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House passes bill to let gun owners carry concealed weapons across state lines

Wed, 2017-12-06 16:01

WASHINGTON – People would be able to bring legal, concealed guns into any U.S. state under legislation the House of Representatives approved on Wednesday that would also bolster the national background check system and require a study of the "bump stocks" used in October's Las Vegas mass shooting.

The country's long-standing fight over gun ownership has grown more heated since a single person killed 58 people and injured more than 500 at a music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, the deadliest mass shooting carried out by an individual in U.S. history. Stephen Paddock boosted his firearms with bump stocks to shoot thousands of bullets over 10 minutes.

On a vote of 231 to 198, the Republican-led House approved the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would require states to recognize each others' permits for carrying hidden and loaded firearms while in public.

States' requirements on concealed guns vary widely. Some states deny permits to people who have committed domestic violence or other crimes. Eight do not require permits at all.

[Commentary: If you decide to carry a firearm, know Alaska's gun laws]

Supporters of the bill, which still must be approved by the Senate, say states recognize each others' drivers licenses and other permits, making concealed-carry permits the exception.

Detractors say the bill tramples states' rights and that gun permits differ from drivers' licenses, which are generally uniform across the country. They also say that, under the legislation, gun owners will only have to abide by requirements of the most lenient states.

The bill passed eight days before the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting in which 20 children and six adults perished. So far this year, 14,412 people have died and 29,277 have been injured in firearm-related incidents in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive. About 8 percent of them were children and teenagers.

Bill supporters also pointed to last month's Texas shooting, where a man fired his rifle on a fleeing gunman who had just killed 26 worshippers at a church. The gunman was later found dead in his car.

"We know that citizens who carry a concealed firearm are not only better prepared to act in their own self-defense, but also in the defense of others," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican.

The legislation also included a bipartisan measure to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has already begun studying bump stocks, and could soon ban them.

Not my Alabama

Wed, 2017-12-06 15:17

In my family, Alabama was always spoken of as a magical place reflecting much of what is best about America. That may be hard to swallow for some. But for the Gups, Mobile was a haven. Hence, my father’s taste for grits; my courtly bachelor uncles, Nat and Gabe, lived there. In the city archives, a black-and-white photo of 56 Dauphin St. captures a sign reading “Gup The Tailor.” There my great-grandfathers, Marcus and Abraham, sat side by side, stitching costumes for Mobile’s fabulous Mardi Gras.

My family had fled pogroms, Cossacks and ghettos. They crossed the Atlantic in steerage with no more than a battered Torah, a samovar and passports marked Vilnius and Tbilisi. To Alabama they came and there they found the thing they hungered for most: acceptance. Over a generation, their Yiddish would yield to deep Southern drawls, their kosher palates to gumbo, their circle of friends widening well beyond their own faith. On Jan. 15, 1894, before a Mobile court, my great-grandfather Abraham renounced his allegiance to the sultan of Turkey and became a U.S. citizen, but also, and always, a proud Alabaman — a tale as improbable as it is distinctly American.

So it pains me to read how today’s Americans view Alabama, where much of my extended family still lives, as home to the sanctimonious Senate candidate Roy Moore, accused of trolling for children, and as a backwater state rife with bigotry, hypocrisy and xenophobia. I think of the Alabama to which I was reverently introduced in my youth — an Eden with live oaks draped with Spanish moss, wide porches and open hearts, romanticized to be sure. Mobile took my family in when no one else would. I feel indebted.

Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore speaks at the Values Voter Summit of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., Oct. 13, 2017. (REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan/File Photo)

In the minds of many, particularly in the North and Northeast, Alabama has become the poster child of the narrow-minded, the self-righteous, the extreme. It is the butt of jokes. (What is “Alabama” backward? Alabama is backward.) The cesspool of modern politics would seem to find its drain in Alabama, where even God is seen to lend his blessing to corruption.

[Trump endorses Roy Moore in Alabama race]

But if Alabama makes us uncomfortable, it is perhaps because our own foibles are writ a little larger there, magnified that we may see ourselves for who we are and what we are becoming. Alabama hosts rank partisanship and evangelical fervor (both religious and political) that contravenes the Christian spirit. It has demagoguery and scapegoating, the demonizing of fellow citizens, zealotry, suspicion and tribalism – but in none of this is it alone. In Alabama it just seems to play out on a wider screen. It is the mirror we shun – not just a state but a state of mind. We hold it at arm’s length because we cannot face the truth about ourselves.

Walking among my family’s graves in Mobile, I know that even in death it was “White Only,” and that a foreign-born Jew had access to this soil when a native-born black man did not. The legacy of Gov. George Wallace, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the water cannons and police dogs now find full expression in the face of Moore, who champions the Ten Commandments but sees them as a license to lie, hate and bring out the least Christian of impulses in his constituents. He is a master of mixing virtue and vice till neither is distinguishable from the other.

[Alabamans can do better than Roy Moore]

But the Alabama my family knew and knows is only partially reflected in the headlines. It is not the caricature of the ignorant Southerner, not the Bible-thumping congregation that prefers a potential child molester to missing out on a tax cut. My relatives in Alabama could not be more pained by the thought of Moore’s ascent to the U.S. Senate. But their anguish should be familiar to many well beyond the state who wince at Donald Trump as president, commander in chief and the face of the United States. Alabama is no more monolithic than the rest of the country, and no less divided. The war for the soul of America goes on there as it goes on in states and homes across this land.

The truth is that if Alabama did not exist, we might have to invent it. In this moment of national doubt and angst, we need to look down our noses at someplace else, to express the disdain of those who themselves have become unmoored, complacent or resigned. Alabama is the perfect foil in the Trump era, a reference point on the Southern horizon – a safe distance from Los Angeles and New York – that offers us the sense that we are somehow different, better and above. My adopted home, smug Boston, like so many other places quick to judge, can block out its own dire record on race and religious intolerance as it spurns its Southern cousins (mine, literally). But it is self-delusion, the kind that compromises the conscience and allows for the rest of us to descend deeper into the abyss. In each of us, there is a bit of Alabama, the shameful and the noble, warring for dominance.

Ted Gup is a Boston-based author of several books about secrecy and is a professor of journalism at Emerson College. He wrote this for The Washington Post.

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@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Snowstorm triggers avalanche in Thompson Pass, closing road to Valdez

Wed, 2017-12-06 14:55

A storm swept through parts of Southcentral Alaska overnight, dumping more than 40 inches of snow on Thompson Pass and triggering an avalanche that has shut down the highway to Valdez.

The Richardson Highway was closed from Mile 12 to 42 on Wednesday, said Meadow Bailey, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

The highway is the only road out of Valdez, a city of about 4,000 people tucked between the Chugach Mountains and Prince William Sound.

An avalanche that happened around 3:30 a.m. at Mile 39 in Thompson Pass had crossed the road, Bailey said. Crews were waiting for the weather to improve before heading in to clear it.

The avalanche was 20 feet deep and 200 feet long, Bailey said. It was estimated to take about five hours to clear, but "depending on conditions, it could be a couple days before we get there," Bailey said.

[From the archives: Alaska highway officials say they've never seen an avalanche this large touch a road]

More than 40 inches of snow had fallen in Thompson Pass overnight, said Kyle Van Peursem, meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Anchorage. On Wednesday morning, 15 inches had fallen in just 90 minutes, he said.

In Valdez, the overnight forecast was for a mix of rain and snow, but temperatures were colder than expected and had instead dumped 12 inches of snow through the morning, Van Peursem said.

