Monthly Archives: January 2010

Cat and oust — Fish and Game opposes move to lift restriction on exotic felines

By Jenny Neyman

CeeCee, a Savannah kitten, tugs on a feather toy. The cats, crosses between domestic cats and wildcats, retain coat colorings and features of their wild parents, while taking on the personalities and behaviors of domestic pets. The Board of Game will consider a proposal to lift a ban on the cats in the state during its meeting this week.

Redoubt Reporter

When Joann Odd, of Ninilchik, discovered that exotic cats were outlawed in Alaska, she figured there was no good reason for the restriction. It was probably a silly oversight, she thought, an unintended byproduct of a protective game-management law written before exotic cats had become popular pets, prized for their wildcat appearances yet domestic pet personalities.

So she undertook a campaign to spread information about exotic cats in Alaska, in hope that the Board of Game will vote to allow the animals as pets in the state. As the board is set to meet this week in Anchorage, Odd is afraid her efforts will be for naught and exotic cats will remain illegal to possess in the state — and not just for no good reason, but because of outright incorrect ones.

Alaska has some of the tightest guidelines in the country regarding the import of game and exotic animals in order to protect native species. Wording regarding the possession of exotic animals is specific and restrictive, so a species needs to be purposefully placed on the “clean list” for it to be allowed.

Animals that are allowable to possess without a permit include domestic pets, like dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs and parakeets; barnyard-type animals, like horses, pigs, cattle, llamas, chickens and turkeys; and some more unusual critters, including nonvenimous reptiles, chimpanzees and one-hump camels. But game animals and hybrid game animals — a cross between a wild game animal and a domestic species — may not be possessed, imported or exported. The law is in particular a response to the issue of wolf hybrids and was written before most exotic cat breeds were even in existence. But since they weren’t specifically mentioned on the clean list, they aren’t allowed in Alaska.

In appearance, exotic cats, like bengals, Savannahs, chausies and charcals, still resemble the wild felines from which they were originally bred — Asian leopard cats, jungle cats and African wildcats, for example. They can range in size from 10 to 30 pounds or more, and their body structure, facial features and coats have shapes and markings reminiscent of leopards and other wildcats. In personality and behavior, owners say exotics are just like any domestic house cat.

Odd said she doesn’t own an exotic cat, but she’s a cat lover and has met people in Alaska who do own exotics, most of whom had no idea they weren’t allowed when they bought their kittens, she said.

“I tracked down some cats that have been here nine years, and there has not been one instance of any problems,” Odd said. “One of the game board members asked me, ‘How did all these cats get here knowing there is a law?’ The average person who read that regulation wouldn’t know they’re illegal. All it says is, ‘Any breed that’s listed’ — which would be cats — ‘that is a hybrid of a wild game animal.’ Now, who in their right mind would even consider that was their pet cat? Those people had no idea their cat was not legal here.”

Odd has spent months trying to share information about exotic cats. She started a Web site — www.savealaskacats.com — to coordinate with other exotic cat supporters in the state, involved The International Cat Association, which lists several exotic cat breeds as domestic, and co-authored a petition to the Board of Game to get the ban reversed. But it looks as though her efforts may be scratched, all because of a recommendation that the board turn down the petition to allow exotic cats in Alaska, prepared by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, that Odd says is based on incorrect information.

“Those people rely on what Fish and Game tells them about the issues,” Odd said. “But what they’ve told them about the issue are not valid arguments. It’s outright lies. But that’s all they’re going to see, except my five minutes of testimony I’m allowed to give.” Continue reading

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HEA hydro dam on hold — Existing grants not enough to cover costs of needed studies

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Forward motion has dried up on Homer Electric Association’s proposed project to install a hydroelectric dam on Grant Lake in the Kenai Mountains until an inflow of grant funds can be secured.

Brad Zubeck, project engineer with HEA, updated the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee on the status of the project Jan. 11 at the Soldotna Sports Center, followed by a similar presentation in Moose Pass on Jan. 13. The presentations were conducted after a joint meeting with the public, involved agencies and Native tribe representatives in Seward on Nov. 12.

State grant funds have been the public money paying for project development to this point, but HEA doesn’t expect to have enough grant funds left to complete work on the next phase of development, which entails completing studies and gathering data on the area to gauge what impact the project might have on fish, water resources, wildlife, plants, historic and cultural sites, and recreational uses of the area.

