Alaska News Nightly: May 25, 2011

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Sealaska Raises Land Selection Issue in Washington DC
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
The Sealaska Native Corporation was in Washington Wednesday making its case to select lands in the Tongass National Forest.  It’s a fight that’s been going on for years, and one that’s caused intense controversy in southeast Alaska.

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski acknowledged how divisive the issue has been.

Murkowski supports Sealaska’s land selections, and has authored a bill that has backing on the other side of the political aisle from Democratic Senator Mark Begich.  Murkowski introduced a revised Sealaska lands bill last month after hearing an outcry from some Southeast Alaskans upset that Sealaska would take lands currently used for hunting, fishing, and tourism, and deemed ecologically sensitive.

The current bill would let the corporation choose from among 79,000 acres on Prince of Wales and Koscuisko Islands, mostly for timber use, and additional lands would be set aside for tourism and as sacred or cultural sites.

It still goes too far according to some, like Myla Polestra of Edna Bay who testified before the Senate Energy Committee Wednesday against the bill, called S-730.

The Obama Administration voiced its objections even as it said it’s time to finalize a deal.  Harris Sherman, Undersecretary for National Resources and Environment at the Agriculture Department, says Sealaska’s picks may hurt local mills.

But Senator Murkowski warned that without the land swap, local timber in Southeast will die.  And Sealaska says this is a unique situation and that the corporation is entitled to make selections under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA.  Board member Byron Mallott testified that allowing the corporation to make the selections won’t be doing something special, but will instead be showing it respect.

While Senator Murkowski has adjusted her bill after public comment, Congessman Don Young has not made changes to the version introduced last year.  Thursday, it will get an airing over in the House, in the Indian Affairs Subcommittee he chairs.

Unalaska Group Engages in Unusual Spring Cleanup
Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska
For most people, cleaning up litter means walking along roads and picking up empty soda cans. But for one group in Unalaska, it means dragging up boat parts and fishing nets from floor of the harbor.

Lawmakers Debate Special Session for Coastal Management Program
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
Alaska lawmakers are being polled today to see if there is enough support to call themselves into special session to deal with the Coastal Management Program. Senate President Kodiak Republican Gary Stevens sent out the email to lawmakers. Senator Stevens was not available Wednesday, but Senate Majority Leader Anchorage Republican Kevin Meyer says if enough lawmakers agree, the session would be held next week on May 31 and would only take a day or two.

The Coastal management program will end by June 30 unless lawmakers and the Governor pass legislation that keeps it going. Meyer says the House version passed unanimously but the Senate tried to tweak it a bit.

Meyer says Bethel Senator Lyman Hoffman and Nome Senator Donny Olson are working to craft a compromise in the hope that lawmakers can quickly pass a bill.

It takes a two thirds majority of the legislature to call a special session. The governor could also call lawmakers back to deal with the issue but he would have to give them 30 days notice so it would have to happen within the next few days to make the deadline before the ACMP dies.

Anchorage Democrat, Senator Bill Wielecowski has been urging action on the law. He says the program has existed for more than 30 years and if it expires, Alaska with more coastline than all other states combined would be the only coastal state not to have a program in place.

Wielecowski says the program allows the state and coastal communities to have a formal seat at the table and impacts federal development on everything from timber in the Tongass to oil and gas development in the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea. It’s also tied to millions in federal funds. He says the federal Deep Water Port Act requires the state to have a coastal management program before a port for resource development could be built.

Wielecowski says he believes a compromise can be achieved quickly and lawmakers would not have to be in Juneau long, but he says if the streamline process goes away for permitting, and the state and local communities lose the ability to be involved, everyone loses.

Senator Meyers says the hope is that a decision regarding the special session can be made by Thursday.

Rescued Polar Bear Cub Makes Debut at Alaska Zoo
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
A polar bear cub rescued from the North Slope last month is making a quick recovery at the Alaska Zoo. The female cub of the year was underweight and weak when she was found at the Alpine Oil Field, separated from her mother. The cub faced certain death in the wild, so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to rescue her. She’ll become an ambassador for her species at a zoo in the Lower 48. APRN’s Annie Feidt was at the zoo Wednesday for the cub’s first introduction to life in front of adoring fans.

Two Climbers Die in Mount Francis Avalanche
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Two climbers have been killed in an avalanche in Denali National Park.  The Park Service reports that 33-year-old Jiro Kurihara of Canmore, Alberta, and 28-year-old Junya Shiraishi of Sapporo, Japan were found dead in avalanche debris near the base of Mt. Francis, a 10,400 foot peak near Mt. McKinley. National Park Spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin says the men were experienced climbers with plans to attempt a previously un-scaled route.

The body of one of the climbers was spotted from the air Tuesday by rangers aboard a Park Service chartered helicopter.  Rangers returned this morning and found the other climber’s body, and evacuated both of the dead by helicopter from the mountain. McLaughlin says conditions and timing may have played into the deadly avalanche.

McLaughlin says the route where the avalanche occurred includes mixed snow, ice and rock, including 45 to 50 degree slopes. She says Mount Francis is a popular “add on” climb for Denali mountaineers because of it close proximity to Mt. McKinley, and that the men killed had already climbed the larger peak. There are several technically challenging routes on Mt. Francis, which normally sees 10 to 12 attempts per year, most via the southwest or east ridge.

Assembly Approves Mandatory Photo IDs at Anchorage Liquor Stores
Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage
Beginning on July 1st, buying alcohol at a package store in Anchorage will require photo identification.  Tuesday night the Anchorage Assembly approved the new law by a 10 to 1 margin.

Wellness Court Hold Commencement Ceremony for Alternative Justice Program Grads
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The Fairbanks Wellness Court holds a commencement ceremony Thursday for graduates of the alternative justice program. The Wellness Court, which started in 2007, provides intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment, monitoring, and work or education requirements, as an alternative to jail time or other penalties. Therapeutic Court coordinator Janice Lorenzen, says the program primarily works with driving under the influence offenders, employing a system proven over the last two decades in similar courts in the Lower 48.

Lorenzen says the Fairbanks Wellness Court Program has involved a learning process, but has been pretty successful.

Lorenzen says only one of 20 Fairbanks Wellness Court graduates has had another DUI offense. She says the program is currently operating at capacity, with 30 participants. The Fairbanks Wellness Court, like several others in Alaska, and in other states, are designed as a lower cost,  more effective justice option to jail time or other punitive measures, for substance abuse offenders.