Alaska News Nightly: March 31, 2011

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Weyhrauch Attorneys Ask for Evidence of Prosecutorial Misconduct
Associated Press
Attorneys for former Alaska lawmaker Bruce Weyhrauch are asking a federal judge for access to evidence they contend shows prosecutorial misconduct. His attorneys say they have an obligation to report misconduct to the Alaska Bar Association.

Thursday’s filing seeks permission to send the bar evidence now under seal. It doesn’t specify which prosecutors Weyhrauch’s attorneys believe acted inappropriately.

The government dropped a federal case against Weyhrauch under a deal that had him pleading to a state misdemeanor count. Weyhrauch vigorously denied the federal charges against him, and one of his attorneys said prosecutors withheld evidence in his case.

House Debates Governor’s Oil Tax Proposal
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Thursday, the House opened debate on a tax proposal Governor Sean Parnell hopes will increase jobs and production in the state’s oil fields. Final debate is scheduled for tonight.

Members so far have rejected three amendments. With few exceptions voting was along strict caucus lines. Anchorage Democrat Les Gara said all the minority amendments had one common goal – to get a return for the money the oil companies will get in lower taxes. He said that the governor’s bill would provide $6 billion over the next five years in incentives for the industry – and it sets no requirements from the industry.

“You can either write a bill that is based on a hope, wing and a prayer that the oil companies will give the money back even though they’re allowed to take it out of state,” Gara said. “But writing a bill that says you can take all the money out of state if you want is not as smart as writing a bill that says you only get the tax breaks if you increase production, hire Alaskans, put more oil in the pipeline.”

The version of the bill on the floor today is not exactly what the governor originally asked for in January, although changes made in the House Finance Committee did diminish the tax breaks the industry would receive.

In their proposed amendments so far, Democrats have wanted to set goals for the industry to meet; they want the companies to disclose what they would do with any tax credits they receive; and want guarantees that work would be done with the money the companies’ request. Also among the proposals was an amendment that would have simply expired the governor’s changes in 2014.

Republicans objected.

Anchorage’s Anna Fairclough argued that a requirement to revisit the tax in three years would make Alaska less competitive.

“What the proposed HB 110 does is push Alaska to be more competitive in a global market,” Fairclough said. “It’s about giving certainty when people – Alaskans – go into corporate board rooms and have to compete for projects globally.”

“A 2014 sunset creates instability in a company being able to plan for their future.”

The bill will be put to a vote in Thursday night’s session.

Alaskans Rally to Support ‘Choose Respect’ Campaign
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage and Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
Alaskans in more than 60 communities held marches today to support Governor Sean Parnell’s “Choose Respect” campaign.

Studies show Alaska has higher rates of rape and family violence than the nation as a whole. Governor Parnell started the initiative in 2009 in an effort to reverse that trend, and he made it one of his main campaign issues last fall.

Saralyn Tabachnik attended the Juneau rally today. She’s executive director of AWARE – or Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies. She says the “Choose Respect” campaign is helping, but there’s more work to do.

Governor Parnell helped carry a colorful “choose respect” banner at the rally at noon in downtown Anchorage. Half a dozen native men beating hoop drums led 150 marchers to Town Square Park.

In a phone interview before the rally, the Governor said he wants victims and survivors of rape and domestic violence to see that there is hope.

Governor Sean Parnell led a rally at noon in downtown Anchorage to support his “choose respect” initiative. Similar rallies were held today in more than 60 communities across Alaska.

Fort Wainwright Will Retain Aviation Brigade
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Fort Wainwright will retain an aviation brigade, but the number of soldiers and aircraft in it will be reduced. The Army has announced a plan to divide the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade between Fort Wainwright and joint base Lewis-McChord in Washington. U.S. Army Alaska spokesman Major Bill Coprenol says the 1,400 member, 60 helicopter brigade will be headquartered at Lewis-McChord, but keep a substantial presence at Fort Wainwright.

The reduction comes as the Army plans to increase the size of other Fort Wainwright aviation resources.

