Industry Leaders Meet For Outlook Forum

Representatives from several state agencies and natural resources industries met in Kenai for the annual Industry Outlook Forum, sponsored by the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District and The Alliance. The speakers were all optimistic about the prospects for Cook Inlet energy production in the coming year.

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It seems like the question isn’t “will we get more oil and gas out of Cook Inlet” anymore. But rather, how quickly can we get all the oil and gas that’s out there to market. And in the interest of all the local business leaders attending the forum, how many jobs and how much investment does that translate to.

The Inlet has shown big promise the past couple years and Cook Inlet Energy CEO David Hall says one of the challenges in seeing that promise kept is leaving taxes alone.

“I think number one, to keep the momentum going, I think the Alaska tax credit systems that are in place now, those are critical. Keep those in place.

Those incentives have enticed many small companies to come here, like Cook Inlet Energy. And that tax structure and its apparent success in getting gas fields developed was a model for Governor Sean Parnell’s SB 21 oil tax reform at the state level. He spoke to the forum Friday via Skype.

“Cook Inlet was the template for what we did on the North Slope. You folks there are kind of right in the epicenter of economic opportunity being created for Alaskans,” Parnell said.

Production of natural gas here was a big topic, but so was processing natural gas from the North Slope. Everyone seemed hopeful that a long-sought after in-state pipeline from the North Slope to Cook Inlet might finally be just around the corner.

 Parnell says getting that gas line to Nikiski is a top priority for him this legislative session.

“I’ve asked the Legislature to pass enabling legislation that gives us that start on pre-front end engineering and design. Really what I’m asking them to do, once they’ve fully vetted the gas line, is let Alaska control our destiny by owning or participating in the Alaska LNG Project.”

He says the project needs to happen in stages, with the state ponying up somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 to 90 million dollars for preliminary work.

“In years past, we’ve been kind of stuck in this story or narrative that the state has to put everything on the table at once and move forward with a gas line and kind of wait for it to happen. That’s not the way companies make decisions. And we’re going to participate in this Alaska LNG Project like a traditional, commercial party would.”

Time will tell if the Legislature agrees with that philosophy, and if those investment dollars will find their way to the Kenai Peninsula, but to the glass-is-half-full crowd, the whole project could be done within a decade.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


By The Numbers: What Escapement Goals Are

When the Board of Fish meets next week in Anchorage, a number of the proposals it will debate will be centered on escapement goals. Biological, optimal or sustainable, these are the numbers managers use to decide when people fish and how hard. Here’s a closer look at what those numbers are, and how they’re established.

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Nine-thousand. Fifteen-thousand. Thirty-thousand. High end, low end, in-river. SEG, OEG, BEG. If you don’t speak fluent fish management, none of that means much of anything. But for fishermen and managers, it means just about everything.

An escapement goal, in very basic terms, is simply the number of fish allowed to escape a fishery and go on to spawn. From there, it gets broken down into three sub-categories: sustainable escapement, optimal escapement and biological escapement.

ADF&G commercial fisheries biologist Pat Shields says the sustainable goal, or SEG and the biological goal, or BEG are pretty similar.

“What they attempt to do is the Department looks at how many spawners go into a river system, and then attempt to count all of the adults that are produced from that level of spawners.”

What managers are trying to do is create a harvestable surplus, so everyone can fish and be happy. They do this by figuring out how many spawners it will take to create a certain number of adults. In the interest of easy math, which is the only kind I can handle, we’ll say that in one system in one year there were 100 spawners. Over the next few years, we see that those 100 spawners produced 500 fish.

But of course, it isn’t quite that easy.

“When you’re harvesting tens of thousands, or millions of fish, where were all those fish headed? Sometimes, you’re not able to accurately estimate the return in one specific river. You might know all of the sources of harvest of fish that were coming back to that river. In that case, you’ll set what’s called the SEG.

And the BEG is calculated when managers can determine which fishery those salmon returned to; whether it’s a commercial, sport or subsistence fishery.

“Finally, the OEG, or optimal escapement goal, is the goal set by the Alaska Board of Fisheries. And the Board can change an SEG or a BEG for a system to take in other considerations. Perhaps some allocation. They want to add more fish to an in-river fishery, or some other social issues or other things that are going on in a particular drainage.”

At this point, you should be thoroughly confused. It’s okay, that’s normal. This is complicated stuff. And it’s made more complicated by the social or political factors that come into play during the Board of Fish process.

But here’s the main point: the BEG is the goal that tries to get as many fish back as possible. When nature is doing what we want, it returns the highest yield of fish. And managers would love to use just the BEG. But, when nature ISN’T doing what we want, we use the SEG. That’s the minimum number of fish we need to come back so we can fish again next year.  And the OEG is the number the Fish Board comes up with when it makes its policies on who will fish and where.

Some of the proposals call for increasing an escapement goal. Some call for lowering them. It all depends on what kind of fishing you’re doing. Extremely low king salmon numbers are driving the debate right now. The big task for the Board of Fish will be figuring out how, or maybe even if, to allocate them as the science continues to show smaller and smaller returns.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Project Leaders Optimistic About Pipeline To Nikiski

Some preliminary work is happening on a proposed natural gas pipeline that would terminate in Nikiski from the North Slope. Representatives from the Alaska Pipeline Project were in Kenai Wednesday giving an update at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

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The work that’s been done over the past year or so has been very preliminary. Lots of field studies on possible environmental impacts, and finding the right path. Just kind of feeling out what the possibilities are for running an 800 mile natural gas pipeline from Point Thompson on the North Slope down to Nikiski, with stops along the way to provide natural gas to interior Alaska.

The notion of such a project has been around in one form or another for decades, but the announcement last fall that Nikiski would be the preferred end of the line made a lot of headlines as a sign that some kind of plan was finally taking shape.

The project’s socioeconomic team leader, Michael Nelson, says at this point, they’ve confirmed that the pipeline would work with existing industry in the area.

“What that means to us is we know we can bring the gas down here without interfering with existing operations  and it makes sense for all the producers.”

Folks in the Nikiski area are cautiously optimistic about the project, having heard rumors about it for years but nothing substantial ever happening. Nelson says they’ve been in contact with landowners in that area, as they craft plans for a new facility that would take up some 500 acres and provide liquid natural gas exports to other markets.

Even if some North Roaders aren’t exactly holding their breath, Kenai mayor Pat Porter is excited about the opportunity.

“I think we need to be optimistic about it. I think it’s a very positive thing for this whole area; for jobs, to be able to have the children you’re raising be able to stay here if that’s the kind of field they want to go into. Whatever you can do to encourage that, it’s not just your children staying here, it’s more business, more revenues which allows for more services to be provided.”

She says the city has a lot to consider as these plans slowly move forward.

“I think some of the things our community needs to be cautious about are what kind of an infrastructure do we need to be able to handle, to support this kind of large-scale project coming into our area.”

Other projects and businesses there, like Agrium, haven’t held up over the long term. But Porter says better communication with the leaders of this effort make her more comfortable about the future prospects.

Another member of the socioeconomic team, Lisa Gray, said there will be a focus on hiring local.

“It’s not likely that every job we have will be filled by an Alaskan. But from a socioeconomic standpoint, the more Alaskans we employ, the less impacts there are on municipalities, local governments that we saw last time around during TAPS. It’s very important that we start to plan for and get our communities ready for the workforce we’re going to need.”

Those are the kinds of conversations that will be necessary to avoid the kind of boom-bust development in the past that followed the prosperity, then decline of the industry.

“What kind of a workforce are they going to have, how many new children and the impact on our schools, impact on our water and sewer systems, all of those things. They need to be partners, and I think they seem willing to do that. Have we always heard about pipelines coming? Yes, but I’m hoping it’s this time.”

A lot of financial and political hurdles stand between the basic concept as its proposed right now and a new addition to the industry. Not least of which is the $45-65 billion dollar price tag. But to the optimist, if those hurdles can be cleared, a finished LNG facility in Nikiski could be online within a decade.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Honor Band Performs In Soldotna

University of Idaho music professor Dan Bukvich conducts the Honor-Mass High School Band Tuesday in Soldotna. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Each year, some of the Peninsula’s most talented young musicians gather for two days to put on a concert at the Honor-Mass High School Band Festival. This year’s event features guest conductor Dan Bukvich from the University of Idaho. The band will be performing several selections, including one by Bukvich.

