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Updated: 2 hours 55 min ago

Florida bridge engineer reported seeing cracks 2 days before collapse

Fri, 2018-03-16 18:11

MIAMI — Two days before a pedestrian bridge collapsed at Florida International University, killing at least six, an engineer with the company that designed the structure called the state to report cracks in the concrete span.

While it's unclear if those cracks were a contributing factor to the catastrophic collapse Thursday, they were observed at the north end of the structure, which appeared to be the section that failed. The FIGG Bridge Group employee, Denney Pate, left a message with the Florida Department of Transportation on Tuesday in which he acknowledged the structure needed to be repaired but dismissed the significance of the problem.

[Video shows moment pedestrian bridge collapsed at Florida university, killing at least 6]

"Hey Tom, this is Denney Pate with FIGG bridge engineers. Calling to, uh, share with you some information about the FIU pedestrian bridge and some cracking that's been observed on the north end of the span, the pylon end of that span we moved this weekend," Pate said, according to a transcript released Friday night by FDOT.

"Um, so, uh, we've taken a look at it and, uh, obviously some repairs or whatever will have to be done but from a safety perspective we don't see that there's any issue there so we're not concerned about it from that perspective although obviously the cracking is not good and something's going to have to be, ya know, done to repair that. At any rate, I wanted to chat with you about that because I suspect at some point that's gonna get to your desk. So, uh, at any rate, call me back when you can. Thank you. Bye."

FDOT said the voicemail wasn't heard by any of its employees until Friday, the day after the bridge fell.

"This voicemail was left on a landline and not heard by an FDOT employee until Friday, March 16 as the employee was out of the office on assignment," the department said in a late evening news release. "When the employee returned to his office today, Friday, March 16, he was able to listen to the voicemail."

An attempt to reach Florida International University spokeswoman Maydel Santana Bravo was not immediately successful.

Cracks are not unusual in concrete construction. They could be merely cosmetic, or potentially a sign of a more serious problem.

The information is the latest from the state asserting that FIU and its contractors, Munilla Construction Management and Figg, had overall responsibility for the project.

FDOT also said Friday that it had issued a blanket permit allowing for two-lane closures effective from January through April, but never received a request to close the entire road and was unaware of any scheduled stress testing of the bridge, which Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez confirmed took place Saturday.

"Per standard safety procedure, FDOT would issue a permit for partial or full road closure if deemed necessary and requested by the FIU design build team or FIU contracted construction inspector for structural testing," the state said.

"The responsibility to identify and address life-safety issues and properly communicate them is the sole responsibility of the FIU design build team. At no point during any of the communications above did FIGG or any member of the FIU design build team ever communicate a life-safety issue."

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the collapse. They are not expected to issue formal findings for months, if not longer. The state and local police are also investigating.

(Miami Herald reporters Douglas Hanks and Andres Viglucci contributed to this report.)

‘Rewilding’ missing carnivores may help restore some landscapes

Fri, 2018-03-16 18:03

If you're lucky, you can spot a gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park. But a century ago, you'd have been hard pressed to find any there. Poisonings and unregulated hunting obliterated nearly all of these majestic canines from Canada to Mexico, their original home range.

Then the rewilding began.

Since their reintroduction to Yellowstone and Idaho in the 1990s, gray wolves have done so well that they're reclaiming other parts of the northern Rockies.

In the places where they returned, wolves tidied up explosive deer and elk populations, which had eaten valleys barren. That helped bring back trees and shrubs. Birds and beavers, as well as the animals that live in dams, also returned. The wolves ate coyotes, freeing up their prey for others. Bears and raptors came back for carrion. With more trees controlling erosion, the flows of some rivers were less chaotic, forming pools that became new habitats.

[Yellowstone's grizzly population rebounds, creating challenges and fears]

"We're just uncovering these effects of large carnivores at the same time their populations are declining and are at risk," said William Ripple, an ecologist at Oregon State University. He's found that if you rewild some carnivores, or return them back to lost ranges, a cascade of ecological bounty may follow.

But not always. Nearly half of carnivore reintroductions fail, and understanding where rewilding may or may not work is critical to getting it right.

Lions and tigers and bears — along with gray wolves and 21 other species of large, terrestrial carnivores roam this planet. Extinction and declining populations threaten most of them. Recently, scientists and conservationists have been hoping that rewilding will result in ecological benefits like those seen with gray wolves.

So, Ripple and Christopher Wolf, a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, analyzed hundreds of potential rewilding sites from a database of protected areas around the planet where large carnivores have disappeared. They focused on big places with small human footprints, available prey and buffer zones where animals may traverse safely. Their analysis revealed 130 potential sites suitable for rewilding and an additional 150 spots with little human activity to consider preserving. Their results, published Wednesday in Royal Society Open Science, suggest that with proper attention and care to ensure these carnivores' survival, rewilding programs could restore lost ecosystems worldwide.

But it won't be as simple as finding a dot on a map.

Their paper mentions just two specific reintroduction sites where rewilding would likely work out as planned. They suggest it could be possible to put gray wolves in Olympic National Park in Washington and sending endangered red wolves, which once roamed the southeast, into Everglades National Park. These places have space for reproduction and development, prey and humans who may tolerate them.

But for many other locations, especially in developing countries, people still hunt some animals for bushmeat or body parts used in traditional medicine. Fences limit range. Humans compete for prey or kill carnivores that threaten their lives, agriculture or livestock. Not all corridors are safe. These places may better serve as guideposts, directing researchers to spots for further investigations into what's really happening on the ground.

The biggest hurdle will be finding humans willing to live alongside and support efforts to keep big carnivores around, said Thomas Newsome, an ecologist studying human-predator interactions at the University of Sydney who was not involved in this study. That would mean supporting efforts to stop the activities that killed many large carnivores in the first place. And even for gray wolves, that hasn't been easy: Some people don't want them, and others still hunt wolves outside park boundaries in Yellowstone and in Alaska.

[Meet the nation's only wild wood bison herd, which now roams Western Alaska]

Perhaps the solution is rethinking what it means to be humans in a natural world, said Layla AbdelRahim, an anthropologist who has studied human understanding of wilderness. We must recognize our role as partners with the environment, rather than dominators, to maintain functioning ecosystems, she said.

Rewilding will be a significant trend in preserving ecosystems where all species matter, said Ripple. "Humans are just figuring out what the interconnectedness in nature is all about."

There’s a win-win to the ‘Stand for Salmon’ debate

Fri, 2018-03-16 18:03

Is the looming battle at the ballot box over the "Stand for Salmon" Initiative inevitable?

Motivated by concerns about how a 60-year-old law can protect salmon habitat from 21st-century threats, a ballot initiative focused on strengthening protection statewide was designed, upheld in court, and will be on the ballot this year.

But now there is a growing — and comprehensive — list of opponents to the initiative who say it is fatally flawed by threatening development throughout the state. Virtually the entire Alaska business community has pledged its opposition and expressed willingness to underwrite whatever it takes to defeat this initiative.

Likewise the proponents feel just as confident of victory as they quickly garnered almost 50,000 signatures from all over Alaska supporting the initiative. Whoever wins, the ballot battle will leave a lot of sore losers, and the fight will surely continue. Fortunately, there is an effective solution to settle this conflict where both sides win.

The path to compromise begins with the governor and Legislature. The only way to avoid a vote on the initiative is for the Legislature to pass a law, signed by the governor, which is "substantially similar" to the initiative. At the heart of the battle is the multimillion-dollar question: Can the goals of a new, strong and enforceable salmon habitat protection law be compatible with state fish habitat regulations that also allow resource development? I think the answer is a very clear yes.

Let me explain. After statehood, the Legislature incorporated by law in Title 16 all the responsibilities and powers to manage fish and wildlife in accordance with the constitutional mandate of "sustained yield." This law allowed the commissioner of Fish and Game to give development permits in salmon spawning waters by considering restrictions to ensure the viability of the salmon.