A mix of heavy snow and rain in the Copper River Basin and Valdez had created "very difficult and hazardous driving conditions on the Richardson, Edgerton, Glenn and Tok Cutoff highways," Bailey said in a written statement.

Sean Holland, who lives in Eagle River, was in Valdez on Wednesday. "We are all watching the pass closure and progress on the avalanche," Holland wrote in a Facebook message.

"Road plow crews down here are awesome! Roads are plowed every day and travel inside Valdez is great! Snow machine riders are all sorts of excited! All in all, every one is up beat, enjoying Snowmigeddin and ready for the holidays!" Holland wrote.

Holland was planning to drive out of Valdez on Monday, but he wasn't worried. "I was born and raised in Wyoming. The law of the land is 4 wheel drive!" Holland wrote.

More snow was in the forecast Thursday, with another storm expected to bring another "foot or so" of snow to Thompson Pass, Van Peursem said.

State offices were closed in Valdez on Wednesday. Schools in Glennallen, Kenny Lake, and Slana were also closed on Wednesday, the Copper River School District said on Facebook.

Thompson Pass is occasionally shut down due to avalanches. In 2014, two giant avalanches closed the road, one of which created a snow dam and backed up the Lowe River, complicating efforts to clear the highway of the massive avalanche debris.

Small bidders snatch up land near ANWR in state lease sale

Wed, 2017-12-06 14:30

Major oil companies did not bid Wednesday on state leases near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Congress moves to open the refuge's coastal plain to drilling, but small bidding groups did.

And new North Slope prospects generated interest in the annual state lease sale that officials said was one of the biggest of the last two decades.

The state received $19.9 million in bids for the North Slope lease sale on Wednesday, making it the third-largest sale in the last two decades, said Chantal Walsh, director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Division. That was a surprise because so much of the land in the region had already been leased, she said.

The amount of leased state land on the North Slope is at historically high levels, said Mark Wiggin, deputy commissioner of the state's Natural Resources department.

Alaska officials opened bids for the lease sale at the Dena'ina Center in Anchorage. The state also received $1.3 million in bids for leases in state waters of the Beaufort Sea.

The federal government planned to open bids for an unprecedented lease sale for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on Wednesday afternoon. The Trump administration offered 900 tracts in the 23 million-acre reserve, the most ever.

[Record lease sale planned for NPRA]

The federal lease sale by the Bureau of Land Management comes on the heels of a big lease sale last year in the NPRA that generated $18.8 million for 614,000 acres, the largest sale since 2004.

The recent, large Pikka discovery east of NPR-A and the Willow discovery within NPR-A have raised interest in the state and federal lease sales.

At the state lease sale, Repsol E&P; USA, a subsidiary of Spanish multinational Repsol, was the high bidder on acreage near the large Pikka prospect. Repsol is a partner in the prospect, which experts have said could produce at least 120,000 barrels of oil daily.

Repsol is looking to maximize its opportunity at Pikka, said Jason Sebastinas, a senior landman for Repsol, after the bid opening.

On several leases, Repsol outbid a partner in the project, independent Armstrong Oil and Gas of Denver. Repsol made its decision to bid at the 11th hour following a long administrative process, leading to the unexpected dueling bids with a partner, Sebastinas said.

ConocoPhillips also was the high bidder on tracts not far from Pikka and near its Kuparuk River unit.

Far to the North Slope's eastern flank, near the doorstep of the 19 million-acre ANWR, the state offered offshore tracts and a few onshore tracts. The tracts could generate strong interest if Congress succeeds in opening the refuge's coastal area to drilling as part of the tax bill that appears likely to pass.

Much of the state acreage near ANWR is already part of ExxonMobil's Point Thomson Unit, leaving limited onshore acreage available for leasing.

Major oil companies did not bid on the tracts near ANWR.

But the bidding group of individuals Dan Donkel and Samuel Cade won rights to offshore tracts in the state waters near ANWR. The tracts are extremely promising for a large oil discovery, Donkel said by phone Wednesday.

"There is room to boom for small oil companies on the North Slope of Alaska," said Donkel in an emailed statement.

A new company, Regenerate USA, outbid Donkel and Cade on a group of onshore tracts just west of the wildlife refuge.

Regenerate USA was incorporated in Alaska last month. Alaska business records show its president is David Wall of Australia. Wall is also director of another North Slope exploration company, Accumulate Energy Alaska, records show.

69 mushers have signed up for the 2018 Iditarod

Wed, 2017-12-06 14:02

Sixty-nine mushers have signed up to compete in the 2018 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, including four returning race champions and 16 rookies.

The deadline to register for the 2018 Iditarod was Friday. Mushers can still sign up to compete in the race until Feb. 15, but now they must pay double — a $4,000 late fee in addition to the $4,000 entry fee, according to race rules.

For now, the size of the 2018 Iditarod field is about average. Seventy-two mushers competed in the 2017 Iditarod. The year before that, 85 mushers started the race, the third largest field ever. The last time the Iditarod had 69 total teams was in 2014.

So far, the 2018 Iditarod mushers include 17 women and 52 men. Eleven mushers listed their hometown as somewhere outside the United States — eight are from Canada, two from Norway and one is from Sweden. A total of 49 mushers said they were from Alaska.

Reigning Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey is signed up for the 2018 race, as are four-time Iditarod champions Martin Buser and Jeff King. John Baker, the 2011 Iditarod champion, is also signed up to compete.

Four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey and his sled dog team will not show up at the 2018 starting line. Instead, they'll be in Norway.

Seavey dropped out of the Iditarod earlier this year in protest over how race officials handled the investigation into his sled dogs' drug test results. The Iditarod announced in October that dogs on Seavey's team tested positive for tramadol, an opioid painkiller that the race prohibits. Seavey said he did not give the drug to his dogs.

Last week, Seavey announced that he would compete in the 2018 Finnmarksløpet, Europe's longest sled dog race. The 745-mile race starts on March 9 in Norway.

(function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = 'https://connect.facebook.net/en_US/sdk.js#xfbml=1&version=v2.11'; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk'));Dallas Seavey skal kjøre Finnmarksløpet

THE BIGGEST WOW! Den største stjerna skal delta i Finnmarksløpet 2018. Fire ganger Iditarod champion, Dallas Seavey (30) har meldt seg på Finnmarksløpet 2018. Dette synes vi er utrolig bra både for Finnmarksløpet og norsk langdistanse. Dallas vil kjøre FL-1200 med sine egne hunder og vil ankomme landet noen uker før løpet starter. Vi blir glade hvis dere vil dele denne nyheten.

Posted by Finnmarksløpet on Thursday, November 30, 2017

"It's important to me to have a lifetime of mushing experiences, not just running the same race over and over," Seavey said in a video posted online.

The 2018 Iditarod ceremonial start is scheduled for March 3 in Anchorage with a restart in Willow the following day.

Calling fair trial ‘unlikely’ in Palmer, attorney wants new venue for Grunwald murder

Wed, 2017-12-06 13:57

PALMER — The attorney for a teen accused of David Grunwald's murder wants the trial moved out of Mat-Su — even though Palmer is his client's hometown.

Erick Almandinger, 17, is one of four teens charged with Grunwald's murder, which began with a beating in a camper trailer.

Now Almandinger's court-appointed lawyer is arguing he won't get a fair trial in small-town Palmer given the notoriety of the November 2016 killing and the publicity generated by the death of a popular 16-year-old with a clean-cut reputation.

Jon Iannaccone, Almandinger's court-appointed attorney, doesn't suggest a better location.

Grunwald went missing in mid-November last year. His torched Ford Bronco was found the next day at the base of the Talkeetna Mountains. But despite hundreds of searchers combing the area, his body wasn't found for three weeks and only after another teen later charged in the murder led authorities to it.

