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Alaska and Yukon Headlines

Jailed Greenpeace activists freed after protest in Russia's Arctic

Sat, 2013-12-28 13:27
Jailed Greenpeace activists freed after protest in Russia's Arctic The "Arctic 30" were granted amnesty by the Russian government more than three months after their ship was boarded and seized during a September protest of offshore drilling.December 28, 2013

Renowned Kotzebue dollmaker to serve artist residency in Unalakleet

Sat, 2013-12-28 13:27
Renowned Kotzebue dollmaker to serve artist residency in Unalakleet Kotzebue's Kathy Ward was inspired to make dolls by a variety of experiences and influences. She'll be working as an artist in residence in Unalakleet this spring.December 28, 2013

AK Beat: Fairbanks woman up for hunting honor

Sat, 2013-12-28 12:34
AK Beat: Fairbanks woman up for hunting honor Sheri Coker, a recent transplant from Arkansas, is one of 12 finalists for Prois Hunting & Field Apparel’s award for “hardcore” women who hunt.December 28, 2013

Recent Pebble mine comments deserve scrutiny

Fri, 2013-12-27 20:11
Recent Pebble mine comments deserve scrutiny OPINION: The time for political timidity on this proposed mine has passed, especially in light of recent public comments from Northern Dynasty Minerals chief Peter Thiessen.December 27, 2013

Alaska job figures hard to pin down

Fri, 2013-12-27 20:10
Alaska job figures hard to pin down Did Alaska lose or gain jobs in 2013? It depends on whose math you decide to use.December 27, 2013

PHOTOS: Best photos of 2013 from Alaska Dispatch

Fri, 2013-12-27 20:00
PHOTOS: Best photos of 2013 from Alaska Dispatch

2013 was a year of adventure. From downtown Anchorage to places as far afield as Iceland, Alaska Dispatch traveled far and wide to bring back the stories and photos that matter. Here are a few of our favorite photos from the past year.

December 27, 2013

$110,000 bail for Anchorage man who held girlfriend at gunpoint

Fri, 2013-12-27 18:32
$110,000 bail for Anchorage man who held girlfriend at gunpoint Bail has been set at $110,000 for a 35-year-old man who barricaded himself inside a downtown Anchorage apartment building Thursday night, holding his girlfriend and the couple's infant son in a standoff with police.December 27, 2013

Thousands of Alaskans to Lose Unemployment Benefits Saturday

Fri, 2013-12-27 17:08

About 6,500 Alaskans will see their emergency unemployment benefits come to an end on Saturday, according to the state Department of Labor.

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The federal program was enacted by Congress in 2008 at the beginning of the recession, which is still affecting the economy in certain states. In the past five and a half years, it has been extended nearly a dozen times.

The idea was to provide an additional safety net for the long term unemployed, beyond the 26 weeks of regular state unemployment benefits.

“Tiers were added to it to allow more benefits, and then it was reduced,” says Bill Kramer, chief of Unemployment Insurance for the State of Alaska.

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development administers both the state and federal unemployment compensation programs. Kramer says people who qualify for emergency unemployment can apply to receive benefits for this week, but that will be it.

In the past when Congress allowed the program to lapse, the state was able to continue paying existing claims with money from the Emergency Unemployment Compensation fund. This time around, Kramer says that funding has not been renewed.

“The way Congress did this particular program, December 28 is the end of the program,” he says. “So even if an individual just established an emergency unemployment claim with us last week and they may have many weeks of benefits in their balance, we can only pay through this week.”

Alaska Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat, says the program should have been extended as part of the recent budget deal in Washington, D.C. Now he’ll work to renew it when Congress reconvenes in January.

“There’s no question the economy is growing, but there’s certain areas of the country that are still hurting, as well as in our own state,” Begich says.

The national unemployment rate was 5.6 percent when the program started. It topped out at 10 percent in October 2009, and now is down to 7 percent.

Begich says any bill reauthorizing emergency benefits will have to overcome a filibuster from Republicans, some of whom he says are philosophically opposed to unemployment insurance.

