Alaska News Nightly: February 25, 2011

Individual news stories are posted in the Alaska News category and you can subscribe to APRN’s news feeds via email, podcast and RSS.

Download Audio (MP3)

Weyhrauch Trial Moved to Juneau
Anchorage Daily News
The Anchorage Daily News is reporting that the trial of former lawmaker Bruce Weyhrauch will be held in Juneau, his hometown. Earlier this month, Weyhrauch asked U.S. District Judge John Sedwick to move his trial from Anchorage. Weyhrauch said it would be more convenient for him to be tried in Juneau.

Weyhrauch lives and practices law in Juneau and represented the capital city in the Legislature for four years.

Federal prosecutors didn’t file a response to Weyhrauch’s request.

In granting the request, Sedwick left the original trial date intact. Jury selection is scheduled to start on the morning of May 9.

Weyhrauch is accused in a four-count indictment of secretly trying to get legal work for his private law firm from oil-field services company Veco in 2006 at the same time that Veco officials were actively lobbying the Legislature to lower oil company taxes. He’s the last untried defendant in the federal corruption investigation, which began in Juneau in 2004.

Interior Department Holding Hearing About Offshore Oil, Gas Leasing
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
The Interior Department is holding a hearing Friday night in Anchorage to talk about the proposed outer continental shelf oil and gas leasing program for  2012 through 2017. The program could include lease sales for the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and Cook Inlet in Alaska.

Shell Oil already has lease holdings in the Arctic Ocean from a previous federal sale. But the company hasn’t been able to explore those leases because of numerous setbacks with the permitting process and in court. Shell will testify at the hearing tonight. Spokesperson Curtis Smith says it’s too early to say whether the company would be interested in another lease sale in the area. But they want the five-year plan to go forward.

Shell canceled its planned exploration program in the Arctic ocean for 2011 and is now in the process of reassessing for 2012. Smith says he expects a lot of people will testify in favor of offshore development on Friday. But Environmental groups opposed to the offshore plan will also be well represented. Robert Thompson is with Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands or REDOIL. He says the biggest concern for him is the potential for an oil spill in Arctic waters.

The hearing on the five-year plan takes place tonight at 7pm at the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management Regulation and Enforcement office on Centerpoint drive in Anchorage.

Cleanup Slow Going in Norway Spill
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
That question of whether oil can be cleaned up in icy waters is getting a real world test in Norway right now. Last week, a container ship ran aground off Norway’s southern coast, near a nature preserve. It was carrying about 200,000 gallons of fuel oil.

Frieda  Bengtsson is an oceans campaigner for Greenpeace in Oslo. She spent the day Thursday with the Norweigian Coast Guard at the clean-up site. She says it’s shocking how slow the clean up process is.

Bengtsson says two days of snowfall has made it impossible to find much of the oil.

Because the spill happened near a nature refuge, birds, seal pups and other animals have been impacted by the oil. Bengtsson says the cold weather is making it difficult to handle sea birds that have been affected.

Bengtsson says the area is rich in unique cold water coral reefs. She says its unknown how they will be affected by the oil, but March is a critical time for the coral.

Bengtsson says the Norwegian Coast Guard says they are learning how to best clean up the oil as they go. She says this is the first significant oil spill in ice covered waters in Norway.

Geologists Believe Alaska Has Major Rare-Earth Deposits
Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks
Alaska has at least one major deposit of rare-earth elements, and state geologists think they’ll find more during a three-year study they hope to begin this summer. Alaska may have a lot of the highly valuable substances that are essential to manufacturing electronics and other high-tech products.

But finding them is the easy part – the first step in what state and federal officials say is a critical need for U.S. economic and national security.

KUAC’s Tim Ellis outlines the challenges of creating a U.S. rare-earths industry, and Alaska’s role in that important effort, in this second of two reports.

Murkowski Fears Impact of Earmark Ban
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski fears the new anti-earmark climate in Washington, D.C. will hurt programs important to Alaska.

Members of Murkowski’s own Republican Party have voted to voluntarily stop using earmarks in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. And one of the Senate’s biggest earmark proponents in the past, Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye, has banned the pet projects for two years in the Senate Appropriations Committee, which he chairs.