“We’re bringing our activities to a suspension at this time,” Zubeck said. “We still have grant funds available to us but as we look ahead we don’t have enough to fully implement the studies that we anticipate.”

Cook Inlet Region Inc. and enXco, HEA’s initial partners in Kenai Hydro, the financial organization formed to pursue the hydro projects, announced in October their intention to back out of the venture.

“Our partners took a look at the economics and said, ‘There’s not enough room for us, we have other interests.’ And so they are withdrawing,” Zubeck said.

The project, as described in the Pre-Application Document submitted to the Federal Energy Regulation Committee in Aug. 6, calls for a 4.5-megawatt hydropower plant below Grant Lake with an influx of additional water taken from nearby Falls Creek in the mountains above the Seward Highway near Moose Pass. The area is part of the watershed that feeds the headwaters of the Kenai River.

An intake tower would be built on Falls Creek to draw water into a 2,800-foot-long, 10-foot diameter tunnel penstock emptying into Grant Lake. A dam would be built at the outlet of Grant Lake to increase water storage capacity in the lake. The water would be drawn out of the lake through a steel pipe penstock to a powerhouse with two turbines, then returned to Grant Creek above the section of creek used by anadromous fish, including spawning salmon. The lake lever would vary from 10 feet above the natural elevation to 25 feet below.

“That’s a range of values that we work within for licensing purposes, so if for some reason we change our minds and say, ‘Oh, we would like to take it 15 feet higher,’ we’d have to start back over again with studies and impacts and that sort of thing,” Zubeck said.

Almost 3 ½ miles of access of roads are expected to be built, which may or may not be open to public access, depending on U.S. Forest Service input, he said. Visual impacts from the highway are expected to be minimal.

Initially, Kenai Hydro applied for permits to investigate installing hydro dams on Crescent Lake and Ptarmigan Lake, as well, but surrendered those permits in September.

“Some folks talk about industrializing the whole watershed. That’s not the case. We have one project right now that does look semiviable,” Zubeck said. Continue reading

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Bad trip — Tourism sector rebound is slow, bumpy ride

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. A RV heads into Soldotna on the Sterling Highway on Memorial Day weekend last summer. Tourism is expected to slump this year.

Redoubt Reporter

The outlook for the upcoming tourism season is dreary indeed when the best that can be said is it may not be as bad as last year.

Tina Lindgren with Bradley Reid and Associates, former executive director of the Alaska Visitors Association and Alaska Tourism Marketing Council and founding president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, lamented being the bearer of bad news during a presentation to a tourism summit held by the Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council on Jan. 13 in Kenai.

“Normally I get to go out and give good news. I feel like the nightly anchor giving bad news, and, frankly, I don’t like it,” she said.

But even when presenting doom-and-gloom forecasts, she strove to point out the silver lining, and used the information as a basis for ways the Alaska tourism industry can craft its marketing strategies to make the most of what visitors there will be this summer.

“The good news is the recession is over. It happened very quickly. Everything went to hell in a hand basket very fast. But the recovery will take much longer to come out of. The estimates are all over the place, but probably five years. It won’t all be smooth sailing straight uphill,” she said.

In the travel sector, experts are predicting a slight recovery this season, in the neighborhood of 2 percent growth, Lindgren said, but that won’t even get travel back to the rate it was at before the recession. 2011 should see even more growth; around 3.7 percent is predicted, she said, with recovery back to pre-recession levels of travel perhaps by 2013.

That’s for the country as a whole, though. Alaska is in a different boat. Unfortunately for the local tourism industry, it’s in a boat that’s still sinking.

“The climb out, while it’s under way, is slow. In Alaska, we have perhaps an even rougher road. Next year’s projections for cruise ships are expected to be down about 100,000 cruise-ship passengers, so we’re looking at coming out even slower than the rest of the country. There’s no way to make that up,” Lindgren said.

Overall, there are signs the economy is recovering and people have a little more money to travel again.

The housing sector is beginning to rebound, retail rates are heading up, the unemployment rate is decreasing and consumer confidence is increasing, Lindgren said. Usually, those trends would mean people are also spending more — including on travel and leisure — but that’s not yet the case.

“That is a major driver of tourism, whether people have money,” Lindgren said. “Normally as consumer confidence goes, so goes spending. But now we’re seeing, even if they have money, they don’t necessarily want to part with it.

