Alaska News Nightly: April 4, 2011

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House Opens Hearings on Bill to Abandon AGIA
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Monday, the House Finance committee opened hearings on a bill that could lead to the abandonment of the AGIA natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to North American markets. TransCanada Pipeline was awarded the state license to put the project together.

Constraints on Cook Inlet Beluga Recovery Team Sparks Controversy
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
A controversy over constraints on the participants of the Cook Inlet Beluga Recovery Team has letters flying back and forth between state and federal officials and other team members. The issue first arose in January when recovery team leader Tamara McGuire wrote to James Balsiger the head of NOAA Fisheries for the Alaska region. McGuire’s letter said science panel members were unhappy that department of Fish and Game commissioner Cora Campbell made clear that state scientists on the recovery team could not speak freely about the plight of the beluga. Other team members worried this would inject politics into the work of developing a recovery plan. The state is suing the federal government over the listing of Cook Inlet Beluga as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Craig Matkin is a biologist with the non-profit North Coast Oceanic Society and one of the biologists on the panel. He says he has great respect for  both Robert Small and Mark Willette, the two state scientists who were selected to represent the state on the science panel, but he says it’s important that they be allowed to work independently of state policy and he says that policy has taken a troubling turn in recent years.

NOAA Alaska region head James Balsiger says he thinks having state biologists on the team is valuable, but given the state’s stance on the whales, it will be important to track whether state biologists are talking policy or science.

Balsiger says the state has been up front about their position and Campbell’s letter clarifies that. He says he is confident the state is not trying to undermine the process. But he says other scientists on the team have raised the issue with DC level offices in NOAA and that could impact how the panel proceeds. Balsiger says because the state is suing NOAA over the endangered listing, they wouldn’t want their biologists to say something that might compromise their position in court.

Fish and Game endangered species coordinator Doug Vincent Lang says the state’s position is that the ESA listing is premature, that the beluga population is stabilized and has begun a slow increase. He says the policy laid out in the letter predates Cora Campbell and has been in place for three or four years. He says there’s a lot of disagreement within the department on various elements of what’s happening with the Cook Inlet beluga but those perspectives will be brought forward by the two state scientists and they must follow department mandates.

There are two panels involved in planning for the Cook Inlet Beluga’s recovery. One is a stakeholder panel that has state, oil and gas industry and NGOs represented on it. Campbell’s letter also raised concerns that the science panel meetings were closed to the stakeholders. She wrote that action ‘unnecessarily increases suspicions’. She urged the science panel to open its meetings to the stakeholder group. One of the stakeholder panel members, John Schoen worked for Fish and Game for 20 years. He now works for the Audubon Society. He says the stakeholder group is working together well and that is the proper place for the state’s views to be heard. But he says autonomous science is vital to the beluga recovery effort. In the 1980s, the Cook Inlet beluga population was around 1,300, currently the number is around 300. He says few scientists would argue that the whales are in a precarious position and could easily be driven into extinction.

At this point it’s not clear how the issue will be resolved. A meeting of the science panel is scheduled for April 12. The Marine Mammal Commission and Cook Inletkeeper also sent letters expressing strong reservations about the state’s position.

Lawmakers Consider Leaving Prison Empty
Joshua Tucker, APRN – Anchorage
The Mat-Su valley’s new 70-acre prison complex is almost complete.  The Goose Creek Correctional Center will be able to hold 1,500 prisoners. The Department of Corrections had hoped it would open next year, but the legislature voted to withhold the prison’s first year operating budget Friday. Lawmakers are concerned because Goose Creek would cost the State a projected $70 million a year to run. Some lawmakers think that cost is too high and are considering leaving the prison empty permanently.

Fate of Goose Creek Prison Remains Uncertain
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Now that the Senate has denied initial operating funds for the prison, the fate of the 240 million dollar facility is questionable. As KSKA’s Ellen Lockyer reports, the Senate finance committee is betting that the budget slash will  spotlight  concerns about the prison’s operating costs, but the panel hasn’t laid all its cards on the table just yet.

Municipal Election Polls Open Tomorrow
Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage
Tuesday, in the state’s only spring municipal election, Anchorage voters will decide the balance of power in the city’s assembly and the fate of 11 ballot propositions.

Eliason Remembered for Humility, Impact
Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka
Former State Senator Dick Eliason has died. The Sitka Republican served 22 years in both chambers of the state legislature, including two years as president of the Senate.