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-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Warm Days Boon For Moose, Bane For Bear Naps

More than a week's worth of above-freezing temperatures has left much of the Peninsula's snow pack running down the drain. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Unseasonably warm temperatures have hovered over much of Alaska for the past couple weeks and, the sneak peak at Spring isn’t going away any time soon.

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It feels a lot like April. Standing alongside the Kenai Spur Highway, it certainly looks and sounds a lot like April. But a quick check of the calendar confirms there’s a lot of winter left. The hero in this tale, or the villain, depending on your feelings about Old Man Winter, is a deep southerly flow pattern over the state.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jason Ahfenmacher  says it’s a highly amplified pattern, likely to stick around for awhile.

“That general pattern has shifted a large plum of warm air from the subtropics into Alaska and shifted all the cold air that’s usually over Alaska into the northeastern and eastern United States.”

So, you’re welcome lower-48’ers. Those are our sub-zero temperatures you’re enjoying right now. The polar vortex we’ve heard so much about.

“We’ve been getting this large ridge that’s been building in from the north east Pacific, which interestingly enough, is the main driver for the large drought that’s been going on in the western US including California,” Ahfenmacher said.

He says that means drier conditions for South Central over the next week or so. Which isn’t exactly what the winter outdoors enthusiast might like to hear. Despite the warm weather and lack of snow, things at Tsalteshi Trails are holding up alright.

“Even though the atmosphere is warm, it still cools from below because the ground is pretty cold, especially when (the snow) is compacted the way it is now,” said Bill Holt. He maintains the Trails. At least as much as they can be right now.

“It can be 36 degrees and the sun will be out, but it’s essentially re-freezing all that stuff on the surface. The good thing about that is that the base is solid enough that, even skiing on it right now doesn’t rut it up too much, so it’s not that hard to fix once it gets cold again,” Holt said.

A few areas have a lot of standing water. That’s caused cancellation of some youth ski events recently. But he says the snow shoeing is great and some have even transitioned back into running the trails using ice cleats.

If the April in January paradigm doesn’t do much for you, it’s a pretty safe bet the moose are digging it. ADF&G wildlife biologist Jeff Selinger says the suddenly low snow pack is saving them energy as they graze.

“The other thing that happens in this type of weather is food that would normally not be available to moose is now available.”

But, there’s a flip side.

“That is the stuff that is usually available to them in late winter once you get the snow melt but before green up. So if they’re eating that food now, it will not be available to them later in the year.”

And while hearty Alaskans might be taking a reprieve from the heavy winter coat right now, Selinger says moose don’t get to do that. And trudging around the woods when its 40 degrees can lead to overheating, but overall it’s shaping up to be a better winter than the past couple years.

He says Mother Nature’s psyche-out could work especially well on bears.

“If the snow pack goes away, light will penetrate the den that can trigger them to wake up. And also if moisture starts getting in there from snow melt, that can also trigger them, among other things. If they come out and they can find a food source, a lot of times they’ll stay out longer. But if they do not find a food source, they’ll den back up.”

So, keep the lid on the trash can, your eyes peeled for moose, plenty of washer fluid in the reservoir and wait patiently for the imminent return of winter.


Too Warm for the Tusty 200

Unseasonably warm weather the past week left mushing fans with an open weekend.

There simply wasn’t enough snow for one of the Peninsula’s premiere winter events and more than forty sled dog teams left this weekend without logging a single mile of the Tustumena 200, which turned 30 this year.

“Last night our Board of Directors took a report from our trail committee and decided we just don’t have enough snow. The conditions are not right and there’s way to much open water up in the hills,” said race director Tami Murray.

With no snow and cold in the forecast, she says they had to make the choice to let the racers move on to other things.

“Typically we will postpone one week and then make another decision, but with the forecast we’re seeing there’s no reason to do that. If we did that, the mushers are hanging out wondering what to do and they really need to be training for the Iditarod. The all had to head up north, even the teams that were in Anchorage and the Valley had to head north to find some snow.”

The Northern Lights 300, which is an Iditarod qualifier run in the Mat-Su Valley was also cancelled, but as of Friday, the Yukon Quest was still slated to start from Fairbanks on February 1st.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Federal Funding Could Be Available For Flooded Areas

With a relatively light agenda, the Borough Assembly wrapped up its meeting last week in short order, hearing some updates from Central Peninsula Hospital and the status of federal grant money.

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The big news out of the hospital is, of course, that it’s moving forward with a 40-plus-million dollar expansion in Soldotna. The state approved an amended certificate of need for the project earlier this month and CEO Rick Davis says the Borough finance department is going ahead with issuing the revenue bonds for the project.

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre reported he’d met with the Road Service Area Board to discuss expansion of the Kenai Spur highway north of Nikiski.

“I presented some historical information. We talked about where we might go in the plan going forward in the use of the money we got from the legislature last year to improve access to Jacob’s Ladder and also impediments for funding North Road extension from the grant that we got and earmark that we got in 1998.”

He says actually getting that funding from an almost 20-year old earmark is going to be tough, given the political consequences in Washington D.C. of legislators putting their name on earmarks.

“One of the good things that came out of the meeting was the representative who attended by teleconference from the state department of transportation did indicate that they would support a funding exchange if we are able to get the earmark changed at the federal level.”

Even though the fate of that money is still up in the air, Navarre says the federal government might have some help to offer following a disaster declaration by the President for flooding on the Kenai Peninsula this fall, especially for inundated areas near K-Beach Road south of Kenai.

“That was something that was not expected. It’s limited to public infrastructure, but what it does mean is that there will be potentially some federal funding available to help with mitigation projects as we move forward in identifying what we want to do to alleviate that situation.”

The Assembly meets again on February 11th.


Fish Talk: Panel Discusses Cook Inlet Fishing Issues

Representative from five different fishing groups and the City of Kenai had a panel discussion about the challenges facing Cook Inlet fisheries Wednesday at the Kenai Visitor's Center. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Representatives from nearly every fishing-related organization on the Central Peninsula got together for a panel discussion Wednesday at a joint meeting of the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce. The message of the day was working together.

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The Kenai Visitor’s Center was filled nearly to capacity, as voices from just about every corner of the local fishing world discussed the topic du jour: king salmon runs. And more specifically, how should the effects of low runs be distributed among user groups.

The moderator, Merrill Sikorski, got started by asking how things have changed the past 10-20 years. Most of the panel talked about more competition, more pressure on the various fisheries, more participation. Paul Dale, of the Alaska Salmon Alliance which represents commercial interests, talked about how much better business has become for processors.

“We went through a period of low prices and consequent business consolidation. A few people left the area. That has, happily, completely reversed. New entrants are moving in, markets are more varied than they used to be and profitability is up.”

For the next round, the panel got into what’s making it difficult to solve the problems that have gone on for so long. For Josh Hayes of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association, it’s the dynamic nature of Upper Cook Inlet Fisheries.

“I think the most difficult aspect of management is that it’s a mixed-stock fishery. Traditionally, it’s been managed primarily for the sockeye and other fisheries have suffered at that cause. As far as meeting user expectations, I think it requires that all users in times of low abundance share the burden of conservation. But conversely, in times of excess that means we all share the rewards.”

That message was similar to Dwight Kramer’s, who spoke on behalf of private sport anglers as a member of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition.

“One word: cooperation. Cooperation among user groups to get together for the well being of the resource. All too often it’s about allocation issues and financial concerns between sport and commercial. A perfect example is the recent initiative attempt by a sportfishing group to end the livlihood of the east side setnet industry.”

The group Kramer was referring to is the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance. They were invited to have someone sit on the panel, but had a press conference in Anchorage instead, to announce a lawsuit against the Lt. Governor.

Jim Butler is an east side setnetter and a member of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association…You’re keeping all these groups straight, right?…Butler says the biggest challenges are faced by ADF&G managers, because they don’t always have the flexibility they need to fish these areas as efficiently as possible.

