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Photos: Alyeska Resort opens for the season

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 19:54

Skiers and riders enjoyed good conditions for skiing on the top half of the mountain at Alyeska Resort over the weekend. The ski resort in Girdwood opened for the season, from top to bottom, on Saturday and is operating seven days a week. The resort posts updates on skiing conditions on their website.

Mendeltna Creek Lodge destroyed in fire

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 19:35

Mendeltna Creek Lodge, a roadhouse west of Glennallen that is more than 80 years old, was totally destroyed in a fire on Sunday, according to its owner, Mabel Wimmer.

Her two English mastiffs, named Farquar and Rionock, and her hairless cat Elsie perished in the blaze, she said.

"My house is historic and it's beautiful… It's just a huge part of Alaska," she said. "But my animals being gone is just devastating. They were my friends. They were my best friends."

Wimmer was in Palmer singing with a community chorus when she got the news from a neighbor at the scene near Mile 153 of the Glenn Highway, she said.

"He said, 'Mabel, I'm so sorry, the house is on fire,' " she said. "It took not any time at all for the house to burn down."

Kelly Allain, a neighbor, said she got a call about the blaze at about 9 a.m.

"My husband and I jumped out of bed and we got on the scene around 9:15," she said. "It was going. It was blazing."

Volunteer firefighters extinguished the blaze, Wimmer said. The rental cabins around the lodge were undamaged. She didn't know the cause of the fire.

A food truck in Seattle is praising the virtues of Alaska pollock

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 19:09

Alaska pollock is the nation's largest food fishery, usually producing more than 3 billion pounds each year. The flaky whitefish dominates in fish sticks, fast food sandwiches and surimi "seafood salad" blends — but most Americans don't even know what a pollock is.

Trident Seafoods is intent on changing that by bringing the fish directly to the people.

"It is the most abundant, certified sustainable species in the world. It's our mission to show how this delicious cousin to the cod fish can be enjoyed one serving at a time," said Lo Reichert, Trident's mobile marketing manager of The Fork & Fin, a retrofitted FedEx truck turned into a flashy mobile kitchen. The truck debuted a few weeks ago at Seattle Seahawks games outside of CenturyLink Field in Seattle.

"We wanted a mechanism to go from sea to street and let us talk with people about the blessings of wild Alaskan seafood, and particularly, Alaska pollock," he said.

The small menu, priced at $9 to $10 per entree, includes fish and chips with Alaskan Amber beer batter, pollock burgers, crispy fish tacos, grilled Alaska pollock salad and one offbeat offering: peanut butter and jelly fish sticks.

"It has fish sticks laid atop crispy fries, drizzled with a raspberry chipotle sauce and topped with crushed peanuts and a peanut sauce," Reichert said.

The ultimate goal, he added, is to show people that they can easily whip up pollock meals at home. In addition, The Fork & Fin food truck helps educate people about an overlooked fish that is high in protein, low in fat and packed with heart-healthy omega-3s.

The response, Reichert said, has been consistently positive.

For now, The Fork & Fin also is stopping at business parks and schools along Washington's Interstate 5 corridor, and at charity events and fundraisers.

See the food truck's schedule of stops at www.forkandfin.com.

Fish forum highlights wide-ranging viewpoints

A forum next week in Kenai will highlight diverse perspectives on the push to modernize Alaska's fish habitat protection and permitting laws, which have not been updated since statehood 60 years ago. Many believe changes are necessary to reflect challenges posed by large resource development projects; others believe the laws are adequate as they are.

While there is common ground among many Alaskans that salmon are a critical resource and their habitat should be protected, the devil is in the details as to what that protection looks like, said Lindsey Bloom, director of United Fishermen of Alaska's Salmon Habitat Information Project, a forum co-sponsor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"Our objective is to provide a venue for the public to get educated about the habitat protections, how they are now and how they might be changed," Bloom said. "We want people to discuss problems that exist and some of the changes being proposed, including state legislation and the ballot initiative."

The forum will include viewpoints from Alaska Natives, conservationists, oil and gas, mining and fishing sectors, legislators and more.

"The purpose is to have a good conversation," Bloom said. "It's not about getting people to agree with each other, or come to conclusions about a specific policy. It is a real opportunity for Alaskans to participate in their natural resource management and to have a voice in the process.

"The goal of SHIP is to ensure that commercial fishermen around the state have access to information and knowledge about what is happening, and also that they are at the forefront of weighing in on the legislative process," Bloom said. "We want to ensure that we get to an end result that is in the best interest of all Alaskans, including commercial fishermen who are concerned about protecting their jobs and livelihoods."

The Kenai Salmon Habitat Forum is set Thursday, Dec. 14, starting at 5 p.m. at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association Building. It will be live-streamed at UFA's SHIP Facebook page.

Salmon ballot garners signatures

Meanwhile, a statewide petition is gathering up to 45,000 signatures to put the salmon habitat protection issue before the voters next November.

"We have volunteers collecting signatures from Nome to Sitka," said Ryan Schryzer, director of Stand for Salmon, a grass-roots group that is the primary backer of the initiative.

Schryzer said getting signatures from Alaskans is an easy sell.

"When our volunteers talk about this initiative helping to put the standards in place that will encourage responsible resource development and protect salmon for future generations, people are all in and sign very quickly," he said.

The deadline to submit the petitions to the Division of Elections is Jan. 15 at the start of the legislative session.

Lawsuit alleges false salmon labeling

A California man has filed a class-action lawsuit in San Diego against Bumble Bee Foods claiming its canned smoked red salmon is falsely labeled as wild-caught from Alaska and not smoked at all.

Undercurrent News reports that the suit says the fish is actually farm-raised coho from Chile with red color added, along with smoke flavoring. It alleges that Bumble Bee is violating state marketing laws on false advertising and consumer protections.

Bumble Bee recently pleaded guilty to criminal price-fixing charges after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.

High levels of algae-produced biotoxin found in dead walrus

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 18:56

In the Bering Straits region, 39 dead walrus washed ashore and were documented in various communities between mid-August and the end of September. What caused these walruses to die is still unknown, though scientists recently found they carried an algae-produced biotoxin.

Months ago, community members from Diomede and Shishmaref were asked to take samples from four walrus' intestines. Gay Sheffield, a marine biologist with Alaska Sea Grant based in Nome, helped coordinate all the involved agencies to find out more about this marine mammal stranding event.

"Only one of the walruses was harvested and was fresh; the others, they were decomposing, and the samples we needed to get were intestinal contents and or stomach contents — that's where you can actually pick up these biotoxins," Sheffield said.

According to Sheffield, three of the walruses had low to moderate levels of saxitoxin, while the fourth one had high levels. Saxitoxin is a biotoxin produced by algae and is potentially a poisonous substance.

"The harvested animal from Diomede: (its) intestinal content was over 800 nanograms (of saxitoxin) per gram. Not that anyone would be eating the intestinal contents of a walrus; however, presumably that came from the stomach," she said.

Based on a U.S. Food and Drug Administration seafood safety regulation, consuming shellfish with more than 800 nanograms of saxitoxin per gram can harm humans and potentially cause paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP.

Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the Alaska Department of Health Social Services (DHSS), explains that when people eat shellfish that isn't commercially sold, there is a risk of PSP.

"I mean, there's always a potential, just because we can see saxitoxin in shellfish throughout the year. There's always a concern for paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) and the impact of those toxins with consumption of recreationally harvested shellfish, so that hasn't changed based on this," she said.

However, as Castrodale points out, even though this walrus tested positive for saxitoxin levels above the federal regulatory limit, it doesn't necessarily mean there's a human health issue.

"Saxitoxin doesn't tend to go to those types of tissues, blubber, meat and muscle. So then, if you do find it in those intestines, what do we know about walrus and what do we know about those tissues, that we would think 'does the case still hold that you wouldn't find it in those tissues, or is there something different?' We don't know that, but we just have the published literature that says: 'that doesn't happen,'" she said.

Sheffield says finding saxitoxins in walrus is not new for subsistence hunters in Western Alaska.

"We had tested for it for the very first time in 2012 and 2013, and we found it. And it's not that it was novel to walruses or new to our region; it's that it was new to science, in that it was the first time it had been looked for and we found it," Sheffield said.

What is new for Sheffield and other marine mammal experts is finding algae blooms in Alaska waters and an increased presence of algal biotoxins in walrus and other animals.

Earlier this summer, between June and September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collected reports of nearly 1,600 beached seabird carcasses from the Bering and Chukchi Sea regions. Algae could have played a role in the deaths of those seabirds, but that is still unclear.

Jonathon Snyder is a wildlife biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service's  Marine Mammal Management Office. According to Snyder, the agency has no idea how algal toxins might affect walrus or seabirds. Snyder says his office will continue its monitoring of subsistence animals, like walrus, on St. Lawrence Island until more is known about algal toxins in marine mammals.

For now, the one harvested walrus from Diomede is still being tested at a lab in Seattle, as it had levels of saxitoxin that maxed out the machine used to test it. So exactly how much saxitoxin was in the walrus is not yet known, but Sheffield believes when that number is known, it will offer some more insight into this marine mammal mystery.

This article was first published by KNOM Radio Mission and is republished here by permission.

Alaska’s fishing fleet is graying, and that’s not a good thing. A new report suggests answers.

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 17:26

This summer, working as a deckhand on her father's fishing boat in Cook Inlet, Georgeanna Heaverley realized she was right where she wanted to be.

Heaverley, 29, a Soldotna resident and recent University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate in physics, was coming into her own as a deckhand on the fishing vessel Benjana, named for her brother, Benjamin, and herself.

