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.”

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

EdWeek: A Perennial Challenge in Rural Alaska: Getting and Keeping Teachers

Alaska, Education, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

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

As summer was waning in Alaska’s largest city, Hoonah City schools Superintendent Ralph Watkins was among a dozen or so other school officials from around the state spending a precious sunny day recruiting teachers at a job fair in a hotel conference room. Fewer than 30 prospective teachers attended the fair, and the competition for their services was intense.

Watkins was offering a $1,000 signing bonus to fill vacancies in his small district, which sits in a Tlingit village 500 miles away on the island of Chichagof on Alaska’s southeast panhandle. Other districts in the room offered signing bonuses of up to $3,000, a free laptop, free and subsidized housing, free airfare to their remote village if hired, and more.

“It’s tough,” said Watkins, who has lived in Hoonah for over four years. “I don’t want to be here right now—trying to hire. It’s hard and heartbreaking for me, but it is my job, and I’m going to make it work.”

Recruiting and retaining good teachers is difficult in many communities across the United States—especially rural ones—but in rural Alaska and its Native Villages, it can be even tougher. That’s because schools rely heavily on out-of-state teachers to staff classrooms, and many of the teachers the rural schools hire struggle to adapt to the harsh weather, isolation, high cost, and cultural differences that come with living in remote Alaska.

The problem is about to get worse. In January, the education school at the University of Alaska-Anchorage—the state’s largest teacher-preparation program—lost its accreditation. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, one of two national bodies that accredit teacher training programs, revoked accreditation for all seven of the teacher-preparation programs at UAA, due to the school’s failure to meet four out of five standards set by the group.

The school graduated its last accredited class of education majors in May. And the state’s current budget crisis suggests new or improved teacher-preparation programs are not coming anytime soon. That leaves the university’s remaining education majors with the choice of transferring to the state’s other two teacher-preparation programs—at the University of Alaska Fairbanks or the University of Alaska Southeast—or changing their academic focus altogether.

Home-Grown Versus Out-of-State
Teacher staffing has been a longstanding problem in the 49th state. Annually, districts hire about 1,000 teachers, with over half hired at the five largest districts. In-state universities typically graduate a total of 200 teachers every year, far short of what schools need.

So in rural Alaska, most teachers come from out of state. In fact, teachers who are prepared in-state account for only about 15 percent of newly hired educators working in Alaska in any given year, according to the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska, and that share is likely to shrink in the wake of the education school’s closing.

In Scammon Bay, a small Native Village on the Bering Sea at the edge of western Alaska, a quarter of the Scammon Bay School’s teaching positions are held by people who were raised in the community. The school’s vice principal, Harley Sundown, who was born and raised there, said it’s important for students to have at least some locally grown teachers they can look up to.

“Up here, we have our local educators who do many things [other than] teaching—they also are involved with cutting fish in the summertime and doing traditional activities from Yup’ik dancing,” Sundown said. “We need people to understand what the communities are like to get the best out of every student, every year.”

The challenge with the out-of-state teachers, especially those who are new to the profession, is that they don’t tend to stay as long as their in-state peers. Many are drawn to the state in search of adventure, only to return a few years, even months, later to their home states, defeated by the weather, the isolation, or a culture with which they struggle to connect. About 80 percent of the state’s Native Alaskan students live in the rural districts.

The Hoonah district is among those experiencing high turnover this year. The rural district has 120 students and 13 teachers right now. Superintendent Watkins wanted to find eight more teachers at the job fair, which was run by Alaska Teacher Placement, a 41-year-old partnership between school districts and the University of Alaska that works yearlong to connect prospective teachers and districts.

In summer, Hoonah’s year-round population of 850 explodes to more than 3,000 as tourists come to fish, boat, and hike. What little housing is available is rented to tourists, pushing housing costs out of reach for teachers who want to continue renting from May to August. Watkins said the Hoonah Indian Association, the federally recognized governing body of the tribal members of Hoonah, is seeking grants and raising money to build teacher housing, but it will be several years before the units will be available.

“How do you make relationships with people in the community if every summer you have to leave?” Watkins said. “Hoonah is beautiful, and in summer you want to stay there, but you have no place to live.”

Seeking a Good ‘Fit’
As a result of the perennial shortage, rural superintendents spend much of their time on teacher recruitment and turnover, said Dayna DeFeo, the director of ISER’s Center for Alaska Education Policy Research, who has studied the struggles that rural Alaska superintendents experience in recruiting and retaining teachers.

She found superintendents are more interested in candidates who were a good fit, as opposed to those with exceptional credentials on their resumes. And, in initial orientations and trainings, immersing new teachers in the community is as important as any of their other educator trainings—a departure from many teacher onboarding practices in the Lower 48.

School administrators’ orientation toward community “fit” is a matter of necessity. DeFeo said teachers are more likely to leave when they’re working with students who are different from them, either ethnically or culturally.

Diane Hirshberg, a professor of education policy at ISER, agreed. The educators from the outside who’ve had the most success stayed in their rural communities in summer and participated in local pastimes, like hunting or berry picking, she noted. “They’re not the people who say ‘I can’t wait until the year ends so I can go back to fill-in-the-blank.’”

One adventure-seeking teacher from the Lower 48 who stuck around is Mary Cook, a science teacher in Scammon Bay. After retiring from a 30-year teaching career in Arkansas, Cook wasn’t ready to leave the classroom. She heard about the opportunity to teach in Alaska.

“I knew a couple teachers who filled me in on the difficulties,” Cook said. “The more difficult it sounded, the more I wanted to try it.”

Cook said the first year was tough, and she had to learn to adapt to teaching in a small community and an even smaller classroom. Now she’s been teaching in Scammon Bay for five years, and students respond differently when they see her come back year after year.

Ultimately, though, Cook said her time in rural Alaska will depend on the availability of health care.

“I’ve always said because I love it here, and I love my students, the thing that would cause me to leave would be lack of health care,” Cook said. “We don’t have any doctors or nurses and situations have developed where if you were dealing with life-threatening conditions and the weather is bad, there are just no flights.”

Teachers’ pension issues also hinder recruiting, according to teachers at the Anchorage job fair this summer. Alaska, like many other states, changed its teacher retirement system from a pension fund to a 401K arrangement nearly 15 years ago, and the teachers’ unions have expressed concern that the newer system may not yield sufficient retirement savings for teachers joining it now.

To keep teachers in the classroom, Hirshberg said, it’s also important for districts to recognize that the teachers they hire are adults and professionals, and to set up conditions for them to feel valued and lead independent lives within these communities.

At the same token, she cautioned, outsiders should not expect to walk into schools and dictate how kids should learn in rural Alaska. She said communities need to feel like they own their schools, especially so in Native Villages.

Recognizing the historical context of the state’s formation is a critical piece of that. From 1867, when the Russians were colonizing Alaska, until the mid-1900s, long after the Americans had purchased the territory, generations of students in rural Alaska were forced into missionary and boarding schools that sought to strip students of their Native culture. The multigenerational trauma of those experiences is still present, Hirshberg said.

“For some, walking into a school building brings up pain. They may not even realize it because it may not be their pain, but it may be the pain of their parents or grandparents,” she said.

“If an educator can’t see a way to reach the kids and have them be successful, [he or she] is not going to stay. We need to transform what happens in those schools and then equip teachers with the support they need, so they can thrive and the children in their classes can thrive,” Hirshberg said.

The consequences of teacher turnover and shortages can be costly in terms of both student achievement and money. ISER found it costs the state $20,431 for every teacher turnover, or roughly $20 million a year. Hirshberg, an author of the cost study, found that low teacher retention and high teacher turnover impact student learning outcomes for the worse.