“I don’t get it. They complain the economy hasn’t rebounded, but then they don’t want to help with an unemployment extension. And then when people like myself say, well the economy is getting better, they say, well it’s really not as good as it could be,” Begich says. “So, there’s a lot of double speak that goes on in Washington from some of these guys who have been there way too long, and this is one of them.”

Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski says she’s open to extending the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, but wants to review a three-month extension proposed by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed and Nevada Republican Dean Heller.

“We recognize that the unemployment numbers are coming down,” Murkowski says. “Alaska, we’re just a little bit below the national average, but in places like Nevada and Rhode Island, where the two sponsors are from, unemployment is well over 9 percent.”

Both Murkowski and Begich say the emergency program should not last forever. Republican Alaska Congressman Don Young said via email that an extension would cost $25.2 billion over the course of year, which should require offsetting budget cuts.

State Unemployment Insurance Chief Bill Kramer says the Department of Labor is encouraging people whose benefits are about to expire to take advantage of the state’s network of 22 Job Centers, as well as online employment services.

“There’s resume workshops, they can do interviewing skills, depending on certain criteria if it’s more vocational training that they need in order to bring their skills to something where they can be more employable, they might be able to help that way,” Kramer says. “There’s just a whole host of services available to try and help people get back to work.”

Kramer says the Job Centers can help individuals over the phone as well.

Alaska’s unemployment rate was 6.5 percent in November, the 61st straight month below the national average.

Budget Pressure Mounts On Senate Appropriations Committee

Fri, 2013-12-27 17:07

It’s quiet in the U.S. Capitol these days, but the pressure is on one groups of lawmakers – the appropriators – among them Alaska’s two senators, Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich.

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They have until Jan. 15 to complete a dozen spending bills. If they don’t, we could see another government shutdown, or, less drastically, a type of budget purgatory Congress has been resorting to what’s called a “Continuing Resolution.”

A seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee used to be quite a lofty perch.

The late Ted Stevens became one of the most powerful Alaskans to ever live by becoming chairman of that panel. It allowed him to send billions home in earmarks.

Now both Alaska senators are on the committee, but it hasn’t amounted to much. Congress has been too divided in recent years to let the appropriators do their work, and anyway it banned earmarks due to public outrage – outrage that was partially inspired by Alaska projects. Alaska Congressman Don Young says it’s been a blow to the state.

“They’re both on appropriations, but what can they do?” Young said. “They can’t really do … and without earmarks they don’t have the clout that we used to have. This is the reality of life. We are being totally ignored.”

Young says when Congress won’t exercise its full power of the purse, it’s ceding power to the executive branch.

Earmarking, or slipping special home-state projects into a spending bill, usually late in the process, did help lawmakers pass appropriation bills in years past, but critics said it
wasn’t right that a few powerful lawmakers could direct money so specifically and with so little scrutiny.

Sen. Murkowski says the recent stalemate has been frustrating. She is the top-ranking Republican on the subcommittee that writes the spending bills for the Interior Department.

“But our bill hasn’t made it to the floor for consideration since I’ve been ranking member because we’re not moving those appropriations bills forward,” Murkowski said.

She hopes we’re now seeing a return to the normal process. Congress this month did finally pass a budget resolution, which is kind of the starting gun for appropriations.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work. The president submits a thick budget to Congress in February. It’s nonbinding — just a request really. In April, lawmakers are supposed to pass a “budget resolution” – a blueprint saying how much they want to spend and how they’ll pay for it. Then the appropriation committees can get going. Committee leaders divide the money pie among 12 subcommittees, each of which crafts a spending bill. When they’re all passed, they fund government for a year. But bitter divisions have derailed the process in recent years. Instead of detailed appropriations bills, lawmakers pass resolutions to just keep the money flowing, usually at the prior year’s level. A Government Accountability Office (or GAO) report says it’s a wasteful process: Agencies are paralyzed by uncertainty, then get all their money late in the year and are in a rush to use it.

Sen. Mark Begich says spending becomes a blunt instrument without appropriations, a process that gives him and Murkowski a chance to shape the bills to meet Alaskan needs.

