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Few answers surface for summer’s Sterling deaths

Posted: July 31, 2011 - 8:00am

Speeding down the Sterling Highway, it’s easy to forget the only thing separating your car from hurtling head-on into another 4000-pound vehicle is a six-inch-wide yellow line.

The prospect of a plentiful haul of fish, visiting with friends and family, or enjoying a weekend getaway down on the Peninsula urges the foot to compress the gas pedal further than what might be safe. And as the month of July has shown, the consequences can be devastating.

Of the nine traffic-related fatalities that occurred throughout Alaska in July, seven happened on the stretch of the Sterling Highway between Cooper Landing and Ninilchik. Of the 40 fatalities in the state since the beginning of 2011, 11 have occurred on the Kenai Peninsula; that’s more than any other area in Alaska.

And no one really knows why.

“I wish I had a magic wand and all of the answers, but I don’t,” said Bureau of Highway Patrol Sgt. Eugene Fowler. “I can’t tell you exactly why these are all occurring.”

Law enforcement officers can speculate, though. Between the annual invasion of tourists and fishermen, the physical composition of the road, and driver inattention, distraction, and aggression, little room for error is allowed on the Peninsula highways.

“We have a phenomenal amount of traffic, and I think we’ve also had lots of publicity about a wealth of salmon returning to the river,” said Soldotna Chief of Police John Lucking. “So there’s a strong interest in people getting here, and people getting here go fast.”

But the huge influx of people is nothing new, nor is the constitution of the narrow-shouldered, turn lane-lacking highway. Yet in 2010 and 2009, the Sterling only saw one fatal crash each year. This was preceded by three fatalities in 2008 and six in 2007, but now, only seven months into the year, the highway has already claimed nine lives.

Unfortunately, when the road was constructed more than 60 years ago, designers couldn’t have foreseen the Peninsula becoming a fishing hotspot and doubling in population every summer.

“The road is not designed to be so used,” Lucking said, pointing out that, ideally, the Sterling would include passing, merging, and turning lanes.

“It’s how much you can do with how much money,” he explained. “Four lanes with two going each way on a separated highway are going to be the safest; you’re not going to have a center line to cross over and have the head-on collisions which are generating all of these fatalities. Unfortunately, we just don’t have millions and millions of dollars to throw at the road.”

The Soldotna Police Department, Kenai Police Department, and Alaska State Troopers are all participating in the statewide Strategic Traffic Safety Plan, which is a comprehensive, data-based study focused on addressing problems and forming goals as they relate to the 4 E’s of highway safety: engineering, education, enforcement, and emergency response.

“There are other roads that have needs and tragedies on them as well,” Lucking said, “so there’s a limited amount of resources that we’re competing for.”

But the problem isn’t entirely the road’s fault. Human error, including driver inattention, distraction, aggression, and intoxication frequently play a part in the occurrence of highway fatalities.

Joanna Reed, the traffic records research analyst for the Alaska Highway Safety Office, said she is still receiving toxicology reports from many of the Sterling crashes, and cannot determine how many were alcohol-related.

When it comes down to preventing crashes — fatal or otherwise — changing how drivers behave on the highway is crucial, Lucking said.

“Attitudes have to change either through enforcement or education or a combination of the two,” he elaborated. “That’s half of the problem. The problem is how the road is composed combined with driver attitudes.”

Refraining from speeding, dangerous passing, and distracted driving are all good measures to take to ensure safety. And of course there are the two mantras of law enforcement agencies everywhere: don’t drink and drive, and always wear a seatbelt.

“I have personally seen people walk away from horrendous crashes because they were wearing their seatbelt,” Fowler said. “And I’ve seen people die in less traumatic crashes because they weren’t wearing their seatbelt.”

Some things will always be out of a driver’s control. But the key to getting somewhere safely is taking advantage of the factors he or she does have control over.

“You can’t change the composition of the road and you can’t change the weather. What you can change is the way that you drive,” Lucking said. “And if you employ safe driving practices and are defensive and looking out for other people, then odds are you will arrive alive.”

