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Letter: Turnagain Arm exit

Mon, 2019-02-18 13:50

I very much appreciated Thomas Thibodeau’s letter to the editor about a possible causeway across Turnagain Arm. I wrote something similar to the editor a few years ago. I don’t recall if it was ever published. A safety factor needs to be considered for the Kenai Peninsula.

I live in Soldotna and often think about a second exit for the Kenai. During the summer fishing months, traffic can be backed up for more than a mile at the Sterling-Seward Highway junction on a Sunday afternoon, headed back to Anchorage. We travel very seldom to Anchorage, only when necessary. We missed being covered by an avalanche by a few minutes one winter evening, so we were told. It would be interesting to determine how many times traffic has been stopped over the years or the train has been stopped for the same reason, not to mention traffic deaths. Public safety should be figured in here at some point.

The letter I sent in suggested a bridge that would handle large trucks, cars and trains, saving fuel, time, distance and lives. Can it be done? Of course. Some of the larger bridges in the world start at 20 miles or more in length, built by countries with less funds than we have. Oil money, here we come. Give our engineers something to think about. The bore tides might be worked in to provide electric power. Reduced wear and tear on the Seward Highway would certainly be a plus. Pipeines would certainly be easier to maintain. The oil companies, the state-owned rail system should get in on the act.

The Kenai Peninsula needs another safety exit. The next earthquake just might move further south. We live here because we want to, and I would like to continue living.

- Darrell Marshall

Soldotna

Have something on your mind? Send to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Letters under 200 words have the best chance of being published. Writers should disclose any personal or professional connections with the subjects of their letters. Letters are edited for accuracy, clarity and length.

Letter: Alaska’s resources include more than just minerals

Mon, 2019-02-18 13:45

Eric Fjelstad and Bill Jeffress wrote that “interests are … advocating that Alaska’s resources should stay in the ground …” They imply that “Alaska’s resources” only include Big Industry’s goals — oil, gas, and minerals. Not true! For many Alaskans, our resources also include clean water, healthy fish stocks, caribou and other wildlife, even forests and tundra — and the economies and cultures that depend on them. Industrial development can coexist in some places with renewable resources and local economies — if permit issuers care about these things.

Fjelstad and Jeffress think no one should complain that “the EIS … did not fully address the impacts of the project.” But developers do omit major information about impacts on people and the environment. Two examples from Pebble’s permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: They propose to store toxic mine waste safely underwater in their post-production pit lake — but actually, such lakes are a brew of strong acid and toxic metals, because their water is mixed and oxidized by wind. Examples are in Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Australia and Europe. Secondly, Pebble’s socioeconomic studies in the Nushagak Bay area (downstream from the mine site) were never finished — yet this part of Bristol Bay had the healthiest salmon runs, commercial fishing and sport-fishing businesses in 2017!

Another half-truth from industry: David Prum wrote “Why the Ambler road makes sense.” This road would “make sense” only if a mine was already permitted in the Ambler district. That mine would leave behind a lake like Pebble’s — full of sulfuric acid and toxic metals. Let’s wait until an EIS evaluates the hazards of mining before building a road to (possibly) nowhere.

- Vivian Mendenhall

Anchorage

Have something on your mind? Send to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Letters under 200 words have the best chance of being published. Writers should disclose any personal or professional connections with the subjects of their letters. Letters are edited for accuracy, clarity and length.

Governor’s cuts would eliminate payouts that protect public assistance after PFDs issued

Mon, 2019-02-18 13:29

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has proposed ending Alaska’s longstanding practice of providing payments so people don’t lose food stamps and other benefits after Permanent Fund dividends arrive, fueling criticism from lawmakers who call it another swipe at rural and poor residents.


Donna Arduin, head of the Office of Management and Budget, speaks at a press conference where Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy announced his budget proposal Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019 at the State Capitol. (James Brooks / ADN)

The proposed $17.7 million elimination of the so-called hold-harmless provision, requiring a change in law, would end the state support that prevents many Alaskans from exceeding income limits for welfare programs when the state distributes the oil-wealth checks each October.

The plan is part of Dunleavy’s sweeping proposal to close a $1.6 billion budget deficit, presenting changes that he has said will impact all Alaskans but that some argue is falling heaviest on remote or struggling populations.

State budget director Donna Arduin said last week the budget cuts will affect residents statewide.

“As the governor has said, as I have said, we have been overspending for years, writing checks that we can’t cash,” Arduin said Wednesday. “So there’s going to be an impact (on) everyone that receives state funds or relies on state funds.”

“We would say there’d be a lesser impact of getting this fiscal situation straightened out and beginning to grow our economy,” she said.

On Friday, the Alaska Federation of Natives, representing 140,000 people including many in rural areas, denounced the proposed budget as “contentious and ill-conceived” in a written statement.

“The governor’s budget appears divisive by design, pitting Alaskans against each other and against industry at a time when just the opposite is needed," said Julie Kitka, president of AFN. “This is not the solution for a fiscally stable future for our state.”

Removing the payment will impact 36,000 “duplicated beneficiaries," a reference to people who in some cases benefit from multiple assistance programs, said Shawnda O’Brien, director of the state Division of Public Assistance.

It’s possible that fewer than 36,000 individuals would be affected, she said. She could not immediately provide the exact number late Friday.

The hold-harmless payments each year ensure people don’t lose food stamps or benefits paid to the elderly, blind or disabled under the Adult Public Assistance and Supplemental Security Income programs.

The payments also replace benefits that would be lost under the Alaska Temporary Assistance program, helping people with children at home who perhaps lost a job and need help, O’Brien said.

The governor’s proposals attempt to responsibly resolve the state’s fiscal crisis, said Laura Cramer, deputy director at OMB. His plan to issue full dividend checks will help counter the budget reductions by putting more money in Alaskans’ hands.