“There’s been a lot said about a new normal. There’s disagreement about whether this has forever changed consumer spending and the way we look at money. People have way more savings than there used to be. People agree it has changed (spending habits) in the near term, and there’s disagreement about whether it has changed the landscape forever.” Continue reading

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Almanac: Staging a pastime — Homesteaders played at early theater

Editor’s note: Today we offer the first of a three-part series examining the early history of the performing arts on the central Kenai Peninsula. This week we look at the earliest attempts to entertain the masses. In part two, we’ll look at the establishment of the Kenai Performers and its connection to the Peninsula Dancers and Pier One Theatre in Homer. In part three, we’ll take a look at what many believe is the most important stage play in the history of peninsula performing arts, “The Ballad of Kenai.”

By Clark Fair

Photo courtesy of KPC Anthropology Department archive, originally published in The Cheechako News. A rehearsal from a 1964 performance of “Night of January 16th,” a courtroom drama by Ayn Rand. Pictured are (from left) Ted Grainge, Gail Smith (now McDowell), who also directed the play, and Lance Petersen, who played Flint, the prosecuting attorney.

Redoubt Reporter

The very idea of the nuns being pregnant was not a point that anyone involved in the event wished to publicize. After all, the show had to go on.

It was the late 1950s in Kenai, and the Homemakers Club was presenting a farce called “Seven Nuns at Las Vegas” by playwright Natalie E. White. At least two of the homemakers portraying nuns onstage — Clarice Kipp and Rose Navarre — were “in the family way,” a state unbecoming of women of a chaste religious order. Therefore, to keep the audience happy, they kept the nuns’ secret a secret.

Such were the tactics undertaken at times to keep the public — and themselves — entertained in a time when entertainment via the performing arts could be hard to come by. According to Kipp, even the club’s “passable rendition” of the play was met with great enthusiasm.

In the 1950s, there were a few other attempts at performance art: The Ninilchik Players, according to Jean Brockel, put on at least three plays in such venues as the Ninilchik American Legion Hall, the Clam Gulch Quonset-hut community center, George Denison’s Soldotna Theatre, and at least one location in Homer. Among the melodramas performed were Robert St. Clair’s “Tiger House” and Henry Robert Symonds’ “The Night Owl.”

In the mid-1960s, another south peninsula group of thespians, the Cohoe Characters, also flared briefly into life, performing two to three plays in 1964-65 before fading away. Some of the stars of these shows were Charlie and Freda Lewis and Roy Baldwin.

“I can remember going to Clam Gulch (in the ’60s) for a melodrama,” Brockel said. “Roy Baldwin was the sheriff, and it was at the Clam Gulch Center, and they had a big barrel stove at the back. And it’d be hotter ’n hell, and as you worked more toward the front seats to sit down for the play, it was colder and colder and colder.

“You had to be careful of where you sat. You’d either be too hot at the back and you couldn’t see, or you could see just fine, except your feet would freeze off if you got too close to the front.”

Still, the audience was grateful for the show.

“Everybody just hee-hawed and laughed and had a great time,” recalled Brockel. “And afterwards, we had coffee and cookies, and sat down and chatted and visited for however long, and then got in our cars and drove home. That was a whole evening. That was what you did, and there were people from that area that you didn’t otherwise see because they didn’t come to town all that often.”

Other than these occasional performances, most folks back then, Brockel said, settled for the shows put on by their children in area schools. When she first came to Kenai in 1956 to teach music at the Kenai School, she was told in no uncertain terms that she would be putting on a holiday program just prior to the December break.

“I had to do the kids’ Christmas program,” Brockel said. “And that came down from (Principal George) Fabricius: ‘You will —’ That was the word, not ‘Would you try?’ or something like that. ‘You will have a Christmas program. Everyone in town comes to the school.’”

And Fabricius was right. If there was a show, an audience filled the gymnasium or whatever venue was available.

Still, many adults craved more mature fare.

Consequently, by the mid-1960s, a little more variety began to creep into the diet of the performing-arts consumer. In 1963, Gail McDowell (formerly Smith) formed the Soldotna Players and directed two stage dramas, in 1964 and 1965.

McDowell, who had been an active thespian in high school and done some play productions in Anchorage, “missed the theater” and decided to bring her vision of the stage to her peninsula home. Her directorial debut came in the 1964 production of Ayn Rand’s “Night of January 16th,” a courtroom drama starring McDowell herself, Charlie Lewis, Don Thomas, Ted Grainge and Lance Petersen as Flint, the prosecuting attorney.

