Cooper Landing Salmon Cook Off Hits Stride In Third Year

Thirteen cooks squared off for the third annual Cooper Landing Salmon Cook Off Friday at the Cooper Landing Community Center. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

What started out as a friendly competition in an RV park a few years ago has turned into a signature annual event in Cooper Landing.

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With most of the fishing season in the rear view mirror, it was time to get a taste of the fruits of the summer’s labors Friday night. More than 200 guests piled into the Cooper Landing Community Center to try more than a dozen unique salmon dishes cooked up by locals and visiting chefs, with a soundtrack provided by Blackwater Railroad Company.

I was fortunate to be asked to help judge this contest. And, just, wow. A fresh piece of sockeye from the grill is usually enough to satisfy my palette, but these cooks went way above and beyond.

From a simple, but delicious smoked salmon dip to marinated stir-fry, sushi rolls and even a smoked salmon cheesecake. As judges, we were asked to take a little sample of each of the 13 dishes. Then give marks based on originality, aroma and flavor. It was a tall order, and we didn’t have much time.

Kristine Route works for Americorps in Cooper Landing. She’s helped oversee the event from its humble beginnings a few years ago.

“They decided they’d like to branch it out to the rest of the community. So myself and my fellow Americorps member and an individual from the RV park decided to put it together as a community event. We’ve had to cap it at 200 tickets a year. It’s really blown up and gotten popular.”

The event draws in a lot of out-of-towners, too. I talked to a group who work for Princess Lodges who came up from Seward. They described the dishes as spectacular. Even the ones that didn’t look particularly appetizing at first glance, all got strong nods of approval.

The cooks spend tons of time getting everything prepped to feed 200 hungry customers, plus the judges. Chef Jeff Waylon was out back after round one, heating up seconds in a wok, for his Wok-n-Roll salmon fried rice. He spent a number of years cooking for the Princess Lodge and also at restaurants in Chicago.

“I love cooking.”

Though there was some disagreement among the judges, Phil Hilbruner’s salmon skewers took the first place prize of $200 and bragging rights for the next year. The dish also won the People’s choice award.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

E-Cig Debate Comes To Kenai

The continuing debate about where it is or isn’t appropriate to enjoy an electronic cigarette made its way to the Kenai City Council this week. The vote to treat them like traditional cigarettes failed, but could be reconsidered.

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By now, the basic tenets of the debate have been made pretty clear. On one side, you hear people say that e-cigs are helpful tools for quitting tobacco. That while the jury is still out on the exact side effects of the vapors they produce, it has to be a healthier by-product than second hand smoke. That treating them like a normal pack of Marlboros is jumping the gun. And on the other side:

“I’ve been a school nurse in the Kenai area now for 22 years,” said Pamela Howard of Soldotna. “We don’t want to allow the same thing to happen that did 50 years ago when we were lied to and told that there were no harmful effects from cigarettes. And that’s what’s going to happen until we can get all the research.”

Soldotna mayor Dr. Nels Anderson also weighed in.

“Some physicians and some other people have used the e-cigarettes to come down off cigarettes and to use them (for) nicotine withdrawl and to get away from smoking. The other question is, on the other side, if teenagers or other people get started on nicotine, will that then lead them to further use of cigarettes. That data is not out there. We just don’t know the answer to that yet.”

But potential health concerns wasn’t the only topic up for debate. Council member Ryan Marquis thought the city government was taking on too much in defining e-cigs the same way as traditional ones.

“It’s not that I think e-cigarettes are safe or that vaping doesn’t have any harmful effects. For the sake of this argument, I’ll assume it’s equally as bad as smoking. But my opinion is that it’s not really the place of the government to decide where that should be allowed. That should be up to the restaurants and other businesses,” Marquis said.

Council member Bob Molloy said he’s been out talking to the business owners who might have a new rule to enforce with the ordinance. He said the consensus he’s gotten is that putting the same limitations on e-cigs just makes their job easier. No smoking means no smoking, it doesn’t matter what’s being smoked.

“One service provider at Paradiso’s, for example, said that there has been incidents of people smoking e-cigarettes, which conflicts with the no tobacco rule and makes their patrons uncomfortable. They asked them to take it outside and they were willing to do that. But if a person said no, you get into confrontation situations.”

The waters were also muddied a bit by bringing marijuana into the fold. The language in the ordinance also provides for a ban on non-tobacco plant based materials. Pot. Now, that’s a separate state issue that will be decided in November. But if Alaska gets legal weed, that would be one more thing to generate second hand smoke or vapor. The thought from Kenai Mayor Pat Porter was to go ahead and include it, so that no matter what happens later this year, the city would already have rules in place on where you can and can’t smoke it.

Council member Tim Navarre said that when the first no smoking rules came up for debate several years ago, his opinion was the same as Ryan Marquis. Not the government’s job. But, things change.

“I can say today that I would probably come in and speak the other way this time. That after the ordinances across our state started to change, you started to see businesses go to smoke-free and some of them in communities before they were required to.”

Mayor Porter tried to get a postponement on the issue until the next meeting when the full council would be present, but a vote was taken. And 4-2, it failed, though it could be reconsidered at the next meeting.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 

 

 

Bed Tax Veto Stays

After three very long meetings, the Borough Assembly was finally able to put to rest the debate about a Peninsula-wide bed tax at its meeting this week.

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There was a possibility that the ordinance to put the bed tax question before voters would be debated for a fourth consecutive time Tuesday night. But only up until Monday, when Borough Mayor Mike Navarre issued a veto, effectively putting the issue to rest. During the Assembly meeting the next night, he explained how he was for it before he was against it

“Quite frankly, at the time, I really hadn’t thought of all of the nuances that are associated with a second class borough, and home rule cities within a second class borough and first class cities within a first class borough,” Navarre said.

He also hadn’t heard the many, many hours of public testimony decrying a new tax. And in an election year, no less. Navarre said that the cities on the Kenai should decide for themselves if a bed tax is what they want, not borough voters as a whole. And the Assembly could authorize that.

“I think that the city governments ought to make the determinations about how they’re going to tax their residents on their own. Probably the most troubling aspect was that if it passed overall in the borough, but failed miserably in Homer, Homer would have a bed tax whether they wanted it or not.”

Business owners from Homer were some of the most vocal opponents to the bed tax idea. It was originally brought up by Homer’s Bill Smith, and it was intended to help fund the promotion of tourism on the Kenai. Currently, those efforts are funded by the borough, at a rate of $300,000 a year.

Every year when the budget is worked out, there’s a lot of discussion about the value in that line item, which goes to the Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council.

Some Assembly members who routinely call for cutting spending also didn’t like the bed tax idea. And Smith hopes they’ll still support tourism promotion through the general fund.

“This will indeed bring a little peace to the pasture. We’ll see how it turns out next year at budget time.”

Navarre applauded KPTMC for trying to find another avenue for funding, but said he would rather maintain the status quo than institute a new tax.

“I’m not opposed to their funding or even increasing their funding, but I just think that this stood the chance of failing.”

The only question left before the Assembly was whether or not to override Navarre’s veto. Mako Haggerty wasn’t going to vote against it. He said any money raised by a bed tax should go into the general fund, not be specifically purposed for marketing.

“It would be best if it went into the general fund and used for schools and used for infrastructure because I believe the visitor industry impacts infrastructure. But that’s not where this money is going to go and I anticipate a big allocation battle,” Haggerty said.

Assembly member Sue McClure said she had hoped to see what voters thought about the issue. And that Seward has benefitted greatly from its bed tax, which has been in place for nearly two decades.

Brent Johnson said both sides have a good point, and he spoke on behalf of the people who don’t necessarily benefit from tourism, and don’t like their borough tax dollars going to promote it. But in the end, he said it was time to bring the debate to a close.

“The mayor is real popular and this has to pass the voters. By him weighing in to veto this thing, sways (lots of) votes the other direction. So I think it’s time to make peace and regroup.”

In the end, the veto stood, but tourism funding will likely continue to be a source of debate in future budget sessions.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Don Young Challengers Debate In Kenai

Candidates for Don Young's U.S. House seat Forrest Dunbar, John Cox and David Seward (pictured left to right) participate in a candidate forum at the Kenai Visitor's Center. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Three of the six candidates hoping to nudge Congressman Don Young from his long-held House seat met for a debate in Kenai Wednesday.

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There was more agreement than you might think among the two Republicans and one Democrat featured at the debate sponsored by the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce. But, not surprisingly, one of the things John Cox, David Seaward and Forrest Dunbar do agree on is the waning influence Young has in Congress.

Dunbar, a former staffer for Frank Murkowski and Yale law school graduate from Anchorage, is the challenger on the Democratic ticket.

“Last year, Don Young passed the same number of bills he passed his freshman term. If we elect someone (else), we are not going to be losing functional seniority. We’ll be right where we are right now.”

John Cox, a retired Navy veteran and Republican from Anchor Point, has challenged Young in the past two elections.

“In 2012 they came up with a special committee to balance the budget. His name should have been volunteered to sit on that committee but it wasn’t. When we took over the House of Representative, he should have been nominated for Speaker of the House. His name wasn’t.”

Former Seward mayor David Seaward, also running as a Republican, took issue with how Young and others in the party have taken on their fiduciary responsibilities.

“I voted for Don Young. When I became mayor, I started tracking his votes. His votes aren’t in the Republican platform. The Republican platform respects the constitution, respects balanced budgets.”

On the statewide ballot initiatives receiving the most attention, the candidates fell mostly along party lines. Dunbar supports the proposition to overturn SB 21, but Cox and Seaward support the new oil tax legislation, saying that going back to ACES will drive the oil companies out of the state.

The marijuana proposition has support from all three; from Dunbar mostly because of the legal consequences of prohibition, and from the Republicans on the grounds that it’s a states’ rights issue.

Each candidate had a slightly different take on Congress’ inability to get much done right now. Cox said it’s because members don’t have the fortitude to stand up for their beliefs.

“They’re more concerned about jockeying for position and their seniority. We have to be able to stand up to the Nancy Pelosis, to the liberal agenda, and say enough is enough.”

Seaward says his party in particular has strayed from its own agenda and isn’t focused on the real priorities.

“As Mayor of Seward, we worked together. We’ve got liberals on the council, conservatives. We’ve accomplished a lot. Work for the people. Is it constitutional, does it balance the budget.”

Dunbar says his experience as a staffer in D.C. has shown him the possibilities and the limits of bipartisan cooperation. But one way forward is to try and end the cronyism that keeps people mired in the culture of Washington.

“Right now what we have is K-Street recruits people off of the Hill and they creat this revolving door, and we need to clog that door with term-limited bodies.”

Another Republican and a Libertarian are also on the ticket to challenge Young as he goes for his 22nd term in Congress. Forrest Dunbar also has competition from the Democratic side in Frank Vondesaar of Homer.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Atwater Resigns From School District

Just last week we heard from Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater about the upcoming academic year. On Monday, Atwater announced his resignation from the District, effective December 1st.

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Atwater will begin his new job as the Director of K-12 Outreach for the University of Alaska next year. That’s a brand new position.

“I was approached to consider it at the end of the school year. The more I delved into it, the more I realized it was probably something I’d probably do very well at and was excited at the opportunity,” Atwater said.

In his new role, he’ll be a liason between the University’s three main campuses and its school of education, the Department of Education and the Legislature, with the main effort going to better preparing Alaskan students to become successful Alaskan teachers.

He leaves his post after six years on the job. Just last year, Atwater was named Superintendent of the year. He says there are several ongoing efforts he’ll miss seeing a conclusion to, like a district-wide graduation rate of ninety percent or more. That’s currently at about 82 percent. And also, closing some of the gaps between schools. That would make things like the consolidation of Skyview High School into SoHi easier on students and teachers.

“Students should be able to pick up and go to another school and have a similar type of experience. And so that’s the piece that I’m going to miss most is that we’re getting closer to that. It really shouldn’t matter whether you go to Redoubt Elementary or Soldotna Elementary. That you will, because the District is strong, have a good experience at both,” Atwater said.

School Board President Joe Arness says he got a heads-up before Monday night’s School Board meeting about Atwater’s decision. He says the Board won’t likely be looking to make any drastic changes as they begin searching for a new superintendent.

“A lot of times, I think organizations are looking for a new direction after their CEO goes away, but in this case, I don’t think that’s true. I sort of phrase as the ship of state is sailing just fine, we just need someone else to take over the steering wheel.”

It will be a relatively lengthy process to find a suitable replacement, and the Board hasn’t yet decided what it will do between the end of Atwater’s tenure and the end of the school year. But Arness says he hopes to have someone in place by July 1st of next year. And what kind of someone should that be?

Arness: “Probably somebody who’s open minded and somebody who is willing to accept the fact that the District is doing just fine. Not coming in with a toolbox to fix anything. Just lend whatever their expertise is to try and continue on the path we’re headed,” Arness said.

“I just want to say thank you to my Board for being supportive and for the good working relationship I have with them. And I also want to recognize all of our teachers, our principals and parents and stakeholders for the good support of schools. This is a great place to raise your kids, it’s’ a great place to go to school, and it’s only that way because of the various entities that support schools,” Atwater said.

He leaves behind a $140,000 salary with KPBSD. Three years ago, he applied for and was named a finalist for the Anchorage School District Superintendent position.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

State To Appeal Set Net Decision

Just a couple weeks ago, Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance president Joe Connors was very pleased that that group’s effort to get commercial setnetting banned in the state was going to move forward.

Now, he’s disappointed that the state is challenging the Anchorage Superior Court ruling handed down in July. In a statement Wednesday, Connors said the group looks forward to taking its case to the Alaska Supreme Court.

The plan is to get a voter initiative on the ballot for 2016 to ban set netting in all urban areas of the state.

Andy Hall, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association, which represents most of the people who would be affected by the ban, says putting the decisions to voters sets a dangerous precedent.

“If you look at what this means to the Alaskan economy, if you start looking at managing our resources at the ballot box, this has implications for every aspect of Alaska’s resource based economy,” Hall said in a July interview.

This current fight between sport and commercial fishing interests on the Kenai Peninsula stems from a several-year decline in king salmon returns, with both sides holding the other responsible for the historically low numbers.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Open Records, Locals Only

A fall ballot measure for Soldotna residents will ask them to decide how easy it should be for the public to find out about candidate finances.

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Soldotna city council member Keith Baxter doesn’t oppose giving voters the responsibility of deciding this issue. But he wasn’t so sure about the city spending $2,000 to put out its own information on the ballot proposal.

“I voted no because I thought that news outlets in the area do a good job covering this already and I didn’t think that we needed to allocate a marketing budget to get the word out about it,” Baxter said.

Baxter was the lone no vote on whether or not to spend that money putting out information. Back in June, the council voted unanimously to put the financial disclosure question to voters. Dozens of communities around the state have already opted out of the state requirements for reporting personal finances.

Soldotna city manager Mark Dixson said during those discussions that the requirements of APOC, the Alaska Public Office Commission, are too onerous. And that the availability of candidates personal finance records online might dissuade people from running for office.

“We have a hard time getting people to serve on our commissions and to want to be involved in the public process. Because once you get on one of our commissions, your entire private life as far as your financials, becomes public knowledge.”

There wouldn’t be a huge change in what candidates report to the city clerk. Gifts of $250 or more would still be known. The $10 per day fine for missing the reporting deadline would differ from the state’s minimum penalty of $100, or max of $1,000. And the financial records would still be public, just not available online.

That was one of the administration’s main arguments for supporting the proposal. That it’s not really anyone’s business outside of Soldotna to know those things. But Baxter says it’s ironic that the effort to keep a candidate’s finances a bit more private is raising more interest.

“Part of the intent of bringing it locally is so you have a better sense of who’s looking at the information.”

But because it is public information, there’s nothing to stop a political group or news organization or really anyone, from reporting that same information online anyway. Which is what the city is trying to avoid. This is Baxter’s first term in any public office. He says there were some things about the APOC paperwork he wasn’t too excited about, but that that’s really just part of the game.

“It’s only certain loans and things like that that they need to know about. I felt as though anybody who wants to be an elected official ought to be prepared for that and shouldn’t be surprised at all.”

Voters will make the final call on October 7th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Residents Push Borough To Address Flooding

Residents facing a third year of flooding in the K-Beach area are trying to make their cases before getting lawyers involved. The Borough Assembly heard those concerns at its last meeting.

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“If flooding was treated in the same manner as wildfire in this community, then there wouldn’t be so much widespread despair among affected residents,” said Toby Burke.

As we move closer to the rainy season, Burke and many of his neighbors are still concerned about surface flooding like we saw last year.

“Yesterday I walked along the east side of Dave Yragui’s 75 acre ranch. The spruce-covered Borough land that borders his property is completely under water and the water is rising. You need hip waders to walk across that property,” Burke said.

Going back to last fall, residents in the area have made it clear they want the Borough to take decisive action. With the ultimate goal of getting all that surface water away from homes, and into the Inlet. But the prospect of trying to drain several square miles of wetlands isn’t something the Borough is buying into with much enthusiasm.

“The reality is if the rains come the way that they came last year, with the levels of the groundwater and the recharge in the system, and the sheer volume coming off that wetlands, it is not a quick fix. It simply is not and we cannot stop floods. We can’t so it,” said Borough Mayor Mike Navarre.

For residents who have invested years of their lives and lots of their dollars to building homes or developing property in the area, that’s not helpful news.

The ranch owner Burke mentioned, Dave Yragui, has already enlisted an Anchorage law firm in the event we see a repeat of last year. He also addressed the Assembly.

“We have been told numerous times by the legislature, the Governor’s office, state and federal officials, that the request to fix the (flooding) needs to come from the Borough’s authority. I submit that when we flood, this Borough will be held accountable for its inaction.  We’re out of time and we’re out of patience.”

Yragui has also put an air hangar on his property, but that venture is proving difficult to make work in light of the flooding. And while it wasn’t totally unknown that the area is, in real estate terms, subject to inundation, it also hasn’t been this bad in about as long as anyone can remember. And so what the issue comes down to is, who will be left holding the bill at the end of all this. Whether that bill is for flood damage or drainage improvements.

Yragui’s fight with the Borough is about whether he’s responsible for the excess water, or if because the water is in part coming off Borough land, it’s the Borough’s problem. Toby Burke’s issue is with who’s been called in to try and figure out a solution, or who hasn’t been called in.

“You guys need to consult a drainage engineer and see what’s feasible. Until you do that, everything else is just conjecture. Not a hydrologist, a drainage engineer,” Burke said.

Another avenue Burke suggested was to create something like the Bear Creek Flood Service Area. But again, Navarre said that wouldn’t offer the quick fix residents need to stay dry this year.

“We could do it, I think, in a special election. We can’t get it on the ballot for October now. It’s not so simple as saying ‘create an area and everybody pays and the problem goes away’. You really have to identify where the benefits are and the cause and effect of what was going on.”

Navarre said there will be a special meeting sometime in August to try and answer those questions, and find the most plausible solutions.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Parnell Signs Bill Into Law In Kenai

The business of refining oil in Alaska got a little cheaper Tuesday. Governor Sean Parnell signed House Bill 287 into law, which provides millions of dollars in tax credits for in-state refineries, including the Tesoro refinery in Nikiski.

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After getting through all of the security clearances and checks, guests were ushered into the fire station at the Tesoro refinery where Governor Parnell put his signature on the dotted line. Parnell sponsored HB 287, which started out simply enough. It was initially written to extend the contract to sell North Slope royalty oil to the Tesoro refinery in Nikiski. Then some amendments were made that included some tax credits for qualified infrastructure expenditures. That credit could be worth up to $10 million per year for five years, for each refinery. House Speaker Mike Chenault represents the Nikiski area. He says the bill was necessary to keep Alaska refineries open.

“The royalty issue was the issue that concerned folks in this facility. We were able to add a couple pieces that were able to help refineries up north. We were proud to work on it, so you can continue your jobs and continue to support the community that you live in.”

The Tesoro plant in Nikiski and the Petro Star refinery in North Pole are the only two left in the state after Flint Hills closed in May. When that happened, some other last minute changes were made, namely a resolution to provide more subsidies to the remaining refineries, sponsored by Representative Tammie Wilson of North Pole.

“The resolution is really about the Quality Bank, which is a really important part.”

The Quality Bank is the system by which refiners connected to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline are charged for the crude oil they take out of the line and then process into another product. The subsidies in Wilson’s resolution help offset what refineries are charged by the Quality Bank.

“But we know the Quality Bank takes a lot of the profit for them. So, what this does is that it just directs the Department of Natural Resources and the Governor and everybody else, to make it a formula that works better for what we have here.”

Rather than actually change the formula, which is up to the Federal Energy Regulatory  Commission, the resolution provides real dollars that make up for the Bank charges. Parnell said before he signed the bill that it leveled the playing field for refineries, and would help spur more investment in them.

“There’s also a royalty provision in here that enhances the ability for producers to sell to refiners as well. This bill is just a very important step forward in making sure that we have a more healthy in-state refining industry, lots more jobs for Alaskans, and we provide that level playing field for every company to take advantage of,” Wilson said.

Parnell signed a few other bills while on the Kenai Tuesday. He started off in the morning at the Snow Shoe Gun Club. In front of a soundtrack of target practice at the club, he signed Senate Bill 77. Sponsored by Senator Peter Micciche, that bill lets the state Board of Game create a special hunting season for Alaskans aged 8-17 to take big game. Micciche thanked Elaina Spraker for getting his own daughter more interested in the sport.

“Elaina took my daughter and got her very excited about shooting and about hunting.  They went on a youth hunt and I saw a spark I hadn’t seen in a long time,” Micciche said.

The other bill that became law Tuesday was Representative Paul Seaton’s House Bill 75. It deals with the Pick. Click. Give. program, that allows people who receive a PFD from the state to donate a portion to a non-profit organization.

“There was one part of the program that said if your budget was more than $250,000 a year, you had to have a certified public accountant audit, which meant that for those groups that were just above that range, they had to spend more to get the audit than they would get in donations,” Seaton said.

His bill removed that requirement completely. This year, Alaskans put $2.7 million of their PFD into non-profit coffers, with an average donation of more than $100.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Kenai Peninsula Orchestra Kicks Off Summer Season With Weekday Concerts

The Kenai Peninsula Orchestra’s summer music series kicked off this week. The performances in Kenai, Soldotna and Homer are the lead in to the Orchestra’s annual summer performance in a couple weeks.

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Kent Peterson and Jeanne Duhan performed over the noon hour Monday at Kaladi’s in Soldotna, playing some old pop-folk favorites, new bluegrass hits and some of Peterson’s original compositions.

They join scores of other musicians from KPO who will be performing the noon concerts every day this week and next week, all over the Peninsula.  KPO Artistic Director Tammy Vollom-Matturro says the idea is to get people excited about huge variety of music leading up the big orchestra concert.

“Our musicians in the orchestra, they’re so versatile. They play the violin or the guitar and they sing and so we feature all kinds of music at these concerts. Some are classical, some are folksy, some are bluegrass and they’re all a lot of fun.”

She says that variety is something that carries over into selections for the larger orchestra.

“I try to program a concert that is audience friendly, as well as musician friendly. We put in the pieces that anchor the audience and the pieces that are familiar to people and then we throw in a pretty hefty symphony along with it.”

The first half of this year’s concert features some pretty famous 20th century tunes. Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Samual Barber’s Adagio for Strings and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which will feature Maria Allison on piano.

As a group, the orchestra has a fairly limited amount of time to rehearse. But Vollom-Maturo says part of the fun is in choosing some challenging pieces to go along with the more popular ones.

“We always have to do one like that. Last year it was the Shostakovich, this year it’s the Tchaikovsky. It is musically challenging, but absolutely fulfilling in so many ways. It is an incredible piece of music. It is huge, it is delicate, it is heart-wrenching, it is bombastic. It’s going to be awesome.”

And the Madison String Quartet also returns this summer. They’ll be playing in the Summer Series July 31st at the Soldotna Public Library and at the Homer Public Library August 7th. They’ll also be featured at the Strings at Sunset show August 3rd in Seldovia. The Orchestra performs Friday August 8th in Kenai and the following evening in Homer. Here’s the full schedule of noon performances.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Heavy Duty Cooking

It was Progress Days in Soldotna this weekend. And for some, that means dutch oven cooking.

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“We were really stressed out the first year. We’re not stressed out anymore. We’re just having fun,” says Sally Oelrich. She’s measuring some flour while her husband Rick slices scallions at the dutch oven cooking contest Saturday. Team Oelrich started the same time the Soldotna contest got official, four years ago.

“You learn little secrets like where to put your coals when you’re baking a cake, so that you cook the outside and the middle. You learn to turn the pan or move the coals a little bit so the heat goes up along the side. There’s a few little things that you pick up as you go,” Rick says.

Just a few little things. Right.

What I heard from everyone at the contest is that anything you can cook in your kitchen oven, you can cook outside with cast iron and some charcoal. And that’s the art of dutch oven cooking, managing the heat. These things aren’t hanging over a raging wood fire, they’re perched on top just a few, burning white briquettes, with a few more on the lid to keep things even. And there’s mother nature to deal with, too.

“We cooked up in Palmer, and they had a wind like Palmer gets. It blew over kettles, it was incredible. That was probably the biggest challenge. I was zesting lemons and the wind came, and my lemon was gone,” Sally says.

The Soldotna club is actually its own chapter of the International Dutch Oven Society. The Last Frontier Chapter. Soldotna Mayor Dr. Nels Anderson was instrumental in getting that official recognition. He and his wife Carla have been sharing the gospel of cast iron and charcoal for years. Carla is preparing smoked cherry bombs to garnish a bread pudding.

“It’s part of a pioneer heritage for people who came across the Plains. The dutch ovens have been around for a long time and they were valuable enough that people like Martha Washington willed her dutch oven to a specific person. They were highly prized. It’s kind of a heritage thing as much as anything else,” Anderson says.

As a Boy Scout troop leader, Dr. Anderson has taught kids how to cook in these old school vessels and Carla gives the occasional home course. And, remember those smoked cherry bombs? Yeah, you really aren’t seeing pots of baked beans or some weird stew. This is serious cuisine. The adult competition demands a main course, a dessert and a bread.

“It’s very simple. All you need to learn is temperature control and temperature control is something we can teach you very quickly. Other than that, anything you can cook at home, you can cook in these ovens,” Anderson says.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Dutch oven Winners

Adult Divison

1st Place              Carla & Allison Anderson

2nd Place               Julie Saltz &  Toni Cooper

3rd Place               Jonas Wickstrom & Sebastian Gabriel

Novice                  Jonas Wickstrom & Sebastian Gabriel

 

Junior Division

12-17

1st Place                Anna Henderson & Macady Musgrave

2nd Place               Michael Lewis & Leah Henderson

3rd Place               Joshua Henderson & Ben Wilson

 

Junior Mini Division

6-11

Will Anderson & Parker Kincaid

Luke Anderson & Ben Maluof

George Williams & Anchor Musgrave

 

‘Guys and Dolls’ Continues At Triumvirate North

Nathan Detroit (played by Cole Aaronsen) is greeted during the opening act of Guys and Dolls, which is running this weekend at Triumvirate North. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Triumvirate Theatre continues its production of Guys and Dolls Friday night at its new theatre in Nikiski.

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Made famous by the 1955 film of the same name starring the likes of Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, Guys and Dolls has also been a go-to musical for high school productions for decades. Delana Duncan is directing the version for Triumvirate North’s latest dinner theatre event. She says putting it on in the summer makes it possible to bring together players from around the Central Peninsula.

“It was an open casting call for mainly teenagers, so we have a few represented from different areas, from Kenai, Kasilof, Soldotna, Nikiski.”

Duncan is something of a veteran performer in her own right. She co-starred in White Christmas just this winter, but this is her first shot at directing.

“There’s a lot of things that I did learn from being on the acting side that did help me direct a little bit better. Knowing what it was like backstage, and I kind of think it gave me a good perspective talking to these teenagers about it because I knew where they were coming from.”

Guys and Dolls is the story of Nathan Detroit, a New York hustler trying to run an honest crap game. To win the thousand bucks he needs to rent a place for his game, he makes a bet with another gambler, Sky Masterson. The bet is that Masterson can’t get the leader of the local Save-A-Soul mission to go with him to Havanna. But when she does, things heat up.

New Space, New Projects

“Well one of the nice things about Triumvirate North is that we can do big musicals here, which is not something we could do very easily at the Soldotna facility,” said Joe Rizzo. He’s producing Guys and Dolls, and he produces pretty much all of Triumvirate’s shows.

“This place is built as a dinner theatre. We’re going to be doing dinner theatre again at Christmas when we do A Christmas Carol. But we’re also going to do some shows that aren’t dinner shows.”

“I think this is a wonderful show. They have worked so hard and they’re such great little actors, and they all have these fantastic voices that mix well together. It’s just a superb show,” Duncan says

Guys and Dolls runs Friday and Saturday night, with dinner provided by the Blue Grouse in Nikiski at six o’clock. Tickets are $39, and you can get them by calling the Blue Grouse at 283-5600.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Canines In The Spotlight At Kennel Club Dog Show

Thera Mullett of Kenai leads her dog, Dandy, through an agility course during the Kenai Kennel Club's dog show. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The Kenai Kennel Club is holding agility trials and a number of other events this weekend at Skyview High School.

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At the foot of the Tsalteshi Trails, an encampment of tents sits around two big obstacle courses. Linda Ruesch is about to lead her dog, Cooper, through an agility test.

Ruesch and Cooper have taken some time off recently, but the teamwork they put in on the course is too much fun to stay away for long. She says no matter what you’re into, there’s some kind of organized activity out there for dogs and owners to do together.

“There’s obedience and there’s agility and there’s nose work and there’s tracking. Depending on your interests and the ability of your dog, you can spend every single weekend in the summer doing something fun with your animals.”

Fun is what brings Thera Mullet and Dandi out to the course. They’ve been working together for four years.

Thera and Dandy didn’t get lost Thursday morning, though, earning a blue ribbon and first place in the agility contest. It makes all that practice in the backyard worth it.

“We have jumps and weaves in our backyard and we just set up a little course ourselves and we go through the course. And there’s also classes,” Mullett says.

The two courses set up Thursday for the agility trials were slightly different. One side was for the smaller breeds, and not quite as technical. Mostly just a lot of jumps, and teams tried to make it through in under a minute. The other course was more like what you may have seen in other, bigger competitions, with tunnels and weaves and hoops and the big teeter-totter thing. One thing that was conspicuously absent, or almost absent, was a bunch of barking dogs; likely a product of all those years of training. But some are more vocal than others.

Kipton belongs to Krissy Rupe of Wasilla. They’ve been working together for about three years. She started training him when he was just two. She says sometimes the dogs’ efforts are to please the handler. Other times, it’s just to please themselves.

“He gets overstimulated. All that vocalizing that you hear is overstimulation, but he loves it,” Rupe says.

Several more events are scheduled throughout the weekend. More agility trials, the confirmation which is the beauty contest. Obedience competitions, where the team goes through a variety of exercises like heeling, sitting and the like. And also rally obedience. Which is slightly different in that the owner can clap or use voice commands to complete each task. The events run through Sunday.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

K-Beach Residents Ready For Drainage Plan Or Court

Some residents who battled rising groundwater last fall are threatening legal action against the Borough if a drainage plan for the area isn't developed soon. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The Kenai Peninsula Borough is facing increasing pressure from flooded out residents near K-Beach Road, south of Kenai. Some residents have already threatened legal action to solve a drainage problem that doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.

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Many of the homes that sustained flood damage last fall are again being faced with rising groundwater. And now, residents are demanding action. Dave Yragui, who owns a large subdivision just off K-Beach, has enlisted the help of an Anchorage legal team to try and convince the Borough to put together a drainage plan. Last fall, Yragui organized community meetings with the same goal, and he brought in an independent hydrologist, Jim Munter, to help make his case. Munter said then that the cause of the flooding can be pinned on at least two years of heavy snow and more-than-usual summer precipitation.

“The sand has filled up right to the top. And the water’s running off across the surface of the land in what we call sheet flow. And the water is just running right across the top because it can’t soak in. You drill a well, a hole, it’s going to fill up with water pretty much to the land surface,” Munter said.

Dave Yragui didn’t want to go on tape, referring questions to his attorney, Mario Bird. But the letter Bird sent to the Borough makes it pretty clear what Yragui and others in the area want. A short term plan to get the water that’s already there out, and a long term plan to deal the eventuality of future flooding. The Borough has also been clear about what its obligations are and where its authority ends. Road Service Area Manager Pat Malone has said if his department can help keep homes dry during the course of its work keeping Borough roads dry, it will. But that’s not often possible. And Borough Mayor Mike Navarre says his administration’s hands are tied.

“Part of the problem is that that’s a very low lying area, it’s very flat, so there’s not a lot of natural drainage. And to try to create drainage is very expensive, and the area you’re trying to drain is a big wetlands that drains into the Kenai River, so it’s not necessarily a good idea to do that.”

He says ideas have been pitched, but some of the agencies that could potentially be involved in those kinds of projects haven’t been receptive. The US Army Corps of Engineers isn’t interested because of the low population density. And the state has been slow to move, too. But there are still some avenues for action.

“Trying to get to a major drainage project would either be a service area, where the people in that area would have to determine who would benefit from it and then they would have to pay for the cost of it and also the maintenance of it. We’re exploring that, but I really don’t think we’ll see a major drainage project that’s going to try to change the dynamic of that wetlands out there,” Navarre said.

In letters to the Borough and some state agencies, hydrologist Jim Munter says there isn’t a real good solution in the short term, over the next year or so. In the long term, he suggests a couple things. Expanded and improved ditching along the most vulnerable roads is one component. The other is a long corridor, called a swale, a couple feet deep, with very gently sloped sides, to channel water away from the affected areas and closer to more adequate ditches and culverts. That was a very popular idea last fall, when flood waters were peaking. But Navarre said at a special meeting at the time, that the disjointed way some parts of the Borough have been developed complicate that.

“The development that has taken place over time has not been one big plan with a drainage system in place…some roads were put in years ago and then grandfathered in when the Borough road service area combined. If it’s a non-maintained Borough road, the Borough does not have any authority to spend money on culverts and ditching.”

The Borough, for its part, isn’t saying much about the possibility of a lawsuit except that it disagrees with some of the premises for filing any suit. Yragui’s attorneys have promised to get as many neighbors on board as possible if the Borough doesn’t come up with some solutions.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

<div class = “avcaEmbedC”> <div class = “avcaHeader”> <a href = “http://www.avcaptureall.com/Sessions/City-Of-Soldotna-AK/Legislative/City-Council.aspx?session=14ecbd5e-7795-4e5b-8902-352bf86e78d2″>City Council</a> <a href = “http://www.avcaptureall.com/Sessions/City-Of-Soldotna-AK/Legislative/City-Council.aspx?session=14ecbd5e-7795-4e5b-8902-352bf86e78d2″>City of Soldotna, AK</a> </div> <div id = “avcaEmbed291″></div> <a href = “http://www.avcaptureall.com/Sessions/City-Of-Soldotna-AK/Legislative/City-Council.aspx?session=14ecbd5e-7795-4e5b-8902-352bf86e78d2″ class = “avcaDocs”>See 9 documents attached to this video</a> &raquo; </div> <script type=”text/javascript” src = “http://cdn.avcaptureall.com/web/silverlight/AvcaSilverlight.js”></script> <script type=”text/javascript”> Silverlight.avcaEmbedVideo(“avcaEmbed291″, “14ecbd5e-7795-4e5b-8902-352bf86e78d2″); </script>

Have RV, Will Cook: Trucks Becoming Staple Of Peninsula Summer Food Scene

Food trucks seem to be all the rage, all over the country. Anchorage has a booming mobile food stand scene, and the trend has hit the Kenai Peninsula in full force this summer.

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As you approach the big, bright green RV on the outskirts of Soldotna that calls itself Wook Waffa’s Waffle Emporium, you’re probably going to be greeted by Badger, their canine mascot. Pro tip: Badger loves to chase sticks…

Wook Waffa’s is one of several food trucks that have popped up around the Central Peninsula this summer. There’s a new burger truck just down the Kenai Spur Highway and a taco truck across town. With that wave and the well-established popularity of food trucks around the country, it would seem like a pretty good business to get into. Gleason says it all happened pretty randomly. Using the RV for a waffle truck was plan B.

“I’m a snow boarder, so the plan was to use the RV as a winter camp-mobile. So I had that all ready to go and in November I broke nine bones in my foot,” Gleason says.

But he still had this RV and a bunch of friends counting on using it for…something. Fast forward a couple months. Egan and his business partner Katie Cole figure maybe their snowboarding buddies would dig a bite to eat after hitting places like Thompson Pass by Valdez, where the truck had its first test run.

“So Katie was there for a couple of our discussions. And she approached me about trying to make a go at it. So we went for it and we had a great week.”

After converting the RV for snowboarding duty, they converted it again for waffle duty. Full commercial kitchen, refrigerator, waffle irons, of course. Egan, who’s from Soldotna, was working on a road crew most of the day, but the team had it all ready for business within a month of that first test run.

“I was basically handing over my paychecks to Katie and Nick and they were doing the remodel. I’d come and help for an hour or two. It’s amazing that we were able to pull it off,” Gleason says.

Another member of the team, Katie Cole, says business has mostly been good. They travel on the weekends to the big events, and haven’t ruled out plans for going far beyond Alaska and the Kenai.

“We were definitely really busy at Kenai River Fest. That was our first look at a really busy event. We’re going to Mt. Marathon 4th of July weekend. That will be a real test,” Cole says.

Like most food truck owners, they got into it with a simple idea and just a little capital. Egan says places like Jersey Subs, which started out of an old bus in Kasilof and now has three shops on the Kenai, are proof that it can be done if you’re patient and can get through those days where maybe you make up two or three orders.

“That’s when we’ll know we’ve made it. When we build a shop around this and it’s up on blocks,” Gleason tells Cole.

So let’s get to it, How’s the food?

Well, it’s like so many other culinary equations. Like, peanut butter is good. Jelly is good. Peanut butter and jelly must be good. Same deal here. Waffles are good, reindeer sausage is good. Reindeer sausage wrapped in a waffle must be good. And it is.

Especially late at night.

“Beer makes people really hungry for waffles,” Gleason says with a smile.

 

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Local Hams Practice At Radio Field Day

John Pfeifer looks on as Richard Strand makes contacts during the Moosehorn Amateur Radio Club's annual field day. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Amateur radio operators on the Kenai Peninsula put up their towers and transmitters for an annual weekend of field exercises. The Moosehorn Amatuer Radio club was stationed at Skyview High School, racking up contacts across the country.

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“When all else fails, ham radio works.” That’s the slogan of the national association of amateur radio operators. And it’s a sort of call to arms for ham operators around the country. Like John Pfeifer of Soldotna. He’s a radio guy. He used to do news for KMXT public radio in Kodiak. And while radio is more of a hobby now than a career, he and the other hams here are passionate about communicating over the airwaves.

“It’s a good group of people to hang out with. It attracts people who are interested in the technical end of things, there are people who build their own radios. There are people who are contesters, their stations go on the air for a weekend and see how many other stations around the world they can contact,” Pfeifer said.

“Just a week ago, with a little bit different set up, we made 35,000 contacts around the world,” said Richard Strand. His station in Nikiski routinely places at the top of international competitions.

“So it is possible, but that was a seven day operation.”

This is a little different. The set up isn’t nearly as elaborate, they’ve only got the weekend, and it’s mostly about practicing.

“This is meant to be put together quickly. They give us some time limits, some very simple antennas. The idea is that in an emergency, we could do all this.”

Like so many other operators out here, Strand has been turning the dials since he was a kid. Some have been at it for fifty years or more. Strand puts it like this: Some people own a car, and others race cars. Strand races radio. His station in Nikiski is set up to talk to people in ham radio clubs all over the world. And sometimes in surprising places, like when he made a contact in Iraq during the first Gulf War.

“Ham radio is not politics. It transcends all of the weirdness of the world. It’s just a guy with a love of radio talking to another person with a love of radio.”

John Pfeifer has his own story about an unexpected contact in an unexpected place.

“I was like 17 years old, I remember talking to a ham in Monrovia, Liberia. And he was sitting in a tent, and it was a torrential downpour. That still stands out to me as the best contact I’ve ever had.”

It’s a big deal to get a call into every country. It takes years. Places like North Korea, which Richard Strand has checked off his list, aren’t known for their open, public communications systems, so when the opportunity comes along, you don’t want to miss it.

But he says even with all the equipment and the knobs and buttons and dials and wires and coded languages, there’s still a certain degree of art to it.

“You’ve got to know things like radio propogation and where to point antennas and some bands are a little different and when to switch bands. It’s a little bit of luck but a lot of skill.”

Strand’s station is a race car, but for beginners, it can be toned down a little.

“Basically all you need is a transceiver and an antenna and you’re good to go. I just have a wire up between two trees that I use for an antenna. It’s very simple.”

