Alaska News Nightly: July 13, 2011

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Groups Accept Settlement over Endangered Species Suit

Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage

Two environmental groups have agreed to stop suing the federal government about some 750 species that are being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. They have accepted a court settlement offer from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that will set deadlines for ESA listing.

Alaska Congressional Delegation Split on ‘Doomsday Scenario’ of National Debt Default

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

President Obama warned this week that if the nation defaults on its debt in August, social security checks might not get mailed out. The Congress is debating raising the debt ceiling which would let the government borrow more, but it’s gridlocked over whether to do so and how to also reduce the deficit. The Treasury Secretary has warned of a “doomsday scenario” if the debt limit is not raised. So APRN’s Libby Casey checked in with Alaska’s members of Congress to find out just how big a deal they think defaulting on the debt would be.

The debt ceiling has been raised repeatedly over the years, in fact when George W. Bush was president, it went up seven times. But now with the deficit higher than ever and concerns about spending, it’s become a line-in-the-sand moment. So if Congress can’t get over its gridlock and raise the debt limit, what’s the big deal?

“It is a parade of horribles.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski says the money flowing out could stop.  And that could hit home.

“If you are a military spouse, your husband is deployed, and you’re not certain whether or not you’re going to get paid, whether your husband’s paycheck is going to be coming to pay the rent while he’s in Afghanistan, I can’t imagine that scenario.”

Murkowski also fears social security checks won’t be delivered. Senator Mark Begich says all of the sudden less revenue will be coming in, which means less money to spend.

“Immediately, snap, gone.  That means everything from a social security check to education funding to Pell Grants to Defense Department money to Homeland Security, there is no money.”

And Begich says it could bleed out into other personal finances.

“What happens to the average everyday person? If they have a credit card their interest rates are going up immediately, guaranteed, because the markets will respond. If you have an adjustable rate mortgage, you’re going to get adjusted up. If you’re a small business who depends on inventory loans or credit lines, all their rates are going up. Which means almost impossible to get capital.”

Begich explains the nation’s credit rating could go down, making borrowing money more expensive.

“The U.S. just doesn’t bring in enough revenue to pay off all its bills, so it borrows to make up the difference. But if it doesn’t raise the debt limit, the Treasury Department can’t borrow any more money to pay outstanding bills. With the flow of money tight, some payments won’t be made.”

As to which bills will get prioritized is anyone’s guess, says Rudolf Penner. He’s an expert in Congressional spending, and directed the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office back in the 1980s during the Reagan years. Now he’s a senior fellow at the Washington D.C. think tank the Urban Institute. Penner says nothing quite like this has ever happened, so no one knows if the 29 million social security checks that are supposed to go out in early August will be sent.

“Well, it would depend out the Secretary of the Treasury reacted. Some people think he should pay interest on the debt and then apportion the rest of the money somehow to all of the people who are owed or promised money by the U.S. Government. Now I suspect politicians would act quickly to exempt Social Security beneficiaries from that, maybe Medicare beneficiaries, maybe defense. But when you do the arithmetic if you start exempting people like that, essentially the rest of the government has to close down.”

And closing any sector of government or canceling checks could hit not just Americans’ personally but the nation’s reputation in financial markets, says Lisa Murkowski.

“We don’t know because we haven’t been there before. But if you think about how the financial structure of this country is built on your credit rating, and your ability to repay the debts in the debts in a timely manner, you pull out 1 card and the whole house comes tumbling down. That’s not a risk that I’m willing to put our nation in.”

Senator Begich says the nation is still crawling out of the financial crash of 2008… and he’s hearing from experts this could plunge the U.S. deeper into trouble.

“What happened in September 8, it will equal that or worse. That was when the crash occurred, and everything went to hell.”

Now Representative Don Young doesn’t think it’ll come to that.  He’s skeptical that the Congress will work out a deal, but he thinks at the last minute President Obama will make the controversial decision to bump up the debt limit on his own.

“The president will use the 14th Amendment that says it’s unconstitutional to have the debt that we have. It’s his responsibility to raise the borrowing capability of the Treasury Department, and have the Treasury Department pay the bills off.”

It’s being debated now how the President could actually do that, and Obama has pledged not to.  But Young says regardless he’s not predicting the worst.

