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Alaska and Yukon Headlines
After two months of back and forth about whether a rec center with public tennis courts should be built with grant money from the state legislature, the Anchorage assembly voted the idea down at their regular meeting Tuesday night.
Several options for what to do with the money meant for a rec center were introduced to find a way forward but none succeeded. Assembly member Amy Demboski introduced an amendment that would have sent $6 million back to the state and said the assembly should ask for a reappropriation for tennis courts.
“The Administration and Mr. Starr have put in so much work on this project and I appreciate it and both have tried to alleviate my concerns. But ultimately, when we come back to it project 80′s deferred and critical maintenance to me is just that,” Demboski said. “It’s not for building tennis courts, it’s not for buying a tennis facility. It’s for deferred and critical maintenance of existing structures.”
The Anchorage Tennis Association lobbied Juneau directly for the money to build a public rec center with tennis courts in the Turnagain neighborhood. Then millions for the project, which the Assembly did not request, were rolled into a $37 million allocation for infrastructure maintenance.
Most Assembly Members disagreed with the process. Some said legislators were unaware they had given money for the project. Assembly member Bill Starr said a smaller amount should be set aside for the time being and that returning the money was a bad idea.
“If we don’t send legislative intent or speak to it on the record or put it in a reserve account or whatever we run the risk of losing it. I’ve learned that we can un-appropriate the money,” Starr said. “Maybe the next assembly comes along and isn’t pro tennis and they decide to go back through whatever procedure un-appropriate the money and do something else with it. I think I would speak strongly against sending it back.”
Assembly member Tim Steele agreed.
“I don’t think it was a mistake that the legislature put money in and sent it down to us. I think it was a lobbying effort by the tennis association,” Steele said. “It happens all the time that entities other than the governmental entity goes down and lobbies for issues and gets money, on every level of government.”
Assembly member Chris Birch said the best idea was to scrap efforts for the rec center this time around and hope that a new request for the money is approved.
“To me the best bet would be that you know we’ve approved a capital budget request for facility upgrades that we’re going to be approaching the legislature with this session for $10.5 million for a multiuse sports facility,” Birch said. “And I think that that’s where this thing started and that’s where we should end up.”
Demboski’s amendment failed 8-3.
A measure introduced by Time Steele and Bill Starr’s setting aside smaller amounts for the project also failed.
Tennis supporters, who had the backing of Mayor Dan Sullivan on the project, seemed baffled and disappointed after the votes and said they’re determined to introduce new legislation right away to insure a rec center with public tennis courts is built.
Alaska state fishery managers are predicting a strong sockeye salmon run in Upper Cook Inlet next year.
The Alaska Journal of Commerce reported the 2014 forecast by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game calls for 6.1 million sockeyes, or red salmon.
The forecast, released last month, predicts a run of between 4.4 million to 7.8 million sockeyes.
At the 6.1 million level, Fish and Game calls for a total harvest of 4.3 million sockeyes and an escapement of 1.8 million fish to all rivers, mainly the Kenai River.
Upper Cook Inlet sockeye are caught in personal use, sport, subsistence and commercial fisheries.
About 2.6 million sockeyes were caught in regional commercial fisheries this year. About 3.4 million fish was the average harvest between 2003 and 2012.
Alaska State Troopers say musk oxen have been seen in and around the Bethel area, and people should keep their distance.
Troopers say the musk oxen have been seen near homes, on winter trails and near the local waterfront.
According to troopers, musk oxen can move long distances quickly and they often appear in new areas overnight.
Troopers say people should take safety measures to view the animals, which can be aggressive and easily agitated.
Troopers say dogs should be kept away because they are seen as predators and musk oxen will protect themselves accordingly. Troopers also say it’s a good idea for people to stay at least 150 feet away.
What do the Space Needle, Sitka Sound Science Center, and Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, Washington have in common? They all carry artisanal salt made by Alaska Pure. The Sitka company’s sea salts are designed around flavors reminiscent of Southeast Alaska. In 2013 their wild blueberry sea salt captured a national taste-test award.