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s2wheel
55
Points
s2wheel 07/31/11 - 11:01 am
0
0
human error

I haved lived on the Kenai peninsula for 40 years, this year have been the worst for rude drivers, and the most part of these drivers have alaska plates on their cars,pity the person that drives the speed limit, they will be tailgated, shone the finger, or passed on a corner or hill, this is what is causing the accidents on our highways, putting a four lane in will not stop the accidents all that will do is make people want to drive faster. we need more patrols on our highway and the ones that get stopped for speeding should have to go to a drivers ed. course.And to all the people that drive 65 or 70 and you get behind me doing 55 you can get on my bumper all you want, you can flip me off all you want, you can pass me on hills or corners, it wont bother me, but remember this when you are 2 inches on my bumper, I do brake for wildlife or anything else on the roadway, and I do have insurance.

TheWitch13
0
Points
TheWitch13 07/31/11 - 12:03 pm
0
0
Bumber Sticker

I have always wanted to have a bumper sticker made that would read, "THE CLOSER YOU GET, THE SLOWER I GO"

NickinKenai
0
Points
NickinKenai 07/31/11 - 03:14 pm
0
0
You're joking right?

Unexplained? It's pretty obvious what the problem is aside from aggressive drivers. The problem is crowded roads with over sized vehicles and no shoulders to offer safety.

"You can’t change the composition of the road and you can’t change the weather." If you can't change the composition of the road then how do they make roads and why do they waste our time with repeated, slow, and inferior quality road construction?

The road construction is Alaska is much slower than that in the lower 48 and just a mile down the road they have laid out asphalt ripped it up and laid it back down twice. Not to mention using public roads as private business construction routes.

I'm not sure who is getting paid by all this. Seems to be the same companies who know someone but let's not forget how long it took to complete the Soldotna bridge.

If you want safer roads we need a four lane highway. It can be done especially with how much we pay in taxes in Alaska and how much they are making during the tourist tax season.

To claim they have no idea why the sudden rise in accidents is preposterous and it sounds like we should replace the Officials with people who have the ability to use common sense when attempting to draw a conclusion.

dabannock
9
Points
dabannock 07/31/11 - 07:19 pm
0
0
Pulling over might save...

...a life.

I would encourage those that share the same view as s2wheel to "Look in the mirror" and, regardless of your speed, if you're holding up a line of traffic, find the first pull-out and let the traffic go by.

I understand the "I'm going the speed limit; I'm not pulling over" mentality, but that decision may easily lead to the commonly referred to "Road Rage" and that too often leads to heatbreak.

Goodness knows the state DoT could/should be doing more on the highway (i.e. more safe pull outs, passing lanes etc) but it remains our responsibility as drivers to keep the highways as safe as possible. If that means that I need to move over and get out of the way, then I'll do.

akmscott
131
Points
akmscott 07/31/11 - 07:24 pm
0
0
That stretch of road need

That stretch of road need more slow vehicle passing lanes!It can be horribly frustrating when you have slow inconsiderate driver after driver and you actually have to be somewhere!Also-law enforcement actually needs to give out tickets for drivers holding up 5-10 cars while picking their noses!

kenai_kid
222
Points
kenai_kid 08/01/11 - 04:40 am
0
0
Holding up five cars on the Sterling Hwy

akmscott, I agree with you entirely about the pull outs and the pull overs for holding up traffic. However, that law does not apply to the Sterling Hwy (yet).
As for s2wheel, I know you are traveling the speed limit and that you have insurance, but how is that going to help you in the morgue? My point is, what if there is another s2wheel traveling in the opposite direction and is passed by a car going 65. Suddenly your lane is full of steel and so is the other one. It is best to either go with the flow of traffic or pull over and let the flow pass you. Going the speed limit, while it is the right thing to do, may cause accidents if you don't yield to those who play roulette with others lives.

msjinxie
124
Points
msjinxie 08/01/11 - 06:29 am
0
0
SLOW DOWN and nix the cellphones!

