Local News

Looking back: The top Sitka headlines in 2011

The rebirth of a campus.

The loss of prominent members of the community.

And persistent questions about everything from the aftermath of a 2010 tragedy to how we use our natural resources.

Those were some of the things that made news this year. Today, we take a look back.

Coast Guard charges survivor
At the end of September, the U.S. Coast Guard brought charges against Lt. Lance Leone, the sole survivor of a 2010 helicopter crash in which three people from Air Station Sitka died.

Lt. Lance Leone (USCG photo)

Leone was charged with the deaths of two of the crewmen on board, as well as the loss of the helicopter and dereliction of duty. The evidence against him was heard in Juneau in December. Friends showed up to support Leone, and his wife told KTOO’s Matt Miller that she worries about the precedent the charges could set.

“Doesn’t bode well, I think, to other pilots in the Coast Guard to say that if you survive an accident, no matter what you did or didn’t do, watch out,” Ellen Leone said. “Because they might come after you.”

As of deadline for this story, the Coast Guard is still weighing whether to recommend a court martial against Leone, or handle the matter internally.

Electricity woes continue

The Green Lake dam, pictured here in a file photo, is one of two hydro projects operated by the City of Sitka. The city has been coping with low lake levels and increasing demand for electricity.

Sitka is running short of hydropower. Demand is exceeding the city’s ability to generate electricity from two lakes. In the meantime, the city is burning diesel fuel to provide additional power. And while the city works to raise a dam at Blue Lake, Sitkans have been urged to save electricity.

The calls for conservation have been met with skepticism from some residents, including some who spoke to Assembly member Phyllis Hackett during a party in September.

“Two people in the group turned to me and said ‘Is that really true? Is it really a problem?’” Hackett said during an Assembly meeting. “And I was a little shocked by that, because I think every meeting we sit up here, and something comes up about energy, and we say ‘It is really a problem.’ It’s the biggest problem we’re facing right now, and it’s the responsibility of every resident to help us with this because it affects every single one of us individually.”

The rebirth of a campus
Hundreds of people took time this year to restore the campus of Sheldon Jackson College.

The college closed in 2007, but in January, its trustees gave the core campus to the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. After more than 18,000 hours of volunteer work, and $400,000 in donations this year, the boards are off the windows, the lights are back on, and in June, the place was once again teeming with students. So much so that Roger Schmidt, the camp’s executive director, could barely contain his excitement on the first day of camp.

Middle school students find their way on the newly restored Sheldon Jackson Campus, now owned by the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, in this June file photo. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

“One spot you’ve got three kids playing their instruments in this gazebo,” Schmidt said in June. “I go up a little further there’s a kid taking pictures of pansies that a volunteer put in this flower bed, and then you’ve got two girls painting on the other lawn, and camp hasn’t even started. This is just too much. It’s just great.”

The deterioration of the historic campus has stopped, and while there’s a lot of work ahead for the camp and its 19 buildings, there’s a lot of optimism among camp supporters that anything is possible in the year ahead.

Remembering notable Sitkans

Ben Grussendorf

Veteran legislator Ben Grussendorf died in June at age 69. He spent 20 years in the state legislature including as Speaker of the House, was mayor of Sitka from 1975 until 79, and had served on the Board of Game.

Karen Grussendorf said her husband’s sense of humor served him well among legislators who were guiding a relatively young state.

“The average age was definitely under 40, which is not the case anymore,” she said. “They were young people looking for the future of the state.”

Dick Eliason

Ben Grussendorf’s loss was preceded by the death of Dick Eliason, a Sitka Republican who spent time in both the state House and state Senate, including service as Senate president. His most notable act might be passage of a 1989 law that banned fish farms in Alaska. But his legacy was one of bipartisanship, says Jim Duncan, who served with Eliason in the Legislature.

“He was a Republican, I was a Democrat. We had a number of Democrats who served with him in that coalition,” Duncan said. “The reason we voted for him for president was because we trusted him. We felt he was fair. He was not always with us on every issue, but he was someone who could listen to you and be reasoned with.”

Senator Dick Eliason was 85 years old when he died in April.

In February, Sitka said goodbye to Roy Bailey. Bailey had served on the school board and the Historic Preservation Commission. But his passing reminded us of something that happened to him when he was serving in World War II. A lesson, perhaps, in patience and justice.

Roy Bailey

Bailey’s squad came under attack near the French-German border in 1945. And Army doctors didn’t believe Bailey’s story that, as a Tlingit, he was the only survivor of an attack in which all the white members of his squad died. The Army concluded his injuries were either accidental or self-inflicted, and discharged him without acknowledging his service in combat. He was denied the Purple Heart he had earned.

His widow, Doris, said he was never bitter about it – he just wasn’t that kind of person.

