Alaska News Nightly: November 24, 2010

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Department of Interior Designates Critical Polar Bear Habitat
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
The Department of Interior today released the areas designated as critical habitat for polar bears.

It’s a vast 187,000 mile designation along Alaska’s northern coast. Rosa Mehan is the Alaska division chief for Marine Mammal management for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mehan says because polar bears are managed under both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act there are protections in place that impact industry. The habitat designation will not however, change or enhance that.

Mehan acknowledges that sea ice loss is the major driver of the need for protections to help save polar bears and that loss is due to a warming climate impacted by fossil fuel emissions, but she says the ESA is not an effective method for addressing greenhouse gas. The Interior department used something called the 4-D rule when they listed the bears in 2008. It exempts greenhouse gas emissions from being regulated under the ESA.

Brendan Cummings is with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups that sued to trigger the habitat designation. He says the designated habitat areas are very good but he says addressing climate change is going to require all available regulatory tools.

Fish and Wildlife’s Mehan says her agency is focused on what they can do right now. Working to minimize further adverse affects on polar bears so at least some will survive and hopefully she says, re-populate areas that have habitat protections if measures to stop sea ice loss are effective. She says within a few decades, the only refuge for polar bears may be the Canadian Archipelagos where sea ice is stable. She acknowledges the current situation is grim.

Brendan Cummings says species with critical habitat designations are twice as likely to increase in numbers. But he says for the designation to work, the department of interior and other federal agencies need to take the protection mandate seriously.

North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta released a statement today expressing concern that the designation could impact subsistence hunting and routine oil and gas development on the North Slope.

Barrow and Kaktovik are exempt from the critical habitat designation rules as are five Air force radar facilities, but Itta worries that the designation could still stop a new runway from being built in Kaktovik.

Another element of the lawsuit that will be heard in December is the ESA listing itself.  DC judge Emmett Sullivan wants more clarity from the department of Interior as to how they decide what species get a threatened designation or the more protective endangered listing. Those documents are due to the court on Dec. 23. Arguments about whether the bears should be listed as threatened, endangered or not listed at all, will be heard in February. Arguments on the 4-D rule exempting greenhouse gases from ESA regulation will be heard in April.

AEA Chooses Susitna Dam Project; Parnell Agrees
Sue Deyoe, KTNA – Talkeetna
The Alaska Energy Authority announced Wednesday that they are supporting and recommending the Lower Watana Dam on the Susitna River instead of the Chakachamna Project.  The Authority has been expected to come out with a decision for the past couple of weeks.  From KTNA in Talkeetna Sue Deyoe has more on the decision.

Republicans Pledge to Ban Earmarks; Alaska Delegation Fighting for Them
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
Republicans in both the U.S. House and Senate are pledging to ban earmarks.  That’s not sitting well with Alaska’s Congressional delegation, which is vowing to fight for them.  But as APRN’s Libby Casey reports, whether earmarks survive is in question.

On Friday we’ll look at the affects earmark reductions are having in Alaska.

Angoon Recall Effort Appears Unsuccessful
Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka
An attempt to remove Angoon Mayor Albert Howard from office appears to have failed, based on preliminary election returns reported by City Clerk Lillian Woodbury.

The unofficial returns from Tuesday’s recall election show 50 people voting yes on recalling Howard, and 78 people voting no. About 430 people live in Angoon, which is on western Admiralty Island.

The recall petition accused Howard of exceeding his authority as mayor by entering into a deal to develop hydro power projects on Ruth Lake and Scenery Lake in Thomas Bay.

Angoon has been dealing with Cascade Creek LLC, and maintaining federal permits to develop the hydro projects at Ruth and Scenery lakes.

The recall language said those permits cost as much as $3 million each, and that parts of the agreement Angoon struck with Cascade Creek could result in “substantial financial obligations and liabilities” for the length of the agreements – some 50 years.

Earlier this year, the Angoon Council voted to freeze all action on the Thomas Bay projects and asked its attorney to try and void any contracts with Cascade Creek. The private company holds a preliminary permit for another Hydro Electric Project at Swan Lake in Thomas Bay. Cascade formerly held permits for Ruth and Scenery as well, but has instead been working under contract to help Angoon develop those sites.

Reached before the polls closed on Tuesday, Howard says a city council resolution in 2008 authorized him to act in the city’s best interests and that the action he took is in the best interest of Angoon.

“All it is, is a source of revenue for our community and community members so we can create jobs,” Howard said. “Angoon’s been at 80 percent unemployment for three years. The council has been doing a really good job at trying to figure out what we need to do to take the community into the future. This is one step of many steps.”