And it’s that simplicity that makes it so easy to get into, and so invaluable if disaster hits because when all else fails, ham radio works.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Borough Assembly To Look At Animal Control Question

Voters in the Kenai Peninsula Borough might have an opportunity to weigh in on animal control at the ballot this fall. The Borough Assembly will introduce an ordinance to put a question on the fall ballot about whether or not the Borough should fund domestic animal rescue.

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Animal control is a touchy subject. Some cities in the Borough have their own laws and some even fund animal rescue operations. But out in the unincorporated areas of the Borough, there are no laws. The only recourse for people, if they see an animal being neglected, abused or endangered, is to call the State Troopers, who don’t always have time or resources to deal with those problems.

Tim Colbath runs the Alaska Extended Life Animal Sanctuary in Nikiski. He’s been trying to get the Borough on board since the late 90’s. He’s says it’s a bigger issue than just picking up stray dogs and feral cats.

“You’ve got horses, llamas, cows, just about every domestic animal that you can think of. The people end up in jail, they move away. These animals get abandoned for a whole multitude of reasons.”

Colbath’s operation has said it could take on a lot of those responsibilities for about a hundred thousand dollars a year. Potentially, that money could come from a very small increase in the mill rate outside the Borough’s cities, of 2.002 mills. For a $150,000 property, that’s an extra three bucks per year.

Colbath says the proposed program isn’t animal control in the classic sense, with leash laws and other onerous rules. Its primary mission is rescue.

“And you can look at the Ketchikan-Gateway Borough, they only have 13,000 people, they spend half a million dollars a year on animal control. To turn this into animal control would take a vote of the people.”

He says the true scope of the problem on the Kenai is greater than people think.

“The Mayor’s report in August said that there was a half a dozen cases a year. We’ve already handled over a dozen this year. And those are cases we can actually address without the troopers.”

The ordinance the Assembly will eventually vote on is just asking to put an advisory vote on the fall ballot. That’s largely a symbolic move, designed to see how much support there is for such a program in the general public. But even though it’s a small step, it’s an important one.

Colbath says he’s got the support to get the question on the ballot no matter what the Assembly decides.

“We’ve got the people lined up to do the petition if it’s necessary. I don’t think we’re going to have much of a problem getting the 1,288 signatures we need to get it on the ballot.”

As its written now, the proposition asks two questions: should the Borough exercise limited animal control powers for the purposes of domestic animal rescue and also, should there be an increase in the mill rate to pay for it. That increase would only be applied to properties outside of organized cities.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Chefs In The Market Puts Local Food In The Spotlight

Local farmer’s markets are getting into full swing. In addition to bringing people fresh local produce, some markets on the Central Peninsula are also showing people creative ways to use all those fresh vegetables.

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There is no doubt that the offerings at local farmer’s markets are expanding every year. Growers are always trying new things, and always getting better at producing the old standbys. But how do you use all that stuff?

Well, for the uninitiated who may not have a bunch of trusty recipes for kale and kohlrabi, the farmer’s markets on the central Kenai Peninsula have some help this summer.

“We want people to be comfortable cooking Alaska-grown produce and have new ideas for how to prepare it on their own, at home,” said Heidi Chay, district manager at the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District. That organization submitted an application for funding for a Chef’s in the Market program to the Division of Agriculture on behalf of all the area’s farmer’s markets and the Kenai Local Foods Group.

“The goal of having Chef in the Market events is to make it just that much more fun to go to the farmer’s markets. It’s something new, a special event, and farmer’s market shoppers get to actually see and learn very simple preparation for taking home some of the vegetables they might purchase at the market, Alaska-grown, of course.”

While classically trained chefs have given workshops at the markets here before, and this year’s series will feature a professional chef, the focus is geared more toward the home cook. Susan Nabholz will lead a few of the sessions. Her specialty: gluten free fare.

“I have basically switched to a 100% gluten-free diet. I’ve learned how to bake and switch up some of my ingredients. My family always ate healthy before, a lot of fish and game and local food, but it’s been kind of ramped up and it’s made a huge difference.”

Raw, fresh fruits and vegetables of course are a staple of a gluten-free diet. But that’s not always the most exciting way to eat them. So, Nabholz will share one of her go-to’s, vegetable wraps in rice paper. Sort of like a spring roll. The goal is to keep it simple and healthy.

“I also have kind of a theme to it. We have a booth at the Tuesday market for kids and families to encourage them to ‘eat the rainbow’. A healthy, local rainbow, not an artificially colored rainbow. Cheetos don’t count, Powerade doesn’t count. So we have a coloring sheet and word search (and other activities).”

“I think perhaps there is a misconception that the farmer’s market is where you go for expensive food, or that it’s too expensive to buy healthy food at the farmer’s market. I would challenge people…to go check it out and find that in many cases, the prices are quite affordable,” Chay says.

Now, it’s not likely that any of our local grocers will be shutting down their produce departments. But that’s not really the point. Part of it is to simply increase the capacity to feed ourselves locally.

“If we’re serious about building a local food system, we have to make a point of purchasing and enjoying what grows here,” Chay says.

The first Chef in the Market event is planned for Saturday July 5th at the Central Peninsula Farmer’s Market. Ally Bril will lead off with a Quick and Healthy demonstration. Susan Nabholz follows on August 9th, and Nancy Schrag will teach you how to love your kale and eat it too on August 16th. Three other demonstrations are planned for the Tuesday market at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank. You can find more at Kenai Local Foods facebook page.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

(This article has been updated. Ally Bril was incorrectly associated with the Flats Bistro in Kenai. She has no official affiliation with that business.)

Soldotna Approves Fall Ballot Question To Opt Out Of State Financial Disclosure Laws

The Soldotna city council approved a ballot question for the fall concerning financial disclosures for municipal candidates. If approved by voters, the disclosures would be kept closer to home.

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So, the question that voters will answer in the fall is whether the city shall establish and adopt financial disclosure forms and guidelines for City of Soldotna municipal officials and candidates and exempt municipal officials and candidates of Soldotna from the requirements of the state financial disclosure laws. Right now, candidates have to file with APOC, the Alaska Public Offices Commission. Soldotna City Manager Mark Dixon, who introduced the issue to the council, said the APOC requirements are too intrusive.

“Quite frankly, I think it has a chilling effect on people wanting to get involved, and I think it can have a detrimental effect on those people on those people who do get involved.”

He says that makes it difficult to recruit people to serve on boards and commissions, and makes for a more shallow pool of candidates for public office. Widespread distribution of the records doesn’t help either, he says.

“Once you get onto one of our commissions, your entire private life, as far as your financials, become public knowledge. If you file with the state, anyone can go online and determine all of your finances. And if you’re a business person in this community and you have competition in this community, or competition coming from outside this community, it’s very easy for somebody to get online and see what your business assets are like.”

Dixson says even with those concerns about the current disclosure laws, and the proposal to keep the information at city hall, transparency is still a priority.

“We feel that we have an obligation as well to protect our commission members, to protect our council members, and I don’t think it’s anybody’s business from Huntsville, Alabama, what anyone on this council or anyone on these commissions have in their finances. It should be local because we believe in local government here.”

This isn’t the first time such a proposal has been made. Just five years ago, the city put a similar question on the ballot. Fifty-six percent of voters in 2009 said no to ditching the APOC regulations and adopting local ones.

The city cited similar reasons for the change then, coming just a couple years after the state tightened its financial disclosure rules following allegations of corruption in the state capital. Dixson told the council the major change would be keeping the records at city hall, where they could be viewed upon request. They will not be available online.

The other big difference is the floor for financial reporting. The state requires disclosures for income, loans and other financial transactions of more than $1,000. The city would raise that to $5,000. So, basically, the city would revert back to those pre-2009 rules the state had in place.

More than 200 communities across the state have opted out of the APOC filing rules. The new rules for Soldotna will only go into effect if voters approve the ballot measure during the October 7th election.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Assembly Debates Sales Tax Initiative Process

Some members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly feel it’s time to look at the Borough’s sales tax cap. The Assembly debated how many voters it should take to make a change to the tax at its last meeting.

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Right now, the Borough’s sales tax is only applied to the first $500 of a purchase. The ordinance the Assembly debated didn’t change that. But it did change the number of votes necessary to increase the cap.

We need to go back a few years to find the controversy here. In 2005, a voter initiative passed that required a sixty-percent majority to increase the sales tax. But here’s the rub: that initiative passed with about 54 percent in favor.

“It creates, really, a dilemma,” said Borough Mayor Mike Navarre.

“It is something that I think is confusing and quite frankly think that if it were voted on and passed by 50-plus-one percent, I think the courts would uphold it. I think that the way it’s drafted currently is not appropriate.”

The basic argument for making this change is that when voters approved this cap almost a decade ago, they didn’t hold themselves to the same standard as this new cap. Less than sixty percent said that at least sixty percent would be needed to change the sales tax cap.

And for the measure’s sponsor, Brent Johnson, the time has come to increase that cap, which was originally set almost fifty years ago.

“It is subject to inflation. And inflation is just as sure as death and taxes,” Johnson said. “I bought an outboard last week, cost $9,500. My sales tax to the Borough on that was $15. It’s rather insignificant. And so, while this thing stays the same, inflation goes on.”

But opponents weren’t worried about inflation. Most who spoke against the ordinance didn’t cite economic reasons for keeping the sales tax cap at $500. They didn’t like that the Assembly was trying to overturn a decision the public made on its own.

Assembly member Charlie Pierce said lowering the voter-threshold for increasing the cap was just another path to the trough for Borough government.

“This is another methodology, an easy access for the Mayor or this Borough Assembly or the administration or staff in the Borough to have access to additional dollars that they have yet to even come to the table an identify a need for.”

But Johnson and other supporters framed it as an equality issue. Why should 54 percent of the people say that 60 percent are needed to overturn their decision? Why not 70 or 80 percent?

“And for that reason, it shouldn’t stand. It shouldn’t stand that a minority of the people control a majority. I don’t think that that’s right,” Johnson said.

But in this case, the majority of the Assembly felt that a simple majority is all that should be necessary to change the sales tax cap. If that question should ever come up…

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Two-Way: Navarre Talks Gas Pipeline, Nikiski Development

Later this year, a group of Mayor’s, from Valdez to Barrow, will get together to talk about how a proposed LNG pipeline will affect their communities. But what will the Kenai Peninsula Borough be bargaining for once those meetings begin?

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I spoke with Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre about what he has in mind as communities across the state try to prepare for a potentially huge investment. Some $60 billion. And Navarre says roughly one-third of that would land on the Kenai, and more specifically, Nikiski, home of the end of a proposed in-state natural gas pipeline.

That would also make it home, potentially, to a huge liquid natural gas facility and terminal. It’s very early in this process, but best guesses are that some 5,000 jobs would be created in the short term during construction. One-thousand of those would likely be permanent. That’s a lot of new folks on the Central Peninsula, and a lot more activity in Nikiski. How do you prepare for that? Navarre says first, you figure out how that money comes in.

“If they change it to a PILT, a payment in lieu of taxes, which is basically a fixed amount, the concern there is how the PILT would be allocated statewide and who would decide that.”

But not all major developments like this come with a one-time payment to the municipalities that would otherwise have a new source of annual tax revenue. Navarre says a PILT is not a foregone conclusion, and that the investment being talked about on the Kenai could expand the tax base here by as much as three times. And that’s how all the stuff gets paid for that’s going to be needed to support 5,000 short term and 1,000 long term jobs.

“If we need new schools, if we need new fire stations or new equipment, it’s important to do that. But, we have to also be cautious that we don’t over do it. Because during the construction, it’s going to be a boom time. Then after construction, then we’ll get to where we see the real long term impact.”

But here’s the real question: How do you develop an area that historically hasn’t had much of an appetite for development? Present industry aside, that part of the Peninsula isn’t well known for its stringent zoning regulations and community planning models.

“It could very well be that the folks in the Nikiski area will recognize an opportunity and say ‘You know what? This tax base is in our community now. We can form a city and provide some services to our residents that they feel they’re not getting adequately now.”

Before any of that will happen, though, lots of economic analysis is going to have to happen to make sure whatever new money does come in gets put in the right place, including studies to find out what the right place even is.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 

 

Council Votes To Support Veteran’s Statue In Kenai

 

The Kenai City Council voted to give its support to a controversial veteran’s memorial statue in Lief Hansen Park at its meeting the week.

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For a third time, the council heard public testimony and had its own discussion about the merits of officially supporting the statue. At the center of all of this is a small cross in the design of the statue. The city has been threatened with a lawsuit, and other municipalities have had to go to court over similar statues. A resolution of support failed to get enough votes to be adopted last time. So this time, a simple motion was made by council member Tim Navarre that did the same thing.

“The first part of my motion to support the memorial is just like other communities have done and that’s what I stated, that I think it’s time for our community to make a stand… To support the citizenry that came forward and particularly to support our veterans. We’re talking about a veteran’s memorial and nothing else,” Navarre said.

But council member Ryan Marquis saw things a bit differently.

He voted against Navarre’s first resolution. When that failed, it essentially left everything as is. The statue would stay and the city wouldn’t have officially endorsed it, and everyone would have to wait and see if a lawsuit actually materialized.

“It’s politics. You get to go out there and say ‘Look, I supported it.’ You get to feel like you’re taking a stand, but it doesn’t really change anything. It doesn’t mitigate whether or not there’s going to be a lawsuit, in fact, I think it encourages it. But regardless, I think it’s grandstanding and I think it’s unfair to people to make it seem like this is the big motion and we have to decide what we’re going to do yes or no, and then we’re going to walk away and this thing is going to be settled. It doesn’t settle it at all,” said Council member Ryan Marquis.

                Navarre: “I just want…drawn out process” (0:09)

Navarre refuted the notion that his motion was put forward for political purposes. But even if politics aren’t driving the debate for him, others are using the issue for political purposes.

“This is a very small town and I have a very large mouth,” said Soldotna resident and Air Force veteran Jim Fessler.

“You folks here are all elected, and even though I do not live in the city of Kenai and I cannot vote for you, I can certainly go campaign against you.”

For council members who were opposed to the motion, the opposition was two fold. One, let’s not invite a potentially costly lawsuit. And two, the motion that was introduced mirrors a resolution that already failed to pass.

“It’s politicizing, and we’ve turned this down before for the reason that I believe it encourages further action, or more quick action, for the potential of a lawsuit for the city of Kenai. I don’t want to see the city be sued, it would be unfortunate in this situation,” said Council member Terry Bookey.

But Navarre seemed ready to take on that legal challenge, should it come.

“We already have the threat of a lawsuit. If we’re just going to sit around and wait and then put the public through it…I’m prepared today to support it and move forward. We heard from the public that they’re prepared to participate also in the funding of any liability or a lawsuit. At this time, I think it’s important that the city support its citizenry and we just move on from there.”

Navarre said offers have already come in from a law firm willing to represent the city, pro bono, should the issue be taken up in court. With council member Mike Boyle absent, the rest of the body adopted the motion supporting the statue. Marquis and Bookey were the two no votes.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

(In the interest of disclosure, we note that Terry Bookey also serves as President on the KDLL Board of Directors.)

Assembly Debates Introducing Bed Tax Ordinance

Voters will have two chances to learn more about a proposed bed tax in the Kenai Peninsula Borough next month. The tax would fund the Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council and local education if it’s adopted.

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This one was a little unusual. It took the Assembly more than an hour to hear public testimony and then decide whether or not to adopt the ordinance that would set a date for a public hearing about whether or not to put a four-percent bed tax on the fall ballot.

Generally, an ordinance to introduce something is a quick matter. Most of them are on the consent agenda and don’t get any debate at all. But, we’re talking about a new tax here.

“I will eat part of that, I can’t pass all that on. It’s all about the bottom line. It’s almost like another utility bill or something,” Micheal Warburton, owner of Ocean Shores motel in Homer told the Assembly.

“The four percent is fairly negligible,” said Jason Young, manager at Diamond M Ranch in Soldotna.

“Especially when we talk about when we go to Anchorage, what we pay. Also, I heard a couple people say that they’re paying the taxes. No, as a business, we are only a pass-through. We do collect, but we don’t actually pay. The people (guests) pay the taxes,” Young said.

So there are the two basic sides of the argument. But for those opposed, it goes a little deeper than just the inequity or frivolousness of a four percent tax, per day, for someone staying in a hotel, motel, lodge, or bed and breakfast.

One of the reasons the tax was proposed, and it has been proposed before, is to help fund the Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council. That group gets $300 thousand a year from the Borough. And every year around budget time, people line up to argue for or against spending those tax dollars for marketing the Peninsula. The bed tax, ostensibly, would more than solve that problem, bringing in several times that amount of money.

“We always know that we have a struggle over funding KPTMC and I believe that the Borough has a role in funding economic development,” said Assembly member Bill Smith, who brought the ordinance to the Assembly.

“A bed tax seemed to me to be appropriate and would accomplish many positive goals. But in the end, I thought it would be best to go to the voters and let them decide on it,” Smith said.

Opponents say it’s an unfair tax on Alaskans, especially those of us on the Kenai Peninsula, and it will make the Kenai a less desirable destination. Supporters of the measure pointed to areas across the state, from Juneau to Fairbanks, that have similar taxes in place.

In Anchorage, according to a January story by Elwood Brehmer of the Alaska Journal of Commerce, the city’s take of the tax went up by more than 20 percent between 2009 and 2013. But for some, that misses the point.

“Where the taxes stop I think is a concern for residents of this Borough, some residents of the Borough,” said Assembly member Charlie Pierce.

“When you consider the property taxes you’re paying today, the sales taxes you pay today and your federal taxes that you pay today, some of us are approaching close to 50% of our wages that we make and we pay it out in taxes.”

Taxes were part of the issue, but the other part is who should really be responsible for marketing the vast attractions of the Kenai Peninsula. The businesses themselves? A non-profit that survives, in part, on taxpayer funding? Or that same non-profit, sans Borough funding?

“It’s a serious concern for me and for some of my constituents,” Pierce said.

“That other 50% that are out there saying ‘leave me alone.’ Go out and create a business plan that funds itself is my encouragement and my recommendation.”

There’s a lot more left to go on this one. Two public hearings are scheduled for the next question, which is whether or not to put the issue on the fall ballot. Those hearings are set for July 1st and July 22nd.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Dena’ina Wellness Center Holds Grand Opening

After two years of construction, the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Old Town Kenai held its grand opening with celebrations throughout the weekend.

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On Saturday, members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe filled the beach near the tribe’s setnet fishery with great music and lots of tasty salmon. The end of three days of celebrations following the opening of the new wellness center on Thursday.

We’ll get to the details about that new facility a little later, but we brought you here first, because this is where the tribe really began to come together as community 25 years ago.

“It has really unified us, and it’s been a blessing,” says Liisa Blizzard, the Tribal Council’s Secretary. “Not only do we feed our families from this net, but also our cultural heritage has come back to us and our language has come back to us.”

Having that place to call their own, to gather as one community, was something the Kenaitze were missing for many years. They were a landless tribe. The fishery, and now the Wellness Center, has turned that around.

“We became what is called an invisible tribe. For a time, we were invisible. And now, this fishery has really brought us back together and our community has grown. Our people have regained their identity with their tribe and they have become proud of who they are. I’ve worked for the tribe for over 20 years, and I’ve really seen the change.”

Fast forward almost a quarter-century, and the tribe was finally able to take the next step.

In 2011, it received a joint-venture award from the federal government’s Indian Health Service to operate a health care facility. The tribe was on the hook for getting the land and constructing the building, while IHS would provide funding for operation and maintenance for at least 20 years. Last Thursday, the doors finally opened in Old Town Kenai to a packed house. The tribe’s executive director, Jaylene Peterson-Nyren told the crowd it would have taken days to thank every individual who had lent support for the new center over the years.

“This facility was build on land that was painstakingly purchased and set aside for many years by the Kenaitze Indian Tribal Council and tribal leadership that came before me. Our elders have asked for this much needed facility and encouraged tribal leadership for over 40 years. I am blessed to be here at a time when council leadership, resources and an incredible staff have made it possible to move forward.”

The 52,000 square foot, two story building sits on 4 acres in Old Town. It will serve a wide variety of medical, dental and mental health needs, in addition to being a gathering space for the tribe. Agates in the floors were gathered by tribal members from Cook Inlet beaches. Some of the wood in the building was reclaimed from the old Wards Cove Cannery near the Kenai River, and Dena’ina names are used for all areas in the center.

“The tribe is much more than a Wellness Center. It is a people and a government…We are here to celebrate our success,” Peterson-Nyren said.

Back on the beach, Liisa Blizzard was having fun celebrating the tribe’s accomplishments, growth, and hard work to get here.

“We don’t celebrate ourselves very often, and this weekend, we have been celebrating ourselves. We are the Kenai River People, the Kahtnu’tana and we are very proud of that and we are very proud of what we’ve done. And we thank the community for there support… It’s great.”

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Fish And Game Puts Restrictions On Kasilof Setnetting, Kenai King Numbers Better Than Anticipated

The restrictions cut the hours for the personal-use setnet fishery on the Kasilof River approximately in half. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

 

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order restricting personal use setnetting on the Kasilof River Thursday. That fishery’s time will be cut in half in an effort to get more king salmon up the Kasilof River.

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Fish and Game put a very similar restriction in place last summer. The difference is how they cut fishing time, approximately in half. Last year, they closed the fishery halfway through its 10-day season. This year, personal use setnetters will get the full season, but fishing hours per day will be cut. It’s open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., beginning June 15. Usually it’s open until 11 p.m.

ADF&G commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields says there’s not an exact correlation between decreasing fishing time and decreasing the harvest of early-run Kasilof kings, but it’s close.

“No, I don’t have some table, some graph, some analysis that will indicate that we’re going to save 43.1 percent of the fish by taking away 43.1 percent of the hours,” Shields said. “But that’s what we would assume; take away half the hours, we would hope that we would save half of the harvest of the kings.”

Kenai River-bound king salmon get most of the attention, but both the early and the late run on the Kasilof have their own struggles. The early run has missed its escapement goals in two of the last five years, even when the department put heavy sport fishing restrictions in place. The Kasilof is also unique from the Kenai because it supports a run of hatchery kings as well as naturally produced ones.

“The way the department determines the difference between a naturally-produced king salmon and a hatchery king salmon in the Kasilof River is looking at the adipose fin,” Shields said. “All of the hatchery fish that are released into that system have that fin removed and so we can then identify them when they return as adults and look at a fish and see if it’s a hatchery-produced one, or if it has that fin on there, we know that it was produced naturally.”

But even with those differences, Shields says management of the Kasilof sort of mirrors what’s happening on the Kenai, because that river simply has more and better equipment set up for counting fish.

“By the time those kings get up to the hatchery, they’re really through the fishery and it’s too late for any in-season action,” Shields said. “Because we have a sonar counter in the Kenai River that’s more real-time, we kind of look at what’s going on in the Kenai and make that as a surrogate for the Kasilof.”

“So, last year, when we closed the Kenai River early-run fishery, we went ahead and took action in the Kasilof sport fishery, too, and took action in the personal-use gillnet fishery.”

Low numbers are the biggest concern for the Kasilof, but Shields says the restrictions have another purpose.

“To somewhat alleviate some of the pressure Kasilof, because that’s where folks would go, you would expect that all those fishermen that were going to fish the Kenai would now go to the Kasilof,” Shields said. “They often take actions in the Kasilof just to stave off some of that expected increased harvest pressure that would be put on the Kasilof.”

As we recall, the fishing for the early king run on the Kenai was shut down completely this year – a pretty drastic move. And sportfishing on the Kasilof, taking all the restrictions together, is all but closed. But there’s some good news.

“To-date, right now, the Kenai River early run is promising – especially compared to last year. I mean, it’s not a robust, large run by any means, but we already have made the forecast for the return this year and we’re only between a third and a half way through the run, depending on run timing,” Shields said. “And, so, that’s encouraging that the early run, to-date, anyways, is returning at a rate better than we expected.”

Shields says the Susitna River is seeing a better than expected run of kings, too. And so is the Deshka.

“At this point, though, it’s good to be talking about a glass that might be half full rather than saying for sure the glass is half empty,” Shields said. “And we haven’t been able to talk positively about kings for a few years.”

“I’m not trying to say that we’re there yet, because we are early in these runs, but at least the early part of the king salmon returns in quite a few systems this year look promising.”

Of course, no numbers are out yet for the Kasilof, but the early king run on the Kenai has already surpassed last year’s run with three weeks left.

As of Monday, more than 2,200 kings had been counted.

Primary Ballot Set For August

Primary voters will have a number choices on the ballot this August. Eleven Kenai Peninsula residents have filed for the upcoming campaign season.

We’ll start with the races that end in Washington D.C. Twenty-one term incumbent Don Young will defend his seat in the U.S. House of Representative against one of seven challengers, including Republican John Cox and Democrat Frank Vondersaar, both from Homer.

Republican Kelly Wolf, who currently represents the K-Beach District on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, will seek the office of Lieutenant Governor. That position was made vacant when Mead Treadwell announced his candidacy for United States Senate. Wolf’s Assembly term is over in 2015. He also served in the Alaska State House from 2002-2004.

Brad Snowden, a Republican from Seward, is running for Governor. Snowden has thrown his name in the hat for governor at least once before, in 2010, though his candidacy from Anchorage that year was denied.

State Senator Peter Micciche is unopposed on the primary ballot. Independent candidate Eric Treider of Soldotna will challenge Micciche for the seat in Senate District O in November.

Representatives Mike Chenault and Kurt Olson are also running unopposed in August, but both have challengers for the fall ballot. Chenault, who was first elected in 2000 and has been House Speaker since 2009, will face Nikiski Democrat Rocky Knudsen. Olson, a Republican from Soldotna who replaced Kelly Wolf in 2005 will have a challenger in Democrat Shauna Thornton.

the primary elections will be held on August 19th. In addition to choosing candidates to run in November, voters will also decide on a referendum for Senate Bill 21. That oil tax reform was passed in 2013. A yes vote will reject the bill, and a no vote will keep it on the books.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

City of Kenai Finalizes 2015 Budget

The city of Kenai adopted its annual budget at its most recent meeting. Several last minute amendments yielded some savings, while the mill rate for property owners went up for the first time in five years.

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There was just one addition proposed for the budget. Fifteen-thousand dollars for a storefront improvement program, similar to what the city of Soldotna has been doing for a couple years. But it didn’t get much support.

“Especially as I look at other amendments that might be coming before us, and I’m looking at a potential mill rate increase and things of that nature, I don’t think that now’s the time we should be throwing this $15,000 (to the program), said Council member Terry Bookey.

The council went through a couple dozen amendments to the budget. Many of them were offered up by council member Brian Gabriel. And all of those looked to save money either by removing a line item in the budget all together (like the increased stipend for council members, which was voted down and saved almost $20 thousand), to things like playground equipment replacement.

That one got a pretty fair amount of debate. The amendment called for stripping some funding out of the project to improve Municipal Park. City Manager Rick Koch said it made more sense to do the whole project at the same time, in the same year.

“If you want to construct a 2-5 year old playground area and demolish and replace the playground area for 5-12 year olds, it should be funded in this funding cycle rather than splitting it into the next cycle. Because we would want to bid that project in February or March of 2015 to receive competitive pricing.”

Another line item on the chopping block was for litigation concerning the ongoing CINGSA lawsuit.

CINGSA is the natural gas storage facility in Kenai, and some questions are currently being wrangled over in court about whether or not the city is entitled to make some money off of it. The proposed budget called for putting $75 thousand toward making the city’s case in court. Council member Tim Navarre thought that was a good idea.

“I do believe it’s a litigation that will benefit the city hugely. We need to prepare ourselves for it and have the funds and not have to wait for a council meeting to come back and appropriate the funds. We’re there and we’re ready to go.”

That money did stay in the budget, but all told, the council did agree to cut more than $120 thousand from what was proposed. Which the city’s finance director Terry Eubanks said would leave a budget surplus.

“Assuming the mill rate to be as presented at a half-mill increase, or 4.35 mill rate, this budget will generate a projected surplus of $92,414.”

And the council did agree to that hike in the mill rate. Council member Ryan Marquis said it was the right time for the change.

“When I was first elected to council, we reduced the mill rate at that time, and it’s been the same for last, I believe, five years. And I think it’s due to make that adjustment and I hope this rate is maintained for the next five years.”

The new rate is 4.35 mills, so property owners are on the hook for $435 for every $100,000 in assessed property value.

In addition to the cuts made by the council, a new insurance plan covering the next three years is expected to save the city almost $100,000. The final number for the city’s general fund for next year is $16.2 million.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Lots To Learn From Funny River Fire

Firefighting crews on the Funny River fire continue to be drawn down. As the fire slowly burns out, others will find an area ripe for research.

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One of the many things we’ve learned over the past few weeks is that wild land fires, when they occur naturally and, hopefully away from people and property, can be a good thing.

Something else we know about this fire is that it didn’t occur naturally. The exact cause is still under investigation, but that doesn’t mean researchers aren’t ready to come in and start learning some more.

Dr. Mark Wipfli is a professor of freshwater ecology at the Institute of Arctic Biology at UAF. He’s hoping to get onto the fire scene later this month.

In addition to studying freshwater systems, he’s also studied a lot of forest fires in the Pacific Northwest. Take those two areas together, and he should have quite a bit to see down here.

“Probably the initial steps that we’ll (take) is just have a look around. See how the fire behaved in terms of reaching the streams, how intensely the riparian areas were burned and what kind of riparian areas those were to begin with,” Wipfli says.

He puts the effects of forest fires into two main categories. Short term effects and long term effects. With, of course, some grey area in between that we’ll call medium term effects. And he says it’s the short term effects that tend to be most dramatic. There can be extra sediment in the rivers. And smaller streams in particular might lose some protection when the forest canopy burns up.

“That canopy shades the stream and acts as a buffer from sunlight and from warming. If you lose that forest cover above the stream, you typically will get warming from the increased solar radiation,” Wipfli says.

Given how this fire spread so quickly, warmer streams could indeed be a concern. Black spruce in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge were a main source of fuel for this fire. Refuge manager Andy Loranger says the time of year also played in. Black spruce are really dry right now anyway. Never mind the lack of rain.

“Black spruce trees experience a phenomenon that I’m learning about, called Spring Dip, where the actual live moisture in the spruce is actually lower at this time of year than later in the summer and in fact at any other time,” Loranger says.

Basically, the fire ate up all those dry spurce needles at the top of the trees and raced through about a hundred thousand acres in less than a week. Then it finally began to drop down to where firefighters on the ground could actually do something with it.

Loranger says his staff is beginning to talk about studying the fire’s effects. But right now, the bigger concern is fixing the parts of the Refuge that were dug up as fuel breaks to protect homes.

“Things like the dozer lines and areas where we’ll be doing rehabilitation in the short term, we’re focused on that right now. Longer term will be a more detailed assessment of the biological, ecological effects. And what, if anything, can be done to counter some of the short term effects,” Loranger says.

Longer term effects of the fire? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see. But Dr. Wipfli doesn’t anticipate any lingering, negative effects.

Loranger and Dr. Wipfli made their comments on ‘The Coffee Table’, which aired June 4th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

School District Gets Funding Boost From Borough

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District received an extra half-million dollars when the Borough finalized its budget this week. That money, along with increased funding from the state has improved the district’s finances. At least in the short term.

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The Borough had already penciled in $43.5 million for education funding this year. But concerns about overspending from the District’s fund balance were enough to convince the Assembly to add the extra money.

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre told the Assembly’s Finance Committee that the increase in funding from the state legislature isn’t going to be enough to close the district’s budget gap.

“The 43.5 (million dollars) we originally put in the budget was with discussions with the school district early on when we didn’t know what the state funding was going to be. Now, there was some significant additional funding in the state budget, but it still leaves a shortfall because of some of the nuances of how those funds were appropriated,” Navarre said.

That appropriation has to do with charter schools, which fared well in the legislature’s funding plan. Charters used to need 150 students to get full state funding. Now, they only need 75. Another change in the legislature’s plan says any additional money provided at the Borough level has to be spent equally. In the past, charter schools didn’t get in on that extra funding. Now they will.

“This is primarily designed for the charter schools that are not housed in a school district building,” said District Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater.

He says some of that money will come back into the District through rental payments. Charters that are housed in district buildings don’t have the overhead cost of a lease for that space. But others, like Fireweed Academy in Homer, do have a lease.

“So for those schools inside of our building, ABC, Kaleidoscope, Montessori, will now be paying a rent and the school board is wrestling with how to charge that,” Atwater said.

The big question from the Assembly was why now? Why not wait until later in the fiscal year and see if the district really needs that money?

“We flat-funded them the last three, four budget cycles and they’ve hired 60 to 80 new teachers in the process of that and they’ve determined how to do it, and they’ve done it. So what I’d like to do is leave (the $500 thousand) where it’s at and if they get into a situation, let them come to us and we can reach into our fund balance. Let them demonstrate that they need it,” said Assembly member Charlie Pierce.

Navarre said it wasn’t a decision that had to be made at the beginning of the fiscal year.

“It really boils down to the school district has some fund balances; we could have them spend out of their fund balance and preserve our funds or we can try to reach a happy medium between the two, where they’re spending some of their fund balance and the Borough is spending some of its fund balance in order to manage our responsibility for education funding.”

Atwater told the Assembly that overall, enrollment numbers are slightly down across the district. And he said that the recent activity in the Nikiski area, which is only expected in increase over the next several years, has not been reflected in the enrollment numbers there or in Kenai.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Borough Assembly Passes Annual Budget

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly finalized the Borough spending plan for fiscal year 2015 at its meeting Tuesday night. Much of the debate over the fine details centered around funding for non-profits.

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It’s an argument we hear pretty much every time the Borough budget comes up.

“This budget is getting way out of hand, every single year. How long are we supposed to fund non-profits?” asked George Pierce of Kasilof.

He’s talking, in general, about just a handful of line items in the Borough’s budget. CARTS, the Central Area Rural Transit System, the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, The Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council and a couple others.

As each item came up for debate, the opening move was to offer up amendments cutting funding for these programs and agencies by up to fifty-percent. None of those amendments passed, and CARTS funding actually increased, from $25 thousand to $50 thousand.

Assembly member Charlie Pierce wondered if some savings could be found by contracting out the same services CARTS provides.

“We could put it out for a bid, but that would be a farce. The reality is those entities have done a good job. And I think that’s been reflected in the fact that the Assembly, several Assemblies for the last 15 years in some cases, have provided funding in the budget after deliberation on these issues,” said Borough Mayor Mike Navarre.

Assembly members Charlie Pierce, Kelly Wolf and Wayne Ogle cast most of the votes supporting the funding decreases. The rest of the Assembly saw enough value in the spending to keep it up. Even the $300 thousand that goes to the Tourism and Marketing Council. Assembly member Brent Johnson says they’ve been trying to figure out a different funding scheme for years, but bottom line, that organization has only a few options for generating revenue. And it’s one of few organizations that actively markets the Kenai Peninsula.

“This area has a lot of good things to market, I’m optimistic they can market them, and it’s going to help fund our schools which is one of my primary responsibilities and actually lighten the burden on taxpayers. So, I don’t think that this 11th hour would be a reasonable time to cut KPTMC and cripple them while they’re trying to get up and running,” Johnson said.

Now, all that could change next year. The Assembly will vote later this month on whether to put a bed tax on the fall ballot. If it passed, the marketing council would get a much larger share of its funding from that, instead of directly from the Borough.

Travel expenses was one area where the Assembly did find some room to cut. Assembly member Dale Bagely said there’s plenty of money for getting people to Juneau or Washington should the need arise, but the almost $20 thousand that was laid out in the budget for travel was too much.

“I’ve heard from many (legislators) that they look at those junkets and think it’s a waste that that many people from the Assembly would go to D.C. or go to Juneau.”

The new cap for travel expenses is ten thousand dollars. And that cut represented most of the savings the Assembly could agree on for next year’s budget, which will be drawn from beginning July first.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Prevention Team Hosts Fire Workshops

As crews fighting the Funny River fire slowly move on to other parts of the country, other teams are coming in to help prevent damage from the next fire. A series of community workshops are planned for this week to do just that.

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Frank Corona got the call last week that there might be some people here interested in protecting their homes from a fast-approaching forest fire.

“We actually came as kind of a special task force, and we’re here to supplement the people who have been here working on this for along time,” Corona said.

He is the National Fire Prevention Education Team leader. He’s actually the only member of the team from out of state, coming in from Ohio. But whether you’re down there or up here, many of the same basic principles apply.

Corona says one of the biggest parts of his team’s education outreach has to do with weather. Late spring and early summer are popular times to get grills and campfires going. But the conditions under which we all do those things have changed.

“In the last few years, we’ve had weather patterns that are really different from what we’ve experienced historically. And sometimes the fuels are much drier, the weather conditions are more severe, and all that leads to more excessive fires,” Corona says.

And so one of the problems is assessing potential risks from even small open fires in those changing conditions.

“I think sometimes the conditions we talked about, the drier fuels, the weather, those kind of throw people off when they’re used to doing certain things at certain times safely. But the basic elements are the same. There are certain ways that you can make your home more defensible. More space around the home, less vegetation.”

 Corona and his team have several meetings scheduled for this week, beginning Thursday morning.

Based on his few days on the Kenai, he says he expects a lot of positives to come from the workshops.

“I’m really impressed, coming from Ohio, seeing how the agencies function together here. I shouldn’t say it’s unusual, but it doesn’t always happen. Agencies get territorial, but here in Alaska, everyone’s been working together.”

The workshops will go over techniques and strategies to keep homes and properties as protected as possible, taking into consideration the wide variety of landscapes and terrain in the area. The first one is at 10:30 Thursday morning at the Funny River Community Center. Then they head to Tustumena Elementary that evening at 6:30. Friday night, they’ll be at the Sterling Community Center at 6:30 and they’ll also have a booth set up at the Kenai River Fest Sunday from 11-5.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Burgers And A Breather For Fire Fighters, Residents

Fire fighters file into the Soldotna Sports Center Sunday evening for a community barbeque. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

After almost two weeks battling the Funny River fire, fire crews and residents had a chance to take a quick breather Sunday night at a community barbeque at the Soldotna Sports Center.

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The Sports Center was a full house, with hundreds of residents coming in to say thank you. Or write it.

Rebecca Stimmel of Soldotna says she was never in the fire’s direct path, but still wanted to help. So, she came up with the idea for a banner. A great big, blank thank you card for the firefighters.

“A lot of people stood to lose hundreds of years of history. It’s a major part of your life, and to have that threatened is extremely scary. There’s a lot of happy people and a lot of safe people,” Stimmel said.

A banner filled with thank-you's greeted fire fighters at Sunday night's community barbeque. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Before the first cheeseburgers had even been served, the banner was filled with thank-you’s and well wishes. Mostly, the party was a chance for residents to give a smile and a hand shake to the crews who helped make sure their homes weren’t destroyed.

And that’s something that state forestry supervisor Rob Allen says doesn’t happen too often for crews that are on the go, from one fire to another, all summer long.

“We don’t get a chance to mingle with the community too often. We come and go. We’ve got more fires to go to. They are starting to look for more crews up north of the (Brooks) Range, they’ve got a big fire up by Delta. These guys will be eating and getting rested up and then moving on to another fire,” Allen said.

The initial attack crews have been on the scene for almost two weeks, and that’s the limit. Incident Command Center spokesperson Celeste Prescott says as containment of the fire goes up, crew sizes will go down, but not right away.

“We’re not leaving, we’re not disappearing by any means. The team is going to be here at least until the end of the week, if not longer. And after that, there will be another, smaller team that will come in and manage the fire. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

She says crews will work to create containment areas 100 feet deep at first, expanding to as much as 500 feet, depending on the area.

“(That) should be good to hold it this summer. You’re going to see smoke all summer long. It’s entirely too large to and the terrain is too difficult to safely get our guys in there and put a line all around this fire,” Prescott said.

Rob Allen said they have a secured line from Skilak Lake to Tustumena Lake and will continue to monitor hot spots with an aerial drone and infrared scanners.

Firefighting Crews Welcome the Rain

Light rain and little wind has helped keep the Funny River fire from growing much for the past two days. It’s 46 percent contained and as of Wednesday night afternoon, it’s estimated to have burned more than 192,000 acres on the central Kenai peninsula.

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A crew of more than 700 people has been fighting the fire around the clock. High winds and dry conditions fueled its spread last week. But, over the past few days, the weather has been on the firefighters’ side. And fire management officials are now able to give some good news.

“All evacuation advisories were lifted late Wednesday morning for the area around the Funny River Fire.”

That’s Jim Schwarber, a public information officer with the Alaska Incident Management Team.

“This weather really moderates fire behavior and allows the firefighters to get in closer and do direct line building and do a direct attack on the fire. Instead of defending the neighborhoods, we are able to go after the fire and further contain it.”

But, Schwarber said the amount of rain falling isn’t enough to penetrate the thick canopy of black spruce. That means for a while, there will still be hot spots where the fire is smoldering. And if the rain stops, the ground will dry out quickly. He says that could lead to more active fires down the line. But, he said, the team in place has a lot of support.

