Alaska News Nightly: March 8, 2012

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Murkowski Questions Amount Of Money Spent Defending Stevens Prosecutors

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Senator Lisa Murkowski today questioned Attorney General Eric Holder about money being spent to defend Justice Department prosecutors who are protesting the release of a report detailing mishandling of the prosecution of the late Senator Ted Stevens. One of those prosecutors has asked an appeals court for an emergency stay to prevent the release. Murkowski quizzed Holder before the Senate appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Science and Justice. She asked Holder if tax payer money was being used to defend the prosecutors as they fight the public release of the report.

Holder dismissed the conviction against Stevens because of the misconduct by prosecutors. Judge Emmett Sullivan, who presided over the Stevens trial appointed an independent investigator to examine the case after it came to light that prosecutors had withheld evidence from Stevens’ attorneys. The independent investigator found “significant and intentional misconduct.” The prosecutors asked Judge Sullivan to seal the report, but the judge said it’s important for the public to know what happened.

Following Holder’s response Murkowski pressed Holder about whether the Justice department was paying for the prosecutor’s challenge to releasing the report. Holder said it would have been a conflict of interest for the department to defend them.

Senator Murkowski said $1.8 million had been spent on their defense, calling the amount stunning.  Murkowski added she was troubled the prosecutors were still employed at the Justice department. Holder responded that because the prosecutors had their own views about what happened, they wanted to defend themselves, saying that was why the government hired outside counsel for them.

Murkowski then thanked subcommittee chairwoman Barbara Mikulski for allowing her to take so much time. Mikulski a Democrat from Maryland responded the questioning was important and the issue troubling.

Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison had also questioned Holder. She said the Attorney General took a big step in dismissing the case.

If the report is not held up by the appeal, it will be released next Wednesday, March 15th.

Scientists Say Funding Cuts Threaten State’s Tsunami Preparedness

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

The federal government is proposing at least a million dollar reduction in funding for tsunami programs in Alaska.  The agency in charge says the cuts are necessary and won’t hurt the state’s tsunami preparedness, but some scientists and officials disagree.  They say the reduction in funding will weaken Alaska’s tsunami programs and leave the state’s coastal communities at risk.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA is proposing a $4.6 million reduction in funding for tsunami programs nationwide in the fiscal year 2013.  Most of those savings will come at the expense of a program that gives money to states and academic institutions for tsunami outreach, education, and research.

Roger Hansen is Alaska’s state seismologist and director of the Alaska Earthquake Information Center, which is one of the organizations that receives funding through the program.  He says it’s a mistake for NOAA to pull the plug now, just six years after Congress passed the Tsunami Warning and Education Act, a law co-authored by the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens that appropriated the initial funding.

“It’s imperative that we have this program continue because you don’t just put out a few signs and expect that solves your problem.  It’s an ongoing process of creating partnerships with local communities, emergency managers and the university, which is doing the science arm of this kind of work.”

But NOAA spokesperson Susan Buchanan says the program is no longer necessary.

“That program has been a great success.  It was sort of a ramping up.  We needed to get the models in place, we needed to get the inundation maps in place, and we needed to do a lot of education and outreach and since 2005 we’ve been very successful working with our partners at the state level to get our coastal communities better prepared for tsunamis.”

Hansen agrees that the program has been a success, but says the modeling and inundation mapping are nowhere near done.  In Alaska more than fifty communities are still waiting to be mapped.  And Hansen says the idea that a few years of training and education are enough is simply ludicrous.

“To say we’ve had a five-year program and everybody is safe now is very misleading.  It’s an ongoing process.”

Hansen adds that cuts to outreach and education will have the greatest impact in states like Alaska and Oregon, where near-shore earthquakes pose the largest tsunami threat.  He says for local events there’s no substitute for education and training, because there simply isn’t enough time between the earthquake and the tsunami for NOAA’s warning centers to issue an alert.

