Monthly Archives: November 2009

Crossroads — Refuge, DOT perspectives clash in Sterling Highway collision mitigation project

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. A bull moose browses along the Sterling Highway last winter. A stretch of road between Mileposts 58 and 79, slated for an upgrade, is a particularly active spot for wildlife crossings and vehicle collisions. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and state Department of Transportation are trying to agree on what to do to decrease those collisions.

Redoubt Reporter

Ironically enough, the progress report was where progress got tripped up on a project meant to decrease the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions on the Sterling Highway.

The report was issued at the conclusion of a Sterling Highway Wildlife-Vehicle Collision Study, covering Mileposts 58 to 79, from the east entrance of Skilak Lake Road to just east of Kenai Keys Road outside Sterling. Agencies involved in the study need to sign off on the report and its findings to move on to the design and construction phases of the highway rehab project. The project would re-pave that section of highway, add some passing lanes and address the growing problems of large wildlife — moose, caribou and bears — crossing and being hit on the highway.

For the differences of opinion holding the project up, there is agreement on one thing — something needs to be done with that stretch of highway. That, at least, gives Rick Ernst, wildlife biologist with the refuge, hope for a project that’s been nearly a decade in the making.

“I think the Department of Transportation agrees that we don’t want to do nothing, and the refuge and all the agencies involved I’m sure don’t want to just do nothing,” Ernst said. “But it’s trying to decide on how much we’re going to do that’s at issue.”

Viewpoints collide

Nine years ago, state DOT sent the refuge a letter, saying it was looking at repaving a portion of the Sterling Highway, Mileposts 58 to 79. Traffic volume was increasing, as were the number of collisions between animals and vehicles on that section of road.

At statehood, the federally managed refuge granted the state an easement for the highway cutting through the refuge. One of the stipulations was state DOT needs the refuge to sign off on any highway projects happening on refuge land.

The refuge doesn’t oppose the highway revamp. New pavement, wider shoulders and passing lanes would better facilitate the increasing traffic on the highway, but the project also needs a way to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions in order to truly be safer for drivers, Ersnt said. The refuge is tasked with protecting the interests of the environment and wildlife on its lands, so any proposed collision mitigation efforts need to work for drivers and be healthy for wildlife, too.

To figure out what options would fit the bill of being effective and protective, an interagency work group was formed in September 2005, with representatives from the Federal Highway Administration; Alaska DOT; Alaska Department of Fish and Game; Alaska Division of Public Safety; the nonprofit Alaska Moose Federation; and Ernst, representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For the study, the group gathered data on the number and location of wildlife-vehicle collisions along that stretch of road, established a hotline where drivers could call in and report where and when they’ve seen wildlife along the highway, and tracked the migrations of GPS-collared moose and caribou, to see where and how often they crossed roads.

After two years of study, a progress report was issued summarizing the study results. From the findings and research into wildlife-vehicle collision mitigation efforts that have proven successful elsewhere, Ernst believes the best option is to construct underpasses along the highway where animals can safely cross underneath the road.

In order for the project to move forward, all members of the interagency work group need to sign off on the progress report and agree to a plan for mitigation efforts. Several revisions later, the last one issued in February 2009, and that still hasn’t happened.

“This is probably the sixth draft,” Ernst said. “We’ve made numerous revisions, where all the agencies involved made comments and it’s been rewritten several times. This, we were hoping, was the document that everybody could agree on. All the agencies have tentatively agreed to it other than state DOT.” Continue reading

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On the road to highway funding changes — ‘Donor’ states decry Alaska’s disproportionate receipt of transportation money

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Alaskans have it good when it comes to federal funding for highway projects. That may not seem to be the case while rattling along the ruts in the Sterling Highway heading east out of Soldotna, or bottoming out on the frost heaves and dips that never quite seem to be evened out on the Sterling flat.

Alaska is a “donee” state, getting $6 back in federal highway funding for every $1 Alaskans pay in gas taxes. That’s not the case for “donor” states, such as California or New York, which get less funding back for the dollars residents pay in gas taxes. It’s an inequity in the way funds from the national Highway Trust Fund are allocated to states, based on formulas in the Surface Transportation Authorization Act.

The inequity is likely to soon change, which will reduce the amount of federal funding Alaska gets for national highway projects.

“It has been scrutinized recently by a lot of the states, such as California and New York. Many of these states certainly, during the recession here, face difficult financial situations, and the donor states look at the donee states getting that massive return of money, of partially their funds,” said Dave Post, central regional planning manager for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Though a change in the reimbursement funding formulas will mean fewer dollars for Alaska, Post said the system of funding does need to change, because the current formula is not working.

“Twice in the past two years, the Highway Trust Fund has basically gone insolvent,” Post said.

In 2000, the Highway Trust Fund had about $20 billion in it, but that amount slipped to under $1 billion, necessitating Congress to step in twice in the last two years to transfer general funds into the Highway Trust Fund to keep the highway-funding program from essentially going bankrupt, Post said.