At the same time, over the years, the Legislature has recognized there are areas so important for the protection of fisheries that they have given them the designation of fishery reserves, refuges and critical habitat, which required some stricter habitat protection regulations. Alaskans know these areas well -– Bristol Bay and its watershed, Kachemak Bay, the Copper River Delta, McNeil River, the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and others mainly in Cook Inlet and the Kenai Peninsula.

Within this context lies the solution to the salmon habitat dilemma without causing the unintended consequences feared by the Alaska business community. That answer would be creating new, strong, enhanced salmon habitat protections in the Title 16 water regulations ONLY for areas already identified by the Legislature as fishery reserves, refuges and critical habitat, and narrowly focused on state land in these areas.

These simple reforms to Title 16 would accomplish this goal:

– Define all waterways in these areas as anadromous;

– Require public notice and comment on any actions proposed in these areas;

– Prohibit any permanent obstructions in waterways;

– Prohibit any development that require permanent diversions or perpetual mitigation of waterways;

– Prohibit rendering waters inaccessible or uninhabitable for salmon spawning.

That's it! With some clarification of permit guidelines and public notice requirements for all other state lands regulated by Title 16, that's the whole package.

How would these new provisions to Title 16 affect Alaskans? First, to address the concerns of opponents of the initiative, it would not affect any resource development activities on state lands outside of the fishery reserves, refuges, and critical habitat. Second, everyday activities of Alaska life of subsistence and sport hunting and fishing, as well as travel for traditional activities and to villages and home sites, would be exempted. Third, waters overlying private lands, Alaska Native corporation lands, municipal lands and federal lands would not be subject to the proposal's enhanced protections. Finally, community development projects such as water and wastewater, energy, roads, utilities, airports, port and harbors would be exempted.

How would these new requirements affect a project like the proposed Pebble mine? Well, for starters, Pebble's proposal is located on state lands within the watershed of a fishery reserve and thus would be subjected to the new enhanced salmon habitat protections mentioned above. Everyone agrees that Pebble must go through rigorous permitting on the very waters that the people of Alaska and Legislature have already determined hold high fish habitat values. These very high standards of protection and enforcement do not apply to all of the other state lands that have not been designated as fishery reserve, refuge or critical habitat. This approach focuses the increased protections on lands all Alaskans highly value while leaving the permitting standards basically untouched for the vast majority of other development projects that might touch on salmon habitat.

Now back to the looming battle in this fall's initiative election. Both sides should support this reform of Title 16 as each side accomplishes its stated goal: to strongly protect and enforce the most sensitive salmon habitat areas from 21st-century threats, and to protect the continued statewide resource development on state lands.

All we need for this simple solution is for the governor and Legislature to bring the initiative sponsors and opponents to the table and reform Title 16 and void the ballot initiative. This law has remained unchanged since statehood. It's time to move forward and do the right thing.

Tony Knowles served two terms as Alaska's governor and two terms as Anchorage's mayor. He lives in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

Randall skis her final World Cup sprint, finishing 15th

Fri, 2018-03-16 17:28

It's a wrap for Olympic champion Kikkan Randall of Anchorage.

Well, almost. Although she is expected to ski a distance race Saturday, Randall on Friday made her final appearance in a World Cup sprint race — the event that catapulted her to the top of her sport.

Randall, a five-time Olympian who is retiring at age 35, made the quarterfinals of the season-ending sprint, but her finish-line lunge wasn't enough to move her into the semifinals at the World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden.

Randall finished third in her quarterfinal and 15th overall, one of four Americans to make the top 15 in the freestyle race.

A gold medalist in the team sprint at last month's Winter Olympics, Randall is nearly done with her competitive career. Soon she'll be back in Anchorage, where a celebration of her gold medal is planned for Wednesday, April 4, at Town Square.

[Anchorage skier Kikkan Randall wins Olympic gold]

Randall and many of Alaska's other Olympic and Paralympic athletes will be honored at the event, which runs from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Some of those Olympians, like Randall, are still competing. In Friday's sprint race, Anchorage's Sadie Bjornsen was fourth in qualifying and went on to place ninth in the heats, behind sixth-place Sophie Caldwell of Vermont and seventh-place Jessie Diggins of Minnesota.

"It was a beautiful day for sprint racing here in Falun," Bjornsen said by email. "The sun showed up, and conditions are cold and crisp, so it made for some amazing skiing. I have been feeling strong lately, so I was really happy to finish 4th in the qualifier! I felt super strong climbing all day today."

Bjornsen, a two-time Olympian, was near the front early in her semifinal but dropped back and didn't make the finals. She said the letdown makes her eager for Saturday's 10K and Sunday's pursuit.

"I am super excited, and a hair angry after today, which makes a nice combination for me leading into the next two days," Bjornsen said.

Caldwell's sixth-place finish clinched her a spot on the overall World Cup podium for sprint racing. She placed third in the season standings, making her the second skier in U.S. history to make the World Cup overall sprint podium.

The first was Randall, who is a three-time overall sprint champion.

A musher stuck on the Iditarod trail was ‘starting to freeze.’ Another chose to help him instead of finishing the race.

Fri, 2018-03-16 16:10

Iditarod mushers Jim Lanier and Scott Janssen both dropped out of the race Friday after they asked for emergency help on the trail and were picked up by snowmachine.

Around 7 a.m. Friday, the Iditarod Trail Committee was alerted that Lanier and Janssen had requested emergency assistance due to "weather conditions" between the White Mountain (mile 921)  and Safety (mile 976) checkpoints, in a place known as "the Blowhole " — an area notorious for hard winds, Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman said in a written statement.

"A search and rescue team was immediately notified and then a plan was put in place to safely extract both dog teams and both mushers," Nordman said.

[The Iditarod gave Jim Lanier broken bones and frostbitten toes. At 77, he's not ready to stop racing.]

Janssen had come across Lanier on the trail. Lanier's team was stuck, and Lanier was "starting to freeze," according to a post from Scott Janssen's Facebook page, The Mushin' Mortician, on Friday afternoon. Lanier had 13 dogs and Janssen had 11 when they left the previous checkpoint in White Mountain.

"(Janssen) stayed with his friend until they were rescued and he chose to accompany his friend to Nome to make sure he was safe, but that meant scratching from the race. His team is loaded in a trailer on the way here," the Facebook post said.

(function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); = id; js.src = ''; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk'));

FINAL UPDATE: Scott has arrived in Nome but it was by helicopter rather than a dog sled. He left White Mountain at...

Posted by The Mushin' Mortician on Friday, March 16, 2018

The two men were taken to the Safety checkpoint via snowmachine. They officially scratched at 11:30 a.m.

"Lanier scratched out of concern for his race team and personal health reasons," the Iditarod statement said. "Janssen scratched out of concern for Lanier's safety."

The mushers were then picked up by helicopter and taken to Nome, race officials said. Both men were in Nome on Friday, "with their loved ones and also in good health," the statement said.

Their dog teams were being mushed to Nome, race officials said.

Lanier is a 77-year-old Chugiak musher who has run 20 Iditarod races since 1979. He has scratched three times prior to this year. His highest placement was in 2004, when he came in 18th. This is Janssen's seventh Iditarod. He has scratched four times in the past.

Lanier's wife, Anna Bondarenko, wrote on Facebook on Friday morning that the situation was "very serious." Lanier left White Mountain feeling sick, she wrote.

"If you know (Lanier), you know he is tough and does not complain about anything. If he says he needs help it means he is really in deep trouble. Scott Jansen (sic) is with him and he made a call. Search and rescue is on their way from Nome," Bondarenko wrote Friday morning.

A few hours later, Bondarenko posted an update, saying the two men were safe.

Get ready. Republicans want to cut taxes again.

Fri, 2018-03-16 14:09

Just months ago, Republicans got away with a massive upward redistribution of wealth, raiding $1.5 trillion from the Treasury and sticking future generations with the bill.

Now, they're going for more.

On Wednesday, President Trump touted his ginormous, sloppily drafted, deficit-financed tax cuts, written under cover of night without benefit of hearings or experts. The whole thing was so much fun, he said, that he hopes to do it all again.

This year.

