Snapshots of History

Al Hershberger, a 65-year Kenai Peninsula resident, gives the back story to photos taken during construction of the Sterling Highway,including the dedication of the first Soldotna bridge. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly chambers were pretty full Friday afternoon. But not for some committee meeting or budget presentation. The Borough’s Land Management division kicked off a series of brown bag lunch events, focused on the history of the Peninsula and what the future could look like. Long-time resident Al Hershberger shared just a few of his many photos of the modern building of the Kenai.

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There’s a good chance you’ve seen some of Al Hershberger’s photos before, somewhere. Or maybe heard some of his stories. Every so often, he’ll bring out his laptop and a projector, and share a handful of the many beautiful Kodachromes he took while working on the Alaska Road Commission more than 60 years ago. I’ve heard him speak before, and I’ve seen many of the photographs, but the stories are different, and you’ll learn something new each time. Like, how did Wildwood Station start out? Think back to the late 40’s, and the country we were paying lots of attention to. This was all kind of hush-hush at the time, but the government was looking for the best spots to listen to the Soviets.

“During the winter, later on that year, I happened to be in Hal Thorton’s Terminal Garage, and Captain Nolan came in. So, we chatted for awhile, and I asked him what he was doing. He said ‘I just got back from Kodiak. We are going to build an installation. And it’s going to be either in the Kenai area or a location on Kodiak Island. The decision is up to me. And I’m right now inclined to put it in Kenai because the fishing is better here than at our place in Kodiak.’ That’s why we have Wildwood Station.”

Many of the photos that inspire these stories were taken by Hershberger. But some were taken by others; homesteaders who were new to the Peninsula in the late 40’s and early 50’s or folks who grew up here. Or both.

“That’s Sig Krogstad on the right, with a fire extinguisher in his hand and Jeanne Jackinski on his left. George and Jeanne had just gotten married. George grew up in Ninilchik and Jeanne had never been to Alaska, this was her first trip. They got on the plane in Anchorage and took off, just the two of them and Sig. They got over Point Possession and the cabin started filling up with smoke. They landed at Point Possession on the beach, Sig grabbed the fire extinguisher, put the fire out, George took the picture, then they got back in the airplane and went on. Jeanne today still talks about her first impression of Alaska.”

Hershberger and his contemporaries saw a lot of firsts. The first oil discovered in the late 50’s. The first home in the state hooked up to natural gas. The first television broadcasts out of Anchorage. And also the booms and busts here over the years. Al remembers when things first started picking up, and how quickly it happened.

“Early ’52 is when it really started booming. I had been outside for the winter. The last winter I spent outside as a matter of fact. I went out in ’51 and got my commercial pilot’s license and came back in ’52 and when I came back, Kenai was totally different. In six months’ time, it was…everywhere!”

That growth across the Peninsula is evident in his photos, particularly a series of aerial shots over Soldotna, when the only thing visible around the Kenai River was the bridge and the Sterling Highway. The last photo he presented was from the same vantage in 2008, some six decades later. And while the change in the landscape is drastic, the major focal point of the Kenai River remains.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Organizers Preparing For Growing Farmer’s Markets

It already feels like spring is here, and people are already gearing up for another season of farmer’s markets. Markets on the Central Peninsula are expanding and looking for new partnerships.

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I haven’t given up on winter yet. Nevermind that it’s 40 degrees as I stand in North Kenai right now. And a motorcycle just rode by. There’s still another month for skiing. Maybe. But the local farmer’s market crowd is already looking ahead past what is hypothetically left of winter.

“Today’s meeting was about food safety regulations at farmer’s markets,” says Lydia Clayton with the UAF Extension office in Soldotna. That meeting about food safety regs was intended, in part, to get some insight on how local farmer’s markets can grow together as they become more popular. The new regulations reflect that popularity.

“That’s opened a lot of doors for small vendors with specialty or value-added products, that couldn’t previously sell at farmer’s markets are now allowed, under some of those exemptions, to do that fairly easily.”

As this little industry grows and more people try to become involved, Clayton says more work will need to be done to educate vendors, especially with the Borough, to learn about taxes and other local regulations.

It’s not just the Extension office and the markets themselves coordinating all of this. The Department of Environmental Conservation plays a part. And the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District. Heidi Chay is with that organization.

“We want to see the farmer’s markets thriving. Following this training, we invited representatives of the three local farmer’s markets to come together to talk about working collaboratively for this next season. That could be things like cooperative advertising or chef in the market events.”

Programs or features like that could be a key to continued success. Alaska, and the Kenai in particular, can be fairly productive agriculturally. But making use of the stuff that actually grows here depends, at least to some degree, on educating people about how to use it all in the kitchen. That education component is something organizers realized people are looking for after taking vendor surveys last year.

Arts and crafts are still a huge part of what makes a weekend market successful, but she says that focus on eating more locally is a big reason for the Tuesday market at the Food Bank.

