Wednesday, November 28, 2012

High pressure system steals winter from snow lovers

Photo by Zaz Hollander
The sort-of snowy road to Mountain Streams B & B 

Got snow? Nope. In fact, we've got so little snow that snowplow drivers are sitting idle, snowmachines are sitting in the garage and homeowners are sweating the specter of frozen pipes brought on by low snow insulation. Even a big gala opening for the Mat-Su Borough's new Nordic Center at Government Peak is on temporary hold - no snow, no nordic skiing. 

What gives, Mother Nature? 

Two simple words, meteorologist Dan Peterson responds when asked: High pressure. 

"It always blocks out the lows. All the way through Tuesday," Peterson says. He's polite but sounds like he's tolerating these questions until he can get back to his real job as a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Anchorage. 

How many times can you tell somebody why it's not snowing? It's weather. It happens. 

But I get excited. He said through Tuesday! Does that mean we're getting snow on Tuesday?? 

Calm down, kid. Peterson says that's just the extent the National Weather Service forecasts into the future. 

OK, so this year feels pretty unusual. When was the last year we had so little snow this far into what Alaskans consider winter? 

Peterson thinks on that for a minute. He goes to the data. 1995. There was less than an inch of snow on the ground at this time of year. That's at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, where the Weather Service measures such things. This year, there's 2 inches at the airport.

"It's not even close," he says.

It's also not enough for plow trucks to get to work, snowmachiners to get to play or pipes to get cozied up in a layer of white. 

And what kind of winter postpones the inaugural"Skiapaloosa"? That's the Government Peak Nordic Center Ribbon Cutting Ceremony, featuring a Skate Clinic, races, Moonlight Ski Tour and Junior Nordic Social. Watch the Mat-Su Ski Club Web site for more information. 

Meanwhile, you can check Government Peak snow levels - or lack thereof - via the new weather station at Mountain Streams B & B, the lodge owned by Hatcher Pass nordic ski patriarch Ed Strabel and his wife, Glynn, at the base of Government Peak and just down the road from the new center. 

-- Zaz Hollander

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Mat-Su delegation holds key positions in Legislature

Photo from LobbyComply, a blog of
State and Federal Communications Inc.
The dust has settled and, with the makeup of the Alaska House and Senate finalized, it looks like Mat-Su is in a fairly good position.

Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, is the Senate President; a job former SPs have said means doing a lot of handholding. But the Senate President also steers the action in the Senate and appoints members to committees, such as the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, which ultimately hammers out the state budget.

In a press availability following the announcement of new leadership positions, Huggins said he plans to focus on cutting state spending, increasing oil production (likely by working with Gov. Sean Parnell on his plan to cut oil taxes) and bring affordable energy to the state’s users.

Newly elected Sen. Mike Dunleavy chairs the Labor and Commerce Committee in the Senate. Dunleavy is also a member of the TAPS Throughput Decline Committee and is a member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Mat-Su was also favored in the House. Rep. Bill Stoltze, a Republican who represents Chugiak and Butte, as well as a few other parts of Mat-Su, remains co-chair of the House Finance Committee, along with Republican Rep. Alan Austerman of Kodiak. Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, is a member of that committee.

Also in the house, Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, chairs the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Eric Feige, R-Chickaloon, co-chairs the House Resources Committee with Rep. Dan Saddler, R-JBER/Eagle River and Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, chairs the House Education Committee. Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, was chosen as chair of the Economic Development, Trade and Tourism Special Committee in the House.

In case our readers have forgotten, Feige, a pilot and bed-and-breakfast operator, is married to Corri Feige, the former spokeswoman for Evergreen Resources, a company that wanted to drill for shallow natural gas in Mat-Su. She has since been project manager for a few other resource-based companies.

Gattis was elected to the Mat-Su School Board in 2010. She favors school vouchers, backs equal time in the classroom for creationism and evolution and is open to the idea of regional schools for rural areas of the state, according to a Zaz Hollander story in the Frontiersman about her appointment to the Education Committee. Gattis said she plans to resign from the School Board in order to serve in the Legislature. Her campaign manager, Erick Cordero, is School Board vice-president. He’ll be heading to Juneau with Gattis as a legislative aide but plans to stay on the school board. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Mat Maid purchase mooving slowly

The Alaskana Bookstore
Photos by Zaz Hollander
Since 2008 or so, the City of Palmer has been trying to buy up the checkerboard of properties that make up the Matanuska Maid block. Voters two years ago very narrowly OK’d the city spending up to $3 million in a bond to buy the properties. 

Where do things stand today?

Not too far along, given the pollutants in the ground at as-yet unknown levels. Oh, also the fires that consumed first one warehouse, then the other on the 9-acre site. And apparently too-low offers on six of seven parcels.

As community development director Sandra Garley tells it, the city had appraisals done on all seven properties that make up the site. Seven property owners received offers. 

