Alaska News Nightly: September 13, 2011

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Advisory Panel Releases Recommendations for Shipping Safety in Aleutians

Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska

Each year, thousands of ships travel through the Aleutians on the Great Circle route, and that number only continues to increase. It’s one of the faster ways to get cargo from Asia to America, but it can also be a perilous voyage. The Aleutian Island Risk Assessment is an effort to keep maritime disasters from happening in the region, and its advisory panel has just released a set of recommendations that they say could improve vessel safety in the immediate future.

BOEMRE Splitting into Two Entities

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

After the Deepwater Horizon spill last year, the Minerals Management Service became the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Now the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling in the U.S. is undergoing another transition. On October first, it will become two separate bureaus – one to oversee resource development and one to focus on safety and enforcement.

BOEMRE director Michael Bromwich was in Alaska recently to talk about the agency he has been overseeing for the past year. Lori Townsend sat down with him and the Alaska office director, Dr. James Kendall. I asked first about the agencies’ recent conditional approval of  Shell’s plan to drill up to four wells in the Beaufort Sea next summer.  If the company gets final approval, it will be the first offshore drilling project in the Arctic Ocean since the gulf disaster. But Bromwich says it’s far from a done deal.

Murkowski, Begich Joining in Formation of Ocean Caucus

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Members of the U.S. Senate have formed a bipartisan caucus focused on the oceans, and both of Alaska’s Senators are on board. Republican Lisa Murkowski is co-chairing it with Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.

The group of 18 Senators is bonded because they’re all from coastal states. Most are Democrats but four are Republicans.  Senator Murkowski says the group will be a working caucus – sharing information, hosting seminars, and finding common issues to push.

Even though oceans cover 70 percent of the planet, Murkowski says far too little is known about them.

“We know less about our oceans than we do about outer space. We know less about our oceans than really is acceptable. Because, without healthy oceans we do not have a healthy planet,” Murkowski said.

Senator Begich was part of a group that pushed for the caucus.  He says oceans are critical to the economy – both globally and especially in Alaska.

“From Alaska’s perspective there’s no other, other than probably oil and gas and a couple other industries, there is no other that grabs the attention of what’s going on in Alaska than what we do in our oceans, from commercial activity of commercial fishermen to sports fishermen to subsistence, tourism, recreational, oil and gas development, you name it, we do it in our oceans,” Begich said.

The Senate Oceans Caucus says the oceans and coasts support millions of American jobs and added 230 billion dollars in the economy in 2004…more than the entire farm sector.

Senator Begich already chairs a Commerce subcommittee on oceans, but he says it’s limited by process and the new caucus has unlimited topic range and time for debate, discussion, and sharing. He’s been named a caucus honorary co-chair to help coordinate its work with that of the Commerce Subcommittee.

The group had its first meeting Tuesday in the U.S. Capitol Building.

State’s Agricultural Research Center May Be Cut

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Ongoing Congressional negotiations will determine the fate of many federal programs with a presence in Alaska.  Among items proposed for cuts by the President and Congress are 10 Department of Agriculture research centers, including Alaska’s. The Sub Arctic research center is headquartered at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, with units in Palmer and Kodiak.  U.A.F. Dean of the school of Natural and agriculture sciences, Carol Lewis says a lot is at stake if the agricultural research funding is lost.

Lewis says about 20 jobs could be cut if the Alaska ARS’s $6 million budget isn’t funded.  She says it would affect important research, including a potato project in Palmer.

If the Alaska Agricultural Research Station is cut, Lewis says the direct hit to UAF would be $1.9 million. The proposed elimination of 10 agricultural research stations is not going unnoticed by U.S. legislators from targeted states. Alaska Senator Mark Begich says they haven’t given up on saving the stations as Congress buckles down to sort out the budget.  Begich says the focus is on funding programs with extended benefits.

One possibility being considered to save the Alaska station is a reduced $2 million budget that would fund four research positions, including two in Fairbanks.

