(Click on the links above to read the full stories.)

Thompson ends bid for Alaska House seat

Mon, 2013-12-30 17:11

Ketchikan resident Glen Thompson announced Monday that he has ended his campaign to become the next House District 36 representative.

In a statement emailed to local media, Thompson writes that, “After considerable reflection upon my existing personal commitments to work, family and the community, plus the added sacrifices that come with a campaign for higher public office, it does not make sense for me to continue to pursue election to state office at this time.”

He adds that the financial sacrifice and time commitment is not workable now, and that he can be more effective continuing in local politics.  Thompson is an elected member of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly.

Thompson writes that by suspending his bid for the House seat now, he hopes that other candidates will have enough time to launch their own campaigns.

Thompson had filed in September to run against Peggy Wilson of Wrangell in the Republican primary. The primary election is August 19th.

Drones will fly Alaska's skies

Mon, 2013-12-30 12:55

Alaska is one of six states that will serve as a testing site for unmanned aircraft systems, also known as drones, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday.

The University of Alaska was named one of the test site operators and will oversee testing at sites in Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon.

The announcement is part of a bill passed in Congress requiring the FAA to open national airspace to unmanned civil and commercial aircraft by the end of 2015.

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Mon Dec 30, 2013

Mon, 2013-12-30 11:58

Listen to iFriendly audio.

The state appeals court on Friday reinstated charges of excessive fishing against former state senator and two others. Researchers met in Juneau to discuss what Southeast Alaska might look like in 70 years given weather trends. KCAW’s Rich McClear share an audio postcard from Sitka’s annual Polar Dip.

Brave Heart celebrates the New Year, more volunteers needed

Mon, 2013-12-30 11:46

Listen to iFriendly audio.

Brave Heart Volunteers will throw a New Year’s Eve shindig to show appreciation for volunteers and contributors. Jessica Gibson, Brave Heart Development Director discusses the details, and requests more volunteers for ongoing programming.

'Love locks' decorate Kodiak bridge

Mon, 2013-12-30 01:02

KODIAK — They’re locks of love, inspiration and memories.

Take a stroll down the sidewalk atop Fred Zharoff Memorial Bridge, and you too might feel inspired looking at the padlocks known as “love locks” that sporadically decorate the safety fence.

Similar to the “love locks” on the famous Pont des Arts pedestrian bridge in Paris, more than 30 locks decorate Kodiak’s only major bridge. The idea is simple: couples write their name on a padlock, lock it to the bridge and throw the key in the water below as a symbol of their permanent love.

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Revisions to fisheries act under review

Mon, 2013-12-30 01:02

ANCHORAGE — The act regulating America’s fisheries could see changes under the discussion draft proposed by the House Natural Resources Committee.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act, or MSA, was up for reauthorization this year but that process won’t be finalized until 2014.

The House Natural Resources Committee released draft legislation Dec. 19 with 30 pages of proposed MSA changes that address several major fisheries issues, including catch share programs, electronic monitoring, rebuilding plans and the term “overfished.”

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Family's memories uncovered after 50 years

Mon, 2013-12-30 01:01

ANCHORAGE — Last summer, workers demolishing an old Alaska Railroad warehouse near Ship Creek found something unusual inside a wall. It was an old-fashioned photo album: Black leather-bound cover with pages made of delicate black paper. “Marie and Irvan Christian” was embossed on the front cover.

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GOP can count ways to Senate majority

Mon, 2013-12-30 01:00

WASHINGTON — Republicans count enough competitive races to challenge Democrats for control of the Senate in the 2014 elections, if only they can figure out what to do with the tea party.

Crowded primaries in states such as Georgia, Iowa and North Carolina, where tea partyers and social conservatives are fighting for the nomination and pushing candidates farther right, worry many Republicans, especially after they saw their legitimate shots at a Senate majority slip away in 2010 and 2012.

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