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Alaska and Yukon Headlines
The latest version of a bill advancing a natural gas megaproject restores language concerning collective bargaining.
The Senate Finance Co-Chair Pete Kelly announced on Tuesday evening that the committee will scrap the less specific language they had planned to use when dealing with labor terms. Instead, the new version of the bill will include provisions encouraging Alaska hire and addressing “project labor agreements.” That means labor organizations will be involved in setting the wages and benefits for work on the project. Union and non-union firms could both secure contracts with the provision.
Sen. Click Bishop, a Fairbanks Republican, pushed to include the language in the bill.
“We want to make sure that as far as practicable, that the producers and the state contract with Alaska businesses,” said Bishop.
The North Slope gas project is seen as a jobs bonanza by many members of the Legislature – it would involve the construction of an 800-mile pipeline and cost at least $45 billion. The oil companies that are party to the agreement already signed off on the idea of project labor agreements when they inked a deal with the Parnell administration in January.
The Senate Finance Committee also accepted two separate amendments to the bill on Tuesday. They added a non-compete clause, which prohibits state officers involved in gasline negotiations from taking work with the other parties involved in the contract for three years after their termination date. They also specified that the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation should represent the state’s interest in a natural gas liquefaction plant, rather than creating a subsidiary to do so.
The changes build on the revisions the Senate Finance Committee debuted on Monday, which include bumping the tax rate from the 10 percent proposed by Gov. Sean Parnell up to 13 percent. That would give the state 25 percent equity in the project.
The bill is expected to be sent to the Senate floor for a vote within a week.
The 42nd annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race proved to be one of the most dramatic from start to finish. Dog teams were lost, ganglines were broken, mushers were injured – some severely.
The trail from Anchorage to Nome threw everything possible at mushers from rocks to tree stumps to hurricane force winds.
The Iditarod is by no means easy, but even the most veteran of mushers were surprised by what they faced in this year’s race.
Before he left White Mountain, Jeff King was confident he’d set his team up for a solid 5th championship.
“My team charges into these checkpoints with more reckless abandon than many other teams do,” King said. “No matter how tired they are, they dig deep and just have to make me step on the brake to come in.”
If King’s team had been able to hold out against hurricane-force winds blowing off Norton Sound, he would have become only the second musher to win the Iditarod five times. The 58-year old would have also become the oldest musher to win and in record time, but it was not to be. The team was blown into a pile of driftwood roughly four miles out of the Safety checkpoint. King spent more than two hours trying to untangle his dogs, but they shut down and he had to ask someone on a snowmachine for help.
It’s a story this year’s second place finisher, Aliy Zirkle relayed to winner Dallas Seavey during a post-race press conference in Nome.
“So I got to Safety and the sheet was blank and I said ‘Where’s Jeff?’ they said ‘you didn’t see him?’ So we were all highly concerned about all the teams so I had two dogs I was really worried about and myself, so I said ‘to heck with it, I’m staying,’” Zirkle said. “And then some snowmachiners came in and by golly if they didn’t have Jeff on the back of the snowmachine.”
As Seavey fought his way through stiff winds toward Nome, he had no idea what was happening to the competition in front. He didn’t know King was out and he had no idea Zirkle was struggling to rework her race plan inside the Safety shelter cabin.
“It was really, really bad out there and it was the safest thing for me to do to just get my act together and not leave,” Zirkle said, chatting with Seavey. “So I took a nap, had some coffee, listened to people talk about how bad it was outside and then I saw [Seavey] go through, so I left.”
When Seavey spotted a headlamp behind him, he assumed it belonged to his father Mitch. He thought he was racing for third place.
He came sprinting down Front Street in the wee hours of the morning, red faced and panting. He collapsed on the back of his sled where he sat for a few minutes after his dogs crossed the line.
It’s the second time the younger Seavey has beat out Zirkle for the top spot. It’s also the third consecutive year Zirkle has finished behind a Seavey in second place. Dallas’s father took the win last year. Zirkle was visibly disappointed, but she says it’s not the worst that could have happened.
