A wetter and warmer Alaska means dangerously slippery slopes

Alaska, News, Online, Print

Originally published by High Country News.

An hour before sundown on Dec. 2, Lilly Ford and her family heard a “strange, low rumble” outside of her home in Haines, Alaska. It lasted about a minute as a 600-foot-wide slurry of timber, mud, soil and debris cascaded down a nearby mountain, through a residential area, and into the ocean. “I couldn’t believe the mountain had swept people and houses away just like that — ripped the ground out from under them,” Ford said. “It’s just not something you’d ever anticipate.”

Haines, population 2,500, saw more than 8 inches of rainfall during the first two days of December — a total that topped the monthly average by 2 inches. Hundreds of homes on this mountainous peninsula between two inlets and the Canadian border were damaged by floods and debris flows. About 50 households were ordered to evacuate because of landslide danger, and still others were displaced by flooding. A kindergarten teacher and a local businessman are presumed dead.

Landslides are a growing threat as warm, heavy rainstorms — intensified by climate change — flush rock, soil, trees and debris down slopes onto the land below. In response to deadly landslides across the West, scientists and communities are calling for more resources to better prepare and understand the looming threat. On Dec. 16, Congress heeded that call by passing legislation that will identify the most vulnerable communities and devise emergency plans and warning systems to protect them.

SOUTHEAST ALASKA is one of the wettest places in the United States, with some areas drenched by more than 200 inches of rain a year. Lush old-growth yellow and red cedar, Sitka spruce and Western hemlock crowd the region’s Tongass National Forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. It’s also snowy: Thrill-seeking skiers and snowboarders from around the world come to Haines for its legendary deep powder. Now, local weather patterns are being reshaped by climate change.

Rising temperatures and increased precipitation make heavy rainstorms — like the one that triggered the landslides in Haines and across Southeast Alaska — more likely, said Rick Lader, a scientist at the Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center. In the last 50 years, temperatures in the region have risen 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit, and precipitation has increased by up to 15%. Lader said observational records reveal that precipitation intensity — the frequency of days with half an inch of rain or more — is also “significantly increasing.”

Storms are intensifying more rapidly as the rising temperatures pump extra water vapor into the atmosphere, said Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist with the Woodwell Climate Research Center. Just off the West Coast, wind patterns and the jet stream steer warm moist air toward Alaska, fueling warm, wet storms in the North, and leaving Western states in the Lower 48 high and dry, Francis said. “We’re probably going to see a lot more of these really bizarre events.”

Warming temperatures and increased precipitation also thaw permafrost in alpine areas and heighten landslide risks. Once-frozen walls of rock, soil and ice are increasingly prone to slumping down mountains — especially during heavy rains— said De Anne Stevens, engineering geology section chief at the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.

ON DEC. 3, a day after the catastrophic landslides in Haines, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Landslide Preparedness Act. The legislation — authored by Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., in the aftermath of a 2014 landslide in Oso, Washington, that killed 43 people — establishes a federal landslide program with the U.S. Geological Survey. The bill, which passed the Senate in mid-December, awaits the president’s signature. Money from the legislation will fund a federal grant program, expand early warning systems for post-wildfire debris flow and create a database for landslide hazards across the country.

Annually, landslides kill 25 to 50 people in the United States and cause more than $1 billion in damages. “These statistics will only get worse because of climate change,” DelBene said via email. “The tragedy in Oso, and now unfortunately in Haines, highlights how vulnerable many of our communities are.”

While landslides are nearly impossible to predict, there are ways to identify the areas at greatest risk and monitor the most hazardous slopes. Landslides are triggered by a number of weather, geologic or human factors, but America’s most frequent and damaging landslides are induced by prolonged or heavy rainfall, especially in areas with steep slopes, wildfire burn scars, or a history of landslides.

A prototype early warning system is being developed for the Southeast Alaska community of Sitka, where landslides killed three people and destroyed local infrastructure in 2015. Sensors measuring rainfall, pressure and soil moisture content were installed on three mountains near the town, and the data collected from them is monitored by the Sitka Firehall and the Sitka Ranger District. The prototype — a three-year experiment that’s currently in its second year — warns residents when conditions seem likely for a debris flow. During the early December rainstorms, the sensors in Sitka were able to pick up data about storm intensity and moisture levels in mountain top soils while local scientists monitored conditions.

These systems work: Switzerland, for example, has an active debris-flow mitigation program that includes observation stations equipped with data-collecting instruments connected to a multilevel warning system. In 2017, landslide alarms switched on when the Swiss village of Bondo was about to be hit by the largest landslide the community had seen in decades. The mud flow sent huge granite blocks tumbling into the valley, killing eight hikers. But the warning system, installed in 2012, allowed 150 residents to immediately evacuate to safety.

In Alaska, adaptation is more feasible than establishing an expensive network of warning systems, said Gabriel Wolken, a state geologist in Haines. It would require identifying and at-risk sites and educating nearby communities with the help of critical baseline information, including high-resolution topographic maps, climate data, and landslide susceptibility and hazard maps. Funding and support included in the National Landslide Act “would undoubtedly provide some benefits to understanding and adapting to landslides in Alaska,” Wolken said.

Such a database has been on Alaska scientists’ minds since Sitka’s 2015 landslides. That disaster was a wake-up call, said Stevens, the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys section chief. “We’re recognizing that landslides are a very unevaluated hazard within Alaska, particularly in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska, where you have more rugged topography,” she said. “We have such a huge area at risk, with so little data.”

Without detailed maps, and the baseline support data needed to make them, identification of landslide-prone areas will remain insufficient, and any decisions about possible hazards will be much less informed, Wolken said. “Ultimately, that’s what it’s going to take: the money to be able to collect the data, to be able to make the assessments, to even begin to understand what the magnitude of the problem is,” Stevens said. “We really need to do something about this because this is not going to be the last event.”

LIKE MANY ALASKANS, Lily Ford has been deeply affected by the intensified storms and the havoc they wreak on steep, craggy hillsides. There’s a hovering sense of anxiety that could be lifted with better warning systems and preparedness programs.

Ford’s family has lived in Haines for three years. Only recently, however, have they become aware of landslide risks. When she went to sleep on the first of December, she knew heavy rain was forecast. But she had no idea of the destruction it might bring. When she awoke Dec. 2, she discovered her neighborhood road was washed out, her neighbors were without water and parts of town were flooded.

Ford and her neighbors — who live on the side of 3,600-foot Ripinsky Mountain, directly above the small town — were warned to be ready to evacuate later that afternoon, only after the landslide that likely claimed two lives set off near her home. “It’s been unsettling, and I don’t think the town or anyone in it will ever be the same,” Ford said. “I’ve never had to choose what’s most important to take from my home, knowing I might not see my house again.” After a week, they were able to return, but she said her family will likely spend the rest of winter with their bags packed, ready to go. “It has changed me.”

Drowning the derelicts: Yesterday’s boats are today’s problems

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, News, Online, Print

Originally published in High Country News.

The Lumberman, a 107-foot World War II-era steel-hull tugboat, has been floating at the quiet cruise ship dock in Juneau for months, awaiting a watery grave. Abandoned for nearly a decade, the Lumberman was moored in Juneau’s Gastineau Channel in the early 2000s by its last owner, Brenden Mattson. Two years ago, the 192-ton tugboat’s anchor line broke, stranding it on state tidelands and creating a jurisdictional hot potato for city, state and Coast Guard officials as they debated how to dispose of the vessel.

Then, last winter, a high tide and forceful winds pushed the Lumberman from the tidelands. Fearing property damage, the city of Juneau took responsibility for the historic tug and towed it to the cruise ship dock. In late October, Juneau got permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to get rid of the boat: by scuttling it offshore, about 170 miles from the city. This spring, weather permitting, city officials will open a six-inch valve on the ship, allowing it to sink 8,400 feet to the ocean floor.

This is an uncommon way to deal with a common problem in coastal areas: what to do with abandoned and derelict vessels. Hundreds of such boats are strewn along Alaska’s coast, where they can become navigational hazards or dangerously alluring destinations: In 2017, two people who were trying to reach the Lumberman died when their skiff overturned. Abandoned boats can also damage habitat and leach toxic materials, such as lead paint, asbestos and household cleaners, threatening coastal environments. Each West Coast state would need over $20 million to handle the backlog, and close to $5 million annually to address the ongoing problem. On Alaska’s remote shorelines, these costs can double.

There are many reasons a boat may be abandoned: The owner can die or become unable to continue the boat’s upkeep, or the cost of either maintenance or disposal can be prohibitive. “People generally don’t walk away from the nicer boats that have value,” said Matthew Creswell, harbormaster at Juneau’s Docks and Harbors. “They walk away from the boats costing an arm and a leg to get rid of.”

The cost of removal varies by a vessel’s size and location. On Alaska’s expansive coasts, where infrastructure is sparse, prices are particularly high. The Lumberman, for example, could be discarded and hauled to a landfill, or transported by barge to Seattle, but either option would cost between $250,000 and $400,000, Creswell said. Sinking is a bargain in comparison, but it will still cost Juneau Docks and Harbors over $100,000, for towing, removing trash and stripping toxic lead paint from the vessel. “It’s not a common method,” Creswell said. “But in this case with the Lumberman, (scuttling) was the most cost-effective method.”

Juneau discards about a dozen boats annually. Most are smaller than the Lumberman and easier to remove and salvage locally. But long-abandoned boats are piling up: By 2025, Alaska’s fleet will include more than 3,000 vessels between 28 and 59 feet long that are over 45 years old — past the point of a useful life for most boats — according to the Alaska-based McKinley Research Group.

In 2017, cast-off boats caught the attention of the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force, an intergovernmental group that promotes coordination in addressing oil spills. The task force labeled derelict and abandoned vessels a “critical, emerging issue” and established a work group to explore the problem. “There is a strong sense from everybody who deals with the issue that it is getting worse pretty much everywhere (on the West Coast),” said Hilary Wilkinson, an environmental consultant in Washington who helps lead the task force and chairs its abandoned vessel work group.

The work group recommends that states look to Washington, which is considered to have a model boat-disposal program — one focused on prevention, owner responsibility and generating funds for removal. Any owner who cannot pay for disposal of a derelict, but floating, vessel that’s less than 45 feet long can ask the Washington Department of Natural Resources to remove it for free. The program handles about 20 boats annually, using money collected from vessel registration fees.

Adequate funding is a “major obstacle” for every West Coast state, according to the work group’s findings. Aaron Timian, Alaska’s abandoned and derelict vessel coordinator, said the state is still developing ways to secure funds. In response to mounting issues caused by vessels like the Lumberman, the state passed legislation in 2018 establishing the program that Timian now leads. The law, which requires boats longer than 24 feet to have a title, simplified the impoundment process and added civil penalties and enforcement authority. The paper trail should also make it easier for authorities to track down owners. While it’s too soon to tell if it will be effective, Creswell said, “It’s totally a step in the right direction.”