This summer has been BAD period for the Kenai and outlying areas. Beginning of July, the MESS at City Dock backing up traffic all the way past Carlisle Trucking. Or, some sub adult allowing either the Kenai Track Team or another run on Bridge Access Road, during the same time, darting across the road to get in their van with vehicles running at 55 mph plus. The problem? Next time you are out, count next time how many of these idiots are on their cell phones. If you have an aggressive driver behind you, call the R.E.D.D.I. 911 system set up and let the cops deal with it. The more people turn in these people driving distracted, passing in no passing zones, aggressive driving, all of it....turn them in its what it is meant for! I have personally been the sole party responsible for getting a couple drunk drivers off the road because of it. Use that tool and I guarantee it will slow it down. Summer is always the worst we all know that. Alot of tourists in town, it isn't anything new. The attitude of the drivers however, has changed for the worse. Us Alaskans are worn thin by gawkers slowing down to a crawl and NOT pulling all the way over to see wildlife etc...Can't tell you how many tourists I have told to MOVE their rigs off the road because of that. THINK when you drive people. We all makes mistakes, its a fact...but all of this....the speeding, the deaths, the inattentive driving can all be fixed by using your HEADS. Have a safe rest of the summer everyone...JUST DRIVE!

spwright
1376
Points
spwright 08/01/11 - 10:09 am
0
0
Immediate Solution is Needed 8/1/11

Mon. 8/1/11
My Personal Opinion is the the Alaska State Troopers Highway Patrol needs to double or triple to number of State Troopers assigned to Highway Patrol during the "Dip Net Fishery" season.

Bust the Drivers on the Sterling Highway that are Driving Too Fast & also Bust the Drivers that are Driving Too Slow & creating a Safety Problem & making the drivers behind them to become impatient with the Slow Driving.

All Peninsula Residents & Our Leadership in both the Borough & the State already know that the Sterling Highway
is crowded beyond capacity during the annual "Dip Net Fishery"

Our Own Alaskans are Dying on the Sterling Highway & this needs the immediate attention. No Time for Discussions or
another Committee Meeting. People are Dying.

Enough Talk already, Take Action to Prevent these Deaths.

SPW "Airborne"

akdave
37
Points
akdave 08/01/11 - 10:16 am
0
0
s2wheel

Just remember s2wheel, in Alaska there is a law that when you have 5 vehicles behind you, you must let them pass. There's also a law for those that don't know, that driving slower than the speed limit also requires you succumb the lane when people are behind you. If your doing ten MPH (I think it is) under the limit, you can get a ticket here. Know the laws thoroughly in AK

I don't speed on the Peninsula either, there's enough bad driving out there already.

JOAT
490
Points
JOAT 08/01/11 - 10:58 am
0
0
The solution...

Gotta be somewhere? Leave earlier. Your tardiness is not my problem. I'd rather you be late and have to face the ramifications of your procrastination than yield my road position to a moron.

Drive the speed limit and stay focused on the road. That's all you have to do. The "flow" of the traffic should be equal to that number on those signs that say, "speed limit". If the "flow" is trying to go faster than that, then they are doing it wrong.

Note, if you tailgate me, I will automatically slow from the 58mph I was doing down to 52mph. Consider this your opportunity to safely utilize the existing dashed-line passing method. Or, you can back off to a 3-second interval and I'll resume my 58mph "pushing the limit" pace.

Also note that I'll be laughing at your stupidity when you're still within sight in front of me when you reach your destination or pull off. Speeding does NOT save you any real time in getting there.

Driver's Ed needs to be put back in our High Schools as a graduation requirement (as it was back in the 80's) and DOT needs to institute a mandatory driver's ed course for all inititial license issuance.

spwright
1376
Points
spwright 08/01/11 - 12:54 pm
0
0
Construction Costs & Driver's Ed 8/1/11

Mon. 8/1/11
The General Rule of Thumb is building a New Highway thru mountians is $2 Million Dollars per Mile.
All other areas is $1 Million Dollars per Mile.
This is info from a State Highway Engineer while I worked on the Canyon Creek Bridge Project, Hope Jct back in the late 90's

"Manny's Driver's Ed" is the local Driver's Education Vendor
& a Retired KPBSD Teacher is the Owner.

