The top of this year-end roundup looks a lot like last year’s.
COVID-19, the obvious, inescapable and omnipresent story that defined 2020, also dominated 2021 shaping the world and our lives in many ways.
While the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Alaska in late 2020, and the shots were widely available in the first quarter of 2021, the virus that causes COVID-19 lingered, mutated and spread. Thousands of Alaskans tested positive for the virus in 2021, and hundreds statewide died. In Juneau, those numbers were far smaller, but mitigation measures and a communitywide push for vaccination were significant at the local level.
Waxing and waning case totals fueled by emerging variants impacted elections, sparked endless debates about discourse and policy, shaped how prominent industries operated, dictated how long-running events proceeded and affected day-to-day life for Juneau residents, Alaskans and people around the world.
It’s also a story that will inevitably spill over into 2022 and perhaps beyond. Litigation over vaccine mandates involving dozens of states and the federal government are yet undecided, federal spending on pandemic relief will have a ripple effect for years to come and a recent spike in cases is leading to a return to mitigation measures in some places.
While COVID-19 colored many of this year’s other top stories, it was far from the only important thing to happen this year. Here are nine more of our most-talked-about, year-defining stories.
More than 100,000 passengers visited Juneau on board big-deck cruise ships in 2021, accounting for about 10% of the visitors the city sees in a more typical year. The city also collected nearly $1 million in fees from passengers.
The season was able to happen due to a bill sponsored by Alaska’s congressional delegation allowing cruise ships to skip a stop in Canada — U.S. law requires foreign-flagged vessels, like most large-deck cruise ships, to stop in a foreign port between any two American ports, a practical impossibility for Alaska with Canada’s ports still closed to cruise ships.
A majority of Juneau residents still believe the cruise industry provides more benefits than drawbacks, according to a survey conducted by the McKinley Research Group in the autumn. But a core of resistance to the industry still exists. Critics of the industry continued to express skepticism and dismay about the level of predicted cruise traffic for 2022, which will likely be greater with the opening of vaccination to all people 5 or older, barring unprecedented alteration of the trajectory of the pandemic.
Business owners who depend on the cruise industry were still in dire straits at the Oct. 20 end of the 2021 cruise season, with one owner terming such business as they did receive “lovely but not sustainable.” Tourism usually generates about $10 million in sales tax from visitors, said city finance director Jeff Rogers. Other business owners say it feels personal to have members of the Juneau community pushing back at tourism at a time when businesses who rely on that trade are selling homes, withdrawing from retirement funds, and laying off employees just to keep their businesses afloat.
Races ramp up
Statewide races that will be inescapable in 2022 started to shape up in 2021.
Elections for governor of Alaska, Alaska’s lone seat in the U.S. House and an Alaska U.S. Senate seat will occur on Nov. 8, 2022.
Campaigns for these positions are heating up, with some significant developments already in the rear-view. Current Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, announced Tuesday he would not seek reelection to the position. Former President Donald Trump also recently said he would endorse Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who running for the governor’s seat once again, provided Dunleavy wouldn’t endorse incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski , R-Alaska, as she runs once more for reelection.
Dunleavy faces competition from state Rep. Chris Kurka, a Wasilla Republican; former Gov. Bill Walker, who is running as an independent with running mate Heidi Drygas; and former state Rep. Les Gara, who is running as a Democrat.
Murkowski’s challengers include Trump-endorsed former Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka, a Republican.
Rep. Don Young is also facing a Republican challenger in the form of Nicholas Begich III. Recently, Alyse Galvin, who twice tried to unseat Young as an independent, filed to run for office at the state level, so it is unlikely she will run again.
The field in all three races is likely not yet totally set, too.
Ranked-choice voting, which was voted in during the last statewide election, will also play a role for the first time in Alaska’s elections, as will open primaries. Dunleavy and Meyer also recently announced the Election Integrity Bill, which could shape how elections are conducted in Alaska.
Multiple high-profile missing person cases occurred in Juneau through the summer and autumn, some still unresolved.
Clifford John White, 29, is the latest in a spate of unrelated cases that saw at least five missing people gain citywide attention, with yet more occurring with less fanfare.