"We're actually going for a phase two which will help — in addition to middle class, it will help companies and it's going to be something I think very special," Trump said in Missouri. "Kevin Brady is working on it with me, Congress is working, the Senate's working."

Brady, R-Tex., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, confirmed another tax-cut bill was in the works.

"We think even more can be done," he gushed on Fox Business Network.

Larry Kudlow, Trump's incoming National Economic Council director, has likewise declared his excitement to be slashing taxes further. During a CNBC interview, he said the next round should make the individual cuts permanent and add a cut to taxes on capital gains. Capital gains, which refer to profits on sales of capital assets such as stocks or land, had gone untouched in the law that passed in December (though they already receive preferential treatment, mind you).

This is all pretty rich. In all senses of the word.

Nearly two-thirds of the tax cuts Republicans passed in December will go to the top income quintile this year, according to the Tax Policy Center. Further cuts, especially if they target capital gains, are likely to be similarly plutocratic: Households making more than $1 million account for about two-thirds of all capital-gains income, according to IRS data.

This scheme is also coming from a party that once upon a time — way back in 2016, when a Democrat held the White House — decried out-of-control deficits.

Yet somehow we are already on track to have a trillion-dollar deficit this year, thanks to the recently passed tax law and additional spending increases. This fiscal flip-flop is astonishingly ill-timed, especially when you consider where we are in the business cycle. For most of the past 70 years, deficits fell when unemployment improved; today, with unemployment at a mere 4.1 percent, we're engaging in huge deficit-financed stimulus.

Meanwhile, precisely because the economy has been improving, the Fed is raising interest rates. This is yet another factor that makes swelling our debt so dangerous right now.

Bafflingly, the party of fiscal conservatism has looked at all these factors and decided: Yup, now is definitely the time to dump even more tax cuts on the federal tab.

The question is: Why? Why gorge on more tax cuts, especially now?

Sure, public perception of the new tax law has improved from the bottom-of-the-barrel ratings it received in December. But approval ratings have leveled off since January, with only about 4 in 10 Americans saying they like it.

The GOP's likely loss in Tuesday's Pennsylvania special congressional election, in a district Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2016, should also temper Republicans' enthusiasm for further tax cuts.

The tax bill was the party's only major legislative achievement last year, and so, understandably, Republican ads in the Pennsylvania race showcased the new policy.

At least at first.

For the first two weeks of February, two-thirds of broadcast TV ads promoting Republican candidate Rick Saccone highlighted the GOP tax plan, a Politico analysis found. But over subsequent weeks, fewer and fewer ads even mentioned taxes, and by early March they were virtually nonexistent.

Apparently even in the reddest of red districts, tax cuts for rich people and corporations just didn't resonate.

The problem for Republicans, of course, is that at this point, tax cuts are the only thing they stand for. As conservative commentator Robert Novak once put it, "God put the Republicans on Earth to cut taxes. If they don't cut taxes, they have no overriding rationale for existence."

It's true. They can toss some red meat to the base — Saccone's closing argument in Pennsylvania was that liberals hate God — but the only actual policy they can reliably line up behind is cutting taxes. Especially with a president whose views on virtually everything else (including guns, immigration, health care) change from minute to minute.

The only thing left is to throw more good money after bad.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

Alaska lawmakers, following other states, consider bills to keep net neutrality

Fri, 2018-03-16 14:04

Some Alaska lawmakers are pushing back against the federal repeal of Obama-era net neutrality rules with legislation that would make such rules the law at the state level.

Two bills working their way through the Legislature would prevent internet service providers in Alaska from slowing down or blocking access to whichever lawful websites they choose, and prohibit paid prioritization of certain sites.

Civil liberties groups have said net neutrality is necessary to protect free speech online, foster innovation and treat data on the internet equally. Alaska's telecom industry opposes the legislation and says it should be a federal matter.

"The best place for the uncertainty over net neutrality to be resolved is in Congress," wrote Christine O'Connor, executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association, in a letter to state lawmakers. "It alone has the power to adopt clear internet rules."

Alaska isn't alone in its effort. Washington recently became the first state to pass its own net neutrality rules. Several other states have efforts to protect net neutrality, according to The Associated Press.

"I just think in the state of Alaska, if we don't do something and don't ensure net neutrality, we're going to have more expensive internet and slower speeds," said Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, the main sponsor for House Bill 277.

A group of Democrats have signed on as sponsors for that bill, and its counterpart Senate Bill 160 has bipartisan support. Alaska lawmakers have also introduced joint resolutions urging Congress to overturn the Federal Communication Commission's decision to end net neutrality protections.

GCI and Alaska Communications, the state's two largest telecommunications companies, both say they are committed to an "open internet" but both also oppose the state legislation. In a Feb. 14 letter in opposition to HB 277, an attorney for GCI told lawmakers the company does not block, prevent or impair customers' freedom to direct their online activity, and stands by that commitment.

[GCI, Alaska Communications vow not to penalize Alaskans when net neutrality rescinded]

"Passage of the proposed legislation will not achieve further clarity on internet oversight," the letter said, "but instead will result in even more regulatory uncertainty, which in turn raises the costs of doing business in Alaska and can be expected to result in unnecessary litigation over an inherently federal matter."

GCI also said it is willing to support congressional legislation on net neutrality. Alaska Communications also said in a letter that any laws about net neutrality need to happen at the federal level.

"Attempts by individual states to pass disparate legislation can result in a patchwork of possibly inconsistent state laws," that letter said.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to gut the net neutrality rules, which were put in place in 2015. The change is set to go into effect in April.

In January, a group that represents Google, Facebook, Netflix and other tech giants said it would fight against the repeal of net neutrality, The New York Times reported.

Barbara van Schewick, a net neutrality expert and professor at Stanford Law School, offered the analogy that "net neutrality is making sure the internet becomes more like the electricity network and not more like cable."

In areas with only one internet provider, if that company blocks an application, "you have no other option," she said.

Though some things internet companies would be allowed to do without net neutrality rules might be obvious — such as blocking a website — others might be less visible, said van Schewick.

"When you block something everybody notices," she said, "versus when you slow it down, then it's less easy to see, but people will react to it and switch to something that works better."

[Why net neutrality was repealed and how it affects you]

Another issue at the heart of net neutrality, van Schewick said, is censorship. One example she gave was from 2005 in Canada, when telecom company Telus "blocked access to a union website that promoted a labor strike against the internet company," news website Slate reported.

Alongside legislation that would impose net neutrality rules on internet service providers in Alaska, there's a pair of bills that would require internet service providers who contract with the state for business to adhere to such rules. The broader net neutrality legislation, if passed, would basically make that narrower proposal moot.

"If we don't do something and don't ensure net neutrality, we're going to have more expensive internet and slower speeds and I can't see that happening when Alaska is such an internet-necessary state," said Kawasaki.

In a House Labor and Commerce Committee meeting earlier this month in Juneau, some lawmakers questioned whether HB 277 is necessary if the net neutrality rules don't go away until next month.

"I'm concerned we're presenting here a solution, running around looking for a problem," said Rep. Chris Birch, R-Anchorage. "I don't think we have a problem with the internet." Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, echoed that.

Gov. Bill Walker's policy team is reviewing the net neutrality proposals, his press secretary Austin Baird said in an emailed statement, adding that the governor typically doesn't comment on legislation that is in motion.

Video: Bystander saves kayaker’s life in daring whitewater rescue near Hope

Fri, 2018-03-16 13:11

HOPE — Homer resident Obadiah Jenkins had no intention of paddling during the 10th edition of the Six-Mile Creek Whitewater and Bluegrass Festival here on Saturday.

"I didn't bring a kayak, paddle or spray deck and I haven't done much boating lately," he recalled. "It was my 33rd birthday, and I had planned to just watch the events."

But friends suggested he celebrate his day by kayaking, and soon other boaters rounded up the gear he would need to float the river.

With a half-dozen other experts, Jenkins did a practice prerace run down the first canyon, rated Class IV. Paddlers rate whitewater from Class I (moving water with small waves) to Class VI (extreme "un-runnable" rivers or waterfalls; only the most experienced expert should attempt). Class IV whitewater includes long, difficult rapids, narrow passages, and turbulent water that requires precise maneuvering.

