Alaska News Nightly: May 10, 2011

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Kuskokwim River Flooding Crooked Creek Homes
Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel
The dramatic flooding happening in Crooked Creek has worsened. A jam of Kuskokwim River ice has held a few miles below the village of Crooked Creek Tuesday pushing more water and ice back into the village. Many are losing their homes.

Yukon Experiencing Mellow Breakup
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
In contrast to the Kuskokwim, break up has been fairly mellow on the Yukon River so far. The ice went out at Eagle over the weekend.  Two years ago an historic ice jam and flood wiped out the city waterfront and nearby Native Village. Long time Eagle resident John Borg says this spring’s gradual warm up made for an uneventful break up.

Borg says this summer will see additional work on a few of the many homes built to replace those washed away in the break up flood two years ago.  He says a new health clinic is also scheduled to go up in the Eagle Native Village.

Officials Discuss Status of Drilling Technology
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
There was no disagreement at a hearing in Washington Tuesday that oil and gas drilling technology has advanced dramatically in the decades since the Trans Alaska Oil Pipeline was built.  But whether it’s advanced enough to drill in environmentally sensitive areas is still up for debate.

Board of Directors Explore Land Leasing Possibility for Chickaloon Coal
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
The Alaska Mental Health Lands Trust’s board of directors heard from the public Tuesday on whether or not to lease 18 square miles of property near Chickaloon to coal mining interests.

The Trust’s board already voted to lease the land several years ago, but opposition from Chickaloon residents stopped the plan in 2007.

Mike Franger, senior resource manager for the Trust, says the Trust’s board of directors met this morning in Anchorage, and the coal lease question is only one item on the agenda.

But Chickaloon residents are concerned about the Trust’s move. Kirby Spangler heads the Castle Mountain Coalition, which spearheaded the fight against the Trust’s coal lease sale plan four years ago.

Spangler says the Coalition wants to preserve the ecological integrity of the Matanuska River watershed.

The Trust’s Franger says the board is looking at the potential for leasing the land for coal exploration, but there is no lease sale scheduled yet.

Legislators Examining Two Versions of Budget
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
While legislators have waited for a capital projects budget since long before the end of the regular session last month, they now have two versions to deal with. The House finance Committee and the Senate Finance Committee both approved versions of the budget today. The Senate version will likely head to the floor as early as Tuesday night. House committee co-chair Bill Stoltze says if the Senate version arrives in his committee Wednesday, that will be the version to head to the floor.  The special session must end one week from tonight.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday unveiled a compromise bill extending the state’s coastal management program for six years – while meeting more needs of the coastal communities who want stronger input into development projects in their areas.

If the legislature doesn’t extend the program it will cease operations by July 1.

Finance co-Chair Lyman Hoffman says he considers the changes to the program this year to be minor, but it sets up smoother review when it comes back up in 2017.  And he says he wants the coastal communities to make the next set of changes when it comes up again.

The Senate bill differs from one passed by the House last month in several key points – it does not let the governor replace at will the local appointees to the Policy Board.  They may only be removed for cause.

The committee held the bill today for more assurances that the administration and the House agree to the changes.

Disney Cruise Lines Makes First Trip to Alaska
Tara Bicknell, KHNS – Haines
Disney Cruise Line made its first trip to Alaskan waters last week, making a stopover in Skagway on Friday.  As KHNS reporter Tara Bicknell tells us, the local vendors experienced a  new type of Alaska visitor, as an onslaught of children disembarked from the ship.

Fire Forecast Expected to be Moderate
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
A red flag warning is in effect until Wednesday night throughout Southcentral Alaska – for Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and the Western Kenai Peninsula. That means fire conditions are critical with low humidity and high winds.

But overall, wildfire officials don’t expect anything extreme this season. Fire Weather program Manager at the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, Heidi Starder says La Nina, the cooling of South Pacific waters that’s been affecting Alaska weather, figures into the fire forecast.

That’s about normal for Alaska.  Last year 1.2 million acres went up, while 2.9 million burned in 2009.  Strader says this summer is expected to be on the warm side, but that should be moderated by normal rainfall.  She says long range fire forecasting relies on comparison with years with similar trends, and there’s always potential for surprise.

Strader says ground factors like beetle kill on the Kenai, and drought last fall in Upper Yukon and Yukon Flats could contribute to increased early fire potential at those locations.

Fish and Game Looking to Learn More About the Wood Frog
Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham
The only amphibian in Alaska is a climate indicator species, and the Alaska Department of Fish & Game wants to learn a lot more about it.  The creature is the Wood Frog, and the state is recruiting citizens to listen for its delightful chirping.

‘Nature’ Series Investigates Alaska’s Bears
Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage
Public television’s “Nature” series is running a set of three shows featuring Alaska’s bears – Polar, Brown and Black.  “Bears of the Last Frontier” follows Seattle ecologist Chris Morgan to Kaktovik, Denali Park, the Noatak, Katmai, the Dalton Highway, and Anchorage as he seeks out the animals in their habitat.  Cinematographer Joe Pontecorvo says the series is part of a larger effort to create a documentary about bears and their habitats all over the world, called “Bear Trek.”

Some might consider it strange to use a motorcycle to explore bear country.  The cameraman says initially he, too, had his doubts.

For the road portion of the series, Morgan used his motorcycle, and the rest of the crew used a van.  Of course, much of their shooting was done in remote areas far beyond the reach of anything but aircraft.  It took a year and a half to shoot the material used in the series, including one whole summer spent in Anchorage following Fish and Game biologists Rick Sinnott and Jessie Coltrane as they responded to bear incidents in the city.

The crew also spent a lot of time in some of the same remote bays of Katmai National Park that were frequented by Timothy Treadwell, who was killed there along with his girlfriend by a Brown bear in 2003.  Treadwell, too, filmed himself getting close to bears, and then showed his videos to the public.  Viewers of their public television series have been quick to make comparisons, but Pontecorvo says Chris Morgan’s approach is entirely different from Treadwell’s.

Pontecorvo says it’s a point of pride with Chris Morgan that he has never had to use his flares or his pepper spray, though other crew members have.

The first of the three-part series ran last week and concentrates on Katmai Brown bears.  The next episode is on the road and deals with Black and Brown bears. And the third episode deals with arctic bears – Brown and Polar – as well as wolves and caribou.

Pontecorvo says they wanted to portray both the bears and their habitat.  The re-introduction of predators to Yellowstone National Park has shown the world that predators are a key part of a healthy ecosystem.

“Bears of the Last Frontier” runs on PBS’s “Nature” series on Sundays.