Only one property - the circa-1935 building that houses the Alaskana Bookstore at 564 S. Denali St. - is in the purchase loop. The city executed an agreement there that allows officials onto the property to start doing environmental studies. Even that is just a $5,000 “binder” as Garley calls it, to get a local environmental engineer on site to look at contamination from past uses.

“One thing the council said very clearly when we started the process: ‘We want to know before we buy anything, what is the environmental liability?’” Garley said. 

We’re not talking about manure here - no cows. But the original colony garage occupied the property, as did a powerhouse and two warehouses, both now lost to fire. That’s left pesticides and fertilizers, oils from the garage. Some, like oil and gas, tend to evaporate when exposed, Garley said. But chemicals in pesticides and fertilizers linger - it’s just not clear in what amount.

Anybody who buys contaminated property is liable to clean it up under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations, though the original owner also remains liable. 

The city got a $70,000 Brownfields grant from EPA. The agency uses the money to drill holes and sample for contamination. Before they enter any property, the city has to get permission, a la Alaskana Bookstore. 

The agency will wait and do sampling on the properties as a group, rather than come up from Seattle to do each site, Garley said.  

Meanwhile, city officials are still working on those six other parcels. The biggest and most expensive, at eight acres, is owned by the state Department of Natural Resources through the Agricultural Revolving Loan Fund. The city hopes to do a land swap, Garley said. That hasn’t happened yet. The powerhouse parcel is owned by the Palmer Arts Council. Jeff Johnson owns the parcel with mini-storage warehouses. Attorney Bill Ingaldson owns the warehouse property. 

“We’re proceeding slowly which can be frustrating to the property owners but we’re being careful because it’s a huge expense to the city,” Garley said. “There’s an upside but there are some downsides too.” 

She expects a report to the city council this month or next. 

-- Zaz Hollander

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Pair of juvenile reindeer escape for mini-migration

Photo by Rindi White
A reindeer grazes at the Williams Reindeer
Farm in October.

Caribou are on the move around Alaska and, this week, a pair of domesticated reindeer that had been recently relocated to a home off Trunk Road staged their own little mini-migration.

But these little deer weren’t looking for winter browse; the pair of 6-month-old reindeer wanted to find their herd. 

Williams Reindeer Farm manager Denise Hardy (she’s a Williams by birth, a Hardy by marriage) said the pair were two of nine weaned reindeer sold to families in Fairbanks, Southcentral and the Kenai Peninsula for 4Hers to raise and tame.

They are generally hauled to their new homes in August but another project kept the young reindeer at the farm until this week. On Monday the Trunk Road family took their pair of bucks home. On Tuesday they escaped.

So while many were awaiting election updates, Hardy and her crew were driving through neighborhoods looking for the reindeer. She said the pair apparently got split up after making their escape. One made it all the way to Sears on the Seward-Meridian Parkway before returning to his new family’s yard. The other headed south to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center and the Parks Highway.

“We kept getting calls from people, that there’s a reindeer running down the new Trunk Road, or there’s a reindeer near the hospital,” Hardy said.

She said a Mat-Su Borough Animal Care and Regulation officer successfully roped that deer and brought it safely back to its new family, but not before the deer had crossed Parks Highway a few times.

Hardy said she was amazed that the other reindeer made it back to its new owner’s yard after its little trek to Sears.

“He hadn’t even been there 24 hours and he still managed to get back there,” she said.

“They are domesticated deer. They were born on our farm and they’ve always been around other animals on the farm. We hoped that they would find a farm and just hang out there,” she said.

Reindeer occasionally get out on the farm, Hardy said. But being herd animals, they don’t venture far.

“They run around the fence and try to figure out how to get back in. When these poor little guys were transported to a whole new area, they were just trying to get back to their herd,” she said.

The pair of bucks made it back home safely – the one that traveled to Sears was skittish but eventually boarded a trailer that Ernie, a friendly 7-year-old neutered male reindeer from the younger bucks’ herd, was in. Hardy had brought the elder deer along to help calm and lure the juveniles – a strategy that paid off.

Hardy said the pair are adjusting to their new home in the trailer, with Ernie’s company for now. Soon they’ll be learning how to walk on a halter with their new owners and, by next summer, will likely be trotting around a show ring at the Alaska State Fair. Raising and showing reindeer is becoming more popular, Hardy said. Four were at the fair this year; three from the Williams farm and one from another reindeer farm. With nine being groomed for the fair next year, chances are competition is going to be tough.

In related news, the Reindeer Farm held its second round of Halloween Fun events this year, with a hay bale maze, haunted barn, country hoe-down, pony rides, pumpkin patch and more. People from all over the area descended on the farm each Saturday in October for fall fun. Hardy said a Christmas celebration is planned as well, with hay rides, singing, tours of the reindeer herd and visits with Santa. It's scheduled for Dec. 21 through 24. For more information about the event, check out the farm's events page.

-- Rindi White