"Being in the middle of Cook Inlet is an incredible experience and something I do not take for granted. It's like nothing else," she said last week. Sometimes, the work seems almost primal.

"The other piece of it is you are feeding the world."

Young fishermen and women like her are an increasingly rare commodity, despite the general health of Alaska's commercial fisheries, according to a series of fishing reports.

For four years, a research team has been examining the graying of Alaska's fleet and what to do about it.

The most recent report, out last week, is called "Turning the Tide." It recommends five steps to reverse what it calls troubling trends of an aging fleet, and a loss of access for rural residents to fish as a career. That goal also underpinned a conference that brought Heaverley to Anchorage, the Young Fishermen's Summit.

Three organizations are leading the studies: UAF's College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, Alaska Sea Grant – a partnership between UAF and the federal government to help coastal resources and economies – and the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, a nonprofit that supports fishing communities and works to preserve marine ecosystems.

The average age of a state commercial fishing permit holder now tops 50, up by 10 years from a generation ago, according to state data cited in the new report. Back in 1975, half of rural permit holders who fished locally were 40 or under. Now it's about a quarter.

It's very expensive to get into commercial fishing and to acquire the permit, boat, nets and other essential gear, said Paula Cullenberg, executive director of Alaska Sea Grant and the lead author of "Turning the Tide."

Young people at the summit talked about the near impossibility of becoming a fishing captain. How can a 25-year-old get a $100,000 loan for something as risky as fishing? some asked.

At the same time, the number of permits held by rural residents who fish waters near their communities has dropped by 30 percent, researchers found. In Bristol Bay, it's worse, with half of the permits gone.

"When permits leave the community, then young people don't have as much exposure to fishing," Cullenberg said.  "They don't have role models. They don't have family members who are fishing that they can go work for on the boat. They don't have opportunities for crew member jobs."

Since the state began limiting entry to commercial fisheries in 1975, the number of permits held by local people in rural fishing communities has dropped by almost 2,500, the report said.

Many permits now are held by former Alaskans who have moved out of state, taking their fishing rights with them to Seattle or elsewhere, according to the report.

It's a misconception that most permits lost to Alaska were sold to people out of state, the researchers said.

The new study looked at Maine, Cape Cod, Iceland, Norway, Canada and New Zealand and other places for ideas to help Alaska fishing communities. The researchers suggest these strategies:

— Allow low-cost, low risk ways for people to get into commercial fishing. Commercial fishing in Iceland, for instance, is through quotas consolidated among few owners – corporate fishing that has squeezed out many individual fishermen, the report said. In response, the country now allows individual fishermen to apply for free shares, or quota, of a particular fishery. Iceland also allows local fishermen to catch a certain amount 14 hours a day, four days a week, without having any quota. (That came after the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that the quota system violated the human right to work, the report says.)

—  Establish mentorships or youth permits – starting as young as middle school. Recruit crew members from high schools and place them with "high quality captains."

— Create districts in which fishing rights or permits must stay, something that Norway and Canada have tried.

— Support on-shore seafood processing and fishing infrastructure such as cold storage units and industrial parks for welders, mechanics and boat builders. Some communities offer seasonal jobs in boat repair, but with the right structure, that could work year-round, the report said.

— Establish a statewide task force to work on the issues.

Meanwhile, some young fishermen are trying to hold on to what they have.

Allysa Apalayak, 29, of Manokotak near Dillingham, said she and her sister inherited a Bristol Bay drift fishing permit from their father. But they don't have a boat – or the needed experience – and haven't used the permit in three years. They were able to let someone else fish under it the first year, through a temporary, emergency transfer.

"We are in fear of losing it," she said. She came to the fishermen's summit, put on by Sea Grant, for help. There were sessions on the business of fishing and the mechanics of it, on fisheries management and marketing. She said she has a sense of what to do next and may try to get financing for a vessel.

Dillingham's Kristina Andrew is 30 and a Bristol Bay commercial driftnet permit holder since 2012. She said she bought it for under $100,000 and had financial help from a loan program run by Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. She doesn't have a boat, but can use her permit on someone else's vessel, either as the sole permit or as a secondary one that allows a bigger catch.

"There's something very peaceful and very primitive about being out there, and just being able to disconnect from all of it," Andrew says. And at the end of the day, if the catch is good, she's helped to produce something she can see and touch, another rarity in the modern world.

Heaverley graduated with her physics degree in May and figured on getting a tech job, maybe in the Lower 48.

But on the water this year for her third season, she felt she finally had a handle on the skills for fishing a drift gillnet. She was doing work that mattered to her family. Now she wants to keep fishing in Alaska.

"I feel an obligation in the best way to step up and take over, or this industry suffers," she said.

Is your company’s anti-harassment training a flop?

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 17:22

"How the hell could he have been so stupid?" the manager asked when he called.

"What burns me is this spring he asked me if he could skip the annual anti-harassment training because he'd been through it five years in a row. So explain to me why I have credible complaints from three different women alleging this man on my senior team sexually harassed each of them?"

The manager didn't like it when, as part of my situation assessment, I told him his company's anti-harassment training was partially to blame.

"What you've got," I said, "is check-the-box training. It's better than nothing, but if you want to change behavior, you have to provide your managers and supervisors more effective training."

If you wonder whether your company's training falls short of the mark, measure it against this five-point yardstick.

The attendees work as hard as the trainer

When was the last time you remembered a lecture for more than a day? Research shows that training attendees retain approximately 20 percent of what they hear eight months after a lecture. They retain, however, 90 percent of what they do after they perform a task.

Anti-harassment training in which trainees passively listen to a lecture or watch an online video produces, at best, short-term results. Effective anti-harassment training presents attendees with real-life cases and asks them to apply what they've learned in deciding whether the plaintiff or defendant will likely prevail. Once the attendees say what they think, the trainer lets them know how the real-life jury decided.

Says former employment attorney turned HR consultant Rick Birdsall, "Attendees normally get half the case answers incorrect during the first hour of training. This spurs them to work even harder during the second hour and results in attendees learning the material because they want to get the right answers."

Move past platitudes

Ineffective training offers general platitudes such as "treat others with respect." While it's absolutely true that treating everyone with respect would prevent most harassment, those who don't already understand what respect means don't get it. They need clear-cut guidelines such as "If you ask a coworker out twice and she says 'no' twice, don't ask again," and "Supervisors cannot come on to an employee, because the power difference makes it unfair."

"It's all gray" is a cop-out

Because court and jury decisions rest on the exact facts in a specific situation, some attendees shrug their shoulders during half-hearted harassment training sessions and say "it's all gray, all a matter of opinion."

It's not. You may think there's nothing wrong with giving someone a body hug, but you'd be the only one.

Scare tactics don't work

If attendees leave a training afraid to say "you look nice" to a colleague, the training went too far and not far enough. Effective training shows attendees where the line is, so they can stay on the right side of it. In real life we need to be able to give compliments without fear and also know that we can't refer to specific body areas.

Questions and discussion

One-way training in which the presenter provides a list of "here's what you need to know" and attendees listen meekly fails. Worse, if the trainer or training you use glides by confused or disbelieving looks on attendees' faces, the opportunity to correct false assumptions is missed. Effective harassment training engages participants in active discussions so that they can offer opinions and learn to their surprise where and when they're off-base.

Would you like to safeguard your managers and company against harassment complaints? Improve your training.

Fishing in Alaska might always be fun, but some days are better than others

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 16:55

It's always fun to fish. There are times, however, when fishing can be a bit stressful. "Hey," a friend of mine said, "I have a couple of Chinese dudes who want to catch a fish. You're fisherman; this should be right in your pond." An excuse to fish instead of cut firewood sounded good to me. I said, "Sure, you bet."

The first thing to do was to go prospecting for fish. There are quite a number of lakes between Delta Junction and Paxson that have numbers of stocked fish. I picked a lake with rainbows and lake trout, loaded up the kids and wife, and off we went. The day was clear and calm. The temperature was a balmy minus 10.

I have a good portable fishing house and a propane bottle with a sunflower head that keeps things warm. I took a half-dozen of those short ice-fishing poles, jigs, small lures and some salmon roe for bait. I was ready. The warm winter plus a couple feet of snow on the ice made me cautious. I tested the lake first with an axe. The top few inches were milky overflow ice. The ice below that was clear and solid. I gave my assurance that the ice was adequate and the entire crew ventured out on the lake.

This was an unfamiliar body of water. I scouted the steep banks for an indication of structure that might continue on underwater. A rocky outcrop looked promising; a few steps past it, I drilled the first hole. There was 20 feet of water. I thought that too deep for December, but my 9-year-old immediately disputed that by landing a foot long rainbow. The second and third holes were soon through the foot of decent ice. My wife landed a decent lake trout and I got busy re-baiting hooks. There were lots of fish here. I thought this would be great spot for the guests.

The arrangements were made and a day later I was waiting at the pull-off for the tourists to arrive. A one-ton van pulled up with tinted windows. The door opened and out come a couple of women. Soon, there were nine of them standing by the van… and a guide. They were dressed like they were going to a supper club. They had little tiny house boots, and gloves without fingers. One of the women sported a skirt and leggings. Oh my.

I had anticipated something like this (I have fished with this friend before), and brought four pairs of Neos and some VB boots. I also had a half-dozen parkas and a second ice house in the truck. I spend an hour dressing this crew. The guide knew enough English to say "yes, yes." The rest had no words that I know. None of them appeared to have ever held a fishing pole.

The women laughed and conversed happily on their way to the fish house. I soon had all of them inside and lines down. It took a fairly elaborate pantomime to get these newbies to keep their lure near the bottom. The fish were hungry and the action was steady. There were lots of fish biting, but not many made it to the top of the ice. The intricacies of turning the crank on the fishing reel seems to be beyond these gals.

