The state department of transportation released its first draft of a plan to reroute the Sterling Highway around Cooper Landing.Download AudioOfficially, we’re looking at a draft supplemental environmental impact statement and draft selection for the Sterling Highway between mileposts 45 and 60. The long-sought-after Cooper Landing Bypass.“We have four different build alternatives that just take a look at the area and offer different options of how to improve the highway,” says DOT spokesperson Shannon McCarthy.The cheapest of all those options is of course to do nothing. But this particular stretch of highway has some problems. It’s slow and winding, there are a bunch of hidden driveways to dodge, it’s really busy in the summer and not the comfiest bit of driving for RV’s and semi’s, plus, it doesn’t meet certain federal standards for rural highways anymore.The four alternatives range in cost from $250 to more than $300 million. One path would take travelers south of Cooper Landing over 3.5 miles of new road, including new bridges over the Kenai river and an additional one over Cooper Creek. Two plans would send the road further north and across Juneau Creek, while a fourth would also carve a path to the north, but avoid Juneau Creek falls and the Resurrection Pass Trail.“We really do need the public to review this, to weigh in, give us their comments and then we can take that information forward and make a final determination with the federal highway administration,” McCarthy says.The public comment period is open through May 26th, but in some ways, it’s been open a lot longer than that. The first draft plan for a Cooper Landing Bypass was drawn up in 1982. That was shelved and brought up again in 1994. And since 2000, this current plan has been slowly put together. The project time line shows a decision on a bypass being made some time next year, with construction beginning as soon as 2018.
Official portrait of United States Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). Photo: Office of United States Senator Rand PaulRepublican presidential candidate Rand Paul spoke in Anchorage and Fairbanks on Tuesday, kicking off a swing through western states for the Kentucky conservative. Paul received an enthusiastic reception.Download AudioThe ballroom of the Westmark hotel was packed to hear what Rand Paul had to say. The senator from Kentucky is one of almost a score of Republicans vying to be their party’s contender for the presidency. Paul sounded traditional conservative themes of smaller government and tax cuts. But he tried to set himself apart from fellow Republicans when it came to government waste. He told the audience, he would hold the Pentagon accountable just as much as civilian bureaucrats.“Can you have $500 hammers and $600 wrenches and say, ‘we’ve got plenty of money?’… I’m all for auditing the Fed and the Pentagon.”Rand Paul also tried to distance himself from his competition in his resistance to foreign wars, particularly in the Middle East, and his objections to the National Security Agency’s combing through private cell phone and internet traffic.Paul drew perhaps the loudest round of applause Tuesday in Fairbanks when he vowed to shut down all Federal funding to Planned Parenthood.“And if you disagree and you say, ‘what about women’s health?’ There are 9,000 community health centers. There are community health centers that have doubled and tripled in size. And they’re available across America, and they do not do what Planned Parenthood does.”Rand Paul’s stump speeches in Fairbanks and Anchorage follows a trail his father Ron Paul, blazed four years ago in his own search for the White House. How effective the younger Paul’s message is with the party base and independent voters won’t be known until early state nominations in Iowa and New Hampshire play out.