None of these provide a direct & immediate Answer for the Death of fellow Alaskans on Our Sterling Highway.
Only Law Enforcement can provide immediate effects.

SPW in Slooooooowdotna

drudge
3
Points
drudge 08/01/11 - 01:15 pm
0
0
@NickinKenai

In this context, the "composition of the road" is referring to the people driving it, not the materials used to construct it.

Nobody's blaming the road's construction for these accidents.

JOAT
490
Points
JOAT 08/01/11 - 01:19 pm
0
0
LE can't make drivers safer

The police respond to the aftermath of destruction. They can't stop accidents in their tracks. They can't make bad drivers suddenly go good. Police presence is only a deterrent within the immediate visible range of his car. The instant the car is out of sight, the bad drivers resume bad driving. I've driven by a car pulled over by police and had that same car catch up and pass me at extreme speeds only minutes later. You can't station a police car every quarter or half mile along the highway.

These problems simply cannot be solved by the Police, though more police would certainly be helpful. It must start with the drivers. Unfortunately, we are stuck with an entire generation of self-centered, ADHD inflicted, poorly trained drivers. Accidents are going to happen and the only way to have immediate effect is for each of YOU to drive defensively and pay attention. Don't be afraid to hit the ditch!

s2wheel
55
Points
s2wheel 08/01/11 - 01:51 pm
0
0
the law

the law states that if you are driving the posted speed limit then you do not pull over to let traffic by no matter how many cars are behind you,if you are driving under the speed limit and you have 5 or more cars behind you then the law states you are to pull over in a safe location and let traffic by,and by the way when you are trying to pull off the highway people are in such a hurry the pass you either on the left or on the right, one of the accidents this summer was not from people driving to slow, it was a rear end collision because somebody was trying to turn off the road, the one that rear ended that car had to have been going about 60 in a 45, I have gotten behind motorhomes and campers that are traveling between 55 and 60 that is plenty fast why pass them? slow down people!!!!!!

akmscott
131
Points
akmscott 08/01/11 - 07:57 pm
0
0
I notice the pokey drivers

I notice the pokey drivers are the ones who protest the most here.They for the most part are the cause of most of the accidents.Just like the 80 year old who has never had an accident and didn't even see the 15 he caused!But he's a safe driver!

JOAT
490
Points
JOAT 08/01/11 - 10:23 pm
0
0
Who's the protester?

So, "akm"... while us legal drivers provide valid comment and feedback, you jump in here with the bogus claim that all of us legal drivers are causing most of the accidents. Oh how brilliant you are. Thank you for correcting us and discovering the true solution to the problems on our highways.

Hear that folks? It's not the bad drivers, illegal passers, speeders and attention deficit who are causing accidents! It's all of us normal, legal, careful, and safe drivers.

So, "akm"... in your infinite wisdom, please tell us what we need to do to stop causing all of these accidents? We anxiously await the sharing of your vast knowledge on this subject...

kenairiverbandit
65
Points
kenairiverbandit 08/02/11 - 05:33 am
0
0
Terms and Vocabulary

I sure is sad how we as a society use terms and vocabulary out of context. For example, the subject here should be completely avoidable tragedys and not accidents. Its like anything else these days...puting a person behind the wheel supports the economy by creating jobs so why deny someone who puts food on tables just because they might not be fit to drive....I do agree with the Human Error term though....it is about the most accurate way to describe these occurances except for the occasional run in with a moose....

s2wheel
55
Points
s2wheel 08/02/11 - 07:41 am
0
0
school

to all the drivers that have to go over 60 MPH, What may I ask are you going to do when school starts and the buses start running, are you the ones that run the red lights, or pass when there is a no passing zone. just asking!!!!!!

