Alaska News Nightly: August 10, 2011

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20-Year-Old Case Solved

Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage

There’ll be no arrest, no prosecution, or a conviction.  But, Tuesday the Palmer District Attorney’s office and the state troopers officially closed a 20 year old sexual assault case, satisfied they’d finally identified the perpetrator.

The official designation is “closed by exception.”

The assault took place on the afternoon of February 7, 1991.

Megan Peters, the information officer for the Alaska State Troopers, says the Troopers, using the Mat-Su Crime Stoppers program and armed with three drawings produced from information provided by the young victim, spent hundreds of hours trying to find the man.

Then,14 years later, a break in the case occurred.  It’s just nobody knew it at the time.

Late last year, the state Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory reported the DNA match.  Out of the 9 million, 800 thousand profiles in the federal DNA data base, Brooks’ sample was described as a “perfect” match to the DNA of the stranger who had assaulted the girl years before.

Orin Dym, Forensic Laboratory Manager at the state Scientific Crime Detection facility tells that cold case material involving new DNA appraisals take place as it’s possible, given the large amount of evidence processing demanded by current cases.

After the DNA identification, troopers tried through Brooks’ family and friends to discover where the suspect had been living, what vehicles he drove and what he was doing in 1991.  They were unsuccessful finding the house or verifying the vehicle.  But the DNA match was considered sufficient to close the case.

The victim, now 28, her husband and parents were personally informed of the identification and conclusion of the case before the troopers’ announcement.

Jack-Up Oil Rig Cleared to Move to Cook Inlet

Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage

A jack-up oil drilling rig is now moving into position to begin exploratory drilling in Cook Inlet.  Steve Sutherlin, Strategic Officer for Texas-based Escopeta Oil, says the company got clearance from Customs and Border Protection to begin moving the rig out of Kachemak Bay early Wednesday morning.  During the next week it will be put in place, the legs will be extended to the sea floor, and the rig will be staffed by a crew of about 54 people to begin drilling.

The company may be in violation of the Jones Act because it used a Chinese cargo vessel to take the rig around South America.  Sutherlin would not offer much comment on what federal authorities may do next.

The Jones Act bars shippers from delivering cargo between U.S. ports on non-U.S.-made vessels.  Escopeta had a waiver from the Jones Act, but it was for a different vessel.  When Spartan, the rig’s owner, grew worried that it might be seized by Customs and Border Protection, Escopeta owner Danny Davis had it unloaded in Canada, and then re-loaded aboard an American barge for its trip into U.S. waters.

If all goes as planned, Escopeta will qualify for at least $25 million in state tax credits for its first well.  There is another $22.5 million for the second well, and $20 million for the third.  Escopeta owner Danny Davis says his expenses are sure to exceed the amount of those credits.

Steve Sutherlin, with the fatigue clear in his voice, says he’s pretty happy to finally see the rig, called the Spartan 151, finally in Cook Inlet.

The geological prospect the company will drill is north of Nikiski and is called the Kitchen Lights Unit.  The rig will have to be pulled up once the Inlet starts icing up.

Report Shows Growing Demand for Health Care Workers

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

A recent Alaska Department of Labor report shows many of Alaska’s industries lost jobs or were stagnant in recent years, but the demand for health care workers is strong and will continue to grow in coming years.

Katie John Subsistence Litigation Back in Front of the 9th Circuit

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The subsistence litigation of Mentasta elder Katie John was back in court recently when a three-judge panel of the 9th circuit held hearings in Anchorage. John’s first case went to the U.S. Supreme court and established that congress intended through title 8 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act or ANILCA to protect fish and game, including navigable waters of Alaska. After the rule making in that decision, the state of Alaska asked an en banc panel of the 9th circuit to review the case. The decision in favor of John was reaffirmed.

The state’s latest challenge contends the regulations expanded federal authority to waters beyond what congress intended. Heather Kendall-Miller is the Native American Rights Fund attorney who has argued the case for Katie John. Kendall-Miller says the regulations don’t go far enough.

“The regulations were limited to just the waters within the conservation boundaries, but should have extended to those waters in between,” Kendall-Miller said.

Kendall-Miller argued because the regulations limit the scope of the federal government’s jurisdiction to the conservation unit area boundaries, it does not identify and extend authority over the additional waters required for migrating fish to insure healthy populations that will support subsistence.

“Most villages are not located inside the conservation system units and therefore the federal rule doesn’t protect most of subsistence fishing,” Kendall-Miller said. “And that cannot be what congress intended when it passed title 8 of ANILCA to protect subsistence fishing.”

Kendall-Miller says it could be four months or more before the 9th circuit makes a decision. But she says even after the justices rule in the case, it may not be the end of the litigation.