“I think something that is really important to note is that this fire is now ranked number one in priority in the nation and that is something Alaska fires rarely do.”

That’s because it’s not competing for resources with many other large fires in the lower 48. At this time, Schwarber said operations are still focused on containing the part of the fire that jumped the Kenai River. He said crews have established a line north of Torpedo Lake.

That’s a high priority because of its proximity to the Kenai Keys subdivision. But, he said the fire isn’t growing much in that area. Crews have nearly completed a containment line along the entire western and northern flanks.

However, Schwarber said the fire has been growing to the southeast, on the shore of Tustumena Lake.

“The fire has burned past Pipe Creek Cabin and down past the Moose Creek Sauna area and is currently approaching Taylor Cabin, Andrew Bird Cabin, Lake Emma Cabin areas. And we do have crews in there and hot shot folks that are preparing those cabins in case the fire does reach that far.”

Also on that side of the fire, crews are preparing to defend the Fish Weir on the Killy River, if that becomes necessary. Overall, Schwarber said the team has made good progress and is planning for the next few days.

Weather can be a wild card, but crews are hoping for more rain so they can keep one step ahead of the Funny River fire.

Shady Grove Oliver/KBBI

Coordination the Key for Funny River Fire Containment

It’s been more than one week since the Funny River fire began burning on the Kenai Peninsula. And very early on, one group from Fairbanks has been in control of the firefighting efforts.

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Seven-hundred firefighters. Dozens of different government agencies. Thousands of citizens needing information and wanting to help. In a stressful, constantly-changing situation like the Funny River fire, who steps in to take control? The Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team.

Bernie Pineda is a fire information officer for the team, which is based out of Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks. The AIIMT has been on the scene in Soldotna for nearly a week, performing dozens of tasks, chief among them coordinating all the various agencies that have had a hand in fighting the 192,000-acre blaze.

The team of about 40 people quickly set up a command center at Skyview High School and from there, started coordinating all firefighting efforts.

As of Wednesday morning, Pineda said there have been many successes fighting different fronts of the fire but there is still much to do.

On the northwestern part of the fire, nearest the Sterling Highway, firefighters are using hand tools – like shovels and pulaskis – to dig a handline, a shallow trench down to the bare soil that will stop or at least slow the fire’s advance.

Further east, near the Funny River neighborhood that was evacuated over the weekend, crews are using heavy equipment, including bulldozers and Caterpillar excavators, to dig wider containment lines. Pineda said those two lines linked up Tuesday afternoon.

Of course, the rain that has finally been falling on the Kenai Peninsula over the last day or two has been a welcome sight for firefighters.

When a big fire like this happens, especially so close to populated communities, information can spread with the wind, too. Pineda said the team has used traditional tools to get the latest fire updates out to the public – like roadside signs and community meetings – but Pineda said Facebook has become an important tool for getting information out quickly.

You can find the latest information on Facebook, of course, by liking the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team’s page. KBBI and KDLL have been providing updates there, as well.

Bernie Pineda made his comments on the “Coffee Table” program, which aired Wednesday on KBBI and KDLL.

Aaron Selbig/KBBI

Funny River Residents Return Home

Tuesday morning, the fire management team lifted the evacuation of Funny River Road from Mile 7 to the end. The road remains under an evacuation alert, which means residents should be ready to leave again if the fire gets worse in that area.

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Residents of Funny River Road were evacuated over the weekend. Many left with just a few necessities and haven’t been back home since.

Some are staying with friends or family in the area. Others have spent the past few days sleeping in shelters, RVs, or tents. A few local hotels opened their doors to the evacuees, like Hooligans Lodging and Saloon.

Owner Molly Poland said offering up rooms at the lodge was an easy decision. Poland said at first she wasn’t sure how to accommodate so many people. But, the community stepped up to help.

When you walk into the lobby, you immediately notice all of the stuff. It’s piled high with everything from bags of pet food and toothbrushes to shampoo, and stacks of blue jeans.

It’s everything someone in this position would need. But, it’s still not home. At the front desk, Funny River resident Pamela Ferris was checking out. It’s overcast outside and she’s smiling. Sunny skies are usually welcome on the peninsula, but the light rain shower overnight was a big relief for displaced residents.

She hopped into her black truck packed with suitcases and plastic bags to head back to her home fourteen miles out Funny River Road. The air is smokier and there are black burnt patches along the road. She pulled off into her driveway with no sign of the fire on her property.

She said she hopes the next few days bring more rain and the evacuation alert is also lifted. Ferris said the chance of having to leave all over again is in the back of her mind.

Shady Grove Oliver/KBBI

Funny River Fire Burns 176,000 Acres

The Funny River Fire continued to burn the central Kenai Peninsula this week. As of Monday night, it’s estimated to have burned more than 176,000 acres with 30 percent containment. Funny River Road from Mile 7 to the end was evacuated on Sunday afternoon. The Kenai Keys area was put on evacuation alert.

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The fire is mainly burning within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, though it has pushed outside those boundaries over the last few days.

Sarah McAlpin said she lives on the Funny River side of the Kenai Keys. She and her husband and their dog left home with only some medications, documents, and a few valuables. She and other evacuees attended one of the many public information sessions at Redoubt Elementary School in Soldotna. It’s serving as a Red Cross shelter for people displaced by the fire.

Kris Ericksen is a public information officer with the Alaska Incident Management Team. She’s helping get the word out to residents about the most recent fire updates.

She said there have been no injuries. And, at this point, there are no structures known to have been destroyed. She also said there is no known structural damage in the Funny River area.

However, Ericksen said it’s hard to determine if there has or has not been damage to more rural cabins without being able to get on the ground and check. She said crews have are focusing their efforts on the northern edge of the fire.

Michelle Weston is an information officer for the fire management team. She said the wind has been a major factor in the fire so far. She said it has pushed the fire deeper into the wildlife refuge.

Weston said there are about 600 people involved in the firefighting effort. That includes Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopters, water scoopers from Canada, management officials from the Yukon, and teams from the Lower 48.

Kenai Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said it’s been a community, statewide and regional effort. And, he said he hopes the weather will help over the next few days. The National Weather Service said it could begin raining about midnight Monday night and continue through Tuesday. Scattered showers were expected Wednesday and Thursday.

But for now, residents like Sarah McAlbin will wait, watch, and hope for some news that the fire is moving away from their homes. The Red Cross shelter in Soldotna has open cot space and is providing some meals and snacks for people displaced by the fire.

Shady Grove Oliver/KBBI News

“We Know The River Is Not Going To Stop The Fire” – Kasilof Residents Share Concerns With Fire Fighters

Forestry Supervisor Rob Allen addresses nearly 300 people in the gymnasium at Tustumena Elementary Thursday night. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Heads of agencies dealing with the Funny River fire met with residents in Kasilof Thursday night. People facing the northwest flank of the fire wanted to know if they should get out, when they would be told, and how they could help.

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Nearly 300 people jammed the gym at Tustumena Elementary to get some answers from the people managing the nearly 70,000 acre Funny River fire. Some of them live just a mile or two from where the fire is burning near Kasilof.

Mike Anderson has been through this drill before. The Caribou Hills fire five years ago is still a pretty recent memory.

“Those of us that have been through this before, we know the river is not going to stop the fire. But I feel better now after hearing these professionals give us the rundown and the fact that the Refuge has agreed to let them use mechanized equipment.”

Anderson, like everyone else, was mostly concerned about when the call might be made to evacuate, and who will make it, but he’s already got a plan.

“I’m going to hook my dualie up to one of my trailers and I’m pretty well going to have everything ready to go. I’ve already got my stuff you can’t replace, pictures. The horses, I’ll load those up and get them down the road and then I’ll come back and deal with whatever’s left.”

Anderson says he started thinking about bugging out before the fire even got to Tustumena Lake because, again, he’s seen this before.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management will be in charge of notifying people IF evacuations are made. That office works with the division of Forestry to determine where the fire is moving and how fast.

So, for example, the Borough knows how many people live between miles 106 and 108 of the Sterling Highway and how long they need to get out. Forestry tells the Borough how long it will take the fire to get there and what the trigger point will be for the Borough to call you.

“If we need a 12 hour notice to get you ready to go or if we need three hours to empty a section of a neighborhood, we give them (the division of Forestry) that time frame, observing the actual fluid, changing situation on the ground…You know how erratic the winds have been. (Forestry) determines when the trigger point has been met. It’s going to take this fire this much time to get from point A to B,” explained Scott Walden, OEM director for the Borough.

The key, of course, is making sure the Borough knows how to get in touch with people. You can register your cell phone for evacuation notices on the Borough website.

In the meantime, Forestry says do the Fire Wise stuff. Clear the area around your house or other property of slash piles and leaves, mow the grass, keep it watered and in general, get stuff that could easily catch on fire away from everything.

Sound, practical advice. But not too reassuring for everyone. Campfires were a big concern, especially with so many people expected on the Kenai over the weekend.

When asked if a more comprehensive burn ban should be enacted, the crowd answered with a resounding ‘yes’.

There’s already an open burn ban in place for the entire western Peninsula. And there’s a ban on all campfires within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. And even though there isn’t an outright ban on all fires everywhere, no one Thursday night thought they were a very good idea.

Some in the crowd left feeling a little better about things, some didn’t. The division of Forestry said they’ll be organizing more meetings like this as the fire continues to burn.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Agency Heads Meet With Kasilof Residents About Funny River Fire

Forestry Supervisor Rob Allen addresses nearly 300 people in the gymnasium at Tustumena Elementary Thursday night. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Residents concerned about the Funny River Fire met in Kasilof and Funny River last night to get the latest from the agencies managing the fire.

The question was pretty clear: When are you going to tell us to evacuate. And the answer from Forestry Supervisor and Smokejumper Rob Allen:

“I haven’t seen a spot right now where I’m at a point where I’m going to say ‘you people need to get out of here right now.’ What we will be doing is monitoring what’s going on, watching what’s happening, gathering the resources that we have, coming in and getting ready to go and putting a plan together if it does happen. So if we do see it starting to move in that direction, we’re going to have personnel, we’re going to have engines, we’re going to have crews moving into that neighborhood and getting people out.”

More crews are on the way, with a total of 450-500 expected in over the weekend.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Funny River Fire Grows, Crews Set Up Camp

Tents are set up for crews fighting the Funny River fire at the base of the Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School Thursday morning. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The Funny River Fire has now consumed nearly 50,000 acres. By Thursday morning, a command center had been established at Skyview High School, and crews were again focusing their efforts on keeping the fire away from residential areas in Funny River and Kasilof.

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140522.fire.update

As the wildfire continues into its fourth day, a command center has been established at Skyview High School. And that’s where all the information coming from the fire scene will go through. Support crews were busy Thursday morning unloading supplies and establishing communications. A little tent city behind the school at the base of the Tsalteshi Trails will be home for the fire fighters, at least until the parts of the fire near residential areas are under control.

Celeste Prescott came in from Girdwood to help make sure the crews have what they need and the information is going where it needs to go.

“We’ve got bus loads of crews coming in and they’ll set up here in the evening. Some of them take their stuff with them because they’ll possibly end up in the field, some of them know they’re coming back here at night and they can leave their things set up. It’s a constant work in progress.”

They had established a hotline, where people can call any time for real time updates on the fire. That number is 714-2484.

“What you’re seeing today, a little shift in action from a game plan and trying to get priorities set and figuring out what’s going on to an actual going out there and attacking the fire. We have over 150 people on the ground and numerous aircraft out there. The priorities have not changed. The priorities are still keep the fire away from the Funny River community and the Kasilof community,” said  Brad Nelson, Health and Safety Officer for Central Emergency Services.

As of noon on Thursday, the fire was about five percent contained.

“Now what we’ve got is winds out of the north, which is not a bad thing. It pushes it back into Tustumena Lake. When we have winds from the west, like we did yesterday, it just pushes it back into the Refuge. We don’t want to see winds from the east or winds from the south,” Nelson said.

Pete Buist is a Fire Information Officer for the Alaska Inter-agency Coordination Center. He says there are three things that contribute to the growth of a wildland fire like this: weather, topography and fuels.

“Each of those three things contributed almost equally. The fire is burning uphill towards the mountains, so you’ve got that topographical consideration. You’ve got just miles and miles of black spruce and beetle-killed white spruce. There’s some pretty heavy fuels involved,” Buist said.

And taken with the dry weather and the high winds earlier in the week, it’s no big surprise to see a fire double in size in a short time.

Winds were expected to pick up out of the north through Wednesday, another good thing, as it will help push the fire away from those populated areas and further into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

‘It’s Been A Privilege’ Renee Henderson Retires After 43 Years Teaching Music

Renee Henderson directs the KCHS choir for the last time Wednesday night during graduation ceremonies. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

After 43 years in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Renee Henderson put down her baton for the last time as the Kenai Central High School Choir Director Wednesday night.

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140522.henderson.retirementKDLL

On the last day of school for graduating seniors, I got to spend a little time chatting with Henderson about her long career, teaching music.

“I always liked music. My parents bought a piano and the three girls started the same day. I was the youngest, I was five, and when my brother came along, he took piano, too. For myself, it was not by choice, I didn’t like it very much. I would have rather been outside, but we were mandated to eight years. I was the one my mother had to reset the timer on all the time, and I’m the only one playing anymore, so I guess she knew what she was doing.”

Those years of lessons paid off. Henderson attended St. Olaf College, then took her first teaching job in Oregon, but in 1971, she moved to the Kenai Peninsula.

“I started at Sears Elementary. Dale Sandahl hired me. On October 7th, he came to visit me and said we would be going over to meet the new Superintendent. I thought that was kind of odd and he said he would let the new superintendent explain it to me. I should have known he was up to something.”

The surprise was that she would be teaching choir AND band. Which is not what she signed up for.

“I told him I wasn’t and he said ‘Then you don’t have a job.”

But as luck would have it, the band director at Kenai Junior High had his sights set on the band director gig, and Henderson settled into her role directing the school’s choirs.

Over the next four decades, Henderson would direct more than 17,000 students, sharing with them her joy of music, and taking them all over the world.

“I think I was put on earth to check the acoustics of some of the great cathedrals,” she says with a laugh.

The list of famous venues where Henderson and her students have performed is long, but she says she never felt smaller than when she was under the 90 foot ceilings of the Notre Dame cathedral in 1975 during Good Friday services.

“They (the Cardinals) probably went through six, eight, nine, different languages, flipping between them. And then we would sing when they would point at us. It was a really phenomenal experience.”

She says its her philosophy about the American public education system, and the diversity it can offer, that’s kept her at it all these years.

“I think it’s the best thing (public education) that America has. Period. Without that, we would be like most other countries. We would like just our own race. Just the people we were raised around. I think stretching, learning to accept another human beings as the whole package, their ideas, everything…but learning to be around other people, how to treat people as human beings, is just huge. I’d have everybody in the world in the choir if I could.”

Henderson says over the years, her main focus has been simply being available to her students, to help them grow as people. And to teach them more than just music, but also a lesson her father taught her: to leave this world better than we found it, in all ways.

“The ground we walk on, the property we own or have access to, and how we deal with people. I always want people to have more joy in their life. And I want people to feel like they can come talk to me at any time. I’ve had students call at two, three, four in the morning if they’re battling something and just wanted to know if they could talk and of course they can. It’s been a privilege, actually.”

Plans for a well-deserved retirement include lots of sleeping in after 43 years of waking at 5 a.m. and lots more travel.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 

Funny River Fire Continues Into Third Day

Smoke from a 20,000 acre wildfire looms over Ski Hill Road south of Soldotna. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The fire that started near Funny River Monday is still going strong. The fire has consumed more than 44,000 acres.

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(This story has been updated since it first aired.)

By Wednesday afternoon, more than 200 firefighters had been sent in to control the blaze. Even though the size of the fire is now more than 30 square miles, it’s still contained within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and so very little property was being threatened.

The fire is being attacked hardest on its northern flank, closer to residential areas in Funny River and Kasilof. It’s spreading south and east into unpopulated parts of the Refuge.

Crews are using water almost exclusively to fight the fire. Doug Newbould is the Fire Management Officer on the Refuge. He says water is preferred over chemical retardants.

“Fish especially, those are the aquatic resources we’re trying to protect by not using retardant, however, we also understand and are fully supportive of the policy and the and the practices of protecting communities. If you have to use retardant, if that’s the best tool at your disposal or even a last resort sometimes, then yeah, use retardant.”

Newbould says the Refuge signed off on very limited use of retardant Tuesday, just enough to keep the fire from damaging the historic Nurses Cabin.

Extremely dry weather, high winds and low humidity proved the perfect mix for creating such a big wildfire. And Newbould says that if life and property aren’t threatened, a fire in the Refuge can have some positive benefits. But it really depends on the cause. He says they’re not sure yet exactly what started this fire, but it was likely man-made.

“Fire is an ecosystem process. And when it’s natural, we like to support it and use it where we can to accomplish resource objectives, but our only objectives on this fire are protecting communities and keeping the fire within the Refuge boundaries.”

The state division of Forestry says that recent efforts to clear beetle-kill spruce from the Refuge have removed fuel that could have made the fire spread farther and faster. Forestry spokesperson Andy Alexandrou says it’s not time to relax yet, though. Crews worked early Wednesday morning to keep the fire from jumping Funny River Road.

“We’re trying to keep that road open. We do suggest that you use extra caution as you’re driving around in that area between miles 5 and 8 (of Funny River Road). There is a fair amount of equipment there, people walking and working, staging for apparatus, so use a little extra caution as you pass through there.”

He says the incident management teams that arrived Wednesday morning will be completely set up and able to get more information out Thursday.

As the fire continues to burn, air quality is becoming a big concern. The Department of Environmental Conservation still has an air quality advisory in effect. The strong northerly winds that had been sending the smoke to the southern peninsula have calmed down, and now most of that smoke has settled between Sterling and Kenai, forcing Central Peninsula Hospital to stop surgical operations Wednesday afternoon, as a precaution to make sure air handlers were working properly.

As the fire speads, questions about possible evacuations from Funny River to Kasilof abound, and at Tuesday night’s Borough Assembly meeting, Borough Emergency Management Director Scott Walden explained how those decisions are made.

“In a situation such as this, Department of Natural Resources,  (Division of) Forestry would be the ones to order an evacuation, if necessary.Our job would be to develop plans to put in place with Forestry and the State Troopers,” Walden said.

The Borough has a hotline set up to field evacuation questions and other general questions about the fire. That number is 714-2495.

Community meetings are scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday in Funny River and Kasilof. Locations will be announced later.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Skyview Holds Last Graduation

Terri Zopf-Schoessler delivers the keynote address at Skyview's final graduation ceremony Tuesday at the Soldotna Sports Complex. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Sky View High School held its graduation ceremony Tuesday night at the Soldotna Sports Center. The 70 members of the class of 2014 are Skyview’s last graduates, as the school consolidates with Soldotna High School starting in the fall.

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-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Funny River Fire Takes 20,000 Acres, More Firefighters On The Way

Smoke from a 20,000 acre wildfire looms over Ski Hill Road south of Soldotna. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Now in its third day, the wildfire burning on the Kenai Peninsula has consumed 20,000 acres.

State Division of Forestry spokesperson Andy Alexandrou says more personnel and equipment are on the way to Soldotna.

“Additional dozers for working the fire perimeter, and most importantly, additional crews. Numerous crews, Type Two crews and Alaska Native Village crews have been ordered, Type One Hot Shot crews have been ordered and those orders are being filled throughout the day and into tomorrow. We expect a considerable amount of additional resources on the fire.”

Crews kept the fire from crossing Funny River Road early Wednesday morning, while also focusing efforts on keeping the fire from reaching into the Kasilof area. Alexandrou says information stations will be set up tomorrow in Soldotna and Kasilof.

The area is still under an air quality advisement from the Department of Environmental Conservation due to heavy smoke from the fire.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

DEC Issues Air Quality Warnings For Kenai Peninsula

Smoke from the Funny River Road fire has been carried by the wind straight into the Homer area and Kachemak Bay.

The dense haze and smoke in the area prompted the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to issue an air quality warning Tuesday.

The DEC says air quality is between “good” and “unhealthy.” The agency advises that children, the elderly or anyone with heart or respiratory disease should avoid outdoor activity. In the immediate vicinity of the fire, DEC has classified the air quality as “hazardous.”

The agency advises that anyone in these areas should avoid outdoor exertion.

Officials with the Kenai Peninsula Borough warned local residents that the fire is affecting several areas with smoke and ash. No evacuations were being ordered Tuesday afternoon but residents were advised to avoid being outdoors unless necessary and to keep any necessary medications handy.

Borough officials said that if residents choose to leave the affected areas, they should plan ahead by knowing where they are going and making sure others know of their plans.

-Aaron Selbig/KBBI-

Crews Still Battling 7,000 Acre Funny River Fire

Smoke rises from a 7,000 acre wild land fire, east of Kasilof Tuesday morning. More than 100 firefighting personnel were expected on the scene to bring it under control as it burned into its second day. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

A massive wild land fire continues to burn on the Central Kenai Peninsula. Crews have been battling the now 7,000 acre blaze since Monday.

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By Tuesday afternoon, water tankers had been deployed along with forty firefighting personnel, with six more crews on the way.

“The fire is starting to spread to the east and the west. The wind direction is still basically northerly,” said Andy Alexandrou, spokesperson for the state Division of Forestry.

He says the Type Two Fire Incident Team that arrived Tuesday will be deployed Wednesday morning.

“And that does a couple things; it gives them latitude through a delegation of authority on working the fire, and it frees up the forestry personnel here to concentrate on initial attack of fires.”

He says that team took some steps before they even landed on the Kenai.

“I have seen orders already placed by that management team for increasing the crew strength and equipment dedicated to this fire.”

Six more crews are expected to arrive by Wednesday morning, bringing the total to more than one hundred personnel fighting the blaze.

I put somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 miles on my truck Tuesday morning, getting a look at the fire from different vantage points from Funny River Road to Kasilof. All along the Sterling Highway, people were stopped, getting shots of the giant smoke plume on their cell phones. No one wanted to go on tape, but I heard the words ‘Wow’ and ‘Surreal’ more than once. Most people were thinking of family and friends in the immediate area.

By 3 p.m. Tuesday, the fire had reached the north shore of Tustumena Lake. Alexandrou said incoming fire crews will be briefed, get a plan of attack together, then get to work based on priorities.

“Priorities are usually protection of life and property, protection of the public and protection of the firefighters as well. It will set the parameters of the priority as in a flanking, suppression action on the west side, the east side, the head of the fire and the tail of the fire. Those things will vary, but that is usually the case.”

No evacuation orders had been made by late Tuesday. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management is the agency that coordinates those kinds of plans. The roughly one-mile-wide, by ten-miles-long fire wasn’t moving back toward Funny River, or advancing toward Kasilof by late Tuesday afternoon.

Smoke from the fire was causing some health concerns, though.

The Department of Environmental Conservation issued an air quality advisory that said the air would be between good and unhealthy over the next couple days, with worse conditions expected at night, when temperatures are lower.

Fire crews were also going at a 450 acre fire near Tyonek Tuesday afternoon. A hot shot crew had been sent in as of 3:30, working on a fire line along an existing road to keep Tyonek safe. Residents there were asked to evacuate, and have been taking refuge in the Tyonek Native Corporation Lodge south of the village.

-Shaylon Cochran, Ariel Van Cleave/KDLL-

Wildfire Burning South of Soldotna

Smoke from a wildfire rises south of Tustumena Lake Monday night. Nearly 1,000 acres near Funny River Road have burned, but as of 11 p.m. Monday, no structures had been threatened. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

A pair of large wildfires have blazed through hundreds of acres in Soldotna and Tyonek.

As of 10 p.m. Monday (last) night, a fire located near Funny River Road near Soldotna had burned more than 900 acres. Alaska Division of Forestry Spokesperson Andy Alexandrou said more than 50 firefighters were on the scene, with more crews on the way to help contain the blaze. Crews were aided by two bulldozers and a pair of helicopters that were dropping water on the fire.

The fire caused a large plume of smoke visible throughout the central Kenai Peninsula area and a layer of haze all the way south to Kachemak Bay.

Alexandrou said that no structures were believed to be damaged by the fire. He said the cause was unknown but firefighters suspected ot may have been human-caused, as the area is a popular recreation spot.

At the same time, Alexandrou said a wildfire on the west side of Cook Inlet near the village of Tyonek had burned more than 200 acres Monday (last) night, forcing an evacuation of Tyonek. That fire is being handled by the Palmer Forestry office.

Due to dry conditions, warm temperatures and low humidity, the Kenai Peninsula has been under a burn suspension since last week. Fire danger around the entire peninsula is extremely high.

-Aaron Selbig/KBBi-

“Kenai La Belle” Mural Gets Finishing Touches

"Kenai La Belle" stands, nearly completed, in the workshop at Blazy Construction in Soldotna. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Last fall, local artist Fanny Ryland’s work was chosen for the Paint the Kenai community mural. The final version of the mural was completed over the weekend.

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The title of the work is Kenai La Belle, or Kenai the Beautiful. And it is big. Twenty-four feet wide by 12 feet high. Volunteers scaled ladders and scaffolding in the workshop at Blazy Construction in Soldotna to transfer Fanny Ryland’s original design onto a canvas that should have no problem grabbing the attention of visitors to the Kenai Airport, where it will eventually be installed.

“It’s kind of surreal for me to see it that big,” Ryland said. “It’s so different from the one I did, from small scale to gigantic.”

Artist Fanny Ryland puts the finishing touches on a float plane for her mural which will be displayed at the Kenai Airport. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The coloring is vivid. As are the scenes depicted within the mural. All four seasons come to life, light and dark play next to each other and the peninsula’s cultural heritage and industrial history are all represented.

While I was there, Ryland was working on a last minute addition. Conspicuously absent, given where the mural will call home someday, was an airplane. So the artist climbed up some scaffolding, brush in hand, and added a float plane coming in over Cook Inlet.

“It was a learning process. None of us were pros at it. We had to adjust and see what works for us and if it’s what we wanted. It was great,” Ryland said.

“To actually see that it looks like Fanny’s original painting is what I think is pretty awesome, for all of us to see it in large scale,” said Heather Floyd, one of many volunteers who has helped get the project to this point.

And while the mural itself is impressively big, the process to get it painted is fairly simple. An image of the original was scanned onto a computer, then that image is projected at a much larger scale onto the work surface in sections and moved around on a scissor lift.

“It’s layer upon layer of work, where people had their hand in different parts of it. So one person did the blue sky and another person came and did the (tree) trunks and someone else came and put more detail on the trees,” Floyd said.

Marcus Mueller helped organize the Paint the Kenai contest last fall. He says getting the mural done has been a community effort.

“There’s been about 15 people who have put a hand on the mural itself. And then people who have contributed to this project…I’m going to say hundreds of people have helped make this happen,” he said.

Ryland, too, has been impressed with the support and enthusiasm from the community. She just hopes locals and visitors alike enjoy it.

Mueller says they’re still pinning down final details on placement at the airport, and securing funding for the final construction there. But once it is installed, will the artist stop by to admire it?

“I might,” she said. “Yeah.”

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 

Federal Aid On The Way For Peninsula Flood Victims

Residents who battled rising groundwater last fall could see some relief in the form of federal aid. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Relief is on the way for homeowners affected by last fall’s disastrous flooding on the Central and Eastern Kenai Peninsula. The Alaska Division of Homeland Security is offering $750,000 in federal aid.

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It’s been an unseasonably warm, sunny and unrainy spring on the Kenai Peninsula. Which follows a relatively light winter. It’s dry. A lot drier than it was back in October when I cruised around south of Kenai with Borough Roads director Pat Malone. At that time, he and a lot of folks in the area were scrambling to figure out what to do with all that water.

It was more or less at its highest point then. Dozens of homes had already had basements and crawlspaces flooded. Several more would be before winter set in. On October 29th, Borough Mayor Mike Navarre issued a disaster declaration. That was followed a day later by a similar gesture from Governor Sean Parnell. As the water kept creeping up, citizens in the K-Beach Road area got together to try and figure something out. Dave Yragui was one of the people from the neighborhood trying to get something done.

“It’ll be interesting to see if we can get the whole community together. I think we can because so many people are being impacted by the flooding,” Yragui said.

The way it worked out was everyone crossed their fingers and hoped the winter and spring wouldn’t be too bad, which it wasn’t. That’s bought some time to try and figure out what independent consultant and hydrologist Jim Munter called a hundred million gallon problem.

“And that’s probably too small. It’s probably a several hundred million gallon problem,” Munter said.

The winter months provided some break from the onslaught of groundwater, but some residents have been forced out of their homes. Scientists have had some time to learn more about what water does and where it likes to go in that area, part of a larger effort that Dan Schade of the state division of mining, land and water told me about in April, when an alphabet soup of agencies came to the Kenai River Center to talk to residents about this ongoing problem.

“Ultimately, what we want is to be able to build a groundwater model to where the public and everybody else who would be able to use this information, would know one: what the resource is and what then how these impacts would be. Not only for building projects, but for the management of the water in a system, because water is a public resource and in some areas it’s limited. We have to make wise uses of those resources, we also want to make sure our use doesn’t have an unintended consequence,” Schade said.

One of the consequences of those disaster declarations is some federal aid. The Borough Assembly will introduce an ordinance at its next meeting to appropriate almost $750,000 for costs incurred by last fall’s flooding. The public hearing for that ordinance is scheduled for June 3rd.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Tips To Make Alaska Growing (Hopefully) A Bit Easier

Growing your own food and flowers in Alaska is no simple task. But there are lots of resources out there to help make it easier. Here are just a few tips from veteran Kenai Peninsula gardeners, Marion Nelson and Velma Bittick.

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-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Nikiski Teacher Charged With Sex Abuse

Details are coming out about the Nikiski teacher accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a student. Thirty-six year old Jeremy Anderson has been charged with seven counts of first degree sexual abuse of a minor.

A music teacher at Nikiski High School, Anderson has been placed on administrative leave by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District as the allegations against him are under investigation.

According to court documents, Anderson had sex with a 15 year old student on numerous occasions, dating back to February. On May 8th, the student informed school staff of the relationship.

Early that afternoon, Investigator Jack LeBlanc arrived at the high school. His account says that shortly after four o’clock, Anderson’s wife was contacted. She said Anderson had called and told her about sleeping with the student and that he was going to a place where no one could find him and commit suicide.

That same day, both schools in Nikiski were placed on lockdown as Troopers searched for Anderson. He was found the following day and transported with undisclosed injuries to an unnamed hospital. Anderson hasn’t been arrested yet, though a warrant has been issued by State Troopers.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

‘Scenes to See’ Gives Laughs Galore

Marc Berezin (left) and Eli Graham perform in "The Chance of a Lifetime, or, How the Unicorn Lost His Spot", part of Triumvirate Theatre's Scenes to See night of one act plays. The show runs Friday and Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the Peninsula Center Mall. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Triumvirate Theatre’s annual collection of one act plays continues this weekend. KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran attended the opening performances and came back with this report.

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-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Burn Ban In Effect For Entire Kenai Peninsula

The state Division of Forestry has suspended open burning on the Kenai Peninsula.

High winds, low relative humidity and little precipitation have increased the potential for fire, and the area’s fire danger is currently listed as ‘high’.

The suspension includes the use of burn barrels. Landowners are reminded to check any recently-started fires to make sure they’re out.

The area is also under a Red Flag warning from the National Weather Service through Wednesday. The forecast for the rest of the week expects relatively high temperatures, no precipitation and times of strong winds.

-Staff Report-

Birders Are The Canaries That Tell Us Spring Has Sprung

As another clear sign of spring, shore birds have begun arriving across the Kenai Peninsula. The Kenai Birding Festival starts Thursday.

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This year’s birding festival actually got underway on May 2nd, with the Peeps art show at the Kenai Fine Arts Gallery. The work of 95 kids is currently on display.

One of the event’s organizers, Ken Tarbox, says the rest of the fest begins Thursday.

“We’ll start with our opening ceremony here at the Kenai Visitor’s Center in the evening and go through the weekend. We have field activities. We encourage families that have never birded before, or people who have never come out , it’s a chance for us to interact with them and teach them how to do it, and most of the events are free.”

Event locations and birding hot spots are scattered all over the central Peninsula. Coming back for a second year is the Big Sit, where birders take shifts trying to identify as many species as they can in 24 hours.

Each year offers something a little different, Tarbox says. It all depends on the conditions when the birds come back. Snow geese, for instance, used to show up in larger numbers, but not this year. Their name and our weather offers a big clue as to why.

“I think what’s happening, and I think what the consensus is, is that the snow goose population is still healthy, but they tend to fly over the top of us here if the conditions aren’t right for them to land. The seem to like about half the flats in snow and ice because the feed right at the edge. When you don’t have any snow out there like this year, you’re a big white bird sitting out on bare, brown ground with a lot of eagles flying over the top of you…Not a good place to be,” Tarbox says.

But for other species, the Kenai offers a comfortable pit stop on the long journey to more northern breeding grounds.

“Last year, of course, we had the cold spring. So what happened is these birds didn’t have anywhere to go north. They were short-stopped here because they needed food, they needed to rest, and this was the open area. So they were feeding on high school football fields and wherever they could feed. They were just piling in here, waiting for things to break up before they moved on.”

There are guided floating and walking tours along the Kenai River throughout the weekend. Also children’s programs and lots of opportunities to car pool to different birding hot spots. You can pick up brochures with a full schedule of the weekend’s events at the Kenai or Soldotna visitors centers.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Buccaneer CEO Resigns

It’s been a tumultuous year in the board room at Buccaneer Energy. And now, the Australian-based independent oil and gas company is looking for a new Chief Executive.

It’s been almost a year since CEO Curtis Burton survived a dramatic overturning of the company’s Board of Directors. Since then, Buccaneer has struggled to raise capital, prove out its exploration efforts and in general, stay in business in Alaska. Burton was suspended in March, just days after the company hired a Chief Restructuring Officer to evaluate the company’s plan and finances. Burton submitted his resignation Friday via email.

Burton was a proponent of trying to expand Buccaneer’s offshore operations in the early goings a couple years ago, but nothing much ever came from those efforts. The plans for the jack-up rig Endeavour never fully materialized, either. That piece of equipment was docked in Port Graham last fall. Since then, Buccaneer has mostly gotten out of the offshore game, either selling its interest in those leases or letting them expire. It does still hold a lease offshore of Tyonek, but it sold its fifty-percent stake in the jack up rig to a Singapore based investment firm for $24 million.

Buccaneer is still trying to settle one of its few successes on the Kenai Peninsula. The Kenai Loop project is producing gas, but who the gas belongs to is still up in the air. Cook Inlet Region, Incorporated and the Alaska Mental Health Trust both want the state to recognize their ownership of the gas pool. They’ve asked that an escrow account be set up where proceeds from that well would go.

The company’s price on the Australian Stock Exchange is still sitting below a penny. Its main creditor, Meridian Capital, is working on selling Buccaneer debt to AIX Energy out of Houston. Details on that deal are expected by the end of the month.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Considering The Environmental Impact Of The Kenai’s Annual Flock Of Visitors

The trickle of RV’s and visitors onto the Kenai Peninsula has already started, and will be picking up steadily over the next few weeks. As ‘Alaska’s Playground’ becomes more popular, what does it mean to the environmentally sensitive areas many of them spend their time? And what kinds of protections are being put in place to keep everything healthy?

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It’s not too hard to tell where people spend their time during the summer on the Kenai. The constant trail of RV’s is one indicator. And the paths that travelers on foot cut to their favorite fishing spots are permenantly set in some places, like near the Warren Ames Bridge in Kenai.

“That’s exactly what we can see continuing into the future as the fishery becomes greater in volume, in terms of the number of people,” says Ken Tarbox, a retired research biologist for the department of fish and game. Tarbox is also a tall figure in the local birding community. So he knows a thing or two about how people use the Kenai’s abundant wildlife resources.

“This is very typical in a resource management issue is eventually the number of users get to a point where regulations and restrictions have to happen,” he said.

Without a doubt, one of the most popular single draws to the Kenai is the dipnet fishery. It’s great for business, but it’s hard on the nerves of locals and on the lands that support it. In a lot of places, clear messages and signs about the do’s and don’ts are enough to keep environmental impacts to a minimum. But for the 40,000-plus who will show up in July for the sockeye run, it’s just not enough.

The city of Kenai has put in some new measures this year that are intended to help control some of those things. Kenai city manager Rick Koch will have the discretion to establish no-wake zones at the mouth of the river, and there will be new access points along the south beach which, hopefully, will cut down on foot traffic in the flats and on private property.

All that said, it’s easy to forget about the Kasilof River. It supports just as diverse a wildlife population as its larger, more popular cousin to the north. And Kenai Watershed Forum executive director Robert Ruffner says the lessons we’re learning on the Kenai might help keep the Kasilof in top condition.

“When we have the volume of people coming in to participate in the dipnet fishery, it works really well if we can keep people on the sand or the mineral soils down close to the water, and not have them interfere with the green stuff; the beach grasses and the wetlands further inland.”

Ruffner says directing people where they want to go without trampling delicate grasses and dunes works well enough for the vast majority of visitors. But for the few who don’t pay attention, enforcement becomes a priority. That’s worked on the Kenai, and it’s showing some good signs on the Kasilof, too.

“It’s managed by the Department of Natural Resources, which, they don’t have the people here; they don’t have a police department, a fire department to help manage that. But what they did do was they started down the path of creating what they called a Special Use Area, whereby they could define some rules that were different from general use lands. And they put in the very minimal amount of restrictions necessary to try to keep people off of those sensitive areas.”

And those sensitive areas are about to see all of their annual visitors come back. The Kenai Birding Festival kicks off May 15th. The personal use fishery starts on July 10th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Nikiski Teacher Under Investigation For ‘Inappropriate Behavior’

A Nikiski teacher accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a student was the subject of a law enforcement manhunt Thursday afternoon. After the man threatened to commit suicide, two local schools were placed on lockdown. Alaska State Troopers caught the man earlier today.

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Neither the Troopers or the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District are saying much about the incident.

What’s known is that a male teacher at Nikiski Middle-High School was suspected of “inappropriate behavior” with a student. School District Spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff says district officials reported their suspicions about the teacher to Alaska State Troopers Thursday morning and Troopers began their own investigation.

Troopers responded to the school and attempted to locate the teacher but he had already left the campus. At some point – it’s not clear when – the man threatened to commit suicide by consuming alcohol and sleeping pills.

Troopers began searching for the teacher’s red 1993 Dodge Dakota truck and urged members of the public to help locate the vehicle.

Meanwhile, both Nikiski Middle-High School and North Star Elementary School went on lockdown. Erkeneff says that decision was made after the report came in that man had threatened suicide.

“As a precaution, the school dostrict put students’ safety first,” said Erkeneff. “And so we did a lockdown at both of our schools that were in close proximity.”

Both schools were under the lockdown for about two hours Thursday. Under the district’s current procedures for a “modified” lockdown, students are confined to their classrooms but parents are still allowed to come and pick them up. Erkeneff says that at the schools’ regular closing time, Troopers were on site and students were allowed to go home as they normally would.

Trooper Spokesperson Beth Ipsen says Troopers finally caught up with the suspect Friday.

“(We) caught up with him at about noon today at about Mile 15 (of) the Kenai Spur Highway,” said Ipsen. “Based on some medical issues that he was going through, medics were called in and he was transported to the hospital, where he remains, getting treatment.”

Ipsen would not say what the nature of the man’s injuries were. He has not yet been charged with a crime.

As for the allegations that the teacher had “inappropriate behavior” with a student, Pegge Erkeneff says she cannot say much because the case is still under investigation.

“What I can say is that we did an internal investigation,” she said. “(We) deemed it necessary to contact the Troopers and bring them in.”

Erkeneff says the suspicions about the teacher were originally brought forward to district officials who then began an internal investigation.

She says the teacher has been placed on administrative leave. His name has not yet been released.

“People want to know everything but we can’t give out all of the information,” said Erkeneff. “We can just assure that all of our students … are safe right now. That’s the priority. I just ask for parents to trust us. We’re keeping kids safe and working with law enforcement.”

-Aaron Selbig/KBBI-

Council Says No To Kenai Library Card Fee

The Kenai city council addressed changes in some city fees at its meeting this week. There wasn’t much support for some proposed changes to how library cards are issued.

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So this is all part of getting next year’s budget put together for a vote next month. The council has already adopted fee changes for stuff associated with the dipnet fishery. Parking and camping will both cost a little more this year. And when the first draft of the budget came out last month, city manager Rick Koch said it was time to look at library funding, too.

“The costs become more and more acute, especially as it becomes more technologically supported. Every few years you have to change computers out. We looked at cities throughout the United States to see how they were meeting their funding and budget challenges and with rare exception, most communities have some nominal fee.”

The nominal fee proposed was $20 for card-holders who live outside the city, which is a big chunk of the library’s users. About 65 percent. Koch noted that it’s called the Kenai Community library, not the Kenai municipal library.