mcheintz
2
Points
mcheintz 08/02/11 - 10:47 am
0
0
pulling over

i was in that traffic and it took me 45 min to go from soldotna to the first end of robinson loop..it was backed up for miles bumper to bumper and not because someone was holding traffic up but because there was so much traffic. I also had to drive of anchorage the day of 2 of the accidents..they happened behind me. we saw 2 vehicles pulled over by troopers and the only way we knew they were troopers was because of the lights..they were in unmarked cars. They should have more troopers out there that say TROOPERS on the roads....and there is no place to pull off in most places and if you did you wouldnt get back into traffic because it was all bumper to bumper and everyone was going slow..EXCEPT the idiots that had a death wish and playing chicken with on coming traffic........we need better roads or a TOLL bridge across the inlet..let the ones in a hurry go one way and the ones wanting the scenic route take it. The road from Anchorage to the peninsula is a beautiful drive but there is no way you can enjoy it when you have to combat drive. I have lived on the peninsula 35 years and i have never seen it so bad as it has been this summer...2 babies dead and the solution is to pull over ??

savmar01
4
Points
savmar01 08/02/11 - 10:55 am
0
0
The Law as it Reads

Here is the actual verbiage of the law. I had to comment as it has been misconstrued in this forum. Going the speed limit or not, if you have 5 or more vehicles following, you need to pull over.

AS 28.35.140 is amended by adding a new subsection to read: (b) A person operating a motor vehicle at any time on a two-lane roadway outside of an urban area shall pull the motor vehicle off the roadway at the first opportunity to pull over safely if there are five or more motor vehicles immediately following that motor vehicle. A person operating a motor vehicle who violates this subsection is guilty of an infraction as described in AS 28.40.050(d) and shall be punished by a fine of at least $100.

I'm not necessarily endorsing the law as it reads, but when I reported a driver for trying to run me off the road, the officer made a good point when he told me "The best thing you can do when you have a driver like that behind you is to pull over and let him pass".

You could play the slow driver/fast driver blame game all day, but if you pull over, that idiot is no longer your problem. You are no longer a potential cause of an accident and you've just prevented yourself from being the one the idiot driver takes with him.

JOAT
490
Points
JOAT 08/02/11 - 05:19 pm
0
0
Trump that by a couple other laws..

Try looking up AS 28.35.400 and AS 28.35.410 for the most important driving laws related to this article.

akmscott
131
Points
akmscott 08/02/11 - 06:05 pm
0
0
OK joat-your so obviously

OK joat-your so obviously well informed and undoubted allways right!I was not talking about your wonderful driving skills at 55 mph-sorry about your ego there guy!I'm talking about the 50-45 mph drivers who are causing problems.You should make us all a safe driving vid so we can be as good as you!

s2wheel
55
Points
s2wheel 08/02/11 - 06:29 pm
0
0
Im talking about the 65 to 70

Im talking about the 65 to 70 mph that is causing problems I drive between 55 and 60 I still get passed in spots that are no passing zones,and I agree with mcheintz this year has been bad,and by the way you need to do research on this law;the law would apply only if the road in front of the driver is unobstructed, if he or she is traveling under the speed limit, and if it's safe for him or her to pull over to let others pass.If you are driving over the speed limit then you are breaking the law just as much or more than the person not pulling over,I also ask again what are you people going to do when school starts and the buses are running on the highway,and by the way that law also states buses,garbage trucks and tow trucks are excluded from that law.

savmar01
4
Points
savmar01 08/02/11 - 07:29 pm
0
0
Nice Try

Joat, neither one of those statutes say anything about speed or lack thereof. A person could be guilty of either reckless or negligent driving doing 10 miles an hour if you are interpreting the statute correctly.

Again, I am not endorsing speeding.

I am trying to understand why some people on this forum have endorsed even more dangerous driving by slowing down to encourage tailgating or refusing to let people pass just because you're doing the speed limit. You are causing as much of a hazard as they are and honestly, why would you want a maniac like you've been describing driving behind you and posing a serious risk? It's a lot easier to watch what's coming at you instead of focusing on what or who's behind you.

savmar01
4
Points
savmar01 08/02/11 - 07:43 pm
0
0
S2

Read the statute S2. Perhaps you can point me in the direction of where you are getting your facts because I don't see all of them in there?