“There’s a broader picture that needs to be looked at,” Cramer said. “It’s the position of Gov. Dunleavy that an individual can spend money better than the government.”

The governor in January proposed a plan calling for dividend payments exceeding $4,000 this year, next year and in 2021. That’s the amount of the annual payment under state law plus a supplemental payment equal to the amount reduced by Gov. Bill Walker and legislators the last three years.

Those big checks would come with a bite for many Alaskans if the hold-harmless provision is stripped, reducing or eliminating public-assistance benefits for months after incomes are pushed too high, critics of the proposed repeal said.

The hold-harmless benefit provides an important safety net for people and families, said Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, in a prepared statement.

“Cutting the PFD hold-harmless program, alongside the unprecedented level of cuts proposed this week, will compound harm and have devastating impacts for vulnerable Alaskans across the state who rely on public assistance to put food on the table and make ends meet,” Zulkosky said.

The state has made the payments annually for decades from the earnings of the $60 billion Alaska Permanent Fund. It’s part of the administrative costs listed on the annual checks Alaskans receive, said Neil Steininger, chief budget analyst at OMB.

State officials are in the process of drafting legislation that would eliminate the hold-harmless provision, he said.

Also underway is an effort to reduce the impact on people if the state support ends, Steininger said.

One idea being explored would allow people to receive their full dividend in monthly installments, rather than the current lump-sum payment, to reduce the chance that eligibility requirements will be exceeded.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, opposes eliminating the hold-harmless payments, said Denise Liccioli, his chief of staff.

Even if the PFD payments are made monthly, the extra income will still trigger the loss of critical benefits for many people, she said.

Olson believes that proposal and others will hit rural regions especially hard, Liccioli said.

Olson also opposes Dunleavy’s proposal to move the money in the $1.1 billion Power Cost Equalization Endowment Fund -- created years ago to bring enormous rural energy costs in line with lower prices paid in cities -- into the general fund, where the power payments must compete with other programs for approval.

Dunleavy proposes funding the PCE payments at $32 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

But ending the endowment fund will put future PCE payments at risk, said Liccioli.

Olson also opposes Dunleavy’s idea to shift property-tax income from municipalities to the state, boosting state revenues by $400 million after repealing local governments’ ability to levy taxes on oilfield infrastructure. The remote North Slope Borough would lose $372 million.

“This is an attack on rural Alaska and the needy,” Liccioli said.

Suspect in killing at Spenard Road hotel admitted pulling trigger, police say

Mon, 2019-02-18 13:14

A 20-year-old man admitted shooting and killing another man at a Spenard Road hotel Saturday night, authorities said in charging documents released Monday.

Theandrea Luster, charged with murder, admitted that he shot Javon Diggs, a Barratt Inn employee, several times in the chest, according to an affidavit filed Sunday by Anchorage police detective Jade Baker.

Luster initially denied being in the Barratt Inn on Saturday but later admitted shooting of Diggs, 40, after the detective showed Luster security footage of himself and family members at the scene, according to the affidavit.

Luster caught investigators’ attention about 2 a.m. Sunday when police were called to a “disturbance” at an apartment building at 323 Meyer St. in Mountain View, possibly involving suspects at the inn shooting five hours earlier, Baker wrote.

Police found Luster, who was on probation, with a 9mm handgun. Luster had previous criminal convictions on Nov. 13 for disorderly conduct and fifth-degree weapons misconduct, and Oct. 25 for first-degree vehicle theft, the affidavit said.

When Luster was taken to Anchorage Police Department headquarters, Detective Baker recognized him from the video at the inn, the affidavit says.

During an interview with Baker and another officer at 3:30 a.m. Sunday, Baker showed Luster a photograph that put him at the shooting scene, wearing the same clothing.

Luster told authorities his mother, Ygnacia Vidal, and his brother, Kenneth Horton, had gone to the hotel, possibly to spend the night there, the affidavit said.

Luster said his mother wanted to visit Diggs, also called “Flip," because the hotel employee “owed her something.”

Outside room 2304, which was registered to Diggs, he began arguing and shoved Luster’s mother and brother aside, Luster told authorities.

Diggs reached “aggressively” into his belt, Luster said. In response, Luster pulled out his pistol and shot Diggs several times, he said.

Luster said he did not know whether Diggs had a gun. Luster and others fled out the hotel’s main entrance.

Luster said he never saw Diggs hit the ground.

British lawmakers quit Labour Party over approach to Brexit and anti-Semitism

Mon, 2019-02-18 13:06

Chaka Umunna speaks alongside Luciana Berger, left, and Angela Smith, right, during a press conference to announce the new political party, The Independent Group, in London, Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. Seven British Members of Parliament say they are quitting the main opposition Labour Party over its approach to issues including Brexit and anti-Semitism. Many Labour MPs are unhappy with the party's direction under leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist who took charge in 2015 with strong grass-roots backing. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth) (Kirsty Wigglesworth/)

LONDON — Seven British lawmakers quit the main opposition Labour Party on Monday over its approach to Brexit and anti-Semitism — the biggest shake-up in years for one of Britain’s major political parties.

The announcement ripped open a long-simmering rift between socialists and centrists in the party, which sees itself as the representative of Britain's working class. It's also the latest fallout from Britain's decision to leave the European Union, which has split both of the country's two main parties — Conservatives and Labour — into pro-Brexit and pro-EU camps.

Many Labour lawmakers have been unhappy with the party's direction under leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist who took charge in 2015 with strong grass-roots backing. They accuse Corbyn of mounting a weak opposition to Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May's plans for leaving the EU, and of failing to stamp out a vein of anti-Semitism in the party.