“The tag line for that market is ‘Whole Food for the Whole Community’. When vendors bring their wares there and they have leftovers at the end of the day, many times those get donated directly to the food bank. And instead of paying a dollar vendor fee, vendors pay in fresh produce. And sometimes we find that customers are also donating fresh produce.”

Chay says another big goal for this year is getting a grant so the markets can accept Alaska Quest cards. The calendars for the year aren’t final yet, but each of the farmer’s markets typically open for business by the beginning of June, with the Soldotna and Kenai markets on Saturday’s and the Food Bank running on Tuesdays.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

            


Funding Questions Answered Without Ballot Measure

Kenai Peninsula College resident advisor and student Ashley Bell testifies before the Borough Assembly Tuesday night. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly answered the question about funding non-profit organizations without putting it to the public. The Assembly saw enough economic value in the spending to leave it alone, at least for now.

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Students, faculty and staff from Kenai Peninsula College lined up to testify about the importance of the Borough’s funding to it and other non-departmental expenditures (page 134 in the link).

At issue was a proposed ordinance that would have asked voters if the Borough should continue this kind of funding. KPC asked for a little more than $600,000 in this year’s budget. A handful of other non-profits also get funding. The Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council has received $300,000 dollars the past three years. That group’s Board President, Michelle Glaves, said this isn’t an issue about doling out money to group’s that can’t support themselves.

“You should be investing. In my opinion, the funding that the Borough gives to KPTMC is an investment as well. Promotion of tourism in the Borough code gives permission to do that,” Glaves said.

And that’s kind of what it all came down to. The line items in the budget that make-up this non- departmental funding are a tiny fraction of what the Borough spends every year. Less than one percent. And the major case behind continuing those expenditures is that they’re all for economic development. Whether that’s through well-educated citizens coming from KPC, better branding for the Borough or for traditional economic development programs.

“After ARCO left and the Business Incubation Center got attached to the building, it was pretty empty. The past executive directors filled up the building. Those companies eventually move off as they become bigger and outgrow the space,” explained Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District executive director Rick Roeske. (Disclosure: KDLL’s studios are housed at KPEDD).

That organization leverages funding based on what it gets from the Borough, as do a lot of others; and that argument, and the one about returns on investment, were what eventually swayed the Assembly in its final vote on the measure.

Wayne Ogle, one of the sponsors of the ordinance, had his mind changed after hearing all that testimony against the proposal and just two voices in support.

“To me, this all boils down to do people continue to support transfer payments, in general, to non-departmental groups. I think, from what I’ve seen tonight, there’s a tremendous amount of support.”

His political calculus told him that an advisory vote would simply confirm the findings of Tuesday night; that in general, people support the Borough spending a little on organizations that provide a return on that investment.

Ogle was joined in that opinion by six other Assembly members. Charlie Pierce and Kelly Wolf voted in favor.

Though the Assembly won’t send the question to voters in the fall, it will likely continue the debate when it tackles the budget later this spring.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Navarre Announces Reelection Run

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre addresses the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce Tuesday at the Soldotna Sports Center. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre delivered his annual State of the Borough address Tuesday. There are a few issues the Mayor says he’s concerned with in the short term, but long-term prospects in the Borough look good.

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First, an announcement:

“I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time thinking about the election, but I am going to start talking to people and saying ‘hey, I am running’. That way I don’t make the mistake this time of letting people assume that I might not run.”

Speaking to the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce at the Soldotna Sports Center, Navarre said he would seek reelection this year. He also talked about several issues that are likely to have some impact on the Borough in the not-so-distant future. But overall…

“The Borough’s in good shape. We showed a surplus in our budget last year for the first time in five years. But, we’re seeing some impacts; for the exemption that was increased, that’s going to impact our budget going forward,” Navarre said.

He’s talking about an increase in property tax exemptions for seniors from $20,000 to $50,000. The Assembly voted down a measure to cap the total amount for exemptions to $300,000 last month, but the effects of those exemptions are being felt already.

“For the Borough’s general government, the direct impact of that, all things being equal, is a little over $1.3 million a year. Which means that surplus that we had last year pretty much just went away.”

As a result, the Central Emergency Service Area saw revenues drop by more than $400,000. Even though that service area saw a mill rate increase just a couple years ago, another one might be on the table to make up for those lost dollars.

Navarre didn’t support the increased property tax exemption, and he says he took some heat for that.

“We value our seniors, we should value our seniors, I value our seniors. But, the demographic that uses emergency services to the greatest extent is guess what…seniors.”

He said addressing these types of issues might be considered by some to be a political liability, but not addressing it would be worse for the Borough.

“(That) leads us to bankruptcy. It leads us to shifting it and making the cuts somewhere else instead of considering everything, whether it’s a political liability or not.”

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 


Assembly Examines Non-Profit Funding Again

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will again take up the issue of giving money to organizations outside the Borough umbrella. These non-departmental expenditures make up just a fraction of the Borough’s budget.

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Tucked into the consent agenda for this week’s meeting is a proposed ordinance to put an advisory vote on the fall ballot about funding for non-profits from the Borough.