Somehow, a few fish were brought to the surface, including one 4-inch monster. The girl who landed that fish was overjoyed and indicated she wanted to know if she could eat it. Certainly, I gesture, she can keep it to eat if she likes. She immediately did just that. Eat it. Sushi.

Everyone was getting a bit cold, the tips of the fishing poles were icing up, and the sun had disappeared behind the mountain. It with time to go. My wife showed up at the pullout just in time to help get the crew geared down. There was much giggling and waving of hands. The guide clarifies: the women wanted to know how an old dude like me caught such a good-looking woman. "It is just like fishing," I told them; "you need a little luck."

Stocked fish are among the easiest fish to catch. Look at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game sportfish web page to see when lakes were stocked. Stocked rainbows like roe. Char prefer single eggs; personally I like yellow ones. Planted lake trout are best targeted with small chartreuse lures. I've had fair luck on florescent spoons as well. Twelve feet of water is a good starting point. Should you find good clear water, save egg shells, crush a goodly number and drop them down the hole. The white shells will let you see fish as they cross the hole. Good luck to you.

With Sunday shooting, Anchorage homicides match 2016 high

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 16:49

A man was found shot and killed in an apartment on East Ninth Avenue today, according to a short release from the Anchorage Police Department.

The shooting death is this year's 34th homicide, matching last year's tally, a record-high number.

"An adult male was found inside an apartment with a gun shot wound to the upper body. He was pronounced dead at the scene," the release said.

Anchorage is on track to break the record for most homicides in one year. What's going on? ]

At mid-afternoon Sunday, a green and yellow apartment building on East Ninth Avenue, just west of Gambell Road, was blocked off with yellow crime tape. The APD sergeant on the scene declined to comment.

"We're still gathering information and talking to witnesses," said MJ Thim, an APD spokesman. "This is not random, this is an isolated incident. There is no threat to the general public."

As of Sunday evening, the victim had not yet been identified.

Alaskans face the nation’s highest health care costs. Why?

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 16:18

An Alaskan spends on average more than $3,000 on health care per year over what the average American spends, according to the latest federal data. That overall comparison, however, masks much bigger disparities for certain procedures and treatments. One Alaskan researching last year, for example, found that the "all-in" cost of her hip replacement surgery in Seattle was well under half what the total cost would have been in Anchorage. (By far the biggest cost difference was in the facility fee quoted by the hospital in Anchorage vs. that charged in Seattle, not the relatively small difference in the orthopedic surgeon's charge.)

[Alaskans seek relief from high costs with medical tourism]

Experts have identified some causes of Alaska's high health care costs as:

• Hospital margins in urban Alaska that are higher than national averages (the most recently released study shows that Anchorage hospitals have margins almost three times the national average);

[Tips to control your doctor and hospital bills]

• The relative shortage in Alaska of beds at facilities with skilled nursing and other behavioral health centers that would allow some patients to avoid expensive hospital stays;

• Limited competition and/or leveraging of market power by some medical providers — particularly specialty physicians such as orthopedic surgeons, neurosurgeons, and cardiologists — that keeps prices/fees higher than they would be otherwise (although some Alaska medical practitioners appear to make only 1/50th — or even 1/100th as a few specialist practitioners do per year and some family practitioners are clearly struggling financially, the top is quite high in our state; one neurosurgeon more than tripled his annual income by moving north, going from $1.5 million in Washington State in 2007 to $5.5 million in Alaska in 2009).

• A regulation adopted in 2004 establishing "the 80th percentile rule" for medical provider compensation that critics say has boosted some medical specialists' fees;

• A statute adopted in 1998 that appears to make it difficult to rely on managed care to hold down costs;

[Study: Health care costs in Alaska top nation's cities]

• A slowness to adopt value-based compensation for medical providers instead of the traditional fee-for-service model of reimbursement;

• Expensive medical infrastructure built at least in part for convenience that Alaska may not be able to afford;

• Wasteful overutilization of certain procedures and treatments that are particularly profitable for physicians on the Last Frontier given Alaska's unusually high reimbursement rates.

Alaska Common Ground will take a deep dive into the difference between the health care costs of Alaska and those of the rest of the country at an event Wednesday evening, Dec. 13.  This event — the third of at least four events on our state's high health care costs — is at the 49th State Brewing Company, 717 W. Third Ave., from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The Anchorage Public Library is cosponsoring this series, which is financially supported by the Alaska Humanities Forum. This event is open to the public and free, with a requested donation of $10.

Important players in the health care field will hash out on Wednesday the relative importance of the factors set out above — and others — in the high costs of Alaska's health care.   Participating that evening will be physicians, a hospital CEO, a state of Alaska regulator and other knowledgeable observers. There will be an opportunity for the audience to ask questions.

Folks, this is your chance to learn more about this critical topic in a congenial environment. You should come, as your health and wealth may depend on it.

Cliff Groh is chair of Alaska Common Ground, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization devoted to helping Alaskans understand and reach consensus on the major issues facing our state. If you are interested in watching the video from the previous two events in the health care series, you can see video of each at http://akcommonground.org/can-alaskas-high-health-care-costs-be-cured/.

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. 

Ready the rain gear, Anchorage, we’re headed for a warm week

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 16:16

Ready the rain gear, Anchorage: wet, warm, gusty weather is about to blow through the Anchorage bowl, according to the National Weather Service.

"We'll probably stay at or above freezing through the week," said NWS Meteorologist Shaun Baines.

Anchorage can expect temperatures to rise to 40 degrees overnight Sunday into Monday morning.  with wind gusts as high as 80 miles an hour, the weather service said. A high wind warning was issued for Turnagain Arm and Portage Valley. Wind will calm somewhat but continue into Tuesday, according to the forecast. Road conditions are expected to worsen.

"The key feature is this high ridge of high pressure over the western U.S.," Baines said.

That dry air and wind has contributed to the fires in California, he said. The high pressure ridge is pushing warmer, wetter, windier weather up north, he said. It's not just affecting Anchorage. Juneau has been experiencing record-breaking warmth.  And Thompson Pass this week had one of the most extreme snowfall rates on record.

After this week's unseasonable soggy episode, it should cool down and, in time for Christmas, possibly snow, he said.

"That's what we're hoping," he said.

Haley says Trump’s accusers ‘should be heard’

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 16:15

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Sunday that the women who have accused President Donald Trump of touching or groping them without their consent "should be heard."

Haley's comments, made on CBS' "Face the Nation," diverged from the White House position on the more than a dozen women who have accused Trump of misconduct. Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said that the White House's position is that the women are lying and that the American people settled the issue by electing Trump despite the accusations.

Asked by CBS' John Dickerson whether she considered the allegations a "settled issue," given last year's election results, Haley responded, "You know, that's for the people to decide. I know that he was elected. But, you know, women should always feel comfortable coming forward. And we should all be willing to listen to them."

Haley's comments highlighted a challenge facing Republicans as a cultural revolution on the topic of sexual harassment sweeps the country.

Republicans have seized on allegations of wrongdoing by Democrats, including Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who announced they would resign last week.

Republicans also have castigated liberals over high-profile allegations against figures in Hollywood and the media, including movie producer Harvey Weinstein, a one-time Hillary Clinton donor and ally.

But most have not shown similar outrage when allegations have been made against prominent Republicans, notably Trump and Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama.

Haley spoke about Trump's accusers after praising women who have come forward with allegations about powerful men in various other industries. Dickerson asked her how "people should assess the accusers of the president."

"They should be heard, and they should be dealt with," Haley responded. "And I think we heard from them prior to the election. And I think any woman who has felt violated or felt mistreated in any way, they have every right to speak up."

Trump has been sued for defamation in New York by one of his accusers, Summer Zervos, a former contestant on "The Apprentice" who says Trump groped and kissed her in a hotel room in 2007 during a meeting to discuss a job opportunity. She says Trump defamed her when he dismissed her account and called her and the other accusers liars. A judge is weighing whether to allow that case to proceed.

Haley's comments came in contrast to other Republicans, who have defended Trump, noting the public elected Trump president even knowing about allegations from multiple woman against him.

On NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said that "to re-litigate the election is impossible."

"The allegations or the accusations against the president were a part of the campaign," Scott said. "Should people who were victimized have their day in court, their opportunity to present their information? I have no problem with that issue."

Democrats have continued to press the subject, with some beginning to argue Trump should resign his office like others have in face of such allegations.

"Al Franken felt it proper for him to resign," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said in an interview with "Meet the Press" on Sunday morning. "Here you have a president who has been accused by many women of assault, who says on a tape that he assaulted women. He might want to think about doing the same."

Sanders's comment, which built on a tweet he had sent last week, came after Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., said that the so-called "#MeToo moment" should prompt another look at the women who accused Trump of sexual harassment during the 2016 presidential campaign.

"The president should resign because he certainly has a track record with more than 17 women of horrific conduct," Merkley said last week in an interview for the weekday version of "Meet the Press."

On Saturday, during a campaign swing to support the Democrat in Alabama's U.S. Senate race, Booker told Vice News that the standard that brought down Franken should be applied to the president.

"I just watched Senator Al Franken do the honorable thing and resign from his office," Booker said. "My question is, why isn't Donald Trump doing the same thing – who has more serious allegations against him, with more women who have come forward. The fact pattern on him is far more damning than the fact pattern on Al Franken."

To grow, fly-fishing indusry looks to women

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 16:05

ROANOKE, Va. — Kim Brannock became fascinated by fly fishing after watching "A River Runs Through It," a 1992 film starring Brad Pitt. Years later, a co-worker taught her to fly fish during lunch breaks, when she practiced casting underneath the St. Johns Bridge on the Columbia River in Portland, Oregon.