“I think one of the reasons, unfortunately, that’s driven by certain political influences outside of the region. But also, what’s becoming increasingly unreasonable expectations by a lot of folks. It might be news to some, but fish don’t read calendars. If the fish aren’t here on Saturday, it’s nobody’s fault. They just don’t want to be here on that Saturday. But if they’re here on a Tuesday, you shouldn’t mandate that you can’t fish them.”

Now, basically every salmon that swims through the Inlet is appropriated to one fishery or another, or to the rivers so escapement goals can be met. But some of those fisheries are growing in participation. Like dipnetting.

So when every fish is already spoken for, how do you facilitate more people trying catch them? Sport guide Josh Hayes says more and more of his colleagues simply aren’t catching anything, and closing down.

“Currently, I don’t believe there will be any growth in my fishery or my industry until we see higher levels of true abundance of Kenai kings in river. Increasing participation in any fishery within Cook Inlet I think will have a compounding effect of the issues the resource is already experiencing.”

Growth in the personal use fishery is of particular concern to Kenai city manager Rick Koch, who also sat with the panel. While dipnetters bring a lot of dollars into town, hosting them for three weeks takes a lot of dollars, too.

“We see a tremendous amount of revenue come in during a very short period of time. Of which, unfortunately, we see the same expense. It’s about a break-even for the city of Kenai.”

With increased participation and concerns about king returns in mind, the question was how do we preserve the overall fishing business and culture in Cook Inlet.

Kenai River Sportfishing Association executive director Ricky Gease says more research is the key to strong returns and a strong industry.

“I think there’s some exciting research that’s going on out in Cook Inlet in terms of acoustics and finding entry patterns for both adults and juveniles as they’re exiting the Cook Inlet system. Instead of the ocean being a black box, and not knowing when it’s up and when it’s down, we need to figure out…what happens in the ocean as a window into the productivity of salmon.”

As most of the panel agreed, cooperation will also be a key ingredient to maintaining the different fishing opportunities here. ASA’s Paul Dale said a panel like this one was a good start.

“As participation grows I think our challenge, again, is to quit beating each other up over allocation and start spending time talking about how we are going to move together forward in a way that respects each other.”

All of these groups will have more opportunities to meet and mingle when the Board of Fish meets next in Anchorage to address some of these same questions.


Sportfishing Group Sues Over Lt. Governor’s Decision

The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance did not agree with the Lt. Governor’s decision this month to not allow its proposed ban on commercial setnetting on the 2016 ballot. They’re taking their case to court.

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The Alliance assembled some of its Directors and staff in Anchorage Wednesday morning to announce it was challenging Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell’s decision.

The group’s legal counsel, Matt Singer, said that decision was unconstitutional.

“I want to be clear; the decision by the Lt. Governor and the opinion of the Attorney General, on which the Lt. Governor relied, they’re wrong. They’re wrong on the law. And their decision, should it stand, is a dangerous precedent in Alaska.”

The Lt. Governor agreed with the Attorney General that the proposed setnet ban amounted to a reallocation of fish. Those decisions cannot be made by the public through a voter initiative. But the Alliance maintains the proposal is a conservation measure. It only asks that setnets be taken out of the water. How the fish are appropriated after that is up to the Board of Fish, but Singer says there’s not much confidence in how they do that.

“Because the Board of Fish hasn’t conserved kings. And the voters have a right to express their will.”

Severe restrictions to both commercial and sport fisheries the past two years have allowed king salmon to meet their escapement goals, but by a relatively thin margin. And this year doesn’t look much better. The bottom end of the escapement goal is 15,000 fish. The Department of Fish and Game predicts a return of a little more than 19,000 to the Kenai River.

The commercial setnet fishery is already as big as it can be. It’s a limited entry fishery. The Alliance’s president, Joe Connors, is a sport guide and a former setnetter. He says there has long been talk of a similar restriction to the guide industry, but the state constitution won’t allow for it.

“Certainly, if the state wanted to go to limited entry, that would not be an issue. I was in favor of doing a restriction, but we can’t do it because of the constitution.”

The often-mentioned but rarely quoted Bob Penney was also in attendance. He is one of the founders of the Alliance and the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. He’s pushed king salmon conservation for years, and he lamented the recent low king numbers from his vantage point on the Kenai River.

“The last three years (from) my chair in my living room, I’ve looked outside, I haven’t seen one king rolled. Because they’re almost gone. You don’t wait until they’re gone and say ‘gee whiz, we should have done something.’ Now’s the time to protect the fish. The fish come first.”

The final decision about the legality of the Alliance’s voter initiative will be made in Alaska superior court in Anchorage.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


ADF&G Anticipating Another Low King Salmon Return

The Department of Fish and Game is predicting another below-average year for king salmon returns on the Kenai River.

The department is forecasting a total run of a little less than 20,000 fish. If those numbers are correct, it will be the lowest return in the 29 years for which records are available on the Kenai, and less than half of the average-sized run over that same time period. That number still falls within the Department’s sustainable escapement goal of 15-30,000 fish.

This year’s forecast is lower than last year’s pre-season estimate, however, total run size is anticipated to be about the same as 2013. King returns to the Kenai the past couple years have come in later than expected.  ADF&G Managers have indicated that they will be conservative in how they prosecute the Kenai River and related fisheries, as they continue to see weak returns.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Natural Gas Service To Expand In Sterling

Several hundred Sterling residents could finally get hooked up to natural gas later this year.

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Enstar is hoping to hook up an additional 750 lots later this summer, says the company’s Director of Business Development, John Sims.

“The pipeline itself, in Sterling, is going to be running south along Swanson River Road to Scout Lake Road, extending down Husky Street to the banks of the Kenai River.”

Enstar has submitted a plan to the Department of Natural Resources to install a plastic pipeline underneath the Kenai River at that point.

“It’s about a 1,000 foot bore underneath the Kenai River. And once we’re done with that, we look at installing about 13,000 feet of six-inch plastic (pipe) that will distribute gas to about 750 lots across the river.”

He says the plan is to be done with the project by August. Lot owners in the area are working to get special assessment districts drawn up.

“Currently the lot owners are working on two separate utility special assessment districts; one on the east side, one is on the west side after we’ve crossed the river. The east side USAD is about 10.5 miles of distribution pipe. And then on the west side is about another 10 miles.”

He says they plan on having the work under the Kenai completed before anglers hit the river.

Public comments are being accepted by the Department of Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land and Water through February 10th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


School District Begins Budget Work

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District officials are getting to work crafting next year’s spending plan. The school board is met Tuesday morning to start the process. The preliminary budget totals about $160 million.

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District officials aren’t expecting an increase in the Base Student Allocation again for next year. That’s the funding from the state that’s based on student population and the amount hasn’t increased in four years. Instead the state offers up one-time infusions of cash.

Last year that came in the form of “safety money,” which totaled about $1.4 million.

The district used the money to improve security at a few of the schools throughout the peninsula. One-time funding also is expected for next year, the governor’s preliminary budget has about $1.7 million included as a line item.

School officials are not anticipating an increase from the Kenai Peninsula Borough either.

Last year’s funding level was around $43.5 million. The district could still ask for another $2.5 million, which would max out that funding source. But that will be decided as the budget process continues.

Certified salaries and benefits take up the majority of general fund spending in the tentative budget. Next year’s plan includes a 2 percent salary bump, and an increase in the district’s share of health care costs. It goes from 83 percent to 85 percent. Those increases were part of the new contracts that were signed last year.

Also, in general, the costs of health care have gone up about 6 percent.

Another big increase for the district is with the teacher and public employee retirement systems. The Alaska Retirement Management board approved increases to the TRS and PERS employer contribution rates. According to budget documents, it’s about a 46 percent increase over last year’s contributions.

The district only expects revenues to be in the neighborhood of $154 million and will use about $2 million from its health care reserve funds to cover some costs. According to the preliminary spending plan, the district has a shortfall of $3.4 million for next year.

-Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI-


District Orders New Activities Busses

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has plans to purchase new school busses. The school board allocated $687,000 into the student transportation fund during its meeting earlier this month.