Download AudioPope Francis’ address to Congress is tomorrow, and if his speeches in Washington Wednesday are an indication, Alaska’s congressional delegation is likely to hear the pontiff say things they disagree with. This is especially true for U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan, who says he’s not convinced human activity is a major cause of climate change.Sullivan describes himself as a life-long Catholic, and he is getting a double dose of pope this week. He called from Catholic University, a few miles north of Capitol Hill, where the senator, with thousands of other people, was waiting for the pope to appear and celebrate Mass.“If you saw where we were right now, we’re a nation of believers,” he said. “You see people of all different faiths and creeds out in this audience right now. I think it’s just very exciting.”At the White House in the morning, the pope devoted about a third of his speech to climate change, which he says is a problem that can’t be left to future generations.“When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history,” Pope Francis said. “We still have time to make the change needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.”Sullivan says he hears that and more.“Well, look I mean, I listen to what he has to say. A lot of his message, though, is about the sanctity of life and taking care of the least fortunate in society, which is a long-held conviction and belief of the Catholic Church.”Sullivan says it’s important to listen to all of the pope’s messages, and beyond that, to what the pope represents.“Particularly the issues of the most vulnerable in society and focusing on that,” Sullivan said.Does that affect him as a senator, since the pope has called for reforming political and economic systems to help the poor?“Well I think if you listen to the message it’s a little –” Sullivan broke away for a moment to note a sighting of Jeb Bush in the audience.”You know, the media is trying to make this very selective. The teachings are much broader.”Sullivan says he hopes the pope learns from his American visit, too. The senator says the pope should see that, unlike in Europe, American churches are still full on Sundays.“And we’re a nation that has probably done more than any other country in the world, through a market-based economy, raising people out of poverty in ways that no other country in the world has done.”Sullivan believes in reducing federal regulation and growing the economy, which he has offered as a solution to the nation’s budget woes and the way to help Alaska’s poor get off welfare.If the pope were to learn that from America, it would be an about-face. The pontiff, in a encyclical letter this year, urged people to reject a “magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.”The pope’s visit challenges politicians of all stripes, on the right for their economic and environmental policies, on the left for their support of legal abortion. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican presidential candidate, divides the message. Rubio told Fox News that as a Catholic, he believes the pope on theological matters.“He’s infallible on those decisions. That does not extend to political issues like the economy,” Rubio said.
Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via email, podcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.Download Audio Budget director uses money game to illustrate state’s plightEmily Kwong, KCAW – SitkaGov. Bill Walker will unveil his FY17 budget on Wednesday. And the backdrop isn’t pretty — if the price of oil remains low, Alaska could face a budget deficit of $3.1 billion.UAF projects grim fiscal landscape in 2017Robert Hannon, KUAC – FairbanksUniversity of Alaska Fairbanks officials rolled out statistics Friday outlining expected funding shortfalls, which may be as much as $42 million.After inmate deaths, multiple flaws found in DOC protocolEllen Lockyer, KSKA – AnchorageIn Anchorage today, state House and Senate Judiciary Committee members listened to recommendations from the authors of a Department of Corrections administrative review.EPA fines Army for toxic leaching at Ft. WainwrightLiz Ruskin, APRN – AnchorageThe Environmental Protection Agency has fined the Army nearly $60,000 for failing to notify the agency of a munitions dump on Fort Wainwright.Denali wolf numbers up slightlyDan Bross, KUAC – FairbanksA fall count of Denali National Park wolves indicates a slight rebound of the predator’s depressed population in the park. The overall population remains near a 30-year low, and fewer visitors report seeing the animals.Troopers rework south Kenai area road kill listQuinton Chandler, KBBI – HomerThe state is using a new application process to select recipients of big game killed on southern Kenai Peninsula roads as well as fish or game confiscated by authorities.Alaska boasts 8th highest volunteer rate in USAnne Hillman, KSKA – AnchorageThirty-four percent of Alaskans volunteer with organizations. That’s the 8th highest rate in the United States, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.Should the Upper Lynn Canal run its own ferry authority?Emily Files, KHNS – HainesCould Haines, Skagway and Juneau run their own Lynn Canal Ferry Authority? With budget cuts and reduced service to the Alaska Marine Highway, leaders from Skagway and Haines are considering that idea.Tlingit elders write boarding school history for future generationsLisa Phu, KTOO – JuneauBy talking about boarding school experiences, Tlingit elders in Juneau are turning painful memories into sources of healing – healing for themselves and generations still living with the consequences.