“Sure yeah, hindsight blah, blah, blah, but second’s pretty good,” Zirkle said. “It’s better than scratching.”
Clearly the favorite in this year’s race, the crowd chanted her name even after she arrived in Nome. She says that kind of support is humbling.
“Over the last eight days’ I’ve really run into the people who’ve… I’ve brought them down the trail with me in my heart and it’s very motivating,” she said.
Just over three hours after he claimed his second Iditarod championship, the younger Seavey waited for his father to finish the race in third place. The two hugged, but Mitch Seavey had no idea his son had won.
The elder Seavey came into Nom, clearly exhausted and completely bewildered.
“We crashed and tipped and whatever countless times,” he said.
The wind is still blowing wildly out along the coast of the Bering Sea. Teams are fighting to travel over thick, uneven glare ice without getting too close to the open ocean. The drama that ensued for the first few mushers may not be the last in Iditarod 42, as teams continue to make their way for the finish line.
Tuesday, the State House Community and Regional Affairs Committee heard from several people about the sorry state of law and order for Alaska Natives. Legislators asked them why they think the state is the source of the problem, but the person in the best position to answer that question couldn’t make it to the hearing. The Attorney General had a scheduling conflict.
Senate Resources is expected to be the only Senate committee to consider a sweeping bill that proposes changes to Alaska’s permitting system.
A revamped version of HB77 emerged in Senate Resources on Monday. Public testimony is scheduled for Wednesday.
The bill currently has no other committee of referral. If the bill advances from Resources, Senate Majority Leader John Coghill said the intent is to send it to Rules, which schedules bills for the floor.
HB77 last year was stuck in Senate Rules after failing to win sufficient support in the Senate for a vote.
The bill is expansive, touching on issues like land exchanges and permitting procedures. Its more contentious provisions have focused on appeals, general permits and the issuance of water reservations.
The government’s top archivist, David Ferriero announced today the Anchorage branch of the National Archives will close this year.
Its collection will be shipped to Seattle, where he says it will be digitized and made available to historians and researchers on the Internet.
The closure of the Third Avenue facility, along with consolidations in Philadelphia and Fort Worth, are projected to save more than $1 million a year.
The National Archives also owns a 9-acre lot in Midtown Anchorage, purchased a decade ago with the sponsorship of then-Sen. Ted Stevens. Sen.
Lisa Murkowski suggested today Archives should use money from the sale of that land to more quickly put the Alaska collection online. She also asked the national archivist to consider affiliating with an Alaska library so the documents could stay in-state.
New figures from the Obama administration show more than 6500 Alaskans have enrolled in insurance plans on healthcare.gov. The deadline to sign up is March 31st. And that has prompted many Alaskans to bite the bullet and figure out what the Affordable Care Act means for them. For some commercial fishermen and others who are self-employed, what they’ve found has been a pleasant surprise.
Back in 2012, when the Supreme Court upheld most of President Obama’s signature healthcare law, Wendy Alderson hoped the ruling would mean good things for her family.
“I know what I would hope that it would do for us, and I hope that it would basically just bring down the cost of our health insurance,” Alderson said, in an interview with KCAW in June 2012, right after the Supreme Court decision cleared the way for the Affordable Care Act to go into effect.
Alderson and her husband are commercial fishermen. They own their own boat, a combination freezer troller and longliner. And for the past decade, they have bought a very basic health insurance plan. They paid over $12,000 a year to cover themselves and their daughter. The plan had a deductible of about $2,500 per individual – meaning that’s how much they’d have to pay before the insurance kicked in.
“You know sometimes I felt like I couldn’t afford to go to the doctor because I had to pay my health insurance bills,” Alderson said.
The insurance only covered major events, like hospitalization — not preventive care or routine doctor’s appointments. In her 2012 interview, Alderson said that could be frustrating.
“It’s wondering whether you should go to the doctor or not,” she said. “It’s knowing that it’s $200 to walk into a doctor’s office, and you may or may not have a prescription that’s going to be $45 to $50.”