Even if the state university system were able to prepare more teachers, though, it might not stem the shortages in rural areas, Hirshberg said.

The educators coming through the state’s university system tend to flock to Alaska’s largest, urban districts upon graduation.

“They don’t want to go to rural districts because a lot of our students are place-based,” Hirshberg said. “They’re older and already have families, and there are limited opportunities if you have a spouse. … There are a number of reasons why it can be difficult if you’re a more mature student to go out and teach in rural Alaska versus if you’re 22 and kind of looking for that first exciting adventure.”

Meanwhile, at the job fair, school and district administrators soldier on, even as the turnout seems to them to have dwindled over the years.

The Northwest Arctic Borough school district—which serves 11 small Alaska Native Villages in the state’s far northwest corner—was offering prospective educators $1,500 for moving costs, health, dental, and vision insurance for an entire family for $90 a month, low rent, free utilities in teacher housing, and a starting salary of $55,550. The district’s retention rate veers from 20 percent to 25 percent, leading the 1,800-student district to hire 40 to 60 new teachers annually.

Accentuate the Positive
Assistant human resources director Amie Gardner—who moved to the village of Kotzebue in the district seven years ago with a single duffle bag and $300 to her name—last year prepared welcome bags for new hires. She filled a waterproof bag with snacks, a one-pound bag of coffee and tea, stress balls, stickers with the district’s logo, an iPad holder, an eye mask to help block out the midnight sun, candies, cold and hot packs, and other goodies.

“I thought it would help with retention, as a way to welcome them to our district with open arms,” Gardner said. “We do this because our teachers are important to us and the future of our children.”

Mike Hanley, the superintendent of the 100-student Chugach school district in Alaska’s southwest coast, bordering Prince William Sound, said his district manages to retain 90 percent of teachers from year to year, more than most. The district accomplishes that by empowering teachers to be a part of district decisions, he said.

DeFeo said it was striking to find in her research that superintendents, despite their recruitment struggles, weren’t suggesting communities in rural Alaska were worse off in some way than other communities. Indeed, the administrators at the job fair said they accentuate the positive aspects of living in rural Alaska—the serenity, quiet, and beauty of living in a village seemingly on the edge of the world, the sense of community.

“Pretty much everything that happens in the communities happen in the schools—weddings, funerals, potlucks, you name it,” said recruiter Jim Hickerson, a retired school employee of Bering Strait school district, a remote community where the schools are nearer to Russia than Anchorage. “If you’re looking for shopping centers, movie theaters and restaurants and vehicles, that’s not us.”

Cook, the Arkansas teacher transplant, said her years in Scammon Bay have given her a greater sense of fulfilling her mission as a teacher than she had before. “I feel like I am able to make a difference and [that’s] a positive thing for them, and it’s positive for me,” she said. “I think I made a difference in Arkansas, too, but I think there is more need here because there is less opportunity.”

Vol. 39, Issue 4, Pages 1, 12-13

‘Poor man’s polo’ finds its way to the Kenai

Alaska, News, Online, Print

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

On Thursday nights, Maya Johnson can be found getting her horse geared up for a game of polocrosse. Johnson first heard of the team sport — a combination of polo and lacrosse — when she was riding on the equestrian team at Dartmouth College.

Johnson returned to Alaska several years ago, bringing the sport with her.

Her former riding instructor and director of riding at Dartmouth, Sally Batton, quite literally wrote the book on polocrosse. She visits Alaska once a year, offering polocrosse clinics for people like Johnson, who are passionate about the sport.

“She started teaching our group up here and everyone got pretty into it,” Johnson said.

Johnson said there are also polocrosse groups in Homer and Anchorage.

“We haven’t actually played them, but that’s our goal,” Johnson said.

In polocrosse, there are three people and horses on a team. Similar to soccer, one teammate takes offense, the other defense and another plays the midfield. Instead of lacrosse rackets, the sport has specially made rackets with a small netted basket, used for scooping up the ball from the ground.

The horse community is pretty small on the central peninsula, Johnson said.

“We pretty much all know each other,” Johnson.

On Thursday night, several people came out to play. Johnson said the group who comes to play is getting bigger.

“It gets really competitive,” Johnson said. “I like seeing everyone laughing and trying to push everyone out of the way.”

Johnson coordinates her Thursday games at Ridgeway Farms, where the riding arena almost meets exact regulation size.

Abby Ala, owner of Ridgeway Farms and Johnson’s grandma, said polocrosse is an accessible sport for anyone who enjoys riding.

“This is a poor man’s polo,” Ala said. “It’s fun. You don’t have to have a ton of money. You don’t have to have a lot of experience. You can be really young and do it and you can be older and do it.”

Johnson said residents interested in learning more about the sport can contact her via the Kenai Polocrosse Facebook Group.



EdWeek:On the Snowy Tundra, Alaska Students Bridge Differences and Eat Moose Snout

Alaska, Education, food, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

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

Outside of Alaska’s few urban pockets, a constellation of tiny communities, scattered across a rugged landscape, is home to more than half of the state’s residents. Alaska is among the nation’s most rural states—99 percent of its land mass is considered so. Resource extraction, transportation, food insecurity, and climate change have strained and complicated relationships between the state’s first inhabitants—members of 229 Alaska Native Villages—and non-Natives who, for the last three centuries, have come from all over the world to seek opportunity on one of the continent’s last frontiers.

Many familiar with that history see education as a powerful means for defusing tensions among the geographic and cultural groups. That’s what programs like Alaska’s Sister School Exchange aim to do, enlisting middle and high school students to build bridges, by offering them the chance to visit one another’s communities. Founded in 2001 by the Alaska Humanities Forum, the program was initially funded through Congress and a private foundation. Since 2007, the U.S. Department of Education Alaska Native Education program has fully funded the exchange. As of this year, more than 2,000 students have traveled to 88 communities across the state to participate in the free, weeklong exchanges.

Seven years ago, I was one of those students who left her comfortable, urban home in Anchorage to fly 300 miles to New Stuyahok to participate in the exchange. I was a shy high school junior and fourth-generation Alaskan with my own set of misconceptions about my rural neighbors.

The exchange gave me the chance to understand the challenges of life in rural Alaska—like the feeling of being completely isolated and the pressures of subsistence living in an ever-changing natural environment—while also showing me what it’s like to be part of a tight-knit, culturally rich community where I made friends for life.

This April, I made the trip again, this time with an Education Week photographer and four Anchorage students and their teacher to get a sense of the kinds of academic and cultural lessons the program might offer to communities across the country with different needs and lifestyles.

Prepping for the Adventure

The program begins each year long before the travel takes place. To participate, teachers must apply and then spend several months with their students, preparing for the visit. The exchange program provides a cross-cultural learning curriculum designed by educators, both Native and non-Native, where students study their own community and family histories as a step toward understanding their exchange-program peers. The curriculum becomes primarily experiential once the students and their teacher arrive at their sister schools in early spring when students shadow their peers from class to class.

Our two-hour trip this year covered more than 500 miles. Two planes and several snowmobiles were required to reach the destination: Scammon Bay—an isolated Native Village of 500 people, nestled on a mountain a mile or so from the Bering Sea Coast in the southwestern part of the state.

The East Anchorage High School students—Genavieve Beans, Starlyn Phillips, Jonathan Gates, and Nuulau Alaelua—and their math teacher, Ellen Piekarski, each had their own reasons for wanting to make the trip. Genavieve and Starlyn, who are both sophomores, are Alaska Native and wanted to see what life would’ve been like if they had grown up in a Native Village.