Tanana Chiefs Conference Village public safety officers are on track to be the first in the state to carry guns.Listen Now State legislators approved a bill in 2014 allowing for the arming of VPSO’s, and under a pilot project with the Alaska Department of Public Safety, Tanana Chiefs Conference officers will be the first to carry firearms. TCC VPSO Director Sargent Jody Potts tied the initiative to a proactive stance on public safety.”We’re very heavily village-driven and in the villages, they know what’s going on out there, how dangerous and unsafe it is,” Potts said. “I have so many villages that have said, ‘Look. It’s not just about officers’ safety, it’s about community safety. We have things that happen in our community that we want an officer to adequately protect not just them but our community.”Sergeant Potts said two TCC VPSO’s have completed firearms training at the state police academy, and the primary obstacle to them carrying guns on duty is insurance.”Enough coverage to make sure that our villages, the officers and our organization will be okay,” Potts said.Captain Andrew Merrill is commander of the Alaska State Trooper VPSO program.“We have an insurance policy that covers our VPSO and any armed VPSOs,’ Merrill said. “We still have questions as to what it looks like if and when a VPSO would use deadly force.”Merrill said Troopers are working with VPSO contractor organizations like TCC across the state to resolve insurance and other issues.”A team of attorneys from the state Attorney General’s office as well as attorneys from each of the organizations are working together to make sure that we all know what it means for the VPSOs as well as the organizations,” Merrill said.Captain Merrill said in the meantime, all new VPSO candidates are undergoing firearms and other training exactly like that required for municipal police and Alaska State Troopers. TCC’s Potts said there’s no timeline on fielding armed VPSO’s anticipates that doing so could make the job more attractive.“Working unarmed, alone in a village with no backup. I’m not getting a lot of people,” Potts said.Potts added that the ten percent crime rate in the TCC region is twice that of Fairbanks or Anchorage.”There’s definitely room for improvement,” Potts said. “There’s some things we definitely need to address and I don’t think that keep operating as ‘business as usual’ is the right approach.”Potts said TCC currently has officers in 14 villages, but another 30 lack a resident VPSO, and that Alaska Native health and safety contractors like TCC also need more state assistance to help fund VPSO positions.
Anchorage teachers and staff gathered at the Dena’ina Center on Nov. 11, 2016 to have conversations about racial equity in education. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)The Anchorage School District is trying to close its achievement gap and help all students succeed. One of its first steps is helping teachers, administrators, and other staff talk openly about race and racism and how they impact students.Listen Now “It’s not comfortable to talk about racism,” First Alaskans Institute educator Jorie Paoli told a room filled with more than 1,600 elementary teachers and staff. “It’s not comfortable to talk about privilege. Especially now.”“But I would put forward to you and challenge you by saying it’s the most important time to talk about it,” she continued. “And if you’re uncomfortable talking about it, do what we tell our kids: practice.”That was one of the goals of the ASD training last week. Staff from all of the district’s elementary schools gathered to talk about how race impacts their students. Two were broken into two groups and went to either a morning or afternoon session. Secondary school staff participated in the same conversations in August.Jennie Knutson,ASD Executive Director of Professional Learning, helped coordinate the sessions. She said the district is excited that it has some very diverse schools, but it realizes that not all groups of students are succeeding at the same rate. The recently released Data Dashboard highlighted the problem.One of the first steps to achieving equity in education is acknowledging how a student’s background might influence how they learn, Knutson said. “Our leadership teams, our problem solving teams in the building, they need to know more about a student, but also where they are coming from in their family that might be influencing that.”Teacher Daniel Darko said educators need to acknowledge their students’ different personal histories, and let the kids talk about who they are and their own cultures. They need materials that give all students positive images of themselves, not just some. Sometimes, he said, teachers need to be open about their own experiences and how race has impacted them.“At times you have to step aside your teaching and let them know yourself,” he said. “Teach also in the way that the children will respect themselves. That is what will reduce those barriers, so they will respect each other.”Darko has been with the district for 21 years, and said this is the first time he’s been part of a district-wide conversation about race and racism. He said he thinks it was effective.Other teachers, like Aimee Marx, thought the conversation was needed but that people in the large room weren’t necessarily engaged or held accountable. Marx explained that she is white but her adopted daughter is not and that influenced her reaction to other people who thought the media talked too much about race.“I just had sour grapes when I heard them say, ‘I think they make too much in the media,’” Marx said. “And people were just jumping on it and jumping on it. And ‘I’m white. I’m diverse. I have many cultures.’ Okay, fine, you do, but you’re not hearing this message. There’s a difference between white skin and brown skin.”Paoli, from First Alaskans, said it can negatively impact students when the adults around them don’t acknowledge how race effects the way they experience the world and when they don’t call out racism.“We, as the adults who are entrusted with the care of our kids, have to be aware of that. We have to have our eyes opened to understanding how our experiences differ.”You can join the conversation. Alaska Public Media will host Community in Unity, a conversation about race and identity on Thursday, Nov. 17 at 7 pm. Find out more here.