“That’s not by accident, that’s by design. We believe we represent and fill the needs of a much larger community than just within the corporate boundaries,” Koch said.

And that was a point not lost on Council member Ryan Marquis.

“There are a lot of people who attend schools in Kenai, but they’re not residents. They might live a block out of our boundaries or miles out of our boundaries. But they still come to our city and they still shop in our stores and they’re still active members of our community. And the library is a place that should be open and accessible to anyone in the public,” he said.

Council member Brian Gabriel said he could jive with that notion, but charging users might give them a better sense of ownership.

“For the services provided, I don’t think a $20 annual fee is too much to ask.”

But Council member Tim Navarre said folks outside the city have already shown they have a stake in the library.

“When the Friends of the Library were raising funds, they were from people from outside the city. I think there will come a time when we have to look at how funds are raised from the library and reassess it as a whole,” Navarre said, adding he would support striking the proposed fee out of the ordinance adjusting other city fees. The new charge would have brought in an estimated $50,000 in revenue, but it was eventually voted down.

Other fee changes include increasing monthly rental rates at Vintage Pointe senior center, and upping the parking rates at the airport. The council also gave its final approval for going ahead with a feasibility study for the Kenai Bluffs erosion project. Work on that should begin next year.

The city also approved new rules generally aimed at the dipnet fishery. One ordinance allows the city manager to temporarily regulate beach activities to protect public safety, things like camp fires. And another lets him put restrictions on public entry and access to environmentally sensitive areas owned or managed by the city.

The council meets again on May 21st.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Companies Spend $6.1 Million On Cook Inlet Leases

Results are in from this year’s oil and gas lease sale. The state Department of Natural Resources released the numbers Wednesday.

Forty bids were submitted for tracts within the Cook Inlet region. Apache Alaska was the big spender, picking up more than 35,000 acres worth a little more than $2 million. Hilcorp, which just last month announced it was expanding its operations to the North Slope, spent $1.8 million on 47,000 acres.

Anchorage-based Nordaq Energy got in on the action, picking up 10,000 acres. It also has projects on the North Slope. Relative newcomers Pacific West Energy, based in Honolulu and Woodstone Resources out of Houston also won some tracts, totally about a million dollars. All told, the state took in $6.1 million dollars on the Cook Inlet leases, which are good for exploration and development projects for ten years.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Mayor’s Group Seeks Input On LNG Line

Construction of an in-state natural gas pipeline is still years away, if it happens at all. But even though the project is far from a sure thing, municipalities from Barrow to Valdez are thinking about how to handle the potential economic boom that could come with it.

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All this talk about an in-state pipeline, a new LNG facility, jobs, construction…You’d think the workers and the trucks and rigs will be rolling into town any day now.

“It’s a long way out. There’s some work being done now, looking at acquiring the land mass that’s going to be necessary for the facilities,” said Borough Mayor Mike Navarre.

As the project develops, he’ll be working with other Mayors along the planned pipeline route to make sure they’ve got some voice in the build. Besides Navarre, the mayors of the North Star and North Slope Boroughs and the mayor of Valdez make up the group.

“We recognize that we have a lot of support that comes from the state of Alaska. And when they look at changes in the tax structure that’s going to impact their revenues, and, as importantly, revenues of local governments, we just want to make sure that we’re reviewing it, we’re doing our due diligence and providing input into that process.”

In other words, Hey guys, don’t forget about us! You know, the communities that this pipeline will affect…

“Mainly our goal was to understand what was happening, how it was going to impact us and our residents and our tax structures and make sure that we weighed in so that they could know what our concerns are so they could be incorporated into that process.”

A process that’s both new and old at the same time. These are some of the same questions Navarre’s father George wrestled with when he was Borough mayor back in the 60’s, during another booming time for oil and gas.

“We have had some experience in the past. The LNG facility that’s there now was built in the 1960′s. And they negotiated a payment in lieu of taxes during construction so that you’re not getting hammered with costs when you have no revenues coming in.”

But again, this is all years away. And the main concern for local lawmakers is not being overwhelmed IF the thing happens and also not dumping a bunch of money into preparing for something that just never materializes. This week, Governor Sean Parnell will sign the bill that makes the pipeline possible. House Bill 138. It’s called the enabling legislation. Bascially, it sets the ground rules for how this project would work, with the state and the industry haggling over the details. And that’s why the mayors want in.

“Since we’re not going to be in the room when those negotiations are going on, we want to express what our concerns are because when someone else is negotiating on your behalf, it’s not as good as if you’re in that room. We’re hoping the municipal advisory group the governor has set up will offer us some opportunity to participate in some meaningful fashion.”

Having a voice in those conversations will help make sure this new gas boom in Alaska, if it happens, doesn’t do to towns along the way what the boom is doing in North Dakota. Where towns with maybe a couple hundred residents and few, if any, first responders are dealing with short-term populations in the thousands.

“And I’m sure the companies are cognizant of what some of those issues and concerns are, it’s just a matter of everyone’s interests being facilitated or worked at as you move through a process.”

Navarre says the real action will get underway next year. That’s when meetings between the state and industry will get under way in earnest, hopefully with an ear turned toward the communities that where all of this, might, be happening.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Legislators Tout Session Accomplishments At Chamber Lunceon

Almost all of the Peninsula’s legislative delegation turned out for a joint meeting of the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce Tuesday. They touted accomplishments from this year’s legislative session, and explained some key votes.

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All were present, save Senator Cathy Giessel. House Speaker Mike Chenault, Representatives Kurt Olson and Paul Seaton and Senator Peter Micciche took turns rehashing the recently-adjourned law making season. Chenault addressed the minimum wage bill that sped through the House toward the end of the session. The same provisions were set to go on the primary ballot initiative later this year.

“If the legislature could pass a bill that would do the same thing, why would you want to hope that the public does? What if it doesn’t? What about the folks who earn minimum wage? Where are they at,” Chenault asked.

The law raises the minimum wage to $9.75 an hour over the next two years, and will adjust it for inflation after that.

Chenault said the Republican-controlled House didn’t enact those new wage standards in order to change the make-up of this fall’s primary ballot, which also includes measures to repeal recent oil-tax reforms and legalize marijuana. The bill was passed because it’s fair to low-wage earners and because no one really likes all those political ads during election season.

“If you listen to the next four, five, six months of political ads, you’ll probably be thanking us that we got it off the ballot. It’s just one less thing in the political realm that you’re going to be listening to,” he said.

Chenault also talked about the appropriation of $175,000 to state wildlife troopers that was tacked onto a state capital projects bill. That money is supposed to be used for enforcement activities relating to Kenai and Kasilof river setnet fisheries. Chenault said enforcement is important. For all users, not just setnetters.

“Whether that’s the setnetters, the drift fleet, the personal use fishery or the sports fishery…some of those have enforcement. But I had asked that the language be changed to incorporate all. I’ll certainly be talking to the commander about where I think that money ought to be spent,” Chenault said.

Representative Kurt Olson said he was surprised by one bill in particular, that should help cut down on junk mail, by getting rid of the White Pages.

“Roughly 90 percent of people in the state did not want one, but if they do, they can opt in by calling their telephone company. That one probably generated more comments than anything we did this year,” Olson said.

When these guys head back to Juneau, they’ll be representing slightly different constituent groups. The biggest change is north Peninsula residents losing Cathy Giessel as their Senator, while the southern Peninsula will again be represented by Gary Stevens from Kodiak. Micciche will cover the rest. The 29th Legislature will gavel in next January 20th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Kenai City Council To Vote On Funding Bluff Erosion Study

A long-sought after bluff erosion project for the city of Kenai could get started at this week’s city council meeting. The council will vote on letting the city manager enter into an agreement with the US Army Corps of Engineers on a feasibility study for the project.

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It’s been a long time coming, but the first steps toward shoring up the Kenai Bluffs might be taken this week. It’s officially called the Kenai Bluffs Bank Stabilization Section 116 Feasibility Study. And if it’s funded, it will find out just how feasible it is to reduce or prevent three things: more erosion at the toe of the bluff, sediment runoff, and erosion at the top of the bluff.

Earlier this spring, Kenai city manager Rick Koch met with Corps of Engineer officials in Washington D.C. to see whose desk this project was stuck at.

“I think it was fairly uncomfortable for them having the Assistant Secretary, having their staff call and say ‘gee, somebody is saying that this thing is held up on the Assistant Secretary’s desk and we don’t know anything about it,” Koch said.

But now we do know something about it.
Initial field work for the environmental studies could begin as soon as July, and run into this fall. A draft report and environmental assessment could be done by next spring. Then a lot of reviews, some public meetings, and a final design agreement could be made by next October.

“Initially, there was some pretty strong reservation about whether there was an authority to move forward with the study. But I think as the conversation continued with the assistant secretary and her staff. By the end of it…the comments were, it appeared there was broad enough authority to move ahead with the feasibility study.”

Cost was another sticking point for getting this thing rolling. The late Senator Ted Stevens had created a way for it to be done, but those provisions were stripped out of a bill several years ago. But then Senator Lisa Murkowski got some language added to newer legislation that allowed for a project like this. And then getting the money through all the appropriate channels took some time.

“What was confusing to the Alaska office is they didn’t think they had a mechanism to accept money from the project sponsor for their share.

But the money was there. Four million dollars from the state the city has been sitting on, which will go toward the overall project. And the city approved spending for its share of the study back in 2011.

“We’ve got cash burning a hole in our pocket to some degree. We’re in for 35% of the project value whether we pay their share of this now, or we pay 35% later. So we talked to the assistant secretary about that, and she thought in the event that the authorization was broad enough to move forward, that they could figure out a way to accept that money, even if it took an authorization from her.”

The feasibility study will cost about $640,000, to be split evenly between the city and the federal government. Once it’s done, planners and engineer will have a management plan for the work, all the environmental baselines including assessments on Beluga whales and Stellar sea lions, and a final estimated cost. The council will vote on the resolution to make the agreement with the Corps at its meeting Wednesday.
-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

State Looking For Plans For Old Oil Platforms

Some of the major oil and gas infrastructure around Cook Inlet is at or nearing the end of its useful life. The Department of Natural Resources has been debating what to do about it since last fall, and is finally taking the first steps in building a plan.

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So, you think you know the best way to recycle a used up, old oil platform? Then the DNR wants to talk to you. They just issued a notice of procurement for consulting on dismantlement, removal and remediation of oil and gas infrastructure. Known in the biz as D R&R.

In other words, they need someone to craft a plan for what to do with platforms, pipelines, pump houses and all manner of other oil and gas equipment that’s at the end of its engineering shelf-life. The state and the industry got together last fall to start talking about this. At that time, the big question was ‘who picks up the check?’. Senator Peter Micciche said then it would all depend on how the equipment gets used.

“If it ends up being that the structure is for the greater good of Alaskans…we talked about using platforms for (tidal) power generation…if we ended up using them for something else, it’s not black and white. I think for future development, those are agreements that should be made at the beginning. We should understand ultimately who’s going to be responsible and what those expectations are,” he said.

Exactly what will be included in a DR&R plan won’t be known until September. That’s when the winning contractor will have to submit their research report, but platforms will likely be toward the top of the list.

Some of the Inlet’s 16 platforms are nearing the half-century mark, and not all of them are in use. In the solicitation the department put out, it said the state needs to balance between encouraging investment and managing the financial risks of taking care of this old stuff that’s been abandoned.

Around the same time as the first meeting on this last fall, Cook Inlet Keeper released a report that estimated how much the state has saved for this kind of work, and how much it could cost. They found, on the low end, about $400 million in potential DR&R costs, with state funding, at best, a little more than $200 million.

“Industry and Alaskans and I think our government all benefit from predictability. We want to see clear rules, we want to see transparency. We don’t want to see a corporation hiding this money, we want it to be out in the open. So the rules need to be changed. We should do an audit, we should look at these things and understand exactly what the costs are going to be because I think that’s what’s up in the air right now,” said Cook Inlet Keeper’s Bob Shavelson.

The deadline for proposals is May 20th. An evaluation committee will meet three days later to decide on a contract, which will be issued on June 3rd, with a final report from the contractor due September 15th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Cook Inlet Energy Adds Rig At McArthur River

Miller Energy, the parent company of Cook Inlet Energy, will finalize the purchase of an onshore drilling rig soon.

In a press release, the company said it had entered into an agreement with Baker Hughes to acquire a 2,400 horsepower, onshore drilling rig for 3.25 million dollars.

It will be used at the company’s Sabre project, near the West McArthur River on the west side of Cook Inlet. The company already operates two rigs; one on top of the offshore Osprey platform and another, truck mounted rig also in use on the west side of the Inlet.

-Staff report-

Assembly Gets First Look At Budget

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will tackle its annual budget next week. Fiscal year 2015 will see a five percent increase in appropriations.

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The finance committee will get the first look at the proposed budget Tuesday afternoon, before the Assembly’s regular meeting that night. Brent Johnson chairs the finance committee. What he’s looking for in the Borough’s finances is pretty simple.

“Overall, I’m just looking to make the income match the outcome. We have to balance the thing,” Johnson said.

In its draft stage, there is a gap between the income and the outcome worth $2.9 million. Almost all of that gap comes from a reduction in revenues after voters approved increasing property tax exemptions last year. That means the Assembly will probably be looking for areas to cut. Just last month, Johnson proposed cutting the pay packages for Assembly members, but didn’t get enough support to get it through.

“In my own financial world, as I see things happening, I start making adjustments early on. If you’re paying a mortgage or something and you can pay your interest down early, my gosh, that makes such a big difference. As soon as we start finding out that we’ve got these revenue stream problems, then we should start to address them.”

Johnson says big cuts, or on the other side, big boosts in revenue are unlikely. A few years ago, the Dave Carey administration tried to kick up revenues by increasing the sales cap tax from $500, where’s it’s been since the Borough became a Borough, to $2,000.

“There might be room to move that cap up for inflation. I don’t think it would be a huge income to the Borough and I don’t think it would be a huge hurt to people buying things here if we moved it up a little bit.”

You could call it the Everett Dirksen approach. Dirksen is the former Illinois Senator usually given credit for saying ‘a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money’.

But the point is that the budget gap won’t likely be filled in one fell swoop, but little by little.

There aren’t any big surprises in this first version of the budget. The Borough is planning to take in about $73 million altogether. Mostly in the form of property and sales tax. Both of those streams are expected to increase, despite the aforementioned property tax exemption and the exemption for non-prepared food items.

As usual, the biggest expenditure is the school district. Nearly two-thirds of the total general fund at $49 million dollars.

The Nikiski and Bear Creek fire service area budgets are up just a tick for next year. Central Emergency services is down almost two percent.

The oil and gas industry’s part in the Borough budget continues to grow. Assessed values for industry properties has nearly doubled since 2012, to more than a billion dollars. That’s helped with unemployment, too, which has seen a steady decrease since 2010, from 10 percent down to 7.7 percent.

Overall, expenditures are up by a million dollars for next year. Increased school funding and personnel costs are the main culprits there. The Assembly will hold its first public hearing on the budget Tuesday, May 6th. It will be approved, likely with several amendments, in June.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Classes Learn, Celebrate Native Languages

Lucy Daniels guides a class through the basics of learning Yup'ik at Kenai Peninsula College. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Throughout the month of April, classes met at Kenai Peninsula College to learn more about the Yup’ik language.

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-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Volunteers Give Kenai River Annual Check Up

Nancy Carver and Tom Dearlove from the Kenai River Center take samples at No Name Creek in Kenai Tuesday morning. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

A crew of volunteers waded into the Kenai river and its tributaries, from the mouth to Skilak Lake Tuesday morning. They were conducting twice-annual samplings to get a snapshot of the health of the river.

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I met up with Branden Bornemann at the Soldotna Wastewater Treatment Plant a little before nine Tuesday morning. He’s an environmental specialist at the Kenai Watershed Forum, and we were going to go check on some of the sampling teams that had been out since around five.

“We sample for nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen. We also look at metals, total metals and dissolved metals, and we look for fecal coliform and total suspended solids,” Bornemann said.

Think of it as a routine physical. When you go to the doctor, they take some blood, check your heart rate, ask if you’ve been getting enough exercise. Out on the river, they take samples to see if there’s a bunch of gas and oil in the water, or how much bird poop all those seagulls are leaving behind. That’s actually a big one. The fecal coliform Bornemann mentioned. The Kenai isn’t full of drinking water, but people still spend a lot of time in it, so the Department of Environmental Conservation is keeping an eye on it. And there are even tests that can pinpoint what animals are doing the most business in the water. Not surprisingly, sea gulls get that award.

“Sometimes, science isn’t a big surprise. It helps confirm our common sense and what you’d really expect to see. But if we don’t monitor these things, we can’t talk about that as a trend or as something different than what we normally see,” Bornemann said.

First stop, No Name Creek.

This little guy runs between the North Beach of the Kenai river and the bluffs of Old town Kenai. Each team hits the water with a cooler full of plastic bags, which are full of a bunch of different plastic sample jars. All carefully labeled for the test it will undergo later in the day.  Tom Dearlove and Nancy Carver from the Kenai River Center were there to take the samples. Dearlove shows me the copper-colored water he’s testing. He’s no rookie to the process, but his team mate, Nancy Carver is. Like a lot of the volunteers helping out, it’s a chance to get out of the office.

“I worked for the city for 12 years, and I’d never been down here. This is great. You get to see the other side. I do need some hip waders, though,” Carver said.

But even with veteran volunteers leading the way and a testing process that’s been refined over a decade and a half, stuff goes wrong. Locks get changed and someone can’t get a boat launched, or maybe a team went through a few too many filters by accident.

“That’s exactly why we do a quality check. Luckily, we had an extra kit and a team willing to go back out,” Bornemann said.

            After the check in at No Name Creek, it’s back to the lab at the water treatment plant. The gang here will process the samples. Some will get tested right away to meet Environmental Protection Agency standards.

What doesn’t get sampled on Soldotna gets sent to Anchorage for further testing, done by a group called Analytica. Elizabeth Rensch works there, and has helped on this project for several years. She helps make sure all the samples are handled properly, labeled correctly…the little details.

“When I get back to Anchorage, the lab manager will meet me there and actually receive the sample from me, so the receipt and the signing is very important as well. If someone went back and there was an error in our chain of custody, they could say the data is no good, so we just try to be really accurate,” Rensch said.

These are the same tests that helped managers decide to ban two-stroke boat motors on the river several years ago, when they saw lots of hydrocarbons in the water. Those kinds of decisions for this year’s data are a long way off. Right now, all those volunteers who have been up since 5 a.m. are really just worried about when the pizza will show up.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Long Time Bush Doctor Shares Aleutian Tales

Dr. Nancy Sydnam and her dog Tigger at Adak. Dr. Sydnam spent two decades overseeing medical clinics in the Aleutians. (Photo: Hardscratch Press)

For 22 years, Dr. Nancy Sydnam made the action-packed flight out to the Aleutian Islands to supervise the remote health clinics there. On Thursday, she shared some of her stories from that time from her book ‘Sideways Rain’ at the Soldotna Library. While she was in town, she stopped by the studio to speak with KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran.

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Shaylon Cochran: Dr. Sydnam, you had a successful, long-term practice in Anchorage, and then around 1988, you decided to make a little change…

Dr. Nancy Sydnam: It was when third party payment came into usage and I thought that ruined medical practice that I liked to practice. I got very offended that someone in an office who had never been to medical school, could not see the patient, was telling me what to do. And I thought that didn’t make sense, and I wanted to go some place where it would be different.

SC: How did you fall into this gig working on the Aleutian Islands, Pribilof Islands, way out west?

Dr. Sydnam: Don Hudson was working in the emergency room in Anchorage. We knew each other, and Don was supervising the PA’s (physician’s assistants) who were working in Dutch Harbor and Unalaska at that time. And they had to have a supervisor all the time, they couldn’t be out there alone, so he was asking people to go out and spend two weeks at a time, supervising the PA’s and working in Dutch Harbor.

SC: And how did that work? You were flying back and forth to Anchorage, that’s a long commute.

Dr. Sydnam: I loved it. At first, I wanted to see how I liked it so I was continuing my practice, but I would take a two week vacation and go out for two weeks and I loved it.

SC: What sort of services did you provide way out there? As I read the book, I sense that fishing plays a lot into it, that depending on the fishing season, that determines a lot of what your work load is.

Dr. Sydnam: Ninety-percent of what we did out there was from the fishing fleet.And of course, places where they had a fishing dock, a cannery, then there was more, because more boats came in and we were the only doctors for all the boats out there. And sometimes they would call saying ‘this is such and such a ship and this has happened and we’re headed for shore and we’ll be there in two or three hours’. Provided the weather would let them in.

SC: You mentioned part of the reason for going into this book and writing your memoirs is that times are changing a little bit, and I was hoping you could talk about the changes you saw over your 20-plus years working in the Bush.

Dr. Sydnam: That’s how the book got started, I’m not a writer by trade anyway. Someone said this is really changing and it will never be the same and so you’d better start writing journals, and that’s why I had journals. It makes the book more immediate, I think , because it’s not remembered. It’s as it happened. But it is changing, and they have a big medical program now where you can take pictures and send the pictures of the patient in. The ear drum or the eyes or whatever it is, and so often you can save the patient from having to take that trip into town, which is tremendously expensive.

SC: There’s a Letter from Adak you have in your book. You refer to yourself, I assume rather jokingly, as Cool Hand Luke. You were removing bone fragments from a patient, and I got such a chuckle out of that. The patient is a little bit nervous and you’re this guiding, steady hand. I’m wondering how long it took you to put on that mask of Cool Hand Luke, did you always have that?

Dr. Sydnam: I would say half a second! After 30 or 40 years of practicing medicine, you know what you’re capable of and what will throw you and what won’t. First of all, you have no back up, you have no reference person, you have no blood. So you’re dealing with a tight situation. And one of the things that’s mentioned in the book is the fellow who fell into the water between two boats. His companions saw him, put on diving suits and dove in after him, but he was already face down and pulse-less and not breathing. And then they called us and said they were headed for shore. This man wasn’t breathing, he was blue. But there was somebody on the boat who had just taken a CPR course. And so he started trying to resuscitate this man and within five minutes had this man vomiting and breathing and that’s when they called us.

SC: One thing we haven’t talked about and that I’m curious to get a little better handle on is, you talk about these places as having a strong native tradition. Especially given how much time you spent there over the years, was there much of a cultural exchange?

Dr. Sydnam: The thing I noticed about most of the places, they were the same, in that they were living as part of this earth instead of in command of this earth. They were a part of it, and having grown up on a farm, I had that same (attitude). And we agreed on that and it was very reassuring to me.

-Dr. Sydnam made her comments on The Coffee Table, which aired on KDLL and KBBI April 23rd.

 

House Bill Makes Pick. Click. Give. Easier For Non-Profits

A bill sponsored by Homer Representative Paul Seaton that would make it easier for small non-profits to participate in the “Pick.Click.Give” program passed the Alaska Legislature Monday.

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House Bill 75 would change the existing law requiring a full financial audit by a certified public account, making it apply only to organizations that file a federal audit. These organizations exceed $500,000 or more in federal grant awards per year.

In a news release, Seaton said he was pleased with the bill’s passage. He said his office had heard from agencies statewide with budgets just over $250,000 that the cost of an audit – estimated upwards of $15,000 – was too large an obstacle to overcome.

Seaton aide Heather Beggs testified in favor of the bill earlier this month before the Senate Finance Committee. Beggs said the bar for non-profits to participate in “Pick.Click.Give” is already high enough, especially with the requirement of an IRS 990 form.

House Bill 75 also treats all University of Alaska campuses as equal to other organizations, requiring them to submit the same application fee that others do. In addition, seven percent of the payouts to organizations will now be set aside for future marketing and promotion of the “Pick.Click.Give” program. For the last six years, those costs have been paid by the Rasmuson Foundation.

The bill now awaits a signature from Governor Sean Parnell.

-Aaron Selbig/KBBI-

Kenai Budget Includes More Employee Health Care Contributions

The city of Kenai will begin debating its annual budget this week. Revenues to the city’s general fund are up, thanks in part to more oil and gas activity in the area.

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The total projected budged for the city of Kenai next year is a little more than $25.5 million. That’s up more than six percent from last year. The city’s general fund is also looking at growth of about a million dollars, bringing that fund up to $16 million. City manager Rick Koch says they went through three drafts of the budget, trying to get the health care numbers to work out.

“It’s a very fluid process this year, more than any other year. I think we see that trend with health care costs that every year, it’s going to take up more and more and more of our time in trying to reload on health care issues.”

There are going to be some changes for city employee’s health care. Those costs went up when an above average number of claims were filed. But this year, the city is going with a new health care provider. Employee contributions are going up by 1.5%, and deductibles will double.

“This year, we received a renewal quote (46% higher than last year), and that put us fairly off kilter. We were pretty far along in the budget process assuming a 15% increase. It was necessary for us to stop and reload the entire budget,” Koch said.

That change, and in the increase in the employee contributions are expected to save nearly $300,000 over what was spent last year. For a single employee, no one else on the plan, that means about $10 a month more going for health insurance. That’s supposed to save on expenditures. Revenues are also expected to go up, thanks in large part to oil and gas projects the city is getting tax money from. Letting those companies keep all that equipment here is pretty lucrative.

“We were pleasantly surprised this year. We felt that we would see a fairly significant reduction from last year. Last year we had a drill rig parked down by the city dock that was a fairly significantly valued piece of apparatus, but there’s a lot of stuff in and around the corporate boundaries that supports the oil and gas industry and we’re extremely pleased to have them here,” Koch said.

 But a lot of those things are temporary in nature. Koch says the city is hoping that business will remain strong over the next decade. But in any given year, those aren’t revenues that can be counted on. They’re good for one-time expenditures. Capital improvements or quality of life items, like, say new equipment at a park.

“It is problematic if you increase staffing or create annual operational costs that can’t be sustained, but you do so anyway just because you have a short term funding apparatus. So we tend not to do that.”

The city will lose one police officer. That position was funded by a grant that has expired, bringing the total number of officers to 18. They’ll be busy come July with the dipnet fishery, along with six temporary enforcement officers brought on during the month.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Hilcorp Expands To North Slope In Deal With BP

Hilcorp is entering a new phase in its Alaskan endeavors. The company announced Tuesday it had purchased an interest in four North Slope oilfields owned by BP.

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Hilcorp will take over operations from BP at two oilfields on the Slope. The Endicott and Northstar fields. And it will have a fifty-percent stake in two others, the liberty and Milne Point fields. BP will continue to control the other half. Hilcorp spokesperson Lori Nelson says it was a right time, right place kind of deal.

“The timing of these things, there’s no science behind it. It’s just an incredible opportunity. We have a very successful track record in increasing production in mature and challenging areas like these.”

In a press release, BP said the sale will allow more focus on production at Prudhoe Bay and developing LNG exports through a proposed in-state gas pipeline. The sale price wasn’t disclosed, but a recent report in Forbes said the going rate for onshore oil and gas assets in the US is about $90,000 per flowing barrel. If those numbers translate to this deal, it would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion. In its own press release, Hilcorp cited recent changes in taxes on North Slope producers as a good reason to get into the game there.

“Long range, we’re going to be looking to reduce operating costs to extend the life of the field. We’ll also be increasing capital investments to develop additional oil reserves from the slope,” Nelson said.

This is the third major purchase by Hilcorp since 2012. The company dropped about $300 million into its Cook Inlet holdings last year. Nelson says that same level of investment will likely be seen again in 2014.

“We still have a lot of commitments to meet with local utilities. The Inlet still represents a good chunk of our production, not only here in the state but also for the company nationwide.”

In August of last year, Hilcorp signed an agreement with Chugach Electric, helping ease energy concerns in South Central. That deal would send more than 17 bcf of natural gas to the utility over the next four years. On shore in Cook Inlet, Hilcorp will focus its attention around Ninilchik. Its 2014 drilling program calls for six wells which follow up on discoveries made in 2013.

The deal with BP should be finalized by the end of the year. Some 250 workers are affected by the sale of the assets. BP says the majority of those workers are expected to be offered positions with Hilcorp.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Port Graham Hatchery Set To Reopen

The Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association has officially taken over ownership of the Port Graham Hatchery. The organization has plans to begin pink salmon operations later this summer.

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At full production, the Aquaculture Association expects salmon returns to the Port Graham Hatchery to generate between $2.2 and $5.6 million dollars annually. In a news release, Association Executive Director Gary Fandrei called the purchase a “great opportunity” for the association, the community of Port Graham and Cook Inlet salmon users.

Carolyn Cherry is Hatchery Operations Coordinator for the Association. She says the hatchery used to be run by the non-profit Port Graham Hatchery Corporation, under the Port Graham Village Council. When pink salmon prices dipped to a level that made the hatchery unsustainable in 2007, the corporation shut it down.

Cherry says the aquaculture association would own the existing building and equipment at the hatchery and would lease the land. She says the hatchery has been kept in good shape and costs to reopen should be minimal.

The reopening of the hatchery could also have an economic impact on Port Graham. Cherry says the hatchery would employee four people year-round and another 6 to 12 people in the summer months. If the hatchery is successful, the association hopes the now-dormant cannery in Port Graham could also be reopened, leading to more jobs and economic activity.

The Association collected broodstock from Port Graham Bay in 2012 and 2013 for incubation at its Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery. Those fish are expected to start returning to Port Graham Bay this year.

-Aaron Selbig/KBBI-

City To Consider Buying Birch Ridge Land, Water Rights

A work session is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 23rd, to discuss the city of Soldotna buying the land and water rights of Birch Ridge Golf Course. (Photo: birchridgegolf.com)

The Soldotna city council will discuss whether or not to get into the golf business at its meeting this week. A proposed resolution would allow the city manager to negotiate purchasing the land and water rights at Birch Ridge Golf Course.

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If the city council adopts this resolution, it won’t mean a private golf course turning into a municipal one. Council member Linda Murphy, who is sponsoring the resolution, says it’s a little more nuanced than that.

“The purpose of the resolution is not to finalize the sale Wednesday night, but to instruct the city manager to start negotiations…for the land and the water rights that the golf course is situated on. In my opinion, I’d still like to see it continue to be operated as a golf course, without the city operating a golf course.”

Long time owners Pat and Myrna Cowan are looking to retire. And selling a golf course, lock, stock and barrel, doesn’t have a particularly rosy outlook at the moment. But that’s no reason to lose the course, Murphy says.

“The reality is, the economics don’t work out for a private entity to buy the golf course. It would be 20 to 30 years before you would recoup your investment. And so, if the city doesn’t step up to the plate and at least purchase the property, and have some sort of agreement for operating the golf course, the Cowans will probably be forced to subdivide it and sell if for homes. I think there are plenty of places left to build homes, and I would hate to lose this open space that we have.”

If the economics of selling don’t work out right now, she says the economics of keeping it do work for the city. The golf course, Murphy says, is like any other attraction, and can lead visitors to other businesses in town.

She says there’s no final number on what it might cost the city to buy the land the course sits on and the accompanying water rights, but $800,000 is in the ball park.

“When you look at this, I don’t see a change to the city’s balance sheet, because we’d be exchanging cash for property that’s very valuable. And the water rights have value unto themselves. And in my opinion, the land is going to appreciate in value much faster than our money is appreciating in value sitting in a savings account.”

To keep the city out of the management of the course itself, any deal would include bringing in a third party to run the day-to-day operations. The resolution calls for a waiver of liability for losses or claims resulting from those operations, and a payment in lieu of taxes, since that property would fall off the city’s tax rolls if it’s purchased. The council will discuss this one at its meeting Wednesday night. A public hearing would be scheduled for a later date if its adopted.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Green Roof Tops Get Top Honor At Caring For The Kenai

Homer High School senior Katherine Dolma delivers her winning Caring for the Kenai presentation Thursday at Kenai Central High School. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The 24th annual Caring for the Kenai prize returns to Homer this year. Katherine Dolma won for her plan to install green roofs throughout the Kenai Peninsula School District.

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Katherine Dolma has been working on this project for years. When voters on the Kenai approved a bond measure last fall to spend $23 million dollars on school repairs, including aging roofs, she saw her opportunity.

“There are actually 43 acres of roofing in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District that need to be replaced. That is equal to 32.5 football fields…fields that could be converting carbon dioxide into oxygen,” Dolma told the judging panel.

They do this by putting several layers on top of the existing roof. One for insulation, one to waterproof, then a growing medium. Dirt, if you will, and then the show piece layer. Flowers, or a vegetable garden, or native plants.

“When you use native plants, the maintenance is much reduced. If you’re going to have a flower garden or vegetable garden, you’re going to have to maintain it much the same way you would any garden, which would be a really great educational opportunity,” Dolma said.

So the idea is that by planting native grasses on top of the school district’s building, they’ll help reduce runoff, keep that water clean, more efficiently regulate the temperature inside the building and last longer than a traditional roof. The district doesn’t have any plans to install sod roofs at the moment.

This isn’t exactly a new idea. Sod roofs have been in use in places like Norway for thousands of years. But they’re only in limited use today. Dolma’s research found that, on average, a green roof will last two to three times as long as one made with more traditional construction materials. She found one in Portland, Oregon that’s been used, leak-free, since 1975.

Dolma says the next step is to try and get a test roof put up. She’ll have to petition the school district and the Borough Assembly to get the okay on that.

Other winners included the Skyview high school green club in 4th place. They kept almost 350 pounds of books out of the landfill, and sent them to Africa, with plans to send a lot more. Third place, worth $900, went to Taylor Shelden from KCHS. She advocated increasing local food production with high tunnels. Junk mail was the target for Kirsten Maxson, a freshman at Kenai. She hopes to place a recycling bin next to every mail box cluster in Kenai.

That second place entry received $1,100. Katherine Dolma’s first place prize was $1,600 cash. The science classrooms where all of these students developed their ideas will split $20,000 for supplies, materials, field trips, maybe. Dolma says she hasn’t decided what she’ll put on her classroom wish list.

“I haven’t even thought about. I hadn’t considered that I would get this far. I’m stunned. But I’m sure he (Homer science teacher Matthew Stineff) will use it in the best way that it can be used,” Dolma said.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Stars Look To Get Back To Post Season

The SoHi Stars practice Wednesday in Soldotna. They open their season May 1st against Kenai. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Spring sports are getting underway all over the Kenai Peninsula. KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran dropped in on a practice with the SoHi softball team, and brought back this preview for the season.

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On a makeshift diamond in the outfield of the Soldotna little league fields, the SoHi Stars are finally getting in some reps outdoors.

The Stars made it to the state tournament two out of the last three years. They’re coming off an 8-5 season last year.

“My goal is to go to state. We didn’t go last year, and it was nice to go my freshman and sophomore years, and also being more accurate with my pitches,” said senior pitcher Serena Prior.

“And getting some good hits,” senior Allison Nelson added.

Second year head coach Kelli Knoebel says the first step toward that goal is simply getting the team working together as one. That’s part of her coaching doctrine.

“We have a philosophy that we drop everything at the door. If there’s anything going on, personal life or in school, I’m approachable in that regard, but it’s very important for them to have a team and something they can come to with a positive influence. And when we have positive influences, we all know that things become a little bit easier. The kids will come together at times. They know I can only come out at certain times, so they take it upon themselves to pick everybody up.

This was the team’s first outdoor practice of the year. Overcast, a little rainy. About 40 degrees. Typical Alaskan softball weather. But none of that is on Kenley Kingrey’s mind when she’s scooping up grounders at the hot corner.

“(I’m) kinda focused on the play. And then, just get the ball. Take it in, get it where it’s going, don’t worry about anything else.”

Keeping tabs on all the action behind the plate is catcher Delaney Schnieder.

“It’s actually pretty stressful, because you have to tell everyone what’s going on because you can see the whole field. You have to keep them aware of what the runners are doing, where to throw it.”

“It’s going to take commitment every single day here at practice. Us working not as individuals, but as a team, as a unit,” Knoebel says of getting back to the post season.

“We know where our schedule is. We come out with good fire, with good focus; attack at the plate, get our pitches in and things will be looking pretty good for us,” she said.

The Stars open the season May 1st against Kenai.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

May 1 Kenai
May 2 Kodiak
May 3 Kodaik
May 7 @ homer
May 8 Skyview
May 9-10 anchorage round robin
May 13 @ Kenai
May 16 colony/Wasilla
May 17 colony/Wasilla
May 21 homer
May 23 @ Palmer
May 27 @ Skyview

Assembly Votes Down Pay Changes At Seward Meeting

Bruce Jaffa of Seward addresses the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly at its annual meeting at Seward City Hall Tuesday. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly held its annual meeting in Seward Tuesday night. The Assembly continued its debate about how to adjust members’ pay.

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Picking up where we left off a couple weeks ago, the Assembly discussed Bill Smith’s version of this ordinance to adjust Assembly compensation. The overall effort is to try and save some money for the Borough, and still give the Assembly a fair deal. Future Assemblies, actually. This new pay package won’t go into effect until 2016. All of the current Assembly will either be gone due to term limits, or up for reelection.

The Bill Smith version of this deal ties Assembly pay to inflation, the consumer price index used in Anchorage. Since 2000, Assembly members have been paid a flat fee of $400 a month. That monthly paycheck goes up to $560 now. That’s the fair deal part.

The savings part got underway at the last meeting with Brent Johnson’s original version of this ordinance. He says some of the extra perks, like a vehicle allowance or money to pay for a home internet connection aren’t necessary. And trimming those costs will help fill in the gaps created when voters approved a property tax cut last year.

“Voters wanted to reduce the Borough government when they voted to raise the property tax exemptions. And so in light of that, I’m looking for a way to do what the voters wanted to do. It’s not a question of whether you’re over compensated. I think you work hard for your money, every one of you,” Johnson said.

They got into the nuts and bolts of insurance. What it means, technically, to be a full time or a part time Borough employee. What the insurance costs are for those two groups. Assembly members are classified as full time. And for those who do participate in the Borough’s insurance plan, the annual premiums run about $18,000. Each.

“There’s something wrong with that picture. And so that is why I keep bringing this up. For me, that is wrong, wrong, wrong. And I realize when I get off of this, I’ll have to get on Obamacare. I don’t know where I’m going to come up with the rest of the money for that, but darn it, I want to fight it somehow, and this my little way of trying to do that.”

Support for Johnson’s idea was pretty thin. It failed by a 7-2 vote. But not because they didn’t agree that insurance costs are too high. Sue McClure noted that Assembly members can always opt out if they feel their compensation is too generous. Wayne Ogle said that reclassifying the Assembly as part time employees in order to cut insurance premiums in half only solved part of the problem. But there was still that $25 a month the Assembly gets to pay for internet access. Mako Haggerty said he couldn’t support eliminating that one, based on a story Johnson had told him.

“One night, you were downloading a large packet off the internet. And you ran out of time on your internet card. And so you woke up and midnight and began downloading because you had free internet between midnight and five. I really do appreciate that dedication, but I just think the 25 dollars might compensate you for that dedication,” Haggerty said.

Now, that one would save $2,700 a year. And at this point in the debate, that was still a victory for Johnson, who was trying to get anything to pass. And he did have some support from Charlie Pierce before the vote.

“Give me something!” Johnson said, to the amusement of his fellow Assembly members.

“I’ve been looking for something for five years in the way of cost savings and I haven’t been successful yet. And I don’t think you’re going to be successful either. I support what you’re trying to do and I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I don’t think this Assembly is up to it,” Pierce said.

That amendment actually did pass, by a 5-4 vote. But even after all of that, another 5-4 vote defeated the entire thing, leaving the Assembly’s compensation package intact, at least for now.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Brown Bears Still Napping, But Not For Long

Just one female brown bear was seen during a recent air survey. More will emerge from dens in the coming weeks. (Photo courtesy the Redoubt Reporter)

As we continue to march toward spring, unconfirmed reports of brown bears emerging from their dens are picking up. KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran spoke with area wildlife biologist Jeff Selinger to find out when we can start expecting to see our ursine friends.

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In a couple more weeks. That’s when the Kenai’s brown bear population will really start waking up en masse. ADF&G biologist Jeff Selinger says they’re planning a second round of aerial surveys soon.

“We’ve got 22 adult female brown bears with radio collars. Only one of them was out of the hole, and she was sitting up and as soon as the plane flew by she dove back in. All the others were still in dens.”

When sleepy time is over, the hunt for food begins. Recently, I heard, anecdotally, of a bear around Homer that had learned how to let itself into houses right through an unlocked door, because evidently bears can open door knobs? Selinger says, yeah. It could happen.

“It wouldn’t surprise me. Black bears in particular have a reputation for being able to break into things. There was a report of one out on the east coast that learned how to operate bear-resistant containers. It was the only one that could do it. It learned how to get into containers similar to the ones we have around town where you poke your finger in and you have to hit a latch, move the latch over and lift the lid at the same time. They figure that stuff out. They’re real curious and they’re real creative and they’re pretty darn intelligent.”

Those curious, intelligent bears were the source of a lot of community enmity last fall. At a meeting at the Kenai River Center, several people shared stories similar to Richard Link, who said he wasn’t comfortable letting his grandkids play outside of his Soldotna home, as bear sightings have become more frequent in recent years.