[Documents shed new light on slain Palmer teen's final moments]

Iannaccone, in a change of venue motion filed last month, wrote that the community's search efforts for Grunwald were "admirable" and the "outrage and horror" were understandable when his body was found and arrests made.

But, Iannaccone continued, it is unlikely Almandinger can get a fair trial given "the attention this case has gotten and the (intense) anger over it."

He is asking Palmer Superior Court Judge Gregory Heath for an immediate change of venue.

The prosecutor in the case, Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak, opposes moving the trial.

Yes, Palmer is a small town, Kalytiak wrote in his opposition to the change of venue, filed last week. But the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, with more than 100,000 residents, offers a large jury pool from many places besides Palmer, he wrote. People involved in the Grunwald search would be weeded out during jury selection.

News reports about Grunwald's death have been read by people across Alaska, Kalytiak wrote.

"Picking a jury on this case in Anchorage, Fairbanks or Kenai would require the same amount of attention and diligence as picking a jury in Palmer," he wrote.

Also charged in Grunwald's murder are Valley residents Dominic Johnson, 17, Austin Barrett, 20, and Bradley Renfro, 17. Devin Peterson, 19, is charged with helping hide evidence used in the crime.

Almandinger successfully asked Heath to try him separately from the others earlier this year.

['No clue': Family of teen charged in Grunwald killing say they share public's shock]

Almandinger's attorney filed several other motions in recent weeks.

Iannaccone is asking the judge to not allow jurors to see photos of Grunwald's body or the forested, brushy spot off Knik River Road where he died.

Investigators found the body covered in a layer of snow with a single gunshot at the hairline and numerous deep head wounds consistent with a pistol-whipping, court documents show.

Kalytiak opposes that motion too, saying the grim photos prove his theory that the teens meant to kill Grunwald and conceal the body.

Almandinger's attorney is also asking the judge to bar prosecutors from introducing evidence of Almandinger's "other bad acts": violent, profane rap lyrics found in a notebook in his room; his efforts to sell one of his father's guns; an apparent desire to be accepted as a member of the Crips gang; and statements that he and other defendants spent time the summer before the murder crashing at a flophouse near Wasilla where a 16-year-old was shot and killed in July 2016.

[In June, a teen died from a gunshot wound in Wasilla. Now the once-closed case is getting another look.]

Kalytiak has until Dec. 29 to file his opposition to that and other motions, including those asking Heath to suppress several trooper interviews as well as the early December interrogation that included Almandinger's confession.

Trump recognizes Jerusalem as capital of Israel in reversal of longtime US policy

Wed, 2017-12-06 13:46

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Wednesday formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, defying warnings from other Middle East countries and some U.S. allies in a politically risky move that he insisted would not derail efforts to broker a peace deal.

But in a sign that the move could backfire, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas slammed Trump's announcement as a "declaration of withdraw" by the United States from the peace process, according to the Associated Press.

In a midday speech at the White House, Trump defended his decision as "long overdue" recognition of reality given that Jerusalem is the seat of Israel's parliament, supreme court and prime minister's office. He argued that an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians has remained elusive for more than two decades even as his predecessors declined to recognize the contested Holy City as Israel's capital.

"Some say they lacked courage, but they made the best judgment based on the facts as they understood them," Trump said, speaking in the Diplomatic Reception Room. "Nevertheless, the record is in. After more than two decades, we're no closer to a lasting peace agreement."

Trump added that "it's folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula will produce a different or better result."

The announcement came a day after senior White House aides previewed Trump's decision, and the president also ordered the State Department to begin planning to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a process that administration officials said would take several years. After his remarks, Trump signed another six-month waiver to maintain the embassy compound in Tel Aviv, which senior aides said was meant to ensure funding was not eliminated under a 1995 law even as planning for a new embassy would commence.

Trump emphasized that despite his decision he remained committed to helping broker a peace agreement. The White House is working on a peace plan to be unveiled sometime next year.

"The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides," Trump said. "I intend to do everything in my power to forge such an agreement."

The announcement set off a flurry of reactions in Washington, Europe and the Middle East. Trump spoke with Abbas on Tuesday to inform him of the decision and Abbas told him his government would not accept the move.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the president's announcement, calling it "a historic day" and stating that his nation is "profoundly grateful for the president for his courageous and just decision."

Other Middle East nations and some U.S. allies condemned the decision ahead of Trump's speech, suggesting the shift in policy would inflame regional tensions and make the process of brokering a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians more difficult.

"We think it's an unwise step and a counterproductive step. If we want to solve at some moment the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, we need a two-state solution, and a one-sided step is not going to help," Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra said Wednesday.

"I don't think we can use another conflict in this very explosive region," Zijlstra said, adding that he had conveyed his concerns to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Brussels, during a NATO meeting.

But Tillerson insisted such concerns were misguided. Attending the meeting in Brussels, Tillerson said: "We continue to believe there is a very good opportunity for peace to be achieved."

"The president is very committed to the Middle East peace process," Tillerson said. "He has a team he put into place. That team has been working very diligently."

Trump campaigned on a promise to move the embassy to Jerusalem, a move popular among evangelicals. A slew of evangelical leaders, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, released statements of praise on Wednesday.

In Washington, Trump drew bipartisan support on Capitol Hill from Republicans and some Democrats.

In a statement, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called the announcement "an important step in the right direction" and added that "unequivocal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital will be complete when the U.S. embassy is officially relocated there."

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the decision "helps correct a decades-long indignity."

Yet House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that Trump's move was premature and warned of "mass protests." Late last month, the State Department sent a memo to embassies in the Middle East warning of potential unrest.

"In the absence of a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem now may needlessly spark mass protests, fuel tensions, and make it more difficult to reach a durable peace," Pelosi said.

White House aides emphasized that Trump's decision would make clear to Middle East countries that the president, who campaigned on promises to move the embassy, keeps his word. Senior adviser Jared Kushner and other top administration officials are working on a proposed peace plan for the region, but aides said it is not imminent and the team would have time to factor in public reaction to Trump's speech.

One administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the Palestinians would likely threaten to reject peace talks. But this person said the White House recognized that peace deals often are not linear in how they are negotiated and that such deals are often presumed dead more than once before they reach the finish line.

"By overturning a decades-long policy adopted by administrations of both parties, President Trump is casting aside America's role as a mediator in the Middle East conflict [and] harming our Muslim allies," said Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR, the nation's largest Muslim civil rights group.

In his remarks, Trump acknowledged that "there will of course be disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement, but we are confident … that when we work through our disagreements we will arrive at a peace and a place of far greater understanding and cooperation."

The Jerusalem municipality announced ahead of Trump's speech that it would illuminate the ancient walls of Jerusalem Old City with an Israeli and an American flag, "as a token of appreciation to President Trump for his recognition of Jerusalem." The city said that American flags would be hung on the streets surrounding the U.S. consulate.

The Washington Post's Rick Noack in Berlin, Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem and Carol Morello in Brussels contributed to this report.

Gas line deal with China signals diminished expectations

Wed, 2017-12-06 13:44

On one day, Nov. 9, $250 billion in nonbinding deals between the U.S. and China appeared during the president's trade mission. This included the agreement for China to "work together" with the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. on North Slope natural gas, as well as arrangements for shale gas in West Virginia and two other LNG projects in the Gulf of Mexico.

China has many other similar deals with other jurisdictions. Some may be built. Many will not.

Notwithstanding that the intrinsic economic fundamentals (the cost, the competition, the market) for the Alaska project are challenging, should it happen, under the proposed structure the state will likely not make much money from it.