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KPBSD Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones said the district is buying five new vehicles for Nikiski, Seward, Homer, Kenai and Soldotna.

These busses will not be used for what’s referred to as “home-to-school” transportation. The five vehicles will be used expressly for traveling to activities like basketball games or track events. He said the busses were needed because the current fleet is getting a little old.

“We were starting to have rust problems. We had discussions starting over a year ago on what we wanted to do as far as activities. Do we want to get back into activities and order new busses? Did we want to see what was out there as far as leasing,” Jones said.

He said it isn’t always a good idea for the district to rely on leasing or renting busses because of scheduling problems. There are a lot of kids doing a lot of things in the district. KPBSD worked with the Anchorage School District to put together a request for proposal for the new busses.

“These are busses that actually have compartments below the seating that equipment can be put in. So when we go down the road we’ll be able to transport students inside the bus. We won’t have to fill up the last five or six seats with shoulder pads and equipment,” he said.

School board member Bill Holt mentioned he was glad to hear about there being more space for equipment. It would mean a safer ride for students.

“I got to thinking about that the other day after the incident with the ski teams. I’ve been on busses, and you know, you try not to do it, but you wind up putting skis… that are really dangerous inside of a bus. Those things just become instruments of shrapnel flying around,” Holt said.

Along those lines, Jones said the same rules and safety guidelines apply to activity and route busses. Each vehicle is given a once-over by the state inspector and drivers must have a CDL. Jones said the busses could be shared among the district, especially for teams going to the same event or for smaller schools. The district currently owns 31 activity busses that have various capacities and vary in age and condition as well.

-Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI


Soldotna Library Holds Grand Opening

Erin Carver, granddaughter of Joyce K. Carver, speaks at the opening of the newly-remodeled Soldotna library Saturday. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The Joyce K. Carver Memorial Library in Soldotna had its grand opening Saturday. More than 200 people turned out for the speeches and thank you’s, and to check out a few books.

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We probably won’t hear this much noise in the Soldotna library for a long time.

The crowd cheered and applauded in approval when asked what they thought of their new library by Diane Kaplan, president of the Rasmuson Foundation; one of many organizations who made the remodeling of the library possible. Kaplan joined several speakers Saturday afternoon, and told the crowd there are two things that make libraries fundamentally American.

“Philanthropy is about loving other people. That’s really what it means. And it’s about being generous and it’s about giving voluntarily of yourself for others without expecting anything in return. And freedom of speech is the other thing that’s very American. (In) many places in the world, there are no public libraries. There’s not free access to books and tapes and the Internet and information, and it’s something I never ever take for granted and none of us should take for granted,” Kaplan said.

Erin Carver is the granddaughter of the library’s namesake, Joyce K. Carver. She talked about how much things have changed and grown in the half-century since Soldotna got its first library; and the role her grandmother played as the town’s first librarian.

“Some called Joyce the guiding hand in the establishment of the Soldotna Public Library. She even taught the volunteers the Dewey Decimal System.”

Just four years after the original library was dedicated, Joyce Carver was killed in Anchorage.

“During the same month, another Soldotna family, the Falls, lost their husband and father.”

The two families would come together and work to continue making the library grow, donating a plot of land for a new library.

Soldotna mayors Dr. Nels Anderson, Peter Micciche and Dave Carey each spoke during the ceremonies, each having played a role maintaining the library over the years. Carey shared some poetry.

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The Joyce K. Carver memorial library is open from 10-6 each weekday and on Saturdays, with extended hours until 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Kenai City Council Dives Into Board of Fish Proposals

With Board of Fish meetings right around the corner, municipalities on the Kenai Peninsula have been weighing in with support for and sometimes objection to, a variety of different management proposals. The Kenai city council took up a host of those proposals at its meeting this week. But not everyone on the council thought this was the right move.

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In all, the city council took a look at eight proposals submitted to the Board of Fish. Some of them deal with commercial fishing issues, like one that would restrict drift boats to certain areas between June and August. Some were personal-use issues, like requiring dipnetters to grind up fish waste. Others would have had an impact on sportfisheries, like adding another drift-only day on the Kenai. As each resolution voicing support or opposition came up, it was met by this challenge from Tim Navarre.

“I’ll be voting against all of these. As I stated last meeting, I don’t think we’ve gone through a process and I think it’s bad practice.”

His main concern is that the Council isn’t getting enough information about these proposals before it’s being asked to support or reject them. He wants to see some sort of protocol developed to address these proposals, which can have wide-reaching affects for the city.

“So we can have our own proposal to the Board of Fish to propose this or to do that; and we would have gone through a process to accomplish that. To start taking down somebody else’s without a process, without going through…I’m just a little concerned that we’re jumping in this and we’re picking and opposing.”

One proposal looked like a no-brainer on first read. It establishes a no-wake zone and a speed limit on a half mile section of the lower Kenai River during dipnet season. Presumably, it’s about safety and keeping erosion to a minimum. But, as council member Bob Molloy explained, this is the kind of proposal that the Board of Fish might not even entertain.

“I support the concept of a no-wake zone and a maximum speed limit because of the property damage that’s been happening during the dipnet fishery. I’m not really sure the Board of Fish has the legal authority to do this itself. But I think it’s good for the city to support ideas directed at reducing property damage to the river bank.”

Again, Navarre pointed out that the motivation behind the proposal might not jive with everything the city has to consider. After all, it’s not just dipnet boats in July that cause erosion along the river and surrounding bluffs.

“This is an individual that’s specifically picking out dipnet fishery boats, that they’re the only ones causing wakes and issues, and now we’re going to take a position…If we want to have general comments to say what we’re concerned about and how we should manage that and the impacts of those comments, that’s how we should address this.”

Despite some of the concerns, the council did pass all the resolutions. They opposed the one calling for grinding fish waste, the one that restricted the drift fleet and another that dealt with escapement goals. Five others got the council’s support. The one about the no-wake zone and the harvest reporting requirement. Also, adding a drift only day for the Kenai River, another that changes language in the description of the river, and one that addressed king salmon conservation.

The council also scheduled another work session for dipnetting. That will happen at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, February 11th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


New Data Offer Few Clues To Declining Beluga Whale Stocks

Scientists from a variety of state and federal agencies have been gathering basic data about declining Cook Inlet beluga whale stocks. They presented some of their findings Thursday in Soldotna. (Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Fisheries scientists gathered in Solotna Thursday for a presentation on years-long study of Cook Inlet Beluga Whales. The information those scientists shared provides a baseline for future studies of Belugas.

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Jennifer Dushane has a thing for Beluga whales. She’s a marine biologist based in Anchorage, and she’s one of many scientific minds who came together to produce one of the largest bodies of research yet on Cook Inlet beluga whales.

“The purpose of this study was to provide a first description of this large catalog of records. That included how many (strandings), where were they, when did they occur, by live and dead stranded and by gender and age class when we had that (information).”

Dushane examined records of stranded whales. That’s one of the few areas of study with any real data. Very little exists prior to about 20 years ago, when Cook Inlet belugas were put on the endangered species list. But records of strandings go back to the 1940’s. There are two types of strandings reported, live and dead. Dushane found that dead stranded whales were found basically all over the Inlet. But the live ones tended to be more concentrated.

“For the vast majority, when a stranding occurs or stranding events occur in a given year, they generally are occurring in the same area, the same region within that one year.”

Why that is is still up for debate. Like much of the research presented Thursday, it only offers some basic facts, upon which more questions can be raised. Dushane found that June, August and September tended to have the high number of reported strandings. There are a couple likely causes for that. One is that there are more eyes on the Inlet during those summer months. And the other is that strandings are statistically nonexistent in the winter months. We just can’t see them because of snow and ice. Dushane says an increase in reports of dead stranded whales is probably due to the same factors.

“It could be tempting to think perhaps there are more dead whales showing up. But the level of effort at (the National Marine Fisheries Service) to document these strandings has been increasing since the 1980’s. The public has been getting more well informed about what’s been going on through the media and with the endangered species listing. NMFS has also reached out to the public and informed them about how to report beluga strandings. So the discoverability of these carcasses has probably increased over time.”

Keeping better tabs on what’s washing up on shore is just one angle for researchers.