Those leaving Labour have between nine and 27 years' experience in Parliament and represent constituencies across England but still make up only a small fraction of Labour's 256 lawmakers, or of the 650 total members of Parliament. But this is the biggest split in the Labour Party since four senior members quit in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party.

Luciana Berger, one of those who quit Monday, said Labour had become "institutionally anti-Semitic."

"I am leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation," the 37-year-old politician said at a news conference alongside six colleagues.

Labour leaders have admitted that Berger, who is Jewish and pregnant, has been bullied by some members of her local party in northwest England.

Labour has been riven by allegations that the party has become hostile to Jews under Corbyn, a longtime supporter of the Palestinians. Corbyn's supporters accuse political opponents and right-wing media of misrepresenting his views.

There have long been signs that British voters' 2016 decision to leave the EU could spark a major overhaul of British politics. May's own Conservatives are in the throes of a civil war between the party's pro-Brexit and pro-EU wings. Labour is also split.

Many Labour members oppose Brexit — which is scheduled to take place in less than six weeks, on March 29 — and want the party to fight to hold a new national referendum that could keep Britain in the 28-nation bloc.

But Corbyn, who spent decades criticizing the EU before becoming a lukewarm convert to the "remain" cause in the 2016 referendum, is reluctant to do anything that could be seen as defying voters' decision to leave.

"I am furious that the leadership is complicit in facilitating Brexit, which will cause great economic, social and political damage to our country," said Mike Gapes, one of the departing lawmakers.

Gapes said he had been a Labour Party member for half a century and "have always considered myself Labour to my core."

The seven members of Parliament said they will continue to sit in the House of Commons as the newly formed Independent Group.

Corbyn said he was "disappointed that these MPs have felt unable to continue to work together for the Labour policies that inspired millions at the last election and saw us increase our vote by the largest share since 1945."

The Labour lawmakers who quit in 1981 eventually became today's Liberal Democrats, a centrist party that has failed to topple the dominance of the two bigger parties.

The new group of seven stopped short of forming a new political party, but the seeds have been sown. The new group has a name, a website and a statement of principles, which argues for a mix of pro-businesses and social-welfare measures and a pro-Western foreign policy that is closer to the "New Labour" of former Prime Minister Tony Blair than to Corbyn's old-school socialism.

Their statement said the Labour Party "now pursues policies that would weaken our national security; accepts the narratives of states hostile to our country; has failed to take a lead in addressing the challenge of Brexit and to provide a strong and coherent alternative to the Conservatives' approach."

The departing lawmakers said they would not be joining the Liberal Democrats, and urged members of other parties to help them create a new centrist force in British politics.

"We do not think any of the major parties is fit for power," said lawmaker Angela Smith. "People feel politically homeless and they are asking and begging for an alternative."

Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds, said history suggests the breakaway group will struggle to gain traction in British politics.

“It’s very cold out there as an independent,” she said. “It’s all well and good leaving because you believe the party has moved away from you, but you can often achieve more from being inside the tent.”

Despite Republicans’ ire, Knopp says he won’t resign or change party

Mon, 2019-02-18 12:31

Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, speaks at breakfast event hosted by the Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce on Friday in Kenai. Knopp has been a central figure in the gridlock in the Alaska House of Representatives this session as he refused to join a prospective 21-member Republican majority caucus. (Photo by Elizabeth Earl)

KENAI — Despite pressure from Republicans in his own district, Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, defended his actions in the Alaska House of Representatives and said he won’t resign or change his party affiliation.

During a breakfast hosted by the Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce Friday, he told attendees that he chose to break from a fragile Republican majority with the minimum 21 members because it was destined to fail.

“We had no chance of functioning or succeeding the way it was,” he said. “In a 21-member coalition, you had virtually no experience.”

Knopp has been at the center of controversy as he defied his party and refused to caucus with House Republicans.

District 30 Republicans had passed a resolution last Monday offering Knopp an ultimatum: Either join a Republican majority, or resign. After Knopp voted against electing Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy, as House speaker a day later, Republicans in District 30 launched a “Recall Gary Knopp” Facebook page aimed at pressuring him to join the Republican caucus or face the consequences.

On Thursday, as Dillingham Rep. Bryce Edgmon — who recently switched his affiliation from Democratic to undeclared — was elected House speaker, Knopp was traveling back to Kenai to visit with constituents through Sunday. Knopp was excused from that floor session.

Now, Edgmon will preside over a chamber with a coalition majority composed of 15 Democrats, two independents and eight Republicans, including Knopp.

Some attendees of Friday’s event offered support for Knopp’s decision while others told Knopp they were disappointed. One asked that he switch his affiliation to Democrat if he wouldn’t vote with a Republican majority.

“You can’t define ‘Republican,’” Knopp said. “I’ve never voted down party lines. I’ve always been an issue-by-issue candidate, and I’ll remain that way. I think the Republican Party has done more to divide us as Republicans in the last couple of years than any time in our state history. I think we’re on a path of correction now … I’ll remain Republican, I’ll always vote the issues, not on the party.”

Knopp explained that during the initial organization days, he saw sharp philosophical divides even among the Republicans. Many members of the House have served fewer than two terms — including Knopp, who was elected to the seat in 2016 — and that level of inexperience has led to disorganization and would have caused the caucus to later implode, Knopp said.

“I could see the divide in the opinions, and I could see the campaign promises,” he said. “I could see that big divide on the policy issues that we hadn’t begun to broach or have the discussion. I knew when we got to Juneau, if we had fixed them or resolved them … my fear was when we got to Juneau, we organized as 21, we got to those policy decisions, our divide would be so great we would never fix it.”

On Friday, Feb. 8, he said he approached the Republicans and said he’d be their 21st vote to “move the needle” after a month of gridlock in the House. But the next day, he said he discussed concerns about the caucus’s instability with Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, who proposed putting his name forward as speaker of the House.