[Alaska gas line agency reaches deal with Chinese oil company, financial institutions]

With the state running a large deficit, and dependent on Permanent Fund earnings for state services and dividends, it will have no money to invest in the project. Thus it is doubtful it can earn any return on equity.

And there is no money to be made by borrowing money to put into the project. That is debt, and the return on debt is simply recovery of interest payments to creditors. (It is also unclear if the state has the assets to even engage in such a loan.)

It is unlikely there will be much upside price potential for the project. The state will be bankrolled by the customer, who will want the lowest possible price, and the Asian market is oversupplied. There will not be money to be made by buying gas low and selling it high.

That leaves production taxes and royalties as the primary sources of revenue. The lease terms give the producers the right to produce the gas and commercialize it under reasonable terms, for which they pay taxes and royalties. These will be based on the wellhead value.

Some third party will enter into a long-term buying commitment with the producers, who will presumably sell gas to them at the North Slope wellhead. Since the producers are passing on the cost and market risks downstream, they may accept a lower purchase price. This will suppress taxes and royalties.

[Here are 5 big questions about Alaska's gas line deal with China?]

What might be a commercially reasonable price? The economics are so thin on the project that AGDC needs a low purchase price to make it work. They have offered $1 per thousand cubic feet.

The irony here, to say the least, is interesting. A state agency has a vested interest in lowballing the value of the state's resources. And the producers may be vilified for wanting a high value. The misalignment of interests is palpable.

Suppose it is $1 per thousand cubic feet. At 3 billion cubic feet per year, that would be about $1 billion per year in value at the wellhead.

The current combined tax/royalty rate is 25 percent. That will result in a lackluster $250 million in annual state revenues. That would close about one-tenth of the current budget deficit. The promotional material for the project does not even mention revenues anymore. Obviously, the jobs and possibility of lower-priced gas would be good, but the big prize in resource development comes from the resource value.

It is unlikely the producers would sell gas to someone and then risk having a large chunk of value taxed away should the state increase production taxes. Thus it will also be commercially reasonable for them to pass on the taxes to the buyers in the purchase contract. This is exactly what Cook Inlet gas producers have always done.

These taxes would be part of the purchase price from the producers, and will need to be recovered from the ultimate consumers. Thus the higher the tax the less competitive the selling price.

This may be the best deal the state can do now. Maybe it's the best the state can ever do, in which case AGDC should be lauded. But it is not clear it's in the state's long-run best interests.

The Asian LNG market is now a buyer's market, and prices are low. Marketing to other places in Asia besides China will be no different.

Long-term prices are, of course, unknowable. Locking in under the current environment will guarantee a generation of low value for the resource.

However, if the Asian or North American markets recover, the state might regret hitching up to the first suitor to come along.

Over the past 15 years, between the Alaska Natural Gas Development Authority, the Stranded Gas Development Act, the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, the Alaska Stand-Alone Project, the partnership with the producers, and AGDC, the state has spent $1 billion, with not too much to show for it. Given the economic fundamentals, all of these endeavors were low probability going in. But all were gambles that a gas line would eventually provide rich returns for the state.

AGDC's additional gamble now is that the best-case scenario is a rationed future of limited returns.

Roger Marks is a petroleum economist in private practice in Anchorage, specializing in petroleum economics and taxation. He is a former senior petroleum economist with the Tax Division of the Alaska Department of Revenue.

Body of overdue Kotzebue man found 6 miles north of town

Wed, 2017-12-06 13:34

The body of a Kotzebue man missing since Friday was found Tuesday afternoon near the Northwest Alaska hub community, Alaska State Troopers said.

Jared Walker, 32, was reported overdue at 11:20 p.m. Friday. He was traveling that day from a cabin near the mouth of the Noatak River, 10 miles north of Kotzebue, and was expected to reach town at 2:20 p.m. But he didn't show, troopers said.

A search team checked the cabin. He wasn't there. Surrounding villages were asked to check for him too. The search went on for days.

A family member helping search found him at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday near Jones Camp, about 6 miles north of Kotzebue.

Troopers didn't have immediate information on how he died or whether he was on foot, snowmachine or some other mode of transportation. The State Medical Examiner Office plans an autopsy.

Father of Anchorage 5-year-old who died of self-inflicted gunshot wound faces federal charge

Wed, 2017-12-06 11:43

The father of a 5-year-old Anchorage boy who died Tuesday from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head is a felon and wasn't supposed to have a gun, according to federal prosecutors.

He now faces a federal weapons charge, according to federal prosecutors.

Anthony L. Johnnson has a felony record for drug possession, according to a sworn statement filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

His son, Christian, took a handgun from a bedroom nightstand, then shot and killed himself, according to Anchorage police. The new charges describe the gun as a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol.

Johnnson is charged with violating a federal prohibition against felons having guns. He was scheduled to appear Wednesday afternoon in federal court.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

After a near-miss, the safety of Alaska-bound fuel barges is under scrutiny

Wed, 2017-12-06 11:04

A near-miss involving a Skagway-bound tug and tanker barge hauling millions of gallons of fuel through the Inside Passage has reignited debate in Canada over shipping petroleum through its territory.

It was big news the next day in western Canada. The incident near Bella Bella, British Columbia, in Canada's portion of the Inside Passage, was just a few miles from the site of a similar incident last year.

In October 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart tug had just unloaded its fuel cargo in Ketchikan.

Its distress calls to the Canadian Coast Guard were obtained and published by Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper.

About 29,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled. A nearby clam fishery used by the Heiltsuk First Nations tribe remains shut down 13 months later.

Canadian authorities had been criticized over a delayed response and slow cleanup efforts.

When last Sunday's close call involved the tug Jake Shearer and a 430-foot barge loaded with fuel, there was renewed outcry and concern.

Harley Marine Services, the parent company of the tug operator, isn't commenting, citing the open investigation by Transport Canada.

But in Bella Bella, a community of 1,600, people have been listening intently to chatter on the VHF radio and talking to crew members and Coast Guard officials.

"The actual tug and barge was hit by a rogue wave, causing one of the pegs that holds the tug to the barge to break and that led the crew to release themselves completely from the barge because it was putting the tug in danger," said William Housty, the Heiltsuk First Nations' incident commander in Bella Bella.

Two crew members were reportedly able to jump from the tug to the loose barge to drop its anchor.

Otherwise it could've run aground or broken up on a rock pile he said he could see from the air just meters away.

"We've had these two incidents in the last year; it's really kind of magnified these sort of tugs and put into question whether these tugs are actually capable of handling the seas in this part of the world," Housty said.

In the wake of the wreck last year, restrictions on barge traffic had recently been tightened by Canadian authorities.

The tug Jake Shearer and its barge were apparently heeding new navigation rules on transiting fuel vessels that required them to avoid certain narrow straits in the area.

"The American tug and barge industry have been going up and down this coast for over a century," said Kevin Obermeyer, chief executive officer of the Pacific Pilotage Association which regulates marine navigation on Canada's west coast.

The association routinely issues waivers to the fuel companies so their vessels aren't required to have a Canadian pilot on board as is required of other heavy vessels.

Since the Exxon Valdez spill, the U.S. requires vessels carrying petroleum cargo to have an approved contingency plan for spills and fires. Canada doesn't.

"The oversight that we do is make sure that the officers and the crew on those vessels have been going through these waters sufficiently to have the experience and knowledge to do it safely," Obermeyer said.

But critics say that might not be enough.

The Canadian government has proposed banning full-sized tankers in the Inside Passage even though they don't use that route.