An oral history was constructed by doing more than 200 interviews with people who had personal experiences in some ways with Belugas. Seeing huge pods of them in Homer years ago, or watching them feed for several days around the mouth of a river. All of those stories went into an exhibit currently on display at the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward.

Researchers also looked at what is in Cook Inlet that could have some effect on belugas. That includes what they eat, and a variety of hydrocarbons, collectively referred to as PAH.

This work was done by the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, or CIRCAC. They wanted to see what hydrocarbons were present in the waters of Cook Inlet and where they were concentrated. CIRCAC also studied the prey of belugas for evidence of PAH’s. They looked at beluga blubber and liver samples for those hydrocarbons and found some interesting things.

“Often times, the large, long-lived males show higher concentrations than females, because females periodically get pregnant, and they can dump their toxins, unfortunately to their fetus. Through loss of milk and metabolizing a lot of the fat that they have, they tend to have lower concentrations of a lot of the contaminates,” said CIRCAC’s Susan Saupe.

Specifically, CIRCAC wanted to know what effect the oil and gas industry is having. A lot of these hydrocarbons occur naturally. Like in Kachemak Bay. Even though there’s no industry there, levels are high. Which stands to reason for an area that used to be known as Coal Bay.

But they found the highest concentrations in the industrial zone: that area of the Inlet between the forelands and Tyonek, where lots of drilling rigs are stationed.

They didn’t find much evidence of hydrocarbons in the beluga’s diet. Or at least what they know of as the beluga’s diet. What they eat in the winter remains largely unknown. But salmon turned up mostly clean.

“This study does not show that PAH’s are inhibiting recovery of the stock, but it does raise, we believe, sufficient concern about potential effects to reproduction that warrants further studies, especially on a population where recruitment of one or two whales can make or break things,” Saupe said.

Each researcher ended on a similar note. We’ve learned a lot of very basic information about belugas and their environment. But more research is going to need to be done to get a better handle on what all that information means.

This was the first presentation of all this research and it will be finalized and released as whole later this spring.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Economist Predicts Slower Kenai Job Growth In 2014

Department of Labor economist Alyssa Shanks presents her 2014 economic outlook to the Kenai Chamber of Commerce Wednesday at the Kenai Visitor's Center. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The 2014 economic forecast for the Kenai Peninsula is in, and continued growth in the job market is what’s predicted.

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Speaking at a Kenai Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday, state labor department economist Alyssa Shanks shared her predictions for the Peninsula for the year. We’re likely to see a little decrease in new jobs compared to last year, when we saw nearly five-percent growth, a fairly large spike over the past few years.

More oil and gas activity in Cook Inlet translated to lots of new jobs in that industry, but health care is growing quickly, too. Shanks says that’s because the Kenai is increasingly seen as a place to retire.

“It has been thought of, at least theoretically, as a draw for retirees, and to some degree we see that in the data…The Peninsula tends to have a larger older population than other places in the state.”

On a long list of jobs that saw growth last year, nearly every one was related to health care. But Shanks says there really isn’t enough data to be able to predict exactly what an influx of seniors might mean for the Borough’s economy. Seeing seniors flock to one particular part of the state is a relatively new phenomenon.

“It could really go either way. If you’re looking at a group that maybe doesn’t pay as much taxes and uses a lot of services, would that be a drain on the economy, would that kind of slow things down? But on the other hand, people tend to spend more in retirement…That’s a time in your life when you kind of think ‘alright, I’m going to spend it.”

The Borough’s unique tax structure for seniors also plays in here. When the Borough Assembly entertained an ordinance that would have put a cap on property tax exemptions for residents 65 and older, lots of those residents testified that a favorable tax scheme was what either kept them here, or helped them decide to move here.

“The Kenai has an interesting question in that they have a whole different set of taxes and things like that, I hate to say it complicates the picture, but instead of just saying ‘how much money are retired people going to spend and will the spend more’, you have to now calculate what their tax contributions change and what they’re utilizing. It would be a fascinating project.”

Oil and gas and health care jobs are fairly easy to track, and the effects of those industries are fairly easy to recognize. Fishing, though, is a different story. While there’s lots of information collected about the commercial industry, it’s not always put to use in analyzing the industry. And, Shanks says hunting down the story of sportfishing’s role in the economy is even more difficult.

“There’s a ton of data that we’d like to have. There has to be some kind of data out there, it’s just a matter of knowing who to go to and where to get it. And if it’s in an accessible format, what kind of history do we have so we can look at trends in that data.”

Shanks says one of the most interesting facts about the Kenai’s economy is how many dollars that contribute to it are generated somewhere else. A lot of people live here, but work, say on the North Slope, or with a mining outfit in some other part of the state.

“For several years now pretty consistently, the Kenai has brought in more income than it has let go out. The people who leave the Kenai to go and work somewhere else make more money and bring more money back, than people who take their wages (made here) and go home with them.”

Overall jobs growth has trended up the past three years, from 1.7 percent in 2011, to  three percent in 2012 and peaking last year at nearly five percent. Shanks says her conservative prediction for 2014 is down a bit, to two percent, a slightly better rate than for the state as a whole.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


SMH: Silver Bullet?

In two weeks, the state Board of Fish will begin meetings to deal with Upper Cook Inlet fishing issues. Chief among them, managing the various fisheries in the area in a time when king salmon are struggling. One of the proposals the Board will review seeks a new way to commercially harvest sockeye salmon while letting the kings back into the river.

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I spoke with long-time Coho setnetter Brent Johnson for about an hour about his Selective Harvest Module; learning why setnets, as they’re used right now, are simply incapable of picking and choosing which fish to let through, and how a new method might solve that problem.

And it’s really pretty simple.

Set gill nets, most of which have roughly five-inch openings, are designed specifically to let a sockeye swim just far enough through so that it can’t get back out. When it tries to back up, its gills are caught in the net, and you’ve got yourself a fish to harvest.

Since kings are bigger, of course, the ones that find their way into these nets are pulled out right along with the reds. Johnson thought there had to be a better way. And it looks a lot like seining. Which is basically dropping a big fish corral out in the water.

“When you’re seining and you’re harvesting your fish, you’re surrounding them with a net that they can’t gill in, so they’re all alive. When you roll your net onto your deck and have your fish going down into a hold full of water, they’re all alive. So I thought ‘Wow, that’s kind of interesting. Why wouldn’t that work to keep king salmon alive?”

He’s been working on this for a couple years. He’s got a special permit from the Department of Fish and Game to use his method, but so far he’s the only one.

“What I’ve asked the Department of Fish and Game and what I’m asking the Board of Fish is don’t make me the only inventor. Please, let’s have more people out there trying this than me. So far, they’re only letting me and I’m hoping they’re going to broaden their horizons.”

And plus, it’s just easier. Hauling in those long set nets, hopefully full of fish is, without question, hard, hard work.

“King salmon is the impetus to do this right now, the driving force. But to tell you the truth, I’ve long looked at setnetting and what we do and said ‘Are we doing this the best way? Are we really doing this the smartest way for quality, for less work, for efficiency?’ Anyone who’s gone seining one time knows that setnetting is not the easiest, best way to do things.”

While there’s a lot of support for the selective harvest module out there, Johnson is quick to point out that not everyone in the setnet community is behind it. At the end of the day, you’re paid by the pound. Leaving all that blood behind, and the kings and maybe not hauling in quite as many fish isn’t the best answer for everyone.

Johnson’s philosophy on care and quality goes back more than a decade, when farmed fish hit the market and the demand for wild Alaskan salmon tanked for a few years, along with the price.

“The attitude among a lot of the setnetters was ‘Meh…when they start paying for quality, I’ll deliver quality.’ I said ‘Boy, not me. I’m going to try to produce quality’, because I want someone, somewhere to be praised up and down because they cooked my salmon. And when they do, they’ll want to buy another one. And when they do, the price is going to go up.”

Johnson says a good 2014 sees the prediction by Fish and Game that a strong sockeye run will show up and that we’ll see a turn around in the king numbers.