“You know, it’s kind of scary having a sick kid, and thinking, OK, are you sick enough to go to the doctor? Is your earache going to be gone in the morning?”
So now that the Affordable Care Act is actually going into effect, we checked in with Alderson to see if it was living up to her expectations.
And at first, Alderson actually didn’t think the act would do much for her family. In fact, she wouldn’t even have looked for a new plan, but her current insurance costs suddenly increased, from about $1100 a month to $1400 a month. All told, her family would be paying $15,000 a year just for catastrophic insurance.
“I decided I better get on the stick and look at what was available,” Alderson said.
So she logged into healthcare.gov, the new online health insurance exchange. And…
“I was astounded,” she said.
Her new plan will cost about half as much as her old one.
“Honestly, [it was] a too-good-to-be-true thing for me,” Alderson said. “It was like, wow, really?”
The new plan is actually quite similar to her old plan, but instead of paying $1400 per month, she’ll pay just $680. In total, it will cost $7,000 this year, instead of $15,000.
That’s because Alderson’s family qualifies for a tax credit. Families that make up to four times the federal poverty level can qualify for tax credits and subsidies that cover part of the cost of health insurance bought on the exchange. In Alaska, a family of three making up to about $98,000 can be eligible.
Alderson said the change is a big deal for her family.
“This is really going to help,” she said. “This last time, if we had just gone ahead and stepped it up and paid this increase, we would have been paying more for our health insurance than we would for our mortgage.”
Still, Alderson said the new system isn’t ideal. She had hoped that the act would reduce the cost of health insurance by introducing new efficiency and accountability into the world of healthcare.
“That is not the case,” she said. “The case is, the plan still costs the same, it’s [just] the government subsidizing those of us who qualify. I do understand that now, and that’s a little bit of a bummer. But I also feel that paying $700 a month for a catastrophic plan, is still a good chunk of money. I don’t feel like I’m getting anything for free. So, I’m pretty pleased.”
Sitka resident Dan Evans is also self-employed, as a photographer and home inspector. Evans hasn’t had health insurance for most of the past five or six years. For the past three years, he tried to enroll in insurance, but says he was denied because of preexisting conditions. He finally got a plan this past December. He paid $400 a month for a catastrophic plan with a $10,000 deductible.
“Really the only time you’d ever use it is if you really got hurt or sick real bad,” Evans said. “And it took me a long time to even get that.”
The issue of health insurance weighed so heavily on his mind, that he was considering giving up his photography business.
“I’ve been self-employed for 25, 30 years now,” he said. “And I actually started looking for jobs that could give me insurance, even though I don’t want them. But I just feel…I see a lot of my friends and other people when they’re getting up there. Things happen. And I just kept thinking that something might happen to me and I could have everything taken away.”
Like Alderson, Evans at first thought that the Affordable Care Act wouldn’t change anything for him. He tried navigating the health exchange website himself, and got discouraged. Then his wife heard about a program at the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, or SEARHC, in Sitka. SEARHC outreach manager Andrea Thomas has been helping people navigate the website. She worked with Evans to find a plan that will cost him just $189 a month. The deductible is $1500 dollars.
RW: Were you surprised?
DE: Way surprised. I actually said to Andrea, I said Andrea you’ve got to stand up right now, I have to give you a hug, because this is unbelievable. [[laughs]] She knew I was really happy.
Evans said the new plan is literally life-changing.
“I was checking with the city, I was checking with the state [for jobs],” he said. “And I really don’t want to do that. The only reason I was doing it is to get medical coverage! But now, I don’t have to. I can keep doing what I’m doing, and not worry anymore.”
As for Wendy Alderson, when asked what her family will do with the money they’re no longer spending on health insurance, she said: ”Pay bills! Nothing glamorous, sadly.”
“It’ll be nice to just know that I don’t have to struggle to come up with money to, you know, pay bills.”