Climate change intensifies tsunami threat in Alaska

Alaska, News, Online, Print

Originally published in High Country News.

Tucked against glacier-capped mountains, the Begich Towers loom over Whittier, Alaska. More than 80% of the small town’s residents live in the Cold War-era barracks in this former secret military port, whose harbor teems every summer with traffic: barnacle-encrusted fishing boats, sightseeing ships, sailboats, superyachts and cruiseliner monstrosities. This summer, coronavirus travel restrictions put a damper on tourism in the usually buzzing port. Then came warnings of a potentially devastating tsunami.

Whittier residents have been mindful of tsunamis for generations. In 1964, the Good Friday earthquake was followed by a 25-foot wave that crushed waterfront infrastructure, lifting and twisting rail lines and dragging them back to sea. The Good Friday earthquake — which killed 13 people here and caused $10 million worth of damage — still occupies Whittier’s memory.

With tons of rock and rubble precariously perched high above a nearby fjord, ready to crash into the sea, the town’s present is being shaped by both its past and preparations for an uncertain future. This destabilization is being driven by climate change: Tsunamis are becoming more likely in Alaska as hillsides, formerly reinforced by glaciers and solidly frozen ground, loosen their hold on once-stable slopes.

On May 14, an Alaska Department of Natural Resources press release and a public letter from 14 scientists warned locals of a possible landslide-generated tsunami. Alaska has identified three similar events in the past: Tsunamis in 2015 and 1967 occurred in remote areas, while one in 1958 killed two people whose boat was capsized. But the unstable slope in Barry Arm, a narrow steep-walled fjord in Prince William Sound, is vastly more dangerous. The potential energy from a catastrophic slide here is approximately 10 times greater than previous events, the state’s top geologist said in the May press release.

The landslide in Barry Arm has been lurching towards the ocean since at least 1957, when Barry Glacier — which once gripped the base of the mountainside and held back the slope — first pulled its load-bearing ice wall out from under the rocky slope. As the glacier retreated, so did the slope’s support system — dragging the rock face downward toward the ocean, leaving a distinct, zig-zagging indentation in the hillside. Between 2009 and 2015, Barry Glacier retreated past the bottom edge of the landslide, and the slope fell 600 feet. Since 2006, Barry Glacier has receded by more than two miles. Scientists believe the slope is likely to fail within the next 20 years — and could even do so within the year.

Climate change makes land more unstable and increases the risk of landslide-caused tsunamis. As the climate warms, glaciers melt and recede, pulling back from the mountainsides they were hugging. Barry Glacier’s wall of ice — which once held the hillside in place, supporting it against the fjord’s mountains — has thinned, edging away from the rock face, releasing its support and revealing an unstable slope that is slipping downward toward the ocean. Brentwood Higman, geologist and executive director of Ground Truth Alaska, is working with other scientists to research climate change’s impact on landslide-triggered tsunamis. “(These events) are worth worrying about regardless of climate change,” Higman said. “But there are a number of reasons to think climate change makes them a lot more likely.”

As glaciers recede, the land above them also becomes more unstable. The craggy alpine region of south-central Alaska is already thawing dramatically. Once-frozen slabs of rock, dirt and ice are releasing trapped liquids and becoming more prone to sliding down mountains.

Another less-obvious symptom of climate change increases the risk. When there’s more water in the atmosphere, precipitation becomes more intense. Rain, even more than earthquakes, is prone to trigger landslides, Higman said. Climate change will make landslides more likely and more frequent, said Anna Liljedahl, an associate scientist with the Woodwell Climate Research Center. “It’s a new emerging hazard, and that’s why it’s urgent to do an assessment of where we have these unstable slopes and where they are a hazard to people,” Liljedahl said.

Tracking unstable slopes can give local governments time to install warning systems, so scientists are working to identify unstable land, focusing on monitoring landslides near communities in Southeast and south-central Alaska.

In mid-October, Gabriel Wolken, the Climate and Cryosphere Hazards Program manager for the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, took a helicopter to Barry Arm. From the air, he conducted a lidar survey, using a laser scanner to measure the topography of the slide area in fine detail, calculating how the landslide has moved and changed since June. The data is still being processed. But, there are new rockfalls in the area every time he visits, indicating the area’s instability. “The rock itself isn’t very competent,” Wolken said. “It’s basically falling apart.”

Whittier residents are aware of the risk, said Peter Denmark, who runs a commercial kayaking business in town. “With the people around town, there’s a laissez-faire attitude about it,” Denmark said. Alaskans have “thick skins” when it comes to disasters, he said. “If it’s not tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, forest fires — it’s one thing or another.” Still, Denmark is taking precautions; he avoids the Barry Arm area on kayaking tours.

Kelly Bender and her husband Mike rely on summer tourism in Prince William Sound. From their waterfront office, she charters water taxis, fishing boats, kayaking and sightseeing tours. Before news of the potential landslide broke, Bender said their fleet went into Barry Arm daily. With its scenic location, near glaciers and a popular beach, the state estimates that 500 people could be in the area at any given time during peak tourist season. Bender has changed tour routes, cancelled water taxi trips — even cancelled a planned wedding. “The danger part of it — people are feeling like ‘we know what to do in a tsunami,’” Bender said. “It’s the business part of it that we’re all really, you know, hanging by a thread.” When tsunami warning sirens blare in Whittier, residents know to move swiftly away from the coast and head to higher ground. The state encourages coastal residents to keep a “go bag” filled with emergency supplies and to plan evacuation routes.

While it’s still possible to avert or mitigate many of the worst impacts of climate change, there really isn’t an option to eliminate landslide-generated tsunamis. The state uses howitzer cannons to trigger controlled avalanches in railway and highway corridors, but there’s no easy way to gently coax a colossal land mass off the side of a mountain and into the ocean. “It’s pretty much science fiction,” Higman said. Smaller landslides might be able to be stabilized from the bottom up, but large landslides, like in Barry Arm, “forget about it,” Liljedahl said.

Increasing preparedness, installing a robust monitoring system on and near landslides and creating an effective localized alert system are the best ways to protect communities, she said. Some locals, like Denmark, the kayak outfitter, prefer a quicker approach, however. “My idea was to just blast it down and duck,” he said. “But nobody thought that was a good idea.”

HCN: Today’s wildfire modeling ‘just sucks’ for flames fueled by climate change

Beyond Alaska, News, Online, Print

This story originally published in High Country News.

Over Labor Day weekend in the Pacific Northwest, high winds fanned wildfire ignitions in drought-ridden forests west of the Cascades. In a matter of hours, small fires erupted into about a dozen major blazes, destroying entire communities, displacing tens of thousands of residents and killing 10 people in Oregon and Washington.

The scale of the conflagrations, and the speed at which they grew, surprised even seasoned wildfire researchers. The scientific models used to predict and understand fires worked well in previous decades, but given current conditions across the West, trying to use them now “just sucks,” said David Saah, an environmental scientist at the University of San Francisco and a leader of the Pyregence Consortium, a team developing new wildfire models. “You know how we keep saying climate change is going to change everything? We’re there, we’re in it (and) we don’t know how to quantify it. We’re trying to figure it out.”

Fire has always been part of Western ecosystems; many animals and plants evolved to depend on periodic burns. And for thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have used fire to help keep forests healthy by reducing excess brush and encouraging new growth, a practice that continues today. But after a century of fire suppression — and with a rapidly changing climate that is drying out forests — Western wildfires are now much larger and more intense than before.

In the typically wet western Cascades, wildfires require certain conditions to grow: low humidity and powerful easterly winds. By early September, a 10-month drought had set the stage for dangerous blazes, and unusually dry and strong winds followed: Near Salem, Oregon, sensors logged the lowest combination of relative humidity and highest wind speed ever recorded at that location, said Larry O’Neill, the Oregon state climatologist. These conditions contributed to the “explosive” growth of the Santiam Fire, later renamed the Beachie Creek Fire, which has burned nearly 200,000 acres, destroyed thousands of homes and buildings in the towns of Detroit, Mill City, Gates and Santiam River, and killed five people, including Oregon environmentalist George Atiyeh. “(That) combination of conditions is essentially unheard of,” O’Neill said. But it might become more common in the future, thanks to climate change. Scientists are “very concerned” about the possibility that such rare wind events could become “more frequent or extreme,” O’Neill said.

When authorities are faced with major decisions — how to best protect homes and lives, and when to issue evacuation notices — they need to know how fast-moving, hot and severe a specific fire is likely to be, and where its perimeter might lie in the days ahead. For now, most state incident commanders and U.S. Forest Service firefighters rely on short-term wildfire models, computer-based calculations that forecast how a blaze might behave. The Rothermel surface fire spread model, developed in 1972, is the basis of many of the models used today. The basic inputs rely on knowing three main elements that drive wildfires: topography, weather and fuel flammability.

But the unusual easterly wind added an unexpected element to attempts to model the Labor Day fires, said Meg Krawchuk, a fire and landscape ecologist at Oregon State University. “Rare events are hard to model because you have so few cases to build and learn from,” she said. And wind in particular can stymie Rothermel-style models. Strong gusts can topple power lines, igniting new fires that build on the heat and vapor in the atmosphere, spawning an inferno large enough to create its own weather. When that happens, the original inputs are no longer accurate — and neither are the model’s results.

Understanding such complicated interactions requires a new kind of model. Coupled, or physics-based, models, for example, explicitly examine the interaction, or coupling, between fire behavior and the atmosphere. These models, which are expensive to run, are still being developed; right now they primarily live in “research land,” said Saah. They address the feedback cycle of what a fire consumes, how the heat released from that consumption impacts the atmosphere, how that in turn affects the weather, and how that weather then impacts the fire’s behavior. “The (Rothermel-based) models don’t capture that,” Saah said.

A third type of wildfire model, used for long-term planning and research, looks at general wildfire activity on a scale of decades rather than days. These statistical models look at long-term vegetation and climatological patterns and how they interact in a particular place, then project what wildfires will look like in 50 or 100 years. The inputs are based on historical data, and as climate change dries out the West and increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, wildfires will also change, making modeling them more difficult. “When you want to build large-scale systems models, you need lots and lots and lots of observations,” Saah said, something scientists don’t yet have, as climate change alters conditions in ways they haven’t seen before. “So that’s why people are freaking out.”

HCN: Why the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may not be drilled

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in High Country News.

Every summer, the Porcupine caribou herd travels hundreds of miles to return to the northernmost edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s North Slope. There, on the coastal plain known as Area 1002, the cows give birth to calves, and the animals forage for food and huddle together against the swarms of mosquitoes.

The caribou are protected, almost, by the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which granted federal protection to more than a quarter of Alaska’s 375 million acres, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the nearly 20-million-acre refuge was designated as wilderness, but the coastal plain was set aside for oil and gas development, if and when Congress approved it. Since then, politicians have batted the issue back and forth, neither fully protecting the region or opening it up. Last month, though, the Trump administration opened the entire 1.56 million acres of the 1002 for leasing, removing the last regulatory hurdle to the prospect of well pads, roads and pipelines in the calving grounds and setting the stage for the exploitation of one of the conservation movement’s most important sites.

