Alaska News Nightly: August 15, 2011

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Officials Investigate Packages Containing White Powder Sent to Alaska Delegation Offices

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

The state offices for Alaska’s Congressional Delegation received suspicious packages Monday. In downtown Anchorage, the fourth floor of the building where Congressman Don Young has an office was evacuated while authorities investigated a box that contained white powder.

Luke Miller is a spokesperson for the Congressman and read a statement about the incident.

In Fairbanks, the office of Senator Mark Begich also received a box containing a white powder. Begich spokeswoman Julie Hasquet says a staff member there opened the package in a plastic bag. She says security officials with the Senate advise following that procedure as a safety precaution.

Hasquet says federal officials have taken over the investigation. She says the box was sent from someone in Arizona. The staff member who opened the box is being evaluated.

Senator Lisa Murkowski’s Fairbank’s office also received a suspicious package today. Federal authorities seized it before anyone in her office opened it.

Two Dead, Four Survive Western Alaska Plane Crash

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

A small plane crash in the mountains of Western Alaska killed a pilot and one passenger Saturday night.     The other people onboard – a family of four – miraculously survived after spending the night on a mountainside until rescuers could get to them. As KDLG’s Daysha Eaton explains, bad weather kept rescuers from finding the family until late Sunday morning.

State Senate Looks at Long Term Railbelt, Southcentral Energy Development Plans

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

Monday, the Senate began taking a close look at the plans being developed for long term energy supplies along the Railbelt and in Southcentral Alaska. The Resources Committee opened three days of hearings on gaslines – focusing first on the Stand Alone project – or Bullet Line – that would bring gas from the North Slope, through Fairbanks, to Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula.  However, some members are beginning to indicate there might be too much of a Southcentral focus.   At various levels of planning right now are two geothermal facilities, the Susitna hydro project and new exploration plans for Cook Inlet gas.  Finance Co-chair Bert Stedman, of Sitka, told Alaska Gas Development Corporation president Dan Fauske that the legislature must consider all the other options available – not just the Bullet Line.

Under the AGDC’s plan, the state’s investment could be limited to $400 million on initial permitting and project-related studies with the rest of the construction cost coming from private investors.  The state would have the option of participating in that part of the project.  Fauske agreed there are options – saying they are being incorporated into his plans.  He pointed to new information recently coming to light, such as huge, new gas reserves estimated in Cook Inlet.  However, he countered it with concerns among the public in Fairbanks and Southcentral – to the point of desperation in some places.  From a planning perspective, Fauske cautioned against what he called “analysis-paralysis.”

Fairbanks legislators questioned the AGDC’s estimates of the cost of gas for users of the Bullet Line.  The current proposal shows energy costs would decrease throughout the area, however, Fairbanks’s rates would be higher. Fauske said that a final structure of the project would be a policy call by the legislature – whether to put in place a one-size fits all pricing schedule or the economic model now being used.  The committee has TransCanada on its schedule Tuesday.  Legislators have said they’re hoping for an update on the status of the large volume gas line from the North Slope to Canadian and Lower 48 markets.

Fish and Wildlife Releases New ANWR Management Plan

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft of its new management plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Monday.

Expectations that the draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan would establish that the federal agency will formally consider Wilderness status for the Arctic Coastal Plain are not entirely accurate, according to Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Bruce Woods.

The plan was published in the federal register on Monday. The appearance opens up a period of public comment on the plan.

Woods says none of the seven alternatives has been selected yet.  Congress must approve any decision on a final designation, he says.

Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska Regional Director for the Wilderness Society in Anchorage, says  ANWR is the first of all the wildlife refuges in the state to receive a revised comprehensive conservation  plan which includes wilderness reviews

Senator Mark Begich called the idea “a waste of time and money.” Senator Lisa Murkowski said the administration lacks authority to conduct wilderness reviews in Alaska without congressional approval.

The draft plan reviews the condition of the lands not currently designated as wilderness for suitability for a recommendation as future designated wilderness. Whittington Evans says the draft suggests that there is suitable wilderness in ANWR. The plan can be reviewed at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s website,

Public comment on the plan will be taken until November 15.

Delta Junction Man Building State’s Only Commercial Flour Mill

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

A Delta Junction grain farmer is building what will be the state’s only commercial flour mill. The mill will process Alaska wheat and barley for sale to customers statewide. As KUAC’s Tim Ellis reports the mill will help make the state more self-sufficient.

Kenai Lowe’s Among Those Closed

Associated Press

The Lowe’s store in Kenai is one of seven nationwide that closed overnight.

Lowe’s Company Spokeswoman Stacey Lentz says the Kenai store opened in November 2008, and despite the hard work of employees it never met sales expectations. And she says the picture did not improve over time.

Lentz says the Kenai store had 79 employees. The company operates other stores in Anchorage, Wasilla and Fairbanks.

The nation’s second-largest home improvement retailer blames the closures on nearly flat second-quarter net income. It says the lackluster performance was due to volatile weather and shoppers’ worries about the economy.

The company closed others stores in Connecticut, Illinois, Georgia, Minnesota and New York.

Lowe’s operates more than 1,700 stores in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Wood Bison Release Delayed Until 2013

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

A plan to let 100 Wood Bison loose in Alaska has been put on hold until March of  2013.  The herd of bison is being maintained by the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Portage, under an agreement with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which pays for their upkeep.  The state Department of Fish and Game wants to restore the Wood Bison to its natural setting in the state, but the plan must wait until federal and state agencies negotiate a special rule that would exempt the animals from the Endangered Species Act.

Mike Miller directs the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.  Miller, speaking at a recent agricultural fair, says the wood bison restoration project started around 20 years ago with state biologist Bob Stevenson.

Miller says the wood bison died off likely because of over hunting or lack of conservation management.  They are now extinct in the United States.

The current wood bison herd in Portage has grown from animals imported from Alberta in 2007.

In Canada, the wood bison are listed as endangered.

The plan in Alaska was to release about half the bison at Yukon Flats or Minto Flats, but those locations posed obstacles due to fears that the bison would conflict with resource development.  Now the animals are to be released at Innoko River Flats, near Shaguluk, but the release at Innoko  was stalled because of a lack of a provision in the special rule that would allow hunting the animals.

Sitka Mural Urges ‘Respect,’ Addresses Domestic Violence

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

Inside the University of Alaska Southeast in Sitka, a team of volunteers has been painting for the last week. Their work will be assembled into a mural designed to highlight a serious community issue: domestic violence.

Plan Aims to Protect Denali Highway Cultural Resources

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The state is out with a draft plan to protect cultural resources along the Denali Highway.  The plan is aimed at ensuring artifacts, like spear points, fire pits and other evidence of ancient cultures that used the area aren’t destroyed by recreational use or resources development. State archeologist Richard Vander Hoek says the Tangle Lakes area on the east end of the Denali Highway has a long history of habitation.

Vander Hoek says there’s also archeological evidence in the area from 4,000 years ago and more recent times.  The Tangle Lakes Archeological District encompasses the best known hot spots, but a lot remains undiscovered.   Current uses of the broader area include hunting, off roading, and other recreation, as well as placer mining and mineral exploration.  Vander Hoek says the area’s thin soils provide minimal protection for cultural resources, especially on high points where ancient hunters likely surveyed the landscape for caribou or other game.

Vander Hoek says the Cultural Resource Management plan brings together what’s at risk and the strategies and regulations used to protect it, but does not propose anything new.  He says many agency people don’t know much about archeology and how to deal with it, and the plan is designed to answer their questions. The draft plan is out for public comment through September 8.