Jonathan, also a sophomore, was looking to escape the bustle of Anchorage and connect with his foster and adoptive brothers at home who are of Native heritage. Twelfth grader Nuulau, whose parents are from a rural part of the Independent State of Samoa, sought a way to connect to her own background.

“My parents, they came [to Alaska] and kind of really did struggle, and it’s like they had to fit into society. So I really didn’t learn much about my own culture,” she said. “This program gives me an opportunity to learn about my roots and other people’s roots, too.”

Their teacher, Piekarski, grew up in a military family before settling in Texas and eventually moving to Alaska. She wanted the opportunity not only to visit rural Alaska, but to see what teaching in a rural classroom would be like.

World of White

On the gravel strip that is Scammon Bay Airport, we climbed out of the nine-passenger airplane. Outside, everything was white, except a handful of colorful buildings and the navy-blue squiggle of the nearby Kun River. A thick, white fog hovered overhead, making it nearly impossible to tell where the snowy tundra dissolved into bleached sky. The whoosh of the wind and the buzz of the snowmobiles—the local mode of transportation—replaced the familiar sounds of Anchorage’s busy streets.

We were greeted by a handful of students from Scammon Bay School. The only school in the village, it serves about 200 K-12 students, all of whom are Alaska Natives. The temperature was about 20 degrees, and our student hosts wore their school sweatshirts, sweatpants, and sneakers—puffy weather gear and heavy boots covered us.

Jeremy Brink, a charismatic high school senior who plans to pursue a career in teaching, led the tour through his village. Despite his ease and connection with the community, Jeremy hasn’t lived in Scammon Bay long. He left his hometown of Bethel, a nearby hub, last year to seek a change of scenery and a deeper connection to his Yup’ik culture.

As we trudged through the snow, Jeremy took us inside the health clinic where he explained, to the surprise of the Anchorage students, how the village doesn’t have doctors or nurses. Health aides, whose only medical training is a 12-to-16-week program, are the community’s only source of health care. He explained how a storm last winter prevented planes from landing for a week, endangering patients in need of advanced medical attention—a stark contrast to Anchorage, where the big hospitals serve patients from across the state. Scammon Bay also has no police force. The community’s sole crime deterrents are village public safety officers—who receive 18 weeks of training and are hired by a consortium of tribal leaders from 56 Native Villages with oversight from Alaska State Troopers.

At the only general store, the students were shocked by high prices. They oohed and aahed at a small bottle of ranch dressing, no more than 12 ounces, which cost nearly $6. This, despite having learned about the high cost of rural living in their pre-visit prep—perhaps further proof that there is no substitute for first-hand experience. (In 2012, I felt the same shock when we spent $80 on ingredients for chocolate chip cookies on my exchange trip to New Stuyahok.)

Jeremy’s 45-minute tour ended in the center of the village, at the local stream or carvaq, as it is called in the locals’ native Yup’ik. He invited us to pack our water there, just as the community does. (For residents of the Lower 48, that means to haul water for home use.) That’s something none of us would dare try at Ship Creek, the stream that cuts through downtown Anchorage.

Jonathan stayed with Scammon Bay Principal Melissa Rivers and her family in district-owned housing adjacent to the school. The rest of us, including Genavieve and Starlyn, Nuulau, and Piekarski, occupied a district-owned apartment.

Hands-On Learning

In science teacher Mary Cox’s class, the students got a hands-on lesson from two visiting scientists—Lauren Bien and Chris Iannazzone from the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova, about 650 miles southeast of Scammon Bay. The scientists used an inflatable pool, several mystery liquids, some animal furs and feathers, and a handful of cleaning supplies to show the students how oil leaks from tankers and pipelines affect marine ecosystems. Then they let students experiment with potential clean up methods.

“Things that educate that aren’t really book or paper—we try to do as much hands-on as we have available or invite people in,” said Cox, an Arkansas transplant who’s been teaching at Scammon Bay for five years. She said she incorporates hands-on lessons herself by incubating salmon eggs in the classroom to teach about the life cycles of salmon.

Over the next few days, the Anchorage students engaged in other activities reflective of life in the bush. They learned to comb a musk ox pelt for wool or qiviut, skin an otter, and clean, inflate, dry, and cut seal intestines into sheets to sew together into a traditional Yup’ik raincoat. For the final task, students held opposite ends of a pale, slimy strip of seal gut, while blowing into it to inflate the pink, rubbery tube for drying.

At a potluck organized by principal Rivers and members of the community, the students sampled local foods like beluga, seal, herring eggs, smelt fish, and smoked salmon. Moose snout, a local delicacy, was prepared by the school’s chemistry teacher, Kristian Nattinger, who was in his last semester with the school after two years. Together, the students held up their oily, cream-colored, pieces of moose snout cartilage. In unison, they each bit a piece of the meat off the thin layer of hairy snout skin.

“It tasted like chicken,” Starlyn reported.

The locals’ deep knowledge of subsistence food-gathering practices impressed the Anchorage students.

“When you think about people in the bush you think, ‘Oh, they just hunt, they might not know much,’ but in reality, they know a lot more than we do, and they can do a lot more than we can,” Nuulau said. “It made me realize how I need to value things more.”

Macy Rivers, a softspoken 11th grader from Scammon Bay, appreciated the chance to share her life with her urban peers.

“It is important for them to see how we live out here because they could know who we are and how we live and just to see how we grow up and see how different it is living in a village than a city,” she said. “There are no cars, no highways. You know everyone.”

One-Way Exchange

The Anchorage and Scammon Bay students were already sharing Snapchat usernames and bonding over similar music tastes when they learned the rural students wouldn’t be visiting their homes in Anchorage this year. The reason: Conflicting activities prevented the Scammon Bay students from completing the required preparatory curriculum.

The news disappointed students from both communities. “They are frustrated now that they’ve met the students in the community. They’re like, ‘Can’t they just come?’” Piekarski said of her Anchorage students.

But she and other participating educators later said the curriculum is essential to a smooth experience for students, with its emphasis on first understanding one’s own culture, learning different communication styles and how to share cultural differences without offending, and developing an openness to new foods and experiences.

“I wasn’t worried about my students feeling comfortable in the community,” Piekarski said. “Now I see it helped them be prepared.”

“I would absolutely love it if every high school student could do these activities,” she said. “I think it would be an amazing way to improve relations with people from different communities.”

On her last day in the village, Genavieve said four days wasn’t enough. The Good Friday holiday cut their weeklong visit to four days. “I feel like I got cheated out of the experience.”

Nuulau said her time in Scammon Bay has motivated her to visit villages in her parents’ Samoan homeland.

“I learned to not judge and assume a lot of things because even I thought I knew everything before coming [to Scammon Bay],” she said. “When I heard about the trip, I thought, ‘Is it really worth coming here?’ Now, I wish we had more time because it’s just so great. I know why people are here and stay here.”

When I returned to my Anchorage high school in 2012 from my visit to New Stuyahok, I felt both more connected and knowledgeable about my home and neighbors, while also more aware that I had barely scratched the surface of what Alaska has to offer—which only propelled me to discover more of my state.

Leaving Old Perceptions Behind

And I shed some misconceptions about life in Alaska’s rural Native Villages. Like many of my peers, I had believed people in rural Alaska were to blame for the state’s high rate of drug and alcohol abuse and violent crimes. Alcohol-induced mortality rates are more than double in Alaska than for the United States as a whole, with 23 people per 100,000 citizens in Alaska compared to a nationwide average of 9.5, according to 2016 data from the Centers for Disease Control. For Alaska Natives, that rate is more than seven times the national average, with 81.7 people dying per 100,000 residents. What I didn’t understand then was that resources for health care, mental-health services, and addiction treatment are scarce beyond Alaska’s urban areas.