The fate of the area, and the caribou that depend on it, is not yet sealed, however. Before drill rigs can move in, developers must overcome other legal and political challenges, along with an increasingly uncertain petroleum economy and the possibility of a new presidential administration.

The latest obstacle was thrown up on Sept. 9, when 15 state governments in the Lower 48 and three Alaska tribal entities south of the Refuge — Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, Arctic Village Council and Venetie Village Council — all took separate legal action against the federal government to try to stop the lease sale. That’s in addition to other lawsuits filed last month by the Gwich’in Steering Committee — which advocates for 15 Gwich’in communities in Alaska and Canada — with 12 other environmental organizations, and another from a coalition of conservation groups. “We used to migrate alongside (the caribou) for over 40,000 years,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Steering Committee, said in an interview. “We can’t survive without them.” The Gwich’in Steering Committee was formed in 1988 in response to proposals to drill in the herd’s calving grounds. With the help of other conservation groups, the Gwich’in managed to convince major banks — including Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase — to curtail or ban investment in fossil fuel projects in Alaska, a serious matter for an industry still reeling from low oil prices.

Even if the conservationists’ legal and political challenges fail, petroleum companies will have to decide whether developing the coastal plain is worth it. Oil prices have been relatively low for the last five years, and new drilling techniques have opened up huge, more appealing reserves in shale formations in the Lower 48.

The oil industry’s longtime “holy grail” — drilling the Arctic Refuge — is no longer quite as alluring, said Philip Wight, a professor specializing in Arctic energy history at University of Alaska Fairbanks. The industry is transforming, and arguments for drilling in ANWR to supercharge revenues for Alaska simply don’t pencil out, he said.

The Trump presidency and its Republican-led Congress gave Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the opportunity to insert a provision approving a lease sale into the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Nevertheless, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act initiated an environmental analysis of exploration and development possibilities, which wrapped up this August, when Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed the record of decision setting the first lease sale of the 1002 for late 2021. But a new president could reverse the approval: A campaign spokesman told the Associated Press last month that Joseph Biden seeks to “permanently protect ANWR and other areas impacted by President Trump’s attacks on federal lands and waters.” A new president could use the Antiquities Act to declare the coastal plain a national monument, permanently halting the lease sale. “There is just so much that changed to make this happen that can change completely with the next administration,” Siqiñiq Maupin, Arctic community organizer for Native Movement and the director of Sovereign Inupiaq for a Living Arctic, said in an interview.

Given all the political and economic uncertainties, drilling in the Arctic may simply be too risky for companies today. For now, the fate of the Porcupine caribou lies in the invisible hand of the market, buffeted by political changes that are hard to predict. Guessing what the world is going to look like in the 2030s and beyond is a “substantial risk,” Larry Persily, the former federal coordinator for gas projects in Alaska, said. “You cannot hold on (to a lease) for 20 years in speculation. If you don’t do something, you won’t make the money back. That’s a lot of crystal ball work.”

HCN: Essential transportation in rural Alaska is up in the air

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, News, Online, Uncategorized

This story originally published in High Country News.

In July, Megan Dean, preparing to give birth to her first child, needed a ride to a doctor’s appointment. It wouldn’t be easy: Dean lives in Unalaska, on the Aleutian Archipelago, 800 miles from the nearest obstetrician. Much of the 4,800-person town sits at the base of hillsides emerging from the Bering Sea, and with no roads connecting it to other communities, boats and planes are the only ways in and out.

Last year, Dean, who works at the Museum of the Aleutians, could have taken one of several direct daily flights to Anchorage. But this April, Alaska’s largest regional airline, Ravn Air, abruptly declared bankruptcy and closed, citing coronavirus-related revenue losses. That left Dean with limited options. To get to Anchorage now, she scours a community Facebook group for charter planes offering last-minute seats. At $675, the one she booked in July cost $224 more than the Ravn Air flight she took in March. (Her insurance covers the plane ride.) “It’s a crazy time to be pregnant and have a baby, especially when you don’t live on the road system,” Dean said. “It just feels like an extra sense of disconnect.” 

With many communities lacking publicly funded roads or railways and a state ferry system facing uncertainty due to budget cuts, thousands of Alaskans rely on private airlines for everything from groceries and mail to doctor’s visits. Now, Unalaska and other roadless communities are tapping a federal program to lure airline companies and organizing groups to coordinate charter flights, while waiting to see if Ravn’s new buyers — a Los Angeles-based company — will restore critically needed transportation.

In Alaska, 82% of communities are not accessible by road. As a result, the state-funded fleet of ferries known as the Alaska Marine Highway System has been a lifeline for many coastal towns. In Unalaska, for example, the ferry visited eight to 10 times annually in recent years. But this year, due to deep budget cuts pushed by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the ferry will make only four trips. That’s left residents largely dependent on private transportation — in particular, commercial flights. Until it closed, Ravn Air operated 400 flights a day to more than 115 communities across the state.

The airline’s sudden closure has caused affected seafood industry workers who need to reach Unalaska’s Dutch Harbor, the nation’s busiest fishing port, as well as residents like Dean trying to get to Anchorage’s hospital. “The community has missed doctor appointments even when we had daily scheduled service,” said Erin Reinders, Unalaska’s city manager. Now, the only non-charter option leaves just twice a week, and it’s not direct, which increases the risk of weather delays. “(That) can really make or break a whole trip.”

Officials in Unalaska submitted a request to the federal Essential Air Service program, which was designed to provide rural communities with adequate passenger service. After the U.S. airline industry was deregulated in 1978, the program was established to subsidize companies serving remote towns that were otherwise unprofitable. This is particularly important in Alaska: About a third of the 168 communities receiving these flights are located here. “In most places, you can get in your car and in a couple hours get to a substantial airport, but in Alaska, not so much,” said Richard Sewell, an aviation policy planner with the Alaska Department of Transportation. As of April 2020, private airlines in Alaska will receive more than $26 million in subsidies.

The program would bring six flights a week to Unalaska during its busiest season. By the beginning of August, two companies had submitted proposals, which will be subject to public comment before a contract is awarded.

Some airlines plan to boost their operations and serve Unalaska and the Aleutians even without Essential Air Service contracts. One, FLOAT Shuttle, was awarded Ravn Air’s core assets in bankruptcy court in July and is rebranding itself the “New Ravn.” The company previously operated in Southern California, flying commuters above hectic traffic, but it has now moved some of its executive team north, where many already have aviation experience. “We saw this as an opportunity to continue a service that is needed and wanted,” said Rob McKinney, FLOAT’s co-founder. At least one other company, a Southeast Alaska airline, Alaska Seaplanes, thinks it can do a better job, calling FLOAT Shuttle “woefully unproven” in a late July press release announcing that it also intends to bring air service to Unalaska.

But the future of flight in Unalaska may not be private at all. Mark Horne, a resident of Unalaska for the last 30 years, launched a travel co-op membership drive in July. The plan would guarantee reasonably priced charter flights using an online booking system: Members would pay for their portion of the contracted charter, and if the plane doesn’t reach the destination, the passengers pay nothing. The co-op, however, is a work in progress: It has nearly 500 members now, but Horne estimates he needs 10 times that number to get it off the ground. Still, Horne hopes something happens to make booking a plane ticket a little easier. “Travel has always been a pain out here,” Horne said. “(We’ve) got to do something better.”

$30 million school construction bond pushed to 2021

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

A proposed $30 million bond package to fix the Kenai Peninsula’s aging school buildings will be pushed to next year’s ballot.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the Board of Education had pushed for the bond to be placed on this October’s municipal election ballot, and formally asked the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly at the Feb. 4 school board meeting to place the proposal on the ballot.

However, due to concerns with the COVID-19 pandemic, the borough and the district have agreed to push the bond off until the October 2021 election, Dave Jones, assistant superintendent for the district, said during a presentation at the June 2 assembly meeting.

“Our buildings are past the life that they were built to have,” Jones said at the assembly meeting. “We have a lot of work that needs to be done to bring them up to speed and to extend their lives longer.”

Jones said borough and district both agreed that because of the pandemic “the bond would fail.”

“Before COVID I think that was going to be a successful bond issue,” Jones said at the assembly meeting. “After COVID I think everybody has agreed with the consensus ‘if we put that bond issue out there it would fail.’”

The $29,940,000 bond proposal tackles 19 school projects that are considered a “priority and critical to maintaining key infrastructure for both community and educational needs,” a Feb. 4 school board resolution said.

About a quarter of the district’s schools are 50 years or older, while 80% of schools are more than 30 years old.

Identified projects span across the peninsula. There are two districtwide projects, one of which will address aged technology to ensure the “security challenges schools face today” and upgrade building automation controls to prevent system failures and reliable heating systems.

Building control systems are outdated and have “exceeded their useful life” at Kenai Central High School, Skyview Middle School and Nikiski Middle/High School, a Feb. 4 school board resolution said.

The exterior building envelope is failing at Chapman Elementary, Cooper Landing, West Homer Elementary, Nanwalek, Sterling Elementary and Tebughna School. Repair of the building envelope will extend the life of the facilities and reduce energy consumption, the resolution said.

Roofs at Homer High School and Nikiski North Star Elementary have reached the end of their useful life, the resolution said.

The biggest project will be the construction of a new school in Kachemak Selo, which will take advantage of more than $10 million in state funds, if the state will grant a deadline extension. Currently, the grant has a deadline of June 2021. District administration said they have reached out to the Department of Education and Early Development to see if the grant can be extended.

Educational improvement projects are needed at Kenai Middle School and Nanwalek School “to more adequately serve the student population,” the resolution said. According to the list of bond projects, these projects will replace failing windows at Nanwalek and enlarge the kitchens at Kenai Middle School and Nanwalek.

On the southern peninsula, the boiler and controls at Ninilchik School need to be replaced to provide for “efficiency and reliability,” the resolution said.

On the eastern peninsula, one project will address seismic repair for damage Seward Middle School sustained during an earthquake, which will “preserve the building integrity.”

Next year, the assembly will have the opportunity to place the bond package on the October 2021 ballot.

Cruise ship companies cancel, postpone Alaska sailings

Alaska, News, Print

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Princess Cruises has effectively canceled their 2020 summer season in Alaska, the cruise company’s president, Jan Swartz, announced Tuesday in a video message on the Princess Cruises website.

In her video message, Swartz said Alaska’s shortened summer season made operating their cruises, buses, five wilderness lodges and trains “simply not viable.” The cruise company employs approximately 3,500 people, many of them coming from all over the world to work in Alaska for the tourist season, Swartz said.

On the Kenai Peninsula, the Kenai Princess Lodge in Cooper Landing is one of the five lodges that will be closed this summer, resulting in a number of canceled bookings with local excursion companies that take Princess guests on kayak tours, Kenai River rafting tours and sled dog tours, according to the lodge’s activity information on the company’s website.