During the floor session Tuesday, Feb. 12, Stutes moved his name forward, where a confirmation for him as speaker failed 20-20. Republicans said they felt misled after Knopp had promised them that he would support a Republican speaker.

Knopp said he had engaged with conversations with Stutes’ coalition about possibly moving his name forward as speaker but that it was their idea.

“They were more interested in the coalition concept,” he said. “… I didn’t know who they were going to put forward, even up to the day that they did it. They were very concerned. So we took a shot, we put my name forward, I voted for myself. If one of them would have supported me, we would have had a Republican speaker, and we could have coalesced around that concept. That didn’t happen.”

Things are different in the state, he said. Members of the Legislature don’t have bargaining chips like capital projects funds to grease the wheels for votes between the caucuses anymore, “driving the need for this discussion,” he said.

Among the crowd of about 100 people were former Reps. Kurt Olson, whom Knopp replaced in 2016, and Mike Chenault, who served as speaker of the House for four terms and explored a run for governor in 2018 before pulling out just before the filing deadline. Both said they had never seen deadlock in the House organization like this year. Olson referenced Knopp’s comments about the inexperience of the members of the House.

“We were always organized within a day or two after the election,” Olson said.

Both said they weren’t surprised to see the magnitude of the cuts in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget this year, but they expected the Legislature to restore some funding before the session is over. Dunleavy, however, does still wield the line-item veto if they restore too much, Chenault noted.

The Legislature has been debating whether to raise revenue or drastically cut the budget for the last four years, with few to no long-term solutions. Chenault said the legislators will have to have similar debates with this budget on the floor.

“I think a lot of Alaskans are figuring out what state the state is really in,” Chenault said. “Do you fill that hole or do you find that funding somewhere else?”

Knopp also offered some critiques of Dunleavy’s budget, which would impact the Kenai area. High on that list was the removal of some financial support for the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., which has been heading the development of the Alaska LNG Project.

The project’s plans include building a natural gas liquefaction plant on about 800 acres in Nikiski, a massive economic boon to an area that has lost oil and gas producers in the past decade.

Though he’s been optimistic in the past, Knopp said Dunleavy’s budget seems to spell an end for the project.

“I wanted to see it go through at least to the permitting stage and have those guys looking for markets for that gas,” he said. “For all practical purposes, it seems to be dead at this point. I hope to see it through to the final permitting stage, the EIS (environmental impact statement) … I believe the governor’s intent would be to engage industry back into that project.”

Dunleavy’s budget slices more than $1.6 billion from the state’s budget. Cutting that much from the budget in one fell swoop seems harsh, Knopp said, and while he said he wants to see responsible spending, Dunleavy’s approach seems too broad.

“I’ve never seen an administrator wield a big ax and take this approach to right-sizing government,” he said. “There’s a methodical, analytical approach to what we do, and that’s having the conversations.”

Spring break is coming, and there are plenty of reasons for families to spend it in Alaska

Mon, 2019-02-18 12:30

Exploring the shoreline of Prince William Sound with Lazy Otter Charters one March afternoon during spring break, 2016. (Photo by Erin Kirkland) (Erin Kirkland/)

Attention, parents: March 8 is just around the corner. That’s the day schools across Alaska open their doors and release students for spring break.

Of course, the term “spring” in reference to a season still very much looking like winter is a misnomer in Alaska, especially when advertisements for swimsuits, sunscreen and beach chairs start appearing.

While many families do take this March break as an opportunity to jet south to warmer places in the final push toward true springtime, lots of us don’t. We stick around our home state to experience increased sunshine, warmer temperatures and abundant outdoor recreation.

Alaska’s spring-break benefits also come in the form of early-season deals and opportunities to get kids outside to explore before the rush of summer visitors begins.

The options are plentiful and range from day trips to overnight adventures meant to spark kids’ curiosity. Spending spring break at home? There’s a lot to see and do.

GET OUT ON THE WATER

March is an excellent time to explore Alaska’s waterways, especially when gray whales are making their way north from Mexico.

This spring, Major Marine Tours is offering gray whale tours early -- starting March 9 -- so Alaskans can take advantage of the opportunity. The four-hour cruise departs from Seward and explores Resurrection Bay, spotting other wildlife along the way, for $89/adults, $44.50/kids 2-11.

Have a larger family or visitors heading to Alaska over the break? It might be worth considering a smaller vessel for your own personal tour. Seward Ocean Excursions offers a 3.5-hour custom tour around Resurrection Bay for $164 per person for up to six people. Yes, it’s more expensive, but captain Bixler McClure can nose his smaller boats, Missing Lynx and Lost Lynx, into the coves of the bay, spotting otters, porpoise and orca in addition to the aforementioned gray whales.

In Whittier, Lazy Otter Charters is rolling out springtime sightseeing cruises into Blackstone Bay. I took this trip one March with visiting friends and it was breathtaking. Prince William Sound’s towering, snow-covered mountains and flat-calm water of the bay made for stunning scenery, and Lazy Otter crew members delivered our group to a rocky beach near Beloit and Blackstone glaciers, where we had the chance to explore a bit before heading back to town.

At $175 per person for 3.5 hours of cruising, it’s more expensive than other trips, but if you’re looking for something unusual for spring break, this definitely meets the criteria.

OR, HEAD NORTH

Longer days mean more time to explore the area between Talkeetna and Denali National Park, and the area’s visitor industry is responding with special dates and rates related to spring break.

Many families drive the 2.5 hours north to Talkeetna from Anchorage, but it’s worth noting the Alaska Railroad has added midweek departures from Anchorage and Fairbanks and points between, making it easier than ever to enjoy a family getaway.

A favorite trip of many families is to hop aboard the train in Anchorage and travel to Talkeetna, arriving just before lunch. Guests to this little town have a multitude of lodging options.