Assembly members Wayne Ogle, Charlie Pierce and Kelly Wolf have sponsored the ordinance. This is the second time in less than a year the Assembly has tried to get some resolve on an issue that comes up each budget cycle, and usually a few times in between. Back in August, Assembly member Brent Johnson gave it a whirl.

“I didn’t want to pick on all the non-departmentals because the biggest of those is Kenai Peninsula College. Here’s the scoop on the college: back about 1990, the voters voted on the college and the college won by 32 votes. Since that, those 32 votes have carried the day and we haven’t had to complain about the college very much, and I thought that was pretty cool. So if we could get 32 votes on this issue, maybe we could quit talking about it,” Johnson said.

 That was a pretty safe bet, and it turned out to be a winner. At the last Assembly meeting, Charlie Pierce raised his concerns about that kind of spending, citing budget woes at both the state and federal level.

“And we might be in that same predicament as well. You know, we’ve got fund balance today, but we’ve got increased costs, we’ve got labor agreements you’re continuing to add to, medical costs you’re continuing to add to. It’s our job to look at those little things we can do to try and maintain.”

The question that would be put before voters wouldn’t determine a new policy, simply let the Assembly know basically which way the political winds are blowing on this issue.

If it passes, then in October, voters would check yes or no to the question of: Should the Kenai Peninsula Borough continue to provide funding through the budget process to entities other than the borough government that is within the power of the borough to provide.

Now, there are a handful of organizations that are mentioned each time this issue comes up. Non-profits like CARTS or the Food Bank or the Kenai Watershed Forum. But to see what the financial impact is, you have to dig into the budget. When you do, you see that non-departmental funding, as a whole, takes up a very small portion of the Borough’s spending. For 2014, that portion is about one half of one percent.

The non-departmental stuff that ruffles so many feathers adds up to a $655,000 slice out of a pie worth more than $117 million. And 90% of that slice goes to economic development, either directly through the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, or indirectly, for lobbying, or funding groups like the Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council. That group gets the most money from the Borough, $300 thousand a year for the past three years.

When that line item comes up, the argument that gets everyone on board is that that money provides a big return on investment. CARTS gets $25 thousand from the Borough. When the group was on the hot seat back in August, its executive director, Jennifer Beckmann, told the Assembly they return lots of dollars to the Peninsula, too.

“We bring back to this community federal tax dollars that are collected every time vehicle owners fill up their gas tanks. We have paid over $3 million to non-profit and for-profit companies to deliver rides for us. Plus, we buy fuel, supplies, vehicle repair and other services from local businesses,” Beckmann said.

The Assembly will take up this and a host of other issues Tuesday night at 6 p.m. You can hear the meeting live on KDLL and KBBI.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Buccaneer, CIRI Heading Back To Court

Buccaneer Energy is going back to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to try and settle issues at the Kenai Loop well site in Kenai.

One hearing has already been held to find some resolve to ownership disputes between Buccaneer and Cook Inlet Region Incorporated, or CIRI. Natural gas is draining from property near the Kenai Loop site that isn’t controlled by the field’s operator, and the two sides are at odds over what to do about it.

Kristen Nelson of the Petroleum News reports that at the January 30th hearing, Buccaneer officials said they didn’t know their wells would have an impact on other wells that were already producing in the area until after they had drilled what they believed were new reserves.

A CIRI official told the commission that work to find a solution with Buccaneer has been brief and not very productive. One idea for how to settle was to create an escrow account for the gas that currently has no legal owner. But lack of a formal unit recognized by the state complicates that.

The two sides will go back to the Commission again for another hearing on April 8th.

-Staff Report-


Rep. Don Young: ‘There’s only one terrorist on the Yukon River and that’s me’

Rep. Don Young railed against the federal control of Alaska's natural resources, among other topics, Wednesday at the Kenai Visitors Center. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Federal over-reach, states’ rights, common sense solutions. These are some of the basic tenets that have gotten Don Young re-elected to more than 20 terms in Congress, and they were the basis for his message to a joint meeting of the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce Wednesday.

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Like a veteran musician playing a familiar room, Alaska’s lone congressional representative went through some of the greatest hits Wednesday.

“When I was a captain on the Yukon river 45 years ago, I had captain’s license, a business license and my pilot’s license. I go back to the same company that bought me out and now they’ve got a stack of papers like this for Coast Guard, and that’s not bad. They’ve got a stack of papers like that for Homeland Security,” Young said, miming the difference in height of the stacks of paperwork.

“He said there might be a terrorist on the Yukon river. I said ‘a terrorist on the Yukon river? There’s only one terrorist on the Yukon river and that’s me and I’m back in Washington D.C.,” Young said to an amused Chamber of Commerce crowd.

He spent about a half an hour taking questions. On the topics of energy production, natural resource development, climate change and the wisdom of federal policies related to all those issues, he shared a story about the car he’s entitled to lease in his home district with taxpayer money. All he wanted a simple, plain, American-made Ford Edge.