Anchorage Police Department Chief Chris Tolley addresses the media at the department’s West Anchorage training facility. (Photo by Josh Edge/Alaska Public Media)A day after news broke that five Anchorage murders are linked to the same gun used an attack on a police officer over the weekend, questions remain about how officials responded to public concerns in the months before. Law enforcement had very little evidence connecting the homicides and walked a fine line between recruiting the public’s help and not losing their only thread in the case.On Saturday, the Anchorage Police Department caught a break.They’d known since July that the same gun was used in multiple homicides in different parts of the city. But even as more killings happened, that’s almost all they knew. When Lieutenant John McKinnon arrived at a crime scene early Saturday morning, he was surprised to find the exact weapon APD had been looking for.“(I) immediately recognized that there was a Colt Python,” McKinnon said, referring to a powerful .357 caliber revolver. “It made me tickled pink a little bit.”It is rare nowadays to see revolvers used in Anchorage homicide cases, according to McKinnon, who heads APD’s homicide and robbery/assault units. The state’s Scientific Crime Discovery Laboratory had connected the weapon to five killings from this summer, month’s before 40-year-old James Dale Ritchie used it against an APD officer downtown during an early-morning stop that had nothing to do with the open investigations.As of right now, investigators only have evidence tying Ritchie to the death of 21-year-old Treyveonkindell Thompson in July 29th, not the two double homicides that happened within the same two-month period.“We know that the weapon was used on those other two cases, but we haven’t discovered complete information to show that Mr. Ritchie was there,” McKinnon said.Currently, the department’s focus is finding proof that it was Ritchie who shot the other four victims, in order to close the case.Going forward, APD will work with partners like the Federal Bureau of Investigation to see if Ritchie is potentially linked to other open cases elsewhere in the country. Investigators say they’re looking into other places Ritchie may have lived, including Virginia and Nevada, before he moved back to Alaska in February of 2016. According to McKinnon, there are no other investigations in Anchorage where Ritchie is a suspect right now.APD is not calling Ritchie a “serial killer,” partly out of deference to process, since he hasn’t been factually linked to other homicides. But also out of concerns over messaging. And that was a decision they made this summer, even after the department began realizing that random murders had something in common.“If we were to use the term ‘serial,’ it would not have protected your safety,” McKinnon said. “There was no investigative benefit to put that out there. And we didn’t want to embolden the person.”This is a point of local controversy. For months, members of the media and public have asked law enforcement and elected officials whether some of this year’s record-breaking homicides were the work of one predatory individual. And for months, the police department has said they will not speculate on open cases, a response which many have found vague and unsatisfactory.APD’s Communications Director Jennifer Castro said the department has been trying to find a balance between keeping the public informed enough to be safe without jeopardizing a fragile investigation.“That gun is the only — the only — piece of evidence that we had to tie any of these cases together. If that gun were to go away, to disappear, to get dumped, we would have no way to tie any of this together,” Castro said.This is not a theoretical concern for investigators. Besides the gun, police had enough clues in the Thompson case to release a sketch of the suspect, and a description of a yellow bike they believed was stolen in the incident. According to McKinnon, interviews and material recovered on Ritchie’s phone show he got rid of the bike after that information was made public.According to Staci Feger-Pellessier, a spokesperson for the FBI in Anchorage, in cases like these police department’s try to balance public concerns against what effect additional information will have on investigations.“I can understand the public’s concern, but we also need to understand the difference between wanting to know something and needing to know something, and in this case releasing additional information would have jeopardized the investigation and could have possibly led to more murders,” Feger-Pellessier said.But that logic doesn’t assuage concerns from the last few months felt by many Anchorage residents.Eric Croft sits on the Anchorage Assembly, and has seen a tension between the interests of police investigators and members of the public.“I had a number of constituents and other Anchorage residents trying to figure out whether we had a serial killer, whether these crimes were connected,” Croft said. “People are naturally concerned about that.”Those fears led to chatter on social media, alarmed public meetings, and even organizing in some areas to start community patrols. And it changed a lot of people’s behaviors and feelings about where they live.Eva Gardner’s home is near Valley of the Moon Park, where a double homicide in August has been linked to the gun in question. She wrote a letter to the mayor after the killings saying the city’s response to residents’ concerns had been inadequate. Like many people, Gardner heeded warnings from the police department to avoid the city’s trails out of concerns for safety.“After the Valley of the Moon homicides I still walked to work as long as it was daylight, but as soon as the darkness came I stopped using them alone, and I think as of this week, I’m going to start using them again,” Gardner said.It’s a sentiment she’s heard from others, as well. She feels relief that investigators believe the man responsible for this summer’s five killings is no longer a threat, but sees room for improvement in how police communicate with citizens.
