Wednesday, August 28, 2019




        No one doubts there’s a crisis in California housing. State lawmakers took plenty of actions this summer, getting set to pass a batch of bills that Gov. Gavin Newsom will gladly sign into law.

        These will temporarily suspend the right of cities and counties to make new building standards, raise fees on low-income housing construction or impose moratoria on new housing. They will streamline the approval process for housing developments where income of buyers or renters is limited to 120 percent of the area’s median income. And other tactics aimed at making housing available to those with lower middle-class incomes.

        But no one appears to be looking out for first-time home buyers, mostly hopeful young adults who often save for years toward the usual 15 percent to 20 percent down payment on a house or condominium.

        Those folks face a real crisis. A new study from the international real estate service firm Point2 Homes notes that the share of first-time buyers in the total sales nationally and in California dropped from 50 percent in 2010 to 33 percent in 2018, and even lower this year, which is not yet complete.

        At the same time, the median price (half of all homes are above this level, half below) of an entry-level home has risen faster than home prices in the move-up buyer segment, people getting their second or third homes. First-time buyers pay 31 percent more today nationally than 10 years ago, the study showed, but far more in California.

        Meanwhile, repeat buyers pay only about 28 percent more on average than in 2010.

        Part of this comes because home prices were depressed during the mortgage crisis that helped fuel the Great Recession of 2008-11. But most of it is due to the continuing upward swing of almost all home prices, most notably in California.

        This is true even now that prices appear to be leveling off in some parts of the state. Home prices increased by 35 percent nationally in the years since the crash, but in parts of California, the rise was much steeper.

        In San Diego, for one example, the average home price rose by 101 percent, more than doubling. San Francisco was only slightly behind, with a 100 percent rise from a median price of $638,661 in 2009 to $1.274 million last year. Never before has California seen such large increases.

        The huge problem this creates for youthful prospective first-time home buyers is unprecedented and constitutes a crisis state government must address. If California doesn’t take care of its young adults, many of whom are also young parents, many of those people will go elsewhere, a trend that has already begun. These same folks often make up the most educated portion of the state’s workforce, so businesses will follow to wherever they move in large numbers.

        Yes, this might ease the traffic gridlock afflicting many urban areas of California, but it can also lead to recession. If they go, they will lessen demand for new housing, costing thousands of construction jobs and lowering the state’s tax receipts just as it has taken on new responsibilities like providing Medi-Cal health insurance to many more residents.

        It could also lower the equity now held by millions of homeowners, for whom their living quarters represent by far their largest assets.

        So what’s California to do? The state could begin by dedicating some of its current $21 billion budget surplus to helping young home buyers whose purchasing power has dropped precipitously through no fault of their own.      One way to start could be a low-interest loan fund for first-time buyers amounting to several billion dollars that could enable this vital group to get onto the housing merry-go-round that has so frustrated them.

        If California had what could amount to its own version of Fannie Mae, the Federal National Mortgage Assn., it could stem the flow of educated young persons to other states and make its economy almost recession-proof.

        But so far, Newsom and the Legislature appear focused on Band-Aids rather than the needed radical surgery. As it stands, they brag about increasing housing, but ignore a major chunk of the problem.

     Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to




        Since California legislators in July passed the utility bailout plan known as AB 1054, the deal wangled by lobbyists for companies like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric looks worse every day.

        It’s not only that the utilities quickly volunteered to contribute more than $10 billion as their share of the bankroll for the state’s new Wildfire Fund, but also that the state can now issue unlimited bonds to pay off liabilities rung up by the utilities, which have been found at least partially responsible for several of the firestorms which hit many parts of the state in 2017 and 2018. Utility customers will have their rates raised whenever needed to pay off those bonds. There’s no limit on this, either.

        Here’s one reason the deal looks so bad even before it’s had to be activated: It turns out this bill was spurred not only by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who accepted more than $200,000 in campaign money from PG&E last year, but also because of that company’s heavy spending on the lobbyists who actually wrote AB 1054.

        According to a lawsuit seeking to strike down the new law on grounds it amounts to an unlawful gift of public funds to the privately-owned utilities, PG&E alone spent more than $12 million lobbying legislators and another $14 million lobbying Congress.