Howard said he was willing to step aside without an argument if the vote had not gone in his favor. But he also said he hoped if the recall failed, that those opposed to the deals with Cascade Creek would let the city move forward without opposition.

That’s not likely, says Maxine Thompson, a former Angoon mayor. Earlier on Tuesday, she told KCAW that she’ll continue to advocate against Angoon’s involvement in the Ruth Lake and Scenery Lake projects if the recall was unsuccessful.

“We have to,” she said. “We have to maintain our position and say we oppose this because he refuses to go through the proper procedures. And the proper procedure is to disclose everything.”

Thompson says the deals with Cascade Creek happened without enough public involvement and that it distracts from a hydro project at Thayer Lake she says could help Angoon more.

The results of Tuesday’s election are not finalized until questioned ballots are counted. The number of questioned ballots was not immediately available. The election is expected to be canvassed on Friday and certified on Monday.

FERC Seeks Update on Scenery Creek Hydroelectric Project
Joe Viechnicki, KFSK – Petersburg
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has sent a notice to the city of Angoon about an overdue progress report – for the Scenery Creek hydroelectric project.

Angoon holds the preliminary FERC permit to study the potential for hydro power at Scenery Creek, one of three waterways under consideration for hydro development in Thomas Bay on the mainland north of Petersburg. Angoon is also the permit holder for Ruth Lake and received a notice of an overdue progress report on that project earlier this month.

The federal permits require filing a report every six months and Angoon’s latest report on Scenery Creek was due Oct. 1. Failure to file the report can mean the cancellation of a permit. Angoon has 30 days to submit a filing to try and keep the permit.

Angoon’s city council voted earlier this year to freeze all action on the Thomas Bay projects. Angoon permit filing proposes the construction of a 120-foot-high dam on Scenery Lake, which is nearly 1,000 feet above sea level. Water siphoned from the lake would be dropped down to sea level and would power four turbines capable of generating up to 40 megawatts.

Scenery Creek is the one project of the three in Thomas Bay that has fish that could be impacted by hydro development.  Scenery Creek is also within a roadless area of the Tongass National Forest.

Petersburg opposed Angoon’s application for the Scenery Creek permit because of Angoon’s decision to work with the private company Cascade Creek on the project. That company held the preliminary permit for Scenery Lake from 2006 to 2009.

Johansen Vows Return to Republican Caucus
Associated Press
State Rep. Kyle Johansen is vowing a return to the Republican caucus.

The embattled Johansen told constituents in Ketchikan this week that he will be in the Republican-led Majority Caucus when the Legislature convenes in January.

He also says he’s likely to be chairman or co-chairman of a committee.

Johansen, the former House Majority Leader, and Rep. Charisse Millet, a Republican from Anchorage, left the caucus after it reorganized earlier this month over concerns about the group’s direction.

But during a town hall meeting in Ketchikan this week, Johansen says it’s been made clear that he should be in Juneau to represent the concerns of his district–not statewide issues. This comes after the Ketchikan Daily News called for his resignation in an editorial.

Johansen plans to meet with House Speaker Mike Chenault in Anchorage next week.

Southeast Churches, Groups Gear Up for Holiday Season
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
Southeast churches and groups are collecting and preparing food for their community Thanksgiving dinners. At the same time, they’re gearing up for the season’s food and toy drives. Organizers say the need is greater this year, and that’s probably due to the weak economy.

Bean’s Café Preparing for Thanksgiving Crowd
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Anchorage’s Bean’s Cafe is expecting a crowd for Thanksgiving dinner.  The cafe serves hot meals every day all year  for those in need, as well as providing a day shelter as a safe alternative to the streets.  Special meals are served on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

Executive Director Jim Crockett says it takes about 120 volunteers to staff the  Thanksgiving dinner.

He says community generosity has helped stock the shelves for the holiday dinner, although some more vegetables and ham would be welcome.

Crockett says Cafe operators are seeing more families with children than in the past, although they refer families to agencies better suited to serve their needs.  He says food donations are always welcome at Bean’s, since they serve all year.  The Cafe is trying out some new ways to stretch resources.

Crockett says Bean’s Cafe has all the volunteers it needs for Thanksgiving.

Over at the Food Bank of Alaska, Mary Mike Adams says that most agencies the Food Bank serves are reporting a 20-30 percent increase in numbers using the food services.  Steve Keppel at the Rescue Mission of Anchorage says about 300 people are expected to come to the free Thanksgiving dinner at the Mission. Keppel says donations are always welcome, and that the Mission especially needs blankets.