“After the shaking stops you have probably, at most, 10 minutes before water starts to flood the city.  In Seward, since there were landslides that were caused as an effect of the earthquake, it was about a minute and a half before the dock completely disappeared from the waterfront.  There’s no way a warning center can give out a warning to a community that all heck is going to break loose in a minute and a half.”

But others are quick to add that the budget reductions will also impact NOAA’s ability to forecast tsunamis generated by distant earthquake events.  Gerard Fryer is a geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.  He’s worried about a proposed $1 million cut to NOAA’s DART buoy network.  The buoys generate detailed information about the direction, magnitude and speed of a tsunami.

“I think what they have planned is simply to reduce the amount of time they budget for repairs.”

Fryer says that worries him, because at current funding levels only about 70 percent of the buoys are operational at any given time and he says the buoys in the Aleutian chain, which are the most important ones for forecasting tsunamis headed for Hawaii, are also the ones that break most often.

“Things tend to break a little more often if they’re subject to severe weather.  Now the DART is an instrument on the bottom, but there’s a surface buoy and those really get beat up in heavy weather and sometimes they drift.  And so the likelihood of failure in the Aleutians is probably a little bit higher than elsewhere.”

NOAA spokesperson Susan Buchanan says there’s redundancy in the DART system and that regardless, the seismic networks that actually generate tsunami warnings won’t be affected by the cuts.

“Tsunami warnings are based on seismic information, information from the seismic gauges.  They’re not based on the DART buoys, so regardless of the DART buoys we would be well-positioned to put out warnings and watches for a tsunami.”

Both Fryer and Alaska seismologist Roger Hansen challenge that assertion, although for different reasons.

Fryer says the Aleutian DART buoy system is critical for understanding how big a tsunami will be and when it will hit Hawaii.  Congressional testimony about the DART network indicates it’s saved communities millions of dollars in evacuation costs.

Hansen, on the other hand, simply challenges the fact that the budget cuts won’t impact seismic networks.  He says while the U.S. Geological Survey operates most of the seismic stations used to generate warnings, the ones in the Aleutians are operated by the Alaska Earthquake Information Center.  That’s his organization, the one that will lose some of its funding under the proposed cuts.

“The fact that these are the only high quality instruments – almost the only high quality instruments – in the Aleutians and in the Bering islands, like St. Paul, makes them valuable – invaluable – to the tsunami warning centers.  So those have to continue.”

NOAA’s Buchanan confirms that her agency’s funding for that particular seismic network will disappear with the cuts.  But she emphasizes that tsunami warnings will continue to be generated and that federal education and outreach programs will not stop.

The budget reduction is scheduled to take effect on October 1, 2012.

Seismic Stations Pick Up Cleveland Blast

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

Cleveland Volcano has blown its top again.  An explosion shook the restless

Aleutian volcano at around 7:00 Wednesday night.  There’s no monitoring network on the volcano itself, but distant seismic stations and sound arrays picked up the blast.

In a release, scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory said they suspect it was a small explosion, similar in size and magnitude to the one that happened in December.  That eruption destroyed a lava dome that had been forming in Cleveland’s crater for several months.  Gases often collect underneath the domes, causing pressure to build until it explodes.  A new dome had been forming in Cleveland’s crater since the December event.

Mushers Reflect On Past Lessons Learned

Annie Hillman, APRN Contributor

Jim Lanier was the first Iditarod musher to reach the Cripple checkpoint at just before 2 this afternoon. He has not yet taken his 24-hour layover though, so Mitch Seavey – who arrived in Cripple 20 minutes later, is leading the race. Dallas Seavey is also in Cripple. According to GPS, John Baker, Lance Mackey, Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle are close behind.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race which is run on a trail that was first in use 100 years ago. APRN’s Anne Hillman caught up with veteran mushers in Takotna as they reflected on lessons learned in races past.