“We know these decisions will have a large adverse economic impact on the state of Alaska,” Swartz said.

The company sends many of their cruise ships through Alaska’s Inside Passage, stopping along at a number of Southeast communities. The company’s Sun Princess and Golden Princess ships were scheduled to dock in Seward May 17 and Sept. 1. Sun Princess was also set to dock in Homer, May 15.

The closure will halt all Grand, Pacific and Royal Princess cruises. Round-trip cruises to Alaska departing from San Francisco and Los Angeles on the Star Princess and Golden Princess will also not sail this summer.

The company is remaining optimistic that Emerald and Ruby Princess cruises will still be able to offer round-trip cruises from Seattle in the late summer, Swartz said.
“We will, of course, continue to evaluate our plans in the weeks ahead,” she said.

On the Princess Cruise website, a round-trip seven-day cruise setting sail in July from Seattle through Alaska’s Inside Passage on the Emerald Princess ship was on sale for 40% off.
Other cruise companies are making similar changes to their 2020 Alaska season. Windstar Cruises has halted their Star Breeze ship from sailing in Alaska in 2020. The Star Breeze was scheduled to visit Seward twice this summer.

Holland America has a travel advisory posted on their website, which says that the start of the Alaska, Europe, Canada and New England cruise seasons are delayed through June 30. The company said all 2020 Alaska cruises on their Maasdam, Volendam, Oosterdam, Noordam and Westerdam ships are canceled.

The Maasam ship was scheduled to dock in Homer 10 times, every other Tuesday from May 12 until Sept. 15. The Noordam and Westerdam were set to dock in Seward on alternate Sundays every week from May 17, until Sept. 13.

Royal Caribbean Cruises departs for Alaska from Vancouver, but itineraries to Alaska will be postponed until Canada reopens its ports to cruise ships.

The port is currently scheduled to reopen July 1, according to the company’s website. Regent Seven Seas Cruises said in a travel advisory on their website that the company is planning to “commence operations beginning May 15.”

Viking Cruises announced they will suspend operations through June 30, an advisory on their site said.

Celebrity Cruises will postpone their Alaska sailings until July 1, according to an announcement on their website. Norwegian Cruise Line will relaunch operations May 15, their website said.

For travelers who have already paid for cruises to Alaska, Princess Cruises and Holland America Cruises are offering guests a choice between a full refund or a credit to use on a future cruise.

‘Everyone is learning a new way to learn’

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story published in the Peninsula Clarion.

For Kenai Central High School junior Rileigh Pace, life has changed “a lot” since the transition from the physical classroom to emergency remote learning.

She takes classes like U.S. history, trigonometry, honors language arts, anatomy and physiology and ceramics online using a computer she’s set up on a small desk in the corner of her bedroom. It’s a quieter space than her family’s dinner table, she said.

Pace is just one of the more than 8,000 students in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District who have had to shift to home-schooling due to state-mandated school closures, which have shut students off from school sites across the state for the rest of the academic year.

The closures came suddenly for Alaskans in mid-March, as students were enjoying spring break. Districts across the country are grappling with the unprecedented shift to emergency remote learning. Across the U.S., states have closed schools, impacting at least 55 million children, according to Education Week.

On the Kenai Peninsula, students in the district returned to school March 30 to remote learning. District staff had two weeks to plan for distance delivery, Pegge Erkeneff, district communications director, said in an email.

“Everyone is learning a new way to learn,” Erkeneff said.

To make the remote learning shift, the district first focused on connecting with parents to explain the plan for distance learning and to understand each family’s situation, John Pothast, director of innovation and strategic planning for the district, said in an email. Next, teachers were asked to focus on the content they teach and determine how they could teach it from afar, which included training on how those lessons could be delivered remotely.

Pothast said the district “developed and delivered” more than 260 live, video training sessions for educators. The videos were saved and teachers have access to those training sessions.

The training sought to show teachers how to develop a virtual classroom, deliver instruction and materials to students online, how to effectively communicate with students and parents, best practices for working from home and learning from home and how to make materials available for families without access to online technology, Pothast said.

With the shift to online learning during an economic and public health crisis, the metrics for student success have also changed. Pothast said the primary definition for student success looks like students connecting with teachers and engaging with assigned activities.

Erkeneff said the district has a “do no harm mindset for grading,” and students won’t see their grades drop based on where they were, but will be given the opportunity to improve their grade based on “engagement and involvement in class.”

“Teachers have never taught like this before, on this scale,” Pothast said. “Likewise, students and families have never learned like this before, at this scale. Moving to remote learning in a matter of days is a significant shift for everyone; for teachers, students and families alike. And there are high levels of anxiety, for teachers, students and families.”

The district is addressing equity concerns among students by falling back on their practice of personalized learning — which, like its name suggests, is education tailored to each student’s needs. The learning strategy has been in use for years across the district, and is helping teachers take into consideration the types of learners students will be from afar.

“(The district) is ensuring that all students have equitable access to their teaching and learning, and find success, in this remote learning environment — not because any law compels us to, but instead because it is the right thing to do for every one of our students,” Pothast said.

For students who lack access to the internet, teachers are making accommodations with physical assignments, Erkeneff, said.

Melissa Nill, a special education intensive needs teacher in her first year at Kenai Central, said remote learning is “very challenging” for her classroom because most of her students’ learning required one-on-one support. Nill said she has “an amazing group of paraprofessional educators” to assist her in maintaining that one-on-one support. Nill said some of her students also do not have access to the internet.

This support looks like frequent calls with students and parents, where Nill and her staff make themselves available to help however they can, from afar. Nill said most of her students’ work is assigned offline. Each student is unique, and has different learning requirements, Nill said.

“I don’t deny having had a cry or two over how I was going to do this, but for me, the adventure continues and if I can do this, I can do anything,” Nill said.

Meredith McCullough is a 10th grade English and history teacher at Kenai Central. She said the transition to distance learning has been “fairly smooth.” She teaches Advanced Placement courses, which conclude in a test students across the nation can take to potentially count toward college credits. With the test up in the air, McCullough said her students are continuing to chip away at the work and prepare for the assessment anyway.

Jean Beck, a fifth grade teacher at Seward Elementary, has been practicing “blended learning” since the beginning of the year, which is a mix of online and in-person student instruction. She said “flexible content” from personalized learning is a “highly used element” in her classroom.

“I accommodate specific learners in my class, so I have arranged separate, but similar and attainable work for them during our distance learning,” Beck said. “The benefits are plain and clear: I am confident of my students’ abilities. They are savvy in the tools that we use and I wasn’t worried that they weren’t going to be able to figure out new ones that were introduced.”

To accommodate every student, the district made hundreds of Chromebook computers available to students who needed access to their virtual classrooms. Erkeneff said the district checked out 700 Chromebooks with a request for more on the way.

Pace said her family needed to check out a district Chromebook for her younger brother. She said her household had two computers, but three people who needed to work online because of closures caused by the global pandemic.

Families stuck at home

The need for parental input is greater than ever with students at home, Nill said. But balancing that need without adding more stress to parents’ plates can be tricky.
“I worry that daily contact is more of a burden than a help to my parents, but I want to be sure my parents and students know I am here for them, and try to offer as much help as I can,” Nill said.

Abigail Moffett, another junior at Kenai Central, said she can sometimes get distracted by other family members stuck at home when she should be focusing on online school. She said her emergency remote classes feel similar to other online classes she’s taken. However, she noticed her current teachers didn’t have as much time to prepare their virtual classrooms.

“Most of my teachers now didn’t have as much time to prepare so they are still trying to figure out things like class discussions and what to do about testing,” Moffett said. “I also communicate with my teachers differently. I’ve been using phone calls and Zoom meetings recently, whereas I used email to communicate with my previous online teachers.”

Being stuck at home has its perks. Moffett said she’s been enjoying more time with her family, the ability to sleep in and having time to cook her own breakfast and lunch.
Pace said students need to have the right mindset for online learning. She said the biggest drawback to online learning is how easy it is to fall behind on work and procrastinate.

Pace has taken online classes set up by the district and Kenai Peninsula College. She said she’s noticed her new classes are “significantly easier,” than her previous online classes. Her classes have the same objectives set at the beginning of the semester, but the material and assignments are “much easier.”

McCullough said the greatest disadvantage to the remote learning mode is the isolation people across the country are facing because of social distancing orders.

“Before all of this happened, I was blessed to see my students every school day,” McCullough said. “Not having them in the building, not being able to see them consistently, has been so difficult because they are the best part of this job. The first time I was able to video chat with my (AP world history) students, I ended up crying afterward because it was so nice to see their faces and hear their voices.”

McCullough said many of her students have mentioned they “miss their friends, their teachers, and the support staff who were a daily part of their lives.”
Bored at home

Pace, like other students, is missing the social aspects of school. She found out schools would be closing during a regional basketball tournament in Anchorage. This season, Pace was named captain of the Kenai basketball cheer team.

“It was so sad when we found out (the state cheer competition) was canceled because we worked hard all season to compete in it,” Pace said. “I do miss going to school. I definitely miss seeing my friends and teachers. It’s hard to spend your whole week with friends and then one day it’s just gone and you have to stay home all day … At first you think the change is fine and will be fixed soon but by now it’s gotten very boring.”

Moffett said she misses the little things about school, like socializing in the hallways between class and during lunch.

“My social life has definitely taken a hit with remote learning because I talk to most of my friends at school and I’m not great at communicating over social media,” Moffett said. “I miss being able to talk face to face with people, and I miss being able to walk around between classes. When all of my classes are online, I just sit at the computer and flip through them. I don’t move as much as I should.”

A post-coronavirus world

Many juniors and seniors begin to flesh out their plans for life after high school — whether that means going to college or a trade school or entering the workforce. However, some students are seeing the pandemic change their plans.

Pace said preparing for college during a pandemic is “stressful.” She was supposed to take the SAT test at the end of March, but it was postponed until June. However, some colleges are saying they may waive SAT and ACT application requirements, due to the pandemic.

“Right now, I’m supposed to be looking for colleges and starting to apply soon, and without taking this test, I’m not quite sure what will happen,” Pace said.

For Moffett, the global pandemic has helped solidify her dream of becoming a doctor. “If anything, this pandemic has strengthened my desire to go into the medical field,” Moffett said.

Moffett said she is “a little concerned” about whether or not fall sports will take place.
“I was looking forward to spending one last year on a team with my friends,” Moffett said.

Looking ahead for the district, Erkeneff said the district is still fully immersed in assisting teachers, students, parents and staff with providing student education and meals.

Initial conversations about “post-crisis learning and recovery” are just beginning, Erkeneff said.

Educators raise concerns about virtual school contract

Alaska, Education, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Local education officials expressed concern and surprise after the state announced March 31 it had entered into a half-million dollar contract with an online public school based in Florida.

In mid-March, Gov. Mike Dunleavy ordered schools to close to “non-contact days” — which prohibited students from being in a school building.

Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Michael Johnson said that’s when his team sought to do business with Florida Virtual School. A public online school that began in the 1990s, will offer courses for students from kindergarten through grade 12.

The school recently came under fire from Florida’s education department for accusations that the organization’s leadership was at fault for improper behavior and spending, according to a November 2019 article from the Orlando Sentinel.

At Monday’s Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education meeting, school board member Virginia Morgan said she was “shocked” when she heard about the Florida Virtual School agreement. She said she would also like to see the board encourage the state to contract with Alaska educators.

“We have teachers who are capable and qualified to offer online education and some were already doing so before this pandemic,” she said at the meeting.

Dave Brighton, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, asked the board to take a position against the state’s contract with the Florida Virtual school. Brighton said he was “disheartened to see that our governor wanted to spend money outside of our community.”

“I just think it’s really sad to see half a million dollars leave Alaska when what we really need is to keep money in our state, in our communities to support our economy,” Brighton said at the meeting. “We work hard here in Alaska, we’re culturally relevant to our students here in Alaska, which in many ways are very unique. We don’t need to spend money Outside trying to look for what we’re doing here.”

Johnson said in an April 6 email that the state’s education department wanted to give Alaska districts another option for their emergency remote instruction. Districts are not required to use the school’s programs, which cost the state $525,000.

“Every educator in the state started working on ways to solve the challenges we knew we would face over the coming weeks,” Johnson said. “We knew there would be places in Alaska where educators would need assistance in offering the content needed to support learning for students at many grade levels and content areas.”

Johnson also called into the school board meeting, which was operating virtually, to speak to the board about the state’s efforts in transitioning districts to emergency remote learning. Johnson said the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is “doing a fantastic job for students” and is “setting a high bar for districts around the state.”

He discussed the state’s new contract with the Florida Virtual School and said the intention for the virtual school is for districts to use it for free if they need the extra content. He said the department has no expectation for the school and it is not mandatory for districts to participate in its program.

The department wanted districts to have “options,” he said. Right now, the department is working on sending out “a few hundred” pre-filled iPads to the state’s “most remote and smallest schools.”
He said educators can visit AKLearns.org to learn more.

He said in a small school, a teacher might have several grade levels and dozens of classes to teach. Transitioning to a remote learning model overnight, and still offering everything for every student, is “nearly impossible,” Johnson said.

Johnson said offering free virtual classes was one option the department could provide to support state districts at “no cost to small schools facing capacity issues.”
Johnson said the virtual school also offers families more options.

“We have also discovered that some families are concerned about their students being prepared for next year, so they are choosing virtual school coursework to extend learning for their children,” Johnson said. “Virtual school classes are simply one more option from which to choose.”

Trends: Tourism industry takes hit from COVID-19

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Local restaurateurs, hotel owners and tour operators are feeling uncertain about the 2020 tourism season, which normally begins at the end of April in Alaska.

The 2020 summer season is a major concern for the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, Executive Director Debbie Speakman said.

She said hotels and lodges have already seen cancellations and a standstill in bookings has business owners worried about their summer season. Speakman said the industry is encouraging travelers to postpone their trips rather than cancel altogether.

Mike Flores owns four tourism companies, Ninilchik Charters, Seward Fishing Club, Alaska Destinations and Soaring Eagle Lodge. He said some of his customers have already moved their trips up to 2021. He said he doesn’t plan on laying off any staff.
“Even if we’re not fishing, we have other work,” Flores said.

He’s waiting until April 25 to make a decision on whether or not he limits operations in May and June. Despite all this, Flores said he’s still hopeful.

Speakman and others all said they’ve noticed guests holding out for a trip later in the summer. They have noticed people aren’t canceling trips later in the summer, like in late July and August. Flores said at his lodge, guests who booked in late summer are “holding tight” to their reservations.

This summer, tourism businesses on the Kenai Peninsula will have an additional hurdle to overcome, with many local businesses hoping to bounce back after the 2019 Swan Lake Fire interrupted traffic to the peninsula and filled communities with smoke during peak tourism season.

“My big fear for our area is — last year we had a fire and cancellations, so people are already at 50 percent,” Speakman said. “They could still pay their employees. Now compound (this global pandemic). My fear is that a lot of people may not recover. I’m afraid a lot of people will not be able to weather the storm.”

Flores said the Swan Lake Fire “threw us into the red” more than $200,000.

“We stomached the loss, but now we may have more losses (this summer),” Flores said.
Flores submitted paperwork for disaster assistance to the Small Business Administration this week.

“We’re going to need assistance to stay afloat,” he said.

A large part of Alaska’s tourism industry is the cruise industry, which brings a million visitors to the state every year, Speakman said. Cruise ships would normally begin filling the small towns of Southeast Alaska at the end of April. On the peninsula, Seward was expecting its first ship to dock May 5 and in Homer May 12.

Citing concerns about COVID-19, Canada has closed all of its ports to cruises until July. Many Alaska cruises begin at the Seattle Port, which announced an indefinite closure of the port to cruises on Tuesday.

“The Port now expects the launch of the cruise season will be delayed until the resolution of the public health emergency,” a March 24 release from the port said.

Borough budget to take hit

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Springtime is a time for local governments to work on the next year’s budget, and despite a global pandemic, the Kenai Peninsula Borough staff is working on the fiscal year 2021 budget.

Mayor Charlie Pierce — who has quarantined himself at home since arriving in Alaska after an out-of-state trip a week ago — told the Clarion Thursday that the borough’s budget will take an “unanticipated hit” because of the new coronavirus.

Pierce said his administration is evaluating what impacts COVID-19 will have. Pierce said the borough could experience a 30-60% “negative impact” in sales tax revenue because of the global pandemic. He said the borough is in the process of developing better projections as information becomes available.

Over the last several years, Pierce said there’s been a “considerable amount of effort” to contain costs in the borough to bring the budget down. He said the borough is currently sitting on approximately $26.9 million in fund balance. That number could drop to $16 million by the end of next fiscal year, he said.

Borough staff are working from home and those in the office are practicing guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including keeping desks physically 6 feet apart and sanitizing surfaces, Pierce said.

Pierce said he hopes the state can come through with a stimulus package and encouraged people to be patient and follow rules set in place by the CDC and state government.

“It’s not worth picking up exposure to (COVID-19),” Pierce said. “Stay hunkered down until health care providers give indication it’s safe. This could be an extended and lengthy shutdown.”

Residents have to rely on each other, friends and neighbors, Pierce said.
“These are trying times,” Pierce said. “It’s very challenging for all of us.”

Alaska reports 1st coronavirus case; schools, universities extend breaks

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

As Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the state’s first case of COVID-19 — a disease caused by a coronavirus that emerged in late 2019 in China — the University of Alaska system and Kenai Peninsula Borough School District both announced Thursday that they would be extending their spring break by another week.

All 42 schools on the Kenai Peninsula will be closed between March 16-20, “to assist with flattening the infection curve, social distancing, and slowing the COVID-19 spread in our diverse communities,” a press release from the district said.

District staff will receive an update about when to report to work by the end of the day Friday. Updates about the district’s response to the new coronavirus can be found on their dedicated district webpage at http://www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us.

The University of Alaska system announced a series of measures in response to COVID-19, including extending spring break by another week, suspending in-person classes and asking resident students to vacate student housing.

Spring break is being extended one week and classes will resume March 23, with most courses being offered through “alternative” methods. Some expectations will be made to hands-on courses and labs. The alternative and online delivery of university courses could extend through the end of the semester in May. These measures are being put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Few exceptions will be made,” UA President Jim Johnsen said in a Thursday press conference.

Gary Turner, director of Kenai Peninsula College, said staff at KPC will work next week to determine which classes will continue face-to-face. The spring break extension gives staff time to convert their classes into distance learning classes.

“There will be some (course) expectations,” Turner said. “What they all will be at this point, we don’t know. Some of the labs you can not do via distance.”

Students were scheduled to return Monday, but are now being asked to return to their courses, on March 23, most likely through an online course. On Monday, Turner said staff will hang signs on doors and stand by to alert students that classes are not in session.

“There’s going to be a lot of disappointment, a lot of questions,” Turner said. “It’s going to be a very challenging time. It’s the right thing to do, in my opinion. We have to err on the side of caution. The way the virus is rapidly evolving we have to think about the safety of our students and staff.”

University faculty and staff are expected to come back to work as scheduled on Monday unless they are showing symptoms for COVID-19 or are returning from countries experiencing an outbreak.

Students in residence halls are being asked to move out by March 17. Students will be able to retrieve their personal belongings before then, Johnsen said. Some students will be able to stay in residence halls and exceptions may be made for international students, students from rural Alaska or students who do not have an alternative place to stay.
On the Kenai Peninsula College campus, there are 15 students and six residence assistants living in the residence hall.

For students who do not have access to computers, a laptop, or internet connection, the university is planning to keep computer labs open.

“We are aware that not all students have their own equipment so we will be allowing access to computer labs, but exercising social distancing,” University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Cathy Sandeen said in Thursday’s press conference. “So, we may have fewer work stations in rooms to make that happen and we will certainly go in and clean the equipment and the rooms more frequently during this time.”

The University of Alaska System is also canceling all events with 25 people or more, effective through the end of the month. University travel will also be suspended. Johnsen said campuses are being cleaned thoroughly as well.  Plans for spring commencement are “to be determined,” Johnsen said.

“It’s a tough situation,” Johnsen said. “We are trying to make our way through a very risky possibility if this virus comes to Alaska and if this virus comes to the university. The impact of that would be very, very difficult for us to manage. We do have plans for managing it, but it would be extremely disruptive. On the other hand, we haven’t seen any cases yet.”

Shortly after the university system made their announcements, Anchorage School District announced they would be extending their spring break by another week too.
Impact on tourism

Preventive measures were also announced this week by members of Alaska’s cruise ship industry. Two cruise lines, Princess Cruises and Viking Ocean Cruises, have suspended service. Princess Cruises announced Thursday they are suspending services for 60 days, and all sailings before May 11 are cancelled. Viking Ocean Cruises announced Wednesday they are resuming their operations May 1.

The Viking Orion was set to leave Vancouver April 26 and arrive in Ketchikan April 28, Sitka April 29 and Juneau April 30.

Other cruise lines that frequent Alaska, like Holland America Line, Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line, have issued advisories and boosted their passenger screening process.

Alaska’s first cruise of the season, the Carnival Spirit, is set to leave Vancouver, Canada, and dock April 22 in Tracy Arm near Juneau.

The first cruises to set sail for the Kenai Peninsula are Viking Ocean Cruises, set to dock in Seward May 5-7. In Homer, Holland America Cruises is set to dock May 12 and then Princess Cruises shortly after on May 15. Whittier’s first ship will be from Princess Cruise docking on May 16.

