December 22, 2011 |

Chilkat Valley year in review

An assembly recall campaign and a new effort targeting underage drinking punctuated the year 2011 in the Chilkat Valley News. Extreme weather and some unusual wildlife encounters delivered doses of excitement.

The local economy stayed afloat, buoyed by a strong commercial fishing season, increased visitation by foreigners, construction projects and a $13 million distribution by village Native corporation Klukwan, Inc.

Government figures showed that Haines Borough population, school enrollment and municipal tax income held roughly to levels of previous years, helping keep budgets from busting.

Assembly members wrestled with chronic issues surrounding upkeep of aging infrastructure and helicopter skiing management, but were spared others by state and federal contributions.

At year’s end, school officials warned of a potential funding shortfall due to discontinuation of federal timber relief funds in 2012, but with the State of Alaska enjoying high oil prices and a sizeable budget surplus, the issue appeared political, not economic.

The year’s biggest political change came to the mayor’s office. By a 47-vote margin, challenger Stephanie Scott toppled incumbent Jan Hill, pledging increased transparency and public access, while voicing fiscally conservative themes.

"Nobody has presented the business case for a community recreation center, and until I see that business case, I am leery of the concept, because I know that our borough budget has risen astronomically in the last 10 years," candidate Scott said.

Interest in a recreation facility reached a high point in 2011, as the borough launched a study to determine use and costs of refurbishing the former elementary school into a fitness center on Main Street.

"What goes on in a center of a town is indicative of what goes on in that town," said recreation advocate Joe Parnell, speaking at a programming meeting in January. In May, more than 70 percent of residents responding to a scientific survey supported the renovation.

But progress on the study stopped after borough facilities director Brad Maynard left town, and in mid-July, when assemblyman Steve Vick sought to put the center question to voters on the fall ballot, other members said the building had languished too long and pushed for demolition.

"It’s been over a year and I haven’t seen any concrete ideas or plans come forward," said assemblywoman Joanne Waterman.The assembly formalized its decision in September, over objections of some old-timers who said the building was more sound than other borough structures: Its roof didn’t leak.

Bills came due on other aging, borough facilities – including the Chilkat Center, and the Port Chilkoot and Lutak docks. By year’s end, the borough was weighing a $650,000 "minimal" repair at the arts center and forming a "port development steering committee." Replacing the Port Chilkoot Dock pier became an issue when an April study found 97 percent of its pilings rotten.

Some leaders cited the maintenance bills and potential lost property tax revenues in opposing borough spending to save the $450,000 pullouts at Picture Point. Jerry Erny, who later ran for borough assembly, called the project "Picture Pork." "Who gets to make up the difference with all these monies?" Erny asked.

Opposition led to a meeting of "Friends of Picture Point" in May, and the issue was largely decided in August, when the federal government appropriated $500,000 for the property under its scenic highway program.

The long road to revitalizing Main Street, a borough goal, started in January with regular meetings of downtown business owners. The group promoted local shopping, inventoried visitor amenities, and compiled lists of needed improvements on borough property – before biting at bigger issues, including overhead power lines and commercial trailers.

Setbacks included a March decision by Gross Alaska to sell its historic theater building on Main and an order by the state of Alaska to remove signs and benches from its right-of-way on Main, but the group’s effort seemed to raise awareness.

By summer’s end, apple trees had been planted along Main, the Oleruds had rebuilt their storefront, and a new mural brightened the top of the Gateway Building. In recent weeks the group has advocated for a "town square" near Third and Main, an idea garnering support from borough leaders.

The assembly recall came at the end of a legal battle by former assembly candidate Karen Hess to prove that opponent’s Greg Goodman prior residence in Anchorage disqualified him as a candidate at the time of his election to the assembly. Hess won the suit, effectively dumping Goodman from office, then joined 10 others seeking appointment to the seat. When the assembly deadlocked and failed to make the appointment, as required, the recall was born.

Voters, however, weren’t convinced that inaction warranted removal from office. They soundly defeated the measure and elected assembly candidates who opposed it.

Decisions about heli-skiing extended for months. A mayor-appointed group of operators and critics worked for weeks without reaching agreement on new tour levels. Finally, member Rob Goldberg penciled in 2,600 skier-days, up from 1,200 approved in January 2010.

Assemblyman Jerry Lapp said the industry was over-regulated. "I think it’s a bunch of young guys having fun, and they’re making a business out of it." On a 5-1 vote in March, the assembly approved the increase, as well as a permit for a third heli-skiing company.