"Besides falling in love with Brad Pitt, I fell in love with that cast," said Brannock, who lives in Bend, Oregon, and designs fly fishing gear for Patagonia. "I was hooked."

Women are the fastest growing demographic in fly fishing, one of the most male-dominated outdoor sports. That has presented a host of challenges, including finding proper gear, navigating the pitfalls of social media and even developing an awareness for self-defense skills in the outdoors.

Industry leaders say women are the only growing demographic in the sport, which is why they are so crucial to cultivate. Women make up about 31 percent of the 6.5 million Americans who fly fish, according to the most recent study by the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation. In 2016, more than 2 million women participated in the sport, an increase of about 142,000 from the previous year.

A new initiative, begun over the summer and led by equipment and apparel company Orvis, in partnership with Simms, Costa and Yeti, has among its objectives the goal of an even gender split in fly fishing by 2020. In the spring, the program will expand to offer outreach events to educate women on gear choices, selection and function; plan classes to build skills and confidence on the water; and arrange mentoring opportunities for future female guides, shop employees and industry leaders.

"It's completely crazy that fly fishing has been identified as a man's sport," said Kate Taylor, a fly fishing guide who recently returned from leading a group of six women in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

"It takes so much patience and nurturing," she added. "It deepens our connection to natural rhythms, and that brings humility and the understanding that you are part of something that's much larger than our own personal self."

DUN, a quarterly magazine dedicated to women and fly fishing, began online in 2013 and printed its first edition this year. Jen Ripple, the magazine's editor, called the sport "empowering."

"There's something about getting out on the river and catching a fish on your own that makes you stronger," she said.

Jess McGlothlin, a female instructor and photographer from Bozeman, Montana, said the sport was attractive for different reasons.

"Many women I teach to fish are in it less for the fishing itself, and more for the excuse to be outside," she said. "Many liken it to yoga; a quiet, meditative getaway from daily stressors."

Camille Egdorf, a guide with Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures in Bozeman, said women working as guides — and women hiring their services — were becoming more common. Sometimes, she said, those trips can prove the most rewarding.

Egdorf gave as an example a guided fishing trip with a veteran angler husband and his wife, a novice. She gave tips on ways to fish the river and to slow down the back cast. The husband ignored Egdorf, but the wife listened and had a more productive day, catching five fish for every one he caught.

"He had a pretty rough day because he didn't listen," she said. "It happens all the time: The wife outfishes the husband, and it drives the husband nuts."

More women in the sport has led manufacturers and suppliers to tailor equipment to them. In 2012, the Patagonia fishing director, Bart Bonime, reached out to Brannock for help redesigning one of his company's wading jackets. Brannock also helped design waders for women, and Patagonia started a full line for women in 2015.

"We didn't want to take a men's wader and dumb

it down and color differently for women," Bonime said. "Women don't want something that's designed for a man. They want something that's designed for them."

Female body types vary more than men's, but there were practical issues, too: figuring out a way to go to the bathroom in waders without having to get undressed was among the major challenges in developing the line, Bonime said. A drop-seat function fixed the problem.

"Because it's so male-dominated, you're on the river with guys a lot," Brannock said. "You're always in the position where you have to go to the bathroom and it's just awkward. It's awkward no matter what. But now it's better."

Simms Fishing Products consults with Egdorf on what gear works and what does not, and it plans to release a women's line in the spring.

For guide April Vokey, the challenge was not finding the right gear, but buying it. She was among several female anglers who said a big hurdle was the men who work in fly shops.

"When I would go get gear, I was immediately met with a problem," Vokey said. "Even when I became successful, they still made it really hard on me."

Brannock said fly shops can be intimidating for women. "Women don't want to feel pandered to," she said. "I walk into a fly shop and they look at me like I'm lost."

Bonime has a simple solution: Fly shop employees should greet customers, make sure the bathroom is clean, and have female employees and a full-length mirror.

"When you walk into your fly shop, you have some grizzled-haired kid behind the counter drinking a PBR," he said. "It's not a welcoming environment."

The gender issues in fly fishing go deeper than ill-fitting waders, though. Using social media to showcase women fly fishing is part of the new initiative, but the rising profile is not without its critics. Several female fishing stars have become bikini-clad YouTube sensations.

Vokey, who has more than 85,000 followers on Instagram, calls them "cupcakes in waders" or "fly-fishing Barbie dolls."

Egdorf said: "Women that feel they need to show a lot of skin in order to get a following is frustrating. It sends the wrong message. But people see through that pretty quickly — the girl holding up a fish in her bikini with her nails all done and makeup on and her hair perfect. People see what's authentic and what's not."

She has had positive experiences with more traditional social media efforts. Egdorf was recently featured in a video for Yeti titled "Odd Man Out." The video describes her upbringing at her parents' fishing guide service in Alaska, her workout routine and her experiences as a guide.

"Just because you're a girl doesn't mean you can't do this just as well as a guy," she said in the video.

A few young girls started corresponding with Egdorf after seeing the video, she said. One started a fly fishing club in her hometown. "It's a pretty incredible feeling that I honestly wasn't expecting," Egdorf said.

The challenges women face while fishing were discussed during the annual Trout Unlimited meeting this fall in Roanoke, Virginia. When the subject of self-defense came up, several women made suggestions on ways to protect themselves from predators, both human and wild: Use a whistle, carry pepper spray, fish in groups, carry a gun, or take a basic self-defense course.

Jackie Kutzer, a guide for Orvis and one of the architects of the new initiative, said, "You don't want every woman on the river strapped with a gun, but these are the kind of issues that are coming up and we need to address them."

Taylor, a guide, said female fly anglers simply want their own personal experience.

"Women want to feel that it's OK to be out there," she said. "That's all."

Juneau physician secures three licenses for cannabis operation

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 15:36

Dr. Norvin Perez, a medical physician at the Juneau Urgent and Family Care Center, was approved for three marijuana business licenses during the board's two November meetings in Anchorage.

All three — cultivation, manufacture and retail — will all be housed under the same roof in a building Perez owns. It is the same building that holds the Juneau Urgent and Family Care Center in an industrial-commercial zone of Juneau called Old Dairy Road.

The application was unique, noted Marijuana Control Board Member Loren Jones, also of Juneau, because it's the first time the board has licensed a practicing physician for multiple marijuana operations.

"It's a very unusual situation where he is a doctor at Juneau Urgent Care and he will own the marijuana businesses in the same building," Jones told fellow board members.

There's inherent tension between Alaska's medical marijuana laws outlined in Alaska Statute 17.37 and the new recreational marijuana laws, outlined in AS 17.38. The primary one — at least for board members asking Perez questions while scrutinizing his application — is that business owners are prohibited from written and advertised claims about marijuana's curative powers.

But Perez made clear to the board that he's never issued a prescription for medical marijuana.

Many violations issued by the Marijuana Control Office enforcement agents over the past year have been against businesses caught advertising claims that cannabis can help with ailments ranging from anxiety to cancer.

Mark Springer of Bethel, the board member representing rural Alaska, asked the doctor if he was aware that in establishing the businesses, he's in the recreational industry where health claims are not permitted.

Perez said he did.

"I appreciated his transparency," said Brandon Emmett, a board member from Fairbanks representing the cannabis industry. "He will need to be cautious about how he operates his business. He's got to have a clear line between his role as a physician and a role running his business, cautious about not bleeding the two into one another. I personally don't see a conflict."

Attorney Jana Weltzin, representing Perez before the Marijuana Control Board, wanted to be clear: "He never issued a prescription for medical marijuana. He recognizes there are medicinal values. However, he will not be talking about the curative, medical or therapeutic value (in his business). There is no connection between the two."

Alaskans are seeing a dichotomy between medical and recreational marijuana, Weltzin said after the meeting.

"I don't think I can explain why this is an issue," she said. "Medical marijuana has been established in our state before I was born. Medical marijuana has been lost in the dust of the recreational market. If the industry is smart, they will lobby for rights, to give rights to medical users, in the recreational market. Right now we don't have that."

Weltzin specializes in the new body of law related to recreational marijuana that the board has adopted since it formed in 2015.

"The medical marijuana statue allows gifting and not exchanging marijuana for money," she said. "Recreational authorizes sales for compensation. One is a commercial market and one is a gift market. That is the distinction."

Why the commercial market cannot advertise marijuana's curative powers relates to the board's attempt to remain neutral. Another reason, said Springer, is that "we're not regulating a medical program. There's no mention in the proposition or the statute of medical marijuana."

The scope of regulations the board oversees relate to "people over 21 years old, and for recreational purposes," Springer said.

Other attitudes also seem to be at play in keeping out talk of medical marijuana.
"It's an attempt to not encourage people to over consume," Weltzin speculated. "If you tell everyone broccoli and carrots are extremely healthy, people will eat more broccoli and carrots. If people hear, 'hey, this is good for you, it will cure your pain and help you sleep better,' people would consume more. I think the intent was probably to temper over-consumption."

A cultivation license for Green Valley Enterprises in Juneau applied for by Perez was approved Nov. 15.

It met with extensive questioning by board member Jones, who represents public health interests. In a 3-2 vote that nonetheless approved his operation plans, the board was split with Springer and Chairman and Soldotna Chief of Police Peter Mlyarnik against.

A second license for a retail store to be called Glacier Valley Shop, and a third for manufacturing marijuana products also was approved for Perez at a special meeting Nov. 28-29 after more than two dozen applications including the two for Perez weren't ruled upon at the regularly scheduled Nov. 14-15 meeting.

The board approved the final two in a vote of 4-1, with Mlyarnik the lone vote against.