The Egyptians revered the pyramid shape in part because they believed it to be the shape of the primordial mound from which the Earth was created.
Jim: This is where the salt gets made. [ROLLING DOOR UP]
Jim and Darcy Michener love the pyramid because…
Darcy: When you bite into it, it kind of yields a fine crunch.
It refers to artisanal finishing salt – the kind that’s sprinkled on a dish right before it’s served. Their attention to detail won the Micheners a national taste-testing award from Cooking Light magazine. The editors wrote:
“It’s hard to know which is more divine; this salt’s texture or its vivid hue. The gorgeous flat flakes are delicate on the palate, shattering beautifully with the faintest pressure. It’s nice, clean salt flavor has just a hint of fruity acidity. Equally striking sprinkled on scallops, dusted on a cookie or clinging to the rim of a margarita glass.”
Jim: If you look closely enough you can see little inverted pyramids floating on the surface. And they start out as a minuscule speck and they grow, and grow, and grow. When they get large enough and heavy enough they sink down to the bottom.
EF: And this is your day job? This is your everything right now?Jim: This is our everything.
Jim: So once the salt is made and we harvest, it drains.
Jim: And it just looks like freshly fallen snow.
EF: It looks like the kind of snow that if you were to visit Santa at the mall…
Jim: Yes, we think it would be great for movie sets.
The love affair with salt production started as a happy accident on their honeymoon. They left salt water evaporating on a wood stove too long and crystals formed. From then on it was long, slow, not always scientific process. Back breaking at times. For the first six years they lugged five gallon jugs of water from the harbor…
Jim: Ten five gallon jugs in the morning, ten five gallon jugs in the evening.
Everyday. The hard part was nailing down all the variables, and figuring out how to replicate the experiment for quality and consistency.
Jim: I would say its 70% science and 30% art. I mean it really is an art to learning what your salt is doing. Like a living thing, and nurturing it, making sure the conditions are right.
The Micheners described their first night after they made the leap to the large scale production facility that they operate now. They couldn’t make a single grain of salt. They say that night really tested their marriage
EF: I’m curious too in what ways this has shaped your relationship?
[SILENCE FOLLOWED BY LAUGHTER]
Jim: Uhh, good communication is key.
Jim and Darcy seem to have found the right balance – both with salt production and their partnership.
Jim handles the mechanics and Darcy handles taste – for instance how the blueberry salt finishes on your palate.
EF: Does the blueberry taste like blueberry?
Darcy: It does, if you don’t have a real discerning palate some people can’t pick that up. A lot of people will taste salt and say oh it tastes like salt. Well of course it tastes like salt first, you’re going to get salt first. But if you let it sit for a minute you will get a real bright acidity to it and a real berry flavor. It’s undeniable in my opinion.
What some might consider just flavored salt flakes, the Micheners believe are tiny monuments to the natural environment of Southeast Alaska. Pyramids for the Last Frontier.
The City and Borough of Juneau has called the first air emergency of the winter.
For residents of the Mendenhall Valley, that means wood stove burning is banned until the alert is lifted.
An air emergency is called when particulate levels are at or near unhealthy levels and there’s no wind or precipitation to clear the air. CBJ Deputy Lands Manager Dan Bleidorn said the particulate matter is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, about 1/30th the thickness of a human hair.
“So, it’s very fine stuff,” Bleidorn said. “It causes lots of health issues. It gets lodged in the lower portions of your respiratory system. Children and elderly folks and people with asthma and things like that, they can really suffer when the limits go above what it’s supposed to be at.”
The federal Environmental Protection Agency sets the limits on air particulate levels. Juneau has been non-complaint with the rule in the past, but not since 2006.
Old style wood stoves produce a lot of particulate matter, which is why they are banned during an air emergency. Open burning is also banned in the Mendenhall Valley from November 1st to March 31st. Newer pellet stoves and pellet boilers burn hotter and more efficiently, so they are exempt.