These mindset changes are not uncommon. Program statistics show that 90 percent of participants showed a change in perception following their travels, said Kari Lovett, the SSE coordinator.

For Piekarski, the added benefit was that she got to try her hand at substitute teaching in a math class at Scammon Bay. She found that while the technology and instructional resources there were more limited than in Anchorage, “you can still teach and impart wisdom.”

East High, which draws students from a wide range of racial and ethnic groups, is already one of the nation’s most culturally diverse high schools. But Piekarski said her experience in Scammon Bay further honed her sensitivity to students’ different cultural backgrounds back in Anchorage.

“This experience is definitely going to change how I teach, particularly with my students that are Native Alaskan, and I’ll have some of them that, you know, grew up in a village and then came to Anchorage,” she said. “A lot of the things that students do that used to bug me, I realize, hey, that’s part of their culture.”

Vol. 38, Issue 37, Pages 1, 14-16

‘Everything is on the table’

Alaska, Education, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story was originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed $130 million in state funding for the University of Alaska system on Friday. Now, UA President Jim Johnsen said programs, faculty and entire campuses are at risk, and tuition increases are a possibility should an override to the governor’s veto fail.

“We’re doing our damnedest to navigate through this so that it doesn’t impact our students,” Johnsen said. “Everything is on the table, $134 million is huge. This cut cannot be met by ‘oh, let’s close a program here, let’s tighten our belt here.’ It can’t be done like that.”

Dunleavy’s funding cut is on top of a $5 million reduction already authorized by lawmakers.

Johnsen said the veto was a surprise.

“It quite frankly was a surprise when we heard,” Johnsen said. “We met with the governor over the spring and we went over ideas on how to strengthen the university. We didn’t think he would persist in this huge cut to our budget.”

Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai/Soldotna, said the cut to the university would be “financially devastating.”

“How do you take $130 million from the university without an analysis?” Knopp said.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, also opposed the governor’s veto of the University of Alaska budget. A retired college professor, Stevens’ district includes Homer, Kodiak and Cordova, all cities with community campuses.

“I don’t see it surviving after a cut like that,” Stevens said. “We’re talking about personnel, about a lot of professors being fired … I’m absolutely opposed to that veto of the university.”

When asked where he stands on the governor’s vetoes, Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, said via email that he’s “committed to standing behind necessary reductions in government spending to better the long-term fiscal health of our state.”

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Kenai/Soldotna, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, also did not respond to emails or a phone call asking for comment.

Since Friday’s veto, the university has taken measures to reduce costs in the short term.

The system has issued furlough notices across the state to 2,500 employees. Furloughed employees are able to take two weeks of unpaid leave, or use 10 days of unpaid leave within the next six months.

Johnsen said the university has also issued hiring and travel freezes.

The veto is the largest cut the university has faced in their over 100-year history. The veto of $130.35 million is in addition to the $5 million cut the Legislature approved in their budget, resulting in a 41% total reduction in last year’s funding for the university system. The university relies on the state for about 40% of its funding. Other funding sources for the university budget include revenues from fees and tuition, investments and land sales, as well as research grants and contracts.

Excluding UAA, UAF and UAS, closing the 12 community campuses in the university system would only save the university $38 million.

“The 40% (from the state) is definitely core funding,” Johnsen said. “It’s where we hire faculty and staff. You have to use this funding to go get that other money.”

The university has sustained cuts in four of the last five years, with a loss of more than 1,200 staff, he said. Johnsen said this cut has the potential to reduce funding from other resources.

“Given the he extent of this cut, it’s not just limited to state funding,” he said. “If we lose faculty we’re going to lose the research grants they bring in; we’re going to lose the students that those faculty taught because there would be fewer courses, fewer programs, fewer sections — actually the cut is going to be substantially more than the governor’s reduction in our general fund budget.”

With private funding sources, Johnsen said, the university system is advocating for an override of the veto, which will require a three-fourths vote from state legislators by July 12.

He says many legislators support the university, but it’s a close call.

“There’s a small number of legislators on the fence,” Johnsen said.

Many state legislators, and Dunleavy, have attended and received degrees from the University of Alaska, including Micciche.

If the veto is sustained, Johnsen said the university system’s Board of Regents will declare financial exigency at their July 15 meeting, which will enable the board to expedite cuts that need to be made. By July 30, the board will have a plan for cuts, Johnsen said.

“Between July 15 and July 30, tough decisions would need to be made about what campuses are closed, what programs are closed across the University of Alaska,” Johnsen said.

The Kenai Peninsula College, the Kachemak Bay Campus and other regional campuses could find their way on the chopping block. Johnsen said the Kenai Peninsula College costs $6.3 million, and 20 similarly priced campuses would need to shut down to break even with the veto. Community campuses received their own appropriation in the budget, which was not vetoed by Dunleavy. Johnsen said these campuses — which receive university system support for human resources, financial aid, information technology, facility management, university relations — could not sustain themselves solely on the community campus appropriation.

“They could not operate — they don’t have the horsepower to operate with that money,” Johnsen said. “… They cannot operate on their own. We’re looking hard at what those costs are that that appropriation will bear.”

University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Cathy Sandeen echoed that point.

“We cannot keep the community campuses harmless, because the main campuses — we provide a number of services they cannot provide themselves,” she said. “We won’t be able to do that under the current budget scenarios unless those campuses pay us for those services, and if they cannot pay us, we will have to stop doing them.”

Sandeen noted that students at community campuses also take classes through distance and online education offered by the main campuses. Support of online courses offered at KPC and KBC also comes through UAA, such as for computer programs and platforms.

Sandeen said UAA could lose about 700 academic jobs, including potential jobs at the community campuses, if the veto stands.

“It’s sad to think about it — 700 people losing their jobs,” she said. “There are no replacement jobs in the state. People are going to leave the state of Alaska — smart, professional, committed people.”

University programs that get federal or non-state support won’t be affected by the veto, except for those grants that require a state match. The Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, for example, is funded through the UAA Alaska Center for Conservation Science, which receives some federal support.

“The extent to which this is funded through federal grants, those will not be affected,” Sandeen said.

Knopp says he doesn’t think the Kenai Peninsula College will be too greatly impacted because of the separate appropriation, but, he said the campus “will have impact.”

There is potential for the university veto to ripple beyond the university. Mouhcine Guettabi is a regional economist at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at UAA. He studies Alaska’s economy and its drivers, produce, forecasts and more, he said. When Dunleavy’s proposed budget was announced, Gutteabi was asked to present his work on the economic impact of various state budget options. After hearing of the vetoes, Gutteabi created a “very basic and quick assessment” on their potential impact to the economy, which he has posted online, he told the Clarion Tuesday.

In his analysis, Gutteabi said the proposed vetoes total about $450 million, which should amount to at least 4,500 of jobs lost in the short run.

“Actual job losses may be much larger if the agencies affected all lay off workers,” he said in the analysis.

Just the cut to the university system “essentially pushes the Alaska economy back into a recession,” he said.

“This tells us that once we account for all the cuts and their indirect and induced effects, there is a very strong likelihood that the economy will dip back into a recession,” Guttaebi posted on Twitter.

Stevens said legislators opposed to the vetoes are counting noses. The first vote will be to override them as a whole, and if that fails, try overriding them one at a time, he said. Stevens said he has been getting public opinion messages all week.

“This morning I had 150 new messages. I thought I dealt with them last night,” he said.

A week ago, many messages urged Stevens to back a $3,000 dividend. Now the message is “For Heaven’s sake, save our university. Save our senior programs,” he said.