There are 1,215 cases across the U.S. in 43 other states and 36 total deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. World Health Organization named the COVID-19 disease a global pandemic. The last global pandemic was in 2009 when H1N1, a novel influenza A virus, spread across the U.S. and then the world, according to the CDC. COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and MERS viruses, which have caused outbreaks in the past. Symptoms for the disease include fever, runny nose, cough and breathing trouble. The elderly and those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to the disease.

State, local officials prepare for virus

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

The state and borough are preparing for the potential arrival of COVID-19, a disease caused by a member of the coronavirus family that first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, and has since spread to countries around the world.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the state health department gave updates on the state’s preparedness for the virus during a Monday press conference. There are currently no cases in Alaska. However, three Alaskans have been tested, Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said in the Monday press conference. She said testing began Thursday. Two of those tests came back negative and one test is still pending.

Zink said it’s “highly likely” Alaska will see its first case soon.

Dunleavy said his administration has been meeting twice a week since mid-January to plan for the potential arrival of the virus.

“We believe Alaska is prepared to deal with this issue, as well or better than any state,” Dunleavy said in the conference.

Dunleavy announced he will be asking the Legislature to approve $9 million in funding assistance from the federal government and $4 million from the state general fund to fund five nurses to travel and educate residents in rural Alaska on best practices to avoid contracting the virus.

Zink urged Alaskans to stop touching their face, clean surfaces and wash their hands. If someone is feeling unwell, she said, they should stay home from school or work, cover their mouth and nose when they cough and sneeze and to generally take care of themselves.

She said elderly, disabled and those with underlying heart and lung conditions are the most vulnerable.

With the Iditarod start nearing, Zink said she’s briefed the organization on traveling and how to stay healthy.

Zink also reassured residents that there is no evidence that the virus is living on cargo traveling to and through Alaska.

“You can open your Amazon boxes and not be afraid,” Zink said.

On Friday, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management issued a statement on its website, letting residents know the borough is monitoring the virus and is making preparedness plans. Borough officials are refining their plans to make sure essential services continue if the virus comes to the peninsula, the statement said. During the month of March, the borough will be asking cities, port officials, hospitals, tribal entities and non-government agencies to come together to refine existing pandemic plans, identify and resolve potential gaps in those plans, and to involve representatives from the whole community in the process.

The borough does not have public health powers, and will be asking the state to assist them, as the situation evolves, the statement said.

COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and MERS viruses, which have caused outbreaks in the past. Symptoms for the disease include fever, runny nose, cough and breathing trouble.

Hate crime resolution discussion gets heated

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

A state bill looking to expand hate crime protections to include crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity received support from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

A resolution supporting state House Bill 198, sponsored by assembly President Kelly Cooper and assembly Vice President Hal Smalley, passed 5-4 at Tuesday’s assembly meeting. The state bill would add “sexual orientation and gender identity” to the list of aggravating factors considered at sentencing.

Since January, Soldotna City Council and Kenai City Council have both passed similar resolutions.

The resolution came in the wake of a series of alleged incidents on the Kenai Peninsula. In November, Sterling resident Tammie Willis reported that a threatening note was left on her truck. Later that month, Willis reported that a rock was thrown at her windshield. In December, she reported being attacked in her home. She said she believes the incidents were motivated by her sexual orientation. The reported attack in Willis’ home led to a Jan. 4 town hall meeting, which opened the discussion for HB 198. After the town hall, Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, introduced HB 198.

State statute 12.55.155(c)(22) currently defines an aggravating factor for hate crimes as “the defendant knowingly directed the conduct constituting the offense at a victim because of that person’s race, sex, color, creed, physical or mental disability, ancestry, or national origin,” but does not include sexual orientation or gender identity as an aggravating factor for sentencing of a person convicted of the crime.

HB 198 would amend statute to expand hate protections to include sexual orientation or gender identity.

Willis spoke to the assembly Tuesday night, telling them she has been unable to return to her home in Sterling after the reported incident in December.

“I was repeatedly cut with a knife and punched until almost my entire left side was covered in bruises,” Willis told the assembly. “It took 20 staples and two stitches to put me back together and almost two months for the bruises to heal. I rarely go out alone anymore and when I do it’s for short trips and with the company of a friend. I don’t sleep well. I have panic attacks in the dark and I still wake my wife up with nightmares.”

Willis said that since sharing her experience, she has “learned the hard way of why people don’t often come forward with their stories.”

“The outpouring of hatred seen on social media since my coming forward cuts deep just like the knife did,” Willis said.

She said at the same time, she’s seen support from people all over Alaska. She spoke in support of the resolution and HB 198, saying it sends a clear message that “hate and violence are not values we share in this community.”

Testimony gets heated

After Willis’ testimony, assembly member Jesse Bjorkman asked Willis to speak to accusations regarding her story that are circulating around the community.

“I respect you as a person and because of that I feel it’s only fair to make sure you know what people are saying to us and there are people who don’t believe your story,” Bjorkman said. “I’m going to ask you these questions because they are things that have been asked of me and things that I have been told. There’s an accusation out there that the handwriting written on the note that was written by whomever left the note and your own handwriting that was put on the note is very similar. How do you respond to that?”

Willis said the accusation was not true. Cooper stopped the meeting for a two-minute recess and returned, asking Willis to respond to Bjorkman.

Willis said Bjorkman’s question is “exactly why people in the LGBTQ community don’t come forward and report the assaults and the violence that they face.” She said people would rather “dismiss those experiences than believe it can actually happen in their community.”

“I have read the posts on Facebook and every one of them has killed me when I read it, and it never would have happened if I had not come forward,” Willis said. “Every day I get hate mail. I get accusations that I’m lying, that I’m fake news, that I should go kill myself because people don’t want to believe my experience is true. It is true.”

In response, Bjorkman said it is never OK to attack and harm others and asked Willis to keep telling her truth and her story.

Community weighs in

Kaegan Koski, a junior at River City Academy, shared a student perspective with the assembly. Koski described experiences his peers in the LGBTQ community face. He said students he knows receive messages from “fake Instagram accounts” made by other students. The messages include the “F-word and other bigoted slurs telling the students in question repeatedly to kill themselves.” Koski said students can block the Instagram accounts, but that new ones are made shortly after “to continue the brutal onslaught.”

Koski said his peers tell him they are “compelled to commit self harm” as a result of the messages.

“I understand that this legislation isn’t a cure-all,” Koski told the assembly. “I understand that not every act of violence will stop. But when we as a community and a borough decide that this kind of harassment, this maltreatment of our fellow people is wrong, people begin to follow suit. It changes the climate when our government says that this is not right. When we say it with action and not with just words, we protect people from atrocious, hideous acts of violence. We show victims and citizens that they are not alone.”

David Brighton of Kenai also spoke in support of the resolution. He said it’s difficult to live in the area as a member of the LGBTQ community.

“I know of more than one member of the LGBTQ community who is planning on moving out of this area, out of the Kenai Peninsula, because this is a hard place for members of the LGBTQ community to live,” Brighton said. “We don’t want it to be that way, most of us, I hope.”

Of the nine assembly members, five were in support of the resolution: Kenn Carpenter, Smalley, Cooper, Willy Dunne and Brent Johnson. Many of the assembly members in their comments before the vote said they were concerned people in the borough were living in fear.

“As elected officials, we can’t remain silent when people in our communities live in fear,” Smalley said.

“It may not be my belief, but I believe in people, so I’m going to support this,” Carpenter said. “… Two hundred people show up to a town hall in one little community? There’s an issue, so we should support this.”

“I am here,” Cooper said. “I believe you and you do not deserve to have to go through life — life is hard enough. We shouldn’t worry about the people we love, whether tonight is the night or today is the day or when they’re 20 minutes late from being home, if there was some fool out there who decided they were going to teach them a lesson.”

Dunne, who signed on as a co-sponsor of the resolution, said the state needs to add sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class under the hate crime definition.

“We saw that in our society for many years with race,” Dunne said. “As a nation, we decided that is not acceptable and now it’s time to say it’s not acceptable for people of a certain sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Johnson said that there is always a need for minority people to be protected.

“The majority can gang up against a minority and harass them to no end,” Johnson said. The people in this community — gosh, I saw it and you’ve seen it — these people need protection because they’re being mistreated … I hope that we can have sympathy and that eventually humanity will grow past these insane things.”

‘Wrong things are wrong’

Assembly members Norm Blakeley, Bjorkman, Tyson Cox and Brent Hibbert voted against the resolution.

Hibbert and Blakeley both said they have been “struggling” with the resolution. Hibbert said he sees a division in the community and believes the resolution will cause more division between groups.

“When a crime is committed against a person, whether they’re gay or whether they’re not, I still think that it should be the same punishment because once we start singling out different groups I think that’s when the division comes and the tolerance goes away,” Hibbert said. “I still believe this is going to lead to more division and hate and discontent with our communities. I think we need more love.”

Bjorkman also said protection should be equal to all people under the law.

“I can’t support this resolution because I think wrong things are wrong,” Bjorkman said. “We should value all people equally and we should have equal protection under the law. We should speak up to people who perpetuate violence in our community and stand strong together as people, as Alaskans.”

Cox said he does not support the violence happening in the community, but that he did not support hate crime legislation at all.

“I personally don’t support hate crime legislation at all,” Cox said. “I don’t believe it to be that effective. I believe it to be exclusive and somewhat arbitrary in the fact that it all depends on what the political mood is of a given legislation.”

Copies of the resolution will be sent to Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai/Soldotna; Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski; Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer; and Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Kenai/Soldotna.

Former Nikiski teacher sentenced to 30 years for sexual abuse

News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

A former Nikiski music teacher was sentenced Tuesday to 30 years incarceration for sexual abuse of a former student.

In 2014, Jeremy Anderson, a music teacher at Nikiski Middle/High School, was accused of sexual abuse of a minor and faced 16 charges of first- and second-degree sexual abuse of a minor. At his sentencing hearing Tuesday, Judge Jennifer Wells sentenced Anderson to 30 years incarceration with 10 years suspended, and 15 years probation for sexual abuse of a minor in the second degree, a class B felony in Alaska.

The victim, present at the court hearing, gave a statement before the sentencing. They said that as the victim, their voice has not been heard enough.

“Seven years ago, my mentor crossed the line,” they said during the hearing. “He turned what I thought was a healthy student-teacher relationship into my longest nightmare.”

The victim said Anderson worked to gain their trust throughout their eighth grade year, which escalated the following school year to months of sexual abuse occurring during the beginning months of 2014.

After the victim, the victim’s mother and the counsel made statements, Anderson addressed the public in his statement to the judge. Anderson apologized to the victim and their family, his own family, the community of Nikiski and the staff, students and parents he worked with at Nikiski Middle/High School.

“Saying the words ‘I’m sorry’ seems trite, but I don’t know what else to say to convey my remorse,” Anderson said at the hearing. “I was the adult — I was trusted and I failed. That was on me.”

When asked if she had any comments about the sentence, the victim’s mother said she was glad her child got to tell their story and that it was finally over.

Judge Wells said during the hearing that the crimes were “very cruel acts.”