The paddlers were unaware that someone else, 64-year-old Daniel Hartung of Indian, followed several minutes behind. Hartung was in a recreational kayak designed for calm water such as lakes. Although he wore a personal flotation device, Hartung also donned a bicycle helmet and chest waders, neither suited for the rapids of Six-Mile Creek. As Hartung passed under the foot bridge that spanned the first of three progressively harder canyons on a stretch of creek popular with paddlers, he was already in trouble. Six-Mile includes some of the most challenging whitewater in Southcentral and has cost several boaters their lives over the years.

Into the water

His kayak was perpendicular to the current and he hit a partially submerged mid-channel rock. Hartung's boat flipped and he was dumped into the chilly water.

Later, during the races, at least eight kayakers were assigned as safety observers along both banks and in kayaks, ready to help rescue anyone who encountered trouble. But this early, well before the race began, these watchdogs were not yet in place.

I was perched on a cliff across the creek above the last difficult stretch of the race course and watched as Hartung floated downriver. I shouted that there was a swimmer in an attempt to alert the kayakers who had just finished their practice run and were getting out of their boats. They were around a slight bend in the river, unable to see what was happening upstream.

Hartung was swept toward a canyon wall and over a drop named Waterfall. He plunged feet-first into a slot and became entrapped by a submerged log that braced across the top of his legs. The wood held him in the maw of the river's hydraulic force as water pounded over his head, often bending him at the waist.

I shouted an alarm to the kayakers that the swimmer was pinned. Jenkins grabbed a throw bag (a floating sack with rope used in river-rescue situations) and sprinted up and over the canyon wall and then down to a ledge directly above where Hartung was stuck. Jenkins dropped the rope down to Hartung, who was able to hang on and keep his torso in a vertical position. The water pouring over his head and shoulders created a pocket in front of his face that provided just enough air to breathe.

‘Difficult to catch a breath’

Over the din of the rushing water, Hartung couldn't hear any of the instructions Jenkins shouted, but was aware that someone was trying to rescue him.

"I was draped over the log like a C," Hartung said later. "It was encouraging to see the rope and know that people were there responding."

Soon, others gathered near Jenkins, tying the throw rope off on nearby trees. Despite their efforts to pull Hartung out of river, his leg was tightly wedged underwater. By now, Hartung had been in the river more than five minutes and the cold water had weakened him. "The more I struggled, the more my head went lower. At first, I could keep my head up and breathe, but then it became difficult to catch a breath."

Entrusting the rope to others to help hold Hartung upright, Jenkins grabbed another throw rope and jumped down to a ledge 10 feet upriver of the trapped kayaker. His plan: Tie the second rope off so he could hang onto it and float down near Hartung and try to free his leg.

By now, though, the cold river water had sapped Hartung's strength. He let go of the rope, and his body doubled over, his face forced down into the current by the power of the water. He remained in that position for nearly 45 seconds.

Time was running out, and Jenkins knew it.

Another birthday?

"I violated the first principle of rescuing: Don't endanger yourself to save someone else," he said. Knowing that Hartung was now unconscious and fully submerged, Jenkins, who was still wearing his dry suit, PFD and kayak helmet, jumped into the river. The powerful current slammed him into Hartung, and they both disappeared underwater.

"People said afterwards that Daniel was too inexperienced, didn't have the right equipment and had no business kayaking this river," Jenkins said. "As I was calculating the risks of what I was about to do, none of that mattered. It was my birthday and I just wanted that guy to have another birthday.

"My brain went into automatic mode, and I knew that if I didn't act immediately, we would be recovering a body."

In seconds, Jenkins and Hartung popped up, floating free. A few moments later, a log, probably the one that pinned Hartung to the canyon wall, floated up behind them.

"As others helped pull us from the river," Jenkins recounted, "Daniel was not breathing and had no pulse."

A crew of kayakers took turns resuscitating him.

"He was a fighter," Jenkins said. "To hang on that long in that cold water was pretty impressive. After two rounds of doing chest compressions to him on the river bank, his wife came down and talked to him. You could tell that hearing her voice helped bring him around. His pulse came back and he began breathing on his own."

In a few minutes, he regained consciousness. One of the rescuers had a satellite phone and used it to call for help. Using a deflated packraft as a gurney, they carried Hartung out of the canyon to the road and waited for the ambulance that took him to a hospital, from which he was quickly released.

Hartung was back home in Indian Valley on Monday, his body beat up from the ordeal, but happy to be alive. Jenkins has returned to his farm in Homer.

He is also nursing a sore body from the ordeal, but he's happy it ended well. Hartung has invited his rescuer to dinner this week to thank Jenkins for saving his life.

James Bennett of Soldotna is an avid kayaker who writes freelance travel and adventure stories.

ML&P sale benefits business community, all of Anchorage

Fri, 2018-03-16 12:56

Every once in a while we are presented with an opportunity that will move a community forward and provide benefits to everyone who lives there. Consolidating Chugach Electric Association and Municipal Light & Power is one of those opportunities.

Like the electric utilities, Alaska Communications is in the business of serving Alaskans. When we can do it more efficiently and reduce costs, everybody wins. Common sense will tell you that duplication costs money. Having two utilities serving a population the size of the Anchorage Bowl is costly, and it just doesn't make sense. Unlike the telecommunications business in Alaska, the electric utilities don't compete for customers. You get your electric service not by choice, but based on where you live. So consolidating these two utilities won't kill competition, but rather will allow Chugach to provide electric service more efficiently and at a lower cost.

We know that efficiencies bring better rates, and better rates are good for the economy. Electricity is a major cost of business, so anytime we can eliminate duplication and lower costs, there will be a benefit. Chugach has pledged that in the long run, overall rates will be lower with one utility, than if we continue with two. It just makes sense. Additionally, the Chugach/ML&P; consolidation makes sense as Chugach surrounds ML&P; on three sides. The integration between the two would be virtually seamless, and the money from the sale stays in the local economy. We don't have an outside interest shipping profits to another state. And, as a member-owned cooperative, Chugach returns its margins to members, not shareholders.

Alaska Communications stands for local, reliable, and trustworthy customer service. We believe Chugach Electric does the same. As a community partner, Chugach has been excellent to work with on projects such as undergrounding utility lines. They work with us to do it in the most efficient and cost-effective manner, and we would be pleased to see that cooperative working relationship we have with Chugach extend even further when these utilities consolidate.

Another benefit of utility consolidation is how it can benefit advances in technology. Research and development is expensive.  Just as in the telecommunications business, there are advances every day in the electric utility world. Whether it's electric vehicles, expanded use of solar power, or battery storage, it all costs money. Right now both Chugach and ML&P; are expending money to advance those technologies, when they could go a lot further by only spending that money once.

It's no secret Alaska's economy is struggling. We continue to have the highest unemployment rate in the country and we are creating fewer new jobs than any other state. Consolidating Chugach and ML&P; is something we can do for all of Anchorage, benefitting ratepayers as well as property tax payers. Bottom line is it's more money in the pockets of Anchorage residents.

Leonard Steinberg is senior vice president, legal, government and regulatory affairs at Alaska Communications.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

New snow roads will link Alaska’s road system to Arctic communities

Fri, 2018-03-16 12:24

If you've ever wanted to drive on a snow road in the Arctic, your time is coming.

The North Slope Borough, in an effort to lower the cost of living in the region, plans to build 300 miles of snow roads in the coming days so residents in two communities can drive their vehicles to the Alaska road system, a borough official said.

But the thoroughfare over the frozen tundra will also be open to road-trippers wanting to head north to visit Utqiagvik, the northernmost city in the U.S. with 4,500 residents, or Atqasuk village, with about 200.

Using track-wheeled rigs and other equipment, the borough starting next week will pack and care for the snow roads. They'll link the communities to the North Slope oil fields that lead to the Dalton Highway and eventually Fairbanks and other cities, said Jason Bergerson, manager for the Community Winter Access Project.