Voting District Restructure Debate Continues
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
The state’s redistricting board is in the throes of creating new voting district boundaries that will determine representation in the legislature for the next decade. A public hearing in Anchorage Thursday brought before the board a number of suggested plans created by civic groups with widely divergent viewpoints on how to achieve redistricting while preserving minority voting strengths.

New Electric Utilities Break Ground in Anchorage
Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage
This week Anchorage’s two major electrical utilities broke ground for a natural gas powered plant. Despite the construction cost, Chugach Electric Association and Municipal Light and Power say the facility will ultimately save consumers money.

Sealaska’s Second-Growth Harvest Sells
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
You’ve probably heard that most of Southeast Alaska’s second-growth timber is decades away from harvest. But the Sealaska regional Native Corporation is experimenting with some older stands of young trees.

Most of Sealaska’s second-growth timber is no older than the corporation itself. Thinning, brushing and pruning have sped growth. Still, it’s years away from being large enough to log.

But a few stands were cut long before the regional Native Corporation formed back in 1972. One is on Dahl Island, off the outer coast of Prince of Wales Island.

Sealaska Timber Corporation President Wade Zammit says the military used the wood for airplane construction about 70 years ago.

“We chose that area because it had fairly mature second growth, has developed road systems and it was close to the water,” Zammit said. “And we integrated a traditional processor and a shovel with helicopter logging.”

He says it took a lot of planning and some experimenting. But the location and a quick turnaround made it profitable.

Last year’s logging produced 12 million board feet of timber, which were sold to China and Korea. That made up 21 percent of the corporation’s total harvest.

Sealaska’s experience is relevant to others considering the second-growth timber business. That’s the direction the Forest Service, and some of the region’s environmental groups, want to go.

But timber appraiser Ray Granvall cautions that the Dahl Island sale is unique.

“They had the infrastructure there to do it,” Granvall said. “You can’t go into the very small stands of older timber that belong to the Forest Service without that infrastructure and try to do the same thing.”

Granvall recently inventoried younger stands of Tongass trees for the Southeast Conference, an economic-development organization that supports logging.

He found some older, second-growth forests. But they were too small or isolated to be worth harvesting.

“I’ve seen letters from representatives, senators, congressmen, from the current administration in Washington D.C., about forcing the industry into a second-growth economy right off,” Granvall said.

And it’s not there. There’s no volume there to do that, not yet. It’s going to take at least 40 years before you get there.

The Dahl Island harvest taught Sealaska about some differences between second growth and older timber. Zammit says there’s a lot of competition in the international market.

“It is more of a commodity. So the second growth out of Alaska competes with the second growth out of the Pacific Northwest and out of New Zealand,” Zammit said. “It has a lot more volatility with pricing, but it has a fairly large customer base.

It’s a different market in part because it’s different wood. Younger trees, especially from thinned or otherwise managed stands, grow faster. That puts their rings father apart, which makes their timber more likely to twist and shrink when dried and processed.

Zammit says it’s somewhat of an issue for Southeast second-growth. But it’s smaller factor, due to our climate.

“The Pacific Northwest has much faster growth rates. New Zealand has much faster growth rates. In Alaska we have slower growth rates,” Zammit said. “And that closer ring and more fine grain in the second growth actually had some value to customers. And we didn’t know that going into this.”

Sealaska’s efforts parallel a push for second-growth logging in the Tongass.

Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director Andrew Thoms says large-scale efforts may be years away. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

“We have a finite resource in old growth,” Thoms said. “And old growth is the timber we have a competitive advantage for but we don’t have a lot of it left.”

Sealaska plans another major Dahl Island harvest this year. Like its other cuts, and an increasing amount of Tongass timber, logs will be shipped to Asia in the round.

“Now that we have proved the model up we’re looking for other areas in the ownership where we can apply this,” Zammit said. “We’re actually now looking for areas for 2012.”

But it’s unclear how much more second-growth will be worth logging that soon. Like the Tongass, most of Sealaska’s stands still have decades before they are ready to harvest.

Bethel Broomballers Travel for First State Tournament
Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel
Bethel boasts the only broomball team from Rural Alaska that will be competing at the state tournament in Homer this weekend.