The ban is enforced by the Juneau Police Department. Repeat violators can face fines up to $300 dollars, but Bleidorn said they are rarely issued.
“It seems like at the beginning they give a lot of warnings, because people are new to the valley or this is the first time of the year they’ve used their wood burning stove,” he said. “So they are just unfamiliar with the rules to begin with. And then as the season progresses, generally people come on board.
The Youth Action Committee (YAC), of the Juneau Community Foundation, requests proposals from Juneau non-profit organizations and schools to promote success in high school by increasing awareness of the range of Post Secondary opportunities available for high school graduates. These proposals should focus on ways to increase high school student knowledge of opportunities and options after graduating; and, thereby promote success in high school.
With the help of the Juneau Community Foundation and local organizations, YAC members strive to improve the lives of their peers. Annually, YAC members decide on a topic or area that they would like to address through grant funding that meets a challenge they seem among their peers. Past topics have included: drug and alcohol abuse, offering healthy activities. This year providing information on post high school options for young people is the selected topic area. YAC members have raised funds from local organizations to provide these grants. They encourage organizations in the community to respond to the YAC goals and submit grant proposals.
The Youth Action Committee of the Juneau Community Foundation consists of students from Juneau high schools, who are inspired to make a difference for young people in Juneau and improve the community through philanthropy and grant making.
Organizations may apply for grants of up to $3,000. Applications must be received by January 6, 2014. YAC members will review all proposals and request meetings with the top applicants. Applications are available online at www.juneaucf.org. For more information, please call 523-5450.
Over the next year, millions of dollars are expected to enter Alaska in the form of campaign spending. The Alaska Senate race could end up being one of the more expensive races in the country, because Republicans need to unseat Democrat Mark Begich if they want to take control of Congress. Since much of the money is going to be spent on political ads, some state legislators would like to see stronger federal disclosure laws, so voters know who’s paying for the airtime. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
If you spend any time watching local television, there’s a good chance you’ve seen this during a commercial break:
ACTRESS: For too many of us, costs are going way up. Sen. Begich didn’t listen. How can I ever trust him again? It just isn’t fair. Alaska deserves better.
NARRATOR: Call Sen. Begich. Tell him no more broken promises. Stop Obamacare.
The ad was put together by the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, and it’s been criticized for being filmed in a Lower-48 kitchen and for featuring a Maryland actress.
But Democratic state legislators Hollis French and Les Gara have a bigger problem with the ad than the shooting location. They think it should name the organization who paid for it, and who their top donors are. Alaska law already requires that of campaign ads in state elections, but no such rule exists at the federal level.
“When you peel back the layers, you realize it’s just a couple of super wealthy individuals that are funding these,” says French, who is also a candidate for lieutenant governor. “I think it makes a difference if their names have to be read as the person funding the advertisement.”
In the case of Americans for Prosperity, that would be Texas billionaires David and Charles Koch, who operate a multinational conglomerate with interests in Alaska.
“It’d be, you know, the first Koch brother, the second Koch brother, and then they’d probably run out of donors unless they’ve got some third person to throw in some money,” jokes French.
French and Gara held a small rally to draw attention to the issue in Anchorage on Tuesday, and they plan to introduce a resolution this upcoming legislative session that would ask Congress to pass stronger disclosure laws.
They want to see something like the so-called DISCLOSE Act, which was introduced after the Supreme Court decided corporations had the right to make campaign expenditures. That bill would have put a number of limits on corporations, and one of the measures in it would have made interest groups list their donors at the end of attack ads.
The bill lost momentum in Congress after being filibustered in the Senate. But French wants Congress to revisit the law, so campaign ads in federal races are treated the same as ads in state races.
“Come on, Congress,” says French. “If we could do it, you can do it.”
Alaska’s congressional delegation is largely on board. Sen. Mark Begich originally supported the DISCLOSE Act, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski has introduced separate legislation that would tighten rules for political action committees. Rep. Don Young voted against the DISCLOSE Act, and still opposes the legislation.