“Great little car, four-wheel drive, perfect for winter. Nancy Pelosi had passed a law (and her group) that said we couldn’t lease a car that had a certain amount of emissions. The only car that I could lease after that, that was four-wheel drive and met the mileage (standards) was a Lexus hybrid. Then we find out that the Edge, although the emissions don’t meet the exhaust test, we got better mileage on the Edge.”

On immigration reform, Young took a softer stance than some of his Republican colleagues in Congress. He says it’s less an issue about whether or not someone is here illegally, and more about whether the process to become a legal citizen should be so onerous.

“This is something, when we first addressed this amnesty issue under Ronald Reagan, we should have looked at the idea of let’s look at the immigration system and see if there’s a way we can expedite the process of having someone come into this country of ours. It takes an average time of 12 years, if you’re lucky, to do it legally. That’s a little long. Quick background check, role of activity, what they can do what they can’t do, good family, why should it take 12 years?”

The ballot initiative for legalizing recreational use of marijuana in the state also came up. Specifically, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater wanted to know how such a measure could ever be a good thing for kids in Alaska.

“You’re a school administrator. We spend more money on prisoners than we do on school kids in the United States. We’re number one at putting people in prison. Not for violent crimes. They’re put in for misdemeanors. Smoking the pot. And does it do any good? No.”

Young said he does not endorse using marijuana, but that as a person who supports states’ rights, he can’t pick and choose which issues a state should get to decide.

Already the longest-serving Republican in Congress, Young will seek re-election again this year. And just like so many of his past campaigns, he says we can expect that same blunt talk, even if it’s not always particularly flattering.

“You may not know this; personally, I don’t drink during an election year… Because I don’t have any problem putting my foot in my mouth when I’m sober. Try it when I’ve been drinking.”

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


8th Graders Hit The Drawing Board During E-Week

Zach Tuttle and Phoebe Ferguson attempt to balance a text book on a paper column during an engineering exercise Thursday at Kenai Middle School. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Eighth graders across the Peninsula are getting a sample of engineering this week. E-Week is a time for students to get some time with professional engineers.

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Mayme Grant’s second hour science class at Kenai Middle School gets a few pro tips from engineers Thursday morning during E-week.

Working in teams of three, they took on the task of building a support structure for a heavy, hard-back science text book, using nothing more than masking tape and plain old printer paper.

And this was like a real job, the paper and the tape had costs, a thousand dollars a sheet and tape was a hundred bucks an inch. They could sell back unused materials, but at an 80% loss. And the real challenge: propping that book twelve inches in the air with sheets of paper that are only eleven inches high.

“We’re building a cylinder, that will hopefully be more supportive because it has more layers of paper,” said Shay Stires of Team Fireball, explaining their strategy.

That cylinder idea was popular for Phoebe Ferguson, too, and her team, the Pink Velociraptors.

“Cylinders seem to be my friend right now.”

“They really try to do a lot of different, crazy things. And some of the ideas are pretty good and some take a lot of paper,” says James Farrer, an engineer at Tesoro. He’s one of three professionals here today, and he’s been at it all week.

“They’ve been asking lots of great questions.”

They hit the eighth grade classrooms because it’s like last call for the math that’s necessary for a degree in the field.  UAA College of Engineering Associate Dean for Curriculum and Student Services Bart Quimby says things like physics and calculus need to be in the bag before college.

“What we find is that students who figure this out later in their career, they spend an extra year catching up with their math before they can even start in on any of the engineering classes.”

Quimby says it’s a challenge to get students fired up about math and physics and chemistry by themselves. They need to show potential engineers the end result of that kind of knowledge.

He says the most popular discipline in Alaska is the traditional engineering stuff you might think about instead of offshoots, like patent law or construction management.

“Civil engineering is extremely popular up here because there’s a lot of civil infrastructure up here and there are lots of jobs.”

Back in the classroom, the teams are running into the challenges of the project, and racking up some hefty building costs.

“It’s kind of evolved as we’ve gone,” Farrer says. “We’ve thrown in the patent, so they can sue other groups for their idea, but they have to be specific and write it technically what they’re designing. We’ve been adding on consulting fees, consulting with an engineer for a thousand dollars a minutes and they’re just eating that up.”

No team fulfilled all the requirements of the project. (Farrer describes one potential design like this: Two sheets of paper, offset by 1.5 inches to make it 12.5 inches tall, then taped on both seams, and rolled up into a column one inch in diameter and taped on top and bottom.  Balance the book on the column right in the center.)

Team Pink Velociraptor had an elegant looking design, but it wasn’t quite enough. No one on that team was bitten by the engineering bug Thursday, but the guys on Team Fireball all seemed interested. And if they follow the path that Bart Quimby talked about, they should do well; the median income for the more than 50,000 civil engineers that will be needed by decades’ end will bring is expected to be almost $80,000.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Sculpting A New Scene

A variety of works are on display at the Kenai Fine Arts Center for the annual KPC Student Art League show. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The annual Kenai Peninsula College student art show is on display. This year’s exhibit takes a bit of a turn with students working under the guidance of new Art Student League advisor Cam Choy.