“There are fewer people that children trust more than teachers, I suppose priests would fit in that category as well,” she said at the hearing. “So the damage inflicted by someone who is in a position of trust is just all the more cruel than if it were a different situation.”

The court recommended Anderson seek rehabilitation through sex offender treatment.

“The number one apology he can offer to the world is to make sure that he doesn’t hurt anybody else,” Wells said at the hearing.

EdWeek: An Alaskan Village’s Long Wait for a New School

Alaska, Education, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story was originally published in Education Week, as part of the 2019 Gregory M. Chronister Journalism Fellowship.

At the headwaters of Kachemak Bay and past the terminus of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula road system sits the village of Kachemak Selo. There’s technically no road to Selo—as locals call it—just a steep switchback dirt trail taking vehicles with four-wheel drive 800 feet down to the rocky beach where the community sits.

The community’s remoteness is one of the reasons Selo has been struggling for nearly a decade to get a new school. Kachemak Selo School—a set of three buildings built in the 1980s and 90s by local residents—is “deteriorated beyond useful capacity,” according to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. The community has little hope that a replacement school will come anytime soon for the school’s 39 K-12 students.

While rural districts across the U.S. struggle to pay to maintain adequate school buildings, Selo’s challenges are particularly complicated, compounded by the community’s distinct desire to maintain cultural independence, a patchwork of school finance regulations, deteriorating state support, and the high cost of construction in a roadless and remote community.

The sole community enterprise, the Village of Kachemak Selo Water Company Inc., owns the two buildings that house the central office and the elementary school. The building housing the middle and high school is owned by a private citizen and has more visible damage than the others, with cracks in the corners, crooked door frames, and floors so uneven that the furniture must be reinforced to stay in place. Books stacked under table legs keep the surfaces level.

The schools are among 42 operated by the borough school district, which serves nearly 8,500 students in an area the size of West Virginia. The territory includes some urban schools, rural schools, three other Russian Old Believer schools, and a few Alaska Native Village schools.

In 2011, Selo petitioned its borough government for a new school. The borough then petitioned the state, which responded five years later, appropriating $10 million to build it. To take advantage of those funds, however, the borough had to provide a $5.5 million match. (The price tag reflects the difficulty of carting construction materials to the village.) Borough voters rejected the bond petition for the matching funds in October 2018. And, although the state extended its offer to June 2021, Kachemak Selo Principal Michael Wojciak said voter approval for a second-round vote will be “a tough sell.”

“I get it,” said Wojciak. “We’re in an economic hardship, whether it’s the borough or the state. For people to vote for higher taxes—it’s not a great time to do that.” According to the borough, that bond would equate to $4.95 per $100,000 of assessed real or personal property values.

Long History of Isolation
Old Believers are Eastern Orthodox Christians who fled Russia in the 17th century in order to worship free of persecution or outside influences. Selo is one of four such villages established on the southern Kenai Peninsula in the 1960s. There are no stores here, just a school and a few dozen homes. The women wear long dresses they make themselves, and the men wear traditional tunics with special collars and a thin belt cinched at the waist. Russian, in addition to English, is spoken throughout the community and taught in school. The Kenai Peninsula school district gives Old Believer schools control of their calendars to accommodate time off for holy days.

Drivers who brave the precipitous switchback trail to Selo can see the village entrance about a quarter mile down the beach, where a handful of no trespassing signs are posted on trees. Like other Old Believer communities, Selo embraces its privacy and isolation.

That desire for cultural independence may be one reason the school bond caused controversy within the village.

“Nobody wants the borough coming down,” said Andy Rothenberger, a teacher in Kachemak Selo’s middle and high school. “The town wants their anonymity, and they’re willing to put up with it.”

Rothenberger left the community to teach across the peninsula in the town of Seward, but missed Selo and returned, thinking he could help continue the fight for an adequate school. Now, he said, some members of the community have grown frustrated and apathetic.

“You definitely heard it after the bond failed from the kids,” Rothenberger said. “They were really disappointed and involved in the effort.”

Kachemak Selo student Susanna Reutov, 16, exemplified that view. “Our school is really crappy,” she said. “I didn’t mean to use that word. But there are always earthquakes, and every time there’s an earthquake there’s a bunch of cracks in the wall. You wonder if there’s ever going to be a big earthquake where the whole school would just fall apart.” (The community has experienced tremors from other earthquakes in that part of the state in recent years.)

Susanna and her brother Kelsey, 14, don’t expect to get a new school until after they graduate—but they hope it will be in time for their 8-year-old brother to benefit.

Some residents also worry about the potential income loss if a new, borough-owned school is built, Wojciak said. The community collects rent from the borough on two of the buildings, which helps maintain the utility company and the trail in and out of Selo. The middle-high school building is privately owned.

A Common Concern
Kachemak Selo School isn’t the only one in the district outliving its useful life. In 2018, the district said a quarter of its schools were 50 years old or older, and 80 percent were more than 30 years old. Pegge Erkeneff, the district’s communications director, said Selo is unusual among other district schools because the district doesn’t own the building and thus can only provide limited maintenance.

The problem of deteriorating school buildings is one that plagues the state—and the nation. The United States faces a $46 billion annual shortfall in funds to keep school buildings healthy, safe, and conducive to learning, according to the 2016 report, “State of Our Schools,” by the 21st Century School Fund, the National Council on School Facilities, and the Center for Green Schools.

In some ways, though, Alaska may be more generous than some other states in sharing the cost of new school buildings. Twelve states provide no direct funding or reimbursements to school districts for capital spending, according to the report.

The 49th state offers grants and debt reimbursement for projects that cost $50,000 or more. The Alaska legislature uses state-created priority lists to determine appropriations for school infrastructure, which vary from year to year and come in the form of a grant that requires the district to match 2 percent to 35 percent of the project’s total cost.

On average, the state shoulders 37 percent of the cost of capital construction for schools, as compared with the national average of 18 percent, according to the State of Our Schools study.

The study projects Alaska will need to spend about $1.10 billion in new school construction by 2024 to address its aging school infrastructure—a price tag that could grow as natural disasters and climate events grow in frequency.

Heidi Teshner, the director of finance and support services for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, said funding for the grant and debt reimbursement programs has not changed in 20 years, even as availability varies annually.

But in the Kenai Peninsula, borough finance director Brenda Ahlberg said the amount the state provides for school construction and debt service has been diminishing.

How the state plans to address school infrastructure issues in Selo and other communities is unclear. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a former educator elected in 2018, ran on a platform to shrink the size and cost of government and close a state budget deficit created by dwindling oil revenues. In his first year as governor, Dunleavy made deep budget cuts in departments across the state, including education.

Dunleavy said in a March 2019 interview that the state could explore ways to educate children outside of a traditional brick-and-mortar school building, potentially through distance learning.

“Sometimes we get hung up on buildings in schooling, and less so on educational outcomes,” he said.

And while the federal government provided funding that helped build the state’s education infrastructure during the 1930s and after World War II, there is almost no such support now, according to the State of Our Schools analysis. A Congressional proposal to appropriate $100 billion nationwide for school repairs and rebuilding has languished in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Facilities’ Link to Learning
However, studies show school infrastructure can impact educational outcomes. Air ventilation, adequate lighting, and acoustics have all been shown to help students remain alert and ready to learn, the State of Schools study says. Poor facilities are also linked to student truancy and higher rates of suspension, according to the report.

In Selo, Principal Wojciak said a new school could help with student absenteeism.

“We have a plenty big enough problem with students skipping school and absences,” Wojciak said. “If they had a beautiful building to go to everyday it might be a little more of an incentive.”

There are no estimates of how much longer the community school buildings can be used. If the school is shut down, the district says, it will ensure that students have “a continuity of operations in an alternative learning environment.” That might mean placement in the district’s homeschool program, online distance learning options or “space at the closest area school for students.”

The next closest school would likely be another Old Believer School, either in Voznesenka or Razdolna, both of which sit atop mountains behind the community. Getting there would mean driving a school bus on the beach, then up the switchback trail.

In the meantime, local leaders are reconsidering their push. While Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said he isn’t interested in introducing another bond proposition, a smaller, less expensive building may be within means. The school district is working on a $30 million bond package proposal that would help pay for repairs in schools across the district and build a new school in Selo, superintendent John O’Brien announced this month. The package includes 19 deferred maintenance projects and the $5.3 million in matching funds needed to take up the state grant offer.

Wojciak, for one, hasn’t lost hope.

“At some point there’s a legal responsibility to give kids an adequate space,” he said. “At some point, somebody is on the hook. I don’t know what or when it is, but in time, something will change.”

Vol. 39, Issue 21, Pages 1, 16-19

Proposed tax would boost school maintenance, construction

Alaska, Education, News, Print

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

A bill that would deduct $30 a year from every worker in Alaska and pool that money to be used for maintenance and construction costs in the state’s schools is making its way through the Alaska Senate.

Senate Bill 50 is sponsored by Sen. Click Bishop (R-Fairbanks), Sen. Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak) and Sen. Jesse Kiehl (D-Juneau) and looks to collect revenues to fund schools.

Money generated from the tax would be deposited into the state’s general fund and accounted for separately to pay maintenance and construction needs of Alaska’s schools. Those maintenance and construction needs are growing, Bishop said in his sponsor statement.

On the Kenai Peninsula, about 25% of the district’s schools are 50 years or older, and 80% are over 30 years old.

“I think we have to take a stand to tackle deferred maintenance in our schools,” Bishop said during the Jan. 28 Senate Labor and Commerce Committee meeting.

A similar tax once existed in Alaska from 1919 to 1980, according to the bill’s sponsor statement. When the tax was repealed in 1980 it was $10 per person. When adjusted for inflation, that tax would have the equivalent value of $30 today.

The bill seeks to revive the repealed head tax on employees, both resident and nonresident, whose income is coming from a source in Alaska. The tax, known as the “Alaska Education Facilities, Maintenance, and Construction Tax,” would collect $30 from each person employed in the state, withholding those funds from an employee’s first paycheck each year.

Self-employed Alaskans would be required to remit payment to the Alaska Department of Revenue. The tax would be deductible on a federal income tax return. Retirees would not be taxed.

The tax is estimated to generate $13 million annually from about 442,000 employees.

“Roughly 20% of those workers who earn their living in Alaska do not reside here resulting in $2.5 billion in non-resident income that leaves Alaska’s economy each year and, in most cases, gets taxed by a non-resident’s home state,” Bishop said in his sponsor statement.

The bill made it’s way through the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee and has been referred to Senate Finance Committee.

Should the bill pass the Legislature and be signed into law by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the tax would take effect Jan. 1, 2021.

District proposes $30 million bond package to address aging school facility needs

Alaska, Education, News, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

A $30 million bond package proposal is in the works to tackle nearly 20 different deferred maintenance projects in school buildings across the peninsula, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent John O’Brien announced at Monday’s Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education meeting.

The district is working closely with the Kenai Peninsula Borough on a $29,940,000 bond proposal that will fund facility projects districtwide, including a new school in Kachemak Selo, O’Brien said at Monday’s meeting.