“If you people think it’s fine to live with bears, wait. Without the moose for the bears to eat, they’re going to get hungry and they’re going to eat something. And it won’t be long before it’s somebody’s child,” Link said.

There was a pretty loud call for expanding hunting opportunities for brown bears then, but Selinger says the Department still wants to keep human-caused moralities to a minimum, whether through hunting or defense of life and property killings.

“The Department has just come out after the last meeting held in March, and it’s our intention to close the season as we approach a 17 adult, female bear cap. We do not want to exceed 17 adult females dying from human causes this year on the Kenai.”

He offers most of the usual suggestions to keep those bear-human conflicts to a minimum, based mostly on the fact that bears don’t really want to work any harder for food than they need to.

“It doesn’t take a whole lot of energy to push over a plastic garbage can or for that matter, for a brown bear to pull a sheet of plywood off a chicken coop that doesn’t have electric wire around it. It’s probably a lot easier than chasing down even a moose calf. If we can reduce anything to do with bears getting free food from people, I think we would see a drastic decline in the number of bears we see staying around town.”

For hikers and fishers, firearms and bear spray do the trick when used properly, but, he says making plenty of noise is often the best defense.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Soldotna Puts $50K Toward Skyview Pool Budget

Many budget questions remain, but for now, the Skyview high school pool has at least one financial supporter: the city of Soldotna. The city council voted unanimously to put some money toward keeping the facility open, but it’s still not enough.

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It was with some trepidation that the council voted to add $50,000 to its budget, which could then be donated to the district to help keep the pool open. Soldotna Mayor Dr. Nels Anderson said these aren’t typically the sorts of donations he supports.

“I struggled with this. As I’ve commented before, I voted against, when I was on the council, all the dance supports and other things. I felt like we needed to have a policy that the public bought into, or a specific figure the public bought into, that we had a sum that we could donate or divvy up at our discretion. And this is a total exception to that.”

Several members of the council voiced concerns about putting money into something that should be in the budget for the school board. Council member Linda Murphy said rather than the city stepping in, the Borough should take up the cause, but that she saw a lot of value in keeping the pool open for the community.

“I lived in Seward for 25 years, and the pool there opened when my daughter was in kindergarten and she had swimming every year from kindergarten through 12th grade in that pool. That pool was used by the community in the evenings, early mornings. I know when I first moved to Seward, there were a number of kids who didn’t know how to swim and that pool, I think, probably saved a lot of lives.”

Council member Paul Whitney also had some reservations, including increased use of the Soldotna pool if the one at Skyview closes.

“I think the pressure put on the Soldotna pool, for everyone to start using that, would be just tremendous. I look at it as a one shot deal. Give the school district another year to come up with a solution. In the meantime, the pool can stay open.”

This $50,000 in no way guarantees the pool does stay open, though. Annual operating costs run in the neighborhood of $225,000. Central Peninsula Hospital has been approached as a possible funding source. The Borough hasn’t yet finalized its budget and how much funding it will put into the school district. And of course, the state’s final call on education funding is still in the air.

School district spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff says some of those things will be known soon, though, starting with the district’s budgeting process.

“It’s going to all be happening in the next several weeks. Monday (April 14th) at our school board meeting is when we need to pass our budget. But then the legislative session ends mid-April, whenever it’s going to complete, but that’s coming up really soon. We’re just looking in the next several weeks, everything coming together.”

Depending on just how everything comes together, Anderson says this expense for the city might not stay in its budget.

“I think in practical terms, if there is some additional funding that comes from the community, the school board members are looking for an excuse to put the pool back into the budget. If there were a couple of committed funds like this, it will happen. But if it doesn’t happen, obviously this is a moot vote.”

The school district faces about a $4.5 million budget shortfall. Some or all of that could be made up with support from the Borough, which it has given in the past. And indications from Juneau are that there will be at least some increase in education funding for next year.

Update: The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District announced Friday it would reinstate $180,000 in funding for the Skyview pool in the 2014-2015 budget. The School Board will vote on that budget Monday, April 14th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Micciche Proposes State Smoking Ban

A proposal that would ban smoking in most public places in Alaska is making headway in the state Senate. Senate Bill 209 passed out of the Senate State Affairs Committee last week. The bill would ban smoking in office buildings, sports arenas, taxicabs, bars and restaurants, among other public places.

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Many places in Alaska, including Anchorage, Juneau and Bethel, already have similar bans. As a result of those bans, nearly half of Alaska’s population is already affected by a workplace smoking ban.

Soldotna Senator Peter Micciche is the bill’s sponsor. He told the Senate State Affairs Committee Thursday that normally, he a “small government kind of guy.” In this case, however, he feels it’s appropriate for the government to get involved to protect the health of workers.

“Just as it’s appropriate for government to set safety standards in automobiles, electrical codes for wiring (and) requirements for infant and child carrier seats,” he said.

Micciche says the state takes on much of the economic costs associated with second-hand smoke, which he said kills more Alaskans each year than automobile accidents. He also made the point that second-class cities and unorganized boroughs in Alaska do not have the legal authority to enact their own smoking bans.

But most importantly, Micciche said the issue is for him, a very personal one. He spoke about his father, who passed away from a smoking-related illness.

“My father made his personal choices,” said Micciche. “But my siblings and I didn’t. I’m the lucky one of the three. They all had respiratory issues from living through second-hand smoke effects.”

Micciche said more than 400 businesses and organizations have signed on in support of his bill. Committee Chairman Fred Dyson said most of the comments his office has received about the bill have also been supportive of the state doing something.

Larry Hackenmiller testified from Fairbanks on behalf of the Interior Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailer’s Association. He said Fairbanks rejected a similar law. He also took issue with some of the numbers put forward about hazards related to second-hand smoke.

“There is no hazard to second-hand smoke in a workplace … period,” said Hackenmiller.

Gary Superman owns the Hunger Hut bar in Nikiski. He called the smoking ban an infringement on his rights as a business owner. Superman described his bar as a “blue-collar tavern” that would be “irreparably harmed economically” by the ban.

Kenai businessman John Parker spoke in favor of the proposed ban, saying it would “level the playing field” for business owners on the Kenai Peninsula who may be afraid that banning smoking would give a leg up to their competition. More importantly, Parker said that customers and employees have a fundamental right to smoke-free air.

A couple of amendments have been proposed to the bill. One would include the use of e-cigarettes in the ban. The other would set up an appeal process for businesses who would like to “opt out.”

The bill also provides an “opt out” clause for local municipalities, which would be granted only if a local election is held and a majority of voters choose to exempt themselves from the smoking ban.

After nearly an hour of testimony, SB 209 passed out of the Senate State Affairs Committee.  It heads now to the Health and Social Services Committee. A companion bill is also working its way through the Alaska House.

-Aaron Selbig-KBBI-

KCHS Students Spend A Day In The Life

Lt. David Ross of the Kenai Police Department shares his career experience with KCHS students Wednesday at Kenai Christian Church as part of the annual career day. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Wednesday morning was a day in the life of a professional for 135 students at Kenai Central High School. The annual job shadowing day helps juniors either confirm an interest in a career, or gives them some second thoughts.

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“We had a gal a couple years ago (who) wanted to be an OBG-YN until she saw a baby being born via Caesarean and she said ‘I’m out. I’m not doing this.”

That story, from Kenai Chamber of Commerce president Johna Beecah is what the job shadowing day is all about. Giving kids a brief glimpse of what it’s like in the working world they think will be most interesting. Sometimes it ends like that. But not always. Allie Ostrander says now she’s even more interested in becoming a nutritionist.

“It was really cool just to see the daily activities of a nutritionist and I got to see what it was like to interact with the patients and just what his duties were. It was eye opening and it really helped me understand what nutritionist did,” she said.

The whole thing starts in December. Students sit down with a counselor and, based on interest, aptitude and some other qualifiers, they list the top three jobs they’re interested in. That’s where the Chamber of Commerce comes in.

“We sit down and we partner with the business community to try to fulfill the student’s wishes of the top job choice. Sometimes we do have to trickle down to that third job choice. It’s definitely an effort between the high school and the Chamber,” Beech said.

And then on the actual day, they spend the morning seeing what it’s like, then come together for lunch and some speeches to hear how other people found their careers.

Kenai Police Lieutenant Dave Ross told the students over lunch he tried a number of things before he found a career in public service.

“I started off as an engineering major. That lasted about a week and half after I got to school and I decided that’s not as much fun as I thought it would be. That’s a lot of work. So then I became a business major. I’m not sure how long that lasted, but somehow that morphed into an economics major, and then a criminal justice major. There might have been a couple other majors in there, but that’s where I stopped, with an interest in criminal justice,” Ross said.

And even after that, it was a number years before he got on the force. And that’s not uncommon. Labor studies show that within five years of graduating college, 25 percent of workers will change careers. That’s true of this generation and older ones.

Tommy Carver of the Kenai Fire Department said he too tried his hand in several different areas before a fishing trip put him on his path.

“Flew down to Mexico, we’re out on a boat fishing for marlin and he says ‘have you given any thought to the fire department’. I said I used to think about it all the time, that’s what I wanted to do. I hadn’t really considered it at that point, but still in the back of my mind I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. About a year later, a position came open, that was May first of 2001 and I’ve been there ever since,” Carver said.

Rebecca Willard spent the morning shadowing Redoubt Reporter publisher and editor Jenny Neyman, who managed to convince her that journalism is still something worth pursuing. And that just like every career, there’s a ladder to climb.

“You work hard and you pay your dues to get to where you are. There’s not a lot of benefits out of it,..high stress, low reward.But I like that. I like feeling like I did something good. Giving more to people,” Willard said.

While some, like Willard and Ostrander, sound pretty convinced about their career choices right now, not everyone is. And Lt. Dave Ross says that’s true for him, too.

“That feeling may never go away. I still have that feeling. I had it through high school, I had it through college, I had it through my first career and through this career, I still share some of that indecision about what I want to do next when I can retire. Do I want to stick with this or do I want to move on to something else. So you do have to make a decision and do something, but you may never get rid of that feeling of what what you want to do for the rest of your life, because I think many of us adults in the room still have that feeling.”

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 

Setnet Group Petitions Board of Fish

The state Board of Fish shot down an emergency petition to change management sections for commercial setnetters last week. The Board didn’t agree that there is an emergency.

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The petition was submitted by a new group, the South K-Beach Independent Fisherman’s Association, or SOKI for short. What they wanted the Board to do was split up the Kenai river district and the Kasilof river district, where east side set netters fish. Both areas fall under the Kenai river late run king salmon management plan. There are some new restrictions for setnetters under that plan, which was adopted by the Board earlier this year. SOKI argues that there’s a lot of difference between in fish are available, and when, in different spots along that 70-plus miles of beach. Board member Fritz Johnson said because the run timing is a bit different between the two rivers, it would be nice to manage them differently.

“There is value in having something more terminal in terms of management that may allow the Department (of Fish and Game) more precision with regard to managing these areas. This is the reason I felt compelled to bring this up.”

ADF&G fisheries biologist Pat Shields told the Board that splitting the sections up, or decoupling them, would make things a little easier for managers, because their goal right now is to get as many king salmon back to the river as possible, while still providing those setnetters some reasonable opportunity to fish for reds.

“The Kasilof section, in most years, catches more kings than the Kenai River and East Forelands sections due to the fact that they fish more days. They open up in June and we fish all the way through July 8th, only in the Kasilof section. Once the two sections begin fishing together, the Kenai section will catch more kings, on average, daily.”

One of the biggest restrictions for setnetters is the limit of 36 hours per week of fishing. Shields says with all these sections managed in the same way, with that number of hours, over escapement of reds becomes more of a possibility.

“Under the expected sockeye run that we have forecast for this year, yeah, there’s an increased likelihood with that few hours, that we could be looking at large sockeye escapements in both rivers. We’ll do our best, with the hours that you have provided, and in light of the king salmon situation, to manage the sockeye fishery to get as close to the goals as we can.”

Even with that possibility, the Board didn’t find a need to decouple those areas to give fishermen a different opportunity to catch sockeyes depending on when they actually show up. In the end, they agreed unanimously that area managers already have enough options to achieve the escapement goals for both kings and reds.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Agencies Host Flood Aware Fair

Rising groundwater was responsible for flooding across the Kenai Peninsula last fall. A relatively mild winter provided some relief, but concerns still remain.

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Representatives from state and local agencies were at the Kenai River Center Friday to answer questions about lingering effects from last fall’s flooding. And even though there weren’t many residents in attendance over the noon hour, it was clear there are still plenty of concerns about this regional problem. One of them is a lack of comprehensive data about water systems in South Central Alaska.

David Schade is the Chief of Water Resources for the state division of Mining, Land and Water.

“We’re now collecting back and putting together the historical information the state has, getting it into electronic format so that we’ve gathered the information we already have. And then deciding where we can reestablish the gauging and the information gathering we need, so that down the road we have the consistency of data so that we can have the professional staff give us recommendations, or hopefully explain what really might be going on.”

That was a big problem last fall as water slowly crept into people’s basements and septic systems. Some efforts were made by individual property owners to construct berms or divert the water away from their own home, but there wasn’t a lot of information out there about where the water was coming from and where it was going in any one area.

“Ultimately, what we want is to be able to build a groundwater model to where the public and everybody else who would be able to use this information, would know one: what the resource is and what then how these impacts would be. Not only for building projects, but for the management of the water in a system, because water is a public resource and in some areas it’s limited. We have to make wise uses of those resources, we also want to make sure our use doesn’t have an unintended consequence,” Schade said.

And that’s the thing people most want to avoid. Making the problem worse. But the problems are different all over the Peninsula.

“We have seen the flooding changes across the Peninsula in different perspectives, whether it’s one the east side with the watersheds that experience flooding in the spring and the fall, to the west side with areas that are typically flat, that don’t have the runoff ability, are see the water not dissipating as quickly as it should are creating adverse affects for homeowners,” said Kenai Peninsula Borough spokesperson Brenda Ahlberg.

Eighty-nine of those homeowners have applied for individual assistance, and while some of these programs can offer some relief in the short term, David Schade is looking at a much bigger picture.

“We talk about we need five years of data to start to have some idea of what’s going into a system. And of course when you’re having a crisis and you’re saying wait five years for us to figure it out, that doesn’t go over to well. So the whole idea is to get ahead of it, try to collect the information, figure out where we might have problems in the future and be ready with at least the start of the collection of the information.”

He says his department’s work on a big, statewide data base about where all the water goes is underway in Seward, Nikiski, Anchor Point and other areas. Factor in both the size and age of the state of Alaska, and it becomes a much bigger undertaking than in other parts of the country, but a flood awareness fair like this is a start.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 

Council Tables Veteran’s Memorial Resolution

The Kenai city council continued its debate about a veteran’s memorial at Leif Hansen Park Wednesday. Just as when the issue came up the first time, no action was taken.

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This whole thing started two weeks ago, when more than a dozen veterans and other supporters of the memorial gave their support in front of the council. There was nothing then for the council to vote on, they simply heard the testimony and moved on. Wednesday, there was something to vote on. A resolution drafted by council member Tim Navarre affirming the city’s support for the memorial.

Before everyone laid out their positions, city attorney Scott Bloom gave his opinion on things.

“This resolution itself I think is neutral as far as its endorsement of any particular religion. I do think, however, there is some risk that it might provoke or antagonize a lawsuit,” Bloom said.

Which is what has other members of the council worried. That the small cross included in the work will be interpreted as a religious symbol. And that’s happened already on a very similar memorial in California, where the courts determined it was religious, and therefore couldn’t be put on public property.

“If the city were sued, we would most likely lose the litigation. That being said, I think it’s a pretty close case. I think with these types of cases, the constitutionality of displays of religious imagery on government property is anyone’s guess. It’s not a very defined area of law. It’s a moving target,” Bloom said.

Council member Bob Molloy said it was too bad the city found itself between a rock and a hard place on this one. They simply wanted a memorial for veterans. They didn’t have to vote on approval of the final design, and now, that final design could land them in court.

Groups working for separation of church and state issues have already called on the city to choose sides. Council member Ryan Marquis said the resolution forces that choice.

“On the one hand it says ‘whereas the city council supports veterans and respects their public testimony’. But then it also says so if we do that, that means we have to support the current veteran’s memorial as it is. And I think that’s a false dichotomy. And I think it’s unfortunate that this was, I feel, created to try to be a ‘gotcha’ in that way,” Marquis said.

Council member Tim Navarre said he only submitted the resolution of support because people had asked him to.

“The other thing that motivated me to introduce this resolution is because if we’re not going to support veterans, in every step of the way, and especially something like this where there’s been case law back and forth and back and forth. And if somebody want to look at that memorial and see religion, then they’re telling you what you drew up and what they want to see and they’re going to make it their point to you. I see a soldier protecting another soldier as he kneels down to say goodbye to a fallen soldier that has died,” Navarre said.

Council member Terry Bookey said the question wasn’t about what the statue symbolizes.

“Is the city of Kenai at an increased risk of litigation for spending a large sum of money to commission, for placement in a public park, that displays, no matter how small, a Latin cross. It’s nothing more, it’s nothing less than that. Frankly, it’s a business decision. It’s not a personal decision, it’s not a moral decision, it’s not an anti-Christianity decision, anything of that nature. It is business decision that the city of Kenai has to make,” Bookey said.

 It’s a decision that will be made some time down the road. The council voted 4-3 to table the resolution indefinitely.

In the interest of disclosure, we note that council member Terry Bookey is also president of the KDLL Board of Directors.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Assembly Discusses Own Pay Cuts

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly took up the issue of compensation for its members this week. The details are still left to be sorted out.

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It seemed simple enough on the surface. The Borough is looking at less revenue in the coming fiscal year, and the Assembly felt compelled to take a look at how much it gets for compensation. Things like fuel allowances and health care. Maybe they could be cut back.

“I brought this forward because the property tax exemption, raising the exemption from $20,000 to $50,000, I felt like folks who voted in favor of that weren’t interested in simply raising the mill rate to compensate for the cuts that are going to be required,” said Assembly member Brent Johnson, who sponsored the ordinance.

“People have cars before the get on the Assembly and people have cars after they get off the Assembly, so I don’t feel like the Borough owes them the car compensation. It’s the same with internet access,” Johnson said.

That sounds good. Even, maybe a little noble given what people tend to think about the spending habits of elected officials. That Assembly compensation should be adjusted was less of a question than why.

There were actually two ordinances dealing with this. Johnson’s, which laid out what should be cut and predicted a savings of $97,000 a year, and Bill Smith’s substitution ordinance, that prescribed a flat compensation rate, tied to the consumer price index in Anchorage. And that one wouldn’t kick in until the next Assembly session.

That’s where the meat hit the grinder. There was a consensus that, sure, some of this compensation is pretty generous, maybe too generous. And the line that ended up being drawn was a philosophical one.

“I would not put a compensation attached to the CPI in Anchorage,” said Assembly member Wayne Ogle.

“Because that’ll be putting the budget on auto-pilot. We have a federal government that does nothing but index everything. There’s a baseline in which the federal budget is attached to and it is totally out of control,” Ogle said.
But back to the budget for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, which is noticeably smaller and in a little better shape than that of Uncle Sam. A big part of the proposed savings in Johnson’s version comes from slashing health care costs incurred by Assembly members. Right now, those who do use the Borough’s health plan get the same benefits as a department head. But a position on the Assembly is technically just a part-time gig, so, it was thought, they shouldn’t get the same benefits.

But that argument didn’t convince Dale Bagley. His interpretation was that the Assembly gets these little goodies in lieu of a regular, part time paycheck.

“I find it ironic that if we do pass what Assembly member Johnson has brought forward, I’m pretty sure the only thing the reporters will put in the paper is that we increased our salary. So it’s kind of funny that we go to do this cut and it’s still going to say that we increased our salary,” Bagley said.

Sue McClure said that wouldn’t be the case for her. She doesn’t use the Borough’s health care, but since she travels from Seward, she gets more for mileage and a car allowance.

“I just calculated out…it would be a break-even for me. The biggest problem I have with this ordinance, really, is that I don’t think we should be voting on our own personal compensations. I prefer the substitute in that sense, that it would not effect me personally,” McClure said.
From there, everything went through the grinder. The ordinances, amendments to the ordinances and amendments to the amendments. What came out the other end was a postponement of the whole thing until the Assembly meets again on April 15th in Seward.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Committee Hears From Managers About Salmon Issues

The Senate Resources committee wrapped up its week-long dialogue about Cook Inlet Salmon issues Friday. After hearing from different user groups, the committee shifted gears, to the Department of Fish and Game.

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This last meeting was a little different from the previous two. Friday, the committee spoke directly to the department managing all these fisheries, asking a lot of questions about the science and the studies of salmon, what’s happening in other parts of the world, and what more can be done here.

Sportfish division director Charlie Swanton took most of the committee’s questions, like what other management actions are left after two consecutive years of restrictions on both commercial and sport fishing for Kenai river kings.

“In essence, there’s not a lot we can do about it, other than we can do our best to meet the escapement objectives and wait for those production regimes to shift. And it has occurred in the past and it probably will occur in the future,” Swanton said.

Which isn’t to say that nothing is being done. A shift to a new sonar counter will continue this summer. And some ideas they’ve had about king salmon behavior has been validated to some degree by recent research projects. Like where kings hang out in the water column relative to sockeye.   

That was a key factor in some changes for setnetters this year. Their nets will be higher in the water where it’s believed more sockeye swim than kings.

Swanton said the overarching goal right now is to reduce mortality of kings. And that’s mostly been done by way of restricting fishing opportunities. He told the committee that fewer kings are surviving from the smolt or juvenile stage, into adulthood, maybe one percent at best.

In happier times, that rate might be more along the order of 3 to 5 percent. On some rivers, that might mean more than twice as many kings returning based on the same escapement.

Fisheries all over Cook Inlet got some attention, and so did Board of Fish decisions made earlier this year. Senator Peter Micciche wondered what the dynamic will be around Anchor Point this summer, where driftnetters have been directed to fish for sockeye, and if The Board of Fish asked Swanton about how guided halibut boats and drift gill net boats might get along, or not.

Swanton’s short answer was no, he wasn’t asked about those potential conflicts. And the Board of Fish didn’t spend much time wondering about it either. They were told most drifters don’t fish there anyway. But they might start, with other areas of the Inlet now off limits.

Micciche also wondered about working with other departments on areas of common interest. Like water quality. That’s the bailiwick of the Department of Environmental Conservation. But Fish and Game has a pretty strong interest in clean water for fish.

“It was difficult to get an agency to say ‘yes, by golly, we have a hydrocarbon problem (on the Kenai River), we’re going to work on this,” Micciche said of earlier issues on the river.

Like most higher-ups in state agencies, Swanton took the diplomatic route and simply explained the official roles of the two offices. But he did say he might speak with Senator Micciche later about the gaps between those roles when two agencies can work toward a shared goal. But he was more direct in his assessment of what the department has done to conserve the early Kenai king run, which is in even worse shape than the late run.

“We’ve already announced that we’re going to close the early run completely. I don’t know how much more reduction in mortality you would expect out of the Department. It’s just a matter of doing our best to let them be.”

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 

Sage Wisdom At Garden Gathering

 

If you’ve got a green thumb, the time is right for getting started on this year’s garden. KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran was at the Kenai Visitor’s Center Saturday to find out what people are planning to grow, and what tips the Central Peninsula Garden Club has for them.

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Carm and Cathy Bongiovanni are here for most of the same reasons as everyone else.

“We’ve been doing it for a number of years,” Carm said. They’re originally from Wisconsin, where they also grew a garden.

“We know pretty much what we’re doing, but it doesn’t always work,” Cathy said.

And how.

But that’s why Central Peninsula Garden Club members were here. To help people figure out what it takes to make things work. Want to get a high tunnel going? How to make your garden truly organic? What to feed your worms for compost? Okay. They can do that.

Tom Gotcher was busy all day explaining his grow bucket set up.

It’s pretty slick. You’ve got a big container on one end, maybe an old 55 gallon drum, and that holds all the water. Then you’ve got a series of five gallon buckets, all connected with a hose, with holes cut for drainage and aeration. And when you get them all set up, nice and level, you pretty much let gravity do the work of watering whatever you put in there, typically tomatoes.

“It’s 12 foot up to the rafters. They were up there and running across. I had to get on a ladder to pick them,” Gotcher said of last year’s tomato crop.

If something like that is a bit too much, no worries. Just about everyone I spoke with was preaching simplicity and affordability. The grow buckets don’t have to be expensive and they’re not really complicated, but they do take some setting up and they do take up some space. But there’s an alternative.

“Well, my concept is the cheaper the better,” said Juanita Owens.

She was showing off another path toward fresh vegetable bliss, with square-foot gardening. It’s like an itty-bitty hoop house, right on the ground. A little square made out of scrap two by fours, with PVC pipe looped over the top and draped in plastic. The key to a setup like this is compost. What you sacrifice in space, you make up for with really healthy, productive soil. Owens uses a hot compost, which is helped along with some worms.

Cheap and easy. How to get more with less.  That seemed to be a common theme for each of the dozen or so tables where different topics were being discussed. But going big has its advantages, too. Liz Lynch was there to talk about high tunnels, where the goal is to simply extend the growing season.

“We kept a record and found that the ground hasn’t froze since February,” Lynch said. She was just getting her cold crops in, and was planning to get tomatoes, zucchini and other, more warm-blooded plants going in a few weeks.

It doesn’t matter if there’s still snow on the ground, because in a high tunnel, you’re basically tricking those plants into thinking they’re someplace they’d much rather be. When done properly, and with the right materials, each layer of insulation on the high tunnel re-imagines your garden some 500 miles to the south. Lynch’s tomatoes will think they’re somewhere around northern Oklahoma.

Forget the tomatoes, maybe I’ll move into one of these things for the next few weeks. I’ll also be brainstorming the best ways to get a few plants of my own started. Maybe even some melons, which I learned has become a popular thing to try. And the right variety of cantaloupe, grown under the right conditions, can turn out pretty well, even here in Alaska.

Carm and Cathy Bongiovanni say they’re not going for anything quite that exotic.

“We have raised beds and a small greenhouse, that’s it. We like potatoes and tomatoes and lettuce,” Carm said.

“It’s a lot more of a challenge up here; trying to figure out how to do it and trying to extend your season past the middle of August because by that time you can start hitting frost,” Cathy said.

Now if we could just get rid of the frost that’s still hanging around.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Fishermen Turn To Legislature For Research Funding

The Senate resources committee continued its dialogue about Cook Inlet salmon issues Wednesday. The message to the committee from user groups remains the same.

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That message: more science and less politics in salmon management.

“At the recent Upper Cook Inlet meeting, the Board of Fisheries made decisions that compromise the Department of Fish and Game’s ability to manage fisheries,” said Jeff Fox, speaking for UCIDA, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. Drifters were hit pretty hard by new restrictions set to go into effect this year. Fox told the Committee those restrictions weren’t made for the right reasons.

“The efforts by the Board to address the proposals for the fishery were politically motivated, without scientific or factual basis. The Board process was influenced by groups pushing for allocative agendas under the guise of conservation.”

This was the second day for discussions about Cook Inlet salmon issues. Just like day one, the Board of Fish and its process for crafting management policies was under heavy fire. Most of the groups that testified said basically the Board is overwhelmed with information. Proposals have to be submitted far in advance. By the time the meetings roll around, new information might completely change the need to address a certain issue. That’s not to mention the proposals that might be drafted on the fly, while the meetings are in session.

“Board members were buried in an avalanche of paper dumped on them within days of the meeting and during the two week meeting. Much of the information was technical. Without a thorough relationship between the interrelationships between the different fisheries, gear types, run timing, historical patterns and emerging scientific data, the Board is simply unable to understand the consequences of their decision. As a result, we end up with management plans that cannot achieve the intended result.”

The intended result for Fox’s group and other commercial fishers is to be allowed to put nets in when the fish are hitting. And try to avoid those struggling king salmon stocks.

The Board’s work this year went in that direction; there’s flexibility to allow openings when sockeye are hitting, but it comes at the expense of regular fishing hours throughout the week, meaning fewer chances to catch enough fish to turn a profit for the season.

And as you might expect, if one group doesn’t like a new rule, another group probably thinks it’s a good idea.

Ricky Gease of the Kenai Peninsula Sportfishing Association applauded the Board’s efforts to return more kings to the river to spawn, but said they’re still not looking at the big picture.

“It seems like when we’re very healthy in our production (in the 80′s and 90′s the top ten king salmon records were harvested on the Kenai River), that’s when Washington, Oregon and California were having all of their Endangered Species Act listings. Currently, we’re in a down cycle, they’re having record returns of king salmon and this has alternated back and forth through time,” Gease said.

Zooming back in to what’s going on in the here and now; Robert Ruffner of the Kenai Watershed Forum told the committee more attention needs to be paid to the juvenile fish trying to survive in an increasingly harsh environment.

“As you’ve heard, the Kenai River is a very intensive fishery. We’ve got an intense bank fishery, an intense boat fishery. There’s lots of stuff going on out there that generates tons of economic activity. Lots of people, on good years, go home happy. It’s good for us. What we don’t know enough about is all that activity that’s going on out there, how might it be affecting our juvenile fish? We don’t know enough about juvenile fish.”

Problems with fisheries in the Mat-Su Valley were also discussed. The infestation of the area’s lakes by invasive pike have harmed salmon populations, roads and culverts still present a problem for fish returning to spawn, as do beaver dams. But the one thing the committee heard from everyone was that more science and research is needed to dictate fishing regs, and, of course the money for that science and research.          

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Gardeners Gear Up For Expo

Gardeners on the Peninsula are gearing up for another growing season. Whether you’re a veteran or a novice, a roundtable event this weekend will offer some pro tips on how to get the most out of the ground.

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The Central Peninsula Garden Club does something like this each spring. It’s warming up, the snow’s going away, the sun’s out for more than half the day.

“Our noses are pressed against the greenhouse window, like I’ve got to get something, even if I can’t put it in the ground I’m going to put it in a window or do something to get going. Start seeds, whatever, ” says club president Marion Nelson. I spoke to her recently about this weekend’s gardening expo and rountable discussion, which is moving to a new venue, at the Kenai Visitor’s Center.

“Last year we had two months’ of meetings back to back that were roundtables and we normally meet at the Aquaculture building, and they were just absolutely jam packed. It was so tight in there that we couldn’t hear ourselves talk to one another.”

She says there will be 13, we’ll call them stations, about different topics, but no set schedule, just drop in and try to learn something.

“Sit down for a few minutes or an hour, or however the flow of the discussion is going. If they decide they don’t want to talk about potatoes after all, they could move on to how to put together your own grow box. There’s a lot.”

But not so much for flowers. She says growing things to eat is becoming more popular than growing things to look at.

“The scene has changed. Virtually all the garden clubs in the state, including the Anchorage Botanical Center, they don’t have programs on flowers any more. Or if they do, it’s mixed. How are we planting vegetables in with our flowers. That’s not say we’re not planting flowers, we do. If nothing else, a few marigolds because they’re good pest help.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s just about vegetables, either. That’s the end product. A lot of talk Saturday will be about how to get to that end result of bushels full of good food.

“It’s organic gardening, it’s how to deal with your green house, grow bucket assembly. One of our very talented, clever members has figured out how to put together their own grow buckets. They’re self-watering, you can put in irrigation that’s timed; a very very clever way to do it.”

This year’s gardening expo is at the Kenai Visitor’s Center Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and it’s free and open to the public.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Senate Committee Hears Salmon Concerns

Cook Inlet salmon fishermen are taking their respective cases to the state legislature this week. The Senate Resources committee began a dialogue to learn more about the issues.

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Committee Chair Senator Cathy Giessel said there wouldn’t be any action from these meetings. Just a chance to listen, firsthand, to what’s on the minds of pretty much every user group going for salmon in Cook Inlet.

Regardless of the user group, one thing was clear; no one was really happy with the Board of Fish process, and everyone was looking to the legislature for some action in their favor.

As testimony started, dipnetting concerns on the Kenai River were front and center. City Manager Rick Koch talked about a new way to get people onto the south beach, away from private property.

“First, it will decrease the travel distance on the beach by one half mile, reducing impacts to the beach and near-beach areas. Second, this realignment will eliminate the conflict with private property owners where the alleged trespass occurs. Third, it minimizes conflicts with high tides as it relates to access at mean high water.”

Koch told the committee that would cost about $2 million. He also said the city is hoping for a more positive response from the legislature than it got from the Board of Fish.

“We would very much like the Board of Fish to recognize, as the federal government would under the Magnuson Stevens Act, the city’s rights as a property owner in a fishing community. We submitted a proposal this year to eliminate the possibility of 24 hour openings and the Board of Fish told the city of Kenai that we just need to learn how to manage crowds. That’s not a very cooperative stance for those of us who are trying to serve Alaskans.”

Setnetters also turned to the legislature after a rough go-round at the Board of Fish meetings in February. Megan Smith spoke on behalf of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association.

“We would like legislative support for our small family businesses. We’d like to see funding for research for spawning and rearing areas and juvenile out-migration studies for chinook. We would like proactive, multi-agency action plans for the Upper Cook Inlet chinook stocks and we would like to take a closer look at the Board of Fish process to remove conflict and political pressure, and restore scince-based, biological decision making.”

She said they’d be interested in seeing a change in how the Board is staffed. Moving away from appointments made by the governor, to a professional board made up of scientists.

“We feel like there are overwhelming loads of information and there are so many fish species that we’re all trying to manage. I think somebody mentioned a scientific support staff. I’m in favor of that because I think data is power. And the more data we can get, the better off we’ll be.”

Habitat was the main concern for Dwight Kramer of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition. With fewer opportunities for king fishing, hitting the river for sockeye is getting more popular, and that puts a lot of pressure on the banks of the river.

“The sad part is that nobody from the various agencies currently have available staff to assess these damages and make appropriate bank closures. This is an area where recent budget cuts and personnel vacancies have reduced our effectiveness in habitat protection, where our vigilance now should be more rather than less,” Kramer said.

The Senate Resources Committee will hear more testimony from Cook Inlet salmon Fishermen on Wednesday.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Assembly Spars Over Bill To Honor Vets

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly grappled with how best to recognize the service of local veterans at its meeting this week.

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Supporting veterans is a pretty popular thing to do, politically and culturally.At leastsymbolically. And government bodies adopt resolutions all the time that support this or condemn that, recognize meaningful achievements or commemorate events of the past. And so it wasn’t a question of whether the Borough Assembly should pass a resolution saying it supports local military vets, but rather, what words should be used to convey that support. The trouble started when the bill was still with the legislative committee, chaired by Mako Haggerty.

“There was a little bit of, I guess confusion, for lack of a better word, over the difference between the title and the conclusion of the resolution,” Haggerty said.

The language in this resolution was similar to others like it in its simplicity; that the Assembly wishes to honor the fallen, wounded and decorated vets. But some members took issue with the reasoning behind that resolution. It cited casualty statistics from several American wars, though not all of them. And it included part of a quote from Colin Powell that didn’t set well with Brent Johnson.

“When it comes to Powell’s statement that the only land we’ve ever asked for is enough to bury our dead, that runs smack into the face of some rather tough sledding in history,” Johnson said.

He went on to mention wars with Native American tribes, a war with Mexico and a few others. The point was that the historical information included in the resolution was neither complete, nor necessarily fitting with what the Assembly wanted to do; honor veterans for their service.

“Often times, veterans are sent out under bad circumstances and they still should be honored. And that’s basically what we’re trying to do with this resolution and we should stick to the facts,” said Assembly member Wayne Ogle.

So, an amendment was offered up to remove the offending language and the quote from General Powell. At that point, the bill’s author, Kelly Wolf, who is himself a military parent with a son in the Air Force, weighed in.

“If we’re going to get into surgically removing ‘whereases’ being as they’re just part of the historical document…the question is…this is all about just trying to honor our veterans. I didn’t include a lot of the wars and I did not touch on the American Indian wars because we didn’t even keep casualty reports of how many Indian Americans we killed for land,” he said.

They took that part out, but Assembly president Hal Smalley still thought the resolution was too convoluted and in the end, cast the lone vote against it.

“I like what we did on the amendments. Those were great because it spoke to what we wanted to speak to; honoring out veterans. And to me that’s what it’s all about. The gobbledigook in the body was poorly worded, not fully accurate. And the issue was really, I think, about something in a neighboring community that the Borough shouldn’t really be dealing with, except the appreciation of our veterans,” Smalley said.

Smalley was talking about conflicts with a memorial statue at Lief Hansen Park in Kenai, an issue we’ll be covering later this week.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Special Assessment Districts Proposed For Gas Utilities In Ninilchik, Funny River

Natural gas service continues to expand on the Kenai Peninsula. Last year, a utility special assessment district was set up in Homer to bring gas there. Now, two other areas within the Borough are looking for a similar deal.

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Two ordinances are up for discussion the next time the Borough Assembly meets. Each proposes to establish a new utility special assessment district, one for a couple subdivisions near Ninilchik and another for the Funny River area. The Ninilchik project would serve the Deep Creek Estates and Fairwood subdivisions with a 15,000 foot run of 2 inch pipe. The USAD there will cost a little more than $400,000 in total, which breaks down to about $3,800 for each of the 107 parcels that would be served. Further north, the project in Funny River is a lot bigger.

Enstar submitted plans in January to get a pipeline laid underneath the Kenai River to make it there.

““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,” said John Sims, Enstar’s Director of Business Development.

If the Borough Assembly approves the USADs in both areas by July 1st, Enstar will finish the work this year. Sims says the work under the Kenai River will be done long before then.

“We’ll be well done with the bore before fishing season’s up and running. That’s one of the permitting requirements we have. We need to watch any sort of confrontation or conflict with that sort of thing,” Sims said.

For Funny River residents, the project will cost more than twice as much as in Ninilchik, nearly $940,000, but split among more than twice as many parcels. About $3,500 between 264 parcels. It will take nearly 40,000 feet of pipeline to get them all hooked in. Those fees are payable over ten years, and homeowners will also have to shoulder the additional cost getting individual buildings hooked up.

When Enstar began signing up customers in Homer and Kachemak City last year, that hook up fee was in the $1,500 to $2,000 neighborhood. But that’s if the Assembly adopts the ordinances. It has the authority to invest in up to $3 million in special assessments annually. With these two new districts, the Borough’s total investment would be a little more than $2 million. The Assembly will decide on the new USADS when it meets next Tuesday the 18th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

City Hopeful For Progress On Bluff Erosion

For decades, the city of Kenai has been waiting for plans for a bluff erosion project. After getting the attention of ranking officials in the US Army Corps of Engineers, that might finally be happening. KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran has more.

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“Kenai bluffs wash away, project closes in.”

“Kenai sees progress on bluff erosion project.”

“Project to stabilize Kenai River bluff approved.”

“Life on the edge- crumbling Nikiski bluffs cause destruction, even death.”

When you ask Uncle Google what he knows about the erosion problems along the bluffs in Kenai, the answers he gives might lead you to believe the bulldozers and pipefitters are already on site. But some of those headlines are more than five years old. And the erosion problem itself goes back, well, as long as people have wanted to build stuff on the edge of the bluff. Kenai city manager Rick Koch told the city council at its meeting last week that a recent trip to Washington D.C. leaves him feeling like this time might be different.

“It caused the Alaska district of the Corps to be held accountable for where the project sits.”

Right now, the project sits with the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, part of the Corps of Engineers.

“I think it was fairly uncomfortable for them having the Assistant Secretary, having their staff call and say ‘gee, somebody is saying that this thing is held up on the Assistant Secretary’s desk and we don’t know anything about it.’ There was some scrambling I think being done both in the Alaska office and in the Pacific division office in Hawaii.

The stage we’re sort of stuck at is getting the okay for a final feasibility study. See, no one really knew if they had authority to give that okay. But Koch thinks they’ve finally got that figured out.

“We had the heavy hitters there. We had their chief counsel was involved, the head of their design and construction…By the end of it, their comments were it appeared the authorization provided was broad enough that they should be able to move forward with a final feasibility study.”

The other, arguably bigger, issue is funding. At some point, everyone was ready to pony up for this thing; the city, the state and the federal government. But there was that thing with the economy a few years back, and the resulting sequestration, and grants from the state have expired. The city, though, is like a little kid with a full piggy bank looking at a new bike.

“We’ve made that offer for the last three years, that we have $4 million of state appropriation. We’ve got cash burning a hole in our pocket to some degree. We’re in for 35% of the project value whether we pay their share of this now, or we pay 35% later.

The money for the Corps’ share of the study exists, somewhere, but they’re trying to figure out how they can appropriate it to themselves. Total cost for the project is now estimated at more than $40 million dollars. Koch said it still has support from Alaska’s congressional delegation and that he was anticipating hearing a decision about the feasibility study this week.

                        

Furie Applies For New Cook Inlet Platform

Furie Alaska has submitted an operations plan for a new offshore drilling platform in Cook Inlet. If the project is approved, natural gas production could begin as soon as this fall.