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The first thing I noticed when I walked into the Kenai Fine Arts Center Saturday was the huge variety of pieces on display.

“It’s a combination of surface design, pastels, water color, acrylic, plaster casting and steel welding,” said Brandy Kerley, a member of the Art League who helped organize the opening. One of the styles she didn’t mention was fabric structures.

I’m standing with one of the artists of these in a short line queued up to see his work.

“I started with a black piece of fabric,” Alex Springer told me. “And bleached out certain sections. It’s a process of boutiquing. Bascially, you take wax and you wax out what you want to keep. Then I bleached the whole thing and washed it. Then I started using dyes.”

Springer’s piece shows a triumphant snowboarder atop Alyeska, where Springer says he’s spent a lot of time. And even if you’ve never been there, the oranges and purples will remind anyone of an Alaskan sunset.

“I took the colors of kind of a night time blue and a sun set red and then took those and started all on paper,” Springer says. “Then took that and cut it up, then used a projector to blow it up onto a piece, then sketched it out.”

There’s also a fair amount of sculpture on display. From relatively simple creations like bent wire to make the shape of a human face, to more constructed pieces, using welded steel. Brandy Kerley says that’s a trend that will likely continue at the college and that’s because of the group’s new advisor, Cam Choy, who replaces long-time KPC art professor Celia Anderson.

“Part of my role here is to enhance the realm of the third dimension. So sculpture classes will be a regular offering that hopefully students will take to,” Choy said.

A lot of the students who have work on display will be heading to Europe this summer for an up-close look at some of the works by the masters, what Choy calls an eye-opening experience.

The Art Student League exhibit is on display through the end of the month at the Kenai Fine Arts Center.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL


Author Recounts Bear Attack, Recovery

Dan Bigley, author of 'Beyond the Bear' talks about his encounter and long recovery Wednesday night at Kenai Peninsula College. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Ten years ago this July, Dan Bigley was fishing along the Russian River. He and his friends found themselves caught between a sow and her cubs. Dan Bigley lost his eye sight as a result of that encounter, but according to his new book ‘Beyond the Bear’, gained a NEW sense…One of community. Bigley spoke recently at Kenai Peninsula College as part of the KPC Showcase series.

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After his recovery in California, Dan Bigley moved to Anchorage where he now lives with his wife, Amber, and two sons.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

            


Borough Assembly Talks Non-Profits

With a relatively light agenda, the Kenai Peninsula Borough took time Tuesday to talk about the role of non-profit organizations in the community.

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There were no ordinances or resolutions asking for money, or appropriating funding to any non-profits. But there was a resolution asking the Assembly to put its support behind the legislative priorities for CARTS. That’s the Central Area Rural Transit System, and the things it would like to see the state legislature spend some time and money on, like divvying up grants. Jane Stein is on the CARTS Board of Directors. She says they’re trying to expand their services to all corners of the Peninsula.

“This is an important item for us. We’ve been working really hard to get something going out of Homer and also in Seward. It’s very important to us to be able to get these grants.”

That resolution for supporting CARTS legislative priorities was pulled from the consent agenda for a little extra debate by Assembly member Charlie Pierce.

“By no means am I standing here tonight talking about any one of these (local non-profit organizations) including CARTS. I’m sure CARTS provides a very valuable and needed service. However, we have to make decisions here as a body as to what is the best use and the fair and righteous use of the money.”

The concern is that in supporting these sorts of resolutions, the Assembly is giving the okay to try for funding from the state or the federal government. And that’s a problem.

“The federal government is broke…$17 trillion in debt. I wonder, even as a small community in America, when are we ever going to take that situation to task. Are we not talking out of both sides of our mouths when we continue to go to the trough,” Pierce asked.

And so the question is how do you choose which agencies to support in their efforts to get funding from a source that might not always have money to give.

And here, the philosophical debate began. Mako Haggerty wondered why, when talking about trimming budgets, organizations that rely most on government funding seem to be at the front of the line.

“I know that the government does an awful lot to support some of the bigger industries that aren’t struggling. In fact, when I pull up to fuel up my car, I kind of resent the amount of money and effort the government puts in to supporting some of our energy companies. Going back to the budget process, we do spend a lot of time on the non-departmentals (non-profits) and the ironic thing about it is the non-departmentals take up just a minutiae of our budget.”

In the end, the Assembly voted 8-1 to support CARTS’ legislative priorities and, by extension, broader goal of expanding services. But this debate is likely to continue later this spring when the Assembly tackles the Borough budget for the next fiscal year.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


New Drift Net Plan Sends More Salmon To Mat-Su

The state Board of Fisheries continues its big Cook Inlet meeting this week. A new drift gillnet management plan will place restrictions on that industry, similar to what set netters have seen.

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Kenai river king salmon got most of the attention last week. The Board adopted a new management plan that addresses this current period of low productivity. East side setnetters saw some of the biggest changes, with their hours cut and gear types changed, all with the intention of getting more kings back into the River. As the Board turns its attention further north in the Inlet, to drainages coming out of the Mat-Su Valley, similar restrictions are being applied to the drifters. As board member Fritz Johnson explained, a growing population puts added pressure on those systems.