“Katie john is now 96 years old,” Kendall-Miller said. “She’s been litigating for more than 20 years, all with the goal of trying to protect subsistence fishing which is only 1 percent of the overall fishery.”

“Until we have a management program in place that does so, I think litigation will continue.”

The state has the right to ask for further review if the 9th circuit again decides against them. They can once again ask for an en banc or full panel review of 11 judges. Kendall-Miller says that could be difficult based on the last en banc the state was granted in this ongoing litigation.

“It was announced in its decision that it felt it had been an unnecessary thing to do and the state had gotten two bites at the apple,” Kendall-Miller said. “So given that prior dismay at having taking the case back up again when they viewed it as unnecessary, I think that might be difficult to ask the court again, but one never knows.”

State assistant attorney general Mike Mitchell who represented the Parnell administration in the latest round in this case declined comment.

Park Service, Sitka Tribe Explore Cultural Center Partnership

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

National Park officials were in Sitka this week to meet with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. The two governments are attempting to forge a partnership that would keep a cultural center open at Sitka National Historical Park. But the meeting shed new light on problems at the cultural center and was an opportunity for the Park Service to address some hard feelings from the Tribe.

For more than 40 years, Sitka National Historical Park has been home to the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center. Renowned Native artists, such as carver Tommy Joseph and sculptor Charlie Skultka, use the center as their studio, and also demonstrate their work for visitors to the park.

That partnership ended in June, when the park decided not to renew its agreement with the cultural center. Park officials said that the relationship was not sustainable, and confirmed that special agents from the National Park Service’s Anchorage office were investigating financial mismanagement at the center. But the sudden end to the partnership caught many off guard, including officials with Sitka’s tribal government.

“It just kind of happened without any kind of warning,” said Tribal Council member Tanya Bonorden.

Bonorden had a lot of questions for the National Park Service at their Wednesday meeting, including why the Tribe wasn’t notified of the sudden end to the partnership. The Tribe was not officially part of the partnership, but Bonorden says council members still should have been notified of the problems.

“Because this does, and has majorly impacted the people of Sitka, our culture, and artists,” she said. “And I think the artists at the National Park Service in Sitka really represents what our people are all about.”

Sue Masica is the regional director for the National Park Service for Alaska. She and a colleague flew in from Anchorage to meet with the Tribe.

“I heard some concern that in the termination and the way it was handled was an indication of lack of respect for the Tribe,” Masica said. “That was not our intention at all. We absolutely respect the Tribe and the citizens of Sitka and the Tribal members. We had to deal with the fiduciary issues associated with the agreement.”

And those issues, according to the park service, are serious. Mark Vaughn, associate regional director for the park service said the cultural center was unable to track its expenses, failed to submit invoices, didn’t work to obtain grants or outside funding, filed reports late or not at all and kept books that accountants were unable to audit, which meant the park service couldn’t account for federal money it had given to the center.

Masica, the head of the Alaska region, says the investigators have concluded their work but have yet to issue a report. And for now, the artists remain housed at the National Park, and continue their demonstrations for the public.

But at the meeting Wednesday, Masica and Tribal council members looked to the future: Namely, could the Sitka Tribe of Alaska play a role in operating the cultural center going forward? Masica says she’s optimistic.

“Both sides have a very common interest and shared interest in perpetuating the culture and the learning opportunities,” she said. “We are both interested in ways to grow that and extend its reach in the community.”

Woody Widmark is chairman of the Sitka Tribe. He made clear during the meeting that the Tribe is exploring the possibility but hasn’t yet committed to any action. Still, he says he’s optimistic, too.

“I feel comfortable in our preliminary discussions before this, and in having Tribal citizens or a sector of the community feel that the Tribe might be a potential partner on this,” Widmark said.

But there are details to iron out. Widmark said funding could be an issue, and wondered what support the National Park Service would be able to provide. He acknowledged that, in his words, funding for the National Parks is a topic of discussion at the national level.

Masica smiled and replied, “That might be the understatement of the day, Mr. Chairman.”

New Tool Promotes Alaska-Specific Science Education

Mike Mason, KDLG – Dillingham

Educators in Alaska now have a new tool available to teach science with a specific focus on Alaska.

Potential Conversion to Natural Gas May Prove Expensive

Dan Bross, KUAC – KUAC

Fairbanks faces major costs to convert to natural gas for space heating.  That was one of the messages from an Enstar gas official from Anchorage, in an address to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce Tuesday. Whether natural gas comes to Fairbanks via truck or pipeline, Enstar spokesman John Sims says laying a web of distribution and service lines is a big undertaking.

Sims says local utility Fairbanks Natural Gas is already working on the issue, and the Borough has a state grant to study gas distribution.  Sims says Enstar customers can face substantial costs to hook up to gas depending on their proximity to existing distribution lines.