The roads should be operational in about two weeks, or soon after, he said. They might last until early May, weather permitting.

Drivers will have to follow certain rules associated with state and federal permits the borough received last week for the first-time effort. The permits were awarded after minimum amounts of snow cover and frost depth were met, Bergerson said Thursday.

For one thing, travelers must join slow-moving convoys led by a borough pilot truck equipped with rubber paddle tracks instead of road tires. The trips will happen perhaps once a week from each direction.

"Our goal is to keep the caravans to 10 or 12 vehicles, something like you'd see through the Whittier Tunnel," Bergerson said, referring to the 2.5-mile escorted trip through a mountain near Anchorage.

The borough hopes to expand the frosty road network in future winters, linking additional villages such as Wainwright to the Alaska road system.

"It's about community economic development," Bergerson said. "It'll be an opportunity to bring goods and supplies in overland, and hopefully at a lower cost, instead of air-freighting or barging them in."

Four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive cars and trucks will be allowed, he said. The borough will inspect vehicles before they leave to make sure they're road-ready.

"Drivers must have valid licenses and proof of insurance — just like they would anywhere," Bergerson said.

Bergerson said the borough plans to document economic savings the roads might generate for North Slope villages. The communities are islands on the tundra, usually accessible only by planes or barges off the Arctic Ocean.

Air and barge shipping can cost 10 times more than bringing products overland, he said. "That's based on limited data, so part of what we want to document is can we do this, what is the cost, and how many people can make use of it?"

Snow roads, essentially glorified snow trails, have been around for decades in Alaska. Often created by industrial rigs with giant rollerpin wheels, they allow oil companies to reach remote exploration sites. Commercial freight haulers also use them, dragging new vehicles from cities on large sleds.

[Shippers use frozen roads when winter reaches northern Alaska.]

The permits allow residential, highway vehicles to legally use the roads under the borough's guidance, said Bergerson.

Contractors each winter already create large snow trails between Atqasuk, Utqiagvik and the oil fields, so trucks can deliver winter loads of gas and heating oil from the road system.

That trail will be the foundation for the borough's snow road. It will be lined with temporary markers, and snow fences to help keep drifts from piling up.

The current snow trails aren't regularly maintained, as the borough plans to do, said Shelly Jones, in charge of Arctic operations for the Bureau of Land Management, which awarded the federal permit.

In the past, travelers who tried driving highway vehicles on them sometimes got stuck. "The safety aspect is a nice thing about this," she said of the plan. "A lot of residents have bogged down, and had to abandon vehicles and extract them at a lot of cost. Hopefully they won't have the same issues anymore."

The federal agency, manager of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska where the two communities are located, will inspect the snow road. In summer, it will make sure the tundra isn't damaged, she said. Any evidence should vanish when the snow melts.

The route from Atqasuk will stretch 70 miles to Utqiagvik. It will travel another 235 miles to the oil field roads.

The pilot truck will move about 12 mph — driving the snow roads could take more than a day. There's another 500 highway miles between Fairbanks and Deadhorse, the oil field hub.

That's not too long, said Shirley Kagak, a borough employee in Atqasuk.

Residents in both communities will "save tons of money" if they don't have to fly in large items such as furniture, she said. She'll drive her truck to Fairbanks or Anchorage as part of the borough's motorcade, for big shopping trips.

She recently ordered a $3,000 furniture set from a company in Anchorage. Shipping it to Atqasuk entirely by plane would have cost another $4,000, she said.

But she hired a delivery company to haul it to the village after it was flown to Utqiagvik, slashing $1,000 off the shipping bill.

"This will definitely benefit our village and (Utqiagvik) as well," she said.

She'll also use the road to drive to the Alaska Commercial store in Utqiagvik. That will be better than the snowmachine trips she currently makes to buy fresh meat and produce not available in Atqasuk.

"It will be a lot warmer in the truck," she said.

Sherlene Oyagak, Atqasuk city clerk, said she won't drive the road. She fears getting her truck stuck in snow, not good when temperatures drop well below zero.

Bergerson said the borough will ensure safe travel. The convoys will be equipped with emergency gear such as locator beacons. Trailers will be staged along the route for hauling away disabled vehicles.

Some vehicles must carry absorbent pads or special containers to capture potential oil leaks.

"The borough is taking responsibility for the status of the tundra, and making sure people traveling in that caravan get home safely," he said.

Train crew saw woman lying on tracks before fatal collision

Fri, 2018-03-16 12:03

The crew of a northbound Alaska Railroad freight train saw something between the rails from about a quarter-mile away Tuesday evening as the train passed a crossing at C Street.

They hit the horn and applied the brakes, railroad spokesman Tim Sullivan said.

"When they were just a few yards out, it was apparent it was somebody laying down on the tracks, and she sat up," Sullivan said.

The woman died immediately.

The Anchorage Police Department on Friday morning identified her as 23-year-old Skyler Luke, who lived in Anchorage.

The accident took place on the tracks between C Street and Arctic Boulevard near the Dowling Road overpass. There was no indication anyone else was in the area, Sullivan said.

The train was headed to Anchorage from Whittier and going 34 mph at the time of the collision.

Luke's death is the third train-related fatality in two years in Alaska.

Donald Trump Jr.’s wife files for divorce in New York

Fri, 2018-03-16 11:46

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK – The wife of Donald Trump Jr., the eldest son of U.S. President Donald Trump, has filed for divorce in New York, according to court records.

Vanessa Trump, a former model and actress, and Trump Jr. said in a joint statement on Thursday: "After 12 years of marriage, we have decided to go our separate ways."

The statement was provided by the Trump Organization, the president's business empire, which his son helps manage.

Further details were not immediately available on the uncontested divorce filing by Vanessa Trump in a New York state court. She and Trump Jr. have "enormous respect" for each other, according to the joint statement, which also asked for privacy.

The couple were married in 2005 and have five children.

In recent months, Trump Jr., 40, has become enmeshed in an investigation of possible collusion between his father's presidential campaign and Russia in the 2016 presidential election. The president has denied any such collusion.

Trump Jr. arranged a 2016 meeting between a group of Russians and members of his father's campaign after an intermediary said the Russians offered damaging information about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. "I love it," Trump Jr. responded to the intermediary in an email.

He has played a key role in the Trump Organization since his father entered the White House in January 2017. The president said he would maintain ownership in his hotels, golf courses and hundreds of other businesses but hand off control to his two oldest sons.

The Trump Organization's website describes Trump Jr. as an executive vice president, like his brother Eric Trump.

Last month, Vanessa Trump was taken to a New York hospital after she opened a piece of mail containing a threat and a white powder that was later determined to be non-hazardous.

Federal prosecutors in Boston earlier this month charged a Massachusetts man with sending the threatening letter.

If you want to survive the Glenn Highway commute, knowing driver types can be helpful

Fri, 2018-03-16 10:15

Having spent decades motoring between Chugiak-Eagle River and Anchorage, I've found it helpful to categorize driver types so we'll be much better prepared for road treks. Here are the types of drivers found out there in that wild Glenn Highway zone, with some layman theories on why people drive the way they do.

Hammer-down Mat-Suers. Every morning these folks have been on the road a lot longer than us, at least half an hour. They're tired, cranky, and want to get to Anchorage. Even if driving at half the speed of sound, if you're in the fast lane and one of these folks comes up behind you, move over, because they want to go faster. There are thousands of these folks on the road every day, but there aren't as many as there used to be due to attrition—in other words, wrecks.

Tailgaters. I have only two logical explanations for drivers who hang one foot off your rear bumper on glare ice for endless miles. First, they have moved up here from California or Florida, where tailgating is an art form. Second, and probably the best explanation, is that by tailgating, they are able to draft the vehicle in front them, allowing the suction of air to pull them along so that they save gasoline. These folks are obviously smarter than they look. I have always dreamed of the day I could have high-beam lights installed in the rear of my car to send them a high-beam message. But alas, I've been told this is illegal.

Lane changers. My theory is that drivers who constantly change lanes have an acute form of attention deficit disorder, which leads to boredom. They need to change lanes often to occupy themselves.