Ice fog is made up of tiny ice crystals that form when it’s at least -30 degrees Fahrenheit. In urban areas, the crystals often form around pollution particles from vehicle emissions or wood smoke. (Photo by Joseph Hall)Anchorage residents have been waking up to fog most days recently. But do the cold temperatures that go along with it make it technically “ice fog”?To answer that question, we spoke with Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist in Anchorage who closely tracks Alaska climate data and trends. Alaska’s Energy Desk is checking in with him regularly as part of the segment, Ask-A -limatologist.He told Energy Desk editor Annie Feidt you can’t have ice fog unless it’s at least 30 below zero.Listen NowInterview Transcript:Brian: Even though it’s been in the single digits and even close to zero the last few days in Anchorage, it’s actually regular fog. It’s no different than a fog that would happen in July or August, it’s just colder outside. The fog particles themselves are actually little microscopic liquid water droplets.Annie: How is that different than an ice fog?Brian: With ice fog, instead of liquid water droplets, the fog particles are actually ice crystals. That doesn’t happen until you’re at a minimum of -30 degrees Fahrenheit. In rural areas you wouldn’t see it until it’s at least -40 or -45 Fahrenheit.Annie: Is it something you can just see is different?Brian: No. You can’t actually see what the fog is made out of. Even though you see fog and have reduced visibility, you’re not actually seeing the water droplets. It can condense out into mist or even ice crystals or snowflakes. But you can’t see the particles, so you wouldn’t know by looking whether it’s freezing fog or ice fog, you would need to look at the thermometer.Annie: Does ice fog act differently in how it forms or how it dissipates?Brian: It’s a very, very cold phenomenon. The nucleus of the fog particles is typically pollution- automobile exhaust or even smoke particles from fire places. When it gets cold enough, there becomes a point where it’s so cold that it’s almost impossible not to have ice fog. I think if it’s -60 or -70, no matter where you are, possibly with the exception of Antarctica, you’re going to get ice fog, whether the atmospheric conditions are conducive for fog or not, it’s just so cold that any little particle in the atmosphere is going to start collecting ice crystals on it.
Above the Arctic circle, there’s no daylight on the solstice. Farther south, Fairbanks has about 3.5 hours. Anchorage, 5.5 hours and Juneau a bit more than six hours. (Graphic courtesy of Brian Brettschneider)Alaska marked the solstice early Dec. 21, at 1:44 a.m. So what does that mean for the amount of daylight across the state?To answer that question, we checked in with Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist in Anchorage who closely tracks Alaska climate data and trends.He regularly talks with editor Annie Feidt from Alaska’s Energy Desk as part of the segment, Ask a Climatologist.Listen NowInterview transcript:Brian: If you’re north of the Arctic Circle, north of Kotzebue, there’s no daylight, so no sunrise and sunset. And then once you get south of there, in Fairbanks, you’re at about 3.5 hours. When you get to Anchorage it’s somewhere in the 5.5 hour range and then in Juneau, it’s about six hours, 20 minutes.Annie: Compare that to a few major cities in the lower 48.Brian: Places in the northern part of the lower 48, like Seattle or Chicago, you’re looking at 8.5 to 9 hours of daylight. As you get farther south, like say Los Angeles- ten hours; in Miami- 10.5 hours.Annie: How does the amount of daylight, especially in a place like Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) affect the climate?Brian: When the sun is about five degrees above the horizon, it provides essentially no solar energy. And so even though the sun is out and on your skin, you may feel a little warmth, but it provides almost no atmospheric heating. It’s just as likely in Fairbanks, for example, that the high temperature of the day would occur at 2:00 a.m., and the low at 2:00 p.m. There’s really no correlation like you would find in the summer when the sun is high in the sky and the afternoon high temperature is going to be just after that peak solar angle. It could be any time of the day or night once you get a little bit north of Anchorage.Annie: Does the amount of daylight balance out around the globe over the course of a year?Brian: That’s a really interesting question because we assume that long days in the summer, short days in the winter and they all average out. It’s actually not entirely true because of the elliptical nature of our orbit and the tilt of our axis, we actually get more daylight in the summer here in Alaska than we have darkness in the winter. So for example in Utqiagvik, formerly Barrow, in the summer they have 82 days where there is no sunset, so 24 hours of daylight, but in the winter they have 64 days with no sunrise, so that’s an 18 day difference. So it’s not fully in balance and that solar equation is actually more heavily weighted toward light than dark here in Alaska.
Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Anchorage, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee presides over a meeting on March 23. She introduced a bill that would cut the amount Gov. Bill Walker can issue in pension obligation bonds in half. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)Alaska is projected to owe public workers more than $6 billion more in pensions than it has in assets. So state officials are looking for ways to save money.Listen nowThey planned to sell $2.3 billion to $3.3 billion in bonds last fall. But Gov. Bill Walker paused the effort after some Senate Finance Committee members expressed concern that the bonds would be too risky.Committee co-chair Sen. Anna MacKinnon of Eagle River worked with Walker’s office to craft a bill she sees as a compromise on how to handle bond sales when the legislature isn’t in session.“From my perspective, the legislature responded and felt a bit flat-footed without a process that was established last fall,” MacKinnon said at a hearing Thursday on the bill.By law, Walker has the ability to issue up to $5 billion in bonds to pay for public employee pensions. But the legislature controls whether the state spends money to pay off the bonds.MacKinnon has written a bill that would cut Walker’s pension bond authority in half, to $2.5 billion. It also gives the Legislature more oversight authority, by requiring the administration to give the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee 45 days to weigh in on the sale.“In no way am I advocating that this is endorsement for issuing pension obligation bonds, but in working with the governor’s office, this strikes a balance,” MacKinnon said.The bonds are essentially low-interest debt. The state would use that money to invest. If investment returns are higher than the bonds’ rate, then the state would save money.MacKinnon noted that if the state had issued the bonds last fall, it would have saved money so far.“Just to underscore, Alaska would have received a positive number. We would owe less in our unfunded liability,” MacKinnon said.MacKinnon introduced the measure, Senate Bill 97, but plans to reintroduce it Friday with the entire Senate Finance Committee sponsoring it.
A sewer replacement project in Sitka has turned up more evidence that one of Alaska’s oldest cities has been inhabited for a long, long time.Nancy Yaw Davis grew up on this corner while her father, W. Leslie Yaw, served as superintendent of the Sheldon Jackson School, and later, as the president of the junior college. After a career in anthropology, she’s still curious about ‘the depth of time’ and the people who have inhabited her old neighborhood for millenia. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)Listen nowA stone tool — resembling a wedge, or striker — was unearthed in an excavation beneath a street in downtown Sitka, and may never have been found, but for a retired anthropologist who knew what to look for.Like the stone artifact itself, this story may never have seen the light of day without a Jeff Davis Street resident who called police about a “woman with a small shovel digging in people’s yards.”The culprit proved to be Nancy Yaw Davis, who grew up on this corner.“When I was in about 7th Grade I had a pet deer named Fritzen. It was a fawn that had been rescued and brought to dad, and he brought it to me, and we kept it alive for a while until a dog got it right on this corner.”Davis’s father, Leslie Yaw, came to Sitka in 1923 to teach and coach at the Sheldon Jackson Training School. He became superintendent of the school in 1930, and president of the new junior college in 1944. Nancy, now 81, lived on this corner for 16 years.“This little stretch from here to Etolin Street was owned by Kettleson,” Davis said.It’s significant that this place is alive with memories for Davis, even though we’ve met here to discuss something made by people long dead. Less than a stone’s throw from where we’re standing are petroglyphs — prehistoric rock carvings — of unknown age and origin, right in the middle of downtown Sitka. So many people have lived, grown old, and made their own memories on this spot.For an anthropologist, finding a stone tool was almost unavoidable.“And my line is: I came looking for my childhood marbles, and I really lost them that morning when I found this,” Davis said.The object itself resembles a modern wood splitting maul or wedge, except it’s got three faces instead of four. One end is squared off, where you might hit it with another stone.