Joe Clayton, Douglas Farnsworth, Geraldine Nelson, and Douglas Shockley all occasioned search and rescue operations of varying scope and complexity, with each of their cases being different.
The disappearances didn’t appear connected, said Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer, but the number of cases was troubling. In some cases, mental illness was suspected to be a factor, while in others, mishap or misadventure might have been the culprit.
Juneau’s terrain also played a role in the difficulty of searching for the missing individuals, said JPD Deputy Chief David Campbell; finding a body that’s even 100 meters off a trail can be a daunting task. The mountains and forests surrounding Juneau make searching difficult, compounded by the snow that covers all once fallen.
October’s municipal election proved an exciting affair, especially in the race to fill three seats on the Juneau School District Board of Education.
Six official candidates filed, including incumbent Elizabeth (Ebett) Siddon and newcomers Aaron Spratt, Thomas Buzard, Amber Frommherz, Wiljordon V. Sangster and Ibn Bailey.
The race also attracted two write-in candidates in Will Muldoon and Kyle Scholl, who did not appear on the ballot but were certified by City Clerk Beth McEwen.
Right out of the gate, clear dividing lines around the topic of at-school COVID-19 mitigation measures emerged.
Siddon, Frommherz and Bailey were vocal supporters of the district’s COVID-19 policies.
Buzard and Spratt waged vigorous campaigns and were sharply critical of the school district’s COVID-19 mitigation policies.
Buzard vowed to increase vocational training and called school leaders “petty tyrants” on account of school masking policies.
Spratt vowed to prevent any elements of critical race theory from creeping into the school curriculum and to allow parents to choose the pandemic mitigations a student would follow. According to Ted Wilson, director, teacher and learning support for the Juneau School District, critical race theory is not part of Juneau’s curriculum.
Sangster and Scholl both waged low-key campaigns. They said that they were motivated to run by the school board’s decision to stand by COVID-19 mitigation policy preventing the boy’s basketball team from traveling to the state tournament last spring as reasons for running.
As voting began, news that Bailey received three protective orders, two of which involved a principal at a local elementary school, appeared in the Empire. According to court records, Bailey was banned from going near the school where the principal worked or contacting the principal.
After news of Bailey’s legal problems broke, Muldoon entered the race — eight days after ballots were mailed and 13 days before the last day to vote. He said he strongly supported the school district’s mitigation measures and the school’s general direction. His grass-roots campaign included homemade signs and letters to the editor promoting his candidacy.
In the end, Siddon and Frommherz won with comfortable margins. Muldoon captured the third open seat —a feat that was so rare that city officials could not immediately remember the last time a write-in candidate won.
On the city side, Juneau’s voters re-elected Mayor Beth Weldon, who ran unopposed for a second term in office.
In Assembly District 1, voters sent Waahlaal Giidaak Barbara Blake to City Hall, choosing her from a three-person race that included former school board member Paul Kelly and newcomer Troy Wuyts-Smith vying for the seat vacated by longtime Assembly Member Loren Jones, who was barred from running again due to term limits.
In District 2, Assembly Member Michelle Bonnet Hale handily won a second, three-year term on the CBJ Assembly, beating first-time candidate Kelly Fishler who hoped to unseat her.
In a landslide, voters agreed to extend the city’s 3% temporary sales tax for street maintenance and general city and borough operations.
The city’s election was primarily a vote-by-mail affair for the second year in a row. Overall, voter turnout was 30.8%. That’s about 12% lower than 2020, when during the city’s first vote-by-mail election, voters sent back nearly 12,000 ballots, representing a turnout of about 43% —the largest voter turnout since 2000.
Election results unfolded over the weeks that followed the election. Juneau’s ballots were counted in Anchorage because Juneau does not have the equipment needed to count votes locally. According to McEwen, the vote-counting process went well overall. A new ballot-counting center is in the works and should be ready for next year’s election.
School sets schedule
Many local students are likely to remember how COVID-19 affected school attendance and activities as they look back on 2021.
In January, Juneau’s students started a tentative return to the classroom after COVID-19 disrupted the traditional school model in March 2020 and sent students to virtual, home-based classrooms, where they remained for the rest of the year.