For each night’s performance, the jury was selected from members of the audience. The jury remained onstage for the entire performance and was allowed to decide the fate of the defendant — McDowell, in this case, who played a woman accused of killing her husband.

Smith was pleased that the jury found her “not guilty” each time.

The next performance was John Van Druten’s romantic comedy, “Bell, Book and Candle,” again starring McDowell, this time with Jerry Holly.

“These local people did an amazing job,” McDowell said.

Afterward, however, “Players got too busy with personal lives,” she said, and the Soldotna Players disappeared from the scene. Continue reading

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From frozen to cool — Carvers hone skills on ice sculptures

By Jenny Neyman

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Scott Hanson works on an ice sculpture of the Peninsula Winter Games mascot at the Soldotna Sports Center on Saturday.

Redoubt Reporter

Ice was on the brain at the Soldotna Sports Center on Saturday, although for some it was a more highbrow interest than for others.

For carvers Scott Hanson and John Iverson, the focus was on turning a massive slab of ice into a glittering rendition of the polar bear logo of the annual Peninsula Winter Games.

Drivers passing by on Kalifornsky Beach Road and walkers detouring off the bike path into the sports center parking lot craned to get a look at the work in progress and the already-completed ice sculptures outside the building, gleaming in the shards of light from the afternoon sun.

Dusty, on the other hand, didn’t care a lick about the big blocks of ice attracting everyone’s attention. Iverson’s chocolate Lab was instead obsessed with a mouth-sized piece of castoff ice, waiting in endless doggy obsession for someone to chuck the chunk into a snowfield.

The two trains of thought converged into a fitting sentiment for what the Peninsula Winter Games ice carvings are all about. They’re art and they’re work and they’re impressive and substantial, with Hanson and Iverson working with practiced precision to free the shape of the games’ polar bear from its frozen confines.

But, as Dusty demonstrated, ice can also be a whole lot of fun.

“Oh please throw the ice, oh please throw the ice ohpleaseohpleaseohpleaseWHOOPEE!!!!”

Fifteen blocks of ice are stationed at businesses and public facilities around Kenai and Soldotna as part of the winter games festivities this weekend. As they do every year, Rotary volunteers cut the blocks from a pond off Marathon Road in Kenai last weekend, and local carvers, as well as a team from Anchor Point, are transforming them into business logos and fanciful creations throughout the week. Hanson said he expects them to all be finished by the weekend.

Hanson and Iverson came to ice sculpting through their wood-carving backgrounds. They participated in an ice-carving contest held as part of the games in 2002. While the contest was hewn from this year’s roster of activities, in an effort to shave costs, Hanson said they hope to see it return in future years.

Hanson widens a hole in the ice.

In the meantime, at least there are still the blocks of ice on which businesses and organizations can work, compared to wood, with its own challenges and rewards.

“It’s big. You don’t usually get a chunk of wood that big,” Hanson said. “It’s kind of like carving butter. It’s water, it just goes away real fast, but you can get a lot of detail in it, too.”

With ice, it’s easy for sculptors to add on to their creations, rather than just shave away. Hanson and Iverson have competed in the Ice Sculpture World Championships held in Fairbanks, and have seen sculptors create huge, sprawling works of glittering art, all by gluing extra ice chunks onto their base.

“If something breaks off you just get some water and fuse it,” Hanson said. “In Fairbanks, you kind of work outside the block. They start with a block that’s 5-by-8 and some of them end up 16 feet tall. They’re just huge,” Hanson said. “If you get a really good fuse, it won’t break. If you get two flat surfaces to freeze (together), it’s there.” Continue reading

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Cruising in Kasilof — T-200 2010

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Science of the Seasons: Absorbing knowledge of freshwater sponges

By Dr. David Wartinbee, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of David Wartinbee. A number of sections of freshwater sponge are seen in a small collection jar. Each piece of this normally branchlike sponge is about 1 to 1 ½ inches long and ¼-inch wide. The brown-colored sponge is surrounded with its green symbiotic algae.

Several weeks back I collected a bunch of critters and bottom sediments from a stream near the Swanson River. While poking around in this collection, I found a tiny hydroptilid caddisfly that I wrote about in a previous column. After I had briefly perused the collected mass, I dumped it all into an aquarium I had set up in the lab. This week I decided to dig through the aquarium contents and look at any other smaller creatures that might be buzzing around.