What can you do in Talkeetna? Ski or fat-tire bike the trails near town or at Talkeetna Lakes Park not far away, bake a pie at the Talkeetna Roadhouse in a special package with the Alaska Railroad, or stay up late and view the aurora borealis.

Don’t have skis or fat bikes? North Shore Cyclery rents bikes and skis to fit even small children, and they’ve also got a line of Altai brand skis -- short, fat skis with skins attached to the bottom and metal edges on the sides. They are perfect for breaking trail and playing in the fresh powder.

Want to venture farther up the Parks Highway? Denali National Park’s offerings are abundant during March, and with temperatures at a more reasonable level, it’s also a lot more fun for kids.

While the park’s main visitor center stays closed during the winter, the Murie Science and Learning Center is headquarters for information, activities and free snowshoes to borrow while you’re on the park property.

We like to take our cross-country skis or bikes and explore the trails near the entrance area, most of which are in excellent shape and perfect for youngsters. The trails around the sled dog kennels are also a great option, and it’s fun to watch rangers take their teams out for a skijor when they aren’t away patrolling the backcountry.

For lodging, visitors have a few options, staying near the park entrance at Tonglen Lake Lodge and cooking their own meals, or heading 11 miles north to the town of Healy. We’ve stayed at the Denali Dome Home and enjoyed the “bed and breakfast” service, and the Denali Lakeview Inn a few miles away, where meals are not provided but the skiing around Otto Lake is delightful. The Denali Chamber of Commerce has more information about lodging and dining during winter around Denali National Park as well.

This is my last regular column for the Anchorage Daily News. I've enjoyed sharing Alaska's outdoor spaces with readers and hearing stories about family adventures around the Last Frontier. While I won't be writing a regular column for ADN anymore, I will be expanding to other platforms and am excited to explore more places in different ways.

Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series and publishes the family travel website AKontheGO.com.

Placing a value on education

Mon, 2019-02-18 11:51

iStock (Getty Images/iStockphoto/)

I’m not an educator, but my job sometimes requires me to step into classrooms, make calls to the Department of Education and Early Development, and attend meetings of the education committee for the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education. I try to work with educators for positive outcomes, but I also often find myself on the other end of the table from school administrators who are proposing that parents of students with disabilities accept special education plans that don’t fully meet the needs of their students.

While special education plans are supposed to be driven by the student’s individual need rather than cost, the uncomfortable topic of funding always lurks below the surface of any discussion about what services a school is willing to provide. There is a reason for this (even if it is not appropriate in the context of special education). If I asked you to picture an educator, it would be more accurate for you to picture someone who drives a 30-year-old car held together by duct tape than to picture one of those crusty university elites that pundits would have you watch out for.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget would cut $310 million from the state Department of Education and Early Development. Separately, it would also cut $134 million from the University of Alaska. This would be devastating for the children with disabilities that I represent. It would also be devastating to the educators that I advocate and sometimes disagree with.

Alaska’s geographic size and spread out population creates many unique challenges. Educating children in Alaska faces many of the same challenges. Just as a teacher in a classroom must balance between time spent helping advanced learners excel while also helping the struggling students understand the curriculum, the state of Alaska has to balance considerations about the needs of students in school districts in population hubs, such as the Anchorage School District or Mat-Su School District, with the need to provide access to an education for students in rural districts like the Northwest Arctic Borough School District or the Alaska Gateway School District.

The most recent state education rankings by the U.S. News and World Report rank Alaska at 40th out of the 50 states. But the news isn’t all bad. According to Education Week, graduation rates in Alaska improved by more than 10 percent between the 2010-2011 school year and the 2016-2017 school year. Despite the very real challenges that exist, there is room for continued progress. This progress is put at risk by the reckless budget cuts that the Dunleavy administration proposes.

Gov. Dunleavy touted his experience as a school superintendent during the campaign, but he proposes a budget that would create a lost generation of Alaska students. The educational opportunities available to the children I represent will be curtailed. Many of them will be forced into larger classrooms as there will be fewer teachers to teach the same number of students. Larger class sizes can have a negative effect on students in general. However, for students with disabilities that have individualized education needs, this negative effect will be compounded.

Additionally, meetings where school administrators have to dance around the topic of funding as they discuss the lower level of services they are willing to provide will become more common. They’ll need to get creative with where they make up for a $310 million shortfall, and that will fall on special education, even if they can’t talk about it at meetings. These budget cuts will harm more than just the students I represent.

Educators who are dismissed because of budget cuts will create a large pool of unemployed people in a specialized profession that suddenly has very few openings. Many of them are likely to leave Alaska to find new jobs, a phenomenon known as “brain drain.” The brain drain won’t stop with the educators, though. Graduating high-schoolers will be more likely to look Outside for college after the University of Alaska takes the 40 percent budget hit that the Dunleavy administration has aimed at it. After they leave, they will need opportunities in Alaska to bring them back.

Legislators should reject the Dunleavy budget proposal. We as community members can contact our local legislators and encourage them to do so. When we fail to place value on education, we are failing to place value on the entire Alaska community.

Chad Hansen is a staff attorney with the Disability Law Center of Alaska. The views expressed in this commentary are his own and do not represent those of the Disability Law Center. He lives in Anchorage with his family.

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)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Tribal governments’ concerns about Donlin mine are ignored

Mon, 2019-02-18 11:22

Donlin Gold mine work camp and runway are seen from the air. The project is about 150 miles northeast of Bethel and 280 miles west of Anchorage. (Lisa Demer / ADN archive) (Unknown/)

With the onslaught of state permits issued and proposed in recent weeks, it bears repeating that the Donlin project is not nearly as benign as incoming DNR Commissioner Corri Feige would have us believe. If it is constructed, the proposed Donlin gold mine will be one of the world’s largest open-pit mines. The project will dramatically change the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, threatening the health and well-being of residents, communities and wildlife for generations. There are also social and cultural impacts that come with the boom bust economic reality of mining finite resources at this scale and the tremendous influx of population in our region, which will have complex impacts that Commissioner Feige chooses to ignore.