Farmers Search for Long-Term, Stable Agricultural Economy

Ellen Locker, KSKA – Anchorage

The Matanuska Valley has long been the heart of the state’s agricultural industry.  Growers are riding the crest of the local food trend which provides something of an economic boost to small farmers.  But some say the eat local movement is another fad, and a long term agricultural economy needs better facilities to expand potential markets. An Agricultural Processing and Development Center has been a dream of Valley growers since the late 1960s.

Athabascan Culture Bearer and Author Dies at 81

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The recent death of a Dena’ina Athabascan elder is being described as a loss of a master of technical, traditional knowledge. Andrew Balluta was the first Native Park Ranger at Lake Clark National Park in 1983. His father Anton was considered one of the first English literate Dena’ina men.

Andrew certainly learned when he was young how to speak English, but he also was surrounded by Dena’ina and being out in the country,” Leggitt said.

Aaron Leggitt is the special exhibits curator at the Anchorage Museum who is working on an upcoming Dena’ina Athabascan exhibit for the museum. Leggitt is also Athabascan and spent time recording Balluta describing important aspects of Dena’ina life in transition. Leggitt says Balluta provided very technical and very subtle translations of the language.

“He was probably one of the last of this older Dena’ina generation that really lived his young life off the land and then certainly in his later life integrated it into the cash economy,” Leggitt said.

His life was a study in personal tragedy but also perseverance. Born in 1930 at Miller’s Creek, Balluta was one of six children. His father died when he was seven and his uncle died when he was 10. He was raised by a strong mother and a close knit extended family. Balluta’s book The People of Nondalton is highly regarded as a definitive work on Alaska Native people. His second book, My Forefathers are still Walking with Me, is a collection of verbal essays that Balluta recorded. Leggitt says Balluta didn’t shy away from sensitive issues such as traditional Dena’ina beliefs before Christianity. Leggitt says some elders don’t think those past beliefs should be discussed now.

“But Andrew was a bit different in that he recognized that it was our history, so he wasn’t afraid to tackle sensitive topics,” Leggitt said.

Leggitt says Balluta was working on a book until his death on Dena’ina war stories. Battles took place in the Lake Clark area with other Alaska Native groups.

“Some of the older people didn’t want him to do that because they thought it would create animosity and it would bring up hard feelings and all these different things. But Andrew always felt like, this is part of our history and we have to talk about it. That you can approach a topic sensitively without kind of exploiting it I suppose, but at the same time, you should document it,” Leggitt said

Leggitt says Balluta now joins a growing list of important traditional elders who are gone but had specific goals in what they wished to convey.

“Peter Californski, Shem Pete, Pete Bobby, Albert Wassilie, who knew that they didn’t want this information to die with them; They wanted their children or any Dena’ina child or anybody really to be able to learn about these things,” Leggitt said.

Leggitt says Balluta’s legacy will be of someone who was able to successfully straddle the divide between the old ways and the modern world. He says when he last saw him, Balluta was able to recall a place name that no one else could remember. Andrew Balluta was 81 at the time of his death, he died on Sept. 1.

ANSCA at 40 Committee Continues Panel Series

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

Friday at the University of Alaska Anchorage, the nonprofit ANCSA-at-40 Committee continued its series on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 with a panel entitled “ANCSA Corporations Overcome Challenges, Enter the Global Market.”

Long-Distance Hiker Shares Adventures, Knowledge

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Long distance hiker Andrew Skurka is back in Alaska sharing his adventures and knowledge.  Skurka skied, hiked and paddled a 4,700 miles loop around Alaska and the Yukon territory in six months last year.  “The National Geographic Adventurer of the Year” is now travelling the country talking about his unprecedented trek.  Skurka says the Alaska Yukon trip was different from his previous mega hikes in the Lower 48.

Skurka has a book coming out on lightweight backpacking, and guides backcountry trips, including in Alaska. He says he hasn’t settled on what his next long adventure will be.