Tugs and barges hauling fuel — like the Jake Shearer and Nathan E. Stewart — would remain exempt.

"We're banning something that doesn't occur, but we have all this marine traffic passing through our Canadian waters and Canadians are saying, 'Look, we're taking all this risk but we're getting no benefit,'" said Joe Spears, a retired maritime law attorney who runs an oceans consultancy in Vancouver. "This is pretty much a live issue and it affects Alaska and I think we need to sit down and talk about this because of all of Southeast Alaska depends on these tugs and barges to get the refined petroleum product."

There's no tracking how much fuel is shipped north to Southeast Alaska.

One industry estimate offers an estimated 50 million gallons annually.

But there's no hard data kept by the U.S. or Canadian authorities.

Fuel retailers in Southeast Alaska say the loss of fuel deliveries by barge would be unthinkable.

"Depending on how cold it is, we can haul up to 400,000 gallons of heating fuel in a month or more," said Phil Isaac of Ike's Fuel in Douglas. His family has owned the company that trucks heating fuel around the capital city for more than a half-century. "There's just no way we could haul that in. The barges can bring up a million gallons at a time. There's no way to replace that."

People in Bella Bella understand that — they get their fuel delivered the same way.

"There's people along the coast that live here and depend on the resources in this area for survival," said William Housty in Bella Bella. "To put all that at stake for the movement of fossil fuels is very difficult for people to fathom."

Four days after the incident, Canadian authorities admitted they'd grossly under-stated the amount of fuel carried in the barge.

The vessel was carrying about 3.7 million gallons of diesel and gas – more than three times what had previously been disclosed.

The confusion, the agency said, came from mistaking liters for gallons.

This article was republished with permission from KTOO Public Media.

Scrooge ascendant: Health care for kids goes begging

Wed, 2017-12-06 10:57

You'd think funding a program providing medical care to low-income children would be a no-brainer. Apparently not true in today's poisonous political climate. In today's political climate, even immunizations for poor children become a football to be booted and kicked around until it's flatter than the balls used in Deflategate. Not to worry, though. The rich and their riches are safe.

Our government is supposed to be by the people, of the people and for the people. Yet it seems as if more and more we are defining "people" as corporations and individuals with millions of dollars in their checking accounts. The rest of us apparently don't get representation. We are finding out just what life is like when our "representative" government no longer even pretends to represent the poor and middle class.

[Murkowski joins Sullivan in supporting GOP tax plan]

I expected that Dan Sullivan would go along with paying his moneyed overlords for their support by voting for a bill that gives tax breaks to people who have to worry about where to park their private jets. But I thought we'd get better from Lisa Murkowski – a lot better. For a brief moment this fall, Lisa looked like the person I thought I'd voted for when she stood up to her party on health care reform. Then they threw ANWR at her and suddenly she voted to destroy the Affordable Care Act in order to give her big donors the Christmas present they requested.

The possibility of opening ANWR was waved under her nose to get her vote. Subsequently, we find ourselves planning to open an unspoiled wilderness to exploitation of non-renewable resources while the rest of the world moves to renewables. In fact, China is leading the world in this respect. While we sit and wallow in our dirty energy, China and the rest of the world move toward clean energy.

Given the amount of money that China is pouring into this effort, I'd guess that within a generation oil will be out and renewables will be in. At that point, our despoiling of this wilderness will seem to be as shortsighted as many of us already think it is. On top of that, we will be propping up a dying industry instead of working to free Alaska from this dependence by diversifying our economy. For instance, maybe we could foster our own alternative energy industry.

[Health care for kids is a matter of faith]

But back to those kids, the ones we can't afford to provide even the most basic of health services to because of the huge budget deficit we are facing. At least, that's what the Republicans in Congress are saying. It's interesting that they are simultaneously OK with the trillion-dollar deficit every credible financial institution states their tax plan overhaul will create. For me, this forever ends any pretense Republicans have to being the party of fiscal responsibility. Apparently, the only time they have trouble with the deficit is when it is paying for services to middle- and lower-class Americans. A trillion-dollar deficit to appease their overlords is perfectly acceptable.

But that doesn't matter to them. What matters is that their major donors will now be able to park their jets and deduct some of the costs from their taxes. What matters is that money for their re-election campaigns will continue to flow. What matters is that they have government health care coverage so their children will always have immediate access to needed immunizations.

And can we please dump the myth that putting more money in the pockets of the wealthy will result in jobs and economic growth. As someone on Facebook recently and wisely pointed out, jobs are created when the need to hire employees arises. And that need arises only if business is busy with people spending money. And that won't happen when all the tax breaks go to the wealthy, leaving the rest of us with little to no extra cash to spend. As they have done in the past, the rich will pocket the money, invest it overseas to avoid taxes and never spend a cent in America.

Finally, to add insult to injury, the tax breaks for the wealthy continue ad infinitum. The minuscule tax break for the middle class has a very short expiration date.

Children suffer. The middle class disappears. Student loans bury our young people in debt that they will be repaying in retirement. But not to worry, millionaires will no longer have to pay a large estate tax. If that doesn't put you in the spirit of the Christmas season, I don't know what will.

Elise Sereni Patkotak is the author of two memoirs about her life in Alaska, both available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.

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@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Photos: Best of December 2017

Wed, 2017-12-06 10:42

Alaska Dispatch News photographers and contributors capture slices of life from the Anchorage area and across Alaska in December 2017.

Five people launched a skiff Tuesday night in Juneau. Now two are missing.

Wed, 2017-12-06 10:39

Coast Guard searchers in two small boats and a helicopter were looking in Juneau's Gastineau Channel on Wednesday morning for two men missing after a skiff overturned Tuesday night.

Five people – two women and three men, plus a dog – were in the small jon boat when it took on water and capsized about 9 p.m. They were heading to a vessel anchored near Aurora Harbor, said Vince Grochowski, a civilian Coast Guard search-and-rescue controller based in Juneau.

The women made it to shore and one of the men got on top of the capsized boat, where the Coast Guard found him, Grochowski said

Initially, authorities didn't know so many people were on the boat, he said. The scene unfolded gradually, he said.

The Juneau Police Department got a call Tuesday night from a man at Aurora Harbor who heard screams for help in the direction of the Juneau Yacht Club, Grochowski said. But the man couldn't see anyone.

Police sent out an officer and contacted the Coast Guard. The police officer noticed the man on the capsized boat and believed a second man was in the water. The Coast Guard launched its small boat and picked up the man, who told them a second man had disappeared into the dark, cold water.

"At that time we were under the assumption that it was just two individuals in a small boat that we found that was overturned, with the one person we pulled out," Grochowski said.

But soon they learned from police that two women who made it shore were also part of the group, and that two men – not one – were missing. A dog with the group also was rescued, according to public radio station KTOO.

According to initial reports, no one was wearing a life jacket, the Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard is continuing to search with its helicopter, a small boat stationed in Juneau and a second small boat from the Coast Guard Cutter John McCormick – a vessel too big for that portion of the channel, Grochowski said. The Coast Guard helicopter flew most of the night looking for any sign of the missing men, stopping to switch out crews and refuel.

SEADOGS – Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search — was looking into whether it could help as well.

By Wednesday morning, winds had picked up and the water might be too rough to send the dogs out.

"We always hold out hope for the best," Grochowski said. "We keep searching until we receive information that tells us otherwise."

The women walked and swam to shore. Maybe the men did the same.

"Maybe they are high and dry somewhere," he said. The tide was coming in, he said, so they could be stranded on a small island or mud flat.