In her recent opinion article in which Commissioner Feige promoted the project, she touted local consultation with, and buy-in from, our communities on the Kuskokwim River. To that point, let us assure you that the views on this project delivered by corporate employees of the Kuskokwim and Calista corporations are in no way representative of the majority of the people of the region I have been hearing from every day. In fact my tribe, along with 12 others, has adopted resolutions of formal opposition to the Donlin project.

Our position of opposition was taken looking to our friends near other large mines around Alaska as examples of what to expect should a large mine be permitted here. There, tribal citizens are often dealing with the immense challenge of how to deal with contamination that has been deemed worth the economic benefit for relatively few local jobs and huge profits immediately shipped overseas.

Even within the borders of the capital city, the state of Alaska has long been uninterested in addressing the real impacts of an ore spill at the Greens Creek dock in 1989 or ongoing fugitive lead-laden dust being spread to the forest and waterways, where local clams now have three to six times as much lead as before mining, according to the DNR website. A seal was recently harvested near the mine with some of the highest levels of mercury contamination ever recorded in Alaska, well above a safe level for human consumption. Now the mine has successfully lobbied the Board of Game to limit public access to a popular deer hunting spot close to Juneau.

Donlin’s proposed reclamation and closure plan is of great concern to us. I would like to see a plan that protects our descendants who will have to live with the consequences of this closure plan for all time. To close this mine, Donlin is proposing a mountain of mining waste and a pit lake of two square miles that will be polluted forever, requiring water treatment forever —and that is if everything goes according to plan. If things go wrong, as is normally the case for large mines, the consequences could be much worse for our communities, for our children, and for their children.

Pollutants and impacts from Donlin will affect our communities, culture, and the food and water upon which or people depend for our health and our customary and traditional way of life. Donlin would have a footprint of about 25 square miles. The open pit would be more than two miles long, one mile wide and nearly 2,000 feet deep. Also, a 40 million gallon tank farm for diesel fuel is the energy needed for mining operations would be supplied via a 315 mile pipeline from Cook Inlet. The pipeline would cross streams for anadromous and resident fish species at 77 locations. Waste materials from the mine, called tailings, would be stored in a man-made pond held back by a 450-foot-tall dam.

What we’re asking for is an honest assessment of the Donlin mine, one that truly takes into account the risks to our land and our people. So far, we have been given a fast-tracked process along with broad and vague assurances from an ever-changing cast of politicians. While politicians come and go like the weather but we will be the ones who have to pick up the pieces when the storm has passed. The local people deserve for our voice to be heard and welcome additional opportunity for dialogue with the new state administration.

Peter Evon is originally from Akiachak on the Kuskokwim River approximately 20 miles north of Bethel. He and his wife Katherine Evon have five children, ages two to 11. Evon grew up subsistence hunting and fishing and serves as Executive Director of the Bethel Orutsararmiut Traditional Native Council. He served as the Environmental Director for Akiachak Native Community before moving to Bethel several years ago.

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)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Children’s play is critical for healthy development

Mon, 2019-02-18 10:47

Children in the Southwestern Alaska village of Hooper Bay play on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

Some doctors are starting to write a very different kind of prescription for their young patients — a strong recommendation to “play every day.”

While this may sound curious or frivolous to some, research shows that unstructured play is an essential building block for healthy child development. Unfortunately, children today have fewer opportunities to play and grow in healthy ways, which negatively affects their ability to decrease stress, overcome adverse childhood experiences, learn positive social behaviors and develop higher-level reasoning skills. The lack of play affects not only children and families, but also schools, communities and society.

Dr. Michael Yogman, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a leading pediatrician studying the benefits of play. He recently authored “The Power of Play,” published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. On Feb. 21, from 7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, Dr. Yogman will lead a community panel on the importance of physical activity and play for our youth and community health.

Earlier that day, hundreds of Alaska students will participate in a statewide event called PLAAY (Positive Leadership for Active Alaska Youth) Day, with children completing organized physical activity all at the same time in schools. This event helps kids get closer to the recommended 60 minutes of daily activity. Our Department of Health and Social Services and its Play Every Day campaign support the school event and community panel and encourage children to play and grow up healthy.

What has led to the loss of play? This generation faces a multitude of barriers that limit unstructured, child-directed play. An increasing societal emphasis on academic results has shifted the focus during early learning and preschool from social emotional skills to building math and reading skills. More families have both parents working or just one parent raising a child. Finding quality child care adds stress to families. For some, playgrounds, parks and neighborhoods don’t feel safe enough for children in today’s world. Other families, with the best intentions, enrich but inadvertently over-schedule their children’s time with organized activities such as team sports or lessons. There is also no denying that increased screen time and social media interaction has replaced outdoor play.

Children’s playtime decreased by 25 percent between 1981 and 1997, according to Dr. Yogman. Children ages 3–11 have lost 12 hours per week of free time.

Dr. Yogman also describes the crucial role that different types of play have on a child’s development. Child-led play and exploration builds a child’s ability to function effectively in our increasingly complex world. It does this from the appearance of a baby’s first smiles and simple reciprocal games like peek-a-boo to a child’s exploration of objects and more sophisticated interactions with caregivers and other children.

Through play, children learn how to plan and carry out tasks, negotiate turn-taking and interact with others. Play helps build communication skills that blossom from uncontrollable crying to whining to using words to ask for help.