“I don’t think that there is a doomsday.  I never believed that.  But I do think there will be some financial stress. We’re playing Russian roulette right now.”

But when you play Russian roulette there’s a chance a bullet will be in the chamber. And that’s too much risk for Senator Murkowski.

“I don’t think either side knows for certain exactly how bad the situation could be, but I view my responsibility as an elected official to make sure the crisis doesn’t happen.  I don’t want to see our bond rating go into the tank, our credit rating going into the tank.”

So whether it will be doomsday if the U-S defaults is, according to the experts, an unknown.  Rudolf Penner with the Urban Institute is himself Republican-leaning, but he’s concerned that Congress will play out a game of chicken and ignore President Obama’s warnings.

“I think we don’t know.  It could well be doomsday, and for that very reason we shouldn’t try it.  There are people in financial markets think minor affair, just a symbol of political theater going on in Washington, but I don’t think we can take that chance.  It could be devastating.  I think this is the most dangerous moment I’ve witnessed.”

The question is how close to the edge are politicians are willing to push.

Five Escape Sinking Fishing Vessel near Valdez

Associated Press

All five members of a longline fishing vessel safely escaped their boat before it sank Wednesday near Valdez.

The Coast Guard says the 56-foot Lively Jane struck a submerged rock in Anderson Bay, about 6 miles southwest of Valdez. Before it sank, all five crew members boarded a skiff. The Coast Guard later took them to Valdez.

NPR-A and Sealaska Lands Bills Up for Vote in DC

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Two bills related to Alaska sailed out of a House committee Wednesday in Washington. They can now go to the floor of the House of Representatives for a full vote. The Republican-led Natural Resources Committee marked-up a bill that pushes development in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, and one that would let the Native Corporation Sealaska swap lands in the Tongass National Forest.

Committee chairman Doc Hastings, Republican of Washington state, traveled to Alaska last month with Congressman Don Young, and sponsored the bill that promotes faster development in the Petroleum Reserve.

It directs the Interior Secretary to conduct one lease sale a year and for the next decade and streamlines the permitting process.

But Democrats say it’s a waste of time and money since President Obama has already pledged to hasten the leasing process in NPR-A, and just yesterday formed an interagency group tasked with better coordinating oil and gas development in Alaska.

Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva spoke against the bill.

“Democrats support responsible drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska or NPR-A but HR 2150 would prevent the Department of Interior from conducting proper review in NPR-A by imposing artificial and unnecessary deadlines.”

Alaska’s Congressman Young scoffed at that and said Democrats on the committee had not given much support to development.

“You know that reminds me of those people who smoke marijuana but don’t inhale. That’s how much sense it makes. I’m suggesting this bill really doesn’t go far enough or fast enough.”

Young railed against importing oil from the Middle East instead of drilling more in Alaska, and claimed this bill would help.

“Now if you want to have that dependency on those people who wear different types of clothes in the Far East, you have at it. And feel proud of yourself while you’re at it. Because you’re sending your jobs and the blood of this country overseas. We’re in Libya now with your president. For what? Because the French needed the oil.”

But Young fought an amendment by democrats calling for the oil produced from the Reserves to stay in the United States and reduce foreign oil imports. That proposal failed to pass without Republican support.

The other bill, the Sealaska lands bill, is controversial in Alaska. It would let the southeast Native corporation trade lands they’re entitled to under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act with other lands in the Tongass. The corporation says it will allow them to finalize their entitlement claims.

But the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey, brought up the concerns of environmentalists and some residents in Southeast Alaska.

“Issues such as potential impacts to water quality, salmon, old growth timber and local communities are unresolved in this legislation. HR 1904 does not even include basic conservation provisions included in the companion bill sponsored by Senator Murkowski in the Senate.”

Murkowski altered her version of the bill after hearing criticisms from Southeast Alaska.  But Young had not changed his – until Wednesday. He introduced a bloc amendment that says none of the lands Sealaska selects can be in conservation units and says they’ll be subject to state and federal permit requirements.

“Again after 40 years Sealaska is without their land entitlement, which they’ve been charged with providing for the economic and social well being of the people. Without this exchange they will be unable to do so.”

But opponents of the plan say Young is not offering nearly enough compromise. Democrats pushed their own amendments calling for no logging within 100 feet of streams and saying the harvested logs can only be milled in America, but Republicans rejected them.