        That was after contributing $550,000 to sitting legislators, $1.32 million combined to the Republican and Democratic state and county political parties – plus that $200,000 to Newsom during the 2018 election cycle in which he was elected. All this from a company that was in bankruptcy through much of the election cycle and the spring and summer legislative session.

        If this does not sound quite pure, that’s probably because it’s not.

        Then there’s what the bill also authorized, in fact demanded: Power shutdowns whenever the utilities think there could be a danger of fire caused by their power lines. The shutdowns can last more than a week; some might linger even longer. This pressures homeowners and businesses to buy expensive generators or solar paneling to produce their own electricity at times whenever utilities try to protect themselves from new liabilities caused by their inadequate maintenance practices of the past three decades.

        Meanwhile, the law sets no standards for conditions that must exist in order for power to be cut off in potential fire areas. 

        This represented an enormous show of trust by Newsom and legislators for the very companies that have been shown to be repeatedly irresponsible. PG&E has even been convicted in federal court of criminal negligence, but not a single executive or manager served a day in prison or paid a penny in fines for the conviction, which therefore had little or no sting.

        At the same time, state officials continue refusing to provide lawyers and reporters the fiscal impact report required of the state Department of Finance prior to the very brief, very greased legislative hearings that preceded passage of AB 1054.

        Attorney Michael Aguirre of San Diego, who has represented fire victims in several cases, demanded those fiscal reports because they are the only fairly reliable forecast of how much AB 1054 is likely to cost Californians. Said Aguirre in a court filing, “There was a compelling public interest in a timely…production of those records because (Newsom) imposed a deadline of July 12 for passage of AB 1054.” That date was just one week after the bill got an almost total rewrite.

        The upshot is that no one knows how much any of this will cost utility customers individually or as a class, nor how much it will cost citizens to prepare for prophylactic power outages. Property owners in potential fire zones also have no way to know which of their trees or shrubs will be chopped off by utility crews doing power line maintenance that should have been completed years ago, as consumers have long paid a monthly maintenance charge via their bills.

        It adds up to a terrible law passed on a wave of utility spending and government panic, one whose negative consequences may far exceed any fire prevention benefits it might eventually provide

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Monday, August 26, 2019




        It seemed almost like Gov. Gavin Newsom was channeling President Trump – in reverse – the other day, when his administration unilaterally ordered farmers in this, the nation’s most productive agricultural state, to stop using a pesticide often deployed on 60 different crops, including some of California’s most prolific.

        For certain, it’s high time someone acted to take the controversial chemical chlorpyrifos out of use before it can harm anyone else. Because it will take two years to become final, Newsom’s action is not quite as immediate as some might like, but it’s the most California has ever done to get rid of this poison.

        The product, made by DowDuPont Inc., whose component Dow Chemical Co. once produced the infamous chemical weapon napalm, is not your ordinary pest killer. It’s an organophosphate concoction chemically similar to and based upon the nerve gas Zyklon B used by Nazi Germany to execute six million Jews and eight million other victims in its notorious World War II era death camps.

        The chemical can control a wide range of insects on crops as varied as grapes, almonds, oranges, walnuts, apples, pears and other fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in many parts of California.

        But it also harms brain development, especially memory and quick thinking, in babies and small children, plus it has caused severe headaches and fainting among farm workers in fields where it has been sprayed and adjacent areas. Said Jared Blumenfeld, California Environmental Protection Agency chief, “This was first put on the market in 1965, so it’s been on the shelf a long time and is well past its sell-by date.”

        No one knows how widely the pesticide is spread by winds and the force of sprayers.

        The Newsom administration’s action, a move taken directly by the state Department of Pesticide Regulation and not by the governor himself, came after Hawaii banned the substance last year and New York legislators passed a law against it. But the two-year process needed for the order to become final will give President Trump’s administration time to resist the move, as federal authorities have done for more than a decade.

        They do this despite an order from the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where an 11-member en banc panel ruled last August that chlorpyrifos must go.

        Newsom, however, does not intend to leave farmers without a reliable pesticide. His May budget proposal included $5.7 million for additional research and technical assistance to get new products on the market.

        Pesticide regulators will also help stage seminars to encourage use of biologically integrated pest management on more California farms. This effort could prove similar to what CalTrans did in the early 1990s, when the thousands of California pepper trees planted along freeways were imperiled by an insect called the pepper psyllid. The highway department imported millions of tiny insects from Peru that were known to feast on psyllids but do other harm, and today there is no more psyllid threat.

