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Ferry system chief diagnosed with cancer
JUNEAU - The head of the state ferry system has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and plans to step down from his job Friday.
Tom Briggs said he will have surgery in Missoula, Mont., and spend time with family, but he plans to return to Alaska.
"He wants to be able to concentrate on getting better," state Department of Transportation spokesman John Manly said Wednesday.
Briggs is credited with helping form Southeast's Inter-Island Ferry Authority, which operates the vessel Prince of Wales between Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island in the southern part of the Panhandle.
Manly said the department is reviewing applicants for the $91,000-a-year position. He said ferry system General Manager John Falvey will be in charge of the Alaska Marine Highway System until the position is filled.
Briggs has held the position as deputy commissioner for the Department of Transportation since 2003.
Regional forester OKs helicopter landings
KETCHIKAN - The U.S. Forest Service will use helicopters to reach remote wilderness areas and monitor forest health, according to the regional forester.
Helicopter landings normally are banned in the wilderness areas.
Alaska Regional Forester Denny Bschor announced he would allow helicopters in 56 wilderness plots a year for safety reasons.
"My decision is based on my concern for the safety of Forest Service crews while they inventory extremely remote and difficult-to-access areas," Bschor said. "I believe this decision provides an appropriate balance between employee safety and protection of the wilderness."
The Forest Service, with the Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station, is starting a congressionally mandated program to inventory and analyze national forest wilderness. The program will last 10 years and provide baseline information about forest health, such as the introduction of invasive plants and the effects of air quality changes.
The survey calls for monitoring up to 93 plots a year. Bschor's decision will allow Forest Service survey crews to get to 56 wilderness plots a year by helicopter. Another 37 plots a year can be reached safely on foot.
The decision includes restrictions to protect mountain goats and other animals.
Flight paths will avoid known wilderness users and areas where users are known to visit frequently, Bschor said.
The Forest Service manages 7.5 million acres of wilderness in Alaska. The Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska has 19 wilderness areas. The Chugach National Forest has a wilderness study area.
People in Alaska can access wilderness by motorboat or airplane under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
Earthquake shakes Southcentral Alaska
ANCHORAGE - A light earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 4.7 rattled Southcentral Alaska on Wednesday, the Alaska Earthquake Information Center said.
The quake was widely felt in the region and was followed by a 3.6 magnitude aftershock six minutes later, the center said.
The initial earthquake was recorded 9:35 a.m. and centered eight miles north-northeast of Anchorage, the center said.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.
Climber missing in Denali National Park
TALKEETNA - Searchers in helicopters found no trace Wednesday of a 26-year-old climber who disappeared on Mount Huntington, probably in an avalanche, in Denali National Park and Preserve.
Johnny Soderstrom of Trapper Creek was last seen by his climbing partner on Tuesday morning as the two approached the West Face Couloir route on the 12,240-foot peak, just south of Mount McKinley, the National Park Service said.
Soderstrom was skiing ahead of Joe Reichert of Talkeetna as the two ascended the peak near its 8,800-foot level, the Park Service said. Soderstrom reached a relatively flat area and then skied out of view.
When Reichert arrived at the same spot, he could not see Soderstrom. Avalanche debris covered the area, although Reichert had not seen an avalanche, the National Park Service said.
Reichert returned to his base camp and called for help on a satellite phone.
State troopers and military aircraft were dispatched to conduct aerial searches on Wednesday, said Maureen McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for Denali National Park.
One of the helicopters picked up Reichert.
An Alaska State Trooper helicopter carried mountaineering ranger Gordy Kito and avalanche expert Blaine Smith, and the two made an avalanche risk assessment.
Smith and Kito said the area probed by Reichert immediately following the accident was the most likely location of the missing climber.
Avalanche concerns and inadequate rotor clearance kept helicopters from landing at the site, the Park Service said.
Federal agency moves on ocean fish farming
ANCHORAGE - A federal agency is moving forward to approve a program supporting ocean fish farming.
The National Offshore Aquaculture Act is expected to be unveiled within the next couple of months. The move comes 15 years after Alaska lawmakers banned fish farming over concerns that aquaculture could damage the state's wild salmon stocks and compete with commercial fishermen.
The ban, however, covers only that part of the ocean, three miles offshore, over which the state has jurisdiction. The federal government has control from three to 200 miles out.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is drafting the legislation.
"One of NOAA's goals is to increase seafood production," Keeney said, during a recent visit to Anchorage. The government views fish farming as a way to supplement wild catches and meet growing seafood demand, he said.
Paula Terrel, a Juneau commercial salmon troller and activist with the nonprofit Alaska Marine Conservation Council, said she's worried about reports of pollution and disease outbreaks from salmon farms, plus escaped fish that could mingle and compete with wild stocks.
"If you talk to fishermen in this state, they are opposed to offshore aquaculture," she said. "They're concerned about what it will do to the wild stocks, to the economy of their communities and to their ability to make a living."