“They’re flat on the top,” Davis said. “That allows a platform for flaking off and using, or pounding — I think. But you know, intelligent guessing is what we’re all capable of. But whether or not we can prove how it was made or what it was used for, I don’t know. That’s far beyond what I know from looking at a rock.”Is it a tool, or just a rock? Davis holds her latest find (r.) next to a similar artifact she found in a root wad at Beaver Lake. There are several more in the collection of the Sheldon Jackson Museum. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)And it does look like a rock. The artifact is nondescript to the untrained eye. I would have walked right by. Davis noticed it because it was a different type of stone than the gravel piled all around this road project.Just a block away is the Sheldon Jackson Museum — and it’s got a small collection of stone tools, some of which resemble the one Davis has discovered.Curator Jackie Hamberg thinks it might have had a utilitarian purpose.“And that particular one looks more like a striker, that you would use to work other stone objects in order to create your tools,” Hamber said. “It’s not as thick or as hefty as our wedges that we have here, or the adze blades that are made from stone. But in order to make these stone tools you’re working with other pieces of stone, whether you’re pecking or chipping, or flaking away. So you have to have a really solid rock to work with to make something like this.”Archaeology is not always what people imagine it is: Indiana Jones exploring an ancient, cobwebbed temple. A lot happens out here on construction sites. But not this one. Although Nancy Yaw Davis has worked as a contract archaeologist for a similar project just a few blocks away, the state doesn’t think one is necessary this time.Judy Bittner, head of the State Historic Preservation Office, says the soils under street projects are often too disturbed to allow for careful archaeology, where everything around the artifact — known as “context” — is just as important as the object itself.“And if it’s just sort of random artifacts, you know bottles and things that were part of the detritus of the living population there, and you know what to expect and you already have information from it, and you’re not really going to gain new information about that settlement or the occupation or the time period in history,” Bittner said.Davis knows this as well as anyone, but she’s still a little bit irked. She sees artifacts almost everywhere she goes, and believes there is an important human story literally beneath our feet. Objects like this stone striker — though useless to archaeology in the strict sense — represent a cultural richness that modern society doesn’t fully appreciate.“And I think that we should assume that there were people here, throughout this magnificent area, and there is evidence of them if we learn together how to recognize it,” Davis said.And she wouldn’t mind if the field of Archaeology were a little less territorial.Davis – “And it’s just a highly select, small group of people that have the privilege of being archaeologists. There are more general anthropologists. And I think we have more fun, because we see a larger picture, a different picture.”KCAW – “Archaeologists have more fun?”Davis – “I think they drink more beer than the rest of us!”Yet another reason for Sitkans living near major sewer projects to keep the police on speed dial..
2017 has seen a number of spills and violations by oil and gas producer Hilcorp.Hilcorp has reported another spill this week. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed the spill happened Monday on the Steelhead platform the company operates in the Trading Bay oil field in Cook Inlet.Listen nowDEC spokesperson Candice Bressler said two hundred gallons of an oil-based drilling mud was released from the platform, of which, two gallons ended up in Cook Inlet.The cause of the spill is still under investigation, and Bressler says DEC is working the company to review safety protocols. Hilcorp owns 15 of the 17 drilling platforms in the Inlet. Routine tests were performed on Steelhead in June to make sure blowout valves were working properly. A natural gas pipeline running from the platform was the source of a subsea gas leak earlier this year.