Brake gassers. Drivers who alternate quickly between the brake and gas pedal suffer from a severe form of short-term memory loss. They actually forget between the brief time when they brake and when they push the gas pedal, so they continue the back-and-forth action for miles down the road, causing drivers behind them to do the same.

Pull-out-in-fronters. Lack of depth perception is the basis for these drivers, who will abruptly pull out in front of you no matter how fast you are traveling. Imagine the rear-view mirror message "Objects might appear closer than they are," and reverse it for this type of driver. They perceive that you are farther away than you are. They pull out slowly on glare ice, spinning their wheels, as you approach at 60 mph.

Diversionaries. Some of these people have exceptional multitasking abilities and find the need to be doing other things besides driving while they commute to town, such as applying makeup, doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, cell phoning, eating, etc.  There is a rather high attrition rate on these folks too, especially the ones who aren't good at multitasking. (See Dream Weavers).

Driver trainers. These folks are anathema to the Hammer-downs, because they stay in the left lane and actually drive at the speed  limit or, sometimes, lower speeds. These drivers actually believe that by remaining in the left lane and stacking up cars behind them, they can "train" other drivers to behave themselves. They don't realize that they are quickly metamorphosing already impatient, irritated motorists into a more aggressive form: Road Warriors.

Road warriors. Football, cage-fighting and revving engines of all types up to 6,000 rpm is not enough to release the pent-up adrenaline and aggression just below the surface in these drivers. Any action that causes them to reduce their speed will just make matters worse. Move over and give them room so that they can more expeditiously get to their accident, or should I more aptly say "purpose."

Dream weavers. Driving an automobile is a little too physical and down to earth for these folks, so they fantasize about being somewhere else as they putter along, oblivious to everything around them. I think angels look out for these people.

Rubberneckers.  An object as mundane as a cardboard box will cause these drivers to slow down for a close examination. I've theorized that Department of Transportation officials have discussed erecting billboards along the side of the highway that depict moose kills  and other interesting scenes, allowing Rubberneckers to view the scenes without slowing down.

Hill creepers (or Brakelighters). Drivers who creep down Eagle River hill at 5 mph are believed to be aliens from a planet with very low gravity. They are mortally afraid that at any minute they will skid off the road or into the car in front of them, or just fly off into the air. The hill grade was lessened by the relatively recent Eagle River bridge project, but some drivers still slow down.

Light runners. Not to be confused with drivers who accelerate through changing traffic lights, these drivers affix their vehicles with the brightest lights known on earth. They have somehow tapped into a technology developed by Nicola Tesla more than a century ago. They want to be noticed. Installing large mirrors on your vehicle is about the only effective countermeasure.

These are the main categories, but I'm sure you have identified many more as you merge into traffic each day. The important thing is to remain alert, remain patient, be a defensive driver at all times, and always remember to return strange finger gestures with a nice smile and a friendly wave. And to reiterate the "Hill Street Blues" police chief's closing after his daily briefing: "Be careful out there."

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

The Pentagon isn’t taking UFOs seriously enough

Fri, 2018-03-16 09:36

In December, the Defense Department declassified two videos documenting encounters between U.S. Navy F-18 fighters and unidentified aircraft. The first video captures multiple pilots observing and discussing a strange, hovering, egg-shaped craft, apparently one of a "fleet" of such objects, according to cockpit audio. The second shows a similar incident involving an F-18 attached to the USS Nimitz carrier battle group in 2004.

The videos, along with observations by pilots and radar operators, appear to provide evidence of the existence of aircraft far superior to anything possessed by the United States or its allies. Defense Department officials who analyze the relevant intelligence confirm more than a dozen such incidents off the East Coast alone since 2015. In another recent case, the Air Force launched F-15 fighters last October in a failed attempt to intercept an unidentified high-speed aircraft looping over the Pacific Northwest.

In is a third declassified video, released by To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science, a privately owned media and scientific research company to which I'm an adviser, revealing a previously undisclosed Navy encounter that occurred off the East Coast in 2015.

Is it possible that America has been technologically leap-frogged by Russia or China? Or, as many people wondered after the videos were first published by the New York Times in December, might they be evidence of some alien civilization?

Unfortunately, we have no idea, because we aren't even seeking answers.

I served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence for the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and as staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee, and I know from numerous discussions with Pentagon officials over the past two years that military departments and agencies treat such incidents as isolated events rather than as part of a pattern requiring serious attention and investigation. A colleague of mine at To the Stars Academy, Luis Elizondo, used to run a Pentagon intelligence program that examined evidence of "anomalous" aircraft, but he resigned last fall to protest government inattention to the growing body of empirical data.

[Video shows Navy pilot's close encounter with an unidentified fast-flying object]

Meanwhile, reports from different services and agencies remain largely ignored and unevaluated inside their respective bureaucratic stovepipes. There is no Pentagon process for synthesizing all the observations the military is making. The current approach is equivalent to having the Army conduct a submarine search without the Navy. It is also reminiscent of the counterterrorism efforts of the CIA and the FBI before Sept. 11, 2001, when each had information on the hijackers that they kept to themselves. In this instance, the truth may ultimately prove benign, but why leave it to chance?

(A Pentagon spokesperson did not respond to requests from The Washington Post for comment, but in December, the military confirmed the existence of a program to investigate UFOs and said it had stopped funding the research in 2012.)

The military personnel who are encountering these phenomena tell remarkable stories. In one example, over the course of two weeks in November 2004, the USS Princeton, a guided-missile cruiser operating advanced naval radar, repeatedly detected unidentified aircraft operating in and around the Nimitz carrier battle group, which it was guarding off the coast of San Diego. In some cases, according to incident reports and interviews with military personnel, these vehicles descended from altitudes higher than 60,000 feet at supersonic speeds, only to suddenly stop and hover as low as 50 feet above the ocean. The United States possesses nothing capable of such feats.

On at least two occasions, F-18 fighters were guided to intercept these vehicles and were able to verify their location, appearance and performance. Notably, these encounters occurred in broad daylight and were independently monitored by radars aboard multiple ships and aircraft. According to naval aviators I have spoken with at length, the vehicles were roughly 45 feet long and white. Yet these mysterious aircraft easily sped away from and outmaneuvered America's front-line fighters without a discernible means of propulsion.

From my work with To the Stars Academy, which seeks to raise private funds to investigate incidents like the 2004 Nimitz encounter, I know they continue to occur, because we are being approached by military personnel who are concerned about national security and frustrated by how the Defense Department is handling such reports. I am also familiar with the evidence as a former Pentagon intelligence official and a consultant who began researching the issue after the Nimitz incident was brought to my attention. On several occasions, I have met with senior Pentagon officials, and at least one followed up and obtained briefings confirming incidents such as the Nimitz case. But nobody wants to be "the alien guy" in the national security bureaucracy; nobody wants to be ridiculed or sidelined for drawing attention to the issue. This is true up and down the chain of command, and it is a serious and recurring impediment to progress.

If the origin of these aircraft is a mystery, so is the paralysis of the U.S. government in the face of such evidence. Sixty years ago, when the Soviet Union put the first manmade satellite in orbit, Americans recoiled at the idea of being technologically surpassed by a dangerous rival, and the furor over Sputnik ultimately produced the space race. Americans responded vigorously, and a little more than a decade later Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. If these craft mean that Russia, China or some other nation is concealing an astonishing technological breakthrough to quietly extend its lead, surely we should respond as we did then. Perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent chest-thumping claims about propulsion breakthroughs are not pure braggadocio. Or, if these craft really aren't from Earth, then the need to figure out what they are is even more urgent.

Lately, media coverage of the issue of unidentified aerial vehicles has focused on an expired $22 million congressional earmark for Bigelow Aerospace, a contractor with ties to former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, Nev. The money mostly funded research and analysis by that contractor, without participation from the Air Force, NORAD or other key military organizations. The real issue, though, is not a long-gone earmark, helpful though it may have been, but numerous recent incidents involving the military and violations of U.S. airspace. It is time to set aside taboos regarding "UFOs" and instead listen to our pilots and radar operators.