“We know that the funding formula is likely to be changed. It needs to be because the current one hasn’t worked for the last two years,” Post said. “We know that the donor states, once again, are scrutinizing the amount of funds likely to go to Alaska.” Continue reading

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Feeding the need — Food bank launches facility expansion

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Jeff Belluonini, Brook Belluomini and Mya Renken pack Thanksgiving food boxes at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank on Friday.

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Picture being in charge of a Thanksgiving dinner for a large group of friends and family.

At the store, when buying a turkey and all the fixings, sticker shock leads to creativity in finding lower-cost ingredients. Or putting back items altogether. Picking up perishables involves estimating how much freezer space is left at home.

When dinner rolls around, made with a pared-down budget and limited perishables, worries persist about whether there will be enough to feed everyone, especially when unexpected guests arrive.

Now picture going through that every day. That’s what it’s like to be the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, trying to meet an increasing need for services out of the same facilities that have not expanded in more than 10 years.

The Kenai Peninsula Food Bank is one of the bedrock social-service programs on the peninsula, touching more than 10,000 residents in the various programs it operates. The food bank supplies around 60 other agencies that provide food to their participants, including senior centers, kids’ programs, churches and veterans organizations. It gives out food boxes to senior citizens and low-income residents in need, serves lunch in its Fireweed Diner soup kitchen Monday through Friday, and provides occasional special services, like holiday food boxes and birthday bags for kids.

In 1999, the food bank took in 762,149 pounds of food. In 2008, more than one million pounds of food were received and redistributed. Need has grown dramatically over the past 12 years, with a particular spike recently. Since last year, the food bank’s client base increased by 40 percent. That’s 40 percent more people seeking services who’ve never needed the food bank before, on top of all the returning clients.

Linda Swarner, food bank executive director, doesn’t expect that trend to reverse or even slow down anytime soon as a downturn in the economy continues to ripple through Alaska.

“I would expect it to be increasing as people have to seek other employment and until there are more higher-paying jobs in our area. And then we get people who move down from Anchorage because they think it’s a better life down here,” Swarner said. Continue reading

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Anchor Point boy burned with ‘redneck flamethrower’

By Sean Pearson

Homer Tribune

When Alaska State Trooper Ryan Browning arrived at Chapman Elementary School on Nov. 16, he was relatively surprised by the calmness of the 5-year-old boy he had been called out to interview.

“We got a call from OCS that Monday morning advising that a student at the Anchor Point school had arrived with burns to his face and head,” Browning relayed. “When I got there, I saw the boy had some pretty bad burns on the left side of his face.”

Browning said OCS advised him that the child informed his teachers that his “daddy burned him” and that he could not talk about it.

“The left side of his face, including the bridge of his nose, inside his lower nostril, his upper eyelid and tip of his earlobe were burned,” Browning said. “It looked the worst on his right temple, because you could see where it had started to blister up quite a bit.

The hair on the left side of his head was burned, as well as the hair behind his ear and on the back of his skull.”

Browning said the kindergartner claimed he was playing in his room over the weekend when his head caught fire.

“He said he wasn’t in any trouble when his head caught fire, and it was a ‘practical joke gone wrong,’” Browning said. “What kind of 5-year-old talks like that?”

Following Browning’s investigation, troopers arrested 32-year-old Stephen Ray Dilley II and Jonathon Michael Miller, 29, both of Anchorage. The two men said they were babysitting the child the Friday night before when the incident happened.

According to Trooper Browning’s affidavit, Dilley stated that he and Miller were outside smoking on the porch. When they came inside, he grabbed a compressed can of starter fluid, and reportedly stated, “You know what would be funny?”

He handed Miller the can, who reportedly responded with, “Do you know how much trouble I could get in for this?” Continue reading

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Alaskans lobby Utah ski resort owner to give up coal — Groups find irony in ‘environmental’ businessman’s investments

By Naomi Klouda

Homer Tribune

Alaska isn’t the only place melting in the controversy of global warming and climate change. Even a ski resort in Utah is on the impact list, a message local environmental groups tried to get across in a protest staged last week in the southwestern state.

The groups are sending appeals to the owner of a Utah ski resort and partner investor in the proposed Chuitna coal project. They are asking him to consider the impact of global warming on places dependent on snow.

Cook InletKeeper and the Chuitna Citizen’s Coalition joined with the Sierra Club to host a rally in downtown Salt Lake City last week. It was a call on Snowbird Ski Resort owner Richard Bass to not construct what would be Alaska’s largest surface coal mine. The groups say mined coal would be a huge contributor of greenhouse gases and to rising temperatures in the future. This would kill off the ski industry.

“Coal is the No. 1 contributor, so when we talked about how we can organize, it seemed natural we would reach out to groups impacted by climate change,” said Emily Fehrenbacher, regional representative for Sierra. “When we really looked at it, and saw Dick Bass was one of the investors in Pac Rim Coal and Snowbird both, it seemed like a natural way to point out the impact.”