Legislators have until July 12 to decide if they will overturn Dunleavy’s veto.

Reach Victoria Petersen at vpetersen@peninsulaclarion.com. Homer News reporter Michael Armstrong contributed to this story. Reach him at marmstrong@homernews.com.

New chef brings fresh menu to Cooper Landing

Alaska, food, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Chef Katherine O’Leary-Cole has only been in Alaska for two months, and her ambitious menu offers something fresh for diners at Cooper Landing’s Kingfisher Roadhouse.

Nearly half of the food is vegetarian, with one whole side of the menu offering plant-based options, most of which could also be considered vegan or gluten-free. She was offered the job, her first chef de cuisine position, in January and spent every spare second she had planning out her menu. Her yearslong cooking career and love of plant-based foods influenced the menu.

“My long history of being interested in plant-based foods started the moment in clicked in my 8-year-old brain that shrimp have a poop line, because they were animals,” she said. “That’s it, I love animals. No meat, ever.”

Her stance on eating meat has since relaxed — she used to refuse things like chicken stock and marshmallows — but now will occasionally indulge in a meat delicacy such as sashimi or foie gras. “I gravitate towards plant-based meals, but will definitely eat a chicken entrée I mistakenly cooked for a wrong ticket pickup or eat a beef stew if my grandmother cooks it for Christmas,” she said.

O’Leary-Cole didn’t go to culinary school, but she’s spent years in the kitchen. She previously worked at a restaurant in Arkansas, called Tusk and Trotter. She spent time teaching an Italian-themed wine pairing and vegetarian four-course dinner class at a culinary store in Arkansas. She planned a series of vegetarian open-fire dinners as a pop-up restaurant that took place at her cabin. She traveled around to different cities working in the best restaurants she could find. She also volunteered to cook a vegetarian dinner for 300 guests to support her local culinary school.

When plans in Arkansas fell through, O’Leary-Cole had no obligations, and sought a new adventure in Alaska.

“I was trying to think ‘what is the coolest thing I could do with job, my life, my work’ and I thought ‘I’m going to go to Alaska,’” she said. “I had heard tidbits here and there from people who’d come up for seasonal jobs and how beautiful it was.”

The very first Alaska job ad she found was Dominic Bauer’s, owner of Kingfisher, which has been in Cooper Landing for over 20 years.

Offering as many vegetarian options on a menu in Alaska as O’Leary-Cole has comes with its challenges. At the restaurant she was working at in Arkansas, which she says was in a somewhat rural area, she said she got food deliveries every day of the week, and several grocery stores to choose from if something was needed last minute. In Cooper Landing, her closest fully stocked grocery store is an hour away and produce orders come only once a week.

“When that produce gets here, often it has traveled thousands of miles, resulting in much higher food costs, lower quality produce and lower environmental sustainability,” she said. “As a chef committed to the idea of offering a diverse plant-based menu alongside traditional roadhouse fare such as burgers, pot pies and brownies with ice cream, these produce challenges simply mean that it’s time to get creative.”

She’s also challenged herself with creating vegetarian dishes meat eaters will be interested in.

“While only a small portion of the population may consider themselves strictly vegetarian, there are many more people that consider their health and the health of the environment when they make their dining choices,” she said. “It’s time for mainstream restaurants and chefs to move past hummus, salads and portabella mushrooms as the only choice for those looking for an alternative to meat.”

She said she’s been surprised how those plant-based options are being received. She said close to half of customers order off the vegetable-based menu.

O’Leary-Cole also pulls some inspiration for her menu from her southern heritage, like her cornbread with bacon jam.

Kingfisher is only open for the season and come September, the restaurant will shut their doors and O’Leary-Cole will return to the Lower 48, where she’ll pick up her van in Seattle and drive cross-country. She said she’s planning to return next summer.

District staff resignations and retirements highest recorded

Alaska, Education, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Facing potential state, local and district budget reductions, many non-tenured teachers are considering employment elsewhere.

To date, 86 certified staff and administrators resigned or retired, the highest number in the years the district has been tracking the data, Pegge Erkeneff, communications liaison for the district, said in an email.

Thirty seven out of those 86 have served the district for 15 years or more, 24 served 20 or more years.

“A disturbing development we noticed this year is a rise in the number of resignations from our staff, in part due to the fiscal uncertainty state budgeting caused to the school district this year,” Erkeneff said.

For the last four years, an average of 72 teachers resigned or retired from the district annually.

At the beginning of the new semester Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed deep cuts to education, worrying some residents, especially school districts, across the state. This spring, borough assembly and school board meetings were dominated by residents, teachers, principals, school board members and even students who pleaded for education funding support to give non-tenured teachers more certainty.

Days before the school year ended, May 16, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education approved contracts for 62 non-tenured teachers. Due to budgetary reasons, nine non-tenured teachers were not able to retained, Erkeneff said.

“Throughout the spring, our non-tenured teachers did experience uncertainty, and we were happy to issue 62 contracts and receive approval from the school board during a special meeting May 16, a few days before school was done for the year,” Erkeneff said.

Erkeneff said some employees leaving the district are leaving the state, too.

“In contrast to anticipated retirements, several of our valued staff noted that the fiscal instability of our state and subsequently in our district is a reason why they are leaving now,” she said. “They are not leaving our district for other districts in so much as they are leaving the state to go elsewhere.”

At an April school board meeting, James Harris, an English teacher at Soldotna High School and the 2017 Alaska Teacher of the Year, offered public comment regarding his recent resignation and departure from Alaska.

Harris said he felt he didn’t really have a choice.

“With the mayor’s proposed cuts and the governor’s proposed cuts, we would be hurting and we would lose our home,” Harris said. “On top of that, there has been seemingly very little support from the community.”

Teachers leaving the district can cause ripple effects with the district’s projected enrollment. Erkeneff said many of the district’s younger staff have children in local schools. Lower enrollment could mean even less funding from the state next year. In the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, a loss of 50 to 100 students might be spread over 15 to 20 schools, from the 42 schools across the district.

“If we experience a decline to projected enrollment that drove staffing decisions this spring, we potentially end up over-staffed, and experience a decrease in state funding based on the 20 day count in October that determines state funding, which is also linked to the local or Borough contribution to education funding,” Erkeneff said.

Despite uncertainty with the state budget heading into the summer, state statute requires school districts to let their staff know in May whether or not they have employment for the next year.

“All of our teachers know whether or not they have a contract for the school year beginning in August,” Erkeneff said.

She said 10 teachers were not retained because they were hired after Oct. 10, which presents another state statute issue, Erkeneff said.

“We are in the process of starting to hire back some of those teachers who were laid off,” Erkeneff said.

While teacher resignations were highest this year, support staff employee retirements and resignations are lower this year, Erkeneff said.

Satanic Temple invocation prompts protest, walkouts at assembly meeting

Alaska, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

A member of the Satanic Temple offered an invocation at Tuesday’s Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting, prompting walkouts from about a dozen attendees and borough officials, and a protest outside the building.

The invocation was the first given by the Satanic Temple since the borough changed its invocation policy in November. The new policy allows for anyone in the borough to offer an invocation, no matter their religion. The change in policy came after the Alaska Superior Court found the former policy unconstitutional and in violation of the state’s constitution’s establishment clause.

In her invocation, Iris Fontana — a member of the Satanic Temple and the prevailing plaintiff in the lawsuit against the borough — called the room to be present, and for attendees to clear their minds. She asked listeners to embrace the impulse to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

“Let us demand that humans be judged for their actions,” she said.

No one is required to participate in assembly invocations. Assembly members Norm Blakeley and Paul Fischer stepped out of the assembly chambers, along with chief of staff James Baisden and Mayor Charlie Pierce — as well as a handful of audience members.

