Alaska News Nightly: August 24, 2011

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Officials Look to Dirigibles as Possible Transportation Solution

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Officials from the State and NASA are leading a workshop in Anchorage to talk about the potential for airship transportation in Alaska. The futuristic looking dirigibles are being hailed as a potential solution to the state’s transportation challenges. These days, they work with helium instead of hydrogen to make them safer. Pete Worden is director of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. He says the new airships use 19th century technology that’s been updated to make it safe, reliable and cheap. He says there are different kinds.

Begich, NOAA Chief Take Questions On Halibut Plan

Aaron Selbig, KBBI – Homer

It’s no secret that Homer charter captains are upset about NOAA’s new halibut catch-sharing proposal, which would mean a one-fish-per-angler rule in the Gulf of Alaska under most circumstances. At a meeting Tuesday with Senator Mark Begich and NOAA Chief Dr. Jane Lubchenko, a large group of them let their feelings be heard.

TAPS Offers Support to Wartime Widows

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

The war on terror has created a lot of military widows in the U.S. since it began in 2001. But it can be difficult for grieving wives to connect with people who understand what they’re going through. An organization that was founded in Alaska more than a decade ago helps bridge the gap. TAPS- or Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors held a widows retreat in Girdwood and Anchorage last week.

USDA Under Secretary Promotes Tribal Conservation Districts

Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel

Besides visiting the Tongass in Southeast, the head of the U.S. Forest Service and National Resource Conservation Service – Harris Sherman – also spent three days in Western Alaska.

Groundbreaking Celebrates New Home for Disabled Elderly

Shane Iverson, KYUK – Bethel

The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation held a groundbreaking ceremony for a care facility in Bethel this week.  Once constructed it will be the only place in all of Western Alaska to offer disabled elders around the clock care.

Small Cruise Lines Send More Ships to Alaska

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

A pair of small, high-end cruise lines are expanding their Alaska fleets. The Seattle-based companies are filling some of the void left when Cruise West went out of business about a year ago.

InnerSea Discoveries already sails two small ships between Juneau and Ketchikan. Sister company American Safari sails three luxury yachts from Juneau to Glacier Bay and other locations.

Both plan to expand Alaska sailings to capture an increasing American market.

“A lot of people are choosing to stay home and not travel over to Europe where, of course, the dollar is not doing so well,” says Tim Jacox, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the lines.

He says the exchange rate is also making Alaska more attractive to foreign travelers: “So you’re going to see more international visitors. We had a banner year this year, and we expect the same next year, from especially the Australia-New Zealand markets.”

He also says the growth is helped by the great deal the companies got on out-of-use Cruise West vessels. The longtime small-ship line ended its business last August.

InnerSea Discoveries recently announced it will add the 76-passenger Wilderness Explorer to its Alaska roster next summer. Week-long trips between Sitka and Juneau will include Glacier Bay and other remote areas.

The ship used to sail Southeast as Cruise West’s 86-berth Spirit of Discovery. Jacox says it’s being renovated to be less crowded and provide more amenities.

“We’ll go ahead and change out the lounge with more of a 1940s National Park Service lodge motif. It’ll be a pub-like atmosphere for sharing stories of all the events of the day. So we’ll install 10 microbrew taps to make that happen,” Jaycox says.

Fares will range from $3,000 to $6,000 for seven-day trips.

American Safari, the InnerSea’s higher-end brand, has acquired Cruise West’s 102-passenger Spirit of Endeavour. It’s now called the Safari Endeavour and is being reconfigured to handle 86 passengers. It will sail from Juneau to Glacier Bay, Endicott Arm and Icy Strait.

Jacox says eight berths are being turned into four two-room suites, with outside balconies. The company will also add massage rooms and hot tubs.

“And then with the additional space we will be adding a wine bar in the longue area and also a library in the dining area. So those are additional public spaces and meeting areas that didn’t exist on that boat before,” Jaycox says.

Fares will start at about $4,800.

The company is also adding the former Cruise West Spirit of 98, which will become the Safari Legacy. It will also be refurbished, with tours starting in 2013. Sailings, between Sitka and Juneau, will include Glacier Bay.

The two lines’ small passenger capacity means little impact on the overall number of people cruising state waters. But John Binkley of the Alaska Cruise Association says it’s still significant.

“We’re glad to see them increase their capacity. I know a lot of smaller communities get a lot of business from them. And It’s a great product,” Binkley says. “Princess will be adding a new ship next year. That will add about 50,000 passengers to the Alaska market. They’ll be coming across the Gulf of Alaska to Southcentral so that will help all parts of Alaska.”

He says Holland-America is also between 5 to 7 percent capacity with a different mix of ships. And Disney has announced plans to return.

“It looks like we’ll have a significant increase in the number of visitors coming to Alaska next year,” Binkley says.

Another small-ship company, American Cruise Lines, also plans to enter the Alaska market in 2012. It will sail the 100-passenger American Spirit out of Juneau.

Sitka-based Alaskan Dream Cruises, owned by Allen Marine, is another small-ship line. The two-vessel company is also increasing its capacity next year, adding four new itineraries.

Other small lines operating in the region include The Boat Company and National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions.

Workers Clearing Slide Debris in Petersburg

Matt Lichtenstein, KFSK – Petersburg

The cleanup and repair work continues in Petersburg at the site of last weekend’s landslide into a downtown stream. The event was caused by heavy rain and took out a large section of parking lot and hillside behind the public works building on Saturday, filling part of Hammer Slough with a big pile of debris. The city has since built an access road to the bottom of the slide.

A worker cuts down a tree along one side of the slide and a backhoe digs nearby. A newly built gravel ramp provides vehicle access to the huge pile of rock, soil, bushes and trees below.

Public Works Director and acting city manager Karl Hagerman says the city finished the access ramp Monday.

A few pieces of fence and guardrail stick out of the debris pile and tarps cover the steep face of the drop-off left behind by the slide above the slough. The creeks’s still flowing, though it has shifted to the south and flows around the pile over the unoccupied, grassy bank adjacent to its original path.

The idea being that too much disturbance could send a lot of the debris downstream and cause more problems for the small fish run in the slough.

As far as fixing slope and preventing another slide, the city has an engineer from Peratovich Nottingham and drage working on that.

Hagerman says the city has now submitted its written disaster declaration to the state in the hopes of getting some financial and technical assistance with cleanup and repairs.

It can be a lengthy process and Hagerman says he’s been lead to believe it can take a couple weeks to a month, so any reimbursement may be a ways down the road. Hagerman says the city has also requested assistance from the National Resource Conservation Service. He thinks the city could qualify for funding through the federal agency’s emergency watershed protection program.

In the meantime, the city is looking at spending up to $250,000 on the site for now.