A cannabis operation cannot be within 500 feet of a school, a recreation or youth center, a building where religious services take place, a correctional center or a rehab clinic. But the law doesn't say anything about a hospital or medical facility, Jones pointed out.

The Juneau Borough scrutinized the three cannabis business operations before granting a conditional use permit, or CUP. ForegetMeNot Enterprises Inc., under which the three businesses are organized, was granted a CUP by the Planning Commission but the matter never went before the borough Assembly because Juneau delegates permitting to the Planning Commission.

"I mentioned (to the board) there wasn't much controversy (in Juneau), but I found it rather strange. I am on the local (Juneau) Assembly and I believe in the local process. There was nothing under our rules that I could justify a 'no' vote," Jones said.

Jones therefore voted to approve all three applications.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

How lifers in Alaska prisons can help rehabilitate convicts who will get out

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 15:33

Men who committed some of Alaska's most heinous crimes could help rehabilitate other inmates and save money for the Department of Corrections. The suggestion comes from lifers themselves, prisoners whose long sentences mean they may never get out.

After decades in prison, entering middle age, these felons say they have outgrown the antisocial values and impulses of their youth. Even prison officials come to see some lifers as reliable older men who want to do something productive with their imprisoned lives.

"We're humans. In order to be healthy, we need to have feelings of belonging, self-worth and purpose," said Scott Walker, a prisoner at Goose Creek Correctional Center.

Walker teaches math to other prisoners pursuing a high school diploma or job training. When he was at Spring Creek Correctional Center, in Seward, he helped start a physical fitness program for mentally ill prisoners.

He said he earns 80 cents an hour. But he gets a lot out of the work.

"I've reached a level of maturity where I truly want to help people. I get a lot of gratification from that," he said.

[They were homeless once. Now they help others still living on winter streets.]

In 1981, Walker participated in the brutal kidnapping and murder of Mildred Walatka, 72, and her son, Herbert Oakley, 48, after robbing Walatka's home. I knew the Walatka family as a child and I vividly remember the community's horror that year that I graduated high school.

Walker is a year older than me. He was 19 when he helped kidnap these people. But over the years he was in prison, his mother died, as well as many other family members and friends. He said it changed him.

"A lot of people go through the midlife crisis, and the same thing happens in here," Walker said.

Loren Larson learned exceptional furniture-making skills serving his double life sentence at Spring Creek. He also has technical construction knowledge that he could teach. Now incarcerated at Goose Creek, he wrote to me promoting inmate peer teaching, as he has written to others.

"I have a business mind. I know how to fix things that aren't turning out a good product. And the product is the people who are coming out of here," he said. "What the state is getting for the money it is spending is obscene."

Larson is smart enough to devise a program. As a prisoner representing himself in court, he has won lawsuits against the Department of Corrections, including one that went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He is still fighting his conviction for a 1996 double murder, swearing he is innocent.

Larson was 26 when he was arrested. Most prisoners come in as young men, often messed up by drugs or alcohol. He says they could be influenced early by elder prisoner-teachers toward constructive work and away from the idleness and malignancy of prison culture.

"When it comes down to it, we're men. We're builders," he said.

Larson believes his letters are being ignored, but his ideas are spreading. The superintendent at Spring Creek, Bill Lapinskas, got to know him, as well as Walker, over a career in corrections that paralleled their careers as prisoners.

"I'm a huge fan of some of his ideas and concepts," Lapinskas said.

Spring Creek currently has two inmates certified as instructors in construction trades, teaching other inmates. Lapinskas wants the program to expand so felons can get jobs in other fields not blocked by their criminal records.

Besides saving money on instructors, Laspinskas said the program gives lifers a sense of purpose that can transform them into positive role models for other prisoners.

The low-cost work can also fill gaps. Laspinskas said Spring Creek has no opioid addiction therapy for its 400 maximum security inmates. Because of the high demand outside prison, no bids arrived when Spring Creek's solicited for the work. But 41 inmates are supporting one another in a sobriety unit.

Andy Jones, a state Health and Human Services official working on opioid issues, said Corrections should train lifers as certified drug counselors so they can offer formal treatment to other prisoners.

Larson's plan also includes the possibility of commuting sentences for lifers who make major contributions to the system and who are otherwise rehabilitated. He recently sparked an Alaska Ombudsman report that faulted the Governor for the lack of a constitutionally required clemency process.

[Alaska has violated convicts' constitutional rights for a decade by ignoring their pleas for mercy]

And why shouldn't the best of them be released? If these men have grown up, learned to be responsible and no longer pose a threat, why should we continue to pay as much as $50,000 a year to house them for life, plus the huge cost of their end-of-life medical care?

Judges need to consider that waste when they issue multiple life sentences to young people. Almost everyone changes in 30 years.

But not everyone. Some commit crimes so horrific that it is difficult to believe in true rehabilitation.

Sergio Colgan became a certified barber instructor as a prisoner in Arizona and runs a highly successful training program at Goose Creek, graduating inmates who pass their licensing tests with high scores.

The Department of Corrections trumpets his story. Larson highlights the barber program as a model.

But Colgan's crime was so inhuman it is hard to imagine ever letting him go. In 1990, at 19, he carefully planned and methodically carried out the rape and strangulation of a 16-year-old girl from his Fairbanks high school. He had chosen her at random and had no other motive than enjoyment.

Some prisoners may need to be incarcerated as long as they live. But maybe even that doesn't have to be a total waste.

Walker wants to start a peer orientation program for newly incarcerated felons, men beginning the long journey he has taken.

He said, "One of the things they never do is get with the guy on an individual basis and ask them, 'What are you going to do with your time?' For some of these guys, they're going to be here for the rest of their life. And how are you going to use that time?"

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.

Arrested while drunk? New Alaska law will allow jails to hold you until you’re sober

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 15:28

On Jan. 1, a new law takes effect in Alaska that allows jails to detain drunk people until they're sober enough to drive.

The provision, slipped into the recent rollback of Alaska's criminal justice reform law, Senate Bill 54, comes after years of informal ruling by judges for a person to be sober to be released from jail. That practice became scarce after 2015, however, amid the state's push toward criminal justice reform.

Prosecutors and police say the "hold until sober" law will bolster public safety. But an influential Anchorage judge who weighs in on policies that affect bail voiced doubts about its constitutionality last week, since it isn't illegal to be drunk.

How often the Department of Corrections plans to make such detentions also isn't clear. A spokeswoman for the corrections department said she couldn't immediately comment.

[A special report: Crime in Alaska and SB 91] 

Originally sponsored by Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, the law says jails "shall conduct a chemical test on the breath of a person who has been arrested and is intoxicated." The law specifically applies to alcohol, which is more easily tested than other drugs.

After the test, the law is more vague on what happens next. It says a jail "may" — but is not explicitly required to — detain a drunk defendant until a chemical breath test shows an alcohol content under the legal driving limit.

A jail can also release the arrested person to another person who can care for them, the law says.

In Anchorage alone this year, about 680 people were arrested on their first or second DUI charge, according to data collected by the Anchorage Police Department. For many years, Anchorage judges, like others around the state, ordered people arrested for drunk driving to be held in jail until they'd sobered up, according to Seneca Theno, the city prosecutor.

But the state's criminal justice reform efforts spurred separate changes in bail procedures. Now many people arrested on DUI charges are released right away with a summons to come back to court later, and other conditions, like not driving.

Theno pointed to one Anchorage case in October, when police made the early-morning arrest of a woman who had been speeding. She was charged with driving under the influence and released with a court date, as well as instructions not to drive, according to a charging document.

A few hours later, the woman came back to her car in a taxi, the document said. The officer who arrested her in the first place walked up and reminded the woman not to drive, because she was probably still too drunk, the document said. Then the officer circled the block and saw the defendant driving her car with no headlights on.

She still smelled of alcohol and handed over her keys, according to the charges.

In an extreme case in Fairbanks, 21-year-old Michaela R. Kitelinger was killed when she wandered into the street after being released from jail. Kitelinger had been arrested two hours earlier on a DUI charge and a breathalyzer test showed her alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit.

"It's a concern that people are being released from jail when they're highly intoxicated," Theno said in a recent interview.

John Skidmore, the director of the state's criminal division, said law enforcement officials were frustrated by what he characterized as weakened enforcement power over people who were drunk and breaking the law.

There were also reports of unruly behavior at hospitals, where people were being taken instead of staying at the jail, Skidmore said.

"Whether it was a public nuisance, whether it was assaultive behavior, you actually had law enforcement literally (having) to go arrest someone multiple times before they were ever even arraigned," Skidmore said.

At the same time, the state's top judges have disputed the constitutionality of whether it's legal to hold an accused person who is drunk. A new statewide list of bail procedures, released by the state's four presiding judges in 2015, pointedly did not address the issue, which then affected the decisions of lower-level judges.

Speaking to members of the Anchorage Assembly last week, Bill Morse, the presiding judge for the Anchorage area, said the question of "hold until sober" policies caused "heartburn" among the top judges. He said he himself found it inappropriate.

"It's not illegal to have liquor in your system," Morse said. "I did not understand why I could keep a person in jail until he or she is completely free of alcohol or below a defined level."

Judges in the northern parts of the state favored the policy, Morse said, since it could be dangerous to release a drunk person into temperatures well below freezing in the winter.

But bail isn't supposed to be punishment, Morse said. He also indicated he was concerned it could lead to people serving time in jail for crimes that no longer carry jail time.

In a memo to the staff of Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, Kate Glover, an attorney that advises the Legislature, said a blanket policy requiring jails to detain an arrested person until their breath alcohol level dropped below a certain level "may not be constitutional." Allowing that person to be released to a responsible third party, or using the state's involuntary commitment laws for public drunkenness, could help resolve concerns with due process, Glover wrote.