“The Valley’s growing like crazy. Sixteenth fastest in the nation. So they’re gonna need more fish and we’ve got to provide them a reasonable amount to provide for their needs.”

The broad goal of the drift management plan is similar to what we saw last week. Narrowing a commercial fishing focus on just sockeye, which are returning in big, healthy numbers, in an effort to protect other stocks. In this case, trying to get more cohos through the Inlet, so subsistence and sport users can have something to fish for in the Valley. Noting the challenges of setting policy in a mixed-stock fishery, where you’ve got kings, sockeye, coho and lots more all swimming around together, Board member Reed Morisky said conservation measures need to be applied equally.

“I would say that the Susitna drainage area folks have have bore their burden and there has been success out in the drift fleet, I believe this (proposal) addresses that.”

The new plan changes where and when the drift fleet can be out. Time and area. There are two main sections they run in, called the Kenai expanded corridor and the Kasilof expanded corridor. Fishermen will basically have to choose one or the other, with a new option to fish what’s called area one. The plan also introduces a new area for fishing, down by Anchor Point, though Department biologist Pat Shields says that traditionally hasn’t been a very fruitful spot, at least within their sample catch sites.

“It’s the station we catch the least amount of sockeye on. And, speaking with drifters over the years, this is an area they don’t fish in a lot. This is where the Kasilof sockeye begin to migrate up along the beach.”

With those restrictions on the drifters during July, the question of overescapement of sockeye came up. The concern being that in an effort to avoid catching coho, too many sockeye will return to the river, upsetting future runs. Shields didn’t want to go so far as to say overescapement will indeed happen, leaving it this way:

“As sockeye salmon runs get larger and we have less opportunity to use the drift fleet to fish those runs, the odds are that it will be more difficult to achieve the established goals.”

He said if restrictions to the commercial fisheries made an overescapement possible, managers would have to find avenues outside the established plans to make sure management goals are met. As the meetings continue in Anchorage, the Board will deliberate proposals dealing with escapement goals in the northern district and personal use policies.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Skyview Pool Funds Drying Up

An estimated $4.5 million budget shortfall for next year has the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District school board considering all kinds of cuts. And that includes the possibility of shutting down the pool at Skyview High School.

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This idea wasn’t necessarily well-received during Monday night’s school board meeting. Fourteen community members and some students voiced concerns about not having access to the pool. At this point, though, it’s only a discussion. There’s no call for total closure. School Board Member Daniel Castimore started up the fact-finding mission about the pool and he’s concerned the cost to run it is just too high considering the current budget situation.

District officials estimate the costs for the Skyview pool are around $250,000. That includes salary and benefits, energy costs and general maintenance. Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones said officials are currently checking on the costs for running all pools within the district.
In a document called a “Board of Education Request Form,” Castimore wrote keeping the pool open represents two to three teachers’ salaries. He also mentioned he doesn’t think the school district should be paying for “recreational opportunities” for the community. Cue the public testimony. Soldotna Mayor Dr. Nels Anderson said he considers the pool a community resource.

“They have water aerobics, lap time, masters swimming and children’s swim. My wife, for a year or so, ran an arthritis program for people there. They had to stop that because they cooled the pool down a couple of degrees too much. Cardiac rehab and a number of other programs need to be run in the community,” he said.

Anderson mentioned he’d like to see the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly or even the City of Soldotna look into funding options. But Anderson wasn’t the only one who saw the pool as a resource for improving one’s health. Peggie Larson has been consistently swimming for the last two years and she said this is the healthiest she’s been.

“Lap swimming is saving my life.”

But, of course, it isn’t just the community that gets use out of the pool. Luke Balmer manages the Skyview facility for the district. He said students use it, but not as often as they could. He said part of the problem there is the school’s current small population.

“By 10:30 the facility is closed to the public and it’s open for all of the high school for whatever they want to use it for. They use it for a single PE class. One class cycles in one quarter and the next quarter the next class cycles in. That’s all they have. When Kenai and Soldotna have numerous classes coming in through the entire day, they could have classes for five hours,” he said.

Though Balmer pointed out the pool is still running because of the community support and public use. Some community members who spoke mentioned it might be wise to increase the cost of the punch card. If the public wants to use it, then they should help pay for it. But Jessie James saw things a bit differently. He’s been using the pool since November.

“One of the guys that I swim with told me that he got a letter back from the superintendent, basically saying it’s not the school’s responsibility to provide things for the community. It really hit me the wrong way,” he said.

James said it should be more like a two-way street: taxpayers support the schools, so taxpayers should have more access. But a little later in the meeting, Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater defended his comments. He said the costs of running the Skyview pool represent about one-one-thousandth of the school’s budget. Atwater said, to him, it doesn’t quite compare to the one-one-hundredth of the budget that has already been cut out of the spending plan for next year.