Play guided by nurturing adults is also important. When an adult encourages and guides a child in play, a process called scaffolding allows children to increase learning beyond what they have already mastered by “pushing the envelope.” Learning is more effective and encourages curiosity when guidance takes cues from the child and allows for exploration. This kind of play and the sharing of the magic of childhood between parents and children help the whole family. Not only does it assist children in building important skills and resilience in the face of stress, it also brings joy to parents.

If we support our children to play every day, we can all help build stronger, smarter, more resilient and happier kids, who grow into successful productive adults.

Dr. Lily Lou, M.D., is a physician, board certified in pediatrics & neonatology, and is Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer.

Adam Crum, M.S.P.H., is Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

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)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Letter: Heavens to Betsy

Mon, 2019-02-18 10:35

I live in Uruguay. A friend who lives in Anchorage has kept me abreast of the adventures and misadventures of Betsy the cow. I’m so far away, but perhaps you would be so kind as to publish my letter to her for me:

Dear Betsy,

I too am a little frightened of civilization. I live in a tourist mecca. It’s wonderful to meet people from all over the world, but often I just need peace and quiet, and a feeling that I’m part of nature and nature is part of me. You’ve made the right choice.

What I’m getting around to is, I’d like to join you. I don’t mean follow you around and make you feel uncomfortable. And I don’t want to hang out with you. After all, anyone can see that you’re a cow!

But I would like to enjoy some of what surrounds you, the mountains and forest and meadows. I like the smell of pine, even make tea from pine needles! And even though I wouldn’t choose to eat it, there’s nothing like the sight and smell of dew-moistened wild grass before dawn. Oh, how I’d like to wake with mountains as a backdrop to the first moments of the day!

I wouldn’t build a fire near you. I wouldn’t eat meat — not for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Would you mind if I had eggs once in a while? There’s nothing I could bring you, I suppose. Or, is there? I could hunt up a like-minded bull to accompany you, I suppose. Any preferences, Guernsey, Brahma, Holstein? Or would you prefer a steer, or just another cow, so you could have someone who’d listen to you and understand?

If you wouldn’t mind, and reassured on knowing I’d stay only for a little while, and that I would never, never tell anyone where you are, I could be there this coming Monday. Don’t worry, I’m sure I can find you. (After all, we are kindred spirits!) Monday is only four days from now, I mean four sunrises, four times that the dew is on the grass of your meadows and you sleep. So, you’d have time to change your mind, in which case, I’d find some other part of the mountain to stay.

Look out for bears, they’re hungry!

— Douglas Chapman

Punta del Este, Maldonado, Uruguay

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Letter: So little progress

Mon, 2019-02-18 10:32

Today, I completed a course on the internment of Japanese and Aleut residents of the U.S. at the beginning of World War II. Today’s lecture was on the internment camps for these families. I suddenly realized that as a nation, we have not progressed much in the past 77 years. Now we are interning Hispanic refugees at our southern border. At least in 1942, we kept families together. So sad for the U.S.

— Dick Mikkelsen

Anchorage

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Letter: No offense

Mon, 2019-02-18 10:24

People are offended because a politician in Virginia wore blackface 30 plus years ago? This is news? I think you should check all 500-plus members of Congress to see what they all did 30 or 40 years ago. Since many members of our Congress are in their 70s and 80s, I bet you’ll find plenty to be offended by, at least according to today’s standards.

None of these people are saints and the idea that we, as American people, have the right to judge our politicians for all the mistakes they’ve ever made since the day they were born is ridiculous. But that’s pretty much where this country seems to be at. It’s got Congress running scared, apologizing for everything under the sun. It’s crazy. And it’s all presented by the media as “breaking news!”

These days, it seems no one can even speak without offending someone. Blackface is history. It’s what happened. Thirty years later we have a new perspective; we are more sensitive to these words and issues. But to hold someone up to today’s standards for something they did 30 years ago is not right or reasonable.

I Googled the definition of the word “offend” and the first answer is: “Cause to feel upset, annoyed or resentful.” The second answer is: “Commit an illegal act.” It seems that people these days are using the second definition for things that belong in the first definition. It’s the difference between a feeling and an act. Nowadays, a person feels offended because of a single word and the next thing you know, it’s treated like an illegal act. I wish I knew the solution, because a bunch of politicians running around Washington, D.C., apologizing for stupid stuff they did 30 years ago is crazy, and calling it “breaking news” is ludicrous. But I don’t know how to fix this predicament. In the meantime, I’ll just sit back and hope this letter doesn’t offend too many people.

— Jackie Endsley

Eagle River

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Letter: Add more border wall

Mon, 2019-02-18 10:23

The congressional Democratic leadership was willing to hurt a lot of people with the partial shutdown merely to prevent President Trump from fulfilling his No. 1 campaign promise.

During the Obama administration, funds were approved by both Republican and Democrat congresspersons to build barriers of sheet piling, concrete, steel, chain-link and post-rail barriers along 700 miles of our southern border. But now the Democrats in Congress refuse to fund an additional 234 miles of barrier.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer were willing to use furloughed government workers as financial hostages in their attempt to keep the president from yet another success. They also exposed many other Americans to violence and unnecessary financial burdens. They should be ashamed!

— Donald N. Anderson

Anchorage

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Letter: Support UAA accreditation

Mon, 2019-02-18 10:20

It was shocking to read University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen’s comments to the state Senate Education Committee regarding the UAA education accreditation issue. That he would even suggest that the regents consider not pursuing renewal of the UAA education accreditation is a monumental mistake.

UAA is the future of the UA system. Any actions that reduce or move services and programs away from UAA are contrary to meeting the future higher education needs of the state. UAA consistently educates two-thirds of the students in the UA system for only slightly more than one-third of the state UA budget. It costs considerably more to educate a student at UAF or UAS than it does at UAA.