But don’t forget the management issues. When I talked to Kenai River Sportfishing Association executive director Ricky Gease last week, a bountiful return was tops on his list, too. But right after that was a desire to see the sport and commercial fisheries have to bite the same sized bullet if those bountiful returns don’t show up. Johnson shares that desire.

“I know that there are factors on the big ocean. But what I don’t know is what effect all that pressure on the Kenai River is having on those king salmon. So I think we need to take some hard, fast looks at doing things like doing some more drift fishing days to take some of the pressure from those outboards off. And we need to take some conservation measures in the sport fishery and in the commercial fishery, because we need to do things to make these kings survive. We can’t stand by and do nothing while the king salmon go away, for goodness’ sake.”

-Shaylon Cochran


Cutting Through The Cold: Rotarians Pluck Ice For Winter Games

Soldotna Rotary Club volunteers free giant ice blocks from a gravel pit in Kenai Saturday for the Peninsula Winter Games. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Ice sculptures will soon decorate businesses around Soldotna as part of the Peninsula Winter Games at the end of the month. Those ornate carvings come out of huge blocks of ice, harvested each year by the Soldotna Rotary Club.

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A gravel pit just of Beaver Loop Road provides the blank slates that will be used to make some truly impressive ice sculptures in a couple weeks. David Wartinbee and several other Rotary volunteers spent a good chunk of Saturday plucking the giant, frozen rectangles out of the water.

“The first thing we did when it was still dark this morning is mark (the grid)…then we cut three slots and drilled holes in them with an ice auger, then we (cut) with a big chainsaw,” Wartinbee said.

It’s sort of like making a hole for ice fishing, just on a massive scale. After the first few blocks come out, an orchestrated dance begins. Big chainsaws mounted to angle-iron jigs cut row after row of ice. They use long, metal poles to break the ice free, and float it to end of the pit, where it’s delicately picked up by a fork lift, then loaded onto a flatbed. Marcus Mueller is up on the trailer, making sure everything is lined up.

“It’s a real tradition here, and it’s a slick operation,” Mueller says.

A balmy 25 degree day helped make things run smoothly, but Wartinbee says that’s not always the case.

“When you’re dealing with 30 below zero…the saws freeze up. The water gets thrown up into the air and sucked into the air intake and that freezes. In years past, we’ve had big heaters out here to try and keep the equipment warm. Every year’s different and every year is kind of an adventure,” he said.

Those blocks don’t always break free so easily, and motivation from the metal poles isn’t always enough, so the only option is to just stomp on it. But sometimes, taking the dive is done on purpose. In years past, it was a quick way to get the club’s Paul Harris Award. Matt Pyhala has done it. And in temperatures that would probably make a polar bear think twice.

“There was a little sheen of ice that had formed, so there were little cuts on my face and chest where I broke through.”

All in the name of community service.

More than 60 of the ice blocks now await adoption by local businesses, and they’ll be on display following the Winter Games on January 25th.  

In the interest of disclosure, we note that Matt Pyhala is a member of KDLL’s Board of Directors.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


T-200 Turns 30

A full slate of sled dog teams will leave Kasilof on their way to Homer February 1st for this year’s Tustumena 200.

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How time flies. It’s the 30th anniversary for the T-200. A race that started modestly enough among locals in 1983. Race Director Tami Murray says it didn’t take long to set the field of 40 teams this year.

“It was quite amazing. It happened within an hour. Currently, we have seven teams on the waiting list, so if we have some changes we’ll have people taking those spots.”

A purse twice as big as last year’s might have encouraged racers to get signed up early. With a $50,000 up for grabs, the race is becoming internationally known, with teams or mushers from as far away as Australia and Norway competing. Murray says support from corporate sponsors the past couple years has put the T-200 back on the right track after a couple years of uncertainty.

“Two years ago, Apache Alaska came on board and they brought several of their contractors, who have all grown to love the race, love supporting this community event. We have done really well on our fundraising efforts and are very pleased with what we have this year.”

While the start/finish line in Kasilof is an exciting place to see the teams in action, the overnight rest at Freddy’s Roadhouse in Ninilchik is a popular spectator spot, too.

“It’s really a fun place and you can see the dogs approaching from quite a ways away. He’s got so much room out there, that we are not strapped for space when we’re trying to park all these teams, which as you can imagine is pretty hard to do when you have 14 dogs to a team and you’re trying to not put them right on top of each other. And he puts in a bonfire…Freddy’s a great man and a huge supporter of this race and we’re so pleased that he’s involved.”

Murray says one of the big reasons the race has lasted 30 years and continues to grow in popularity is the army of volunteers who make it all possible.

“We always need more volunteers. There are a couple places we’re always a little short-handed; at Freddy’s Roadhouse, 55 teams will be there throughout the weekend, two times, so we need as many hands on deck there as we can get.”

(Volunteer forms here.)

The pre-race vet check and meet and greet with the mushers is scheduled for noon-five p.m. Friday the 31st. The race starts at 11 a.m. the next day, at mile 112 of the Sterling Highway in Kasilof.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

            


Assembly OK’s Lease For Pipeline

The 8 inch pipeline would be anchored above the sea floor in areas where it can't be buried. (Photo: Alaska Department of Natural Resources)

At its meeting last week, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly approved a measure that will allow construction of a subsea oil pipeline to move forward.

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The Borough will lease a 4.7 acre parcel in of land in Nikiski near the bluff to Cook Inlet Energy at an annual cost of $5,700 for thirty years. The site will house a valve box near the shore. Karen Brown of the engineering firm Michael Baker Jr. Incorporated, told the Assembly the pipeline infrastructure at the site will be hard to notice, and the beginning work will happen off shore.

“We’re going to start as far away from the bluff as we can. It’s going to be drilled down underneath the bluff, a half-mile offshore. So, you’ll never actually see the pipeline on this piece of property.”

The site will serve as an important safety mechanism for the pipeline.

“It’s going to be able to shut the pipeline down if there is a problem with the subsea portion or the land portion. It’s also going to be locked. We’ll probably fence the parcel,” Brown said.

That part raised some concerns for Fred Sturman. He told the Assembly that the area, which is near an old gravel pit, is where a lot of commercial fisherman access the beach during the sockeye run. If it’s fenced in and locked up, they’ll have to find another access point.

The Assembly didn’t wade too deeply into making arrangements for Sturman and other fishermen in the area, though Assembly member Brent Johnson said he sympathized because of a similar situation near his fishing site in Coho. But Baker said the door was open for some sort of access agreement with Cook Inlet Energy.

Eventually, the lease will be transferred to Tesoro, the company who will operate the pipeline. The 29 mile pipeline running from Kustatan to Nikiski will be laid in the Inlet in June and September to avoid the commercial fishing season, and the whole project is expected to completed by October.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 


Assembly Rejects Cap On Senior Tax Exemptions

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted no to an ordinance that would have put a cap on property tax exemptions for seniors. The vote came after more than an hour of public testimony, and a fair amount of debate among the Assembly.

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This one actually goes back to 2007. That’s when voters in the Borough approved property tax relief for seniors for the first $300,000 in property value. Voters said yes to another $50,000 exemption in last October’s elections. That one was for everybody, not just seniors. The ordinance simply sought to set a cap for total exemptions at $300,000. That turned out to be an unpopular idea for many who testified.

“As a senior on a fixed income, it makes a big difference to me,” said Tom Bearup.

The former Soldotna mayor told the Assembly that after some years away from the Peninsula, the favorable tax structure wasn’t the main reason he and his wife came back here to retire, but it didn’t hurt, either.

The exemption is for property owners aged 65 and older. Many who testified said being on a fixed income in their retirement makes the prospect of increased property taxes something to worry about.

“My feeling is, when I moved here 37 years ago, that there’s a total exemption for seniors when you got to be 65….And I’ve seen this being chipped away and chipped away and chipped away and if I live much longer, we may not have anything,” said John White of Kenai.

And there was the argument that money not spent on property taxes is money that can be spent in the local economy.

But there was a flip side to that position.

How shifting the tax burden away from older residents affects the ability of younger ones to buy a house and hold property here. Assembly member Brent Johnson, who was one of the sponsors of the ordinance, said it came down to what’s fair.