Two Soldotna police officers were present for the invocation, staying in the assembly chambers entryway.

About 40 people, some holding signs reading “reject Satan and his works” and “know Jesus and his love,” demonstrated outside the borough building before and during the meeting.

In October, the borough lost a lawsuit against plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska in a fight over its invocation policy, which allowed certain groups and individuals to offer an invocation at the beginning of each meeting. The plaintiffs, Lance Hunt, an atheist, Fontana and Elise Boyer, a member of the Jewish community in Homer, all applied to give invocations after the policy was established in 2016. All three were denied because they didn’t belong to official organizations with an established presence on the peninsula. They sued and the ACLU Alaska agreed to represent them.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Andrew Peterson ruled the invocation policy violated the Alaska Constitution’s establishment clause, which is a mandate banning government from establishing an official religion or the favoring of one belief over another. Article 1, Section 4 of the constitution provides that “no law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion.”

In November, the assembly voted against appealing the Superior Court decision and passed an updated invocation policy allowing more people the ability to give invocations at assembly meetings.

Several people addressed the borough’s invocation policy during the meeting’s allotted time for public comment. Michele Hartline and Paul Huber, both from Nikiski, offered their own Christian prayers during public comment.

Barrett Fletcher, who is the pastor of the First Lower Peninsula Congregation of Pastafarians, said the borough should do away with invocations and “stop offending people.”

“I’m sure when I give the invocation in Homer in September there will be people that are offended by the idea of a creator of the universe, the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster, being invoked,” Fletcher said.

Greg Andersen, Kenai resident, also spoke to the policy during his public comment. He warned the room he’ll be giving the next invocation.

“This is just some advanced notice for those of you who have a hard time accepting that some people have beliefs that are different than your own,” Andersen said. “You can turn your back and walk out like I witnessed this evening.”

Gravel pit controversy continues in Anchor Point

Alaska, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

From Hans Bilben’s back deck, one can see Mount Redoubt, waves from Cook Inlet crashing on the beach at Anchor Point and hillsides dotted with a handful of homes. Perched on the side of a natural amphitheater, Bilben’s house also overlooks a patch of undeveloped forest that extends across the valley below.

Bilben, his wife Jeanne and many of their neighbors fear that their scenic view will be damaged if a proposed gravel pit moves in next door.

Emmitt Trimble — owner of Coastal Realty, whose family has been developing and selling property in the area for around 40 years — manages Beachcomber LLC, a company that’s been working for a year to excavate gravel on 27 acres of his property. The property, totaling around 40 acres, sits at the bottom of the natural amphitheater, 500 feet from the Anchor River and near several state parks and campgrounds. As a developer, Trimble said one of his major costs is gravel. He said he wants the property’s 40 or so acres to be multi-use, where 27 acres is used to mine gravel, and the oceanfront parcels remain untouched, as a legacy property for his daughters.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission rarely denies gravel pit permits, but last July, Trimble’s application to excavate his Anchor Point property was denied after hours of public testimony raised concerns about potential disturbances created by the gravel pit, including damaged views, noise, dust, truck traffic and the property values of adjacent property owners, the Clarion previously reported. Commissioners who voted to deny the permit said it wouldn’t meet the noise and visual impact conditions even with additional buffers, according to Clarion archives.

“If you are willing to meet the conditions required, you get the permit,” Trimble said. “Unfortunately, the planning commission went off on its own and did whatever it wanted. It cost us a lot of money and a year.”

After his permit was denied, Trimble applied for a smaller permit — one that doesn’t require a public hearing — to excavate on a 2.5-acre section of the property. Last August, Trimble decided to appeal the commission’s decision, which will be heard again June 10. Some concerned neighbors hope the appeal for a permit is denied again at the hearing.

Trimble has full faith in the project. He touted the family’s 40-year track record with property development, and said he’s intending to redevelop the land after the lifespan of the pit comes to an end.

“I’m always looking to develop and redevelop,” Trimble said. “It’s not like I’m going to dig the gravel up and leave a hole sitting there.”

The excavation would happen in three phases, and has an estimated lifespan of 15 years or more, and could result in up to 50,000 cubic yards of gravel per year, according to the application. Bilben estimates this could require thousands of trucks a year traveling the neighborhood’s roads, which provide the only access to a handful of state parks and serve as the main access road for the area beach. The required route also includes a narrow bridge over the Anchor River with an 11-ton weight limit, a similar weight to an empty 10-yard dump truck.

Trimble’s efforts to mine the gravel on his property is well within the law, if the permit is granted. But, balancing the rights of property owners and neighbors in unzoned areas can be tricky. For property owners in unzoned areas interested in mining gravel, certain conditions in borough code must be met to get a permit, including buffers, barriers and regulations for when heavy machinery like rockcrushers can be operated. If these conditions are met, permits can be issued, despite how the conditions required in the code adequately protect neighbors.

“It’s always the people who are closest to it, who don’t want it,” Trimble said. “It’s that simple, but that’s not the way it works in unincorporated, unzoned areas.”

Bilben doesn’t believe current borough code would minimize his, or many of his neighbors’ properties from sight and sound impacts coming from the proposed pit. Bilben’s house sits 90 feet above the proposed pit, while the home of another neighbor, Pete Kineen, sits roughly 70 feet above the proposed pit. Six-foot-tall berms are required by the borough, but to block the view for many neighbors, Bilben estimates those berms would need to be at least 52 feet high.

“Say you’re gong down the road in Kansas or Florida where it’s flat,” Kineen said. “A 6-foot fence, 6 feet is sufficient and that’s all there is to it. Here in this amphitheater, I’m about 70 feet and Hans (Bilben) are 90 feet above. There’s nothing they can do to screen this off. The effective height of the fence would have to be 52 feet.”

“We wouldn’t even see the berm because we’re so far over it,” Bilben said.

Kineen called the proposed pit an “intrusion into paradise.”

“I’m concerned that the entire point of being here would be destroyed,” Kineen said. “Everything else is just a detail. It would destroy the whole atmosphere here. The noise would be overwhelming, the dust would be uncontrollable. The view — I didn’t move down from Anchorage just to look at a gravel pit.”

Neighbors opposing the proposed pit said they think the borough could be doing more to protect homeowners.

“Basically, the homeowners have no protections,” Bilben said. “If somebody comes into your neighborhood, buys a piece of land and says, ‘I want a gravel pit there,’ they get it unless they don’t submit the reclamation plan or if there is a body water that’s going to be affected.”

In January of 2018, the borough created the Material Site Workgroup, a council of stakeholders tasked with reexamining borough gravel pit regulations. The group was supposed to wrap up, with possible recommendations and improvements to the code, six months later. The group ended 15 months later this May. Their new proposal will be reviewed by the planning commission and then the assembly. Some neighbors opposed to the Trimble pit are not satisfied with new code recommendations, which they believe don’t offer sufficient barriers to protect nearby homeowners from noise and visual impacts of the mine.

Assembly member Willy Dunne, who represents the residents in Anchor Point, said he was disappointed the Material Site Workgroup took so long. He says the assembly will most likely be addressing the code proposal in late July. He’s heard lots of concerns from residents about proposed gravel pits in the area, and said he hasn’t had an opportunity as an assembly member to directly address those concerns.

“My main role would be to address the proposed changes through the ordinance that’s coming up,” he said. “I’m following the issue. I’m talking with residents. I’ve heard from people both for and against the gravel pit.”

He said there are some deficiencies in current borough code.

“In certain situations the buffers might not be adequate,” he said.