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This is a big project for Furie. They were one of the first companies on the scene at the beginning of the so-called Cook Inlet renaissance in 2010, and brought in the jack-up rig Spartan 151 the next year to drill in the Kitchen Lights Unit. That’s the same part of the Inlet where they hope to plant a new drilling platform, about ten miles north of Boulder Point.

The platform would be the seventeenth operating in Cook Inlet. The oldest of which date back to the mid 1960’s. That was a topic of concern last fall, when industry executives and state officials got together in Anchorage for a work session on what to do with the oldest platforms, and how regulations might change for projects like Furie’s. Mike Munger is the executive director for the Cook Inlet Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council. He said at the time the Council had been sitting on a white paper with recommendations for those aging platforms since 2005. But things have changed since then.

“There’s so many dynamics that’s happening in Cook Inlet, with the new independents coming in and acquiring these legacy assets. So we’re looking at the possibility of the Cook Inlet oil field five years ago versus now, it’s a completely different dynamic. Where that all shakes out as far as dismantlement, restoration and removal and the ultimate fate of these platforms is really up in the air right now.”

No real firm action has been taken since those meetings, and what will happen with this platform when its service life is over isn’t known. The plan simply states that because the design life of the platform is more than 20 years, abandonment options and technology are likely to evolve during that time, and so no exact plans for removal are being made. Last fall, state senator Peter Micciche said those plans should be in place from the start.

“I think for future development, those are agreements that should be made at the beginning. We should understand ultimately who’s going to be responsible and what those expectations are.”

There are two phases to this operation. In the first, the platform goes up, two 16- mile long, 10-inch diameter subsea pipelines will be laid in, leading to a new production facility set to be built in Nikiski. Phase two includes keeping all the stuff in Phase one up and running and also calls for the intermittent use of jack up rigs as more wells are tested and developed. So far, three exploratory wells have been drilled along with one development well. The state Department of Natural Resources is taking comments on the plan until March 28th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

No Miracles, No Freebird. Just Hard Work.

Classical guitarist Valerie Hartzell performs Friday night in Soldotna. She sat down in the studio to talk about her visit to the Peninsula and some of the song requests she’s had to politely turn down.

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Valerie Hartzell: I started when I was two. My mother used to play classical guitar. She started in Paris, met my dad, he’s American. They moved to the States and she joined the New England Conservatory in Boston. So as a toddler, I got to hear her. And I begged and begged and begged and finally when she got her Ramirez guitar in Spain, Ramirez made me one, and it was a half sized so I could actually play. I probably just did some strumming, until eventually I could do solfège, read music and she said ‘huh’. And she said by 3 or 3 and a half you were pretty serious, and I said how serious can a three year old be?

Shaylon Cochran: Describe your instrument. It’s a guitar, but there are a lot of little things that are different.

VH: The guitar is not that big. It’s more of a curvy female shape. The classical guitar looks like a woman. Except with a really long neck. And our neck is twice as wide as that of an acoustic guitar. Eventually somebody decided, well, maybe we shouldn’t put steel strings on the guitars. And so throughout technology, they used to use gut strings, which is really gross, and now we have nylon strings, which is a softer feel. I can’t play on a steel string. People listening to these pieces will say how does she not use a pick? Well, we use nails. And our right hand has nails and our left hand doe not.

SC: We think of the modern guitar as a rock and roll or a folk instrument, and I think of concerts I go to at the other venues where people are playing guitar and you’ll always hear someone yelling ‘Freebird!’ Is there a classical musical equivalent of that? Does someone yell ‘Play Bach’s 5th Etude!’?

VH: Oh, God. No, not like that, but I’ve heard people ‘oh, do you know Recuedos (de la Alhambra by Francisco Tarrega)?  Everybody seems to know that one. But I actually have had people say ‘do you know Freebird?’ at a classical concert. And I’m like, ‘Nope!’ Or Stairway to Heaven. That’s another popular one.

SC: What is the thing that separates classical guitar as a genre more than anything? Is it technique?

VH: Well, acoustic and electric, they have a lot of technique they have to learn, too. At least the good players do and I think it’s the same thing. We have to learn technique. It’s a lot of work. People will look and say ‘how do you do that? It’s a miracle.’ And it’s not a miracle. It’s like hundreds of hundreds of thousands of hours. Any concert artist out there will tell you, it’s work. It’s like going to work. It’s not ‘Yay!’ It’s ‘I’ve got to practice this…motion on my right hand. First finger, second finger, first finger, second finger. I’ve got to do that over and over again until I get it just right, just the nicest tone I could possibly get.

SC: You’ve been hanging out with a lot of school kids around the Peninsula and when you perform for an audience that age, are there considerations you make for that age group versus folks who might come out and see you on Friday?

VH: For the elementary school, yeah. I try to make it personal with fun stories. And for the high school kids, I treat them like adults. Because the really are at that point. Quite frankly, the outreach concerts have been my favorite thing. I think if just one student can get up and say ‘I want to do classical guitar’. Or even if a couple say ‘I really like classical music, it’s not boring, I want to listen to more of this.’ If I can reach out to just a few students, that they really want to do something with classical music or classical guitar, I think I’ve done my job.

Valerie Hartzell performs Friday night at 7:30 at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna.

City Hears More Dipnetting Concerns

After little action was taken by the Board of Fish, officials with the city of Kenai dug back into dipnetting during a work session Tuesday night. Property owners along the beaches are running out of patience.

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“It’s not just Saturday night. It’s every night. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, every five minutes, a car going by with loud pipes.”

I talked to Steve Perrizo outside city hall Tuesday night. He lives on Royal street. Pretty much the end of the road if you’re driving onto the south beach.

For nearly an hour, people lined up to testify about the personal use fishery at the mouth of the Kenai river. And much like a similar meeting in January, residents said their tolerance for the influx of people in July is growing smaller. Perrizo’s other concern, besides the noise, is the directive by the state to shuffle people onto the beach between the mean high water mark and the nearby dunes. Which is more or less Perrizo’s yard.

“If that was done here by any of these council members’ houses, there would be a noise ordinance put in and these people would be shut down. I’m tired of Anchorage playing in my back yard,” Perrizo said.

City council members and commissioners from various boards talked about recent successes in dealing with dipnetting season, like more dumpsters, signs and enforcement for dealing with fish waste. But as this thing continues to grow, the city is really just running out of room to put everyone for those three weeks.

Last year, the city concentrated on getting more people to pay up for parking and camping. And as some are inevitably wont to do, they found other points of access. Like through the wetlands along Bridge Access Road.

“My recommendation is that city lands, upstream of those dunes areas, those vegetative lands, be closed in the month of July,” said Ken Tarbox, a retired Fish and Game biologist and avid birder.

“That means for everybody. That means for us birders that are out there. There’s no reason to be out there then. As this population of dipnetters continues to grow, people will find a way to expand into these areas and we’ve seen this trend in the last couple years.”

A lot of possible solutions were thrown out Tuesday night. Constructing a dedicated road to channel all those dipnetters past property owners and to the beach. Making them walk. Hoping some enterprising soul will start a shuttle business. The one city manager Rick Koch has been advocating raises more money to pay for things like enforcement or fencing, by creating an additional charge for the state personal-use permit.

“I thought it was a pretty good idea. Because everyone who gets a personal use fishing permit has a small amount of skin in the game, and we’re able to ratchet back those fairly significant fees for the small percentage of people we’re able to get our arms around.”

Of course, that will take some work at the state level. In the meantime, it’s a safe bet parking and camping fees will go up this year. But that’s small, incremental change. Carolyn Snowder, like many of her neighbors in the area, wants to see changes this year.

“Something has to be done. And we’ve actually made a proposal to the city how some of that could be solved…There are people out there that are willing to help get that change down there if the city of Kenai will actually accept their help.”

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 

Mulling through the alphabet soup of agencies that are in some way involved in making any substantial changes to the fishery has been an uphill battle for the city so far. And the state Board of Fish, despite lots of public testimony highlighting these problems, largely ignored the issue when it met last month. The city council will now begin discussions about what steps to take in 2014.

Lawmakers Seek Elodea Ban

Elodea Canadensis. This popular aquarium plant poses a threat to lakes on the Kenai Peninsula. (Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Biologists have been working to rid the Kenai Peninsula of the invasive water plant elodea for almost two years. Now, they might have a little help from Juneau. A House Bill introduced last week seeks to formalize a ban on the plant.

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It’s already illegal to transport aquatic plants without a permit. But House Bill 344 would place an outright prohibition on the importation, sale, purchase of or release into state waters, certain invasive aquatic plant species. Like, elodea.

Last spring, John Morton from the Kenai Wildlife Refuge addressed the Borough Assembly after a request was made for $40,000 to help stop the spread of the stuff.

“It’s a very bad plant. It’s prolific, it grows very, very quickly, it reproduces vegetatively,” Morton said.

They found it in Daniel’s, Beck and Stormy Lakes near Nikiski back in September 2012.  Over the course of the following year, researchers conducted surveys on 64 lakes to find out if it had spread any further. So far, elodea hasn’t been found anywhere else. But there’s been a rush to eradicate it before it is found anywhere else because it spreads easily. Just a little chunk of this stuff on a pontoon or a propeller is enough to infest another lake. And it’s dangerous because it essentially chokes out everything else up the food chain.

“You saw the price tag on this stuff, you can see how bad it would be if it started multiplying by lakes,” Morton said.

One-hundred-thirty thousand dollars has been provided through grants from a number of agencies, including the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, to treat those lakes with an aquatic herbicide called Floridone.

Eventually, a consortium of agencies hopes to organize a state-wide plan to deal with the plant. Treatment of Kenai Peninsula lakes is expected this summer. Elodea has also been found in the Chena River and Chena Slough and lakes near Cordova The aim of the house bill, sponsored by Peninsula representatives Mike Chenault and Kurt Olson, is to cut off the likely source of elodea, by banning its sale and importation. Because the most likely culprit for it elodea’s presence here is probably a science lab kit or a home aquarium.

In a statement, Olson noted that bans on elodea are already on the books in Iceland and Norway. The bill’s next stop is a hearing with the House Resources committee on March 10th.

Skyview Hosts Last Basketball Games

The Skyview Panthers hosted their final home basketball games Friday night, continuing a long list of lasts as students and faculty prepare to transition to Soldotna High School next year.

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The boys team took to the court against Homer, closing the books on Skyview basketball. It was a double-header for Senior night. Sam Reynolds and Meghan Powers were recognized from the girls team, which fell to the Mariners in the early game 20-35. And from the boys squad, Dallas Cook, Brandon Rice, Chad Harley, Micah Hilbish and Jordan Carlson, who would be the big scorer on the night for the Panthers.

After the seniors were given their send-offs, Homer head coach Mark Casseri waxed about his years coming to Skyview.

“You seniors, every time we walk into this building, we’re a little nervous.”

Homer got out to an early lead, but Skyview’s Carlson got the momentum back early, scoring on 8 of 11 field goal attempts, and putting up all of his 24 points in the first half. Micah Hilbish was right behind, scoring 19 on the night. By halftime, Skyview was up 34-25, on their way to a 58-49 final score. Coach Settlemeyer told the Peninsula Clarion’s Joey Klecka it was a special night, but that the emotions didn’t overwhelm the team “We turned it into excitement and energy on the court. The crowd was great in cheering us on and it was just a special moment.”

The gym was pretty close to capacity for that special moment. I caught up with a couple Skyview students just before the game.

“It’s important to be here because this is our last year as Skyview Panthers and we need to show our pride,” said junior Adam O’Guinn.

“It’s important to show everyone we’re not going out weak. We’re going out strong, showing school spirit,” said Dylan Shultz, also a junior.

Shultz and O’Guinn said they were looking forward to being with their classmates next year at SoHi, and hope the change will be a positive.

With Friday night’s  victory, and an overtime win against Nikiski earlier in the week, Skyview sweeps the southern division of the South Central Conference. They end the regular season with a 4-6 record in the league, and take a 10-11 overall record into tournament play, which begins Thursday in Cordova.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

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.

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.

Skyview Student Up For Spirit Of Youth Award

Moira Pyhala is interviewed by Spirit of Youth's Shana Sheehy. Pyhala is one of 100 Alaska youths nominated for the award. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The Kenai River brings in thousands of tourists every year; for fishing, rafting, or just to see the sights. But it also brings in a lot of volunteers who work to preserve all those activities. Moira Pyhala is one of those volunteers, and her efforts have earned her a nomination for a Spirit of Youth Award.

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Moira spent a good chunk of her summer break from Skyview high school volunteering with the Kenai Watershed Forum’s Stream Watch program. The program’s coordinator, Lisa Beranek, nominated her for the award. Part of the deal when you are nominated is an interview with the Spirit of Youth folks. You’ve probably heard some of those stories on the radio in the past. I was invited to tag along for Moira’s interview last week at the Kenai Airport with Spirit of Youth’s Shana Sheehy. Moira said her time on the river allowed her to make connections with people from all over the world.

“I think the most significant part is when you ask people ‘do you know all these rules and regulations, are you ready to fish?’ and you end up just talking to people. We met people from Germany, from all over the lower 48, who really didn’t know anything about the river, didn’t know anything about fishing.”

So why would someone, in the golden years of high school, want to spend a summer patrolling the river?

“The Kenai River…is a huge economic resource that’s going to effect my future and generations to come, so I think it’s really important to protect.”

For a lot of 16 year olds, one volunteering project would be enough. But, working through the local Rotary Club’s RYLA program, Pyhala helped start a local Interact Club.

“We’re supposed to do a community project and an international project. We volunteer in the community. We just did the Turkey Trot 5K/10K run for the Tustumena 200. And we’re raising money to go on an international trip to volunteer.”

They’re still nailing down a location for that potential trip. Some voluntourism in Costa Rica is one option, but there’s still more work to do at home, she says.

“It’s something that’s really positive, because it gets kids, gets volunteer hours, which I don’t think I realized how important that is until this summer.”

And her experience this summer might have triggered an interest in what she does for a career.

“After volunteering for awhile, I actually want to go into marine biology now.”

Pyhala is one of a hundred individuals or clubs vying for awards in 11 different categories. And she joins a number of other volunteers from the Kenai Peninsula: Hailey Hughes and the Colors of Homer group from Homer, Naomi Hess from Ninilchick, Isaiah Simeonoff and Timothy Ukatish from Nanwalek, Port Graham’s Micheal Anahonak, the Ocean Sciences Club from Seward, Trinity Standifier in Tyonek and summer Anderson, also from Soldotna.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

In the interest of disclosure, we must note that Pyhala is the daughter of KDLL Board member Matthew Pyhala.

Odie’s Deli To Take Over PJ’s Diner At Kenai Airport

Travelers going through the Kenai Airport will have a new dining option next year. Odie’s Deli is moving into the café currently occupied by PJ’s Diner.

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The new lease terms call for an annual rent of more than $38,000 for use of the facility, and runs through 2018. Given that restaurants haven’t always found success in there, that number worried council member Mike Boyle.

“It’s almost twice what the last lessee paid, so I have some concerns about that.”

But City Manager Rick Koch said that new figure was a pretty good deal. Previous lease agreements were made without the benefit of knowing just how much revenue a business can generate in the airport. But this one was based on annual revenues of around $600,000.

“By any number of ways that you calculate a reasonable rent, it should be higher than $38,000 a year. The square footage (rate) for that area is about $70,000 a year, and that’s what other concessionaires pay in the airport.”

Koch said the city recognized that a deli is a lot different than the other businesses operating out of the airport; car rental agencies and a real estate office, and so the lease is different.

The city initially wanted to charge rent based on a flat annual fee, plus a percentage of revenues, but that turned out to be a complicated formula that didn’t get much interest. Koch acknowledged that Odie’s, as the only business to submit a bid, is taking advantage of a favorable situation.

“This isn’t just for square footage. This is for a commercial kitchen that is outfitted. You show up with food, tables, chairs and a cash register and you can go to work.”

Council member Tim Navarre said because just one bid was submitted, this wasn’t necessarily a great deal for Odie’s, and the city wasn’t necessarily taking a hit on potential income; it’s simply how the market worked this time around.

“Sure, people would love to get more for their rents than they get right now, but if the market says that’s what it is, that’s all they get. I don’t consider that under market, I consider that market rent.”

Odie’s owner Melodie Symington was out of town and couldn’t be reached for comment, but she told the Peninsula Clarion they’d been asked many times when they would open a Kenai location. She said Odie’s at the Airport will be open by Janurary 13th, with hours between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., seven days a week.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Kenai City Council Votes To Support Setnetters

Another government body on the Peninsula voted unanimously to oppose efforts to ban commercial setnetting in Cook Inlet. But there was a bit of debate before the final ‘yes’ vote was cast.

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This time it was the Kenai City Council. Following the Borough Assembly, which passed its own resolution on December 3rd, the council’s language was largely the same.

“Opposing the proposed initiative to prohibit set nets in urban areas and continue to support sound fishery management practices and diversified harvest opportunities in Cook Inlet.”

It would later be amended slightly, to say the council supports sound fishery management practices based on science.

Listening to testimony at both the council meeting and the borough assembly meeting, that’s been one of the big concerns; that the initiative puts management decisions in the hands of voters, instead of coming from scientific study and observation.

Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association president Rob Williams has called it ‘ballot box biology’.

“This would cause severe harm to the resource management tradition our state has. We have a Board of Fish process. Like it or not, that’s how we allocate fish,” Williams said.

Much of the next forty minutes was filled with similar testimony, and just like at the Borough Assembly meeting a couple weeks ago, it wasn’t just setnetters who came to speak in support of the resolution.

Paul Dale owns Snug Harbor Seafoods. He challenged the assumption that the drift fleet could step in and take up the harvest of sockeye that usually land on the beaches. Citing local ADF&G estimates, he said the drift fleet would bring in only 20% of what the setnet fleet typically brings in.

For its part, the Council was pretty clear that a similar resolution would likely have been adopted to support any fishing industry, commercial, sport or otherwise. But not everyone on the Council thought this was the right time to weigh in on this particular issue.

“I have a problem with this council, whether it’s this issue or some other issue, starting to take a position on an initiative that hasn’t even gone through the legal process. The lieutenant governor hasn’t even approved it, and we’re reacting to it. Sometimes, reactive things can get you in trouble,” said council member Tim Navarre.

Council member Terry Bookey countered that on this issue, the council could sort of have it both ways.

“In this particular instance, I believe the council is reacting proactively. I think this is one of those instances where the city of Kenai needs to speak loudly and they need to speak clearly that we stand behind the set net fisheries of Cook Inlet. There is no better time than to do it right now, so there is no confusion about our support and our loyalty.”

The council did eventually vote unanimously to adopt the resolution, though Navarre was clearly on the fence right up until he said ‘Yes’.

The votes of the Kenai city council and the borough assembly are largely symbolic. But decisions that could have more tangible effects on the king salmon fisheries will be made when the Board of Fish meets in Anchorage in February.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

(In the interest of full disclosure, Council member Terry Bookey is president of the KDLL Board of Directors)

Snowmachine Drags This Weekend At Freddie’s Roadhouse

Who says you can’t drag race in the snow? Starting this weekend, and running through February, snowmachiners can test their abilities at weekly races in the Caribou Hills.

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A favorite sound of many Alaskans this time of year, snowmachines offer a lot more than practical transportation on the tundra. For the more competitive types, weekly races at Freddie’s Roadhouse in Ninilchik offer a chance to match skills and mechanical know-how. Freddie Pollard runs the place and is helping organize the races this year.

“It’s just something we started up there to try and get people back into it. It’s a fun thing to do and drag racing is easier to do than circle track or anything else, because we only run like 350 feet, so the speeds are not real great,” Pollard said.

Pollard was installing a new light tree to signal the start of the race and record times and trap speed. That’s a first out in the Hills. In the past, they started each race the old-fashioned way: with a flag. This is the first time he’ll know for sure what kind of numbers racers can put up, but if he had to guess, he’d say he was hitting close to 100 miles per hour on his machine.

If that sounds like a bit much, Pollard says they run several classes, so there’s room for drivers of all skills and machines of all sizes.

“We race from the little kiddies all the way up. We’ve had grandmas racing and having fun with it, too. As a matter of fact, grandma was racing one of her grandkids last year. It was fun to watch.”

He says most of the racers are local, but the track draws them in from outside the Peninsula, as well.

You can keep track of updates and schedules by following Freddie’s Roadhouse on Facebook. And if you’re looking to run, give the roadhouse a call at 567-7530.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Making Its Mark: Local Distillery Celebrates One Year Selling Spirits

High Mark Distillery owner Felicia Keith-Jones tests the proof on a jar of Blind Cat moonshine at the tasting room in Sterling. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Tucked a few miles off the highway in Sterling is one of the newest players in the burgeoning Alaskan craft spirits industry.

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“Would you like a hot toddy?” was the friendly greeting I got when I walked into the tasting room at the High Mark Distillery.

“Of course.”

It was after noon and snowing. Seemed appropriate.

Owner Felicia Keith-Jones started her venture five years ago, but she didn’t initially plan on producing her own libations. She was working with a group in the Mat-Su Valley to develop bio-fuels, but that endeavor ran out of gas.

“The big dogs did not wish for us to have biodiesel in this state. We were studying for three years, and then my husband mentioned that if you remove three steps and add wheat, what have you got? Vodka. And that truly was the family joke,” Jones said.

After her husband passed away five years ago, she took a break from teaching to see if the family joke could become the family business.

“What if? What if I did make vodka? Because I already had the education for it. What if I did pursue this?”

A chance meeting in Bethel led her and her boys to Ireland, where they know a thing or two about turning grain and water into something more interesting.

“When I got back to Alaska, I knew, absolutely knew, that this was the path I wanted to take because it was one of the few things that absolutely every day made you smile. The challenges were huge, and once I had my first batch, I smiled,” she said with a laugh.

And High Mark’s signature vodka was born. Since then, Jones has adapted old-world recipes for the popular Nickel Back Apple Jack and a corn liquor she calls Blind Cat. Since wheat, apples and corn aren’t exactly signature Alaskan crops, Jones sources them from Washington.

“The orchard that grows for us also grows for Gerber farms. So with the corn and the apples, we decided if it was good enough for babies, it was good enough for us.”

High Mark uses spring white wheat as the base grain for its vodka.

Now, you can have all the knowledge and the best ingredients in the world, but that’s still no guarantee that what you pour is going to be any good. The key to making quality, consistent spirits is doing it in small batches with a lot of attention.

“When I say that it’s a gamble every single time, the truth is, if you don’t take absolutely beautiful notes and write down everything you put in to one of these, you can’t duplicate it. So, you might end up with rot-gut and you might end up with just the recipe you were hoping for. So you’ll test it every few weeks to record how it’s maturing.”

It’s not just the whiskey that’s maturing. High Mark’s one year anniversary is this month. And Jones says there are plans for growth and new products. The Blind Cat moonshine is just one step away from becoming a bourbon. Just pour it into a barrel and wait. That new spirit will demand a new position at the distillery.

“The worst job you can have at a distillery is to be the bunghole checker,” Jones jokes.

“Once the barrels are all into the barrel house, they have to be rotated because when you fill them, you do end up with a tiny air bubble. So that top layer of bourbon would not react with the wood, so you have to rotate your barrels and check your bung,” she says, trying not to crack up again. The only thing that might be more plentiful than the spirits here is the laughs.

Over the past year, High Mark has become at least a semi-regular stop for neighbors. The nearby lodges on the Kenai River also bring in customers. When I dropped by on a recent Saturday, I met Karen von Breyman. She lives just down the road. She’d seen the signs for the new place all last winter.

“We have lots of friends who come in the summer to fish and hang out, and we discovered that it was 1,400 yards, so we could just walk up the hill. So we walked and we tasted, and it was a good thing we walked, and then we giggled all the way home. I don’t know why I’m so excited about it, I just think it’s a fascinating story and a business. I’m not even a big drinker, but I just think it’s wonderful.” von Breyman said.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 

Hilcorp Asks For More Oil Storage Capacity

Hilcorp has submitted an application to change its spill contingency plan for onshore facilities on both sides of Cook Inlet.

The amendment increases what’s called the response planning standard, or RPS, volume by a factor of 30, from twenty-five-hundred barrels to 75,000. That’s in anticipation of increased production wells.

If approved by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the amended plan would cover the Trading Bay production facility and Granite Point tank farm on the west side of the Inlet. And production facilities at Swanson River and Beaver Creek on the east side.

There are also revisions to the Swanson River Pipeline rupture scenario. That pipeline runs from just north of Sterling about 20 miles to a terminal in Nikiski.

DEC is taking comments on the revised plan until January 6th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Remodeled Soldotna Library Open For Holidays

 

The new fireplace at the nearly-complete Joyce K. Carver Memorial Library in Soldotna.

The Joyce K. Carver memorial library in Soldotna is open for business…mostly. Volunteers have begun stocking the shelves with books and a full, grand opening is planned for next month.

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After more than a year undergoing renovations, the Soldotna library had a soft opening on Monday. That means most things are in place, books are being moved from the Library’s temporary home in the Peninsula Center mall and checkouts are available for the holidays. As work was still being completed this fall, Librarian Rachel Nash said the biggest development for the new place is the community room.

“If any community groups need to rent it out, they can rent it for free, especially the non-profit groups. And also, we have ideas of having at least a monthly program that’s educational where someone comes and gives a presentation on various topics.”

Recent changes to library policy mean that learning can start earlier than ever. The new library has an expanded children’s section that caters to new parents and their newborns.

“There is no age limit, so parents can get a card right away for their newborn; check out all those board books that take maybe a minute to read and then you re-read and re-read and re-read it again,” Nash said.

Patrons can also look forward to an updated non-fiction collection. Nash says that’s where a bulk of a recent $45,000 appropriation from the city went.

“Those books, once they’re a few years old, they’re no longer valid. We have a lot of books in the basement now that are old enough that the information in them is not good enough. A school child couldn’t even use them in a report.”

Another part of the library that’s received a lot of attention is in the technology department. While not everything will be quite ready to go for soft opening, Nash says computers, e-readers and tablets will be a focus.

“We’ll have several tables that have plugs, so patrons can bring their own laptops in, or rent them from us.”

Nash says her favorite part of the redesigned library is the community room. But Assistant Librarian Katja Wolfe said she couldn’t really narrow it down to any one feature.

“I’m not sure. It’s just everything,” Wolfe said with a laugh. “I think my favorite part is that we’ll be able to offer many more services than we have in the past. We have the space for them and we have the equipment and I’m excited about that.”

The official grand opening is happening on January 18th, from 2 to 4 p.m.

School District Updates Concussion Policy

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District school board is fine-tuning the concussion policy for all student athletes. Members have been discussing the slight changes since August and action from the board is expected next month.

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The district goes to great lengths to make sure student athletes and their parents are aware of the potential dangers. The rules in place for the athletic departments require training for coaches, refresher courses every three years and ensuring all equipment is in good condition.

The district educates its own staff as well and that includes the school board. Board Vice President Liz Downing said in a previous interview that component came from the state level a few years ago and brought a more defined policy with it.

“If a student has any possibility of having a concussion, they’re off the field. They are tested. I also serve on the wellness committee for the district and it is critical that we have safety measures in place with the padding and equipment. And then also with follow up, and making sure that students have adequate medical care if something should happen,” Downing said.

She said this is a policy the district is always looking at because new examples and research come out all the time. Board President Joe Arness said the members are always willing to listen to people with concerns to make sure the policy protects students while not hindering play.

“You do hear these conversations from time to time and there is concern. Any kind of sport, basketball, soccer, football, hockey, any of them, kids can get injured. To some extent that’s just part of life. To some extent we have a responsibility to do our best to see to it that injuries don’t happen just out of carelessness,” Arness said.

The main change deals with what happens after it’s suspected a student has a concussion. The district and state of Alaska will both require a student to be given permission to come back and play by a “qualified person.” A doctor has always been under that umbrella, but now the legislature will allow athletic trainers to determine when a student comes back to competition after a concussion. And the district requires a doctor’s release as well in each case.

Concerns about concussions have become a major part of the conversation in the last few years; for football especially. Downing said that concern will likely remain unless there’s a change in the culture of sports.

“One of the areas I would love to see us move towards is more non-competitive, intramural play…. That’s not to take something away from sport. There’s so much that is valuable about being part of a team, by making that extra effort to help your team win. So this is a balancing point,” she said.

The board will finish refining the policy at its meeting in January when members are expected to approve the measure.

-Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI-

 

Triumvirate North Opens With ‘White Christmas’ This Weekend

Jonathon Young (left) and Ian McEwen, playing Phil Davis and Bob Wallace rehearse Wednesday night at the new Triumvirate North theatre. Jacynn Collver, Rebecca Eckerman, Annie Mese and Jenna Storms back them up. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

After six years in the works, the new Triumvirate North theatre will host its first performance this weekend. The holiday musical classic White Christmas opens Friday night.

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Judy and Phil, played by Delana Duncan and Jonathon Young, get some notes during a rehearsal for 'White Christmas'. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Find tickets here.

Board of Fish Addresses King Sport Fishing

The state Board of Fish is meeting in Anchorage this week. Among the many items on the agenda are a variety of proposals for sport and commercial fishing in Lower Cook Inlet.

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A number of the proposals directed at different sport fisheries around the southern Kenai Peninsula were aimed at tightening up harvests. One proposal for the Anchor River limits the days open for king salmon sportfishing. It would reduce sportfishing opportunities on the Anchor from 20 to 15 days by closing on Wednesdays.

The Homer Fish and Game advisory committee submitted the proposal. The AC cited lower king returns the past few years as the main reason for reducing the number of fishing days. Prior to 2009, there was no king fishing on the Anchor on Wednesdays. Then numbers began trending up, and Fish and Game opened up fishing opportunities. But in 2012 and 2013, the fishery was closed for a number of days by emergency order, to ensure the escapement goal was met. Fish and Game Regional Management Coordinator Tom Vania says the situation on the Anchor River is indicative of what’s happening across South Central.

“We do believe that these are well below average returns that are happening at this time. As you know, a lot of our sport fisheries are structured to avoid emergency orders, whether they be liberalizing or whether they be restricting. We’re trying to establish those regulations that going to handle the vast majority of runs,” Vania told the Board.

Vania said the Anchor continues to meet its minimum escapement goal, but only by sacrificing harvest opportunities. He called shutting down Wednesday fishing low-hanging fruit, as that tends to be one of the least busy days of a given week. The Board did not enact the proposal, though Wednesdays will likely remain the first option for Managers if they have to consider slowing the fishery down.

Moving north to the Ninilchik River, Proposal 61 asked for a reduction in the bag limit for kings by half, down to one per day. This, too, was submitted by the Homer AC. Board member Sue Jeffrey supported the move, as would the rest of the Board, saying it would bring the Ninilchik in line with other king salmon streams in the area.

“Keeping a two king salmon bag limit on the Ninilchik could mislead some anglers into thinking there are more fish there, or there could be better fishing, and I think it makes sense for conservation purposes.”

Even though productivity of both wild and hatchery stocks to the Ninilchik have been below average the past two years, Vania said the one per day bag limit was still acceptable.

“It’s much like all these other streams during this periods of low productivity that we’re in, we’re going to continue to manage based upon how we think performance is going to be one year to the next. Should we just close this outright? I don’t think we’re there at this time.”

In our next story covering the Lower Cook Inlet Finfish meeting, we’ll learn about some of the proposals for commercial fishing.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Public Tells Commissioners HB77 Concerns

Deputy DNR Commissioner Ed Fogels, Sen. Peter Micciche (Soldotna) and Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell heard public testimony on HB77 Monday in Soldotna. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Borough Assembly Chambers in Soldotna were standing room only Monday night. State Senator Peter Micciche held a public meeting about House Bill 77, the controversial piece of legislation that aims to streamline permitting for the Department of Natural Resources. Not one member of the public testified in favor of the bill.

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Testimony went on for more than two hours. Everyone who stepped up to the mic was opposed to the bill. A level of agreement rarely seen in this room. Two major issues surfaced as sticking points. One was raising the legal standard for challenging a Department of Natural Resources ruling.

“It’s controversial,” said Deputy DNR Commissioner Ed Fogels. “We’re looking at these appeals, and quite frankly a lot of them really don’t have a lot of merit. People just don’t like the decision, the may not even live in Alaska. We’re trying to make it so that people have a good reason to appeal a decision.”

Fogels was joined on the panel with Senator Micciche and Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell. He says the current qualification for challenging a decision is too broad. Under HB 77, that would change.

“This makes it so you have to write down why the decision will hurt you, will harm you. I know a lot of people out there don’t fundamentally agree that we should be raising that bar, but it’s a way for us to reduce the administrative burden on appeals that don’t have merit.”

The decisions the panel referred to were decisions about water reservation permits, called instream flow reservations. What has people worried is losing their ability to save water for fish, where it might potentially be used for something else, like a mining project.

Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell tried to ease the concern that individuals will lose their standing to apply for or challenge those permits and that government agencies would instead represent those interests.

“Fish and Game has always been very receptive to partnering with people who are interested in securing water reservations to protect fish habitat. We would still be committed to working with interested groups and ensuring that groups that share our interest in instream flow reservations still have every opportunity to partner with us in obtaining these reservations.”

Campbell said the department has already taken 35 applications under its wing that would be disregarded should HB 77 pass.

But that wasn’t the kind of reassurance the public was after.

Dr. David Wartinbee, a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, told the panel HB 77 is about trust. But he’s not buying the administrative argument that HB 77 will somehow lessen the workload for reviewing permits, or that there’s even a problem at all.

“Show me that abuse. I don’t believe. I don’t believe that it’s going to happen,” Wartinbee said. Nor was he convinced that a backlog of permits up for review was big enough to justify passage of HB 77.

“I have a problem with that when you tell me at the beginning of the meeting that you have resolved more than 70 percent of the backlog. It seems to me that internal efficiencies have solved the problem that this entire bill is all about. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Marilyn Cornell of Soldotna put it even more plainly.

“I’m an Alaskan, from the tip of my hair to the bottom of my toes. And no one should be able to tell me that I don’t have a right to put input into anything the state government is going to decide.”

Senator Micciche said he had a lot to take back to Juneau after the meeting. HB 77 has already passed the house. It currently sits with the Senate Rules Committee, which will take up the issue again in January.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Students Thwart Disaster With Legos, Robots

Douglas Dean, Seamus Scholz, Ben Kettle, Caleb Rauch, Ali McCarron and Coach Arthur Kettle discuss strategy at Saturday's First Lego League competition in Kenai. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Middle school students from across the Peninsula met in Kenai Saturday to do battle with Legos and robots. The First Lego League’s annual competition asked students to deal with Nature’s Fury.

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Countdowns and cheers drowned out the sound of electric motors at the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai. Your Mama’s Llamas, the team from Homer Middle School, was making some adjustments between rounds when I got there. The teams use Legos, robots and computers to make models of real world problems, and then solve them.

“Everyone gets the same mat and the same mission models. They build the mission model and the robot goes around and manipulates the different models.The robots are programmed and they also use motors, so everything is always moving,” said coach Arthur Kettle.

Saturday’s contest featured teams from across the Peninsula. It was a regional event for Alaska, but the First Lego League is international.

Here’s how it works. There are little stations set up on a platform, a little bigger than a ping pong table. And the team has a bunch of tasks to complete in just a couple minutes. They have to send a supply truck from one point to another. They have to bring a cargo plane in for a landing, send an ambulance to a certain location. And these aren’t remote control cars, either. They’re programmed, by the students, to perform those tasks.

“At school we get on some software and we drag and drop these little blocks and tell them how far to go, what motors to control,” explains Caleb Rauch. “That all links together to create a program.”

It looks like a grid. So the ambulance leaves from point A, and has to travel so far in one direction, avoid a house, and end up in a specific zone on another part of the board, and on like that for a number of different tasks. It’s a little chaotic, but then, it’s supposed to be a natural disaster.

Caleb Rauch and Ali McCarron set up their robot during round two competition. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

In addition to the competition, there’s also a presentation round. Each team picks a model community, identifies a problem that community would face in the event of a natural disaster, then solves it. Like, communications troubles around Homer in the event of a tsunami.

In this case, the team developed a plan to use cell phone alerts, radio broadcasts, text messages and wi-fi to direct people to higher ground, while reporting conditions in real time.

Heading into round two, Your Mamas Llamas were a little behind in the standings but felt confident their adjustments would pay off, and they were still sitting pretty from their presentation.

They improved from 35 points in the first round, to 119 in the second and I’ll admit, I still don’t know exactly what that means, but the team felt they were finally close to having it all dialed in.

“(We) feel a little optimistic,” said Douglas Dean. “We can get twice that.”

That optimism was justified by the results. Your Mama’s Llamas took the top prize Champions Award.

Other results:

Performance: Brainstorms (From Nikiski Middle School) 317 points out of a possible 500.

Project: Legoettes (Not sure where they were from)

Core Values: Legoeactive (Same deal, not sure where they are from)

Design : Auto Moto (West Homer El.)

Judge Awards : Lego Oreos (West Homer El.)

Coach Award: Moose Landing (From Moose Pass)

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

HB 77 Public Meetings Start Tonight In Soldotna

HB 77 might have the most immediate impact on the Chuitna Coal project. (Image: DNR)

Public meetings are scheduled for today about House Bill 77. Supporters say it streamlines the permitting process for mining and other development projects. But detractors claim it gives the state too much authority and undermines due process.

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HB 77 is most closely tied to the Chuitna Coal Mine project. The aim of the bill, according to its supporters, is to make it easier for the Department of Natural Resources to permit projects of that scope. And what has environmentalists worried about this particular project is the part where 11 miles of salmon stream will be removed in order to get to the coal.

On Thursday at Kenai Peninsula College, Cook Inletkeeper held what it called a training session on HB 77, intended to highlight what it thinks are the negatives of the bill.

Michelle Vasquez was one of about 25 people who attended. She calls the bill dangerous.

“The wording in some of this legislation, it seems like there’s really no way for DNR to deny a permit to any company or any corporation who wants to build a mine or drill for oil anywhere on our sacred areas, like our salmon streams.”

The language Vasvquez refers to, in general, raises the standard for challenging things like the Chuitna Coal Project in court.

Right now, state law says an aggrieved person can file an appeal or request a reconsideration of a permit. Under the HB 77 language, that standard would be raised. You would have to show that you are substantially and adversely affected.

A big focus at the training session was on how to engage legislators about concerns with this bill. And specifically, a pair of senators who bought some more time for public comment on the measure. HB 77 made it fairly quickly through the House last year. But Senators Peter Micciche and Click Bishop, who represents Fairbanks, put the brakes on.

It’s senator Micciche who will hear public comments in Kenai and Homer. Vasquez says that’s her focus, too. Letting elected officials know her concerns.

“Overall…present them with the idea that this is about Alaska. This is about our resources, this is about our land, this is about our water, this is about our salmon.”

Clark Whitney used to commercial fish in Bristol Bay. His is an active voice against large development projects that threaten wild salmon habitat. He shares the view of most of the people at the meeting, that HB 77 is more than just administrative house-keeping for DNR.

“I think this is a non-partisan issue. It’s all about the future of the state of Alaska. If we allow any corporation to mine through 11 miles of salmon streams, that sets a precedent.”

Senator Micciche will conduct public meetings Monday in Soldotna, with Deputy DNR Commissioner Ed Fogels and Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell. That meeting starts at 4 p.m., with public testimony set to begin at 6 p.m. in the Borough Assembly Chambers.

Another meeting in Homer is planned for Tuesday at the Islands and Oceans Visitors Center. Fogels and Fish and Game Habitat Director Randy Bates will be there at 4 p.m. with public testimony beginning at 6 p.m.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 

No Injuries in Sterling Plane Crash

Heavy rain and ice were the cause of a plane crash near Sterling Wednesday afternoon. Alaska State Trooper Spokesperson Megan Peters says the pilot, 49 year-old David Duncan of Sterling, was attempting to bring the single engine Citabria down at Dutch Landing.

“Troopers did go out and we talked to the pilot. It turns out that after had taken off and was flying, he encountered some freezing rain. It was causing glaciation on the windshield. He saw the landing strip and went down to attempt a landing. He said he felt he was going too fast to do a safe landing, so he was powering up to do a go-around and try again, and when he did the power up, the engine cut.”

Duncan and his passenger, a 16 year old female, were en route to Port Graham from Sterling. Both walked away with minor injuries. The plane suffered extensive damage, and lost its landing gear. A driver who witnessed the crash notified troopers.

-Staff Report-

Fish Waste A Bright Spot In 2013 Dipnet Season

The 2013 dipnet fishery was cleaner, with new rules in place to reduce fish waste. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The city of Kenai released its annual dipnetting report this week. As KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran reports, the city sees room again this year for a number of changes.

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The city spent about $40,000 less to manage the dipnet fishery than it originally budgeted for, and total expenditures were about $2,000 less than incoming revenue. City manager Rick Koch says finding a different way to generate that revenue is a high priority. He’s looking to the legislature for some help.