“To me, it’s kind of ironic that a small sliver of one-one-thousandth would generate that kind of interest when we cut teachers… activities… generated very little or none. So that’s just something for people to think about,” he said.

The school board expects this discussion will go on for the next few months, but in the end it may not even be necessary. Everything will depend on what happens with funding levels from the state and borough. There also could be discussions about a third party taking over pool operations.

-Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI-


CPH Expansion Moving Forward

Central Peninsula Hospital CEO Rick Davis addresses the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in October 2013 (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The city of Soldotna Planning and Zoning Commission approved a big step for expansion at Central Peninsula Hospital at its meeting Wednesday.

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The Commission held a public meeting Wednesday to flesh out some of the details of the project, and up for a vote were two resolutions. One to give a special use permit for construction of the expansion, and another giving an exemption for the city’s rules on building height. This new wing of the hospital is going to be big. Nearly 70 feet tall with a footprint of nearly 90,000 square feet.

Given the location of the hospital, there were a lot of concerns from people who live in the nearby residential neighborhoods; things like helicopter take off and interference with TV or cell signals. But what got the most attention was parking.

“What’s going to happen is if you approve the resolution, it requires the construction of 196 spaces,” said Soldotna city planner John Czarnezki.

In an area of town that’s already pretty fully developed, nearly 200 new parking spaces could be a tall order. That number comes from a calculation by the state that ties parking spaces to the number of hospital beds. Czarnezki says only 112 will have to be built initially, then they can go back and see if that’s an adequate number after a year or so.

“The thought would be that you would probably see during the first year, an idea of if you’re going to have close to what you need or not. And if it looks like we’re dramatically under, the hospital may choose to forget the study and build the additional spaces. Likewise, they may say ‘hey, we’re right on with our number’ and take a look at what kind of demand we’ve got here, then modify the agreement with the city to reduce the number of spaces based on the studied demand.”

Hospital CEO Rick Davis told the Commission that parking issues end up at his desk sooner or later, and that in his experience, building parking lots based on a formula doesn’t always hit the mark.

“Prior to moving here in 2011, I worked at Alaska Regional and we did a lot of expansion there over the years. There’s about 400 parking spaces to the west of Alaska Regional Hospital that, if you drive by, you’ll see willows growing up through spaces that have never had a car in them. I’m very conscious about parking.”

Davis said moving the hospital’s helipad to the top of the new building didn’t make the best sense right now, given where it will be relative to the emergency department. But as future phases of the hospital’s master plan come to fruition, that could change.

And with all this development in what is otherwise a totally residential part of town, you wonder about property values. Czarnezki says they’ve looked at some projections, but haven’t found anything to suggest a dramatic change one way or another.

Bids for the foughly $40 million dollar expansion are set to go out in a couple weeks. Construction could begin as soon as this summer and would take about 18 to 24 months.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Board Adopts New King Salmon Plan

The state Board of Fisheries continued deliberation over dozens of proposals for Cook Inlet fishing industries Wednesday. Some steps were made in the direction of conserving Kenai River king salmon, but many other issues are due for some attention.

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Making adjustments to escapement goals on the Kenai River has so far been a no go for the Board. An attempt was made to raise an escapement goal earlier this week, but was later reconsidered.

So instead, the Board dove into the real nuts and bolts of the commercial setnet fishery, making changes to how many hours they can fish and the gear types they can use.

Thirty-six hours a week is the new time limit, a substantial reduction from previous years. And their nets won’t hang down as deeply in the water. That might mean a smaller catch of sockeye, but more and more data suggest it should also reduce how many kings end up in those nets, as they tend to swim deeper in the water.

It shouldn’t come as too big a shock that the new rules weren’t totally embraced by everyone. Brent Johnson is a long-time commercial setnetter from Coho. He says cutting back on hours doesn’t really do what people want.

“What a lot of people want is a predictable fishery. A reasonable, predictable fishery. That’s what I keep hearing on the sportfishing side. Well, when we (setnetters) had Monday and Thursday openings, we had a predictable fishery. Now we have no predictable fishery. We don’t know if we’re getting any of those 36 hours that are being offered and we don’t know when they are.”

But ask a sports fisherman, and he’ll probably tell you that’s a fair move. During these times of low king salmon abundance, that side of the debate has been asking for paired restrictions; don’t cut opportunity for one fishery without making a similar restriction to the other. In-river king fishing the past couple years has been done mostly with a single un-baited hook, if there’s been any king fishing at all.

“The Department has been doing this informally the past couple years, but this provides management guidance,” said Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

“They had more public testimony on this subject than any of the Board members had ever seen. So I think with that public testimony, they’ve crafted these measures that are designed to help king salmon.”

With all that debate and testimony happening about one particular run of fish to one particular river, it’s easy to forget that other runs and other stocks are struggling right now too. The late Kenai River king run gets most of the headlines, and deservedly so. The relative abundance or scarcity of those kings has a wide-ranging affect.

But even though it’s now practically non-existent, less is made of the early king salmon run, but that’s changing. The Board voted down a proposal to expand king fishing on the southern Peninsula because some of those kings are bound for the Kenai River.