Sims says laying distribution is more expensive in established communities like Fairbanks, with existing infrastructure.

Sims says because the cost of distribution line extensions is incorporated into customer gas rates, consumers have to weigh the benefits of switching over.  He says how long it takes a customer to recover the investment, has to be weighed against the cost of heating with oil.

Bill Would Allow Gull Egg Harvest in Glacier Bay

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

A bill just heard by a Congressional committee would allow Tlingits from Hoonah to harvest seagull eggs in Glacier Bay. It would resume a tradition that ended when the former Native homeland became a national park. But it faces opposition from a nationwide environmental group.

Tlingits used to live, hunt and fish in Glacier Bay, about 50 miles west of what is now Juneau. But centuries ago, the ice advanced and pushed them out. They settled across Icy Strait in Hoonah.

The glaciers later retreated from much of the bay, leaving large areas accessible. But since that time, it’s become a national park and preserve, where hunting and gathering are prohibited.

“Kind of a thing where you can’t just go into Glacier Bay and do as you please,” says Raino Hill, president of the Hoonah Indian Association, the community’s tribal government.

He says one of the traditions lost is gathering – and eating – sea gull eggs from nests in the bay.

“Through time, it’s died out. But there are still a few people in town who have the acquired taste for the seagull eggs,” he says.

Legislation proposed by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski would allow Hoonah Tlingits limited access to the seabirds. (Read the bill.)

Spokesman Robert Dillon says it would permit harvests at five nesting areas two days a year.

“They expect that at a maximum it might be 440 eggs that are harvested. But in exchange for that it would allow a large group of the tribe, elders and young people, to practice a traditional cultural activity and really reconnect with their Glacier Bay home,” Dillon says. (Read about Tlingit history in Glacier Bay.)

The national park has given its consent.

Cultural Anthropologist Mary Beth Moss says the harvest should, at most, reduce gull hatchling numbers by 6 percent. She says research also determined egg-gathering would not significantly damage other wildlife.

“We also looked, of course, at potential impacts on the sea lions that use some of the same areas where gulls are nesting. And we looked at potential impacts to other birds nesting in that area and determined that our management plan would preclude any impacts to those species,” Moss says.

The bill would only allow harvests of glaucous-winged gull eggs. Other gulls also live in the park.

Sierra Club Alaska Chapter Executive Committee member Jack Hession says the damage could be greater. He says the bill could set a precedent that could affect Katmai, Denali and Kenai Fjords national parks.

“There is a risk that if Glacier Bay is opened Alaska Native people living around these other parks might seek the same privilege. And who knows how far this could go,” Hession says.

He says the bill is not needed because Hoonah Tlingits can – and do – gather gull eggs outside the park.

“The Sierra Club totally supports Alaska Native subsistence. But in this case, not in a national park that’s been long closed to subsistence. Particularly when the folks have alternatives, and some of these sites, traditional sites, are closer to Hoonah than the ones they want to visit in Glacier Bay,” Hession says. (Read more about the group’s opposition in its newsletter. Go to Page 4.)

The legislation was introduced in May. It was heard July 28th by the National Parks Subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It’s cosponsored by Alaska Senator Mark Begich.

Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon is optimistic about its chances.

“It was able to get through the committee pretty quickly and we believe we can probably attach it to something and get it passed pretty quickly. And that’s because it doesn’t cost anything,” Dillon says.

The Hoonah Indian Association would like to see the matter resolved soon. President Raino Hill says some members are anxious to return to the bay to gather the traditional food.

“This legislation will make it easier. And if it does come about I may take the trip up there and help gather for some of the elders, just to have done it once,” Hill says. (Read more about egg harvesting in the bay.)

Much of the interest is in nests on Marble Island, a traditional gathering spot in the lower area of the bay. Hill says his members will follow traditional rules, which prescribe how many eggs can be in a nest targeted for harvest.

Tour Boat Passenger Injured by Calving Glacier
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

A 60-year-old woman suffered a broken leg last Thursday when the tour boat she was on got too close to a calving glacier in Tracy Arm.

A video posted on the website on Sunday shows a large chunk of the glacier break off and send waves and ice flying toward the vessel.

The shouts heard there soon turn to concern as a group of people crowd around the woman lying in obvious pain on the deck of the boat.

Jonathan Lally with Coast Guard Public Affairs says the woman was aboard the 65-foot Captain Cook, operated by Adventure Bound Alaska. He says she apparently lost her balance and fell when the wave hit the boat.

The Captain Cook returned to Juneau with the woman on board. She was met there by local emergency medical technicians.

Petty Officer Chris Harkins with Coast Guard sector Juneau says the incident is under investigation. A spokesperson for Adventure Bound Alaska was unavailable to comment.