Skidmore disputed the constitutional questions, saying he'd spotted at least one similar law in Indiana. At the same time, he noted the "hold until sober" law did not come directly from the state Department of Law or the Department of Public Safety.

Such a recommendation may have come eventually. In fact, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, which has provided research and data to support criminal justice reform, created a special work group to examine whether sobriety could be a condition of bail.

The group was conducting research, Skidmore said, when Millett's bill was added to Senate Bill 54. By November, the entire bill had become law.

Susanne DiPietro, the executive director of the Alaska Judicial Council, which staffs the commission, said the work group will continue in some form.

She said the commission decided at its meeting last week that what passed in SB 54 is "not a complete solution."

Have we cut state budget enough? Must Alaskans pony up? No.

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 15:23

Calling on all Alaskans! If you don't read anything else political between now and the next legislative session in January, please bear through the numbers and read this piece. You will be shocked but you also will be well-equipped to answer the questions above.

What does it all mean? Where are we? Egads. If we've really cut 44 percent (we haven't) then we must be down to bare bones (we aren't).

Consider this: Although our state has unique challenges, is larger than the state of Idaho, and has fewer local governments chipping in, our per capita spending is four times that of Idaho. You read that right: four times. The truth is, we can still make reductions without sacrificing excellent, essential services and in doing so, avoid asking Alaskans to pull hard-earned dollars from their wallets to pay for inefficiencies and nice but unnecessary programs.

So back to that 44 percent. The governor has touted that 44 percent has been cut, but you should know that this claim doesn't at all tell the true story. It just refers to one category of funding (unrestricted general funds), doesn't account for increases in other funding categories, includes capital dollars (that were extremely generous a few years ago), and also includes a one-time $3 billion payment into the retirement system. Obviously, the 44 percent claim is very misleading.

[Trying to make sense of the state budget standoff]

What most of us care about is the year-after-year operating budget —  the total annual cost of the daily operations of all the departments. Perhaps you've heard another claim of the governor, that "total state spending on the operating budget has been cut $1.9 billion since fiscal year 2015 — a 27 percent decrease in three years."  Let's look at this closely. Twenty-seven percent sure sounds like a lot.

What makes up that $1.9 billion in cuts, that 27 percent? Operational dollars to programs and to the departments? Hardly.

According to Legislative Finance, $582 million out of the $1.9 billion is due to the reduction to Alaskans' Permanent Fund dividend checks last year.

$508.6 million is due to the reduction in what we're paying to small companies, the little guys, for oil tax credits owed to them by the state.

Those two items totaling about $1.1 billion were not hardcore reductions to programs and departments but were actually cutbacks to Alaskans and to small businesses. Not a penny of the $1.1 billion required any belt-tightening in state offices or to state services.

So what makes up the difference between the $1.1 and the $1.9 billion? On the surface, it sounds like a solid $790.6 million decrease in spending for agency operations over three years. Is there a catch? I'm afraid there is.

[Alaska lawmakers approve budget compromise to avert government shutdown]

The truth is that this $790.6 million less in UGF spending is offset by an increase of $450.6 million in spending in other funding categories (federal, designated, and other) in the operating budget.

So the real decrease in agency operations spending over those 3 years? $340 million. Let that sink in. Not $1.9 billion. $340 million.

This equates to less than a 3 percent reduction (The $340 million reduction is a 2.9 percent  reduction to the total state budget, operating and capital. It is 3.4 percent reduction to the operating budget.) over three years in the overall state budget. Not 44 percent, not 27 percent, just 3 percent. Now let that sink in too. Less than 3 percent over three years.

We need honesty and transparency — not spin — when we talk about the budget.

Here's some straight talk: Politicians who lead the public to think programs and departments have been cut to the bare bone are simply trying to convince you that we can't cut anymore and that it's time to tax you — and time also to take half your PFD this year — and a greater share of it in the future. Please know that I'm not one of them. I'll be #Telling_it_like_it_is every chance I get for your benefit (you can like and follow my senator page on Facebook).

Sen. Shelley Hughes represents Alaska Senate District F, including Chugiak, Peters Creek Eklutna, Fairview Loop, Butte, Lazy Mountain, Gateway and Palmer.

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.

Your ugly holiday sweater could get you early boarding on Alaska Airlines

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 13:35

Hey, you, in the ugly sweater: Get to the front of the line!

Alaska Airlines plans to celebrate National Ugly Holiday Sweater Day on Dec. 15 by allowing early boarding at all 115 cities where they operate.

"Travel during the holidays can be stressful for guests, especially those who do not travel often. This fun promotion not only allows guests to board early on that day, but gives people another opportunity to dust off that ugly holiday sweater hanging in the back of their closet," Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Natalie Bowman wrote in a statement.

The celebration includes all Alaska Airlines, Virgin America and Horizon Air flights.

"All guests are invited to join in the merriment of the holiday season and share their memories on Twitter by tagging their photos and videos using the hashtags: #UglySweaterDay and #MostWestCoast," the airline statement read.

Under Trump, EPA has slowed actions against polluters, and put limits on enforcement officers

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 13:11

EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio — The highway billboard at the entrance to town still displays a giant campaign photograph of President Donald Trump, who handily won the election across industrial Ohio. But a revolt is brewing in East Liverpool over Trump's move to slow down the federal government's policing of air and water pollution.

The City Council moved unanimously last month to send a protest letter to the Environmental Protection Agency about a hazardous waste incinerator near downtown. Since Trump took office, the EPA has not moved to punish the plant's owner, even after extensive evidence was assembled during the Obama administration that the plant had repeatedly, and illegally, released harmful pollutants into the air.

"I don't know where we go," Councilman William Hogue, a retired social studies teacher, said in frustration to his fellow council members. "They haven't resolved anything."

Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, has said the Trump administration's high-profile regulatory rollback does not mean a free pass for violators of environmental laws. But as the Trump administration moves from one attention-grabbing headline to the next, it has taken a significant but less-noticed turn in the enforcement of federal pollution laws.

An analysis of enforcement data by The New York Times shows that the administration has adopted a more lenient approach than the previous two administrations — Democratic and Republican — toward polluters like those in East Liverpool.

The Times built a database of civil cases filed at the EPA during the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations. During the first nine months under Pruitt's leadership, the EPA started about 1,900 cases, about one-third fewer than the number under President Barack Obama's first EPA director and about one-quarter fewer than under President George W. Bush's over the same time period.

In addition, the agency sought civil penalties of about $50.4 million from polluters for cases initiated under Trump. Adjusted for inflation, that is about 39 percent of what the Obama administration sought and about 70 percent of what the Bush administration sought over the same time period.

The EPA, turning to one of its most powerful enforcement tools, also can force companies to retrofit their factories to cut pollution. Under Trump, those demands have dropped sharply. The agency has demanded about $1.2 billion worth of such fixes, known as injunctive relief, in cases initiated during the nine-month period, which, adjusted for inflation, is about 12 percent of what was sought under Obama and 48 percent under Bush.

Resolving complicated pollution cases can take time, and the EPA said it remained committed to ensuring companies obeyed environmental laws.

"EPA and states work together to find violators and bring them back into compliance, and to punish intentional polluters," the agency said in a statement. Officials said Pruitt was less fixated on seeking large penalties than some of his predecessors were.

"We focus more on bringing people back into compliance than bean counting," the statement said.

Confidential internal EPA documents show that the enforcement slowdown coincides with major policy changes ordered by Pruitt's team after pleas from oil and gas industry executives.

The documents, which were reviewed by The Times, indicate that EPA enforcement officers across the country no longer have the authority to order certain air and water pollution tests, known as requests for information, without receiving permission from Washington. The tests are essential to building a case against polluters, the equivalent of the radar gun for state highway troopers.

At at least two of the agency's most aggressive regional offices, requests for information involving companies suspected of polluting have fallen significantly under Trump, according to internal EPA data.

In the last two complete fiscal years of the Obama administration, the EPA's office in Chicago sent requests for testing that covered an average of 50 facilities per year, or about 4.2 each month. By comparison, after the policy changes, one such request for a single facility was made in the subsequent four-month period. There was a similar decline in the Denver regional office, according to the data.

The enforcement slowdown has been compounded by the departure of more than 700 employees at the EPA since Trump's election, many of them via buyouts intended to reduce the agency's size, and high-level political vacancies at the EPA and the Justice Department. The agency's top enforcement officer — Susan Bodine — was confirmed only late last week.

Separately, Pruitt's team has told officials and industry representatives in Missouri, North Dakota and other states that EPA enforcement officers will stand down on some pollution cases, according to agency documents. The retrenchment is said to be part of a nationwide handoff of many enforcement duties to state authorities, an effort Pruitt calls cooperative federalism but critics say is an industry-friendly way to ease up on polluters.

Current and recently departed EPA staff members said the new direction has left many employees feeling frozen in place, and demoralized, particularly in the regional offices, which have investigators who are especially knowledgeable of local pollution threats.

"Certain people who are polluting are doing it with impunity right now and I think it is horrible," said Nicole Cantello, an EPA lawyer in the Chicago office, who has worked at the agency for 26 years.

Cantello agreed to speak to The Times because she is protected by her status as a union official. The EPA did not authorize agency employees to speak.

The Times asked top EPA enforcement officials from the Obama and Bush administrations to review The Times' data, analysis and methodology. They said the slowdown signaled a sea change in enforcement under Trump.

"Those kinds of numbers are stark," said Granta Nakayama, a lawyer who served in the Bush administration as assistant administrator for the EPA's enforcement office and who now represents companies facing EPA enforcement actions for the law firm King & Spalding, where he oversees the environmental practice.