To invite the public to learn more about the Trimbles’ efforts and plans for the property, the family hosted an open house June 1, where people could tour the property, learn about the pit and ask questions. The land, which Trimble has owned since 2016, is the remainder of the Kyllonen family homestead, established in 1946. During the tour, Buzz Kyllonen gave a presentation on Anchor Point’s history in front of his mother’s homestead, which the Trimbles plan to preserve as a historical site, Allison Trimble Paparoa, Emmit Trimble’s daughter, said.

“This was a very positive event and the Trimbles are very grateful to the people who attended with an open mind,” Trimble-Paparoa said. “A wonderful time was had by all. This is the Anchor Point community we know and love.”

Neighbors opposing the pit say they are not against the gravel industry. Building in Alaska often requires gravel, and Lynn Whitmore, a neighbor to the proposed Beachcomber LLC gravel pit, said the gravel industry is huge in Anchor Point — noting the entire town of Homer was built using gravel brought from the Anchor Point area. He occasionally works for gravel companies, in permitting, and said he’s noticed some companies buying property “out in the sticks” to get away from the controversy that comes with mining near homes.

“If you buy property around a gravel pit, you ought to expect the interference from a gravel pit, but you if buy property with a nice view down from the beach here, and (the gravel pit) comes in — we want to stop the next guy from going through this,” Whitmore said. “The neighbors are stuck seeing it and hearing it for a long time.”

In a document submitted by Bilben to the borough’s Material Site Workgroup, he outlines property value concerns of the proposed pit’s neighbors. Using assessed property values of the proposed pit, and 45 neighboring parcels, Bilben estimated the neighboring property values could drop by 30%, a potential loss of $2,343,960 in assessed valuation dollars for the borough.

Trimble-Paparoa, who is an owner and managing broker with her family at Coastal Realty and who helps run the business in Washington state, said the last thing her family wants to do is negatively impact property values. She said the property is part of her family’s legacy, and eventually, the family hopes to retire there. Her sister is already living near the property where the proposed gravel pit would be.

The planning commission will have a public hearing June 10.

Gray whale found dead in Clam Gulch, 4th in Alaska so far this year

Alaska, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

A gray whale was found dead near Clam Gulch late Thursday. It’s the fourth gray whale found dead in Alaska and the second gray whale found dead in Cook Inlet this year.

The cause of death is still unknown. Since Monday, a team of biologists have been waiting for a minus tide to reach the whale so they can perform a necropsy, Julie Speegle, public affairs officer with the Alaska regional office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said.

The Clam Gulch whale is the most recent in a series of whale beachings this month, including one spotted last week near Kodiak, one near Cordova two weeks ago and one in Turnagain Arm earlier in May. Last month, a young humpback whale was stranded twice on the shores of Turnagain Arm.

Speegle said for the last 18 years, between January and May, normal records have indicated between zero and three gray whale deaths a year.

“We’re slightly above that now,” Speegle said.

Speegle said the whale was a sub-adult, or not fully an adult, and is estimated to be between 20 and 24 feet long.

Kenai’s historic chapel gets makeover

Alaska, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Visitors to Kenai’s Old Town may have noticed some construction at the Saint Nicholas Memorial Chapel. Restoration efforts are underway.

At the beginning of the month, restoration experts began patching up and waterproofing the roof of the iconic chapel in Kenai’s Old Town, which sits across the street from the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church.

Dorothy Gray is the treasurer of the nonprofit group Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska, the secretary and treasurer for Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai and a lifelong member of the church. She said the chapel is in great need of repair.

The restoration efforts are broken up into three phases. The first is to repair the roof, and to waterproof it for years to come. The original cedar shakes will be replaced with cedar shingles, slowing the wood’s deterioration at the walls and corners of the building. Gray said the roof phase should be finished soon. The second phase should begin later this summer, with an assessment of the condition of the chapel’s logs. The third phase, which will come at a later date, will address the church’s foundation and fence.

The chapel received two grants to help renovate the National Historic Landmark. In 2017, the chapel received a $13,000 donation grant from the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians in America. Last September, the Alaska Historical Commission awarded a $14,964 grant to the chapel. Gray said a private donor has also recently provided additional funds.

The chapel is one of the most recognized landmarks in Kenai, and is featured on the city’s seal. The chapel has been sitting in Old Town since 1906.

Gray said the chapel recognizes the first Christian influence on the Kenai Peninsula.

“This place matters because it is the final resting place of the first Christian missionary here,” Gray said. “He brought the smallpox vaccine responsible for saving people’s lives far beyond Kenai.”

Gray said the chapel is also a poplar tourist attraction.

“It’s one of the most highly photographed places on the Kenai,” Gray said.

The Saint Nicholas Memorial Chapel is getting restored with a new, waterproof roof this summer, Friday, May 17, 2019, in Old Town Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion.The Saint Nicholas Memorial Chapel is getting restored with a new, waterproof roof this summer, Friday, May 17, 2019, in Old Town Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion.

John Wachtel, a former National Parks Service employee, places new cedar shingles on the roof of the Saint Nicholas Memorial Chapel as part of new restorative efforts, on Tuesday, May 21, 2019, in Old Town Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)John Wachtel, a former National Parks Service employee, places new cedar shingles on the roof of the Saint Nicholas Memorial Chapel as part of new restorative efforts, on Tuesday, May 21, 2019, in Old Town Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

More than 200 students enrolled in homeless assistance program

Alaska, Education, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

As of May 10, 218 students were enrolled in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Students in Transition Program, Kelly King, program coordinator for the district, said. The 16-year-old program provides services to homeless students and students no longer in the custody of their parent or legal guardian.

The number puts the 2018-2019 school year roughly on track to match previous years. On average, the program serves around 250 students per year.

At the beginning of the school year, the program saw a 42% increase from previous years in the number of students the program was serving, with 98 students referred by mid-September.

In comparison, 69 students were identified as homeless at the same time in 2017, prompting fears of a spike in student homelessness.

At the beginning of the school year, King said she couldn’t attribute any one thing to the enrollment rise in September, the Clarion previously reported. She said the homelessness issue on the central peninsula often goes unnoticed, due to how spread out communities are. Enrollment is always high at the beginning of the year, and continues to grow throughout the year.

The Students in Transition Program provides a number of resources to students, including school supplies, hygiene products, free meals, transportation to and from school and other things that can be a stressor for a family when their housing situation is vulnerable.

King has been the coordinator for nearly 11 years, and works with Jane Dunn, a liaison in Homer who serves the southern peninsula. Their jobs are to help identify homeless students within the district. The program takes referrals until the last day of school.

With the end of the school year, comes the end of the program’s ability to provide services for students.

“Both district liaisons work at linking students to as many supports and services as possible before the school year ends,” King said.

Referrals come from a variety of places, including students, parents and school staff. When a student is referred, King does a needs assessment to make sure the child qualifies for the federal definition of homelessness. After a student is enrolled, they are enrolled for the entire school year. Youth enrolled in the program must be attending school.

“It’s critical for the public to understand that KPBSD strategically uses all available sources to support students on the peninsula, but are required to follow the specific requirements of individual funding sources,” Tim Vlasak, director of K-12 schools, assessment, and federal programs, said.

The program is required by law to define homelessness using the federal law standards provided in the McKinney-Vento Act, an act passed in 1987 providing federal money for homeless shelters and programs.

“It’s important for people to understand this definition isn’t something KPBSD came up with,” King said. “We are required to use the definition given by the McKinney-Vento Act, which is a federal law. This is the same definition districts across Alaska and the country are using to identify students experiencing homelessness.”

King said residents interested in giving a helping hand during the summer can help by supporting local service agencies.

