Alaska News Nightly: May 7, 2012

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Jury Selection Begins For Militia Trial

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Jury selection got underway in Anchorage federal court Monday in preparation for the trial of Fairbanks resident and Alaska Peacemaker’s militia leader Francis Schaeffer Cox. Cox is charged along with Coleman Barney and Lonnie Vernon of plotting to kill government employees. Cox founded the Second Amendment Task force and claims he is a sovereign citizen. The trial is expected to last at least a month.

Eighty-eight potential jurors started the day. Judge Robert Bryan listened to numerous schedule conflicts from them, ranging from a toy store employee who said his boss would need to go to a trade show in early June, to a baker with an increasingly busy spring schedule to a Mason from Kasilof who said he only works during the spring and summer. Many jury prospects also had travel schedule conflicts, which prompted Judge Bryan to ask if the travel was for business or vacation, saying “I care more about holidays than business trips.” After potential conflicts were noted, Judge Bryan asked how many were members of gun advocacy groups such as the NRA. Amid some chuckles, nearly half raised their hands. “Can you accept firearms registration laws whether you agree with them or not?” Judge Bryan asked. No one raised their hand to say they could not. “Can you start the trial with an open mind, without political views?” He asked. No one stirred. A bit of laughter met his next question, “Do any of you have a beef with the federal government?”

Through it all Francis Schaeffer Cox sat in the front of the courtroom with his attorney, smiling at times, but occasionally somber. Jury selection continued in the afternoon and will likely stretch into Tuesday.

State Ferry Matanuska Crashes Into Seafood Processing Dock

Matt Lichtenstein, KFSK – Petersburg

The State Ferry Matanuska collided with a seafood processing dock in Petersburg early Monday afternoon. There were no reported injuries, but there was substantial damage to the Ocean Beauty Seafood facility. There were also some dents in the bow of the ferry above the waterline, though she tied up safely at the terminal shortly after the incident.

Tugboat Tackles Ice For Bearing Sea Crabbers

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

The snow crab fleet is in a race against time. The Bering Sea has been covered in record-setting ice since the season got underway in January and with just a few weeks left, fishermen still have millions of pounds of snow crab to catch. As KUCB’s Stephanie Joyce reports, boats are going to extremes to finish in time, with a little help from a tugboat stationed on St. Paul Island.

J-1 Program Safe Until November

Jennifer Canfield, KMXT – Kodiak

Changes to the J-1 Visa program were announced Friday by the State Department. While some changes take effect immediately, Alaska’s seafood processors- which rely heavily on the workforce the program provides- won’t be affected until November. It’s a relief for the processors and fishermen who are preparing for salmon season, but it’s not great news for local cannery workers in Kodiak who are struggling to make ends meet.

The program has been under scrutiny on the national stage since last fall when hundreds of J-1 student workers at a Hershey’s chocolate plant in Pennsylvania walked out in protest of working conditions. Nearly six years ago in Kodiak, J-1 workers at the Ocean Beauty seafood processing plant went on strike saying their employer was deducting too much tax from their paychecks. But in the last decade, increasingly J-1 workers are how seafood processors staff their operations. Towns such as Naknek, Petersburg, Cordova and Dillingham require the influx of foreign workers as there aren’t enough locals to take available jobs.

The State Department and many in the U.S. Senate called for instant, sweeping changes after the incident in Pennsylvania last fall. Both Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich worked quickly to stave off any rushed changes. A last minute decision would have left many processors in Alaska understaffed and unable to process this summer’s salmon harvest, something that would negatively affected fishermen.

Begich says Friday’s announcement is the first step toward ensuring Alaskan hire is a priority for the industry.

“This allows us some time now to focus on that and I think that’s the step we wanted to see. It kind of has a double for us. It keeps things moving through the summer but now we can look at the long term and how do we ensure that people within the communities that want to work can sit down with the fishing industry and work,” Begich said.