“But he was hurt, deeply hurt and offended, at not being believed,” Doris Bailey said of her husband. “And so many years had passed that he had become resigned to the whole thing, and he just simply didn’t talk about it. Ever.”

In 1995, that changed, when then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen flew to Alaska and presented Bailey with the medals he’d earned. Doris Bailey says after that acknowledgment, her husband became active in the VFW, talked more about his experiences, and even got in better touch with his Tlingit heritage.

Community celebrations
A brand-new totem pole marked the close of a yearlong centennial celebration for Sitka National Historical Park.

Hundreds pulled ropes to raise the new totem pole at Sitka National Historical Park. It's Tlingit name, Wooch jin dul shat Kooteeya, means "holding hands." (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

It depicts eagles and ravens and salmon, but also a Russian plaque, and a buffalo head – the symbol of the National Park.

“This artform has been evolving since the beginning,” said master carver Tommy Joseph, the pole’s designer. “This is another part of that. It’s always been evolving. It’s not a dead, stagnant art form. It’s part of our culture that’s alive and going forward.”

A Sitka fisherman was named Highliner of the year by National Fisherman magazine. Dan Falvey shares the award with fishermen in Cordova and San Francisco. The honor is not necessarily about amount of fish anyone lands. Instead, the magazine’s editors describe the trio as “bona fide innovators and men of action, each in his own way.” Falvey told KCAW he wasn’t sure why he was chosen.

Dan Falvey

“I got into fishing because I was up in Alaska on a summer adventure and ran out of money in Sitka. Hopping on a fishing boat seemed like the best thing to do,” he said. “After a while on the boat, I got good enough at my duties on deck that I could actually look around and see what an amazing place Alaska is, and what a unique perspective you have as a fisherman.”

Falvey is the fourth Sitka fisherman to win the award.

Redoubt selection

Sealaska Corporation’s selection of 11 acres of land around Redoubt Falls moved forward this year, which raised concerns from those who gather subsistence sockeye, and from environmentalists, like Andrew Thoms, of the Sitka Conservation Society.

Eleven acres around Redoubt Falls are part of a selection Sealaska Corp. made in the 1970s. The process moved forward slightly in 2011. (File photo)

“Redoubt Lake is one of the most important resources on the Tongass for Sitkans. This is where families go to catch their sockeye and fill their freezer,” Thoms said. “To take such a critical place and move it from public ownership to private ownership sets a huge precedent and would be terrible for the community.”

Jaeleen Araujo, vice president and general counsel for Sealaska, says the regional Native corporation wants to continue to allow public access to Redoubt.

“Our intention is to ensure that there’s no difference from the current use at the site,” she said at an Assembly meeting. “We’ll do everything within our power to make sure that happens, as long as the site is not negatively impacted.”

Earlier this week, Mayor Cheryl Westover said the city, Sealaska, the U.S. Forest Service, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and other agencies would be sitting down to hammer out an agreement on the issue. Such an agreement would have to go before the entire Sitka Assembly for approval.

The natural world
Many Sitkans were up all night in March – and a few even left their homes – when an earthquake and devastating tsunami in Japan set off alerts here and across the Pacific rim. The wave that showed up was minor, and Sitka and the rest of Alaska escaped unscathed. And, of course, some of us were jolted, if only for a few seconds, by a small earthquake that rattled Sitka in November.

There were autumn storms that sank boats in Eliason Harbor, and wind knocked over a huge swath of old-growth forest along Beaver Lake trail.

Old-growth trees blew down across the Beaver Lake trail, which is closed until crews can begin removing debris this summer. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Sitka physician Bob Hunter and his son Matt, a physics and math teacher at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, were hiking around Beaver Lake when it happened. Bob Hunter says it became windy and they heard big trees snap.

“We had stopped because there was a branch down on the trail, and it made it hard for the dog to get across. That stopped us,” Hunter said. “And we thought, “Wow, that’s fascinating. We’ll let this happen and then go down and investigate.” And then two trees, closer, big trees up on the hillside, snapped. And I yelled ‘Retreat!’”

Crews will start to clear debris on the Beaver Lake trail in early summer. Until then, the trail is closed.

Cleanup work is ongoing in Sitka’s Whiting Harbor, where volunteers and state officials are trying to eliminate an invasive species called Didemnum vexillum, or D.vex for short. The sea squirt blankets everything in its path, choking out life, and has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to eliminate in other states. Sitka is the first place it’s been discovered in Alaska.

What next?
Last year at this time, many of the things we’ve just mentioned were unimaginable. Some of those things ended up as amazing discoveries. Others as terrible shocks. And most of them somewhere in between.

Raven Radio has been with you for 30 new years. And while we can’t say with certainty what we’ll be talking about next year at this time, we, like you, hope for the best.

 

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