Trump recognizes Jerusalem as capital of Israel in reversal of longtime US policy

Wed, 2017-12-06 10:23

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Wednesday formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, defying warnings from other Mideast countries and some U.S. allies in a politically risky move that he insisted would not derail his administration's efforts to broker a peace deal.

In a midday speech at the White House, Trump defended his decision as "long overdue" and argued that a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians has remained elusive for more than two decades even as his predecessors declined to recognize the contested city as Israel's capital.

"Some say they lacked courage, but they made the best judgment based on the facts as they understood them," Trump said, speaking in the Diplomatic Reception Room. "Nevertheless, the record is in. After more than two decades, we're no closer to a lasting peace agreement."

Trump added that "it's folly to assume that repeating the exactly the same formula will produce a different or better result."

The announcement came a day after senior White House aides previewed Trump's decision, and the president also ordered the State Department to begin planning to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a process that administration officials said would take years.

Trump emphasized that despite his decision he remained fully committed to helping broker a peace agreement. The White House is working on a peace plan to be unveiled sometime next year.

"The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides," Trump said. "I intend to do everything in my power to forge such an agreement."

Trump's decision was hailed in Israel. The Jerusalem municipality announced ahead of Trump's speech that it would illuminate the ancient walls of Jerusalem Old City with an Israeli and an American flag, "as a token of appreciation to President Trump for his recognition of Jerusalem." The city said that American flags would be hung on the streets surrounding the U.S. consulate.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said that "the expected announcement by President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a historic declaration that sends a clear message to the entire world that the U.S. stands with the Jewish people, the State of Israel and Jerusalem."

"As a gesture and expression of the courageous friendship between the American people and the people of Israel, we decided to project the American and Israeli flags onto the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, the ultimate symbol of the strength of the Jewish people's connection to Jerusalem for over 3,000 years."

Yet other Mideast nations and some U.S. allies condemned the decision ahead of Trump's speech, suggesting the shift in policy would inflame regional tensions and make the process of brokering a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians more difficult.

"We think it's an unwise step and a counterproductive step. If we want to solve at some moment the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, we need a two-state solution, and a one-sided step is not going to help," Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra said Wednesday.

"I don't think we can use another conflict in this very explosive region," Zijlstra said, adding that he had conveyed his concerns to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Brussels, during a NATO meeting.

But Tillerson insisted such concerns were misguided. Attending the meeting in Brussels, Tillerson said: "We continue to believe there is a very good opportunity for peace to be achieved." He urged people to listen to Trump's full speech and its context before passing judgment.

"The president is very committed to the Middle East peace process," Tillerson said. "He has a team he put into place. That team has been working very diligently."

White House aides emphasized that Trump's decision would make clear to Mideast countries that the president, who campaigned on promises to move the embassy to Jerusalem, keeps his word. Senior adviser Jared Kushner and other top administration officials are working on a proposed peace plan for the region, but aides said that it is not imminent and the team would have time to factor in public reaction to Trump's speech.

One administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the Palestinians would likely threaten to reject peace talks. But this person said the White House recognized that peace deals often are not linear in how they are negotiated and that often such deals are presumed dead more than once before they reach the finish line.

"Trump remains committed to a lasting peace agreement," said another administration official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

The Washington Post's Rick Noack in Berlin, Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem and Carol Morello in Brussels contributed to this report.

Flynn said Obama sanctions against Russia would be ‘ripped up’ as soon as Trump took office, whistleblower says

Wed, 2017-12-06 10:07

WASHINGTON — Michael T. Flynn, President Donald Trump's former national security adviser, told a former business associate that economic sanctions against Russia would be "ripped up" as one of the Trump administration's first acts, according to an account by a whistleblower made public on Wednesday.

Flynn believed that ending the sanctions could allow a business project he had once participated in to move forward, according to the whistleblower. The account is the strongest evidence to date that the Trump administration wanted to end the sanctions immediately, and suggests that Flynn had a possible economic incentive for the United States to forge a closer relationship with Russia.

Flynn had worked on a business venture to partner with Russia to build nuclear power plants in the Middle East until June 2016, but remained close with the people involved afterward. On Inauguration Day, according to the whistleblower, Flynn texted the former business associate to say that the project was "good to go."

The account is detailed in a letter written by Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. In the letter, Cummings said that the whistleblower contacted his office in June and has authorized him to go public with the details. He did not name the whistleblower.

"These grave allegations compel a full, credible and bipartisan congressional investigation," Cummings wrote.

Flynn has been under investigation by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia's attempts to disrupt last year's election, for calls he made last December to Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States at the time. Flynn pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to the FBI about the nature of his calls, during which the men discussed the sanctions that the Obama administration had just imposed on Russia.

In his letter, Cummings also said that his staff had been in consultations with Mueller's team, which brought the criminal charge against Flynn. Staffers for the special counsel asked Cummings not to make the whistleblower's account public until "they completed certain investigative steps," he wrote.

According to the account detailed in the letter, the whistleblower had a conversation on Inauguration Day with Alex Copson of ACU Strategic Partners, a company that hired Flynn in 2015 as an adviser to develop a plan to work with Russia to build nuclear power plants throughout the Middle East. Flynn served as an adviser until June 2016.

[Emails counter White House claim that Flynn acted alone on Russia contacts]

During the conversation, Copson told the whistleblower that "this is the best day of my life" because it was "the start of something I've been working on for years, and we are good to go." Copson told the whistleblower that Flynn had sent him a text message during Trump's inaugural address, directing him to tell others involved in the nuclear project to continue developing their plans.

"This is going to make a lot of very wealthy people," Copson said.

Attempts to reach Copson Wednesday were unsuccessful. A lawyer for Flynn declined to comment.

The letter went on to say that "Mr. Copson explained that Gen. Flynn was making sure that sanctions would be 'ripped up' as one of his first orders of business and that this would allow money to start flowing into the project."

President Barack Obama first imposed economic sanctions on Russia in 2014, after Russia's military incursions in Crimea and Ukraine, and again last December to punish Russia for its attempts to disrupt the U.S. presidential election.

Earlier this year, various plans to lift the Russia sanctions circulated through the Trump administration, but Trump ultimately decided not to repeal the measures. Flynn lasted just 24 days as national security adviser before he was forced out amid questions about whether he lied to administration officials about the nature of his phone calls with Kislyak.

Cummings sent the letter to the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Committee, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and asked him to investigate the whistleblower's claims. The whistleblower, Cummings said, is willing to meet with Gowdy if he agrees to protect the person's identity.

"I do not bring this whistleblower to your attention lightly," Cummings said. "I have attempted to advance this investigation without exposing individuals to personal or professional risk. But the exceptionally troubling allegations in this case — combined with ongoing obstruction from the White House and others — have made this step necessary."

Cummings said Gowdy should subpoena the White House and the Flynn Intelligence Group, Flynn's former company, for documents that the House committee had requested in March but had not yet been provided. The subpoena to the White House should be for "all documents — including emails and text messages sent on personal devices" about Flynn's foreign contacts, payments and efforts to promote the proposal. Cummings said that Gowdy should subpoena Flynn, Copson and four others to testify before the panel.

Gowdy and Cummings have a long history of clashing publicly over politically charged investigations. Gowdy was the chairman of the special committee that investigated the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and Cummings was that panel's ranking member. As part of that investigation, Gowdy also scrutinized Hillary Clinton's use of a private email account when she was secretary of state.

In the letter, Cummings appeared to try to anticipate an argument that Gowdy might make — that he cannot investigate the whistleblower's claims as long as Flynn was still under investigation by Mueller's team.

"As chairman of the Benghazi select committee, you pursued your investigation of Hillary Clinton during an ongoing criminal investigation," Cummings wrote.