Early this year, students started in-person school on a part-time basis while continuing with distance learning. Students gradually geared up to four in-person days each week. Wednesday’s remained set aside for independent study and staff continued to offer distance learning opportunities for students who were not comfortable returning to in-person school.
After the summer break, students returned to a schedule that included five full days of in-person learning each week and a layered approach to COVID-19 mitigations aimed at keeping schools open.
Superintendent Bridget Weiss was named the Alaska Superintendent of the year by the Alaska Superintendent Association conference and Time Magazine included her in a list of 29 people who saved the pandemic school year.
The Alaska House of Representatives’ molasses-like organization was an indication of slow-moving things to come.
The Alaska State Legislature met on and off from January through October in the state Capitol in Juneau.
A regular session that featured lawmakers, staff and the capital press corps navigating COVID-19 protocols failed to produce a budget and Permanent Fund Dividend. It would take multiple special sessions for that to happen, with the Legislature passing a budget and calling for a $1,100 PFD in mid-September. A fourth and final special session was called by the governor to augment the size of the PFD and consideration of constitutional amendments that would change how the dividend is calculated.
The call was met by pushback from lawmakers, who cited concern over rising COVID-19 cases and a lack of practicality to a fourth special session. The result was a session that was often lightly attended and did not pass legislation included in Dunleavy’s call.
Many of the things that shaped the last session —PFD size, introducing revenues and changes to the state Constitution among them —loom large with the Legislature set to begin its next regular session on Jan. 19.
Bill brings big bucks
Beginning early in the year, Murkowski played a key role in the talks that shaped the bipartisan spending package focused on so-called “hard infrastructure,” and it passed the House and Senate with support from all three Republican members of Alaska’s congressional delegation.
Negotiations, discussions and votes related to the bill spanned months, with the bill passing the Senate in November. It will pump trillions of dollars into infrastructure projects nationwide, including billions for Alaska’s ports, roads and ferries.
It will take years for the full scope of the works sparked by the funding to become apparent, but in some ways it’s already being felt.
Federal funding is allowing for proposals that would increase the Alaska Marine Highway System’s service and replace a longtime vessel in the fleet.
It was also a significant source in Dunleavy’s recently proposed budget for the next fiscal year.
While Alaska’s congressional delegation was united on the infrastructure bill, it split on impeaching Trump.
Murkowski was among seven Senate Republicans — and 56 senators overall — who voted to convict Trump in his historic second impeachment trial following violence at the U.S. Capitol that was in part stoked by false election claims. Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, both Republicans, voted against impeachment and conviction, respectively. In the House, 10 Republicans crossed party lines to vote to impeach.
Following the vote, Murkowski was censured by the state GOP, openly mused about leaving the Republican Party, attracted a high-profile challenger in Tshibaka and amassed a war chest of millions for a reelection bid while maintaining support from national GOP apparatus.
Fallout from the events that led to the impeachment and the trial itself seems likely to continue to shape politics in both the U.S. as a whole and Alaska for the foreseeable future.
Add in a new open primary system and ranked choice voting, and those races seem likely to show up on this list next year.
Roadless Rule rollback reversal
As President Joe Biden took office in early 2021, many Alaskans looked to the White House to see if his administration would pick up the question of the 2001 Roadless Rule on the Tongass National Forest.
In 2020 following a meeting with Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the Trump administration announced it would lift the rule. President Joe Biden swiftly reversed this decision within his first several months of office.
As the year ends, the U.S. Forest Service is once again accepting public comment on the 2001 Roadless Rule, which is favored by conservationists and some fishing groups who are wary of development in the nation’s largest forest and say the effects of climate change make the protections even more critical.
However, critics continue to argue the rule inhibits any development in the region, even civil projects that bring cheaper services to rural communities.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, is accepting comments on the proposed decision until Jan. 22, 2022.
Public comment can be submitted to the Forest Service using the Federal Rulemaking Portal at regulations.gov or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Residents can also submit comments by mail to: Alaska Roadless Rule, USDA Forest Service, P.O. Box 21628, Juneau, Alaska, 99802-1628.
• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.