Cook InletKeeper Executive Director Bob Shavelson wanted to join the effort to help point out that resources in Cook Inlet are put at risk in the plan, which is being pushed by a “multimillionaire ski resort owner who otherwise paints himself as an environmentally conscious businessman.”

Bass, who owns the Utah resort, has partnered with Herbert Hunt to form PacRim Coal LLC, a Delaware mining company that is proposing the mine in order to feed Pacific Rim coal markets. Environmental studies and estimates on the mine proposal show that it would produce more than 12 million tons of coal annually. When that coal is burned, it would emit more than 54 billion pounds of carbon dioxide per year, groups said in a joint press release. Continue reading

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Great lakes — Frozen, flat surfaces heat up otherwise lukewarm ski season

By Jenny Neyman

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Gail Moore skis at Headquarters Lake at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge at dusk Saturday. There hasn’t been enough snow to ski on trails, but area lakes have seen lots of traffic.

Redoubt Reporter

With the bare dusting of powder that has been blowing around the central Kenai Peninsula for the past few weeks, winter recreationists are finding themselves all geared up, yet few places with snow.

Backcountry mountains don’t have enough cover to smooth over tangles of birch and alder, and trails through the woods are bare enough that skiers, dog sledders and snowmachiners will do more grinding than gliding.

There’s one saving grace so far this winter for those ready to ski, skate and slide — take it to a lake.

“It’s the only show in town right now, unless you’re crazy and ski on the grass,” said Bill Holt, with Tsalteshi Trails Association, who took a groomer to the surface of ARC Lake on Sunday and Headquarters Lake on Friday.

Skiers have been dusting the summer cobwebs off their winter gear, muscles and balance over the past two weeks, circling the perimeters of lakes in the area, especially Headquarters Lake behind the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge office on Ski Hill Road, ARC Lake along the Sterling Highway near the landfill and Bottenintnin Lake off Skilak Lake Road.

There isn’t enough snow down to ski on the ground, even at Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview, which are prepped to be skiable with the least amount of snow possible.

“I sure don’t recommend the trails right now. Some people have tried it but it’s so dirty you just come to a screeching halt every once in a while,” Holt said.

Once it gets cold enough for lakes to freeze, which happened weeks ago on the central peninsula, you’ve got a smooth, clean surface sans dirt, rocks, twigs or other debris that would catch and scrape skis. With the water frozen, it only takes a bare covering of snow and a little time for the snow to firm up before the surface turns into a skiing speedway.

“What’s really nice about it this year is we don’t have hardly any snow, but what snow is there is kind of bonded with the ice,” Holt said. “From a groomer’s standpoint, if it’s cold, dry snow on ice it just peels right off, you can’t do anything until it’s skied down, and even then it’s hard to do. But for some reason, we’ve had just enough moisture that it bonded pretty well with the ice.” Continue reading

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Quality time with a ski pole to the face — Life lesson to be learned? Take it on the chin

By Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter

The author, sporting a frozen blood glob on her chin Saturday after a literal run-in with a ski pole.

Why is it that lessons have to be unexpected and painful in order to really sink in?

I was pondering the brutality of meaningful knowledge acquisition while skiing at Headquarters Lake behind the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge building on Ski Hill Road on Saturday afternoon.

Actually, this train of thought didn’t come about until late in the outing, when my previous cerebral caboose jumped the track. I don’t remember what I was thinking about to start with. Probably my usual mental goulash: some combination of half listening to my iPod, thinking of possible leads for the story I’d be working on later, trying to estimate if I could finish the distance I intended to cover in the amount of time I’d allotted for skiing, to-do listing the rest of my day/week/month/general-foreseeable existence, and an inner-stream-of-consciousness monologue — my heel itches. Ooh, a bunny. Did my roommate get toilet paper, or should I stop and buy some?

That’s when it hit me.

More accurately, that’s when I hit me.

The realization that my ears were cold managed to flag down my consciousness. My hat was rebelling from the extra bulk of my hair shoveled up underneath it and was attempting to cede from the union with my head. I should have come to a stop, tucked my ski poles under my arms and given the matter of hat adjustment my full, if momentary, attention.

But I didn’t do that. I prefer to multitask. When faced with thousands of self-imposed deadlines, schedules, projects and must-get-dones, I tend to go into productive mode. There isn’t a moment that can’t be made more productive — and, therefore, better — by attempting to do three to five things during it. I return calls to friends while editing photos. I listen to interview notes while folding laundry. If I’ve got a meeting in Kenai, I try to cram in side trips to the bank, grocery store or whatever other errands may need to get done.

I also cook while showering. Put a pot of something on to heat up, jump in the shower, run out to stir or reduce the heat, run back to wash my face or put on lotion, with the end goal being my food is done about the same time my personal hygiene routine is. Continue reading

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