"If you're not filing cases, the cop's not on the beat," he said. "Or has the cop been taken off the beat?"

Cynthia Giles, the former assistant administrator for the EPA's enforcement office during the Obama administration, also prepared a separate version of the data. She described as a "stunning decline" the reduced efforts under Trump to require companies to bring their facilities into compliance with pollution laws.

"The Pruitt EPA is cratering on the enforcement work that matters most: holding the biggest polluters accountable," said Giles, now a director at the Energy & Environment Lab at the University of Chicago.

Some enforcement experts suggested that the EPA under Pruitt might have filed fewer cases because it was going after larger penalties. But according to the Times analysis, most of the top penalties were smaller than those in the previous two administrations. And the nine-month window included the single largest civil case filed by the EPA, against Exxon Mobil.

 'It Really Just Scares Me' 

On a midsummer afternoon in 2013, boiler ash and steam blasted through a breach at the Heritage Thermal Services hazardous waste incinerator, spewing hundreds of pounds of ash into a nearby neighborhood in East Liverpool and setting off a series of small fires at the plant.

Tests later showed that the ash, which looked like dirty clumps of cotton candy scattered across rooftops and lawns, contained toxic chemicals. In some samples, lead and arsenic were found at concentrations that "could pose a hazard to small children," according to an Ohio Department of Health report. Heritage Thermal went door to door offering to wash people's houses and replace vegetables in their gardens.

Sandra Estell, 64, who lives on a river bluff overlooking the plant, said the ash covered her brother's Chevy Blazer and blanketed the street where she grew up. Even when the plant operates normally, she said, she smells the incinerator from her home — with the odor changing from rotten eggs to an electrical fire to something difficult to place.

Truckloads of hazardous waste often sit in the parking lot outside the plant, awaiting disposal. On the day of the accident in 2013, the plant was burning through a load of waste sent from an oil refinery in Toledo.

"It really just scares me," Estell said of the incinerator.

The plant falls under the jurisdiction of the EPA regional office in Chicago, which moved quickly to investigate the episode as a possible violation of the Clean Air Act, federal records show.

Investigators sent Heritage Thermal's general manager what is known as a Section 114(a) request for detailed information on the explosion. Failing to answer the questions, warned George T. Czerniak, who was then the EPA's Chicago-based director of the air and radiation division, could result in punishment.

Heritage Thermal complied within weeks, and also disclosed that the plant had faced a series of related problems when pressure inside the incinerator had climbed to dangerous levels. Czerniak asked for more information about those episodes, and by March 2015 he had signed a formal letter of complaint, alleging a series of Clean Air Act violations that would very likely result in fines, as well as possible civil or criminal action.

"We are offering you an opportunity to confer with us about the violations," Czerniak wrote in the letter. "You may have an attorney represent you at this conference."

More than 2 1/2 years later, the matter remains unresolved, leading to the letter of complaint to the EPA last month from the East Liverpool City Council. The body is dominated by Democrats, but it says its motivation in criticizing the EPA is based on concerns about public safety and not partisan politics.

John Mercer, a City Council member, said taking on air pollution issues at Heritage Thermal has been a delicate matter because the area has lost thousands of jobs as steel and pottery manufacturing plants closed. "Heritage Thermal is one of the city's largest employers," he said. "We are all friends and neighbors with those that work there."

Still, he said, residents want the matter resolved. "Our constituents deserve answers that no one seems to want to provide," he said.

A spokesman for the EPA declined to comment on the case's status, as did Christopher T. Pherson, president of Heritage Thermal. The company said in a statement that it "is committed to continuously enhancing its performance and environmental compliance."

Estell, who was critical of the plant even before it opened in the 1990s for being built near homes, blames the change in administrations in Washington for the inaction. "Something made them slam on the brakes," she said.

Every administration runs into delays when investigating and enforcing environmental laws, and it is hard to pinpoint why any particular case might stall without access to confidential EPA files. But the lack of action in East Liverpool mirrors a pattern of sluggish new enforcement activity under the Trump administration, as represented in data analyzed by The Times.

The Times identified more than a dozen companies or plants like Heritage Thermal that received notices of violation toward the end of the Obama administration, but as of late November had not faced EPA penalties. The findings were based on agency files released through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group run by a former EPA enforcement chief.

Indiana Harbor Coke in East Chicago, Indiana, has received at least three warning notices since 2015 for pollution violations, including hundreds of illegal emissions of lead, which can cause serious health problems, especially for children.

Other cases include TimkenSteel Corp. of Canton, Ohio, which was served with a notice in November 2015 for illegally emitting hazardous toxins, including mercury, which, when inhaled in large quantities, can cause pulmonary edema, respiratory failure and death.

In Waterford, Ohio, Globe Metallurgical was cited in June 2015 and December 2016 for air pollution violations. The EPA collected evidence that it was emitting illegal amounts of sulfur dioxide, which can irritate the nose and throat and, at very high concentrations, cause life-threatening accumulation of fluid in the lungs.

And in East Liverpool, just down the street from the Heritage Thermal incinerator, S.H. Bell was cited for allowing toxic levels of dust with heavy metal chemical additives such as manganese to drift beyond its property line.

Tests conducted near S.H. Bell found "the highest levels of ambient manganese concentrations in the United States," a complaint issued during the Obama administration said. Health officials warned that the situation represented "a public health hazard and should be mitigated as soon as possible to reduce harmful exposures."

Research led by the University of Cincinnati found in September that levels of manganese in the blood and hair of children in East Liverpool appeared to be related to lower IQ scores, a conclusion executives from S.H. Bell have disputed.

The EPA moved in the final days of the Obama administration to resolve the S.H. Bell matter, proposing a consent decree in January that would require changes to reduce manganese dust levels and to improve monitoring.

Generally, a proposed consent decree is resolved within several months, but in March, the Trump administration asked a federal judge to delay the case so the EPA could "brief incoming administration officials with decision-making responsibility" given that "many subordinate political positions at the agency remain unfilled." The Justice Department has since asked the court to move ahead, but the case remains open.

A spokeswoman for S.H. Bell said the company had moved to comply with the requirements and that its operations had not harmed residents. The EPA said in a statement that it was waiting for the court to act. "It would not be appropriate to discuss the open enforcement matters," the statement said.

Roberta Pratt, 49, a bartender who lives with her family on a block situated between Heritage Thermal and S.H. Bell, said she worries constantly about the delays in enforcement at the facilities. The side of her house, she said, is stained with a rusty color from heavy metals that float through the air.

"It makes me feel like less of a mother," said Pratt of the pollution problems. "You can't protect your children."

Fighting back tears, she added, "People say to me, 'Why don't you just pick up and move out of here?' Well, I just don't have the money to do that."

 Industry Gets a Sympathetic Ear

The memo was marked "Privileged/Confidential/Do Not Release" and was signed by Susan Shinkman, director of civil enforcement at the EPA and one of Pruitt's top deputies in Washington at the time.

It arrived by email to agency employees across the country on May 31.

With four pages of detailed instructions, it directed EPA investigators to seek authorization before asking companies to track their emissions with instruments that determine the type and amount of pollutants being released at their plants.

It also said investigators needed special authorization if they did not have evidence that the company had quite likely violated the law, or if state authorities objected to the tests.

The scope was far-reaching, applying to possible violations of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and federal laws regulating hazardous waste plants.

The goal of these changes, the memo said, was to "ensure a more nationally consistent and complete accounting of federal compliance monitoring and enforcement activities." But the directive arrived like a thunderbolt, upending one of the agency's most effective methods in catching polluters, EPA regional officials said, and one that was extremely unpopular with the oil and gas industry.

In the previous two years, investigators in the Chicago office had sent requests for information — which includes requests for testing — that covered 267 facilities in the six Midwest states it oversees, including in cases involving giant mountains of petcoke stored near residential neighborhoods in Chicago. A carbon and sulfur byproduct of refining oil, petcoke particles can become airborne and enter the lungs, causing serious health effects.

Investigators in the regional office in Denver, which handles many oil and gas cases, also sent out a series of requests during the Obama administration based on hints that energy producers were letting vast quantities of hazardous air pollutants escape into the atmosphere. The pollutants included benzene, which is a carcinogen, and methane, which is a major contributor to climate change. The investigations escalated after four workers at energy facilities in North Dakota were overcome by fumes and died.

As the Obama administration came to a close, companies had grown increasingly unhappy with the tests and began to fight them by turning to allies in Washington.

Koch Carbon, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, which operated two petcoke storage facilities in Chicago, challenged the EPA's authority to require the tests in a formal filing with the agency, EPA documents show, although it still provided the information the agency had requested. The test results showed that its petcoke piles were, in fact, threatening neighbors and led to their removal.

Republicans in Congress, including Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, took up the cause for the oil and gas industry. In public hearings, Inhofe interrogated EPA officials about the tests and called them "a backdoor effort for the EPA to cut greenhouse gas emissions."

When Trump was elected and named Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general, to lead the EPA, the complaints got a fresh — and sympathetic — hearing. Shinkman, in an interview, said she was instructed to write the new policy memo after Pruitt received letters of complaint from oil industry executives in North Dakota and Colorado. Shinkman retired from the EPA in September; in its statement to The Times, the EPA did not say whether the oil and gas industry had been a factor in its decision.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, wrote to Pruitt in March describing the tests as burdensome and costly. "Under the previous administration, the EPA initiated sweeping Clean Air Act (CAA) Section 114 information requests and threatened company-ending sanctions," Ness wrote in a letter obtained by The Times.

In his response to Ness, Pruitt wrote that the EPA would "develop best practices for the judicious use" of the requests, and also hand off much of the enforcement of air pollution laws to North Dakota officials, except on Indian lands where the federal government has jurisdiction.