Basically, he wants to split up the resident sport fishing license and the personal use permit. That would mean you’d have to pay for each one, bringing licensing fees to a total of about $40. Koch says that could potentially generate $1.6 million dollars for personal use fishing, which could be used to offset the fees for the dipnet fisheries on the Kenai, Kasilof and Copper rivers. It would also help pay for the additional police staff on the Kenai.

“I thought it was a pretty good idea. Because everyone who gets a personal use fishing permit has a small amount of skin in the game, and we’re able to ratchet back those fairly significant fees for the small percentage of people we’re able to get our arms around.”

He says only about 30 percent of people participating in the fishery pay access fees. Parking and camping in turn pay for a majority of the services that nearly all dipnetters use. Like cleaning stations and outhouses.

Koch says the big accomplishment in 2013 was cutting way down on the fish waste left on the beach.

“By diligently requiring that the participants deposit their fish waste either into the moving water of the Kenai river or the water of Cook Inlet, that coupled with out tractor raking, was extremely successful.”

One issue the city will continue to wrestle with is access for boaters.

There are already environmental concerns related boat traffic on the Kenai River. During the busiest parts of July, the river’s water quality level dips below Department of Enivornmental Conservation standards. While the city doesn’t have much interest in trying to influence significant management changes, Koch says safety is a concern with so many boats. The trouble is deciding which agency should be making which decisions. Is it the Coast Guard? Department of Public Safety? The City?

“That’s an issue we’re working on. Do we, with glee and joy in our heart, want to jump into the middle of enforcement? I can tell you, unequivocally, no we don’t want to do that. But there may be something that we end up doing in the future that we haven’t done in the past just because of the number of complaints we’ve received.”

By a count of the fee stations, the North Beach was the busiest dipnetting site this year, bringing in $177,000 dollars. About 17 percent of dipnetters paying those fees were from the Kenai Peninsula, just five percent from the city of Kenai.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Assembly Votes To Support Setnetters

United Cook Inlet Drift Association Executive Director Roland Maw testifies in favor of the resolution Tuesday. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly adopted a resolution supporting a continuation of setnetting in Cook Inlet at its meeting Tuesday. Debate on the issue came only from supporters.

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The resolution was initially a part of the consent agenda for the evening. But given the crowd in the Chambers, about 30 setnetters, it wasn’t too surprising to see it pulled for a little more discussion. Which eventually ended with a unanimous vote in support.

By passing the resolution, the Assembly also voiced its disapproval of a possible ballot initiative to get commercial setnetting banned statewide. Many of the people who testified Tuesday evening saw that as the real issue. Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association president Rob Williams told the Assembly the proposed voter initiative sets a bad precedent.

“It’s ballot box biology, and that’s probably the scariest thing of all.”

That testimony struck a chord with Assembly member Wayne Ogle.

“Throw it out for the voters who are ill-informed as to the situation and what it’s all about and let them decide. Meanwhile, you go out and demagogue and make sure that the information you want to get across is broadcast to the right people.”

Ogle was referring to recent efforts by the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance to put a setnet ban on the ballot in 2016.

“I worry about the fact that one group is trying to shut down another group. I don’t like that. I think it’s kind of an un-American way to go about dealing with the situation,” Ogle said.

While that sportfishing group is aligned squarely against the set net fleet, the commercial fishing community as a whole is coming together around this issue. Roland Maw is the executive director of UCIDA, the group that represents drift netters in Cook Inlet.

“We’re solidly with out set net friends and neighbors and with out industry. We need each other, and that’s the way this thing is going to work.”

Maw said he thought this was just the opening round in what could be a long fight between the two sides over access to dwindling king salmon stocks.

The initiative still has legal hurdles to clear before it can go to voters. But the comm fisherman are just as worried about what could happen through the legislative process between now and then.

State Senator Peter Micciche, who is also a drifter, challenged the sport fishing community to stand with, rather than in opposition to, the broader fishing industry on the Peninsula.

“No one was supposed to win the allocation war. It’s sort of a fun struggle that’s gone on forever. Our community has managed to work it out for all these years. The only thing less effective than attempting to manage fish politically in Juneau is to manage fish through the ballot box,” Micciche said.

Assembly member Brent Johnson, a long time setnetter from Coho, co-sponsored the resolution with Dale Bagley. Johnson says the goal of eliminating setnetting at the mouth of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers would put huge burdens on salmon streams in rural areas.

“Either way this initiative would happen to the communities of Nanwalek, Port Graham and Tyonek, either they would be allowed to continue and have a jillion people setnetting there. If they weren’t allowed to continue, they would have lost a means of livelihood in community where means of livelihood are very few and hard to find,” Johnson said.

The Assembly also adopted another resolution sponsored by Johnson. That one asks the state department of fish and game to continue enumeration estimates for sockeye smolt on the Kasilof river. Those kinds of studies have been going on since 1980, but may end due to budget concerns in the department.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

SoHi To Remain So-Named

Soldotna High School’s name will not change for next year’s new schools configuration. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District school board made the decision during its meeting Monday night. The name on the building became the most contentious part of the reconfiguration process.

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Monday night’s meeting was unusually long. Twenty-five people provided comments about the recommendations from the committee tasked with making suggestions for the new configuration. The group had come to a consensus on blending the colors of each of the current schools: Soldotna Middle, Skyview and SoHi, making the mascot for the 7th and 8th graders the Panther, and the Stars for the 9th grade building as well as the 10th through 12th grades.

The members also suggested calling the buildings Skyview Middle, Soldotna Prep and either Soldotna Central High School or leaving the current name alone.

It was that last part that drew the most ire and spawned dueling Facebook groups, passionate letters to the editor and numerous comments to the school board. The side that wanted to keep SoHi as is had a common thread: a change would cost too much. The district has said any new signs and colors would be part of a process that’s already set. That way no new money would be spent, which causes a delay in physical changes.

Because of that delay, some who opposed adding a word like “Central” say the new school name might not have the bonding effect district officials initially hoped for. SoHi Junior Courtney Vanzant is in that camp.

“What I’ve heard… the change will occur over the next eight years or so. The students that currently attend Skyview that the change is going into effect for will not be there any longer,” she said.

Vanzant said she’s always wanted to graduate from SoHi and a name change for her senior year would prevent that. The consistent theme from the Skyview side has been the students and parents have sought compromise and a fresh start, but they haven’t seen enough indication that’s the case.

Mike Gallagher served on the committee that made suggestions for the school board. His son James was one of two students who created the Facebook page Save Skyview when these discussions first started in the spring.

“I continually hear… from the folks at Soldotna tonight being against any changes; being against the merger. I’m asking you, where were you when we were fighting this fight in the beginning,” he said.

By the time it was school board’s turn to weigh in, there was discussion about what exactly it could recommend or approve. Some members pointed out the board has no history of selecting mascots and colors because that’s been left up to the schools.

Member Tim Navarre said he doesn’t want to take that power away from the populations at the schools. He said taking the recommendation from the reconfiguration committee might not be the way to go, even if that group was created for that purpose.

Member Sunni Hilts pointed out the board is in a gray area in this situation and essentially recommending a recommendation doesn’t mean those decisions are set in stone. Both the suggestions for mascots and colors were approved. The remaining discussion focused on the school name. Many members pointed out that no matter what the official change is, it will always be known as “SoHi.” So what’s the point of adding a new word?

When it came time to vote, President Joe Arness became the tie-breaker with a yes vote. And with that, the 10th through 12th grade students from Skyview and SoHi will walk into a building called Soldotna High School next year and create a new school.

-Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI-

Applications For Flood Aid Open Next Week

Ground water and surface flooding, like here at Bore Tide Avenue, persisted for weeks until a hard freeze set in.

Residents affected by flooding on the Kenai Peninsula will soon be able to start applying for individual assistance from the state.

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Starting next week, homeowners who have sustained damage from flooding this fall can apply for some relief. Jeremy Zidek is the public information officer for the state division of Homeland Security. He says applying for the aid can be done online, over the phone, or in person at the Borough Office of Emergency Management beginning December

To begin the process, flooded property owners will need to bring in documentation of all damages.

“Wherever they apply for individual assistance, they should have a list of the damaged items, proof of ownership documents; photos, videos, anything like that they’ve taken that documents the damage,” Zidek said.

The ceiling for relief funds for individual homeowners is a little more than $16,200. That’s for damages to home and personal property, transportation and expenses associated with medical costs that were a direct result of the flooding.

There is also a temporary housing program that can provide rental assistance. Zidek says they’ll release the hotline phone number and the website address next week.

“We want to make sure we have sufficient staff on those phones and manning that online registration process, to answer questions and help people get that application completed.”

There is no standard time frame for receiving the funds after an application has been made. They’ll be handled on a case-by-case basis, with the most important step being the verification of damage.

“That’s critical,” Zidek said. Damage must be verified before the next step, determining eligibility, can be taken.

In addition to the disaster assistance center in Soldotna, the department also has outposts planned for interior and western Alaska. Those areas incurred damage from storms and power outages in November. You can find more on the disaster relief application process on the Borough’s website.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 

A Different World: Growing Up Dena’ina

Aaron Leggett talks about his experience growing up Dena'ina in Anchorage when native cultures weren't broadly visible.

The most comprehensive exhibit featuring the artifacts and culture of the Dena’ina the Anchorage Museum has ever produced is on display for about six more weeks. The exhibit’s coordinator, Aaron Leggett, spoke at Kenai Peninsula College recently to talk about what’s at the museum and his own experience growing up Dena’ina.

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Aaron Leggett can remember, to the day, when he realized he was a native Alaskan. November 22nd, 1984. Just before Thanksgiving.

His elementary school class in Anchorage celebrated the holiday by dressing up in the traditional pilgrim and Indian costumes, and making cranberry sauce, which Leggett was excited to give to his grandmother, who was full-blooded Dena’ina from Eklutna.

“I remember giving it to her and saying ‘Grandma, we dressed up as Indians at school today.’ She replied in her husky voice ‘Aaron, you are an Indian.’ That one sentence completely redefined who I was,” Leggett said.

Fast forward almost thirty years, and Leggett has come to not only embrace his ancestry and his cultural heritage, but celebrate it through his work; the most recent of which is an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum called Dena’inaq Huch’ulyeshi : The Dena’ina Way of Living.

Leggett says growing up in Anchorage didn’t expose him to what we typically think of as a native way of life. He had just one relative who spoke Dena’ina as a first language, and he remembers hearing just a few Dena’ina words in his youth.

The reason for the exhibit is pretty simple. To tell the Dena’ina story. Not just to the general public, but to the Dena’ina people as well.

“It’s and education for Dena’ina people, but it’s also a celebration of what we’ve been able to hold on to. It’s sort of my dedication to those that have passed on that shared their knowledge, especially at a time when it was not as fashionable to do it. But also, it’s for those kids who come after me. My new nephew; he’s going to grow up in a different world than I did.”

Leggett says he struggled with his own cultural identity because there were no Dena’ina influences to look to.

“Then all you’re told is what you’re taught in school, which wasn’t very much, or the negative stereotypes, then you don’t have anything to reference to.”

A summer job at the Alaska Native Heritage Center emceeing dances and guiding tours of an Athabascan village made him even more interested in the history. He said his desire to learn was insatiable.

In putting together this exhibit, Leggett says they worked with an advisory committee to decide what the focus should be and what sorts of artifacts would be important in telling the story.

“What they said was make it about a living culture and history and make the people visible, which was the number one thing I felt passionate about.”

Besides the language, another big part of the exhibit looks at how the Dena’ina took advantage of the bounty of the upper Cook Inlet region.

“We recreated a yuyqul, or beluga-spearing platform.”

They would take this long, straight spruce tree, clear it of bark and branches, then bury it, upside down so the root body was resting way above the water line when the tide came back in. At the mouth of the Kenai or Susitna rivers, or in front of Tyonek, where the belugas were taking in salmon or hooligan, Leggett says the hunter would harpoon the beluga when the tides came back in. Then a team of two or three would kayak out to the whale, finish the kill and drag it back in.

He says that particular hunting method, as far as anyone knows, is unique to the Dena’ina, and one that anthropologists have only recently recreated. In addition to that, many native articles of clothing have been either recreated or brought in from other collections from around the world, and there are two movies to go along with the artifacts. The exhibit looks at Dena’ina life from the late 18th century, around the time of Captain Cook’s arrival, to today, and is open until January 12th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

           

            

Feeding the Masses: A Look In The Kitchen At Kenai Catering

The crew at Kenai Catering prepares Thanksgiving dinner at the Kenai Merit Inn.

Aroud this time of year, home cooks come to realize the logistical challenges of assembling a memorable meal for a big group of people. For the team at Kenai Catering, it’s just called another day at the office.

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It’s 10 a.m. And Steve England is thinking lunch.

In less than two hours, all that food will have to be ready for hungry kids coming to the Kenai Merit Inn from Aurora Borealis. England and wife Bobbi operate Kenai Catering out of the Merit Inn, that’s the home turf, but they cater all over the place.

As a reporter, I’ve found my self at a lot of the events they work, and from the sounds of the kitchen, they seem to always be having the most fun. Steve says the crowd they’re serving today is the perfect size.

“We’ve worked at hotels with holiday buffets serving upwards of 500-600 people for Chistmas and Thanksgiving, upwards of 1,200 for Easter and Mother’s Day. So, we’ve got the high-volume knowledge that will help us grow.”

Steve handles most of the chef’s duties, and that’s what everyone calls him in the kitchen. Bobbi handles the details. Running down the list of 15 separate items that will be presented, from the roast turkey to the marshmallows for hot chocolate, Bobbi directs the staff.

“Do me a favor, we need to make sure we have backup hot chocolate, the mini marshmallows and the cider ready to go out, because these kids are going to hit it,” Bobbi tells one of her servers.

The Englands have been in kitchens and serving food for about three decades, in some way or another. Having their own catering business means they get to really perfect some of their favorite recipes, like today’s roasted turkey, but also experiment when a client is looking for something different. Bobbi says that in the food world, new and different is all relative.

“Since we’ve been on the Peninsula, we’ve been able to bring our experience at hotels to the area. Cafe rounds. They’re now known as cafe rounds, we called it baron of beef. It’s basically the hindquarter of a cow and the first time we did it down here, no one had seen it. And we were doing those for Sunday brunch at the Red Line hotels 25 years ago.”

With about forty five minutes until lunch, things are picking up in the kitchen. The mood gets a little more serious.  Sara Williams is one of the servers. She’s getting stacks of cups and silverware together. She says setting up for events is an intricately timed dance.

“When you’re new, it’s a lot of rush around, rush around, rush around. But then, once you know the deal…somebody new would take two hours to set the room. We set the room in less than an hour.”

She says it’s a chore, but a chore they all seem to enjoy.

Just after the guests arrive, before the first plate has been filled, the power goes out.

This is where that home field advantage came in to play. Plenty of candles to light the tables, and the servers donned their LED headlamps to get through the meal. Actually, with all the food prepared and ready just as the power went out, it wasn’t a terribly big deal.

“It went fabulous! Monet’s serving fresh pumpkin pie and everybody loved the food. It didn’t affect us at all.”

There’s one Thanksgiving dinner out of the way. Now, for the leftovers.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Managers, Residents Discuss Brown Bears

Supervisory Fish and Wildlife Biologist John Morton presents population numbers for Kenai Brown Bears at the Gilman River Center.

Residents and hunters met with state and federal game management officials Monday night in Soldotna to talk about this year’s brown bear hunt. State and federal officials almost agree on how to manage the bear population, but the difference is an important one.

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It’s important because where the two sides disagree over the numbers is where the decision is made to suspend hunting. This year, US Fish and Wildlife made that decision when the count hit 70; more than ten percent of the estimated population for the entire Peninsula.

There have always been disagreements between state and federal agencies about how many bears are needed to sustain the population, or put another way, how many it’s okay to hunt without wiping them out.

But it got even more interesting in 2010, when a more definitive population estimate of around 600 bears came out. Biologist John Morton of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge said at Monday’s meeting they had been anticipating the numbers to trend up, from 624 to 681 bears.

“By putting the regulatory framework into place, we’re killing 70 bears (annually) over three years, we’re knocking it from 624 down to 464, so about thirty percent. It’s a pretty big hit to the brown bear population.”

Part of the problem here is the different missions of the federal and state agencies. Managers on the Refuge have a very broad objective, simply to conserve wildlife and habitat. The state is more specific. It can put policies in place to manipulate populations for different reasons. Doug Vincent-Lang is the director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation.

“We agree that this year’s harvest of bears probably cannot be sustained indefinitely,” said Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation.

“These harvests were meant to be temporary, to address increased human-wildlife conflicts by taking those bears most likely causing difficulties, provide expanded harvest opportunities based on new Service population estimates and reduce or stabilize bear numbers.”

Board of Game chair Ted Spraker was also at the meeting, explaining why the Board opened up the bear hunt this year in the first place. He looked back at management strategies used in the 90’s, when the population was thought to be no more than 300 bears. Using those methods, he says the take of adult female bears, which was a top concern for the feds, could have been much higher.

“We live and die by the numbers, and that’s something that science dictates, and that’s something the Board looks at and we adhere to,” Spraker said.

Refuge biologists don’t so much live and die by the numbers, as much as use them to figure out what the natural balance of things should be, and try to manage to keep that natural balance. In a separate interview, Refuge manager Andy Loranger said numbers can’t tell the whole story. The bears plan an integral role in the health of the broader ecosystem.

“As an example, brown bears are very very critical in moving marine-derived nutrients from the marine and fresh water ecosystems that salmon use here on the Peninsula into the forested ecosystem.”

The role they play in Richard Link’s life has gotten bigger over the years. The Soldotna resident told the panel he’s done hoping the bears will just go away.

“I can assure you that there will not be any bears on my property that live. I’ve got grandkids around, and I’m not going to tolerate having those bears, and tell my kids they can’t go out and play on the lawn because the bears are around. And if you people think it’s fine to live with the bears, wait. Without the moose for the bears to eat, they’re going to get hungry and they’re going to eat something. And it won’t be long before it’s somebody’s child.”

Though not the only opinion in the debate over how to best Kenai brown bears, opinions like Link’s have been the most vocal, and will likely continue to be until the Board of Game again takes up south central issues in 2015.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Work On Soldotna Trails To Begin Soon

The Soldotna Parks and Recreation board has signed off on the department’s Trails Master Plan. The projects and improvements will be started over the next five years.

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This is a big plan, with a lot of steps to be taken over several years. And the funding sources for all these projects are far from certain. The plan lists several options for getting the money needed for paving sidewalks and adding staff to the Parks and Rec department. Grants are always an option. The Borough could be involved by creating a Service Area, which would provide operations funding for the Soldotna Sports Center.

Though trails and expanded outdoor recreation opportunities are at the heart of the Trails Plan, the remodeling of the Sports Center factors in as well. That area, from the Visitor’s Center to the Sports Center and through Centennial Park will all eventually be connected with trails. Parks and Recreation director Andrew Carmichael said at last week’s board meeting that work will be starting soon.

“We’ll be starting with the Sports Center Center-Centennial Park trail connection in about three weeks, with in-house crews, as soon as we get all the materials on site. The city crews will build 191 feet and after that we’ll contract for the ramp that will come up over the hill.”

At a public meeting about the plans this summer, Carmichael said versatility is at the heart of all these designs.

“You’re just trying to figure out how to make the best, diverse facility that will adapt to everyone.”

The city of Soldotna is looking to provide more recreation opportunities and be more pedestrian-friendly. Part the strategy for getting there is to put some resources into the city’s extensive trail system, which includes more than 50 miles of sidewalks and trails and nearly 500 acres of parks and other facilities. Over the next five years, more funding will go to winter maintenance of trails and adding on to existing parks. Aspen Park will get a dog park in 2015. Sidewalks are slated to be added to Riverview avenue a couple years later.

This is the fourth comprehensive look at trails and recreation in Soldotna since 1995. A Roads and Trails master plan was developed 12 years ago, and many of these projects are also included in the city’s 30 year master plan, adopted in 2011.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 

Ulti-MUTT Dog Show at KPC

Tyann Reed and Courtney Parker shelter their dogs Bo and Basil Lynn from the chilly temperatures outside KPC Friday.

Fridays power outage didn’t do anything to deter a handful of dog lovers at Kenai Peninsula College, who were there for the Student Union’s first dog show.

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Student Union president Teresa Cross was grilling hot dogs while dog owners milled about outside the Brockel Building on the KPC campus.

“We have the Ulti-mutt Dog Show. Any breed, any style, short, fat, skinny, we don’t care. He’s a mutt, he can come participate.”

Staff and faculty at the college served as judges, contemplating cuteness and costumes.

 A KPC students Tyann Reed and Courtney Parker had their eyes on the cuteness award, while they had their dogs, Bo and Basil Lynn, tucked into their coats.

“Basil is full of love and personality. She’s just my baby,” Parker said.

Debbie McCree and her five year old shi tzu are going after the best costume award, with Minnie dressed up like a reindeer, antlers and all.

“I thought she’d just take every prize there is,” McCree said with a laugh.

 

Diners Undeterred By Power Outage

Diners make their way through the buffet line Friday, lit by candles and headlamps. A power outage lasting several hours affected the entire Kenai Peninsula.

A power outage affecting the entire Kenai Peninsula and beyond slowed down Friday a bit for some folks. But at the Kenai Merit Inn, the show went on uninterrupted.

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Just after about 100 students from Aurora Borealis charter school filed into the dining room at the Merit Inn, the lights went out. I was there recording sounds for a different story, but got to watch the crew with Kenai Catering in action.

Luckily the food had already been prepared and was in chafing dishes ready to go. Under light of candle, headlamp and smartphone flashlight, lunch was served.

The outage hit shortly before noon Friday. Homer Electric Association spokesperson Joe Gallagher says it started with a problem at the Nikiski Generation Plant.

“It appears there was a piece of equipment that monitors fuel supply, and it malfunctioned, and the plant tripped off line.”

At the time of the outage, which hit 32,000 meters just between Sterling and Homer, HEA’s systems on the Kenai were isolated from the rest of the electrical grid in south central.

“Under normal circumstances, the transmission line between Anchorage and the Peninsula is providing power to the Peninsula, but that line was out of service due to an accident. So, all the power on the Peninsula was being provided by the Nikiski plant and the Bradley Lake hydroelectric facility.”

Gallagher says when the Nikiski plant went off line, it was a strong enough jolt to the system to trip the Bradley Lake plant as well.

And, even though they had to clean up and do dishes in the dark, Kenai Catering co-owner Steve England says things went well.

“Aside from Mother Nature throwing us a curveball, we think it went fabulous. The room’s fairly quiet out there because people are eating, and that’s always a good sign.”

For a peak at how Kenai Catering operates with the lights on, before the diners arrive, tune in next week.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Soldotna Teen Center To Open By Christmas

Jazi Larrow and Leah McCabe present their design ideas for the new Soldotna Teen Center, located in the former Radio Shack location on the Spur Highway.

After months of meetings, the new Soldotna Teen Center is looking at an opening date by the end of the year. Those who attended the most recent meeting got a look at what the inside of the Center could look like.

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They’re still taking measurements at the new teen center. The set up for the old Radio Shack in Soldotna just doesn’t lend itself to kids hanging out, watching movies and playing foosball.

Will they keep the high traffic carpet or go with laminate? Or something else? What about chairs? Lighting? Paint? Right now the walls are a mix of retail shelving panels and bright, pastels. Those are all questions addressed by the interior designs, drawn up and presented by students in one of Meggean Bos’ classes at SoHi.

Leah McCabe and Jazi Larrow worked together on a design that includes four flat screen televisions, with accompanying couches and chairs for each. Filling the middle of the space would be the game tables; pool, ping pong and, of course, the foosball.

McCabe and Larrow say the new center will offer a more entertaining venue for them and their peers to spend time at after school.

“Definitely not a school feeling. Much more relaxed,” McCabe said.

State Senator Peter Micciche fields questions at the new Soldotna Teen Center Thursday.

There are several concepts that will be considered. Some call for big, cushy chairs or sofas and low light, others call for stools and a more active atmosphere. Senator Peter Micciche, who has been one of the adults instrumental in securing a space for the Teen Center, was there, to get a few more details out these preliminary plans.

This former retail space will be able to accommodate upwards of 150 people, and will be used for dances, small concerts, movies and in general, just a place to hang out. A survey was conducted of teens to see what they’d be most likely to use the space for.  Funding for the Center is sort of medium-term. It’s a pilot program, with funding for three years, which came from a $225,000 state grant to the Soldotna Boys and Girls Club. Micciche said at the meeting they’d also be looking for someone to staff the center on a part-time basis.

“For the parent or the youth development professional who qualifies, it’s the perfect after school job.”

The plan is to have the Teen Center ready for business in time for Christmas.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

School District Sees Jump In 4 Year Graduation Rate

KPBSD Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater addresses a Kenai Chamber of Commerce meeting Wednesday at the Kenai Visitors Center.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District faces several unique, short term challenges, including declining enrollments and increased health care costs. But there are other areas where the future looks brighter.

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One of those bright spots is in Nikiski. Maybe.

‘What if a gas line goes to Nikiski? What would that mean for us?’ That’s a question Kenai Peninsula School District Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater says he’s been getting a lot lately. Speaking to the Kenai Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, Atwater said Mt. View would likely see the most affect from a project like that.

“If we were to get a slug of new kids to come into our region (Mt. View) would be immediately overwhelmed. Say we got 30 or 40 new elementary kids in Kenai…we’d be forced, on a very short term basis, to do what we’ve done in the past; drag a portable into the playground area and you house kids there, which is not an ideal situation.”

Of course, that gas line and LNG plant, if they happen, could be years away. And while a sharp uptick in the student population wouldn’t be a bad problem to have, Atwater said overall, enrollment numbers are trending down across the district. But a higher percentage of students are earning their high school diploma within four years of entering ninth grade.

“In the last two years, we’ve had a little bit of a jump. About 80 percent of our kids make it across the stage after four years of high school. The state average is about 72 percent, but certainly we want to continue to work hard to get our kids through high school in four years.”

Atwater gives some credit for that increase to intervention programs started when recent graduating classes were in kindergarten and first grade, designed to make sure all students are reading by the end of first grade.

Technology will play a big role in reaching the district’s goals, Atwater says. Today’s students, by and large, live online. They’re connected. And while the district has taken what Atwater calls a conservative approach to bringing in new technology, catering to kids who are growing up with mobile devices in their hands will become more of a focus.

But that raises the question of access. Not every student has an iPad or a smartphone. But that doesn’t really matter. You can’t use those tools to their full capacity without access to the internet, and for students in the really rural parts of the district, they might not be able to get internet service.

“To expect that seamless, 24-7 environment, where you’re learning all the time or you can go get what you need all the time doesn’t exist for some of our families.”

He says other districts have agreements with internet service providers to hook up low income students, even at home, but the challenge in Alaska, getting internet service to those rural areas in the first place.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Coffee Table – Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Manager Andy Loranger

On this week’s Coffee Table, Shaylon Cochran speaks with Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Manager Andy Loranger about the mission of the Refuge and the challenges of reaching its goals.

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Governor Makes Disaster Declaration For Kenai Peninsula Flooding

 

Ground and surface water has washed out sections of several roads in the K-Beach area, including here at Bore Tide between Karluk and Kalgin.

Governor Sean Parnell has declared a state disaster for the Kenai Peninsula. In a press release Monday, Parnell said “Having been in Kenai when much of this disaster was unfolding, I personally witnessed the extensive damage taking place…These state recovery programs will speed up recovery efforts and help fill the void for the community.”

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre issued a local declaration on October 29th. That came after weeks of rising groundwater levels, that flooded septic systems and leech fields, and filled basements and crawl spaces in the area around K-Beach Road.

With the state declaration, recovery programs for public infrastructure and individual homes can be enacted. The Borough’s Emergency Management Coordinator, Scott Walden, told K-Beach residents at a recent meeting that the Borough’s role in recovery efforts was rather limited.

“Some of the things we could provide as a second class borough are not exactly what you wanted, and I wish we could have done more in some of those circumstances.”

The Borough is primarily responsible for its own roads and ditches and maintaining access to them. Several roads in the area are either on private property or have not been adopted by the Borough’s roads department.

With the state now involved, direct assistance to homeowners becomes a possibility, something the Borough and other municipalities couldn’t take on.

Though the K-Beach flooding has received the most attention, residents throughout the Borough, on both sides of the Inlet, have been dealing water issues.

State and Borough emergency managers will now work with residents to identify eligible applicants for the Individual Assistance Program.

Healthcare Navigators From Enroll Alaska Working At CPH

It’s been a rough six weeks for anyone dealing with the new health care law. Problems with the federal website have made it difficult for individuals to sign up. And the state-level organizations, like Enroll Alaska, haven’t had much better luck. But there’s help available for insurance shoppers on the Central Peninsula.

Navigators from Enroll Alaska are taking appointments for consultations over the next couple days at Central Peninsula Hospital. Tyann Boling is the Chief Operating Officer for Enroll Alaska. She says people looking for a plan on the exchange need to bring in specific information to find the right plan.

“For every individual that they want to get enrolled, they need to bring their social security numbers. They also need to bring in their tax information. Because government subsidy is based upon household income, and you can get that information off of W-2′s and things of that nature.”

Boling says the company enlisted local help to serve as navigators, who will have their work cut out for them. There are just a few weeks left to find a plan that will be on the books by the first of the year. People without approved coverage by then could face a penalty from the federal government.

“They need to be enrolled by December 15th in order for the plan to be in place by January 1st. So that’s what we’ll be doing (at CPH). Our agents there are local, one of them is from Kenai and one is from Soldotna.”

Enroll Alaska temporarily suspended its efforts to get people signed up for insurance just a few weeks after the initial roll out, citing the many computer glitches that have plagued the system. Navigators will be at CPH Wednesday, Thursday and Friday between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. You can set up an appointment by calling 855-385-5550.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 

Recycling Fashion In Cooper Landing

 

Preston Jeffords gives Landon Jeffords some help with his turn on the runway at the Cooper Landing Community Center Saturday.

 

To mark America Recyles Day on November 15th, residents in Cooper Landing found a different way to use old stuff. A fashion show.

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So. You think you’re a pretty good recycler. You separate your trash. Compost the coffee grounds and egg shells, put the newspaper and glass in their proper bins for a life beyond the landfill. But in Cooper Landing, they take it a step farther with a full on fashion show, replete with appropriate club music, low lights, and long runway walks. But you won’t find any famous designers worn by even more famous supermodels here. Instead, it’s the Mt. Dew Cowboy. Complete with chaps, a vest and a ten gallon hat made from old Mt. Dew boxes.

Soda boxes, old magazines and plastic bags were weaved and woven to make some really interesting looking costumes. Kristine Route is a Raven Americorps member, working in Cooper Landing. She’s helped organize the fashion show the past two years. It’s an idea she got from her college days at Colorado State University.

“I wanted to do something fun to educate people on how to better their recycling and get them into recycling. Trying to think of something entertaining, I remembered the fashion program (at college) did a recycle fashion show, so I decided it would be fun to do one here.”

 

Martha Story, Chris Degernes and Ken Green deliberate the best recycled fashion statement.

She says the goal of the fashion show is to get people to think about what to do with stuff after they’ve used it; that there are more options than the trash or the recycle bin.

“I hope people think of the items they use and try to think of a second life for those or to think of ways they don’t need those. To think outside the box.”

Following up her second place finish in last year’s competition, Theresa Norris took the top honors this year, with her coat made of crocheted plastic bags and accessorized with earrings made from aluminum cans.

“I don’t know how I came up with the idea, although I crochet a lot, so I did this in the evening watching tv. At first I was going to make a dress but then I thought ‘I’ll just make a coat, that’ll be easier,” Norris said with a laugh.

The winners (left to right) 1st place: Theresa Norris 2nd place: Hope Quinn 3rd place: Preston Jeffords 4th place: Linnaea Gossard

Results:

1st place: Theresa Norris
2nd place: Hope Quinn
3rd place: Preston Jeffords
4th place: Linnaea Gossard

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


The Legend Of Soapy Smith

 

Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, pictured in Skagway in 1898. (Photo: soapysmiths.blogspot.com)

Alaska’s history is peppered with crooks, cons and other characters famous for running afoul of the law. One of them is Soapy Smith, whose travels brought him briefly to the Kenai Peninsula. Historian Jane Haigh has written about Smith, and on Thursday night, told his story at the Kasilof Regional Historical Association Museum.

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There were a lot of dangers faced by the people flooding the American west in the late 19th century. And at least as dangerous as inclimate weather, tuberculosis or a stray bullet was the good, old-fashioned crook. The story of Soapy Smith, is the story of a swindler. A pretty good one, too.

For some two decades, from Denver to the Kenai Peninsula, Smith made a living with little more than a good line, a quick hand, and a code of morality that read like an entry application to the 8th circle of Dante’s Inferno.

“Soapy was a confidence man. Confidence men used elaborate tricks and ruses in order to basically talk their victims out of their money,” said Kenai Peninsula College history professor and author Jane Haigh, speaking at one of the Kasilof Museum’s occasional historical presentations.

Her book ‘King Con’ chronicles one Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, and his various criminal operations. The journey starts in Denver, in 1879, where Soapy has set up shop on the street, running a shell game out of a suitcase. He filled it with bars of soap, wrapped in paper. The game was you buy a bar of soap for five dollars, with a chance that under the paper, there’s a 10, 20, maybe a 50 dollar bill.

“There actually are first hand accounts of guys who saw him on the street corner, and he would do this for two or three hours at a time and get a big crowd. Not so much because everyone thought they were going to win soap, but because it was a great performance.”

From this operation, Soapy went, naturally, into politics. Helping to rig the voting in local elections and also running protection rackets, though he remained in the class of non-violent, gentleman-criminals. A trial after elections in 1892 drove Soapy out of town, for awhile.

Now, he bounces around a bit, spending some time in Texas, looking for fresh marks and making frequent trips to St. Louis to see his wife and kids. This is when he makes his first, albeit brief, trip to Alaska.

“In April, he shipped out from Seattle, and then he was in Juneau and in May, he was in Coal Bay (Homer). But then he was back in Denver again in June, and he didn’t go to the Klondike again until July of 1897. There’s a year there I can’t account for.”

KPC history professor and author Jane Haigh shares the story of Soapy Smith at the Kasilof Historical Museum.

His first shot at scavenging the riches of the various Alaskan rushes and booms of the time wasn’t successful. He was found out in southeast.

“He tried to practice his soap game in Juneau and was arrested. It was under a fake name, but you could tell it was him,” Haigh said.

A 25 dollar fine and a new relationship with authorities in Juneau send him to the Kenai Peninsula. This is about the time when people are trying to decide if Hope will be the next found deposit of untold riches.

“He knew that there was a gold rush there. We all know there was a small one to Sunrise. I think he’s hoping that it’s big enough he can move his activities there. But we all know how small Hope was at the time. It was never going to amount to much and I think he realized that right away, so he got right back on the boat and went back to Coal Bay.”

This sort of stuff is happening all over. Haigh mentioned another book that examines attempts to drum up a goldrush in Homer, by the town’s namesake, Homer Pennock.

“(The author) maintains that Pennock was a conman, and his whole thing was, and a lot of people did this, I’m going to take a group of people with me because I have these claims. It’s almost like a Ponzi scheme. He’s only collecting money from the good people who are going to join him on this fantastic voyage where they’re all going to make wild amount of money digging in his claims which are secret and only he knows about.”

But back to Soapy. Hope was a bust, so he heads back down south. But being tied into an extensive network of conmen and crooked cops gives him a head’s up on the next big opportunity on the tundra.

“He gets to Skagway in 1898 and builds a saloon. He was there right from the get-go. I don’t think Soapy had any intention of going to the Klondike itself. I don’t know how he figured out Skagway was the place to go, but it was an obvious location because it was a jumping off point.”

Skagway is not only established as a center of gold rush commerce, but it’s also still small enough to lack the sort of legal oversight that kept his stay in Juneau so short. He’s trying to reestablish the racket he ran in Colorado in Skagway. He’s got a full crew, and several schemes set up to fleece the people coming and going. Now, there were a couple of newspapers in town, and people Outside relied on that information to decide if and when to try their luck north. Soapy bought off one of the editors, but stories about the swindling did leak out. One operation involved a phony telegraph line.

“Of course there was no actual telegraph line to Skagway, but maybe you didn’t know that, so you could still pay for the telegraph to you loved ones, and then the reply would come saying ‘please send money’. And Soapy’s response to the criticism was that he was saving people. If you were so stupid as to be caught by these tricks, he was saving you from sure death in the Klondike.” 

For the more proper businessmen in town, this was no good. If you’ve just scored big in, say, Dawson City, and you know that Skagway is full of crooks trying to swindle your newly-gotten gold, you’re going to avoid that place at all costs. And so, the good people of Skagway decided enough was enough, and by the summer of 1898…

“People have suggested that he kind of knew the game was up. So he got really drunk, which was a bad idea for him, because he tended to be really lacking in common sense when he got drunk. And he tried to go to a (town meeting), and he brought his shotgun and Frank Reed was one of the guards and they basically shot each other simultaneously. Although, if you go to Skagway, you’ll find other opinions about whether it was just one guy.”

And that was the end. Soapy was 38 when retirement was forced upon him, and his body is laid to rest in Skagway.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Borough Still Taking Damage Reports From K-Beach Flooding

As winter slowly creeps into the area, residents along Kalifornsky Beach Road continue to deal with high groundwater. The Borough has been pumping water from a basin on Karluk Avenue down K-Beach and into Cook Inlet for almost two weeks, providing some relief, and allowing road crews to repair some exposed areas.

“I think that what we want to try to do is continue to do the assessments and repairs and make ready for winter as much as we can before temperatures drop,” said Borough spokesperson Brenda Ahlberg.

As some of the water has slowly dissipated, Ahlberg says they’re learning more about the extent of the damage caused after parts of some of those roads had been under water for two or three weeks.

“I don’t think there were any surprises so much as the need to illustrate to the damage assessment team who did their tour, that these are the roads that have been damaged, these are the roads that are going to need some significant crown work done, or ditch work done.”

She says the Borough is still taking damage reports from property owners, and neighbors have been helping neighbors.

“We’ve had a handful of residents who have been very kind to help those residents who don’t have internet services, to let them know, here’s those damage reports, we encourage you to fill those out.”

Those reports will help agencies gauge the level of damage to private property as the Borough looks to the state and beyond for financial assistance.

Mayor Mike Navarre declared an emergency disaster declaration for this and other areas of the Kenai Peninsula on October 29th. The Borough’s Road Service Area Manager, Pat Malone, says his crews will continue trying to rebuild what they can before the rest of winter arrives.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Showtime: Curtain Call Reopens

Alyeska Krull (left) rings up Callie Seater Saturday morning at Curtain Call's new location in the Seaman Building in Kenai.

Curtain Call, the consignment clothing store that helps support the Kenai Performers, is open again.

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In its new digs on the first floor of the Seaman Building in Kenai, Curtain Call is already busy Saturday morning.

Curtain Call first opened in 2009, to benefit a local theatre troupe, the Kenai Performers. And until this summer, you could do business with them in the big warehouse behind Swanson Square. That location was abandoned after an SUV plowed through the front of the building on August 25th.

“A lot of ladies have been holding their clothing waiting for us to open back up so they can bring it in. So we have a lot of shoppers buying clothes and also a lot of consigners trying to sell their clothes,” said volunteer Chris Cook

One of the women exciting to be buying Saturday morning is Callie Seater.

“I’ve probably spent spent over a hundred bucks. I’ve been saving up.”

Seater says she was a regular customer at the old location, as well, coming in weekly for the good deals.

“I was one of the ones out here before it even opened. This is such a good location,” Seater said, with an armful of workout clothes.

“(They have) name brand clothing you couldn’t get anywhere else here on the Peninsula. You’d have to go to Anchorage, and it’s marked down here. We benefit!”

You can take in your high-quality women’s clothing and accessories for consignment, or shop around for discounted wares Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Tustemena Lodge Encourages Locals To Make It Their Own

New owners welcome locals back to the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof. (Photo: Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI)

There aren’t many highways suitable for road-tripping in Alaska. But the ones we do have are dotted with plenty of interesting road-side attractions. In the third part of a series we’re calling “Roadside Attractions,” we make a pit stop at the recently re-opened Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof.

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The lodge, with its big, eye-catching “T” out front, had seen sitting vacant for many years when current co-owner Scott Wehrstein made an off-hand comment to his dad, Ed.

“We were driving by one day. He was up for the summer visiting and I said ‘hey, dad, you know the old T’s for sale. We should go in partners on it.’ And I didn’t know he was friends with Suzie Cook, the old owner. So about two days later he says ‘are you serious?’ And I said ‘serious about what?’ And he said ‘buying the T,’” Scott said.

The elder Wehrstein used to own a restaurant in Homer called The Odyssey, which was formally known as Addie’s Porpoise Room. Scott said he’s never owned or operated his own business, but he’s no stranger to the restaurant industry.