Alaska’s legislature is still searching for ways to connect King Cove and Cold Bay by building a road through a federal wildlife refuge.
Their latest effort is a joint resolution introduced by Aleutians representative Bob Herron. The six-page resolution urges Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reconsider a land swap plan she turned down in December.
The state of Alaska and the King Cove Corporation are still offering 61,000 acres of land. In return, they want 1,800 acres in and around the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
King Cove would build a gravel road through that parcel to the town of Cold Bay, where more reliable commercial medevacs are available.
That’s one reason why Herron calls the rejection of the land deal “heartless and cold” in his resolution. It advanced after a hearing in Alaska’s House Resources Committee Monday afternoon.
Senator Lisa Murkowski called in from Washington to offer praise.
“I think this resolution will help affirm that as Alaskans we are united in opposition to the secretary’s decision, and that we’re united to protect the health and safety of those who live in King Cove,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski has criticized the Interior Department’s approach on multiple occasions.
During her testimony, Murkowski reminded the Alaska House Resources Committee that Interior Secretary Jewell pledged to find a different solution when she rejected the road almost three months ago.
“But there has been no idea, no proposal transmitted thus far,” Murkowski said. “Not one employee that I can find at Interior has done anything to improve the situation. And each day, each day that passes, the people of King Cove are further put at risk because of a decision that our own federal government has made.”
Jewell based her ruling on testimony, studies, and site visits by Interior staff — including her own trip last summer. Jewell said the road would do irreversible damage to land and wildlife in the Izembek refuge.
Juneau’s most popular attraction is Mendenhall Glacier, one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. Visitors and residents took advantage of the recent cold, clear weather to hike across a frozen lake in front of the glacier to find an ice cave. They’ve taken pictures of themselves inside of the awe -inspiring tunnel and surrounded by blue-tinted ice walls.
Laurie Craig, a naturalist at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center, has this advice for people embarking on the mile-and-a-half hike on the frozen Mendenhall Lake out to the cave:
Just for people to be really cautious, be safe, (and) be prepared.”
The ice cave is located near the western terminus of Mendenhall Glacier. While the Forest Service is not encouraging people to visit the cave, it’s not prohibiting access either. In case of an emergency, it will be Capital City Fire & Rescue – not the Forest Service – that will arrive on scene and try finding a victim in distress in the vast expanse of the glacial area.
It’s kind of thing that people need to be aware of, particularly those folks taking a lots of children out. Keep the children with you, be prepared for rescuing yourself because it’s very difficult for anybody else to get out there.”
Signs are posted warning visitors of the dangers of the glacier and lake ice, part of which she calls a dynamic environment.
Jason Amundson is associate professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Southeast and has researched tidewater glaciers and glacier ocean interactions. He said the cave was likely formed by a stream coming down off of Mount McGinnis.
The water is carrying heat with it and that heats goes to melting the ice. As it’s gotten bigger in the summer, there’s water running into that ice cave, but there’s also warm air that can make its way into the ice beneath the glacier.”
Another stream on the glacier surface found a fissure or crack and, over time, created the giant circular shaft or moulin that allows daylight into the far, accessible end of the cave. Amundson said it’s a fairly common feature on glaciers.
You get water running over the surface of the glacier and it drops into a crevasse. Water is more dense than ice and it wants to move downward, and so it basically drills a hole through the glacier. That’s probably just something that formed at the surface. It could’ve been there for a long time and maybe – as the glacier has moved down-valley – it’s now just right in the same spot as where that ice cave is.”
Amundson said different layers of the glacier may flow at different rates. It’s the same for the center versus the edges where friction with the ground and surrounding hills can slow the ice movement.
UAS environmental science associate professor Eran Hood believes the ice in that area may be over 200 years old.
You can see in the walls there’s a lot of subglacial sediment that’s been entrained. Some areas of the ice looks actually quite dark because there’s a lot of the sediment in there which the glacier has just picked up.”
Visitors to the glacier can be deceived by the apparent stillness and sublime beauty of the area.