O’Brien said the funding would address “many concerns” about buildings in the district, such as facilities at the end of their useful life, critical component replacements, safety concerns, necessary repairs and some energy saving measures.

About a quarter of the district’s schools are 50 years or older, while 80% of schools are more than 30 years old.

Debbie Carey, a school board member, said at Monday’s meeting that she hopes the package sees support from communities across the district.

“If you look at the average age of our buildings, they are getting very old,” Carey said. “You can’t expect them to continue without doing maintenance on them so the bond package is going to be really important moving forward.”

There are 19 different deferred maintenance projects the draft bond package would cover, according to the draft bond list document.

On the central peninsula, Kenai Middle School is looking at a kitchen and serving area remodel, according to the draft list. Kenai Middle School, built in 1968, holds three lunch periods serving 200 students a day. The estimated cost of the remodel is $750,000.

Several schools need heating control replacements. Kenai Central High School’s control needs replacement is estimated to cost $872,500. Nikiski Middle/High School’s replacement is estimated to cost $593,395. Skyview Middle School’s replacement is estimated to cost $591,360.

Nikiski North Star is in need of a metal roof replacement, costing $3,422,902. Notes in the draft bond list say that water penetrated the Nikiski North Star siding and froze last winter.

Another project in the draft list is a $2 million Soldotna School Facilities renovation, which would “address building issues.” The list did not say which schools in Soldotna this project would pertain to.

Sterling Elementary is in need of window and siding replacement, costing $417,750. According to the draft list, the east wing of the school was constructed first in 1961.

Many of the projects in the draft bond package are focused on the southern peninsula. Chapman School in Anchor Point is also in need of a window and siding replacement, with an estimated cost of $308,580.

West Homer Elementary needs a new wall on its north side. According to the draft document, the north concrete wall “started allowing moisture penetration into the building.” Water has caused damage to surfaces and has contributed to mold growth, the list said.

The $659,583 project would install a secondary wall over the exterior surface to prevent water intrusion.

Ninilchik School needs its windows and boiler replaced, costing $201,017 and $413,012, respectively. Nanwalek, south of Homer, needs its upstairs windows replaced and its kitchen expanded to the tune of $1,230,214.

Homer High School has two projects on the list, including a roof replacement and a heating control replacement. The high school’s roof replacement has a $8,271,734 price tag. According to the draft document, the original roof was installed in 1985, is no longer in warranty and is “deteriorating.” Current attic ventilation in the school “has proven to be inadequate” and the internal gutter system is “no longer functioning to protect the building from leakage,” the draft document said about Homer High School.

Notes in the draft list say the borough may apply for a grant to address the roof replacement. Componenets of the school’s heating control system, installed in 1985, are failing and do not meet standards, the draft document said. The heating system replacement will cost $900,000.

The draft bond package also includes the $5,390,000 local match needed to build a new school at the head of Kachemak Bay, in the village of Kachemak Selo. The village petitioned for a new school nearly a decade ago.

According to the draft document, the buildings used as the village’s schools are in disrepair and out of code. A $5.3 million bond package to build a new school in the village was failed by borough voters in 2018. The $5.3 million is the local match required by the borough to access more than $10 million from the state to help construct a new school in the community of Kachemak Selo. Those state funds expire next summer.

School board member Zen Kelly said he was “super excited” about the package because the bond money would fund matches for state grants.

“This bond proposal is taking advantage of the grant funding the state has given us for the Kachemak Selo School project,” Kelly said. “It is the best deal we are ever going to get in building a new school, and a new school is needed at the head of the bay.”

On the eastern peninsula, the draft bond package includes a project at Seward Middle School for interior and exterior repairs “required to preserve building integrity,” costing $857,314. The building was damaged in a 2016 earthquake.

The school in Cooper Landing is also in need of a window and siding replacement, costing $277,550.

Across the inlet in Tyonek, Tebughna School, built in 1966, is in need of a total window replacement costing $832,500.

School board member Matthew Morse said at Monday’s meeting that it can be hard to get community members on board with bond packages, but that the district has critical maintenance needs.

The bond package is still in draft form.

‘Like a nuclear weapon went off’

Alaska, News, Print

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

During the volcanic eruptions of 1989 and 1990, locals looking out at Mount Redoubt — the 10,197 foot volcano looming directly across Cook Inlet — saw what looked like an atomic bomb.

John Power, a scientist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory for more than 30 years, said many Kenai Peninsula residents will likely remember the eruption that happened on April 21, 1990, where a nuclear-like cloud hovered above the volcano across the inlet.

This particular eruption happened early in the morning on a very clear day, Power said.

“There was all of the sudden this enormous mushroom cloud over Redoubt,” Power said. “It looked like a nuclear weapon went off. This makes Redoubt the poster child of volcanic ash clouds. This is iconic Alaskan photograph.”

Kenai resident Sammy Crawford was in Anchorage during that April eruption. She was at the Sheraton Hotel for a meeting when she looked out the window and thought, “Oh my God, this is incredible.”

Her husband quickly called her from their home, which was across Cook Inlet from Mount Redoubt. Crawford said her husband took pictures of the event. She said she remembers all of her neighbors calling each other to talk about the eruption they witnessed.

“It really did look like an atomic bomb went off,” Crawford said. “It was such a spectacular sight though. It was a very interesting event. Very Alaskan.”

Starting Dec. 14, 1989, 30 years ago last week, Mount Redoubt erupted. The eruption lasted months and well into the first year of the new decade, 1990.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory is commemorating the event, focusing on the 30th anniversary of this historic eruption through their public outreach and social media feeds, Power said.

Power said the observatory’s public outreach will also tie the historic 1989 eruption to the most recent eruption 10 years ago in 2009, which occurred over a couple months in the springtime.

Power said the 1989 and 1990 Mount Redoubt events were significant to the state of Alaska. He remembers, because he’s been with the observatory since its humble beginnings in 1988, just one year prior to Mount Redoubt’s historic eruption.

“It was a lot to handle at the time,” Power said. “We struggled in 1989 and 1990.”

Power said he remembers the observatory only had a staff of a few people when they first opened in the late 1980s. He said when Mount Redoubt erupted, the observatory was not prepared to deal with the impacts that came with the volcanic event, like having Anchorage’s airport closed for nearly a week and a giant ash cloud.

“It was a very busy time for us — is perhaps a nice way to put it,” Power said. “We worked very hard. We did bring in a lot of personnel from other observatories around the country to help deal with it, although there were difficulties.”

The volcanic event did launch a major expansion of the observatory’s capability to try and address volcano monitoring throughout the state, Power said.

“We went from having skeletal monitoring networks on the four volcanoes that are closest to the big population centers — Augustine, Iliamna, Redoubt and Spur — to move to eventually try and monitor most of the volcanoes in the state, so we can warn over flying jet aircraft of the hazard,” Power said.

The eruption set in motion a number of changes, both statewide and internationally. Stakeholders came together to put together adequate warning systems and measures to deal with volcanic ash, some of which are still used to this day.

“We’ve taken great steps over the last 30 years to try and provide adequate warning,” Power said. “It’s grown quite a bit and we have a lot more capabilities now that we didn’t have at that point in time (1989).”

In 1989, when Mount Redoubt spewed an ash cloud thousands of feet into the sky, a 747 airplane encountered the cloud and lost power in all four of its engines. The flight made an emergency landing in Anchorage. Sweeping protocol changes came next for the international airline community, which frequently flies over Alaska’s very active portion of the Ring of Fire en route to Asia.

“What that set in motion was a long-term effort, international effort, to address the hazard that airborne volcanic ash poses to operation of modern jet aircraft,” Power said.

For the state, the eruption resulted in the closure of an oil terminal at the base of Mount Redoubt.

Power said volcanic ash from the event especially impacted the Kenai Peninsula, where schools closed and residents needed to take special precautions to stay safe.

Sarah Hondel of Soldotna was 12 in 1989. She was in sixth grade at Redoubt Elementary and remembered being released from school, where students had to put on particle masks after “Redoubt blew its top.”

“I remember quite a few of my classmates that were picked up from school by frenzied parents,” Hondel said.

About half an inch of ash fell on an already existing foot of snow, Hondel said. She remembers more snow came after the ash settled, putting a heavy weight on the roofs of homes and buildings.

“My dad, Mark Burdick, remembers that ladies’ nylons were sold out around town, too, because people were wrapping them around their vehicle’s air filters,” Hondel said.

The event resembled an atomic bomb, she said, and was “very impressive,” but that most people understood what was happening and went about their day.

Power says he remembers the eruption well, too. The heavy ash fall that blanketed the Kenai Peninsula had emergency managers at the time scrambling to deal with the impact, he said.

Because instruments had just been installed on Mount Redoubt, the observatory was able to put out an advanced warning on Dec. 13, the night before the first eruption. However, Power said the infrastructure to distribute information back then was lacking.

“We’re very proud of the fact we were able to identify what was going on and put out an advanced warning for the eruption then,” Power said. “Although we just didn’t have the communication. There were a lot of problems in those days. We were a very new organization and I think it took a lot of people by surprise by how invasive that eruption was going to be.”

Power said the observatory, and local residents were a bit more lucky in 2009.

The volcano behaved somewhat differently, then, and there were some very marked precursory activity that the observatory identified, allowing them to get a warning out months in advance that Mount Redoubt was becoming active again, Power said.

The 2009 eruption progressed much faster than the 1989 and 1990 event, Power said, which lasted from Dec. 14 until May of 1990. In 2009, the ash producing portion of the eruption was much shorter and had less of an impact on communities, airports and air traffic.

“I think at that point in time (2009) we were in a much better position to give information about how to deal with the hazard and when the hazard is likely to occur and where it’s going to go,” Power said.

Power said if Mt. Redoubt were to erupt today, residents will receive information where the ash is headed and when it will be there. He said the observatory has much better technology than it did in the 1980s.

“You don’t realize how much we rely on email and web pages until you don’t have them,” Power said. “Things are much better now.”

Since Mount Redoubt has been observed, there have been four eruptions in 1902, 1966, 1989 and 2009.

Accounts of the 1902 eruption as told in Sitka’s newspaper “The Alaskan” tell a story of “flames of fire from the bowels of the earth.” News of the volcanic eruption, which occurred in January 1902, reached Southeast Alaska through a letter from Kenai’s Russian Priest, according to the 1902 newspaper article.

“After the eruption, or during the time there was a terrific earthquake which burst the mountain asunder leaving a large gap, and the flames could be plainly seen from the village,” the article said. “The ground at the town of Kenai was covered with ashes and subsequently a tidal wave came in which did much damage. The water in the inlet rose to a great height and terror reigned throughout the village. The mountain was still smoking at the time the letter was written and occasionally large quantities of lava thrown there from.”

To learn more about Mount Redoubt, other nearby volcanoes or the Alaska Volcano Observatory, visit their website at avo.alaska.edu