When I opened the top of the aquarium, there were a number of small midge adults flying around below the light. These adults had mistakenly emerged due to the room-temperature water and the continuous light. There were enough of them that some, if they found a member of their own species, might have mated and left some eggs in the water. I decided to see if I could find any chironomid eggs.

As I looked, I saw a tiny round object that looked like a miniature Frisbee, and it looked familiar. I hadn’t seen any of these for more than 35 years, so I discounted my identification. Then I looked at some bottom sediments under high magnification and I found long, pointed spines of silicon. Again, I hadn’t seen these since I was a grad student at the University of Pittsburgh, and it just couldn’t be what I was thinking.

I was really curious now and reached into the substrate to separate out a couple of the slender masses of algae I had collected. When I put them under the dissection scope, there they were. These were freshwater sponges!

I’ll bet that most people, including a great many biologists, don’t know there are a fair number of freshwater sponges in streams and lakes throughout the world. When we think of sponges, we think of what we wash our cars with, and they all come from the oceans. It turns out that many streams and rivers here in Alaska have sponges, too. Continue reading

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Hunting for a good place to ice fish — Seclusion, quiet, challenge of reading lake signs make for perfect outing

By Steve Meyer, for the Redoubt Reporter

The fish hit my jigging spoon midway through the downstroke, doubled my rod and was gone in an instant. No matter, after 2 ½ hours of snowshoeing into the lake I had never fished before, I knew the effort was going to pay off.

Fishing has always taken second place to hunting for me. For the most part it is something to do outdoors when there isn’t anything to hunt. Except backcountry ice fishing. It so resembles hunting, it’s practically like hunting with a fishing pole.

Backcountry ice fishing requires snowshoes, a backpack or sled, good cold-weather gear, an ice auger, normal ice-fishing gear, a map and at least a compass or GPS. Picking the lake is perhaps the most difficult part. There are a wealth of lakes on the Kenai Peninsula that are not accessible by road, and a fair number of them contain rainbow trout or Arctic char, if not both. Mountain lakes may also have grayling, burbot and lake trout.

A good way to “scout” these lakes is via the Internet. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web sites have a wealth of information about many of the lakes on the Kenai Peninsula, including maps showing lake depths and formations, as well as what species can be found in them.

There are some backcountry lakes that have trails leading to them, but many do not. Those with trails will sometimes evidence other people fishing, sometimes not. The farther off the road, the less likely to run into others. When fishing a lake right off the road system, or even driving out onto the lake, it is fairly easy to see where the fishing is good. Old ice holes, remnants of campfires, snow stained with Pro-Cure, fish eggs and blood all evidence where the fish are. Not so in the backcountry. That’s one of the reasons it reminds me of hunting.

Once you find the lake, you then have to find the fish, and that takes a combination of fish knowledge, hard work and a bit of luck. I had studied maps and decided this lake would produce some big rainbows and possibly big Arctic char. But it took two tries to get to it. I figured 3 ½ miles in from the road is normally a couple hours breaking trail on snowshoes with a backpack. I was wrong.

I got a late start the first time I tried to find it and spent four hours going through terrain much rougher then I had anticipated. By the time I was close it was nearly dark, and having never had much luck for trout in the dark, I turned back. The next attempt I took a different route that was much less daunting and arrived at the lakeshore in 2 ½ hours. A fresh blanket of snow covered the lake with no evidence of another person in sight. Continue reading

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Hot topic — Exhibit invites differing views on climate change

By Jenny Neyman

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Jane and Chris Haigh consider Steve Schoonmaker’s multimedia installation “Too Big to Fail,” including poetry and a found-object mobile. The piece is part of “The Art and Science of Climate Change” at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. At left is “Hot Spots” by Shyan Ely.

Redoubt Reporter

In a topic as hot as climate change, much could be said, shouted, avowed or denied. The mere mention of it tends to evoke visceral reactions, vehemently held beliefs along with confusion, fear and frustration alike, on all sides of the issue.

In short, it’s a perfect venue for college students’ attention, to practice how they research, react, reason independently and express what they find. The result of that exploration — in visual, aural and written form — is on display at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, in an exhibit titled “The Art and Science of Climate Change.”