In addition, Gov. Mike Dunleavy is attempting to close a $1.6 billion state budget gap with cuts alone. This means further devastating budget reductions for UA. In this climate, the UA president and regents should be developing strategies to meet the education needs of the state’s students with even less resources. Reducing statewide administration while developing and consolidating programs is the only sound fiscal and administrative course. The regents should insist upon a strong and accredited education program at UAA.

— Mark Wolbers

Anchorage

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Letter: Sad about Trump

Mon, 2019-02-18 10:09

Some days I’m sad. I’m sad because this president is the way he is. I’m sad because people voted for him. Really good people, friends of mine, voted for this guy, and he really is certifiable. He is not a good representative of who we are as a people. We need to continue to stand strong against this president’s bigotry, racism, divisiveness and the disrespect he displays to our country’s values.

— Alex Koplin

Homer

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Letter: Certify UAA’s 2020 education students

Mon, 2019-02-18 10:00

I am a first-year student in the Master of Arts in Teaching program at UAA, set to graduate in May 2020. At the last Department of Education meeting on Feb. 4, we heard that students graduating through August 2019 would be granted teacher certification in Alaska, but we heard nothing about those of us set to graduate in 2020. Meanwhile, the MAT program at UAA has suspended admissions, due to its recent loss of accreditation.

Wouldn’t it therefore make sense — and be fair — to “grandfather in” and certify those of us who are already enrolled in the MAT program at UAA? I am a MAT in music with a K-12 endorsement, which is only offered at UAA in Alaska. After the loss of accreditation, Chancellor Cathy Sandeen promised each student in the program a path to licensure. Even if the same teacher preparation program were offered at a sister university campus in Alaska, it is not feasible and would be a hardship for me to transfer. In addition to being a graduate student, I have two part-time jobs, four children and a husband who works full time in Anchorage. I know many of my colleagues in the program are in the same situation.

I want to stay at UAA, but I simply cannot continue to invest money and time in a program that “might” certify me. I need assurances that if I stay in the teacher preparation at UAA, I will be certified to teach in the great state of Alaska. UAA is obligated to certify those students already admitted to the MAT program, whether or not it has accreditation.

— Liz Hollers

Anchorage

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Workers whose income took a hit from the Southcentral Alaska earthquake could be eligible for help

Mon, 2019-02-18 09:48

People whose income was reduced by the Nov. 30 Southcentral Alaska earthquake might be able to get federal assistance.

Alaskans living or working in the Municipality of Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula Borough or the Matanuska-Susitna Borough who were unable to work as a direct result of the earthquake may be eligible to receive disaster unemployment assistance, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development said.

Individuals can apply if they have exhausted regular unemployment insurance benefits, if they became unemployed or unable to work as a direct result of the earthquake, or if they meet a number of other qualifications. You can read about those on the state labor department’s website.

[Earthquake damage estimated at $76 million so far as Alaska prepares federal declaration request]

The funds come through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. President Donald Trump issued a disaster declaration in January, about a month after Gov. Mike Dunleavy requested it in the aftermath of the 7.0 earthquake. Several other forms of aid have also been made available to Alaskans affected by the quake.

Applicants may be eligible for up to $370 per week for up to 35 weeks beginning the week of Dec. 2, 2018. People can apply by calling 888-252-2557 or 907-269-4700. Applications for the assistance have to be submitted by March 14.

Letter: Consumers deserve safe choices

Mon, 2019-02-18 09:47

When buying children’s toys, furniture and personal care products, we don’t always know that many of our options are loaded with toxic chemicals. Unsafe chemicals cause health risks and damage trust between businesses and their customers and businesses.

From Walmart to Anchorage’s own Mattress Firm, businesses have pledged to eliminate inventory containing flame-retardant chemicals, which cause poor neurodevelopment in children and especially high rates of cancer for firefighters, as well as many other health problems.

Now, Alaska Community Action on Toxics is working with the Anchorage Assembly to ban flame-retardant chemicals. And House Bill 27 hopes to do the same for the entire state.

To avoid flame-retardants, consumers can look at the product’s tags or ask manufacturers or sellers, who should also be able to provide that information.

— Veri di Suvero

Executive director, Alaska Public Interest Research Group

Anchorage

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Letter: The governor and the pope

Mon, 2019-02-18 09:44

Hypocrisy, selective ignorance of Catholic social teaching, or simply using the church for political agenda — what is Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s intent? It’s difficult to explain the sad collision of values between Pope Francis and Gov. Dunleavy in recent public statements. Gov. Dunleavy recently teamed with Joel Davidson, editor of the Catholic Anchor, to highlight his Catholic faith. In the February Anchor, the governor repeatedly pledged to “show respect and love for the dignity and worth of every person, at every stage of life.”

Ironically, just a week earlier, Gov. Dunleavy initiated his self-described “war on criminals.” Few wars honor the dignity of human life. Rather than demonstrating “dignity for all,” the governor’s approach to the serious issue of crime creates an artificial underclass. Our governor establishes a wall between the righteous “us” and the “other” — unworthy of our dignity or care.

In contrast to the governor’s declaration of war, Pope Francis spoke with clarity, compassion, and mercy regarding criminals. Speaking the same week in Panama, the pope countered statements like the governor’s that dismiss whole classes of people. The pope emphasized how those who label groups “don’t care about people, only about finding a label, an adjective to disqualify people.” The pope went on: “How painful it is to see a society concentrate its energies more on backbiting than on fighting tirelessly to create opportunities and change.” Pope Francis stressed that his remarks were rooted in Jesus’ work with sinners — a view completely counter to the labeling by our governor.

The collision of values between Pope Francis and the governor raises questions regarding motivation. Is the governor ignorant of Catholic social teaching regarding mercy for prisoners and those who are most vulnerable? Or is he selectively using his association with the Catholic church for political gain?

— Greg Hayward

Anchorage

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