Alaska News Nightly: November 8, 2011

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Western Alaska Storm Forecast Update

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

A Bering Sea storm packing hurricane-force winds and 35-foot waves is moving rapidly toward the western Alaska coastline. We’ll hear how communities are preparing. But first we have National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Brader on the line to give us and update on the storm.

Communities Prepare for Storm

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security has been helping western villages prepare for the storm for the last 24 hours. Bryan Fisher is Incident Commander for the Division. He says most of the communities have been trained in the last few years to respond and prepare for this type of disaster event.

Fisher says the Division also trains frequently to respond to fall storms. He says Homeland Security did not field any requests to help communities evacuate people ahead of the storm. He says a few villages have set up local shelters that some residents are already taking advantage of. The Division will be ready to respond to calls for on the ground support as soon as the storm lets up and will also help with damage assessments. Fisher says the timing of the storm increases the potential for damage.

Nome Expected to be Among Hardest Hit

Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome

Nome is expected to be one of the hardest hit communities.

No Evacuation Orders in Effect for Kotzebue Area

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

In Kotzebue, Wendy Schaefer is the community incident commander. She says winds are picking up, but currently there are no evacuation orders for any communities within the Northwest Arctic Borough however if evacuations are needed, they will go to a local facility and remain within their village. Schaefer says although there is concern for all villages in the borough, a lot of that concern is focused on Kivalina and Deering.

Coast Guard Evacuates 20 From Rebecca Irene

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

The Coast Guard has evacuated most the crew of the 140-foot catcher-processor Rebecca Irene.

The ship contacted the Coast Guard early Tuesday morning to report that they had lost power in one engine and had limited propulsion.

Winds of up to 55 mph and seas of up to 35 feet are expected for this evening in the area near Unimak Pass where the vessel is reported to be.

The Coast Guard cutter Sherman evacuated 20 non-essential members of the 34-person crew earlier this afternoon in relatively calm winds and seas.

The 14 crew members who remain onboard the vessel will probably face some rough conditions later today.  Although the boat is headed for shelter in Urilla Bay on the north side of Unimak Island, it is only traveling at 6 mph and will have to weather the storm in open seas.

There are 270,000 pounds of frozen fish in the Rebecca Irene’s holds.  The vessel is equipped with survival suits and three life rafts.

Coast Guard cutter Sherman will stay with the vessel until a tug contracted by the ship’s parent company arrives.  Magone Marine Services in Unalaska has dispatched the tug Double Eagle, but weather will likely keep it from reaching the vessel until Wednesday at the earliest.

Arctic Oil, Gas Lease Sales Gets Tentative Go Ahead

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

The Obama Administration is giving a tentative green-light to oil and gas lease sales in the arctic as part of its new five year plan.  It’s calling for one lease sale in both the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, and also one farther south in Cook Inlet near Anchorage.  But the plan is drawing criticism from Republicans who want more development, and environmentalists who say it’s too much.

State to Make EVOS Available Online

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation will soon be online.     The Alaska State Archives has received federal funds to evaluate and make accessible state litigation documents stemming from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Larry Hibpshman is the senior archivist at the Alaska State Archives and he’s directing the project. In five years of litigation, he says, the Alaska Department of Law accumulated millions of pages of documents about the spill.

Archivists started the project on October 1st after receiving nearly 110-thousand dollars in funding for the project from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.  Hibpshman says archivists are determining what to keep for permanent public knowledge and what to dispose of.   He says preserving the documents is important.

Individual documents from the litigation have been available via public information requests, but you had to know exactly what you wanted … the archiving project will make online catalogs available for the documents for the first time.     The project is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2013.

Smaller Timber Sales Might Help Smaller Communities

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

The era of large-scale logging might be gone from northern Southeast Alaska, but across the region, people are turning to smaller timber sales to earn a living. Officials hope the model can support local economies in the region. And for one family in Tenakee Springs, the effort has paid off.

Gordon Chew runs a small logging operation in Corner Bay, just across the inlet from Tenakee Springs. And it keeps him busy. So busy, in fact that he says he doesn’t have time to stop for an interview, but that I can borrow his adult son’s bike and talk to him as we ride down to the harbor. In the interest of my own safety, I wait until we get to his boat before I reach for a microphone.

“We have to do a little bit of everything, between all the boating and barging and lumber milling and logging and construction and restoration around town,” he says.

Chew runs the Tenakee Logging Company, and he’s part of the changing face of the lumber industry. In this part of Southeast Alaska, large-scale logging doesn’t exist anymore. But smaller, selective cuts – like the 100,000 or so board feet each year that Chew takes from the Tongass – are becoming more popular.

Chew’s company logs, but it also builds. He uses the timber taken from Corner Bay on projects in Tenakee Springs. As we leave the harbor, he opens up the throttle and we head to the fuel dock. There’s a 55 gallon drum in the back of the boat.

The fuel will go over to Corner Bay to feed the company’s truck. But not far from where we’re tied up is the Snyder Mercantile – a general store dating back to 1899. Chew and his team are working to restore the old building, along with its adjacent property, using wood they’ve harvested and milled. Chew says that part of the business is essential.

“The foundation under that warehouse are all hemlock pilings,” he says. “We drag a lot of them over here as pilings. Also, the underpart of the store is all repaired with cedar pilings. I’m not sure if we could manage it on our timber sales alone. The fact we get to work with the timber as builders is what makes it lucrative for us. It’s not selling the timber.”

Zia Brucaya, of the Sitka Conservation Society, says Chew’s operation “is definitely unique in our ranger district,” but not to the region.

“Throughout Southeast Alaska there are lots of small mills that are operating to different degrees,” she said. “Some of them are doing construction as well as milling, like Gordon is. Some of them are just doing milling, putting together cabin kits and things. They’re all working at that smaller scale of a few hundred thousand board feet per year.”

SCS and other environmental groups in Southeast have taken an interest in operations like Chew’s because they say they’re smart, sustainable ways to use the Tongass. It was never logging outright that was the problem, she says. It was the scale of what happened in years past.

“We’re now working at a scale that is appropriate for the community, and it’s needed in the community,” she said.

Brucaya says it’s also an opportunity to build up the local economy for the benefit of local residents – a way to keep people living in Southeast, especially in small, remote communities, where the loss of even a family or two can be felt throughout town.

And few are more aware of that than Chris Budke, a forestry technician in the U.S. Forest Service’s Hoonah office.

“It seems like every time I turn around I read something in the paper or I see a reason or I look at people and I see lots of reasons for people to be leaving Southeast Alaska,” he said.

He lists off reasons: it’s a harsh environment, goods and services are expensive, and more. But he says offering opportunities to run small businesses using Tongass resources might help keep people around.

“If we can work with local people that are using local products and meet the objective of everybody – which is really difficult, by the way – and provide a product for those people they can turn around and make a living off of, that, to me, gives you reasons to be here,” Budke said.

And giving people reasons to be here can have big implications for Southeast, which is hemorrhaging population.

“This is incredibly important for people to be working. It’s incredibly important for us to be using our natural resources. It’s incredibly important for people to understand that we can use it responsibly. So we can meet the objectives of a lot of things here and give people a reason to stay in Southeast.”

Gordon Chew and his family are examples of that. They saw Alaska during a trip in 1995, and loved it so much that they went back south and made plans to move up. They returned in 1999 and have been here since. Back in Tenakee Springs, Chew’s 55 gallon drum is nearly full of No. 2 diesel.

As the nozzle is hoisted back onto the fuel dock, Chew says there’s a future in the kind of small-scale logging he does, not only for places like Tenakee Springs, but for the entire region.