The project was service-learning program involving about 70 students in five college classes and disciplines of learning. All participating students were asked to research climate change, conceptualize an element of the issue they wanted to focus on and bring that focus to life in the venue of the discipline they were studying.

Celia Anderson, art department chair at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus, had her students create fabric and three-dimensional art pieces depicting their reaction to their study on climate change. KPC’s Cheryl Siemers had her English students journal and write reflection papers, and professor Paula Martin’s media and society class created PowerPoint presentations on the topic. A class from Alaska Christian College, next door to KPC, researched and wrote, as well, and collaborated to create a mobile and slide show of photography depicting how climate change is affecting students’ home villages throughout the state.

“All students were asked to research climate change. They weren’t told how to feel about it, they were just asked to explore the issue and how it affects Alaska,” Anderson said. “The whole point of this exhibit is to start a discussion about climate change in Alaska. We’re not telling people how to feel, we just want people to talk about it.”

Detail from “Too Big Too Fail.”

The exhibit itself is structured to share students’ perspectives and invite others. Original poetry adorns a gallery wall, fiber pieces include artist statements explaining the thought processes behind their creations and what they mean them to express. Written statements come from research projects, and there’s a section where gallery visitors can write their thoughts on the matter and add them to an opinion wall — anonymously or named, if they prefer.

As a result, the exhibit includes a range of perspectives on climate change.

“It’s everything. It’s not just in the fiber pieces, and that’s a whole range of perspectives — but in the writing it talks about the myth of climate change. And there’s some who think it’s real but people aren’t to blame. There’s just an incredible range of opinions, and that’s healthy,” Anderson said.

The project was funded in part through a service-learning grant from the borough through the Career and Community Engagement Center at KPC, and the University of Alaska Center for Community Engagement and Learning. Classes focused on it throughout fall semester. It’s presented at the visitors center in multimedia form, with technological displays, digital slide shows and artwork. Continue reading

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Art Works: Less rare, but worth a look — ‘Rarefied Light’ dynamic changes, retains some standout shots

By Zirrus VanDevere, for the Redoubt Reporter

“Fish Rack Akiak,” by Kevin G. Smith, is part of the annual statewide juried photography show “Rarefied Light,” on display at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus.

For years I’ve looked to the annual, statewide, juried exhibit “Rarified Light” for novel uses of photography and exciting and unique pieces that really make me think.

I am beginning to be trained into different expectations, as it seems to be turning into more of the type of juried photography exhibits that one can find multiple examples of across the state. I am unsure if this shift has more to do with choices of jurors, tendencies among the entering artists or is simply just a sign of the times.

“Rarified Light” is on exhibit at the Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus gallery this month and, while it is certainly worth the trip for those not already attending, overall, this year’s exhibition just does not have the power or innovation it once held.

There are some examples of excellence, and the best of show by our once-local artist Jay Barrett is one of them. It’s an interesting portrait of eagles either covered in oil or maybe just wet, standing in a sort of macabre scene that makes me think of important businessmen huddled in a bathhouse, strangely aware that their nakedness is somehow wrong. Continue reading

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Plugged In: Focus on cultural learning in schools

By Joseph Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

What happens when you add several hundred students from five Kenai Peninsula schools, including three schools off the road system, several dozen new digital cameras, and high-end computers and large-format photo printers for each school? We’ll soon see.

Since Marshall McLuhan’s pivotal cultural insights in the 1960s and the rise of television news programs, it’s become increasingly evident that cultures across the world are increasingly oriented toward more visual forms of communication that combine both visual imagery and information-rich text.

Whether we like it or not, the printed word is no longer inherently paramount as technological progress makes video and still photography easier and more accessible to everyone. In fact, digital videos and photographs now comprise about 98 percent of all Internet bandwidth usage.  Close to 400 billion (!) digital photographs were taken in the United States alone last year.

These cultural developments make sense at a fundamental level because, neurologically, the human brain seems best adapted to processing visual imagery and quickly recognizing patterns. As just one example, pilots maneuvering in instrument flight rules conditions rely upon instruments like a turn and bank indicator or human/system interface that have directly visual displays, not text readouts.