However, local processing plant workers in Kodiak had been looking forward to immediate changes in the program. Processing jobs are hard to come by on the island and many who are employed aren’t getting full-time hours. In a job that mostly pays minimum wage and living in a place with the highest rents in the state, overtime is essential. Monte Hawver is the executive director of the Brother Francis shelter in Kodiak. He says the program takes work away from local families and creates poverty. He’s already seen many families leave the island because they’re just not getting the hours they used to.

“There’s a lot of stress on the families. There’s a lot of stress on the social services that are trying plug the dike, so to speak. It’s much harder than it used to be and it doesn’t have to if our local canneries would use local cannery workers for their work force,” Hawver said.

The J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa Program was established 50 years ago and initially was used to bring academics to the United States to conduct research or to teach. The program was intended to foster cultural exchange and eventually expanded to include au pairs, educators, medical professionals and participants in the Work and Travel USA program.

Both Senators Murkowski and Begich have lauded the decision to keep the J-1 program open to processors until November, but some local workers feel that they’ve been passed over for cheaper labor. J-1 workers save employers money because they don’t have to contribute to Medicare, Social Security or unemployment insurance. Mary Guilas-Hawver is the president of the Fil-Am Association in Kodiak. She says many of her organization’s members struggle because they’re not getting enough work.

“These people are the ones who are paying their taxes here, making Kodiak their home and send their children to school here. The problem is they’re not able to make money to live and support themselves during the summer. The worst thing yet is that they’re not able to put money in their unemployment bank to use during the winter,” Guilas-Hawver said.

Senator Begich is proposing a new visa, tentatively called an H20 Visa, which would allow the industry to hire foreign workers without having to do so under the premise of cultural exchange. The specifics of the visa are yet to be worked out, but some of the J-1 program’s biggest opponents are already optimistic. They hope that the new visa will come with stricter regulations that require processors to hire local first. Senator Begich says they haven’t worked out how to ensure that, but that it’s a priority.

“Now it’s a question of how do we ensure that the processors are taking every step possible. Part of that is that they know by the end of this year that the J-1 visa is going to change. They know they have to figure this all out as the year gets closer to the end. Now there’s some breathing room. I don’t know what all those pieces are, but our office will be aggressive about trying to figure this out,” Begich said.

The J-1 program brings up to 5,000 students- many from Eastern Europe- to Alaska each summer.

Harry Bader Heading Up Polar Security Center

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A Fairbanks man who helped protect natural resources in Afghanistan, is heading up a similar program for polar regions. Longtime University of Alaska Fairbanks faculty member Harry Bader recently completed three years in Afghanistan, serving as co-leader of a counterinsurgency cell for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Bader, who won a heroism award for his work preventing enemy exploitation of natural resources, is back at UAF heading up a new Polar Security Center.  Bader says the Defense and Homeland Security funded program is scientific research focused.

Supreme Court To Hear Arguments On Which Voting District Maps Will Be Used In Election

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Alaska’s Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday on which voting district map will be used for this year’s elections. The state Redistricting Board had filed a petition with the high court, asking that its April 5 proclamation plan be used, after a lower court judge rejected the Board’s second attempt at a redistricting plan.  The Supreme Court has issued a May 8 deadline for responses to both the Board’s request for review of the lower court decision and its petition to use its first redistricting plan in this year’s election.

A state redistricting plan must be in place by May 14.

Researchers Study Impact Of Invasive Plants On Native Tundra Berries

Mark Arehart, KYUK – Bethel

Researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks are studying invasive plants in Alaska and how they could be affecting native tundra berries.  The invasive plants can be found across interior Alaska.  And while they likely have not yet spread off the road system to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, some believe it’s only a matter of time.

Meg Mackey Band: Spenard’s New Indie Darlings

Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage

You don’t hear the glockenspiel much in modern music. But Alaska singer-song writer Meg Mackey weaves it, along with acoustic and electric guitar, accordion, banjo and foot stomps onto her new Album ‘Eat Your Heart Out’.