Within a roughly $50 billion annual intelligence budget, money is not the issue. Existing funds would easily cover what's needed to look into the incidents. What we lack above all is recognition that this issue warrants a serious collection and analysis effort. To make headway, the task needs to be assigned to an official with the clout to compel collaboration among disparate and often quarrelsome national security bureaucracies. A truly serious effort would involve, among other things, analysts able to review infrared satellite data, NORAD radar databases, and signals and human intelligence reporting. Congress should require an all-source study by the secretary of defense while promoting research into new forms of propulsion that might explain how these vehicles achieve such extraordinary power and maneuverability.

As with Sputnik, the national security implications of these incidents are concerning – but the scientific opportunities are thrilling. Who knows what perils we may avoid or opportunities we might identify if we follow the data? We cannot afford to avert our eyes, given the risk of strategic surprise. The future belongs to not only the physically brave but also the intellectually agile.

Mellon served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. He is a private equity investor and an adviser to the To the Stars Academy for Arts and Science. Originally published in The Washington Post. 

A plane’s door flew open during takeoff, raining gold and silver over 16 miles of Siberia

Fri, 2018-03-16 09:27

They could've used some golden parachutes.

A plane accidentally dropped tons of precious metals on the tarmac when it was leaving a remote Russian region on Thursday.

The Antonov cargo aircraft was at the Yakutsk when some of the 9 metric tons of gold-silver alloy bars it was carrying fell off, according to local prosecutors.

Preliminary reports suggest that more than 172 ingots weighing 3 tons, more than 6,000 pounds, showered the ground below.

The total cargo would be worth $122 million, experts told Kommersant.

Investigators said that unsecured cargo paved the way for the potential wealth redistribution effort, and that it damaged the plane door before busting through.

No injuries were reported to the flight crew or people on the ground, and a spokesman for Kinross Gold, which mined the metals, told agency Interfax that all of it was recovered.

Video from the Siberian Times shows the bars strewn across the runway as people hurry to collect it.

Beyond state authorities, the airport posted online that it is also investigating the cause of the mishap.

These two initiatives will go before Alaska voters this year – unless the Supreme Court blocks one

Fri, 2018-03-16 08:58

Two citizens initiatives are set to appear on the ballot this year after state election officials approved them this week, though the Alaska Supreme Court could still block one from a vote.

The Alaska Division of Elections said backers of both initiatives — one to promote government ethics and quicker budgeting, and another to protect salmon habitat — gathered the minimum 32,000 signatures from supporters required to place the questions on the ballot.

Voters will decide on them in either the August primary election or the November general election, depending on when the Legislature adjourns its annual session. (The Alaska Constitution requires at least four months to elapse between the end of the session and votes on initiatives.)

The salmon habitat boosters gathered 42,000 signatures, while supporters of the other initiative gathered 41,000. Both efforts paid signature gatherers to help hit the required threshold.

The government accountability initiative is certain to appear on the ballot this year. It's sponsored by two legislators and an Anchorage activist and does not appear to have any organized opposition, though one sitting Republican House member criticized it in a recent opinion piece.

The initiative's provisions include cutting off legislators' daily expense payments if they're more than a month late passing a budget. It would also bar them from allowing lobbyists to buy them meals, and would restrict lawmakers' foreign travel.

The salmon initiative would rewrite the state's system of permitting for projects that affect fish habitat, and boost protections. Its sponsors cite potential threats to salmon habitat like the proposed Pebble mine, as well as dormant projects like the Chuitna coal mine near Cook Inlet and the dam on the Susitna River.

Critics, who have organized a group called Stand for Alaska, say the proposal would stifle big development projects and public infrastructure upgrades.

Before the salmon habitat initiative can appear on the ballot, it will have to survive a challenge before the Alaska Supreme Court.

The elections division initially rejected the initiative, saying it violated a constitutional ban on using initiatives to appropriate state assets — in this case, by proposing to appropriate water for fish habitat and not development.

The initiative's supporters won a lower court case appealing the denial. The state then took the case to the Alaska Supreme Court.

The two sides are scheduled to argue the case before the Supreme Court justices April 26, according to the state court system.

Zuma, former South Africa leader, charged with corruption

Fri, 2018-03-16 08:51

JOHANNESBURG — In a severe legal blow to Jacob Zuma, South Africa's former president, national prosecutors announced Friday that they would reinstate corruption charges against him in a case related to a multibillion-dollar arms deal in the late 1990s.

Shaun Abrahams, South Africa's chief prosecutor, said there were "reasonable prospects of a successful prosecution" of Zuma.

The announcement was the latest — though not, most likely, final — chapter in a long-running corruption case that nearly derailed Zuma's bid for the presidency, tarnished the image of South Africa's governing African National Congress and laid the seeds of a culture of graft that has flourished in recent years.

Zuma, who was ousted last month as president by the ANC, was the leader of the party and the nation's deputy president when the arms deal was finalized in 1999.

He was originally indicted in 2007 on 18 charges of corruption, fraud and racketeering, including accepting bribes from a military contractor. At the time, Zuma, who has always maintained his innocence, was forced to resign as deputy president by President Thabo Mbeki. The case became entwined in a power struggle between the two men.

Zuma's supporters have long argued that the case was politically motivated and that he was singled out while other ANC officials implicated in the deal were never charged.

He successfully resurrected his bid for the presidency after the chief prosecutor dropped the charges against him in 2009, accusing his own officials of political interference.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, challenged the chief prosecutor's decision, but Zuma successfully avoided prosecution during his presidency. In 2016, South Africa's High Court judged that the chief prosecutor's decision to set aside the charges was "irrational" — a ruling that was upheld by the Supreme Court last year.

Pierre de Vos, a constitutional scholar at the University of Cape Town, said that the corruption case against Zuma could yet drag on for years. Zuma could still mount legal challenges to the chief prosecutor's decision, including eventually going to the Constitutional Court.

"It's been the former president's strategy to use every legal loophole to actually avoid having his case being heard in court," de Vos said. "If he has the money for lawyers, he could stay out of court forever."

Cyberattacks put Russian fingers on the switch at power plants, U.S. says

Fri, 2018-03-16 08:47

The Trump administration accused Russia on Thursday of engineering a series of cyberattacks that targeted U.S. and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems, and could have sabotaged or shut off power plants at will.

U.S. officials and private security firms saw the attacks as a signal by Moscow that it could sabotage the West's critical facilities in the event of a conflict.

They said the strikes accelerated in late 2015, at the same time the Russian interference in the U.S. election was underway. The attackers successfully had compromised some operators in North America and Europe by spring 2017, after President Donald Trump was inaugurated.

In the following months, according to a Department of Homeland Security report issued Thursday, Russian hackers made their way to machines with access to critical control systems at power plants that were not unidentified. The hackers never went so far as to sabotage or shut down the computer systemsthat guide the operations of the plants.

Still, new computer screenshots released by the Department of Homeland Security made clear that Russian state hackers had the foothold they would have needed to manipulate or shut down power plants.

"We now have evidence they're sitting on the machines, connected to industrial control infrastructure, that allow them to effectively turn the power off or effect sabotage," said Eric Chien, a security technology director at Symantec, a digital security firm.

"From what we can see, they were there. They have the ability to shut the power off. All that's missing is some political motivation," Chien said.

U.S. intelligence agencies were aware of the attacks for the past year and a half, and the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI first issued urgent warnings to utility companies in June. On Thursday, both agencies offered new details as the Trump administration imposed sanctions against Russian individuals and organizations it accused of election meddling and "malicious cyberattacks."

It was the first time the administration officially named Russia as the perpetrator of the assaults. And it marked the third time in recent months that the White House, departing from its usual reluctance to publicly reveal intelligence, blamed foreign government forces for attacks on infrastructure in the United States.

In December, the White House said North Korea had carried out the so-called WannaCry attack that in May paralyzed the British health system and placed ransomware in computers in schools, businesses and homes across the world. Last month, it accused Russia of being behind the NotPetya attack against Ukraine in June, the largest in a series of cyberattacks on Ukraine to date, paralyzing the country's government agencies and financial systems.