“We were continuing programs, through these crazy things called continuing resolutions, that did not need to be funded anymore but we were funding them because that was format,” Begich said. “Now we can appropriate strategically and surgically remove programs that are no longer efficient, not necessary anymore and do the right kind of budget balancing that’s critical.”

So the members and staff of the appropriations committees are racing the clock. To move things faster, they’re likely to roll all the bills into a big package called the omnibus. If it’s not signed into law by Jan. 15, they’ll have to pass another continuing resolution.

Interior Alaska Temperatures Dip To 50 Below

Fri, 2013-12-27 17:06

Interior low temperatures dipped into the 50 below range again today, as a cold snap that began Monday, deepened across the interior. Among the coldest readings this morning were minus 55 at Eagle and 54 below at Ft. Yukon. A strong inversion has kept hilltop temperatures in the 10 to 15 below range, while sinking the deepest cold into valleys. The Fairbanks bowl has also suffered from accumulated emissions.

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Alaska News Nightly: December 27, 2013

Fri, 2013-12-27 17:06

Individual news stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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Thousands of Alaskans to Lose Unemployment Benefits Saturday

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

About 6,500 Alaskans will see their emergency unemployment benefits come to an end on Saturday.

The federal program was enacted by Congress in 2008 at the beginning of the recession, which is still affecting the economy in certain states.

An effort to reauthorize the program is expected early next year.

Budget Pressure Mounts On Senate Appropriations Committee

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

It’s quiet in the U.S. Capitol these days, but the pressure is on one groups of lawmakers – the appropriators – among them Alaska’s two senators, Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich. They have until Jan. 15 to complete a dozen spending bills. If they don’t, we could see another government shutdown, or, less drastically, a type of budget purgatory Congress has been resorting to what’s called a “Continuing Resolution.”

Interior Alaska Temperatures Dip To 50 Below

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Interior low temperatures dipped into the 50 below range again today, as a cold snap that began Monday, deepened across the interior.  Among the coldest readings this morning were minus 55 at Eagle and 54 below at Ft. Yukon. A strong inversion has kept hilltop temperatures in the 10 to 15 below range, while sinking the deepest cold into valleys. The Fairbanks bowl has also suffered from accumulated emissions.

Appeals Court Reinstates Overfishing Charges Against Kookesh, Two Others

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Overfishing charges against former state Senator Albert Kookesh and two other men have been reinstated by the Alaska Court of Appeals.

Human Skeletal Remains Exhumed From Cable House

Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka

Human skeletal remains discovered in KCAW’s basement in 2011 were removed from the Cable House A week ago on Friday. The bones were identified as Alaskan Native and are now in the custody of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

Chena River Getting Cleaner

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Chena River is getting cleaner. The waterway that winds through the heart of Fairbanks had been plagued by oil and sedimentation from runoff, but local efforts have turned things around.

AK: Hair

Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel

Hair is important, especially in high school. But that didn’t stop a few dozen students at Bethel’s Kuskokwim Learning Academy boarding school from shaving off their hair in support of a teacher who has cancer. It was also a chance for some students to remember family members who died from the disease.

300 Villages: Port Heiden

This week, we’re heading to Port Heiden, a community of about 100 people on the Alaska Peninsula. Scott Anderson is mayor of Port Heiden.

Appeals Court Reinstates Overfishing Charges Against Kookesh, Two Others

Fri, 2013-12-27 17:05

Overfishing charges against former State Senator Albert Kookesh and two other men have been reinstated by the Alaska Court of Appeals.

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Albert Kookesh

In 2009, Kookesh and three others – Rocky Estrada, Sr., Stanley Johnson, and Scott Hunter – were fishing for sockeye salmon at Kanalku Bay near his hometown of Angoon. A state wildlife trooper observed them catching more salmon than allowed under their subsistence permits, and issued citations.

Kookesh, Estrada, and Johnson challenged, saying the Alaska Department of Fish and Game cannot establish catch limits. They argued the only way to enact limits is through the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

A District Court judge agreed, and dismissed the charges against the men.

The Court of Appeals in ruling today (Friday) said the board of fish can delegate authority to the department. The case was returned to the District Court.