Unrelenting Southern California wildfires threaten thousands of homes

Wed, 2017-12-06 08:23

Ferocious wildfires continued to rage across Southern California on Wednesday, destroying hundreds of homes and forcing thousands of residents to flee as forecasters and officials warned that dangerous fires could endanger the region for days.

The wave of fires that broke out early this week spread quickly and mercilessly, with the largest blaze expanding across a region the size of Cleveland in a matter of hours. Emergency responders hurried to evacuate residents, protect homes and shut down roads across the region, even as authorities warned that the biggest fire was "still out of control" early Wednesday and keeping crews from entering the area.

This largest fire, known as the Thomas Fire, had erupted in Ventura County northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The Thomas Fire tore across 50,000 acres, destroyed hundreds of homes and forced 27,000 people to evacuate, most of whom were left wondering whether their residences were among those destroyed, officials said.

More than 1,000 firefighters were on the scene, county officials said in a notice posted online, but they were unable to enter the fire area "due to the intensity of the fire." Stretches of cities and communities were evacuated, while numerous schools across the area were shut down.

In Los Angeles County, firefighters rushed to respond to a pair of blazes. The Creek Fire north of downtown Los Angeles burned across 11,000 acres by Tuesday night, while the smaller Rye Fire churned through 5,000 acres.

The fires across the southern part of the state tore through neighborhoods, burning out cars and homes, sending thick waves of smoke into the air and leaving behind waves of ash and destruction. Thousands of people also lost power due to the fires.

Gov. Jerry Brown, D, declared states of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties due to the fires, and his office said the blazes threatened thousands of homes.

"It's critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so," Brown said in a statement.

So far, officials have not announced any deaths due to the fires, but they stressed that people faced mortal danger if they did not heed evacuation orders. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti, D, declared a state of emergency and said that more than 30 buildings had burned in the blaze. He also said that some 150,000 people lived in evacuation areas.

"We want to be really clear, folks," he said. "We have lost structures; we have not lost lives. Do not wait. Leave your homes."

Three firefighters in Los Angeles were injured and taken to a hospital, all in stable condition, according to local officials who did not elaborate on their injuries. A battalion chief in Ventura was injured in a traffic accident and was expected to recover.

The coming days could continue to present new risks of additional wildfires, authorities warned. Charlie Beck, the Los Angeles police chief, said the region was facing "a multiday event," adding: "This will not be the only fire."

These latest wildfires come during a brutal year for California, burning just months after deadly blazes in the state's wine country killed dozens of people and razed thousands of buildings. Wildfires need three things to start and spread – fuel, dry weather and an ignition source – and the fires this week had ready access to all three.

The fire's fuel was a year in the making. After an epic, multiyear drought, California finally got the rain and snow it needed last winter, and that allowed vegetation to rebound. The hills turned green and the brush thickened. But as the weather turned dry, it created plentiful amounts of fuel, which are now feeding the wildfires.

Cal Fire said it has moved resources from the northern part of the state to the south and prepared aircraft and fire equipment to respond. Tim Chavez with Cal Fire said a lack of rain in the region in recent months has made conditions particularly susceptible to a wildfire.

"This year . . . no rain came in September, October and November in Southern California. So we have incredibly desiccated dry fuels," he said.

The National Weather Service said the risks could last through Friday, issuing "red flag" warnings of heightened fire risk for Los Angeles and Ventura counties through Friday. A combination of low humidity and surging winds could lead to "very rapid fire growth" and "extreme fire behavior," the service warned.

Aerial images showed huge clouds of thick smoke billowing around the Los Angeles region.

Some people driven from their homes by the fires said they saw the danger that loomed.

"This is life in Southern California. This is where we live," said Mark Gennaro, who was told his home of 12 years was destroyed. "I stand on that back hill and I see all that brush and I'm like, 'Something's gonna happen at some point.'"

Those who escaped the fires reported apocalyptic scenes at their homes and when they tried to leave.

"The trees within the complex were already on fire," Lance Korthals, 66, who fled his apartment complex in Ventura. "I had to drive around the flames that were already flowing into the road."

Gena Aguayo, 53, of Ventura, said she saw fire "coming down the mountain." When Lorena Lara evacuated with her children on Tuesday morning after initially staying put, she said the wind was so strong it was blowing ashes into her home.

"I've never experienced something like that," said Lara, 42. "Maybe in Santa Barbara, but we didn't expect it here."

The Washington Post's Max Ufberg and Noah Smith in Ventura and Angela Fritz in Washington contributed to this report.

Six female Democratic senators call for Franken’s resignation over sexual harassment allegations

Wed, 2017-12-06 08:20

WASHINGTON – A group of six Senate Democratic women called Wednesday for Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., to resign amid mounting allegations of sexual harassment.

In a lengthy statement posted on Facebook, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said she was "shocked" and "disappointed" by several women's allegations that Franken inappropriately touched them. She was joined by Sens. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the highest-ranking woman among Senate Democrats.

"While Senator Franken is entitled to have the Ethics Committee conclude its review, I believe it would be better for our country if he sent a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn't acceptable by stepping aside to let someone else serve," Gillibrand wrote.

If he resigns, Franken would be the second member of Congress to step aside amid a recent reckoning over sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. Facing multiple accusations of inappropriate behavior around female aides, Rep. John Conyers , D-Mich., stepped down on Tuesday after more than half a century in Congress.

Franken has denied intentionally touching women inappropriately, issued several apologies and said he would not resign. He has said he will cooperate with an ongoing investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee.

In recent days, the Democratic women senators had spoken privately among themselves about the situation, agreeing that they could not tolerate Franken's presence as allegations continued trickling out.

"People were at the edge of their patience with this. They'd had enough. One more allegation was going to be it," said one senior aide, who was granted anonymity to describe private deliberations.

A second Senate aide familiar with the talks confirmed the private discussions among female senators.

– – –

The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe contributed to this article.

Patagonia’s billionaire owner says he’ll sue Trump over national monuments

Wed, 2017-12-06 07:25

Outdoor goods retailers Patagonia, REI and the North Face are firing back against President Donald Trump's executive order this week that would drastically reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah.

"The president stole your land," reads an overlay on Patagonia's website posted Monday afternoon. "This is the largest elimination of protected land in American history."

The California-based retailer has long been known for its environmental activism, but this week's political stance – and a promise by its founder to sue the Trump administration – represents a shift, experts say, in how corporations are speaking up, not just on behalf of their executives and employees, but also their customers.

"This is a sea change in activism like nothing I've ever seen," said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at public relations firm Weber Shandwick. "CEOs are not just raising flags anymore, they're actually taking action and asking their customers to do the same."

[Interior secretary backs shrinking more national monuments, shifting management of 10 others]

REI said on its website it would "continue to advocate for the places we all love," and urged its Twitter followers to change their profile photos to an icon that says "We [heart] our public lands." The North Face, meanwhile, announced it is donating $100,000 to develop a Bears Ears Education Center, and encouraged customers to contribute to a Kickstarter campaign to create it. As of Tuesday afternoon, it had raised nearly $124,000 from 1,700 people.

Together as a community, we need to put our money and our time where our hashtags are," the company said. "Together, let's build something real."

Trump said on Monday that would cut 2 million acres in public land as part of an effort to "reverse federal overreach." Bears Ears, which was established a year ago by President Barack Obama, would be slashed by 85 percent, while Grand Staircase-Escalante, established in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, would be cut by nearly half.

"Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington," he said at a rally in Salt Lake City. "And guess what? They're wrong."

