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2007 Year in Review: Alaska makes national and even global headlines this year

Posted: Monday, December 31, 2007

From the federal courtroom to the capitol to the North Slope, Alaska forged its way into national and even global headlines.

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Sometimes the news was sobering, like recent NASA reports on how the Arctic Ocean could be nearly ice-free during summer within decades.

At times, it was bizarre, like the story of a diaper-wearing female astronaut driving from Texas to Florida on a trip that prosecutors said was to attack a rival for the affection of Alaskan Bill Oefelein, another astronaut.

Other times, it was an inspiring tale thanks to cancer survivor Lance Mackey winning the Yukon Quest and Iditarod in the same year.

Alaskans welcomed a popular new governor to her first legislative session and had the state's profile raised in animation through The Simpsons Movie.

Still, corruption and Gov. Sarah Palin's emergence on the national scene - one that included a photo shoot with Vogue - led the news for most of 2007.

Arctic melting effects

Arctic melt reached numerous records in 2007, including a few that touched the state. Dwindling sea ice affected wildlife as 6,000 walruses hauled out on shore instead of sea ice in northwest Alaska in October. Alaska's permafrost also warmed. Temperature measurements 66 feet deep in the frozen soil rose nearly four-tenths of a degree from 2006 to 2007, a figure scientists call significant.

Debate continued on whether certain animals warrant federal protection.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to soon decide whether to list polar bears as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act because of the loss of sea ice from global warming. Palin remains a strong opponent, claiming there is insufficient evidence that polar bears are in danger of becoming extinct within the foreseeable future.

The beluga whale finds itself at the center of the same debate. The National Marine Fisheries Service determined this year that if nothing changes in Cook Inlet, belugas are in danger of becoming extinct in the next 100 years.

In the courts

Former state lawmakers weren't the only Alaskans with court appearances. Some cases featured bizarre twists. Papa Pilgrim, a man who came to prominence during a feud with the National Park Service received a 14-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting his daughter.

Robert Hale, the man who called himself Papa Pilgrim, took his family far from civilization to raise them according to his interpretation of the Bible. A judge handed down the lengthy sentence after hearing stories from Hale's wife and many of their 15 children, who related intense stories of physical and mental abuse.

A stripper-turned-soccer mom was convicted of first-degree murder. Mechele Linehan was convicted of conspiring with a man who hoped to marry her, John T. Carlin III, to kill her fiancé, Kent Leppink, who was shot three times in 1996 on an isolated trail near Hope.

The trial featured tawdry details about Linehan's lifestyle and accusations about how she manipulated men she met while dancing at the Great Alaskan Bush Co. strip club in Anchorage.

San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Court was busy with Alaska-based resource disputes.

In May, the court ruled illegal a permit allowing gold mining company Coeur Alaska to discharge slurry containing millions of tons of mine waste into a lake in southeast Alaska.

The court concluded that the permit would have set a dangerous precedent in giving mines across the United States the OK to use rivers, streams and lakes to dispose of mining waste.

Another prospective mine, the Pebble project in southwest Alaska, was the subject of an expensive public relations campaign as proponents and foes argued over whether it would foul Bristol Bay salmon waters.

In July, the federal appeals court ordered Shell Exploration & Production Co. to temporarily halt its exploratory drilling program off the north coast of Alaska. Five months later, the court heard arguments from environmentalists trying to stop the drilling.

Environmentalists and the Inupiat, Natives of Alaska's north coast, are worried about the effect of drilling on wildlife, particularly the bowhead whale hunted under federal subsistence rules.

In October, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether Exxon Mobil, having already paid more than $3.5 billion in cleanup costs and other penalties, should face punitive damages.

Exxon argues it should not be held responsible for the mistakes of the ship's captain, Joseph Hazelwood, who violated company rules when the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil on March 23, 1989.

The plaintiffs said Exxon knew Hazelwood had sought treatment for drinking, but had begun drinking again.

And so, 18 years after the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the state's victims could have a $2.5 billion judgment taken away from them by the Supreme Court.