In February, the assembly also approved a contested permit for Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA), a company that had violated its borough permit by exceeding its allotted skier days in 2010. SEABA, which also challenged the borough’s authority to regulate the industry, appeared headed for another battle at year’s end, planning use as a heliport a 26 Mile site. Residents there have staunchly opposed previous proposals to use the site.

Other borough actions making news included rejecting a proposal to allow ATVs on local streets, increasing freight rates at the Lutak Dock, granting permanent permits to several commercial trailers in the downtown core, and approving $80,000 for new signs.

Business news in 2011 included a resurgent Haines Chamber of Commerce, which revived shop-at-home efforts and took up issues including dock fees, borough facilities and solid waste management. "We want to have a strong, cooperative relationship with the borough," said Ned Rozbicki, who became group president in January.

Business bright spots included a housing permit expected to make it easier for residents to work at the Kensington mine and record prices for chum and pink salmon, that jacked up commercial fishing incomes despite declines in wild sockeye numbers.

In tourism, Tanya Carlson became the borough’s director, the village of Klukwan launched a second, fast ferry service in Lynn Canal, and the borough opened its restroom and parking area. Increased numbers of Canadian and overseas visitors helped make the season passable for businesses that rely on independent travelers.

Industry rough spots included a blow-up over use of the dock by independent operators, and an effort by some residents to change a 25-year-old arrangement that funds tourism promotion efforts with a 1 percent borough sales tax.

School news included raises for staff, the start of Sunday hours at the gym and a discussion of how to keep successful students in class after they meet graduation requirements. The district also launched an effort to track graduate success. Glacier Bear wrestler Jimmy Thomsen won a regional crown, a group of students trekked in Ecuador, and senior Blake Hamilton earned an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy.

Destructive winds that came in January and December sandwiched 12 months of see-sawing weather in the valley. Low snowfall left Alcan 200 racers on miles of exposed pavement and cancelled the snowmachine Poker Ride, while a deep freeze blocked up fire hydrants and undermined building foundations. A cool spring turned into the third driest summer on record, but August was twice as wet as average.November’s 11 feet of snow in town almost doubled the previous record for the month.

Unusual beachings – of a mud shark, a juvenile orca, and thousands of glowing, neon lampfish – were among wildlife stories making news in 2011. "They flash blue at night, or if you catch one," Lutak resident Richard Buck said of the February lampfish event. Biologists estimated 10 million eulachon returned to Chilkoot River in May, and a spiraling squirrel population bedeviled homeowners. Too-close encounters with brown bears continued downtown at along the Chilkoot, where in August state biologists removed a Pixie lure snagged in a cub’s snout.

Community milestones in 2011 included removal of every pay phone in the valley, opening of the Chilkoot Estates subdivision and the Lapp family’s departure from 33 Mile, after 33 years of flipping burgers. Fair director Kelly Hostetler and Haines Dolphins coach Steve Vick retired, leaving legacies of achievement.

Obituaries of residents and former residents reported in 2011 were those of Nora Clare Keeling, Dennis Miles, Barbara Lewis, Rosalyn Francis Woods, Francis M. Bromagen, Don McQueen, Oliver Bender, Roger Potter, Helen Burrows, Ellen Borders, Richard Warren, Ingeborg Olsson, Hans Hebert, Bill Armour, Robert E. Lee, Richard Hart, Beverly Craig, Bill Aronson, Michael Truax, Erich von Stauffenberg, Norm Blank, Carl Stoddard, Jonathan Graham, Vic Palmer, Kevery Strunk, Joe Leivermann, Pete Lapham, Dale Carlson, Larry Albecker, Jeremy Stearns, Denise Baker, John "Stubby" Thompson, Dick Comerford, Carlyle Stuart, Roberta Lane, Howard Phillips, Linda Anderson, Edith Jacquot, Glenn Englund, Everett Davidson, Walter Burkhardt, Andy Hlavacek, Arlene Jackson, Jim Cox, Danny Davis, O.D. Smith and Bobbie Satterwhite

The year brought statewide awards for high school English teacher Rene Martin, Haines Arts Council president Tom Heywood and paramedic Julie Anderson. A Coast Guard chopper crew, mostly blinded by snow, plucked hiker Keith Hutchins from a cliffside 2,500 up Mount Ripinsky. In a story published in January, resident Ann Myren dangled a skate blade to lift husband Tim McDonough from a hole in the ice at Chilkoot Lake.