"The EPA acknowledges the critical role that the oil and gas industry plays in ensuring the nation's energy independence through domestic energy production," Pruitt wrote to Ness in July.

The change in North Dakota was part of a broader effort by the EPA to give states more say in how to treat polluters.

In a letter to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Edward Chu, deputy administrator of the EPA's regional office in Kansas, said the agency would back off some inspection and enforcement activity so the state could take the lead. "These shifts in direction do represent significant change," Chu wrote.

Officials in North Dakota said the new arrangement there is leading to faster resolution of cases involving the oil and gas industry.

"We are focused on compliance and fixes, not on big fines that are trumped up," said Jim Semerad, who leads the division of the North Dakota Department of Health that enforces air emissions rules.

But some critics question the sincerity of Pruitt's deference to state authorities, in part because it comes as the Trump administration has proposed cutting grants that help states pay for local enforcement. And the vigilance of some states in taking on the new responsibilities is also uncertain.

An audit by the EPA inspector general in 2011 described North Dakota as "a state philosophically opposed to taking enforcement action" against polluters.

The state's fines, moreover, are a tiny fraction of those imposed by the EPA for the same violations, records obtained by The Times show, and some North Dakota settlements do not require the hiring of independent inspectors to ensure companies honor their promises.

In Ohio, a change in state law that was tucked into a budget bill this year cut funding for an inspector in East Liverpool, even as Ohio authorities found continued evidence of air pollution violations at the Heritage Thermal incinerator, according to state records obtained by The Times.

Ohio Environmental Services Industry, a trade group that represents Heritage Thermal and a handful of other hazardous waste companies, pushed for the change. The group said the facility would receive sufficient oversight without the dedicated state inspector.

The changes across the country, some lawyers suggest, are giving violators an upper hand in negotiating with the EPA.

Paul Calamita, who represents cities accused of violating the Clean Water Act when they release sewage and contaminated stormwater into rivers and lakes, recommends that clients team up with state governments to push back against the EPA.

Under Trump, Calamita said, the EPA and the Department of Justice have been willing to compromise, withdrawing a six-figure penalty in one instance after refusing to do so in two previous rounds of negotiations during the Obama administration.

"States with new Republican governors are following the Trump approach — providing compliance assistance at the outset to avoid enforcement where the discharger is cooperative," he said in a presentation to utility executives from around the United States. "A state that pushes back on EPA is likely to be successful."

 Muscular Office Loses Muscle

The EPA under Pruitt has pursued some high-profile prosecutions of polluters and has talked tough about companies like Fiat Chrysler, which like Volkswagen has been accused of installing software on its vehicles meant to evade emissions standards.

The agency's biggest civil case filed since Trump took office involves Exxon Mobil, which was accused of not properly operating and monitoring industrial flares at its petrochemical facilities. Exxon agreed in October to pay $2.5 million in civil penalties, some of which will go to Louisiana, and spend $300 million to install new technology to reduce air pollution.

The agency on Friday also released a list of 21 Superfund sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants that Pruitt has targeted for immediate and intense attention. One of the sites on the list, Tar Creek, a former lead and zinc mine, is in Oklahoma, where Pruitt once served as attorney general and state senator.

But more than a dozen current and former EPA officials told The Times that the slowdown in enforcement is real on the ground, and that it is being directed from the top.

At the Ralph Metcalfe Federal Building in Chicago, which houses a regional office of the EPA, employees said it has become difficult to even start a new investigation. Because it covers states populated with Rust Belt industries, the Chicago office has traditionally been one of the busiest of the 10 regions.

An agency spokeswoman, in a statement, said "we have not rejected any requests for sampling, monitoring and testing" that were sent to headquarters as a result of the new policy. But agency staff said the memo made clear such requests were discouraged, and many fewer were being drafted.

Jeff Trevino, a lawyer in the Chicago office, who has worked for the agency for 27 years, said the new hurdles imposed by Pruitt had created "a Catch-22" because, with new policies effectively discouraging requests for information, investigators will have a harder time getting the data needed to detect and confirm violations.

Trevino, like other current EPA employees, was not authorized by the agency to speak with The Times, and did so as a member of the labor union.

"We are the boots on the ground and we just are having a hard time now getting the information we need to do our job," said Felicia Chase, who has worked for nearly a decade as a water pollution enforcement officer in the Chicago office, which covers states from Minnesota to Ohio. She was also speaking in her capacity as a union member.

Chase sat glumly in the cafeteria just before Thanksgiving. On a television set on the wall, Trump could be seen offering an official pardon to a turkey, joking that he could not reverse Obama's turkey pardons from the previous year.

Some workers said they would take the unusual step of asking members of Congress to protect funding for the work they do, while others said they held out hope that the new restrictions on information gathering would not be permanent. Shinkman, the retired author of the May memo, said she had hoped to avoid a sharp drop in requests for information, but she declined to elaborate how that would be possible.

Czerniak, who led the air pollution unit in Chicago until his retirement in 2016, said it was hard to watch the agency struggle through this new era.

"People at the agency are just being cautious, almost to the point of paralysis," he said. "They do not want to do anything for fear of being told they have done something wrong — something the new administrator won't like."

Now another man claims he was the person saving a bunny in a viral California wildfire video

Alaska News - Sun, 2017-12-10 12:40

In a moment that warmed the internet's cold, cold heart last week, a Los Angeles television station claimed it had un-hoodied the man who ventured into the middle of a California wildfire to rescue a frantic rabbit – a save captured in a dramatic video that got all the feels as it rocketed around cyberspace.

It was good while it lasted.

The story has taken a not-so-heartwarming turn: Another man in another red hoodie has come forward saying he's the one that effected the rabbit rescue – and he has the singed bunny to prove it.

So what was once a case of a human putting his life at risk for the sake of a small, furry creature has become a case of – well, maybe just fraud.

Tuesday's rescue was a bright spot amid the devastation caused by the Thomas Fire, which has scorched more than 150,000 acres, burned hundreds of buildings and been the source of endless orange-tinted tableaus of devastation.

Oscar Gonzales told Los Angeles NBC affiliate KNBC that he was driving through one of them earlier this week. He was on his way home from work Tuesday when he and a buddy saw a rabbit frantically running along the side of California Highway 1.

"I love animals, myself, and I just felt bad," Gonzales told Los Angeles NBC affiliate KNBC.

He says he decided to pull over to help. Someone else pulled out a camera and started recording the dramatic scene, its characters backlit by flames.

In the video, the man jumped up and down, trying to get the rabbit's attention. But that might have just further scared the animal.

"I was screaming – I'm all 'what are you doing going toward the fire?'" Gonzales said, narrating the video.

"At first, he was afraid of me because I was yelling, but then it went in my arms. And I picked up the rabbit, and I ran on the other side, and I dropped him off there."

And with that interview, Gonzales briefly became an internet hero.

The rescuer's new fans stormed the interwebs, inundating social media with glad tidings and bunny emoji and making a case for the good Samaritan's canonization.

But then, enter Caleb Wadnan.

On Saturday, he came forward and told the station that he was the one in the video. His story was very similar: driving along Highway One, he saw flames and a terrified animal, then got out to help.

"I just ran after it," he told the news station, detailing his rabbit rescue. "I had a lot of faith in me at the time being. And so I was just focused on the life at hand rather than the flames around me."

The people at KNBC were better able to corroborate his story. For one, he was wearing the same outfit as the guy in the video – not just the red hoodie, but also the black athletic shorts.

He also presented photographic evidence of a singed bunny that he dropped off at a vet's office. Huffington Post talked to the people at the Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital, who said Wadnan had brought in the burned bunny. (The female cottontail was recovering from burns and heat damage, and it was too soon to say when she'd be fully healed.)

The competing claims sparked a new series of questions: Was Gonzales simply lying? Is it possible that both men had rescued rabbits on that day but only one was captured on film? Did KNBC try to verify Gonzales's claims before they beamed them out to the world? Are there more adorable photos of a recuperating bunny wrapped in a blanket?

NBC appended its article with an editors' note, and said its staff had used some high tech wizardry to try to discern the real savior:

"On Saturday, NBC4 found reason to believe that Oscar Gonzales was not the man in the video as he claimed and followed up him with him and his girlfriend. The couple still insists he was the one seen in the video, but after using an enhanced image NBC4 has concluded the actual man in the video was Caleb Wadnan."

Of course, whether the rabbit rescuer's actions were right or not had already been scrutinized by the unblinking eye of people on the internet, with many saying scooping up the bunny was wrong to begin with.

Rabbits and their rabbit-like forbearers (forehares?) have been running away from forest fires for millions of years. They're just as skilled at getting out of danger as humans are – and some can weather out forest fires by simply staying in their burrows. So did the actions of whoever was in the video actually save the rabbit?

Others went further down the rabbit hole. Maybe the rabbit wasn't running from the fire, but toward a litter of defenseless bunnies. LiveScience opined as much in what is perhaps the most buzz-killing headline stemming from the save: "Did The Wildfire Rabbit 'Rescuer' Doom A Litter of Babies?"

And by getting out of his car and running toward the flames, the rescuer put himself – and others – in harm's way.

He could have also endangered fire crews who would not have waded into the flames for a rabbit, but would have put themselves at risk to rescue a man.

Most wildlife experts advise people to leave wild animals alone in these situations. Human intervention, they say, merely puts a kink in the circle of life.

What all those armchair quarterbacks didn't know at the time was that there was not simply one ethical dilemma evident in this story – there are two.

And the most recent one is not going away. Both men know there's another guy claiming to be the hero from the video. Both are sticking by their stories.

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