Bridge goes nowhere

The state pulled the plug on a proposed bridge from Ketchikan to its airport on Gravina Island. It was a multimillion dollar project, backed by a federal earmark, that quickly became a symbol of pork barrel spending. It also cast Alaska as a freeloading state.

Oil and gas news

More than one year after a partial production shut down to Prudhoe Bay, field operator BP America agreed to pay $20 million and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of the federal Clean Water Act for a crude spill on the North Slope.

It was one of several deals struck between the London-based oil and gas giant and federal investigators in October. Parent company BP PLC agreed to pay $373 million in fines and restitution over the manipulation of energy markets in the Midwest and violation of the Clean Air Act in a refinery explosion that killed 15 people in Texas.

Not all of the news in the oil industry carried controversy.

Pioneer Natural Resources, an Irving, Texas, company, built an island one truck load of stones at a time on the Arctic Ocean, where it plans to produce oil in early 2008.

Reaching that point took nearly five years, starting in early 2003 when Pioneer drilled a few exploration wells in the area. That year, oil fetched an average of $31 a barrel. Today, oil prices are hovering around $96.

Pioneer would be the first independent operator to produce oil on the North Slope, a market cornered primarily by major producers such as BP, Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips for 30 years.

In entertainment

In March, Juneau-based group of Perseverance Theater actors, all of them of Native descent, learned their lines to Shakespeare's Macbeth in Tlingit, then performed the play in Washington, D.C.

Twelve actors had less than one month to learn a story many of them knew by heart. The group performed for two weeks at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

Alaska found itself prominent in two general release films this year - "The Simpsons Movie," and "Into the Wild" - and one best selling novel.

In July, the state was a land of refuge for the cartoon family, the Simpsons. The family's journey to Alaska prompted Homer Simpson to say it's a place where "you can't be too fat or too drunk."

In the fall, Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" hit screens. The story of Chris McCandless in 1992 made national headlines, generating both sympathy for his experiment in self-denial and criticism that he brought death on himself for trekking ill-equipped and ill-prepared into a harsh land.

Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Michael Chabon used Alaska as the scene for his latest work, "The Yiddish Policeman's Union," alternate history to an actual congressional proposal dating to 1940.

It suggested creating a Jewish homeland in Alaska rather than Israel, and Chabon spins this historical fragment out into the present day.

Aviation

A series of plane crashes over the summer were deemed serious enough for the Federal Aviation Administration to send investigators from Washington D.C. as well as Anchorage.

The first accident happened in late July when a sightseeing plane crashed in Misty Fjords National Monument. It killed the pilot, two sisters and their husbands on a side trip from an Alaska cruise.

Less that two weeks later, four people died when a single-engine Piper crashed into a Sitka house about a block from a downtown street bustling with cruise ship tourists.

Ten days later, a SeaWind Aviation deHavilland Beaver 345KA crashed into a tree at Traitors Cove about 25 miles north of downtown Ketchikan. The crash killed six people.

In one other tragedy, a Lifeguard Alaska helicopter with four people on board a flight from Cordova to Anchorage disappeared Dec. 3 near Whittier. Searchers found parts of the aircraft and one body on the north shore of Passage Canal across from Whittier.

In the courage category

Japan's Masatoshi Kuriaki became the first solo climber to conquer Mount Foraker in winter. He climbed the 17,400-foot mountain with 34 mph winds driving temperatures to nearly 100 degrees below zero wind chill.

Cancer survivor Lance Mackey made mushing history with victories in the grueling Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and then the Iditarod.

The victory in the Yukon Quest, a race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, was Mackey's third in a row. With only 12 days rest, Mackey used 13 of his 16 dogs in the Iditarod and raced to victory.

Mackey was diagnosed with neck cancer in 2001 and underwent surgery and radiation. One year later, he started the Iditarod race with a feeding tube in his stomach and still undergoing cancer treatment. He was forced to drop out of that race.

Today, Mackey is cancer-free.



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