“We always encourage community members to look at ways they can support local service agencies that assist our students and families, such as local food pantries and food banks or Love, INC of the Kenai Peninsula,” King said. “These groups are assisting our vulnerable neighbors year-round.”

K-Selo grants gets two-year extension

Alaska, Education, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Efforts to build a new school in Kachemak-Selo are still going strong, and a two-year extension on a state grant gives the borough more time to find additional funds for their match.

Last year, the Legislature enacted a bill allowing Department of Education and Early Development construction grant recipients to request an extension of up to seven years.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly passed an ordinance at their Jan. 23 meeting asking for an extension on the $10 million state grant for a new school.

Brenda Ahlberg, community and fiscal projects manager, said the borough requested a seven-year extension, but received only a two-year extension, making the deadline for the grant June 29, 2021. This means the borough has two more years to find around $5 million to fulfill the 35% match required of the grant.

K-Selo has been in need of a new school for nearly 10 years. In 2011, the village petitioned the school board for a new facility. In 2016, the state appropriated $10,010,000 for construction of the school, but in order to proceed the borough needed to provide a match. Borough residents voted down the match bond package, which was nearly $5.5 million, last October.

The $10 million grant the borough received from the state originally expired June 30.

The borough is seeking alternative ways to fund the project, Ahlberg said.

“Given the state of the economic challenges we’re trying to overcome, now is the time that we need to seek alternative solutions for this project,” Ahlberg said. “The district is looking to consolidate schools due to the future fiscal uncertainties. While these challenges cannot take away from the students’ needs in K-Selo, the borough administration would like to identify a better approach that resolves the building issues.”

It’s uncertain if voters will see another K-Selo bond package on the ballots again.

“Last year the voters clearly stated that they did not approve of the 35% match or the $15 million-plus construction cost and Prop 1 failed,” Ahlberg said.

The current school in Kachemak-Selo is made up of three borough-leased buildings and serves about 46 students. In a December memo, Ahlberg told the assembly that the current school has deteriorated to the point that it is no longer viable as an educational facility.

The proposed new K-12 school will be 15,226 square feet, the memo said. Some residents have expressed concern about the $16 million costs for the school, given its remoteness and small student population. However, a state statute based on the number of students dictates the size of the school, and the borough does not have the flexibility to downsize the building. Shipping in materials is also expected to increase the cost.

One of the largest drivers of the cost comes from the remote nature of the village. The community sits at the bottom of a steep bluff only accessible by a dirt switchback trail, too narrow and steep for most vehicles to traverse. The borough initially considered upgrading the road to borough standards but found it would be too expensive.

Ahlberg said the borough, school district and community will resume talks about next steps in the coming months.

Sourdough stories

Alaska, food, Online, Print

This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.

Sourdough starters — which are used to make bread, pancakes and more — is a quintessential Alaska food. A sourdough refers to both old, hearty Alaskans, and to the starters nearly every early settler brought with them on their trek north. Sourdough starters — a fermented mixture of flour, water and a little sugar — were relied on to leaven bread before commercial baking powder and yeast were available in the Last Frontier.

The use of sourdough dates much further back than Alaska’s early Klondike gold-seekers and adventurers. It’s the oldest form of leavened bread in existence and is believed to have been used as far back as ancient Egypt.

Once a starter is made, a short fermentation process is required before it’s ready. But, once it’s ready, the starter can be maintained. Families have been replenishing their starters with equal parts of water and flour every couple weeks, keeping the starter alive, literally, for years to come. As the starter ages, it can take on new flavors and tang. Some starters have been around for several generations, like the one being used at Addie Camp Train Car Eatery and Wine Bar in Soldotna.

The starter comes from one of the restaurant’s cooks, Kiel Nichols, who received the starter from his mom, who got it from a friend of hers, who knew a homesteader named Dick Proenneke from Twin Lakes in Lake Clark National Park. Proenneke was born in 1916, and lived alone for more than 30 years in his cabin on the shores of Twin Lakes. Proenneke’s homestead has since been preserved as a museum and was added to the National Register of Historic Places. His experience has been adapted into a book and into a movie, both titled “Alone in the Wilderness.”

“(Proenneke) … walked out and built his own cabin, built all his own tools,” Nichols said. “My mom ended up with it from her friend that knew him and now it’s passed down to me, and now (Addie Camp).”

The sourdough starter, which is believed to be at least 50 years old, is used to make a German apple pancake and toast featured on the restaurant’s brunch menu.

Lucy’s Market in Soldotna is getting ready to launch a bread program at the end of May when they move to their new location. Of course, sourdough bread will be incorporated into that program. Owner, Kelsey Shields said her sourdough starter was given to her by “a kind, 80-something-year-old German lady named Marlis.”

“She lived in Anchorage and was renting out her basement to the guy I was dating,” Shields said. “Anytime I was in town visiting, Marlis would stop to chat if she saw me. She brought many things with her when she moved to Alaska: a keen eye for real estate, expertise as a dance teacher, and a sourdough starter that supposedly began its life in Germany over 250 years ago.”

Shields said the market is excited to have sourdough on their menu.

“Long-fermented sourdoughs are easier for our bodies to digest, as the wild yeast and bacteria in the sourdough have already begun to pre-digest the wheat for us, releasing nutrients along the way,” Shields said. “We love the tradition behind sourdough, the flavor, the texture, and even the challenge of getting to know your starter and how to keep it healthy and productive.”

Some sourdough starters are a little younger.

“His name is Kevin, and he was born last year,” Jesse Hughes, one of the owners of Three Peaks Mercantile, a local food-centric pop-up shop, said.

Hughes was inspired to create her own starter, in the traditional way, as a way to get to the root understanding of how bread is made.

“I really wanted to try sourdough and really traditional sourdough,” Hughes said. “Not like the sourdough you buy at the store. I wanted to see what the main difference is and how hard it actually was.”

Hughes said Kevin has a personality all his own.

“It’s definitely finicky,” she said. “He definitely has to be fed. When I don’t use him or when I don’t feed him, he’ll act like he’s super hungry.”

A local sourdough enthusiast, Lacy Ledahl’s sourdough starter traveled all the way from Europe as well. After falling in love with the science of sourdough, she decided to visit the Sourdough School in England, a center for sourdough education and research. While she was there, she learned all about the process of sourdough. The school even let her take home some of the institution’s starter, which Ledahl said was over a century old.

“I had to take it with me on a train from (the village of Northamptonshire) to a hotel in London,” Ledahl said. “The next morning I had to fly to Seattle, and then fly to Anchorage and then to Kenai. Along the way, I was feeding it and keeping it alive.”

Ledahl said she carried the starter in a small, portable vile. When she got home, she married the well-traveled starter with the starter she already had made at home. She calls her new, unique starter Holly.

“Thankfully customs didn’t take it,” Ledahl said. “I got to make bread the next day.”Ledahl decided to come back and share that knowledge, and starter with the community. Last Saturday, Ledahl, and fellow sourdough enthusiasts Maria Nalos and Elizabeth Cox hosted a sourdough class at Maggie’s General Store in Kenai. The class discussed the benefits of sourdough, the basics of making a starter and how to incorporate the ingredient into cooking. Class attendees had samples to try and were able to take some of Ledahl’s starter home with them.

A sourdough loaf made from Kevin, Jesse Hughes’ sourdough starter waits to be bought at the Three Peaks Mercantile Pop-up shop at Artzy Junkin, Friday, April 12, 2019, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)A sourdough loaf made from Kevin, Jesse Hughes’ sourdough starter waits to be bought at the Three Peaks Mercantile Pop-up shop at Artzy Junkin, Friday, April 12, 2019, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)