Wrangell Hospital Ends Doctor’s Contract

Charlotte Duren, KSTK – Wrangell

A dispute over the revocation of a Wrangell physician’s work at the city’s hospital has finally resulted in ending the doctor’s contract. The dust up over Dr. Greg Salard’s work has been going back and forth between the Wrangell Medical Center board, who voted in November to revoke and the physician for months. A Superior court judge in December ordered Salard’s work rights be reinstated until a fair review hearing was conducted. That hearing concluded on Feb. 21.

Conservation Professor Says Bear Spray More Effective Than Guns

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

A wildlife conservation professor says guns don’t deter bear attacks as well as bear spray.

Ketchikan Man Rescues Bear Cub Stuck In Jar

Deanna Garrison, KRBD – Ketchikan

A Ketchikan man on Sunday rescued a small black bear cub, whose head was stuck in a plastic jar. After multiple attempts, Michael Schuler was able to release the bear cub.

Schuler had just wrapped up avalanche tests on Ketchikan’s Deer Mountain when he decided to climb up to the summit. Hiking with his friend’s dog Josie, Schuler stumbled across the black bear cub.

“What my brain saw was a water bottle with a head of hair like leaning on it. So I totally just stopped and had to take a look,” he said.  And couldn’t quite place (what it was), because it was so snow covered. It was moving, kind of lolling around.”

He says the dog started to growl as they walked around the animal trying to figure out what it was they were looking at.

“It was so snow-covered and … at first it didn’t occur to me that it would be a cub especially up on the summit,” Shuler said. “I’ve been up a lot on Deer Mountain a lot this winter doing snow pack study stuff.  I’ve only seen a couple of marten tracks up that high… so it was really kind of a shock.”

Schuler says he racked his brain and the only other animal that could be that size would be a wolverine.

“I was like we don’t have wolverines here, but I was still running through my head. I thought if it’s a bear cub I can handle that. But if it’s a wolverine, as soon as it’s out it’s gonna tear me apart,” he said.

Schuler says he poked the animal with a hiking and got the animal to roll over. Ultimately, he determined it was a bear.

Before trying to free the animal, Schuler said he attempted to get in touch with a wildlife biologist to see if there were protocols for dealing with a trapped bear.

After a phone call with a trooper, Schuler said he tied the dog up and went to work trying to free the bear.

“I reached down and I grabbed the jar. I just thought as soon as I had the jar in my hands, he’d just pull his head out, back away and that would be it. He tugged back and nothing happened,” Schuler said. “I kind of thought for a second and thought well I’ll just pick him up … pick him up and shake him out. So I picked the cub up completely off the ground and did a kind of little drop shake. That still didn’t do anything.”

By that time, Schuler says the cub was becoming agitated, making noise and trying to get away.

“So I couldn’t let go of the jar at this point. I had my ice axe and I was able to stick the point of my ice axe through the plastic at the very bottom (of the jar) and stand on my ice axe for a minute while I sorted out what I was going to do next,” he said.

He says he used the ice axe to anchor the jar into the snow. He then sat on the bear and cut the jar open with a work knife.

By the time the bear was released, Schuler said Josie the dog had chewed through her lead and was running around, barking.

“She didn’t chase the bear or anything. She was just kind of saying ‘let’s go,’” Schuler said. “It spun around and I think as soon as … it spun around away from me it just took off down the hill.”

Schuler says he didn’t see the bear cub again after that. However, as he was hiking down the mountain — just after the second outlook – he saw fresh bear cub tracks crossing the trail, headed into the trees downhill.

Schuler says the bear was quite small – around seven or eight pounds. He says it is unlikely the bear would have survived much longer without help.

“He was really tucked up, he was quite cold – totally snow covered. He was moving his head around just a little bit,” he said.

Schuler says he is frustrated that someone left trash on the mountain that could very well have killed the bear cub.

“Carry out what you carry in. Sometimes the most innocuous thing can really turn dangerous,” Schuler said. “It’s our own community mountain up there and we should all take care to keep it clean.”