But the penalties have been light. Trump has said little to nothing about the Russian role in those attacks.

The groups that conducted the energy attacks, which are linked to Russian intelligence agencies, appear to be different from the two hacking groups that were involved in the election interference.

That would suggest that at least three Russian cyberoperations were underway simultaneously. One focused on stealing documents from the Democratic National Committee and other political groups. Another, by a St. Petersburg "troll farm" known as the Internet Research Agency, used social media to sow discord and division. A third effort sought to burrow into the infrastructure of U.S. and European nations.

For years, U.S. intelligence officials tracked a number of Russian state-sponsored hacking units as they successfully penetrated the computer networks of critical infrastructure operators across North America and Europe, including in Ukraine.

Some of the units worked inside Russia's Federal Security Service, the KGB successor known by its Russian acronym, FSB; others were embedded in the Russian military intelligence agency, known as the GRU. Still others were made up of Russian contractors working at the behest of Moscow.

Russian cyberattacks surged last year, starting three months after Trump took office.

U.S. officials and private cybersecurity experts uncovered a series of Russian attacks aimed at the energy, water and aviation sectors and critical manufacturing, including nuclear plants, in the United States and Europe. In its urgent report in June, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI notified operators about the attacks but stopped short of identifying Russia as the culprit.

By then, Russian spies had compromised the business networks of several U.S. energy, water and nuclear plants, mapping out their corporate structures and computer networks.

They included that of the Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corp., which runs a nuclear plant near Burlington, Kansas. But in that case, and those of other nuclear operators, Russian hackers had not leapt from the company's business networks into the nuclear plant controls.

Forensic analysis suggested that Russian spies were looking for inroads — although it was not clear whether the goal was to conduct espionage or sabotage, or to trigger an explosion of some kind.
In a report made public in October, the security firm Symantec noted that a Russian hacking unit "appears to be interested in both learning how energy facilities operate and also gaining access to operational systems themselves, to the extent that the group now potentially has the ability to sabotage or gain control of these systems should it decide to do so."

The United States sometimes does the same thing. It bored deeply into Iran's infrastructure before the 2015 nuclear accord, placing digital "implants" in systems that would enable it to bring down power grids, command-and-control systems and other infrastructure in case a conflict broke out. The operation was code-named "Nitro Zeus," and its revelation made clear that getting into the critical infrastructure of adversaries is now a standard element of preparing for possible conflict.

The Russians have gone farther.

In an updated warning to utility companies on Thursday, Homeland Security officials included a screenshot taken by Russian operatives that proved they could gain access to their victims' critical controls.

U.S. officials and security firms, including Symantec and CrowdStrike, believe Russian attacks on the Ukrainian power grid in 2015 and 2016 that left more than 200,000 citizens there in the dark are an ominous sign of what the Russian cyberstrikes may portend in the United States and Europe in the event of escalating hostilities.

Private security firms have tracked the Russian government assaults on Western power and energy operators — conducted alternately by groups under the names DragonFly, Energetic Bear and Berserk Bear — since 2011, when they first started targeting defense and aviation companies in the United States and Canada.

By 2013, researchers had tied the Russian hackers to hundreds of attacks on energy grid and oil and gas pipeline operators in the United States and Europe. Initially, the strikes appeared to be motivated by industrial espionage — a natural conclusion at the time, researchers said, given the importance of Russia's oil and gas industry.

But by December 2015, the Russian hacks had taken an aggressive turn. The attacks were no longer aimed at intelligence gathering, but at potentially sabotaging or shutting down plant operations.

At Symantec, researchers discovered that Russian hackers had begun taking screenshots of the machinery used in energy and nuclear plants, and stealing detailed descriptions of how they operated — suggesting they were conducting reconnaissance for a future attack.

As the U.S. government enacted the sanctions Thursday, cybersecurity experts were still questioning where the Russian attacks could lead, given that the United States was sure to respond in kind.

"Russia certainly has the technical capability to do damage, as it demonstrated in the Ukraine," said Eric Cornelius, a cybersecurity expert at Cylance, a private security firm, who previously assessed critical infrastructure threats for the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration.

"It is unclear what their perceived benefit would be from causing damage on U.S. soil, especially given the retaliation it would provoke," Cornelius said.

Though a major step toward deterrence, publicly naming countries accused of cyberattacks is unlikely to shame them into stopping. The United States is struggling to come up with proportionate responses to the wide variety of cyberespionage, vandalism and outright attacks.

Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, who has been nominated as director of the National Security Agency and commander of U.S. Cyber Command, the military's cyberunit, said during his Senate confirmation hearing this month that countries attacking the United States have little to worry about.

"I would say right now they do not think much will happen to them," Nakasone said. He later added: "They don't fear us."

Tribes plow longest ice road ever on the Kuskokwim River

Fri, 2018-03-16 08:35

The Kuskokwim River now has its longest ice road ever, in a year when people thought there might not be any ice road at all.

As of last week, the graded, marked road stretched 200 miles from Bethel upstream to Crooked Creek. The project has involved almost a dozen tribes, working together across months.

The day the Kuskokwim's longest ice road was completed was a reunion.

"It was a good day, a lot of handshaking, a lot of backslapping," said Mark Leary, director of development and operations for the Native Village of Napaimute.

His crew, heading upriver, met with the crew from Crooked Creek, heading downriver, led by Timmy Zukar.

The road stretches across a section where it's never been. Crooked Creek joined the project for the first time, adding the miles to make the historically long road. And it was done during the warmest winter on record.

"They proved it can be done, safely, in a wild, long, lonely stretch of the river, too," Leary said.

This happened in a winter when road plowing started in mid-January, a month later than usual. People were surprised that it happened at all.

Many open holes still perforate the ice, but the freezing and thawing has created a glassy surface that is easy for crews to plow, and equipment upgrades mean that the crews aren't facing constant breakdowns as in past winters.

The newest plow truck is actually 25 years old and comes from Seattle's Sea-Tac Airport.

"We gave it a name: Tumlista, The One Who Makes a Trail," Leary said, laughing.

For travelers along the lonely stretch of road below Crooked Creek, take caution. For 60 miles from Crooked Creek to Chuathbaluk there's no cellphone service and the snow quickly drifts. Farther downriver there are two areas marked with "Danger" signs. One is 10 miles below Kalskag at Coffee's Bend, where the road winds between a cutbank and an open hole. The other is below Tuluksak, where dark sand has blown across the ice.

"And soon as that sand gets exposed and the sun gets a little stronger," Leary warned, "we may lose that area very quickly."

The road's social and economic benefits spread to all of the villages it connects. Building the ice road provides employment during a time of year when seasonal work is hard to come by. It allows residents, businesses and government agencies the ability to avoid hefty plane tickets, and it gives the Kuskokwim a highway in a land far off the road system.

This story was republished with permission from KYUK.

Oldest sitting member of Congress dies at age 88

Fri, 2018-03-16 07:47

WASHINGTON – Democratic U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter of New York died early Friday morning, her chief of staff said. She was 88.

Slaughter died at George Washington University Hospital in Washington after an injury sustained in her home last week, Liam Fitzsimmons said in a statement.

"It is difficult to find a segment of society that Louise didn't help shape over the course of more than thirty years in Congress," Fitzsimmons added.

Born in Kentucky, Slaughter was first elected to Congress in 1986. She served as chair of the powerful House Rules Committee from 2007 to 2011, the first woman to hold the position. At the time of her death, Slaughter was the top Democrat on the committee.

Slaughter was a feisty opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement, complaining that Rochester, New York, in her district lost half of its manufacturing jobs after the treaty went into effect. She supported rewriting NAFTA.

"Congresswoman Slaughter embodied the very best of the American spirit and ideals," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. "With her passing, the Congressional community has lost a beloved leader and a cherished friend."

"Congresswoman Louise Slaughter was a giant. She had deep convictions – on both issues important to the people of Rochester, and for the integrity and honesty of the political system," Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said in a statement.

(Reporting by Justin Mitchell and Susan Cornwell)