Members of the Gannett Glacier Fire Crew takes notes during a fire training scenario near Palmer on Thursday, April 29, 2018. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media photo)It’s the start of wildland fire season in Alaska, and to make sure they’re ready for it, firefighters have been testing their proficiency at operating equipment, as well as their mental and physical fortitude.Listen nowAt the same time, fire officials are watching out for the hot, dry and windy weather that elevates fire danger. They say it’s difficult to know what to expect heading into this fire season, and for now the firefighters are doing everything they can to be ready.Two groups performing those preparations recently — the Pioneer Peak Hotshot Crew and Gannett Glacier Fire Crew — are among the best in the state. But even they have mandatory training every year.Near the Matanuska Experiment Farm on Thursday, a line of about a dozen firefighters in yellow shirts and hardhats followed their chainsaw-wielding teammates up a hill, cutting a swath through the forest alongside an imaginary wildfire.The Pioneer Peak Hotshot Crew practices cutting a fire line near Palmer on Thursday, April 29, 2018. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media photo)Pioneer Peak crew superintendent Kris Baumgartner explained.“So right off the edge of it, right in front of it, we’re gonna remove those fuels with the chainsaws, and then dig a trail up,” Baumgartner said. “And the fire burns to the edge of the fire line, that dirt. And dirt doesn’t burn, and ideally that holds your fire.”This is the kind of boots-on-the-ground work it takes to contain potentially massive fires. The goal is to protect people and homes, but it can be dangerous. That’s where the training comes in, Baumgartner said.“Yeah, in these field days, they don’t know what’s coming, and so I’m trying to test them, and make sure everything we’ve taught ’em in the last two weeks is setting in,” Baumgartner said. “And so if we do end up making any mistakes, we hope that it’s on days like today, field days, simulation days, and not in another week when we become available for fires.”The Gannett Glacier crew was nearby, marching through a grassy field. They had their own imaginary fire to fight. In a real fire situation, there would be a more-obvious, towering column of smoke, but this one was just marked with pink flagging. The crew stood in a circle for a quick briefing. Some took the opportunity to take a swig of water from their canteens.The men, and one woman, formed a single-file line. Then, as each one started walking toward the imaginary fire, they repeated the same word to make sure they were all together:“Moving.”“Moving.”“Moving.”There are other examples of call-and-response communication between the crew members, as well as a slew of acronyms for remembering safety procedures. There are also sayings, repeated like mantras.“So we say slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” Bryan Quimby, the Gannett Glacier crew superintendent, said.“When we’re on fires, there’s sometimes a tendency, especially when communities are threatened or things like that, for these guys to go really hard,” Quimby said. “But the problem that we’re worried about is there are a lot of heat related injuries, heatstroke, heat illness, and we don’t want people to ever get to that point, because, ultimately, you know, no house, no tree, is worth one of these guys’ lives.”There’s the methodology and tactical training. Then there’s physical ability and equipment training.A firefighter receives driving instructions during training at the Alaska Division of Forestry in Palmer on Thursday, April 28, 2018. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media photo)In one test, they had to steer a wildfire truck through a timed course without hitting too many of the orange cones. Knocking over one or two would probably be OK, but each one came with a deduction from their final score. Also: The truck was carrying thousands of pounds of water, and half of the course had to be done in reverse.Each firefighter also had to prove they can hike several miles loaded down with a weighted backpack.The pack test left firefighter Wedge Warford out of breath, but he was pleased with his performance and said it was all about keeping a steady pace.“Good day for a walk. Not too hot,” Warford said. “More of a psychological tough. You know, you can really psyche yourself out.”Forestry officials said it’s still too early to know much about what to expect later this fire season, but the fact that most of Alaska had above-average snowfall this past winter is generally a good thing. More snow melting keeps grass and other fuels on the ground moist for longer into the summer.Fire Management Officer Norm McDonald said he and his colleagues are on alert for hot, dry and windy weather. Fire danger can change quickly, and McDonald said forecasting more than a couple weeks out is pretty difficult.“We’re getting better at it,” McDonald said. “I think right now they’re predicting what they call a normal or average summer. You know, that can be a million acres, and if the million acres are in a populated area, that could be devastating.”McDonald said this time of year he’s concerned about dry grass and human-caused fires. He and other Forestry officials have also said they hope more people take the time to do work around their homes to create what’s called “defensible space” in case a wildfire encroaches. As always, they also want Alaskans to get burn permits from their local fire departments before burning brush or other debris.Still, it’s inevitable that human- or lightning-caused fires will occur. So for now, McDonald and the firefighters continue to, as they say, “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”