Posted: Friday, October 14, 2005

Plant threatens state's wetlands

ANCHORAGE - An invasive plant that could overrun wetlands such as Potter Marsh and block salmon runs on the Kenai Peninsula has been found growing wild in Anchorage for the first time.

Purple loosestrife is growing along Chester Creek, plant scientists said. The plant, which resembles fireweed, has already choked creeks and wetlands across the Lower 48 and Canada.

The hardy flowering perennial is native to Europe and can multiply into dense thickets almost impossible to eliminate.

"This is a really horrific wetland invader, pretty much across North America," said Jamie Snyder, invasive plant specialist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, in Anchorage.

Its pepper-sized seeds are carried on feathers and fur.

"So it's just one hop away from Potter Marsh, and then it's just one hop away from the Kenai Peninsula, where fishing industry is huge," Snyder said.

"This plant, if it were to get established in Potter Marsh, would absolutely cover the marsh," said Michael Shephard, plant ecologist with the state and private forestry office of the U.S. Forest Service. "There would be no more geese, no ducks, no terns, no swans."

Purple loosestrife has long been planted by local gardeners who thought it could not spread. The purple flower is listed as a noxious plant in several states and Canadian provinces. It drives out native plants, overgrows wetlands, ruins fish passage and blocks access from the bank for recreation.

The plants can take root from cuttings or spread in place through the ground.

UAF enrollment drops about 6 percent

FAIRBANKS - Higher tuition, oil prices and deployments have pushed down enrollment at University of Alaska Fairbanks campuses, most notably at the school's rural satellites, officials said.

Enrollment is down 6 percent campus-wide compared to the 2004 fall semester, said Tim Barnett, dean of student and enrollment services at the university.

The university registered 8,230 students at the end of September, a decrease of 466 from the previous year.

The biggest drop was in the Bush, where the university runs a number of small colleges attended mostly by Alaska Native students. Enrollment at the university's five rural campuses was down 483 students, a decrease of 35 percent.

"The numbers are a cause for us to look at what's going on at the rural campuses," Barnett said.

High fuel prices are likely contributing to the decrease in student numbers at the rural campuses, said Ian Olson, assistant director of Planning, Analysis and Institutional Research at the Fairbanks campus.

"Fuel prices are so high right now, and are expected to increase again, that people don't have enough left to spend on education," he said.

Many students are also struggling to keep up with the rising cost of tuition. The cost of attending classes at a UAF school has gone up 30 percent in the last three years and the university is planning a 10 percent increase next year.

Wasilla approves Wal-Mart store's expansion plans

WASILLA - Wal-Mart has won conditional approval to expand its Wasilla store by 73,000 square feet into the state's first supercenter, complete with groceries, fresh produce and maybe liquor.

The addition would boost the store size by nearly 50 percent, making it one of the largest in Alaska.

The Wasilla Planning Commission unanimously supported conditional approval for the Wal-Mart project. The decision grants Wal-Mart the land-use permit it needs for expansion, as long as the company meets other conditions, such as submitting drawings to the fire marshal and providing city officials with storm water drainage plans.

The new store would be painted in tans and browns, rather than traditional blue and gray, and adds windows to now blank walls.

"What they've tried to do is, again, break up the box store look," said engineer Peter Curtis of Lounsbury & Associates, a civil engineering firm that works for Wal-Mart.

Curtis had said some details of the design - such as the new colors of the store, or the look of entry ways - may change with input from the city.

Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., plans to open a liquor store in the supercenter. Curtis said alcohol sales hinge on whether the company can get a liquor license, a difficult venture in Wasilla.

Unlike Palmer and Anchorage, where groups of residents rallied to fight recent Wal-Mart plans, the company's Wasilla project drew little attention.

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