Democrat Ed Markey also tried to get the lands Sealaska wants to give up, which is old growth forest, permanently protected from logging.

“Sealaska told us it qualifies for wilderness, that’s why they don’t want to log it. And so we’re doing this for a private corporation, and that’s fine. Again we’re going along with the general intent all we’re saying is the reason we’re doing it is because Sealaska says this area is too pristine to log.”

But Congressman Young didn’t like that idea one bit:

“It’s just a mischievous way to make wilderness out of lands that are not wilderness right now.”

No Democratic amendments passed, but the Sealaska bill did, 34 to 10, with some Democrats on board.

There’s no date yet set for either the Sealaska bill or the NPR-A bill to go before the full House.

Burglars Leave Evidence after Delta Junction Crime Spree

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

Alaska State Troopers got some help in their investigation of a crime spree in Delta Junction.  Two burglars were accosted after breaking-in to a downtown business Monday. The burglars got away, but not before leaving behind some evidence.

Regulatory Commission to Examine Fire Island Wind Project

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

An alternative energy plan near Anchorage moved a step forward last month, when Chugach Electric Association agreed to purchase power from the Fire Island Wind Project.

The purchase agreement now must be approved by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. Ann Wilde, an RCA section manager, says it’s premature to comment on what the RCA may determine, but that the panel has until August 8 to review all aspects of the filing.

Chugach has agreed to purchase 48,500 megawatt hours of per a year from the wind farm, which is about four percent of the utility’s 2010 power requirement. The wind power would reduce the amount of natural gas Chugach uses to generate electricity.  Currently Chugach uses about 9 billion cubic feet of gas annually.  The contract with Fire Island is for 25 years, and Chris Rose, who heads Renewable Energy Project, Alaska, says that’s a benefit for consumers.

Cook Inlet Region, Inc. owns Fire Island Wind and plans to install turbines next year, to have power available from the turbines by late 2012.

RCA is taking written public comment on the plan until 4:30 pm on July 24.

Potentially Presidential Chair on Display in McGrath

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

In a small museum in McGrath, among a plethora of gold rush and Alaska Native memorabilia sits a rocking chair fit for a President.

The room contains everything from a transportation timeline to traditional Alaska Native garments, and even a replica of a typical miner-trapper cabin.

But, the rocking chair stands apart, different from the rustic frontier articles in the rest of the room.

It’s easy to see that it was made by a careful hand, crafted for more than mere functionality.

According to Ray Collins, the chair of the Tochak Historical Society, this is because the chair wasn’t just fit for a President – it was meant for one

“It was made by Victor Hill, one of the miners over at, over at Ophir. And he made two chairs – they’re all handmade – and they were made for General Eisenhower,” Collins said.

Meticulously carved in spectacular detail into the top of the chair are five stars, noting the five stars that President Eisenhower wore on his shoulders as a General. Just below the stars is inscribed, “Love And Good Luck” – a personal message from Hill to the President.

Down the backrest of the chair are a series of intricately carved designs. Even the armrests are finished off with an elegant curl at the end.

But, as Collins says, Hill was ultimately unable to send the chair to Eisenhower.

“He made one for Ike and Mamie – When he wanted to give it to them, he wanted to give it to them for their retirement, but he found out if he gave it to them while they were in the White House, they couldn’t take it with them. The Presidents can’t receive personal gifts like that to take with them in their retirement. It would have ended up in a warehouse somewhere. So he never sent them to Ike,” Collins said.

Though it was never sent to the Eisenhower, the chair – and the story – both have been passed down since it was made in 1954.

According to Collins, the Tochak Historical Society, which runs the museum in McGrath, acquired the chair in October of 2010, not long after it was rediscovered in its most recent owner’s estate – having been believed to have been lost since it was put in storage in the late 1980s.

“We wanted to keep it over here because it was made over by Ophir; and it has that story about Ike in it, so it’s kind of unique,” Collins said.

So, if you happen to travel through McGrath, definitely stop by the museum and check out Ike’s chair.

Officials to Meet with Shipyard to Build Next State Ferry

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Transportation officials plan to meet soon with shipyards that could build the next state ferry. But construction is still a ways off.