Kookesh says he and the other defendants would like to continue fighting, but their attorney – Tony Strong of Juneau – has been disbarred for an unrelated matter.

“We have to find another one. We have to find people like AFN or Tlingit and Haida or somebody else to step up with us,” Kookesh said. “To me it’s an important question, to other people it may not be. But I think the Native community sees this as a question that we have to take to courts to have the State of Alaska recognize that we have a concern here.”

While the case hinged on the narrow issue of who can set catch limits, Kookesh says the men are really challenging the state’s overall subsistence policy.

“We appealed the bag limit of 15 fish per family per year in Angoon,” Kookesh said. “Fifteen fish per family per year, and that’s what we appealed on, because less than two or three miles away we had seine boats getting thousands and thousands of fish intended for that area, sockeye bycatch there. Nobody cited them. But when you’re a commercial boat in Alaska, you can get all you want.”

Kookesh also says fish and game did not get input from Angoon residents before enacting the catch limit.

Mike Mitchell, an attorney with the Alaska Department of Law, says the state is pleased with the Appeals Court’s decision. He says it affirms a longstanding form of fishery regulation, and bolsters the ability of fish and game and the board of fisheries to manage and conserve salmon for all user groups.

Kookesh, a Democrat, served eight years in the Alaska House of Representatives followed by eight years in the state Senate, representing a largely rural district. He lost his seat in 2012 after the state Redistricting Board put him in the same district as Sitka Republican Bert Stedman.

(Note: This story has been updated with reaction from Albert Kookesh and the Alaska Department of Law)

Human Skeletal Remains Exhumed From Cable House

Fri, 2013-12-27 17:04

Human skeletal remains discovered in KCAW’s basement in 2011 were removed from the Cable House on Friday.

The bones were identified as Alaskan Native and are now in the custody of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

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Human skeletal remains were discovered in part of the Cable House basement during construction in 2011. Photo by James Poulson/Daily Sitka Sentinel.

The human remains were initially found by construction workers, in the midst of structural improvements to the historic Cable House, home of Raven Radio,  in October of 2011. New information revealed that the bones are Native Alaskan, likely Southeast in origin. The bones remained in the basement undisturbed until Friday (12-20-13). That was when they were exhumed from the Cable House basement, and turned over to the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

Brian Kemp an Assistant Professor at  Washington State University, tested mitochondrial DNA in a tooth, and identified the remains as Native American. He also screened DNA on sex chromosomes, and found that the tooth had belonged to a female.  Kemp said that given the data available it is not possible to trace the bones to a specific population because the DNA sequence is widely common in Native American lineage.

While the remains are believed to be old, and likely predate the 103-year-old building that houses Raven Radio, Kemp does not know how old. He says radiocarbon dating is required to determine the age of these remains.

Joan Dale, an archaeologist with the Alaska Heritage Resources Survey inspected photographs of the remains. After considering the shape of a skull, Dale said they are most likely Southeast Alaska Native.

Sitka Tribe of Alaska staff with the assistance of Forest Service Archaeologist Jay Kinsman exhumed the bones.

KCAW General Manager Ken Fate said the removal process went well, under the guidance of Jay Kinsman. Overall, it was a well-coordinated effort between KCAW, STA, and the Forest Service.

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska will determine a suitable location for interment of the remains.

Chena River Getting Cleaner

Fri, 2013-12-27 17:03

The Chena River is getting cleaner. The waterway that winds through the heart of Fairbanks had been plagued by oil and sedimentation from runoff, but local efforts have turned things around.

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AK: Hair

Fri, 2013-12-27 17:02

KLA student Theresa Corp buzzes her classmate David Evon’s hair in support KLA teacher, Connie Sankwich. Photo by Angela Denning Barnes, KYUK – Bethel.

Hair is important, especially in high school, but that didn’t stop a few dozen students at Bethel’s Kuskokwim Learning Academy boarding school from shaving off their hair in support of a teacher undergoing chemotherapy. It was also a chance for some students to remember family who died from the disease.