"They don't know your land, and truly, they don't care for your land like you do," he added. "But from now on, that won't matter."

Yvon Chouinard, who founded Patagonia in 1973, begs to differ. The billionaire owner, who has spent the past four decades building a company focused on environmental issues and worker well-being, says he plans to take legal action against Trump.

"I'm going to sue him," Chouinard told CNN. "It's a shame that only 4 percent of American lands are national parks. We need more, not less. This government is evil and I'm not going to sit back and let evil win."

Chouinard stumbled into business by accident when, as a teenager, he began making his own steel tools for climbing. The metal spikes were so effective that he soon began selling them to friends. By the 1970s, he had expanded into clothing.

Today, the company sells a range of outdoors gear and recreational items. It has 2,200 employees and more than $800 million in annual revenue.

As the company has grown, Chouinard has continued to focus on employee well-being. Workers are encouraged to set their own hours, and the company was one of the first in the country to offer on-site child-care.

"We have a policy that when the surf comes up, you drop work and you go surfing," Chouinard said on an NPR podcast last year. "I don't care when you work as long as the job gets done."

Patagonia has also contributed heavily to environmental causes. Last year, the company said it would donate all of its Black Friday sales – a record $10 million – to local environmental organizations. It also donates 1 percent of its annual sales to environmental organizations and encourages its employees to take part in sustainability programs.

The retailer – along with REI, the North Face and many others – earlier this year signed an open letter criticizing Trumps' decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord.

"This is a company that knows exactly what it stands for," said Anthony Johndrow, chief executive of a reputation advisory firm in New York. "They've already established what their values are, so when something like this comes down the line, they don't have to think twice before they act."

Earlier this year, Patagonia took out its first-ever commercial – a one-minute television spot in which Chouinard talks about the importance of preserving national parks.

"Public lands have never been more threatened than right now," he says in the ad. "This belongs to us, this belongs to all of the people in America."

On Monday, Patagonia's chief executive doubled down on that message.

"The administration's unlawful actions betray our shared responsibility to protect iconic places for future generations and represent the largest elimination of protected land in American history," Rose Marcario said in a statement. "We've fought to protect these places since we were founded and now we'll continue that fight in the courts."

Which animals are smartest: Dogs, cats, or … raccoons?

Wed, 2017-12-06 06:02

Cat people and dog people have long sparred over which species possesses the best brains.

Team Cat points to the felines' self-reliance as a sign of intelligence. The animals can hunt, which isn't so great for wildlife but does showcase the cunning predator still lurking within lap kitties. Cats also clean themselves, relieve themselves in tidy litter boxes - or even toilets - and are generally better at food portion control than their canine housemates.

Team Dog cites the canines' ability to learn complex tasks, especially those that benefit humans. Dogs guide the blind, herd livestock, sniff out explosives and help find survivors buried beneath earthquake rubble. They also have strong memories and an impressive capacity to understand human language.

But as it turns out, all of this resume listing may be unnecessary. According to a new study published in Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, the best way to measure cognitive ability is to tally each animal's neurons.

Neurons are cells that communicate via electrical charge and populate the brain and central nervous system. They are the units that process information. While measuring intelligence is an incredibly difficult affair, Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a Vanderbilt University neuroscientist, and her colleagues believe their method of quantifying neurons in an animal's brain, especially in the cerebral cortex, is the most accurate tool for judging its capacity for complex thought.

So which animal comes out ahead in the Great Neuron Census? Brace yourselves, Team Cat.

"Dogs have about twice as many neurons as cats," said Herculano-Houzel, who wrote a book about brains called "The Human Advantage."

But wait: The average dog is larger than the average cat. Isn't it a given that dogs would have larger brains and therefore more neurons? This is where things get interesting.

The study found the overall mass of one's gray matter is not what's important. In addition to the dog and cat, the team examined brains from a domestic ferret, a banded mongoose, a raccoon, a striped hyena, an African lion and a brown bear. While the brown bear's brain was three times as large as the dog's, the dog's had more neurons. In fact, the brown bear's neuron count was similar to that of the cat, an animal whose brain is about 10 times smaller.

To put some numbers in play here, a cat has 250 million neurons in the cerebral cortex to a dog's 530 million. Both species are dwarfed by the average human, who clocks in at 16 billion cortical neurons.

But one of the more surprising insights from the research has nothing to do with cats, dogs or people. It's about raccoons, those "trash pandas" that have long been dismissed as vermin or vectors for the rabies virus. Within the raccoon's cat-sized brain lurks a dog-like number of neurons. So many, in fact, that if you were to look only at neuron count and brain size, you might mistake the raccoon for a small primate.

"And that is saying a lot," Herculano-Houzel said. "Because something that we found previously is that there's a huge difference between how many neurons you find in a primate or in a non-primate brain of the same size."

Jessica Perry Hekman, a veterinary geneticist at MIT and Harvard's Broad Institute, said there are a number of reasons to be cautious in interpreting the study's results. For one, she said, the link between neuron numbers and intelligence is anything but proven.

"Which isn't to say it's wrong," Hekman said, "but that it's definitely something that they're just starting out with and collecting information on."

The study also had a small sample size. With the exception of dogs, who contributed two brains to the study, each of the other species was represented by just one brain. (Good brains are hard to come by, Hekman acknowledged.)

The study's comparison of domesticated, wild and zoo animals could also have an important influence on the results, Hekman said. Researchers have found experience affects brain development, especially in early life: Rats raised in pens with lots of enrichment, like toys or complicated territory to explore, develop more synapses, or connections between neurons, than rats raised in barren pens. So it's possible the life history of the analyzed hyena or mongoose played a role in its brain anatomy. Hekman said she thinks an animal's number of synapses, rather than neurons, might be a more accurate measure of its intelligence.

But the biggest problem, and the one both Hekman and Herculano-Houzel are trying to solve, is intelligence is a tough nut to crack. In fact, it may be several different nuts. Each species has distinct skills and challenges.

"I'm not even really sure we should call intelligence one trait," Hekman said. "It's a lot of different things."

Even if this paper is not the definitive guide to animal intelligence, it reveals some interesting data. For instance, why did the larger carnivores like the lion and bear have fewer neurons than we'd expect for animals of their size?

According to Herculano-Houzel, it's not that larger predators can get away with being stupid. At the study's outset, she and her team guessed predators would have significantly more neurons than the prey they hunted, because they reasoned that hunting is a more challenging way of life. Most lion hunts end in failure, for instance, and every day is a battle to consume sufficient calories to make it to the next kill. A wildebeest, on the other hand, can fill up on plants at its leisure and form large herds that minimize its chances of turning into lion lunch.

Instead, the team found lions and hyenas had similar ranges of neurons as prey animals of relative size, like the blesbok and kudu.

But wouldn't it make sense for evolution to produce increasingly brainy predators, whose cunning would translate into catching more prey? Well, yes, but even evolution has to work on a budget.

"Neurons, especially neurons in the cerebral cortex, are extremely energetically expensive," Herculano-Houzel said. "There is a point where you cannot afford both a huge body and a large number of neurons."

The science of comparing animals is still evolving, and Herculano-Houzel said it would be great to consistently incorporate neuronal information with studies of behavior. It would also be valuable to count the neurons of many brains from the same species to get a better range, as Hekman suggested. The dog neuron counts came from just two animals, a mixed breed and a golden retriever. Who knows what sorts of differences one might find between Chihuahuas, mastiffs and corgis?

For the moment, it seems the jury is still out on whether dogs or cats are smarter - not that a few million neurons would change a pet owner's mind anyway.

Now, who wants to start rooting for Team Raccoon?

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