As 2016 comes to a close, we’re taking a look back at some of the top news stories from Haines and Klukwan this year.
Haines ended the year on a dramatic note. The assembly fired borough manager Bill Seward in a 4-2 vote. The manager had been on the job six months. Assemblyman Tom Morphet was one of the members who voted to terminate the contract.
“This is the highest paid job we have,” Morphet said. “It reflects us to the community, it reflects us to the staff, it reflects us to the community outside Haines. And I don’t think we can have standards high enough for this position.”
Seward wasn’t the only new, high-level employee who started work in the borough this year. Haines also has a new police chief and school superintendent.
Heath Scott moved from a job in the Washington D.C. Protective Services Division to the Haines police department in July.
“I understand that living in a small community, people take great pride in not locking their doors, and they take pride in leaving their keys in the car,” Scott said. “I don’t want to chip away at that pride in any way.”
The Haines School District’s new leader, Tony Habra, acknowledged that his entrance was preceded by a few years of turnover.
“There’s been four superintendents in four years. Where we’re going, what we’re doing, we need to take a breath.”
One of the most hotly debated topics in Haines this year was the small boat harbor expansion project. The project is estimated to cost $30 million or more. And though much of it is already funded by state grants, many residents object to the expense and other components of the project.
“I’m not happy about the way that objections were dealt with along the way, pushed aside without consideration,” said Assemblyman Tresham Gregg at a meeting in April, when the assembly voted 4-2 to approve the expansion’s 95 percent design plans.
The harbor became a central issue in the local borough assembly election. It was an unusually crowded field of candidates – six people for two open seats. Ultimately, Heather Lende and Tom Morphet prevailed. Both candidates voiced support for a public vote on the harbor project.
“I think that goes back to responsive government, and I don’t see why anybody would mind a vote,” said Lende at a candidate forum.
Soon after being sworn in, Morphet proposed a special advisory vote on the harbor expansion.
“I think it can make things clean, and I think it can make things right, and I think it can bring a little justice to this process,” he said.
When the assembly gathered to vote on Morphet’s proposal, the audience was filled with commercial fishermen who support the expansion. They asked the assembly to not do anything to slow the down the project.
“It feels like, as a fisherman, that I’m getting slapped in the face,” said Stuart DeWitt. “And I have so much invested in this community.”
Morphet’s proposal failed after Mayor Jan Hill broke a 3-3 tie vote. The harbor project’s progress has continued since then. The assembly awarded a construction contract for the $13 million first phase of the project in November.
One of the most momentous events of the summer was the grand opening of the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center in Klukwan. The Chilkat Indian Village labored on the project for years. Klukwan residents like Jones Hotch Jr. said it finally provides a safe home for the famed Whale House rain screen and house posts that represent great achievements in Northwest Coast Art.
“That’s our birth certificate, it tells us where we’re from,” Hotch said.
Another local tribe saw its own victory in July. That’s when a U.S. Court of Appeals sided with the Chilkoot Indian Association and other tribes in a lawsuit over the right of Alaska Natives to put their land into federal trust. Chilkoot tribal administrator Harriet Brouillette said her tribe has so little land left that the victory was as important symbolically as it was practically.
“What this will do is give us some sovereign authority over our own land,” Brouillette said.
Alaska Governor Bill Walker had previously visited Haines to talk to Chilkoot tribe about lands into trust concerns. He visited Haines again this October to hear from residents about the controversial Juneau Access Project. A couple months later, Walker announced his decision not to pursue the road.
“And so I’ve taken a little more time, and I don’t apologize for that,” Walker said in Haines in October. “Because I think the best time to make a decision is when you’ve received all the input.”
Another controversial issue that rose to the surface this year is a special water protection nomination for the Chilkat River. The Chilkat Indian Village nominated the water body as an Outstanding National Resource water, also referred to as a Tier III protection. While some applauded the tribe’s effort to ensure the river’s future, others saw it as placing an undue restriction on development and other activities along the river.
“The economics of this town does not depend just on fish,” resident Gary Hess voiced those concerns.
The Chilkat River nomination is in limbo because the Alaska legislature hasn’t decided on a process to review and decide on Tier III applications. In the meantime, Hess and others worried about the implications the water protection could have for a possible mine at Constantine Metal Resource’s Palmer Project site north of Haines.
The mineral exploration operation was given the green light to expand in August. The Federal Bureau of Land Management approved Constantine’s request to building road and other infrastructure that would provide better access to more drilling sits.
“There’s a lot of activity going on in that area of the mountain and it makes sense to re-establish access to that area to better service those activities,” said Constantine Community Manager Liz Cornejo.
In April, a University of Alaska Southeast professor was mauled by a bear near Mount Emmerich. Forest Wagner was leading a group of students in a mountaineering trip when he ran into a brown bear sow with at least one cub. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Stephanie Sell talked to Wagner about what happened after he recovered from his injuries.
“It was likely the sow was defending a cub from Mr. Wagner, who she perceived as a threat,” Sell said. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
In early July, a mammoth landslide rocked Glacier Bay. A geophysicist in New York said it was the largest recorded slide anywhere in the world. Pilot Paul Swanstrom was the first to notice the slide.
The extreme ski and snowboard competition known as the Freeride World Tour touched down in Haines for the second year in a row in March. Athletes from around the world said competing in the Haines mountains is a dream come true.
“I don’t know if people from Haines if they know how famous their village is,” said Austrian skier Eva Walkner. “All over the world, [for] skiers and snowboarders, it’s probably the most famous place in the world.”
One local athlete made headlines this year. Track runner Nattphon ‘Ice’ Wangyot was likely the first transgender student to compete at a statewide high school athletic competition.
“Everybody can talk everything bad to you. But just ignore that,” Wangyot said.
And finally, one of the most mysterious and bizarre stories of the year: green bears.
“I pulled over to see what was going on, and some people said ‘there’s some very strange bears over there,'” said Haines photographer Tom Ganner, after he spotted a group of brown bears feeding on salmon on the Chilkoot River one September day. The bears weren’t just brown, they’re heads were covered in what looked like green paint. All biologists could do was speculate.