Murkowski uses fisheries research performed in Alaska by federal, state and private agencies as an example of earmark-funded projects that could be threatened by the ban.

Murkowski says senators are trying to work out how to continue funding some programs that might be considered earmarks, possibly through agency budgets.

She says there are “very, very wide differences” between the House and Senate right now. The Republican-led House last week passed a continuing resolution to keep funding the federal government that included more than 500 amendments and cut spending by about 60-billion dollars. Murkowski says don’t expect many of those amendments to survive the Senate.

Congress must pass some sort of continuing resolution in the next week, or the federal government will shut down. Murkowski doesn’t expect that to happen. She thinks a deal will be struck on either a short term extension of the current resolution, or one that includes some agreed upon budget cuts.

Woman Fasts While Waiting for Government Response, Action
Joshua Tucker, APRN – Anchorage
A former Alaska Green Party candidate for Governor and longtime Native activist, is in her 18th day without food. Dessa Jacobson began fasting on February 8 and says she will not halt her fast until her three key demands are met.

NPS Hires Alaska Native Liaison
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
The National Park Service in Alaska has hired a full time Alaska Native liaison to help better coordinate work between NPS and tribes in Alaska. Jean Gamache has worked for the Environmental Protection Agency as a tribal programs manager for more than 13 years in Oregon. Gamache is an enrolled member of the Central council of Tlingit and Haida tribes of Alaska. She has a law degree from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a bachelor of science from UAA.

NPS Alaska spokesman John Quinley says Gamache will help coordinate statewide issues with tribes, corporations and other tribal groups.

Quinley says one important task Gamache will work on is helping people who live closest to the parks understand federal law changes as it relates to local hire. The Alaska Lands Act contained a provision that allows residents who reside close to parks and conservation units to bypass some of the civil servant requirements for NPS jobs.

Although she’ll be based in Anchorage, Gamache will work statewide to help with a variety of issues such as guiding people through the process of making proposals to the subsistence board and contracting for Native organizations for work within NPS properties. Quinley says NPS currently contracts with Native organizations for work on building maintenance and interpretations for visitor’s centers.

Gamache will begin work at her new post on March 13th.

Fur Rondy Races Begin in Anchorage
Diana Haecker, KTNA – Talkeetna
The Fur Rendezvous open world championship sled dog race got underway today in Anchorage with the fastest dog teams in the world competing for Rondy champion. The event started in 1946 and is the centerpiece of the annual Fur Rondy festivities in Anchorage.

Christine Tozier, president of the Alaska Sled dog Association says the event is a tradition that is in her blood.

The Fur Rondy is held in three heats spread over three days. Mushers race down the 25-mile trail that leads them through an urban landscape, to Campbell Airstrip and back.

Defending champion Blayne Streeper has his eyes set on a sixth victory.

Streeper explains the allure of the Fur Rondy race.

Also competing are four-time champion Egil Ellis, and well-known mushers like Bill Kornmuller, Arleigh Reynolds and Jason Dunlap.

Ryan Housler traveled all the way from Russian Mission to fulfill his Rondy dream. Housler snowmachined his dogs from Russian Mission to Bethel and then flew into Anchorage.

Several mushers well-known for racing long distance sled dog competitions also decided to give speed mushing a try. Jake Berkowitz, Aaron Burmeister and Ryan Redington.

Berkowitz said he just enjoys dog mushing and wanted to try something new, although he said he won’t be serious competition for the others. Burmeister is racing a team out of the Streeper Kennel.

While results of the first day are no indication of the final outcome, Arliegh Reynolds won the first heat of the 2011 Fur Rondy. Coming in second was Blyne Streeper and in third Agil Ellis.

The Fur Rendezvous open world championships continue on Saturday and Sunday and starts at noon.

Snow Carvers Begin Work on Sculptures
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
The Fur Rondy snow sculptures contest is a popular event that showcases the carving, chipping and shaping talents of Alaskans with a wide range of artistic inspirations from an upside down ice cream cone to a snow Phoenix. Last night teams worked on their creations near Ship Creek in Anchorage.

Snow carvers preparing for the Fur Rondy snow sculpture contest. Judging is Sunday.