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16-year-old Brenda Woods of Bethel buzzes her hair in support of KLA teacher Connie Sankwich who is undergoing chemotherapy. Photo by Angela Denning Barnes, KYUK – Bethel.

In a corner room at the school, two classroom chairs are doubling as make shift barber chairs. More than a dozen students stand in line waiting for their turn in the seat.

“I think you could just shave it off,” Brenda Woods says.

At 16, she has a pretty round face and a full head of thick dark hair. She says it’s all coming off in support of Connie Sankwich, a teacher who has stage two ovarian cancer.

“I was thinking about it for a couple of days but I thought that I’d just cut it short but after I watched those other guys hair get their hair shaved I thought that I should do the same because short hair doesn’t look like it’s supportive to the people of cancer in my opinion,” Woods says.

Stan Corp dutifully buzzes away. He’s run a barber shop in Bethel for over 20 years and is volunteering his services at the school.

Doug Boyer, Principal at Kuskokwim Learning Academy stands nearby. He’s tall, towering over his students as he also waits for his turn in the chair. He says Sankwich is a beloved teacher who taught a character building class.

“The main concept of the program is that a small act of kindness will start a chain reaction of kindness,” Boyer says. “The students now wanted to come back and the chain reaction has started to blossom and now they wanted to show their respect to her.”

Ponytails pile up as KLA students and teachers donate their hair in support of Connie Sankwich and others with cancer. Photo by Angela Denning Barnes, KYUK – Bethel.

Most of the students are Yup’ik Eskimo, some are from Bethel, others from nearby villages. Venessa Egoak is a 19-year-old from Bethel. She plans to shave her hair, going from about two feet in length to a quarter of an inch.

“I’d probably be supporting my two uncles who had cancer,” she says, choking up. “I do miss my uncles. I just wish cancer didn’t get them.”

After a long process of clipping, buzzing, and more buzzing, Egoak heads to the nearest mirror to check out her new look. She smiles at her reflection.

“Gonna get cold a lot,” she says laughing. “And I’m glad I did cut my hair.”

Victoria Passauer watches as a classmate gets her haircut and unconsciously runs her fingers through her long wavy auburn hair. She’s planning on donating about a foot of it for Locks of Love, which makes wigs for children. She’s supporting Sankwich and her mother who died from cancer about five years ago. She says she died in just a few months and was never able to go through treatment.

Venessa Egoak, 19, of Bethel, buzzed her hair in memory of her two uncles who died of cancer. Photo by Angela Denning Barnes, KYUK – Bethel.

“So I never got to really, like, do that for her,” Passauer says, with tears in her eyes. “So…..I’m kind of doing it for her too.”

The ponytails are piling up on the table. Corp will mail them to a Locks of Love organization in Florida.

KLA student David Evon announces that he’s going to shave all his hair off. His black hair isn’t short for a guy. He hasn’t cut it in 11 months and it hangs down to his eyes.

“She was one of my favorite teachers here in KLA,” Evon says. “She was very helpful and kind and generous and I hope she gets better soon.”

Connie Sankwich is a teacher at the Kuskokwim Learning Academy in Bethel who is undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. Photo by Angela Denning Barnes, KYUK – Bethel.

A few hours later, Connie Sankwich sits on her couch under a blanket, looking at pictures of the school event. At 49, she’s lived a healthy lifestyle and never dreamed she’d get cancer.

“I cried like a baby when I had to cut my hair,” Sankwich says, laughing at the memory. “People would say things like ‘it’s just hair, hair’s over rated, it’ll grow back, you know. Of course, trying to make me feel better . . .it didn’t make me feel better. So. . . .to see the kids do this and to see all the staff and kids at KLA doing this. . .cutting their hair for me when they don’t have to. . .I just can’t believe the support that they’re giving.”

In the end, 25 students and staff cut their hair for Sankwich. She’ll carry their support with her in the coming months as she travels to Anchorage for chemotherapy.

300 Villages: Port Heiden

Fri, 2013-12-27 17:01

This week, we’re heading to Port Heiden, a community of about 100 people on the Alaska Peninsula. Scott Anderson is mayor of Port Heiden.

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