For its part, Virginia-based Americans for Prosperity doesn’t like the DISCLOSE Act. They think their donors could be harassed or face other negative consequences for supporting their organization.
Michael Macleod-Ball with the American Civil Liberties Union says that whether or not you like a group’s message, that’s a legitimate concern for free speech advocates. He cites an effort by opponents of the civil rights movement to make the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People reveal their membership list.
“People were in fear of their lives for being disclosed as members of the NAACP,” says Macleod-Ball. “Times are different now, but there are always organizations where membership in that organization presents a particular threat.”
Americans for Prosperity also holds that Gara and French are raising the issue as a way of deflecting negative attention from a fellow Democrat.
“They bring it up just as we start holding the Senator accountable for his Obamacare vote,” says AFP President Tim Phillips.
And as far as that ad with the Maryland actress? Phillips is standing by it. He says it’s the message that matters, and that Alaskans should expect see more spots like it on television going into campaign season.
“I think you’re going to see additional ads coming from us,” says Phillips.
No word on shooting location yet. Phillips says decisions involving set and casting have yet to be decided.
Ethan Petticrew teaches Raven how to say, “I Love You” in his Alaskan Native language. Ethans’s family speaks Unangax.
Groups in Alaska working to sign people up for health insurance on the federal marketplace say the website is working much better. The Obama Administration re-launched an improved healthcare.gov marketplace yesterday. Now insurance agents and navigators have three weeks to help Alaskans enroll in insurance plans that start offering coverage January 1st.
Tyann Boling probably knows HealthCare.gov better than any other Alaskan. And the COO of Enroll Alaska is not shy about grading the web site. In October, on a scale of 1 to 10, she gave it just a one. In November, a four. And now?
“I’m very pleased to announce that I would say on a scale of 1 to 10 it’s operating at about a seven. I would say our enrollment numbers are coming up dramatically.”
Boling says yesterday her insurance agents enrolled 14 people in the marketplace, a tally that was unimaginable a few weeks ago. She says the process usually takes around 45 minutes. But the web site needs work. Boling says her agents still encounter technical issues, especially with more complicated cases:
“You know I can’t pinpoint one situation that is the main problem, its just the complexity of people’s lives that can make it more challenging to get people enrolled.”
When problems do pop up, Boling says her agents are usually able to work through them instead of sending clients home, another big difference from the old website. Susan Johnson is the regional director of the federal Health and Human Services Department. She says she’s aware the site still needs attention:
“We’re working everyday with teams 24/7 to get to a 10.”
Johnson wants people who gave up on the site in the early months to give it a try again.
“It’s continuous progress. We didn’t get to December 1st and say, ‘we’re done.’ We’re going to get to December 23rd and continue to work through improving the site, all the way until March and beyond.”
December 23rd is the date people need to be enrolled to have coverage by January 1st. The open enrollment period extends through March 31st.
The Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center has three people working to sign up Alaskans for insurance. But the clinic says about 1/3 of the people they help earn too little to qualify for subsidies to help them buy insurance. Under the Affordable Care Act, they should be eligible for Medicaid, but Governor Sean Parnell declined to expand the program. Development Director Jon Zasada says that puts the center in a tough spot:
“The work that we do in providing primary care does not equal having access to quality insurance. For us and for, we think, other community health centers around the state, this does amount to an unfunded mandate.”
Alaskans who would have qualified for Medicaid under the expansion can apply for a hardship exemption, so they don’t have to pay a penalty for being uninsured. Overall, the main groups assisting Alaskans with healthcare.gov have enrolled 96 people since October 1st. They hope that number will increase substantially in the next few weeks.
This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, Kaiser Health News and NPR.
Hundreds of dead birds washed up on the shores of St. Lawrence Island towards the end of November. And though the cause of the die off isn’t yet known, the quick response demonstrates a mounting capacity for dealing with unexpected environmental events in the region.