“I think that if seniors get seven times the tax break, that means that younger people are getting seven times less tax break. This ordinance would change it to six times the tax break. I think that’s sufficient. We have young people growing up in this community that have to bear the tax burden because other people aren’t bearing it. (One testifier said) she didn’t think young people could make it in this community. I guess she’s right. I have six kids and five of them live somewhere else right now.”

There is a state mandate for property tax exemption for seniors. It’s $150,000. Borough mayor Mike Navarre says our Borough is the only one that allows for more than that. And that the cities within the Borough are all capped at $150,000. He says shifting demographics makes cutting taxes for seniors more difficult every year because seniors are the fastest growing group on the Peninsula. That makes it especially difficult in Borough’s service areas, where seniors don’t pay anything at all.

“More importantly is the emergency services component of that. The highest users of emergency services, demographically, are senior citizens. We exempt them. We provide the service but we exempt them. I’m not saying we shouldn’t provide the service; we should. But there’s a cost associated with it.”

Navarre likened it to the struggle with Social Security, where more and more people are getting benefits paid for by fewer and fewer workers. In the end, the Assembly voted 5-4 against placing the cap on tax exemptions, but most members acknowledged that a lot more work is going to need to be done to make sure the services people expect in the Borough are fully funded.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Treadwell Explains Initiative Decision

A proposed initiative to ban commercial setnetting was rejected earlier this week by Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell. He was in Kodiak Wednesday, campaigning for his Senate run and talked about that decision, and the previous court cases that were used to make it.

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 12-page opinion from the Department of Law was the basis for Treadwell’s decision. It cited one main court case from 1996, but the basic precedent goes back much farther.

“I’ll go back to the Burn Homestead initiative in 1978. Alaskans voted to have a new homesteading program, and the Supreme Court later on said ‘wait a second, you’re appropriating a state asset of land, the constitution says you can’t do that by initiative,” Treadwell said.

That same principle was at the heart of this decision. The group that introduced the initiative, the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, was calling for a ban on commercial setnetting in all urban areas of the state. But in reality, the only urban area of the state that has a commercial setnet fishery is Cook Inlet, where more than 700 permits are issued.

Treadwell says on first read, it didn’t appear to be an allocative issue. Those decisions are left to the Board of Fish.

“We looked at and initially the legal analyisis was that this is a gear type decision not an allocation decision, it might be able to go forward, and that was their (AFCA’s) argument.”

The case the Department of Law used a case called Pullen vs. Ulmer as the basis for its opinion. That case was also about a ballot measure. It wanted voters to give preference for a portion of the salmon harvest to subsistence, personal use and sport fisheries, then allocate the rest to other users. The problem is that, according to the law, salmon are considered a state asset.

“The Pullen decision makes it very clear that if there is, in essence, a self-serving allocation or an allocative effect all told, it’s not an appropriate use of the initiative. And so based on that opinion, it was turned down,” Treadwell said.

In a news release after the Lt. Governor announced his decision, AFCA Board Chair Bill MacKay said the initiative “seeks no authority to regulate or allocate fisheries management in our state.” And that the group should be out gathering signatures instead of looking into a possible lawsuit.

The group’s executive director, Clark Penney, thanked Treadwell and the law department for their due diligence, but said he was puzzled by the decision and struggled to see the logic or the legality of it. The AFCA pointed to one of the state’s first ballot initiatives, a ban on fish traps in the 50’s, as precedent for their ballot measure. In addition to that, the group noted similar bans in Texas, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, New York and California.

Treadwell says he isn’t surprised or worried about a potential lawsuit.

“As soon as I raised my right hand as Lieutenant Governor to be sworn in three years ago, I was being sued by Joe Miller. I’m used to that. But as a result of the lawsuits we may get clearer law. We did turn down this initiative and I know that made the commercial groups happy and some of the sportfishing groups unhappy.”

He had some advice for the group moving forward; go through the normal process of managing fisheries.

“Go back to the fish board, let’s try to make sure that setnets are not doing what they’re not supposed to be doing. Let’s do some other things we can for conservation in the river as well.”

King salmon management is sure to be the hot-button issue when the Board of Fish meets later this month in Anchorage.

-Shaylon Cocharn/KDLL, Jay Barrett/KMXT-


Treadwell Rejects Setnet Ban Proposal

Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell rejected a proposed ballot initiative aimed at banning commercial setnetting throughout most of the state Monday. The language in the initiative didn’t agree with a previous Alaska court ruling.

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The proposed initiative would have been on the 2016 ballot. Voters would have decided whether or not to ban commercial setnetting in urban areas of the state, including Cook Inlet, where commercial setnetting makes up a big chunk of the economy. It was proposed by the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance. Its main concern is keeping dwindling king salmon stocks out of those setnets. The group’s spokesperson, Joe Conners, was not available for comment Monday, but when the group announced its effort back in November Conners said the regular process for changing management practices and conserving king salmon isn’t working.

“The Board of Fish gets deluded by the need to continue the setnet fishery because it’s a way of life, you know, whatever, whatever… But the bottom line is, everything indicates we have historically low numbers and we cannot continue to have this wall of death functioning.”

Sportfishers on the river and setnetters out in the Inlet have had their fishing time severely restricted the past two years in an effort to preserve those king salmon, which are coming back later in the season and in smaller numbers.

In its memo to the Lt. Governor, the state Department of Law cited a 1996 court decision that said appropriating fish to different user groups could not be done by ballot initiative. There were two objectives with that case. One was to prevent an electoral majority from giving itself access to a state resource. The other was to preserve the Legislature’s power to make decisions about allocation. The proposed initiative violated both those objectives. It “removed the Board of Fisheries’ discretion to make allocation decisions in times of shortages.”

This is certainly a time of shortage for king salmon. In 2013 17,028 kings returned to the Kenai River, barely making the sustainable escapement goal of 15,000-30,000.

The ban would have only applied to commercial setnetters in urban areas. Not subsistence users or in rural areas. But in practice, it would have mainly applied to setnetters in Cook Inlet. In short, the ban would have reallocated salmon from commercial fisheries in the Inlet to non-commercial, in-river users.

Opposition to the ballot proposal was immediate. Various commercial fishing groups spoke against it, and both the Kenai city council and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly adopted resolutions against it. Calls for comment from the commercial-friendly Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association were not returned in time for this story, but its president, Rob Williams, testified at that Assembly meeting in December. He called the move “ballot box biology”.

“For 27 years we’ve made the goal for the late-run fish on the Kenai River. Fifteen of those years, we exceeded the upper end of the goal. And right now, our managers have the option to reign us in with time and area restrictions like they’ve been doing in the past years. The goal will be met.”

In a news release Monday, the executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, Clark Penney, called the decision by the Lt. Governor “puzzling”. That group is evaluating a possible legal challenge.

Other changes in the management of king salmon in Cook Inlet could be made next month. The Board of Fish will take up those issues, and hundreds of proposals to deal with the problem when it meets in Anchorage.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


KDLL Seeks New Station Manager

KDLL seeks an energetic, dynamic leader to help grow our local, public radio station with a large and diverse audience.

The Station Manager will represent KDLL in the community and develop the professional relationships necessary to build the foundation of KDLL’s next phase of growth. KDLL is a small operation, but has a long history and a bright future.Increasing membership, underwriting and volunteer opportunities will be priorities.

Qualified applicants will have a proven track record of fundraising in the non-profit sector, excellent written and verbal communication skills, experience with and knowledge of online platforms, including social media and web-based content management systems and, most importantly, a passion for promoting public broadcasting and its role in the community.

Full job description and application guidelines here.


Manager Looking For Small Changes Ahead of Fish Meetings

On January 31st, the state Board of Fisheries will meet in Anchorage for two weeks to discuss Upper Cook Inlet fishing issues. Between now and then, we will be taking a look at what those issues are, and what sorts of proposals have been pitched to address them.

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The Central Peninsula Advisory Committee has had several meetings recently. That’s the group that represents the varied fishing interests in the area; sport and subsistence users, the different commercial fishers and so on. They’re working through the hundreds of proposals submitted to the Board of Fish for changes in management policies and strategies, and voting to support them or not. In the coming weeks, we’ll dig more deeply into some of those proposals and who’s behind them.