The Mendenhall calves all the time, even in the winter. Craig said the five-story high, snow-covered blocks of blue ice near the western edge broke off about a week ago. Calving events can cause lake ice to undulate or even shatter over large areas.
Someone who was skiing on the lake when that happened on Thursday afternoon, he said he could feel the ripple as it rolled across the lake.”
Landslides off Mount Bullard near the eastern edge of the glacier and the slow, constant movement of the glacier could mean perpetually thin and unstable lake ice at the terminus.
Underwater currents can also erode the underside of ice-locked icebergs, causing them to unexpectedly flip or roll with a change in the center of gravity.
Laurie Craig said she will never cross the lake ice.
There’s no way to predict what’s going to happen, but you can always hear creaking and groaning because it’s continuously moving down the slope, even in the winter time. If you get a look at the terminus, you’ll see that’s just a huge jumble of great big icebergs and they’ll stay there until the lake ice thaws. But it’s indication of how much ice is falling off all the time. So, any place that people congregate, it should hopefully be on land.”
While the interior of the ice cave is located on land and several dozen feet under the glacier, the overhead ice at the entrance may only be a few feet or even several inches thick.
Eran Hood said he escorted a National Geographic photographer to the back of the cave two years ago, but he won’t take his child there.
The one dangerous place, in my view anyway, is near the entrance to the cave where you have some overhanging ice that’s pretty thin and you can actually have blocks breaking off there. I just didn’t feel like taking my five year old daughter back through there and feeling like something could fall down on us.”
Hood said the ice that’s deep inside the cave may be relatively solid, but there is always a risk of collapse.
With most current Iditarod mushers focused on the finish line in Nome, one former musher is still thinking about the start. At this year’s ceremonial start in Anchorage, Rod Perry drove a sled that weighed more than twice as much as the other mushers. The Iditarod pioneer hopes it was the first of many historic sled runs to come.
Rod Perry has dedicated much of his life to preserving Iditarod history — from storytelling to keeping tabs on up and coming mushers and technology – he could be considered an expert in all things Iditarod related.
But he says most people’s understanding of the race’s origin is practically nil. He imagines a ceremonial start to the race where people wearing period costumes and driving old style sleds will kick-off the Iditarod.
The sled he rode in front of this year’s racers is the first creation from his idea, and almost an exact replica of one of the large mail carrying sleds of the early 1900s that transported mail to and from Iditarod and Nome.
“That sled, where the modern sleds weigh probably 35 pounds or 40, at the most, carrying very little. That sled weighs 240 pounds. It’s about 17-feet long build of Indiana bending oak,” Perry said. “It’s representative of a lot of the sleds that were used in the old days.”
The process of making the sled using traditional techniques was not an easy one, though. But with funding from Wells Fargo bank, Perry was able to set to work earlier this year building the first piece from his vision. It took him nearly five months.
“This sled it has a toboggan bottom underneath the cross pieces of the sled. The sled is not nailed. There certainly are places where there are nails and bolts but not in the working joints. The working joints are mortis and tenon. You have to have a kind of an engineered sloppiness built in,” Perry said. “This sled had to flex like crazy or it would break up.”
Perry’s sled is on display at the Alaska Heritage Museum inside the Wells Fargo bank on Northern Lights and C Street throughout March. Perry says it’s a rare opportunity to see a lost art.
“This is old time craftsmanship. There are very few people left who know this dying art,” Perry said. “It would be like trying to find somebody who knows how to build a stage coach.”
Mark Gould is one of the last coopers. The craft of barrel-building is quickly fading, but Gould has pursued it as a full-time job for the last 15 years. Through coopering and promoting Alaskan resources, Gould has found a passion and a guiding philosophy.
After leaving a secure career on Alaska’s North Slope oil fields, Gould founded Kachemak Cooperage and has supported himself and his family through his work building and restoring barrels, hot tubs, and saunas.
Shot and Edited by John Norris
Music by Lyndon Scarfe and XPURM
Special Thanks to Anchorage Brewing Company