Cameras in schools

Recognizing these worldwide cultural changes, the Soldotna Rotary Club, in cooperation with the Homer Downtown Rotary Club, a Rotary club in Taipei, Taiwan, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, has just received a $30,500 Rotary Foundation matching funds grant to provide extensive photo, video and computer equipment to Nanwalek, Seldovia, Homer High, McNeil Canyon and Port Graham schools. Soldotna Rotarians will set up and calibrate the equipment, while providing technical support and training for school personnel.

Major local contributors include the Homer Foundation and Homer Rotarian Steve Yoshida, Dr. Terese Kashi, Soldotna Rotarian Charles Weimer and First National Bank Alaska, Homer Downtown Rotary Club and Soldotna Rotarian Chuck Cook.

KPBSD Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater said that he is thrilled that this major grant has been approved and views the addition of the camera equipment as an excellent way to help meet the district’s goal of improving student learning opportunities through the use of technology.

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Save the whales. Save the economy. Can we do both?

By Jenny Neyman

Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Redoubt Reporter

The Cook Inlet region is home to the largest congregation of Alaska’s population and supports the many and myriad economic uses that population has developed, and would like to develop, in and around the waterway — shipping, tourism, oil and gas industry activity, transportation, mineral extraction, discharge of effluents, fishing and more.

The inlet also is home to a population of beluga whales that has dwindled to the point of being listed under the Endangered Species Act in October 2008 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service. The endangered listing and subsequent designation of critical habitat encompassing much of Cook Inlet puts in place a level of protection for the whales, so that activity in the inlet won’t harm the existing population or inhibit their recovery.

At the same time, there’s debate over whether that protection is necessary, and concern that it might restrict, if not cripple, economic activity in the inlet. As public meetings are held, a federal comment period is open and the state decides whether it will sue to block the endangered listing and critical habitat designation, that’s the central question stirring up debate — can the whales be saved without endangering the economy?

Platform A in Cook Inlet, photo courtesy of XTO Energy

Declining numbers

No one knows for sure how many belugas used to be in Cook Inlet, but it’s clear that there are a lot less now than there used to be. Based on limited surveys done by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, anecdotal references and traditional knowledge from Native beluga hunters, NMFS estimates there were 1,000 to 1,300 belugas in the 1970s. By the time NMFS began comprehensive, systematic aerial surveys for belugas throughout the inlet in 1993, the number was estimated at 653. From just 1994 to 1998 the population decreased by about 50 percent to 347 whales.

NMFS attributes the rapid decline to an increase in Native beluga hunting.

“There has been traditional harvest by subsistence users of Cool Inlet belugas for as long back as anybody cares to go,” said Brad Smith, a field office supervisor for the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act with NMFS, at a presentation Thursday in Kenai.

Before the 1990s, subsistence hunters took a few belugas a year. But during the 1980s and 1990s, more people moved to Southcentral from Native villages in outlying Alaska and took up beluga harvest, Smith said.

“I think they gradually became aware that there were beluga whales available. The harvest levels increased drastically by the early ’90s,” he said.

Subsistence harvest of inlet belugas was regulated in 1998, and just five whales were taken between 1999 and 2008. In 2000, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to have the whales listed as endangered, but at the time NMFS did not do so because it believed the whale population would rebound at a rate of 2 percent to 6 percent a year once the pressure of hunting was relieved.

That hasn’t happened. The current NMFS analysis is that there’s only a 5 percent probability that the whales’ population is growing at a rate of above 2 percent per year, and a 62 percent or more probability that the population will decline further.

“We expected during that time to see an uptick and see a recovery in the numbers. Unfortunately, we did not,” Smith said. “Subsequent to that we received an additional petition recommending listing under the Endangered Species Act.”

NMFS designed various models to predict the likelihood of inlet beluga whale extinction. They include various factors and variables, such as an updated 2008 population estimate; whales’ biological characteristics — lifespan, age of reproductive maturity, etc.; and possible causes of mortality — predation, mostly by killer whales, and strandings or other unusual mortality events. The scenario NMFS considers to be the most realistic model accounts for an average of one mortality a year due to predation and a 5 percent annual chance of an unusual mortality event (like strandings, ice entrapment or ship strikes) that kills 20 percent of the population. That model predicts a 1 percent chance of extinction in 50 years, 26 percent probability of extinction in 100 years, 70 percent probability of extinction in 300 years and 80 percent probability that the population is declining.

NMFS listed the whales as endangered in October 2008. In December 2010 about 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet were designated as critical habitat for the belugas. The comment period on the proposed critical habitat has recently been extended to March 3.

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