But to start, I wanted a kind of broad overview of the state of things right now; so I went to Pat Shields, the commercial fisheries management biologist for ADF&G. He says management of the drift and setnet fleet last year was carried out with a disastrous 2012 year still in mind.

“The final result was, we ended up exceeding the escapement goal for sockeye salmon in the Kasilof River and going over the in-river goal in the Kenai River. We ended up pretty close to the escapement for the Kenai and, because of the strong return to the Kasilof, put about 500,000 fish in that system.”

Big sockeye runs to the Kenai and Kasilof were good news to the drifters and setnetters, but just like in 2012, a pretty bad run of king salmon forced managers to put the brakes on early.

In river sport fishers were hit hard, too. They had to stop fishing for kings almost as soon as their usual season began.

And so that continues to be the big problem. While the sockeye runs are doing fine, better than fine, actually, the kings are struggling. Now, in a perfect world, the comm fishermen would catch their sockeye, and leave the kings to return to the rivers. And that scenario might not be too far off.

A study conducted over the summer looked at how deep the kings are swimming as they get closer to the river. While that study didn’t track enough fish to justify any big changes, it did suggest that kings do run deeper in the water than sockeye, especially as you get farther out from shore, beyond where the setnetters work.

“What we don’t know is if where the setnets fish, if that difference in depth between the two stocks would still be the same as out in the deeper water. That’s something I’m sure will be looked at in future studies,” Shields said.

Another bit of knowledge gleaned from that study: once the fish get to the mouth of the river, they don’t just swim on up, eager to get to the spawning beds. The sockeye mostly do, but the kings just sort hang around. For days.

“(They’re) just going back and forth, out in front of the Kenai River; swimming up with the tide and back with the ebb tide, and some of the king salmon that were tagged did that for a number of days. Ten days, 12 days, 15 days,” Shields said.

Why? Who knows. It seems that for each bit of new information scientists confirm about king salmon, a dozen new questions pop up in the wake.

“Management, we’ve said for a long time, is as much art as it is science. There’s a lot of science that goes into what we do here. There are some remarkably talented folks that work for the department here that understand things about the biology of salmon that is just remarkable. That said, salmon don’t have a calendar. They don’t have a clock. And they surprise us,” Shields said.

Now, if they would just surprise us by coming back in bigger numbers.

Shields says he hopes the Board of Fisheries doesn’t make any drastic changes in how things are managed, but rather stays the course, to build up more knowledge to make the most informed decisions.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Assembly Set For First 2014 Meeting

Borough Mayor MIke Navarre addresses a full Assembly November 6th, 2013, as residents along K-Beach continue to battle rising groundwater. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

When the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly reconvenes for its first meeting of 2014, there will be a lot of commending resolutions, grant appropriations and other fairly routine business on the agenda. That’s a sharp contrast from a year ago, when one of 2013’s most contentious issues took center stage from the get-go.

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That issue was, of course, the battle about the Borough’s habitat protection ordinance. Or anadromous streams ordinance. Or, depending on whom you talk to, the Borough’s land snatch ordinance.

To Assembly member Kelly Wolfe, it was just bad policy. He introduced an ordinance to repeal extended habitat protections back in January.

“The habitat protection I see is the original ordinance and I believe very strongly that the Kenai Peninsula Borough is not capable of enforcing habitat (protection) across they Kenai Peninsula. They’re not able to do it effectively,” Wolf said.

A series of public meetings and forums was held throughout the spring. Testimony went on for nearly six hours June 18th when the Assembly voted in favor of keeping the protections in place, including the contentious fifty-foot setback from anadromous streams for construction and development.

Even with that issued seemingly settled, it was a major factor Assembly elections later in the year. Assembly president Linda Murphy was replaced by Soldotna city council member Dale Bagely, in part, because of he didn’t like the streams ordinance.

The other big issue during the elections was term limits. That’s one that seems to resurface every few years, about the time someone on the Assembly is looking at being termed out. Assembly member Charlie Pierce stood behind the past decisions of voters when it was time to vote on whether the question should go on the ballot yet again.

“How many times do we have to debate this and change the terms and the conditions before we believe the voters have already voted on it? I think we need to respect the fact that, you know what, it’s there. And until someone takes the initiative out in the community, the voters, the constituency, takes the initiative, I believe the right thing to do is to have that happen and not have the initiative occur here,” Pierce said.

Coming as a surprise to some was the controversy over the Assembly’s passage of selling revenue bonds to finance a major expansion at Central Peninsula Hospital. Though the project had been presented and talked about at length for many months, the $43 million price tag was too much for some residents, like Dan Green of Soldotna.

“I find it odd and frankly unacceptable, that this resolution to finance a project of this magnitude is being considered with very little public notice and does not require a vote of the public,” Green said.

The bonding resolution did pass, and now the hospital is awaiting approval of a Certificate of Need from the state to go ahead with the expansion.

One thing there was little debate about in 2013 was how much water was rushing into the homes of property owners along K-Beach road last fall. That’s an area over which the Borough has very little responsibility aside from maintaining roads.

But flooded homeowners wanted to see some action. They got some on October 29th, when Borough Mayor Mike Navarre declared a local disaster. That was followed up the next day with a declaration from the Governor. At the time, Borough Emergency Management Coordinator Scott Walden said during a public meeting that the problem went well beyond that neighborhood.

“There’s an assumption by communities outside of this area that the only area affected is the K-Beach area. You guys are probably the most drastically affected of the lot. But within the city of Kenai, people are reporting foundations blown out. In Nikiski, neighborhoods can’t access their homes because lakes are across the road,” Walden said.

State and local officials will have a better idea of how to ease potential flooding in the future after the snow is gone, but safeguarding that area against groundwater flooding is a tall order, and will require resources from the state for any major mitigation projects.

While the capital projects list the Assembly will vote on doesn’t specifically ask for any funding to handle that problem, it does ask for a number of other road improvements. Also on the list is a complete remodel or relocation of the Soldotna fire station, improvements to the North Peninsula Recreation Center and a new library in Anchor Point. The Assembly’s first meeting of the year is next Tuesday the 7th.


Buccaneer Seeks New Revenues In New Year

Just weeks after top executives for Buccaneer Alaska were fired, the company is making moves to shore up its financial situation.

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In a news release Wednesday, the company said it was selling off its remaining 25% interest in the Cosmopolitan drilling project, just off Anchor Point for $41 million. The sale will replace Buccaneer’s small interest in the project with needed cash assets. Fort Worth, Texas-based BlueCrest Energy already owned the other 75% and will now control the project in its entirety.

At the heart of the Cosmo unit is the Endeavour jack-up rig. As part of the deal, BlueCrest Energy is on the hook to keep using the rig for another 150 days, to be spit up in 50 day increments during winter drilling seasons. Those seasons run from November through April. The Endeavour is currently in Port Graham awaiting approval to get back to work.

Related to that sale is Buccaneer’s offloading of half its interest in Kenai Offshore Ventures. That’s the partnership between Buccaneer, a Singapore-based investment firm called Ezion Holdings and Alaska taxpayers, who helped fund the purchase of the rig through the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.

Buccaneer’s share of the venture will go to a subsidiary of the Singapore outfit for $24 million. Buccaneer officials again did not return calls for comment about the sales, but according to the news release, the goal of that sale is to jettison its ownership of the rig, but still use it for drilling operations. A call to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority for comment wasn’t returned in time for this story.

Finally, Buccaneer has found itself another fresh injection of capital to continue with other projects. A short-term, $6 million loan was made available by Chicago investment firm Meridian Capital. Meridian also extended a $50 million line of credit to Buccaneer. That’s in addition to the $100 million Meridian put up back in July.

During the two-plus years Buccaneer has been working around Cook Inlet, its only production to market has come from the Kenai Loop wells, putting out close to five billion cubic feet of natural gas since coming online. Those operations could be in jeopardy, too, though. Court hearings are scheduled for later this month to settle ownership disputes about the wells between Buccaneer, Cook Inlet Region, Incorporated and the Alaska Mental Health Trust.