“This is becoming a more and more popular place to fish for kings. I’m afraid the more we restrict these other systems, the more it’s going to increase the pressure here. I’m glad there’s an alternative spot for folks to go fish for king salmon, but I’m very reluctant to liberalize it in any way,” said Board member Tom Kluberton.

And while it’s easy for users to see a big difference between the two king runs, managers and biologists, like Robert Begich, don’t make the same distinction.

“They’re very closely tied together in our management area. We have the Kenai river and the Kasilof river, both feature early and late runs of king salmon. Both runs in both rivers are experiencing low productivity. Yet to come at this Board meeting, we’ll be going through several regulations to deal with early run Kenai river king salmon,” Begich said.

To address that problem, the Board is going to have to look to the sport users. Commercial fishermen aren’t out in May and June when that run has traditionally shown up. But exactly what to do will be hashed out over the next several days. The Board of Fisheries meeting runs until February 13th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


No Change In Goals For Struggling King Salmon

The state Board of Fisheries continued its Upper Cook Inlet meeting Tuesday. Much of the day was devoted to Kenai River king salmon issues, but as KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran reports, the Board began the day by taking a step back.

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By day’s end Monday, the Board had taken a significant step toward king salmon conservation. It adopted a proposal that established an optimal escapement goal of 16,500 to 30,000 king salmon for the Kenai River, up from the previous 15,000-30,000. That move was significant because raising the escapement goal also raises the possibility that there will be even less fishing for kings. And that’s for both commercial setnetters and the sportfishing community.

The Department of Fish and Game is predicting a king run not much bigger than that this year. Fifteen-hundred fish might not sound like much, but with returns at record low levels, every king counts for that much more.

Clam Gulch setnetter Sam Teeka told the Board that while kings are important, they’re not everything.

“I understand how important the chinook salmon is to the economy of the Kenai Peninsula. Do I, however, believe that this one fish species is worth sacrificing a whole fishery to protect? No. I believe we need to take proper steps to try and find out how to properly harvest the abundance of sockeye salmon flooding the Cook Inlet on a yearly basis.”

But by Tuesday morning, the Board had changed its mind. After some members of the Board met with commercial fisherman following Monday’s decision, it decided that a different statistical model might be better to base this sort of decision on.  That prompted Board member Tom Kluberton to bring the measure up for reconsideration.

“What was brought to my attention last night, they have adjusted their methodologies to incorporate enough of a safety factor in the management of the stock that I feel the Board is not in a position at this point to have to add that extra bit.”

Statistically speaking, that extra bit isn’t significant. It was simply a function of going with a different kind of escapement goal. Changing those goals can be done for a number of reasons. But the Department’s chief fisheries scientist, Bob Clark, says the reasons for this change didn’t quite pass muster.

 

“There are times when people will propose different escapement goals where there is a biological problem in terms of producing long-term yields. That (16,500 escapement goal) wasn’t one of them.”

Board chairman Karl Johnstone did not vote to keep the escapement goal the same. He says by maintaining the status quo, the Board isn’t doing what it’s charged to do: protect those king salmon stocks.

“I still believe that it was my job to protect the fish and that protecting the fish trumped opportunity. I believe now…that we’re concerned about opportunity, in my opinion, more than the fish.”

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association brought the original proposal. It and other like-minded groups have been saying they’d gladly give up fishing for king salmon if the commercial fishing that also harvests some kings is slowed down in kind. That parity in restrictions is what this debate is all about.  Kevin Delaney is a retired Fish and Game biologist and now works as a consultant for KRSA. He’s been to a lot of these meetings over the years, and he says it’s not totally unheard of for the Board to change its mind, but…

“It’s somewhat uncommon to have a reconsideration, to use that strategy. But it’s very common for the Board to adopt, in concept, six or eight or ten proposals and then go back and look at them from the 10,000 foot level and see if they intermesh in a way that meets the objectives of high levels of sustained yield and high economic values.”

The economic value of all the sockeye that commercial fishermen might not have had a chance to catch under a new escapement goal was conservatively estimated at about $2.5 million.

All of that debate was about just the late run Kenai River king salmon. In our next story, we’ll learn what proposals are being heard to help the early run which is in even worse shape.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Buccaneer Scales Back Drilling Plans

Buccaneer Energy is scaling back its Alaska operations. In a press release last week, the company announced it is giving up on some of its plans to drill in Cook Inlet in 2014.

The company’s recently reconfigured Board of Directors has indicated it wants to shift the focus of operations to onshore projects, so it’s leaving the North West and Southern Cross units, both located north of the Forelands in the Inlet.

That leaves just one offshore project in Buccaneer’s portfolio. The Tyonek Deep Location, which is in the same area of the Inlet. They’ll use the jack-up rig Endeavour to spud a well there, though no timeline was given for that work.

Onshore, Buccaneer remains active in the Kenai Loop field, near Wal-Mart in Kenai and also in the West Eagle unit on the southern Peninsula near Nikolaevsk.