“Cooking has always been a part of my life. But doing it for a lot of people, it’s easy, but banquet style cooking is a lot easier than doing it as a restaurant,” he said.

Banquet style is the way to go at the lodge. And prime rib nights have become pretty popular since the place reopened over the summer. Scott said he and his family are trying to make the lodge a local’s place again. And that’s definitely a tall order considering its recent history.

After long-time owners Suzie and John Cook sold the business to another operator, the relationship between the Big “T” and the locals got a little contentious. One of the ways Scott and his dad tried to bring the folks back in was putting up a rather large sign that read “Locals, get your asses back in here!”

“Just to kind of lighten the mood. We’re not serious. We’re here to have a good time,” he said.

And keeping in line with making it a comfortable place for folks in the area, the new management is always taking input from the clientele.

“If there’s something they want to see… on the menu, or musically-wise in here, if we can do it and it benefits everybody, we’re going to do it. It’s not just our bar. We look at it… it’s the community’s bar. It always has been,” he said.

Scott said he wants the lodge to play host to weddings and meetings like it was in the past. The only things that won’t be coming back are the nearly 28,000 hats that used to line the inside of the place. Those hats landed the lodge in the Guinness Book of World Records.

And Scott said they’re still fine-tuning the Big “T” by trying out new recipes, cooks and bartenders; any changes needed to make sure everyone feels welcome and taken care of.

“It’s almost as comfortable as being at home. What we want people to feel like when they come here… they are an extended part of our family and they get treated as such.”

Also, he said it’s no problem to bring the kids. And who knows, maybe you’ll truly become part of the extended family and be asked to haul wood like Scott’s son was on a recent Saturday. But I’m sure Scott would prefer you to sit back, relax and enjoy the grub.

-Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI-

Commercial Fishers React To Proposal To Ban Setnetting

A proposal to ban commercial set net fishing in urban areas of Alaska is getting the most attention where it will have the most affect. Right here on the Kenai Peninsula.

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When the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance introduced a proposal last week to ban setnetting Cook Inlet, it did so with the stated goal of saving the meager returns of king salmon to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. But for setnetter Andy Hall, who also serves on the Board of Directors for the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, conservation has little to do with it.

“That group has portrayed itself as a conservation group for years in its various guises, but when I hear about them, they’re down in the legislature trying to get some body kicked off the Board of Fish, or eavesdropping on the United Fishermen of Alaska annual meeting or kicking off some initiative to put a bunch of people out of business. That’s not conservation. Maybe they’re conserving an opportunity for themselves to partake of, but boy, I don’t see any king salmon conservation.”

Last week’s announcement was the latest chapter in the ongoing drama about what fisheries in Cook Inlet are entitled to catch an ever dwindling number of king salmon and what fisheries are doing damage to the stock by catching too many.

The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, which is aligned with the sportfishing world, contends that indiscriminate setnets have all but eliminated a fishery that used to routinely see trophy kings of sixty, seventy, eighty pounds or more. Hall doesn’t see it that way.

“How much is going to be enough? (They get) eighty-seven percent of the late king run, 100 percent of the early run. It’s greed. And to put a whole fishery out of business, Alaskan families, Alaskan businesses, I don’t know what else greed is.”

Sport guides and anglers and the set net fleet have all seen substantial losses of opportunity to fish in recent years. In 2012, the commercial harvest was almost entirely shut down to try and save more kings. This year, it was the sporties’ turn to give up harvest opportunity. Given how many nets and lines are in the water at any given time, in any part of Cook Inlet or it rivers, saying one particular harvest method is to blame for low king returns is unfair, says Cook Inlet Keeper’s Bob Shavelson.

“When it comes to picking out one gear type and saying ‘this is the problem’, the complexities in these systems are so great we can barely start to even understand them. If you want to look at a gauntlet for a fish to run, go down to the mouth of the Kenai river when the dipnet season is there and look at the boats and look at the people, and then go upstream and look at how many rods and reels and hooks are in the water there. It’s really an amazing amount of fishing pressure.”

He says leaving management decisions for fisheries up to a popular vote is a bad precedent. And he’s not alone. The Alaska Salmon Alliance has also weighed in on the issue. That group represents commercial fishers and processors, and its executive director, Arni Thompson, says a referendum leaves out a lot of important information needed to manage the fishery.

“The initiative ignores decades’ worth of science-based research and management, serious advisory committee input into the process; all of this is being ignored when you take it to the legislature and put it to a vote of the electorate.”

While the ban would apply statewide to commercial setnetting in all urban areas, in practice, it would really only affect setnetters on the Kenai Peninsula. What’s at stake is the business of the people who hold Cook Inlet’s 750 setnet permits. In 2011, they earned more than $13 million in wages, according to a report for the ASA. Thompson says a voter initiative like this should raise the eyebrows of anyone running a business in the state.

“All small business owners in Alaska should be very leery of any effort to turn over the fate of any family small business to an often misinformed electorate, swayed by the money and interest of a very few politically influential people.”

The question wouldn’t be put to voters for almost three more years. At the time of the announcement, Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance spokesperson and sport guide Joe Conners said that was plenty of time to find other solutions. Andy Hall wants to find a solution that doesn’t take his net out of the water.

“There’s got to be a way to end this. And ending it isn’t trying to be the last guy standing. Because the last man standing is going to be trying to catch the last fish in the river. What I’d like to see is a healthy use of this valuable resource in Cook Inlet, shared by all user groups. There is a way to do it. But trying to end run each other…it just doesn’t seem constructive.”

To get the measure on the 2016 ballot, the Conservation Alliance will need to gather the signatures of ten percent of the electorate.

Local Veterans Remember

Members of VFW Post #10046, American Legion Post #20 and AMVETS Post #4 perform a rifle salute outside the Soldotna Regional Sports Center Monday morning.

 

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-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

State Seeks Input On Spur Highway Project

$20 million is marked to improve this six mile stretch of the Kenai Spur Highway. (Photo: Alaska DOT)

A section of the Kenai Spur Highway is due for a makeover, and the Department of Transportation is leaving it up to citizens to decide what that means.

Jill Reese is the department’s public information liason. She says no matter what the final project looks like, safety will be the top concern.

“There has been a very high crash rate for moose collisions, so there could be enough money to do a moose mitigation project with fencing and lighting and that sort of thing.”

Twenty-million dollars have been set aside for the improvements, which will cover about six miles of the Spur, between Sport Lake Road just outside of Soldotna and Swires Road, where the Spur transitions to four lanes. Improvements could include left turn pockets or widening the highway to three or four lanes.

“The $20 million is what we have now to spend, and it’s not going to get the Cadillac, it may be closer to a Chevrolet. But it’s certainly enough money to really achieve a lot for the community and we’re pretty excited about it,” Reese said.

A public meeting is planned in a couple weeks to get initial input from the public.

“They may come back and say ‘no, we want this part paved and we want a bike trail here and we want other things done that would fit within that scope of $20 million. So it’s a pretty open ended discussion that we’ll be having,” Reese said.

That meeting is planned for Monday, November 18th from 4-7 p.m. in the Assembly chambers of the Borough building in Soldotna.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Council Member Brian Gabriel Disappointed With Setnet Ban Initiative

Two days after an announcement by the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance about an effort to ban commercial setnetting in Cook Inlet was made, the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association released its own statement.

In a press release Friday afternoon, the group said “the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance’s recent announcement of a statewide ballot initiative to ban setnets in Alaska’s urban areas is the latest incarnation of Bob Penney’s long-running effort to put more than 720 families and small business owners who work in Cook Inlet’s setnet fishery out of business.”

The Alliance is a new advocacy group promoting sportfishing interests and king salmon conservation.

At this week’s Kenai city council meeting, council member Brian Gabriel, himself a setnetter, addressed the proposal.

“At first blush, what the council and citizens of Kenai need to understand is there’s a long, rich tradition of setnetting in this community. I think it’s shortsighted in this time of low king abundance to have a knee-jerk reaction to eliminate setnets.”

Gabriel said the press materials sent out with the announcement Wednesday inaccurately described the species caught by setnets and the numbers. In 2013, setnetters took in nearly four million sockeye and around five thousand king salmon.

“I just think it’s disappointing since the Cook Inlet setnet fishery is comprised of about 85% resident permit holders. We’re not putting non-residents out of business. These are Alaska residents and their families and the people who depend on these summer jobs.”

Gabriel said in the coming weeks he would bring something to the Council as a means of addressing the proposal.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

K-Beach Residents Share Frustrations At Special Meeting

Borough Mayor MIke Navarre addresses a full Assembly Chambers Wednesday night, as residents along K-Beach continue to battle rising groundwater.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough held a special meeting Wednesday night to tell residents the latest on efforts to alleviate flooding around K-Beach road in Kenai.

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Assembly chambers were full Wednesday night, as Borough and state officials tried to assuage concerns of people who are fed up with being flooded out. For more than a month, water has slowly crept through the area, affecting more than one hundred home owners.

But the news from officials Wednesday night wasn’t any brighter than it’s been at any of the other meetings about this.  Melissa Hill is a Hydrologist for the state.  She presented photos at the meeting highlighting how the area has changed as it’s been developed. For one, there’s a lot less vegetation than a few decades ago, which increases surface runoff.

The arrow points to the 'Karluk Basin', where water from the area is pooling up. This water is being pumped along a widened ditch down K-Beach, then piped into Cook Inlet. (Photo: Kenai Peninsula Borough)

“The other thing is that you can start to dissect that basin. You create sub-basins. If roads go in here and you don’t have proper drainage, you end up creating what was once a large bowl, now you’ve cut it into small bowls. And as those bowls fill up, they will overflow into those other areas.”

A lot of the residents who spoke at the meeting were frustrated by a slow path through layers of bureaucracy. Much of the work that’s been done the past week, including pumping several million gallons of surface water directly into Cook Inlet, has been done with the blessing of the state. The Borough is only authorized to take care of its own roads (read: can only spend money on its roads). The man in charge of that is Pat Malone. In road maintenance, as in medicine, the first thing is do no harm.

Road crews piped water under K-Beach Road, draining millions of gallons into Cook Inlet. (Photo: Kenai Peninsula Borough)

“Our purview is to protect the roads. But if I can protect the road and improve a situation, I’ll do that,” he said.

The issue of who is responsible for what road is a big one. The area was developed piecemeal, over decades, with no overarching plans for infrastructure. Some roads were brought up to code and incorporated into the Borough road system, others have not.

There was a bit of good news tucked into the agenda, though. A bit of financial relief for people, many of whom have either sunk serious money into digging their own ditches and culverts, or lost it through getting rid of livestock or gigantic electric bills from pumping water non-stop. The Borough’s director of assessment, Tom Anderson, told residents there is a way to reassess property values for tax purposes if incurred damages total more than $10,000.

And with the forecast calling for even more rain, that amount of damage will likely hit even more people.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Reconfiguration Committee Makes Recommendations To School Board

The Soldotna schools reconfiguration was a consistent topic during this week’s Kenai Peninsula Borough School District School Board meeting. But the board won’t officially discuss the recommendations for the new configuration for next school year until its December meeting.

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The Soldotna Schools Advisory Committee presented its suggestions for the reconfiguration of the 7th through 12th grade students during a work session before Monday night’s meeting. By the time the regular meeting started, a few people made their opinions known about those suggestions.

Skyview junior Austin Laber said the student council at the school is concerned about the new building they’ll be walking into next year. Laber also served as a student representative for the advisory committee.

“The reconfiguration plan has led to fear and uncertainty amongst the students, parents and teachers. An error of communication, in which no one is blamed, led to the false reassurance of many people. Over the course of the last six months, conflicting ideas led to more confusion on the matter. Skyview’s body is anxious about the change. We are not confident our district will provide fair ground for the new school and we are fearful that our desires will not be met in the reconfiguration process,” he said.

Laber said the council circulated a survey among students and found that most were in favor of the proposed school name of “Soldotna Central High School” and were okay with merging colors. But he said they were unhappy with keeping the Stars mascot and wanted a change there.

Soldotna resident Rob Lewis has kids who attend Soldotna High School. He said there hasn’t been enough information about the amount of money needed to make the suggested changes.

“Nobody wants to put that number out for the public to know and to be able to openly discuss. I think we do the public a disfavor by waiting till the last minute to throw the cost of what this potential change in mascot and color schemes could be,” he said.

Transitions Facilitator Doug Hayman has said the district, traditionally, has not paid for new uniforms. That’s a function of a booster club. Though, the district would be in charge of changing colors. That would likely follow a painting schedule already in place. Lewis said he doesn’t see the need to change the name of SoHi to appease the few affected classes over the next couple years.

“If something’s not broken, then there’s really not a need to go ahead and try to fix it. And I don’t think that Soldotna High School is broken,” Lewis said.

School Board Member Penny Vadla attended many of the advisory committee meetings and said there are some tough choices ahead.

“There will be change and there will be transitions and everybody won’t be totally 100 percent behind every single change. But I think young people are resilient,” she said.

One of the less debated changes has involved Soldotna Middle School. During the final reconfiguration meeting last month, which took place in the SMS library, staff put up memorabilia around the room.

The advisory committee has suggested changing the colors, mascot and name of the school. Next year’s building could have purple, blue, black or white for colors, the Stars for a mascot and might be called Soldotna Prep. SMS Art Teacher Andrea Eggleston asked the school board Monday night to consider keeping the current Spartan as the mascot for the building.

Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater said the district is making progress with deciding what staff will be making the transition into the new configuration.

“The reconfiguration is very complicated, there’s a lot of moving parts to it. It seems like we keep opening a door and seeing a new part. And the staffing of it is certainly complicated… there’s a lot of people involved with this,” he said.

Those conversations must happen out of the public eye because they involve discussions about contracts and salaries. Atwater has said an official recommendation from the district should happen in January.

The KPBSD School Board’s next meeting is Dec. 2. The board is expected to consider suggestions about the reconfiguration, but Board President Joe Arness has said he isn’t sure what role the board will play in the final decision. The public is invited to make comments during that meeting.

-Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI-

“Roadside Attractions”: Ninilchik Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church in Ninilchik sits on a hill, as do many Orthodox churches in Alaska, overlooking Cook Inlet. (Photo: Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI)

There aren’t many highways suitable for road-tripping in Alaska. But the ones we do have are dotted with plenty of interesting road-side attractions. In the second part of a series we’re calling “Roadside Attractions,” we head to Ninilchik and get a tour of the historic Russian Orthodox Church just off the highway.

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“To truly understand the history of the Orthodox Church here, you would have to go back all the way to the 1800s,” Greg Encelewski said. He served as a church tour guide. “In the late 1800s, the original church was in the village and it was right across from the yellow bridge where we have a fenced in area, and that burnt down.”

Encelewski said after that church burnt down, the village decided on its current location high on the hill, overlooking Cook Inlet with a view of mounts Redoubt and Illiamna.

“I think that was the plan of all the Orthodox churches…. Travel to Seldovia, it’s up high on the hill, you go to Tyonek, it’s high on the hill. They built them in a beautiful place… that’s part of the design. The community picked it out,” he said.

The new church was dedicated in 1901 and built by Aleksei Oskolkoff. The white and green building is surrounded by a white picket fence. On top of the roof are five onion-shaped domes that are each topped with a cross. The Russian Orthodox faith depicts where Jesus’ feet and hands were nailed to the cross.

At that time this church was built, there were almost 100 people living in the village. There was a mix of Russian families and Dena’ina people.

Walking into the church, he explained there is still a small congregation that shows up every Sunday.

The Nave has welcomed parishioners since 1901. (Photo: Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI)

“My family and probably six other families are regular attendees. And then on holidays you have big attendance. We could go from six people to 30 on a regular Sunday, and then on a holiday you might have 40 or 50 in here,” he said.

The entrance of the church is called the Narthex. Through the next set of doors is the Nave and that’s where the Icons are located.

“And it has the Feast Days, the major holidays of the church,” he said.

This space is open to the public. There’s a dome with four windows and the interior of it is painted a light blue. Encelewski said all the design work with the wood inside the Nave was done by hand.

“This is all cut by hand with hand ax. A lot of this work was done by real handy-craft people. But these logs are so old that they’re dry rot and they’re starting to crumble from within the walls. So the church needs to be rebuilt,” he said.

He said the small congregation will need to come up with the funds to rebuild and replace parts of the historic structure. Another way the church could raise money is through small donations it receives by offering tours. Encelewski said they just started opening the church up to the public in the last few years for tours. He said it’s a way to share the history of the building as well as faith.

“People just ask if they can come in and sit and pray a little bit… or light a candle. They’re down and out… we let them do it and they go about their business,” he said.

Encelewski is a devout man and loves this church. He said he was an altar boy for his grandfather in Kenai who served as a priest for many years. Encelewski recalled people gathering for major holidays and said everyone would walk up the hills to attend. Going back down was a different story for him.

“Christmas I’d run out here and jump and slide down over the hill.”

Back outside the church and walking through the cemetery, Encelewski said some of the oldest graves date back to the early 1900s. But many of those gravestones have fallen. Though he knows there are Dena’ina as well as Russian Orthodox buried on top of the hill.

With all this tradition, it’s no wonder the church has made the National Register of Historic Places and is a well-worn stop for many tourists who make their way across the Kenai Peninsula.

But for Encelewski and many like him in the community, it’s a place that conjures up memories of togetherness.

“You think about people like my mom, Fedora… those old ladies laughing. And my aunts get together and sing and people played guitar… accordion. We had lots of fun.”

 -Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI-

Borough Assembly Extends Emergency Declaration

 

Melissa Hill (left) of the Department of Natural Resources and David Shady of the Department of Environmental Conservation present their research to the Borough Assembly Tuesday night.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly extended an emergency declaration order at its meeting Tuesday night. The move allows for continued efforts for flood relief around the Peninsula.

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While the declaration covers the entire Borough, from Seward to Tyonek, the Assembly was focused on what’s happening around Kalifornsky Beach Road in Kenai. Melissa Hill is a hydrologist for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. She told the Assembly that the water system in that area is complicated. Any long term solutions need to be carefully considered because of the volume of water that might be manipulated. She urged caution when digging around to try and divert water, because removing the top layer of soil could make groundwater rise even faster.

“There does seem to be some anecdotal evidence that people in some places may be moving that and the water level is rising.”

Lots of ideas have been thrown out to try and find an immediate solution to the problem, including digging a giant trench that would take water directly to Cook Inet.

“The concern is that if somebody did something that grandiose…you could have issues with salt water intrusion and that could cause a whole other set of issues,” Hill said.

As the water has continued to pool up, the Borough has done work to improve the water’s path to Cook Inlet.

“We drilled under (K-Beach) at Karluk with the permission of the Department of Transportation and pumped the basin out at Karluk. We ran some pipe to the beach and pumped about three million gallons out of there,” said Borough Mayor Mike Navarre.

That move was designed to buy some time and breathing room, but Navarre says more will need to be done to prepare for probably-inevitable spring flooding.

Hydrologist Melissa Hill says the state is interested in studying the area more, to get a better understanding of how and where water moves to help plan other improvements in the future.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

2016 Ballot Might Include Ban On Setnetting

This row of shacks is home to The Salmon People, three generations of setnetters in Coho.

An initiative to ban commercial set netting in Cook Inlet could be on the ballot in 2016.

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Joe Connors operates a charter outfit on the Kenai Peninsula. His Big Sky Fishcamp has lots of amenities. There are cabins with names like “the Hawaiian Hut” and the “Hacienda of Happy Jose.” But the big attraction is obviously the fishing. If you go to Connors’website, you’ll see photos of massive king salmon caught by proud clients.

There’s just one big snag with his operation. In recent years, he’s had fewer kings to fish. With lower returns, the state has had to put fishing limits on the valuable stock.

“You couldn’t troll out off the mouth of the Deep Creek or Anchor or Ninilchik [Rivers]. That was closed,” says Connors. “In the river, they had us fishing with single hook, no bait, and restricted to the lower 10 miles of the river.”

Now, Connors is heading up a new group called the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, and their goal is to shutdown the commercial set-net fishery in the area.

That user group catches fish by anchoring nets to the shore. While the set-netters mostly target red salmon, they also take some kings. This year, they ended up with about 5,000 kings in their nets. Sportfishermen got a fraction of that.

Connors thinks the impact on the king run is too much, so the Alliance is pushing an initiative that would ban all commercial set netting in urban regions. He points to bans on the method in other states, and says it’s not an allocation issue but a conservation one. He adds that the state has not been doing its job in preserving the king stock.

“The Board of Fish and Game gets deluded by the need to continue the set-net fishery because it’s a way of life, you know, whatever, whatever,” says Connors. “But the bottom line indicates — all the indicators — we have historically low numbers, and we cannot continue to have this wall of death functioning.”

The Alliance submitted their initiative application to the Alaska Division of Elections today. If the initiative passes legal review, the group would then have to collect signatures from 10 percent of the electorate to get on the ballot.

Set-netters in Bristol Bay, Kodiak, and along the Alaska Peninsula would not be targeted by the proposed ban, and neither would subsistence fisheries. And while the ban would apply to places like Fairbanks and Juneau, the Kenai Peninsula would see the greatest impact.

There are 750 set-net permits issued for the Cook Inlet region, with an estimated value of $10 million. While the initiative has language giving a rationale for the ban, it doesn’t say anything about what would happen to those permits. Connors says that the possibility of a buyback is something that could be worked out later.

“There might be discussion to that effect,” says Connors. That’s something that the public would have to decide if they want to have that discussion in the state also.”

Connors says he wants that discussion to happen over the course of a few years, which is why his group isn’t doing a major signature rush to get on the 2014 primary ballot. They’ve hired a public relations firm, and they plan to run a “voter education” effort. They also want to give the legislature some time to consider their proposal before it would actually go out to a vote.

“You can’t have an initiative process without allowing the Legislature to consider all these options also,” says Connors. “By going through the initiative process, we’re opening all of these other options. Whether the appropriate people step up and deal with it, we’ll see.”

The sportfishing lobby is a serious force in the state, and the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance includes one of its most powerful players. Bob Penney, an Anchorage developer and major political funder, has already begun sending letters to legislators explaining the reason for this initiative. Earlier this year, a group he founded — the Kenai River Sportfishing Association — ran a successful campaign to unseat one of the governor’s appointees to the Board of Fish.

The initiative caught many set-netters by surprise. A spokesperson for the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, which represents many of the area’s commercial fishermen, said they were “looking at the proposal and will have a response in the next day or two.”

Soldotna Sen. Peter Micciche was out of town on personal business Wednesday, but said he’s “going to continue to do what I need to do to protect all the fisheries in Cook Inlet. They’re all extremely important to our economy, to our recreation and to our way of life. I’m going to be active in the struggle to help people understand the importance of all our fisheries.”

This is the first citizen effort in Alaska to ban a gear-type via ballot. In 1995, an initiative to prioritize personal use over commercial fishing was introduced, but it did not come to a vote.

, Lori Townsend/APRN, Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Special Meeting For K-Beach Flooding Tonight At 6

To address community concerns about the ongoing flooding along Kalifornsky Beach Road, the Kenai Peninsula Borough is holding a special public meeting Wednesday night at 6 p.m. in Assembly chambers in Soldotna.

There will be representatives from several different local, state and federal agencies available to ask questions and address concerns.

Borough mayor Mike Navarre signed a local disaster emergency declaration back on October 29th. Ahlberg says that helped clear a bureaucratic path for the work that was done over the weekend. The Borough expanded a ditch around mile 11 of K-Beach to give some of the groundwater that’s been collecting at the end of Karluk a way to the Inlet.

A shelter has been set up by the Red Cross at the Kenai Armory. Borough spokesperson Brenda Ahlberg said no one is setting up camp there yet, but people have been calling to find out how to make donations. In that area, social media has played a part in this as well.

A Facebook page called K-Beach Neighbor Flood Relief was set up a day after the disaster declaration, and has served as something of a go-between for neighbors and the Borough. It’s also allowed Borough staff to stay ahead of what people are talking about, and make sure no one is receiving incorrect information about, say, when or where special meetings are going to be held. Ahlberg says more details on a central location for donations will be discussed at Wednesday’s meeting, along with water safety and insurance issues. You can stream the meeting live here.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

School District Seeks Community Input For Budget

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is starting its budget process for next school year. District officials are looking for community members to lend a hand in deciding how the money will be used.

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School officials are looking for 10 to 15 people to be part of the KPBSD Budget Review Committee.

“It gathers once a year and it will meet all day long,” KPBSD Spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff said. “The purpose is to take a look at what our budget is for the upcoming year, for the 2014-2015 school year. And as it goes through the process there will be a presentation of where the district is at… and then we’re inviting feedback.”

Erkeneff said much of the conversation will focus on the general fund budget, which is by far the largest pot of money. That’s the portion that pays teacher salaries and benefits. It’s also the portion of the budget that needs to be reduced by $1.24 million for next school year. Erkeneff said the district is hoping to streamline costs without sacrificing what happens in the classroom.

“So here’s our current reality and what suggestions and ideas do you have? We’ll be asking that to the people who are on this budget review committee,” she said.

She also points out this review committee will be a way for the district to educate people about how education funding works.

“Public education funding is interesting for people to really learn. We have no way to generate our own money for the school district. So we rely on our state funding and the borough funding and some federal funding. So they’ll get an informative understanding of how a school district budget works… you’re learning where funding comes from, you’re learning what we’ve done in the past, we’re learning trends that are coming in the future,” she said.

But don’t worry; Erkeneff said a degree in finance isn’t mandatory.

“It’s somebody with a mind that’s open to inquiry and to learning, and that’s open to

The 10 to 15 people from the community won’t be the only ones in the room for this discussion. Erkneff said district officials, school board members, some Borough Assembly members as well as student and union representatives will be on hand to hammer out budget priorities.

The school district might also have a better idea of the number of students in each of the schools by that point. The district just finished its 20-day count for the State Department of Education and Early Development.

“The preliminary information that we got… from our 20-day count… it’s looking like we’re slightly under,” she said.

Erkeneff said that report isn’t concrete yet. But if the numbers stay slightly down that will affect state funding for the district.

If you’d like to apply for this committee, the short application is available on the KPBSD website. All you need is your name, address, phone number and email. The submission deadline is 4 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 8. The committee will meet the following Tuesday from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. in the Borough Assembly Chambers.

-Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI-

Red Cross Shelter Open For Flooded K-Beach Homeowners

Empty cots await use at the Kenai Armory. The Red Cross has set up a relief station for homeowners affected by flooding around K-Beach Road.

Roadwork continues along K-Beach Road south of Kenai to try and alleviate some of the flooding in residential areas there. The high groundwater is not only making it difficult to navigate several roads, it’s also left people without water in their homes.

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The Red Cross has a shelter set up at the Kenai Armory on South Forest. When I stopped by, they had just finished getting some cots and tables set up, and volunteers were still hanging signs. But no one had come seeking relief shortly before noon.

“They’ll have a place to sleep, take a shower. We’ll have meals prepared for them every day and meals for them as they need it. We’re looking at (housing) maybe a dozen, but we’re prepared to handle as many as we need to handle,” said Red Cross district manager Bill Morrow.

The shelter is being made available as more and more residents in the area are without water, as wells and septic systems are out of service for a good chunk of the neighborhood.

I spoke to a few people over the weekend who insisted their neighbors had it worse than they did. Their toilets were still flushing and they hadn’t resorted to paper plates and microwavable dinners just yet. But for other areas, water safety has already been a concern for weeks.

Jamie Bjorkman of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation told residents at a community meeting that well tests would be in order, but that until the water actually recedes, boiling or using bottled water would be the safest way to go.

“Once those flood waters are gone, you might want to go through a disinfection of your water system and test you system for total coliform bacteria. It indicates if there’s any harmful bacteria in your system,” she said.

The presence of coliform bacteria isn’t harmful in and of itself, but does indicate that there’s a pathway for more dangerous bacteria, like E. coli.

Ideally, the improvements made for water drainage and storage along K-Beach will help bring water levels down soon, but a hard winter freeze could be just around the corner which would undoubtedly complicate things. But Bjorkman says you can still test your septic system, even if it does freeze.

“A nitrate test will let you know if your septic system is affecting your drinking water. The reason we recommend the nitrate test at colder temperatures is because when everything freezes up, that bacteria can die if it gets cold enough, but you’ll still see nitrates.”

For residents choosing to stay at home, the Borough has provided clean-up kits and dry-chemical toilet units. Those are available at the Central Emergency Service Fire station on K-Beach.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

           

Tesoro-Owned Company To Begin Construction Of Cook Inlet Pipeline Next Year

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

Construction on a subsea pipeline to bring crude from the west side of Cook Inlet to Nikiski could start as early as next May.

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The project that’s been submitted to the Department of Natural Resources for consideration is basically the same as the one Cook Inlet Energy pitched last year; a 29 mile long, 8 inch diameter, U-shaped pipeline, joining production facilities at Kustatan with refining operations in Nikiski.

The work is being done by a subsidiary of Tesoro, a limited liability corporation called the Trans-Foreland Pipeline Company, which is wholly owned by Tesoro. Calls for comment from the company were not returned in time for this story, but last month, Cook Inlet Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council spokesperson Lynda Giguere told the Kenai Chamber of Commerce, a pipeline is the way to go.

“And although we are extremely supportive of Hilcorp’s effort at the Drift River terminal, we believe a pipeline is just safer.”

The Drift River terminal is one of many reasons for installing the pipeline. It’s a tank farm located at the base of Mt. Redoubt. When the volcano erupted in 2009, production was shut down entirely, with thousands of barrels of oil left at the site. An easy-to-see cause for concern for environmentalists. And, because of lost productivity, a concern for the industry as well. That’s cited in the project description Trans-Foreland submitted to DNR.

The company calls it “eliminating the business interruption risk of volcanic activity and ice movements to oil shipments through Drift River terminal.”

The pipeline will run 29 miles between Kustatan and Nikiski. (Image: Alaska Department of Natural Resources)

What this means for the Drift River terminal is unclear. Hilcorp spokesperson Lori Nelson says the pipeline doesn’t change their plans.

“Right now in the process, it really means nothing. There are really too many commercial and regulatory uncertainties surrounding the Trans Foreland pipeline project right now for us to make any definitive decisions moving forward.”

The design life for the pipeline is thirty years, and it will be continuously computer monitored for leaks or changes in flow or pressure that will move more than 60,000 barrels per day. According to the Right of Way application submitted to the state, the $35 million project comes with 130 construction jobs. Twelve people will be needed to maintain and oversee the pipeline once it’s in service.

Work is already underway clearing paths on the west side. Construction will begin in February. The pipe will be laid across Cook Inlet in May and September, to avoid the fishing season and Beluga whales, and the whole thing is scheduled to be done next October.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Expanded Bear Hunt Leaves Questions For Managers

A liberalized brown bear season on the Kenai has resulted in more than sixty bears harvested. Citing increased bear-human conflicts and a threat to the moose population, the Board of Game allowed permitted hunting this year with the goal of bringing the bear population down. How this year’s harvest will contribute to that goal is not known.

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A lot of time was spent this spring discussing Kenai brown bears when the Board of Game was in town. The message was clear: there are more bears, and more people, and so, we see more problems with bears.

The Board opened up brown bear hunting to permitting as opposed to a drawing. The result: more than a thousand permits issued and 66 bears taken before hunting was closed on the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, which represents a big chunk of where Kenai brown bears are hunted. That’s more than 10 percent of the total brown bear population, and for the federal government, which regulates the Refuge, that was too much.

Gino Del Frati is the Region II manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He says a harvest of six to eight percent is generally regarded as what’s needed to sustain a population.

“Either through modeling or through practical experience, that is believed to be sustainable on the long term…We’re over, but not by a substantial amount. Again, we’re over because that was the objective of the exercise.

“In economic terms, this would be kind of like a market correction. The stock market increases, increases, increases, then every once in a while, something drastic happens and that stock market drops down a little bit. Then it continues to rebuild, or it equilibrates down the road,” Del Frati said.

But exactly what effect that spike in the number of bears killed this year will have on the population in the future isn’t known.

“I’m hoping that what we would see next summer is fewer bear problems. I firmly believe that that’s going to be the end result of this…The challenge is taking those specific bears that are truly the problem bears, and not necessarily the ones that aren’t,” Del Frati said.

When the Board of Game was deliberating changing the harvest limits, Board Chair Ted Spraker asked, essentially, what’s the basement? What’s the smallest number of bears we can have on the Peninsula, while still maintaining some population?ADF&G Biologist Sean Farley pointed to management practices in British Columbia for the answer.

Spraker: “We’ve heard figures about the number of bears you need to maintain in a population to kind of secure that population. We’ve heard figures of, you need at least 200 individuals to kind of stabilize that population. Can you offer any suggestions on that lower number?”

Dr. Farley: “One of the reasons I did bring in some information from B.C (British Columbia), is that obviously, the province is huge; much bigger than the Peninsula. But they’ve broken it into what they think are 56 little populations (of bears) that aren’t communicating with each other, and some of them are about the size of the Peninsula and some are coastal. And they use a lower figure of 100 bears. That’s their number for cutoff for hunting. If their assessment is that it’s about 100 bears or so, then they need to be worried and they’ll stop the hunt and move on to conservation measures.”

Del Frati says the exercise this year will be evaluated and a quota will be in place again for 2014, though that number isn’t known yet. Then, it will be back to the Board of Game in 2015 to see if the management strategies need changed some more.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Paving The Way With Special Assessment Districts

This stretch of Lord Baranof street is on the city's capital improvements list, along with a section of North Aspen.

A few more roads are set to be checked off Soldotna’s list of things to pave. The city will fund the projects through special assessment districts.

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There are more than a few roads in Soldotna that could use a little TLC. And a couple of them are getting some attention from the city. A public work is scheduled for next month about a proposed special assessment district that would finance paving Lord Baranof street.

That process can be initiated one of two ways: neighbors going door to door and petitioning the city for the designation, or the city council can make that designation on its own.

The plan to pave the remaining 340 feet of Lord Baranof street is one on a list of several similar projects identified in the city’s five year capital improvement plan. Another one in the works is paving a similar stretch of North Aspen that runs in front of a popular local brewhouse. That project has different considerations, since it would affect nearby businesses, says Planning and Economic Development Director Stephanie Queen.

“What’s the appropriate level of improvement? Do we need sidewalks on that street? The city is doing a lot toward beautification and (accommodating) pedestrians. Should we put trees on that street? And then the most important question for the city and the residents is how much is this all going to cost?”

Figures for the North Aspen project haven’t been calculated yet, but the Lord Baranof work will run $210,841. This is where that special assessment district designation comes in. As the plan is now, the city will pick up 75 percent of that bill, and the owners of the 10 properties that, according to the assessment, would benefit, will take care of the other 25 percent.

“These projects are really difficult because I’ve never seen one where there is unanimous support. I think folks, on even the most challenging projects, might be able to agree in concept. It would be great to have these paved streets. But the challenge is how much is it going to cost and how are we all going to share that cost.

She says because the city initiates the process of designating a special assessment district, people can be caught off guard and feel like the city is forcing the project, which, to some degree it is. But for that stretch of North Aspen, it’s part of a long-term effort to get the work done.

“North Aspen is a project that they’re all familiar with because they’ve been through this process before. There have been attempts made, in 2005 and also back in the late 90′s, to get this street paved through this same process and they both failed,” Queen said.

Cost estimates for the work on Lord Baranof break down like this: The city’s 75 percent share is $158,000, leaving a bill of about $5,200 for each of the ten lots on the street. That comes to a little over $50 a month over the ten years during which property owners will pay the city back. For North Aspen, because of its zoning, things could be broken down a little differently.

“The last, and often the trickiest decision to be made is of these property owners, how does the cost get shared? Is it by lot, where everybody pays the same. Or is it some other methodology, maybe by area or street frontage.”

A public work session is planned to work out those kinds of details for the Baranof improvements on November 13th. A session for the North Aspen work is scheduled for December 11th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

“Roadside Attractions”: Anchor Point Blue Bus

The Blue Bus in Anchor Point serves up classic diner fare. (Photo: Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI)

There aren’t many highways suitable for road-tripping in Alaska. But the ones we do have are dotted with plenty of interesting road-side attractions. In the first part of a series we’re calling “Roadside Attractions,” we head north about 20 miles to Anchor Point.

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Since moving to Homer last December, I’ve been making the drive from Homer to Soldotna and Kenai for all sorts of reasons: work, a much-needed trip to Fred Meyer or to see a few buddies. I just get in the car and go from Point A to Point B. And I know I’m not alone in doing that.

But curiosity finally got the better of me and I decided I needed to actually go into some of the restaurants, bars and touristy spots that litter the highway. So heading out this past Saturday, I made my first stop with my friend Nyla: The Blue Bus Diner in Anchor Point. Chett Seekins has owned the Blue Bus since 1997. And I’ve heard nothing but good things about Chett’s burgers and shakes.

Chett’s parents, Gert and Floyd, were also grabbing lunch while we were there. In between chatting with them, Nyla and I took in the sights. There are dozens and dozens of cookie jars on various shelves. Some of them, like the one that looks like a miniature police officer, even talk.

Chett said she started the collection soon after buying the diner and people from the community come in and drop them off.

The Blue Bus is also a stop for cookie jars, left by patrons. (Photo: Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI)

“A lot of my cookie jars are from folks in the area that are no longer with us. They put grandma in a home, they bring me the cookie jar for the grandkids to come in and enjoy. People got cookie jars they wanna get rid of? Bring ‘em to me. I’ll buy ‘em lunch,” she said.

The cookie jars aren’t the only things to look at. Chett has paintings by her mom hanging on the walls, and there’s a piano in one corner. She bought it from the old Ninilchik Baptist Church more than 20 years ago.

“I don’t necessarily play for people unless they ask,” she said.

Chett said she gets a good amount of traffic in the summer from tourists, but the locals have been loyal customers throughout the winter. And she will remember you, usually by your order.

“I know a lot of people what they eat, but I don’t know their names. And that might sound horrible, but they’re all my friends…. In fact, this one guy, I didn’t know his name for years. I just called him ‘Mocha,’” she said.

When our burgers finally made it to the table, Nyla and I both dug right in. I’ll likely become one of Chett’s many regulars. Now I just need to find a cookie jar to swap with her for a burger and shake.

-Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI-

K-Beach Flooding Declared A Disaster

Ground and surface water has washed out sections of several roads in the K-Beach area, including here at Bore Tide between Karluk and Kalgin.

Residents near K-Beach Road in Kenai might finally have some relief as they continue to battle surface and groundwater flooding. Borough Mayor Mike Navarre issued a local disaster emergency declaration Tuesday.

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It seems to be one step forward, two steps back around here. I’m taking a tour of the area with the Borough’s Road Service Area Manger Pat Malone. Between Miles 11 and 16 along K-Beach, it’s a mess. And the approximately three inches of rain that fell late in the weekend didn’t help much. Not at all, really, unless you’re a sickleback, which have found new stomping grounds in some newly created streams.

A day after Governor Sean Parnell took a look at the extent of the damage that property owners face, the Borough took the first step toward getting additional resources to help alleviate what they can by issuing the declaration. Borough spokesperson Brenda Ahlberg says first, the state needs to sign off.

Homes and driveways that were relatively dry this weekend are now facing ground and surface water flooding after a heavy rainfall.

“What would be enacted is the individual assistance program. For the affected homeowners that qualify, that program would give some funds to mitigate damages.”

There are some stipulations. Carrying flood insurance, for one.

“The assistance would be specifically for their primary residence, primary mode of transportation,” Ahlberg said.

The official declaration notes damage that includes two to four feet of water in crawl spaces and basements, damaged furnaces, flooded septic systems, inundated wells and flooded driveways and yards.

The Borough anticipates as many as 40 people could be displaced due to road closures. Central Emergency Services has some ATV’s stationed nearby for emergency access.

The declaration doesn’t stop at K-Beach. Tall Tree Road in Anchor Point is impassable due to flooding. The Seward Airport is closed due to flooding, and a portion of the road between Tyonek and Beluga on the other side of the Inlet has been washed out.

The declaration asks the state for continued technical assistance, public assistance for emergency response and safe drinking kits for at least 1,500 residential structures.

High surface and groundwater problems stretch from the playground at Immanuel Baptist Church (pictured) around K-Beach to Dogfish Ave.

Along K-Beach, the problem is that the volume of water is far greater than the drainage capacity of both the natural topography of the land and the installed infrastructure. It’s too flat and there aren’t enough paths straight to Cook Inlet to handle it all. A part of the solution could be to extend a ditch along K-Beach to the south where there is a drain to the Inlet, but that work would first need to be approved by the state.

When we got back to the shop, I asked Pat Malone what’s next.

“I don’t know. That’s the honest answer. We’re going to see what we can do to ameliorate some of the water, hope it (percolates into the ground) before we get a hard freeze. And hoping we don’t get a rain storm like we had over the weekend,” Malone said.

The Borough is keeping tabs on property damage estimates and affected structures and lots at its website along with mitigation tips, like avoiding pumping septic systems and well testing before a freeze.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-