The statute says nothing about under the speed limit, though you are correct on the school buses, tow trucks, the need to pass safely, etc.

s2wheel
55
Points
s2wheel 08/02/11 - 10:46 pm
0
0
(the law would apply only if

(the law would apply only if the road in front of the driver is unobstructed, if he or she is traveling under the speed limit, and if it's safe for him or her to pull over to let others pass.) that statment was in the bill that came up when this was passed. now everybody knows that has had to take a drivers test, that the law requires us to drive the posted speed limit,so as i stated before those that are speeding (and I mean 65 to70 or more) are breaking the law, and should get a citation for doing so.I drive 55 to 60 that is fast enough.When you are driving too fast not only are you a road hazard to other traffic but we do have wildlife on the roads and when something jumps out in front of you you dont have time to stop , so therefore you wreck your car or swerve to miss it and hit another car.We need to use our brains god gave us.

JOAT
490
Points
JOAT 08/03/11 - 07:59 am
0
0
It's not about speed, it's about the lines and the spacing

Well akm, my driving record is perfect. My job demands it. I also have extensive training in offensive emergency vehicle driving. I *can* weave a fire truck or an ambulance through that traffic mess at 75mph without a scratch. But defensive driving always trumps offensive driving. When you get to peel human bodies out of smashed up cars a few times, you quickly realize just how stupid bad driving really is. The general public at large is not trained in offensive driving, yet they saw it in a movie once, so they think they can do it on the road. Then someone gets dead.

Now we have people claiming that it was the good drivers, following the posted speed limit, spaced at the proper distance, and staying between the lines that somehow caused the bad driver to exceed the speed limit (illegal), tailgate (illegal), and cross the line into oncoming traffic (illegal). And it's not the bad driver's fault because they were in a hurry to get somewhere? Really? What color is the sky in your world?

Reckless and Negligent driving has little to do with speed but everything to do with manner. It is the reckless behavior more than the speed which causes these accidents. If you ever find yourself in a hurry on the road, then YOU are doing it wrong and YOU are the one who needs to change.

savmar01
4
Points
savmar01 08/03/11 - 08:20 am
0
0
You guys are right!

Let me say, that I completely agree with you guys that the speeders are a huge problem and people need to slow it up, but I think we all know that it's not going to happen anytime soon, if ever.

A bigger police presence would be beneficial, but they can't be everywhere all the time, we know that, too.

And I think the most defensive thing you could do in a situation like that would be to pull over and let traffic pass. Not slow down or act in a reckless manner that perpetuates the problem. My opinion, but I don't want "That Guy" behind my vehicle (which is almost carrying my most precious cargo-my family), better to let him pass, take a license number and/or a description and call the Troopers.

S2, the bill did say that in its infancy. During the committee process, it was amended several times and the provision citing those going under the speed limit needed to pull over was taken out in the House version of the bill. The final bill that was concurred by the Senate and signed by the Governor did not include that language. I was there when this legislation went through and was disappointed in the change, but the intention was to make the roads safer.

Have a great hump day, guys and stay safe. :-)

jlmh
352
Points
jlmh 08/03/11 - 04:44 pm
0
0
"Road rage" describes

"Road rage" describes reckless fast drivers, as well as vindictive slow drivers. JOAT's post about how s/he "punishes" tailgaters is a perfect example of this. Rather than play immature games with drivers who bother you, motorists should make safe choices. If you slow down from 58 mph to 53 mph to annoy the driver behind you, he's likely to get frustrated and pass you before it's safe. And the innocent car full of children in the oncoming lane will be the one he hits, as a result of your silly vengeance game. As a mother of 3, I request that you grow up and knock it off.

I like to drive 55 mph on the Sterling Highway. Most people drive faster, so I quickly accumulate 5+ cars behind me, even though I'm driving within the speed limit. Instead of getting cocky because I'm obeying the law, I just pull over! They're going to speed no matter what I do, so it's best if I don't make them pass me in the oncoming lane.

witchwitch
51
Points
witchwitch 08/03/11 - 06:17 pm
0
0
Driving the speed limit

I drive the speed limit, but when I am tailgated I slow down. There's nothing vindictive about that. If the person behind me creates a dangerous situation by following too closely, I always slow down for safety.

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