        This demonstrates that while some farmers moan that “We’re trying to protect ourselves from deadly (plant) diseases and we keep losing tools,” creative natural solutions often exist. Farmers can also fight insects with botanically-sourced pesticides like cinnamon oil and garlic oil, and some have already switched to another family of insecticides called neonicitinoids. One problem with that family: It can threaten bees, even though it’s easier on people.

        There are already signs that most farmers realize their era of using chlorpyrifos is nearly over. Its use is down about 50 percent in California since 2005, to just under 1 million pounds in 2016 and even less today, state figures show.

        Farmers who refuse to see this handwriting on the wall, especially after Newsom’s move, could be left struggling to find a substitute when the actual ban arrives in 2021. They’re better off if they act now, getting ahead of the game and maybe even making hay by advertising their use of safer food-saving products.       

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




       For years, anti-vaccination activists have demonstrated against laws compelling schoolchildren to be inoculated against diseases like polio, rubella, measles, mumps, diphtheria, whooping cough and others. Now for the first time, this cause has turned violent in an apparent recognition that it will get nowhere on the strength of its own merits and morality.

       The violence was not severe – this time: Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan, the California Legislature’s only M.D. and a pediatrician sworn to protect and save lives when possible, was pushed aggressively from behind while walking a street near the state Capitol in mid-August, within his own Sacramento senatorial district. He did not fall and suffered no apparent harm.

       The perpetrator (not named here because notoriety is often a goal of such assaults) resents Pan’s sponsoring several bills tightening California’s vaccination requirements. These have made matters difficult for parents who don’t want their children immunized, seeking to evade the shots while still keeping the kids in public schools. Anti-vaxx groups immediately denied association with the perpetrator, calling him a “lone wolf.” But they embraced him just last year, when he tried to oust Pan both in the primary election and via a still-active recall petition.

       Pan’s latest bill requires the state health department to review exemption forms written by doctors who sign more than five such waivers in any one year. The bill aims to correct a scenario where hundreds, maybe thousands, of parents have sought out scurrilous physicians willing to sign spurious exemptions for fees of about $300 apiece.

       The anti-vaccination effort mainly uses unproven claims that vaccinations cause autism and other serious reactions. A British study making those claims early in this decade was long ago debunked, its author recanting.

       Little more than this discredited study, plus purely anecdotal claims confusing correlation with causation, has ever been used to justify exemptions for anyone other than kids affected by things like organ transplants, HIV or ongoing chemotherapy.

       So the vast bulk of parents trying to exempt their kids essentially disregards the proven fact that vaccinations virtually eliminated once-dreaded diseases like polio and vastly minimized fatalities from measles, for one example which killed thousands of children annually as recently as the early 1960s.

On the basis of what amount to folk tales about autism, these parents choose to endanger all others with whom their children might come into contact if they are infected and contagious, but don’t yet know it. Such circumstances produced several significant outbreaks in California within the last six years, exposure to measles occurring at places like Disneyland and the Los Angeles International Airport.

       The moral weakness of the anti-vaccination stance is obvious, no matter how often activists masquerade as crusaders for “medical freedom.” Medical freedom can be a just cause when, for example, cancer patients with terminal diagnoses are denied access to experimental drugs or remedies not yet approved by government agencies. Things are very different when the goal is avoidance of vaccines proven effective over many decades.

       That contrast explains why Pan’s previous bills zipped through the Legislature, ending religious exemptions that formerly applied even when families involved followed no discernible religion. It’s also why the current bill had no trouble getting through state Senate committees and appears poised for Assembly passage and a signature from Gov. Gavin Newsom.

       The anti-vaccination camp has failed for lack of merit to convince many lawmakers of the morality of its cause, frustrating adherents like the man who assaulted Pan while live-streaming his action on Facebook.

       It’s easy enough to blame an episode like this on today’s contentious political climate, but devotees of morally bankrupt causes have long resorted to violence and threats. The Ku Klux Klan does this; so do other hate groups. And the anti-vaccination camp has never been reluctant to make veiled threats, often painting Pan as a danger to children who should be punished.

     All of which makes the assault on Pan as much an admission of moral, intellectual and political failure as anything else.

     Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Monday, August 19, 2019




       A little-noticed special election in a “purple” Los Angeles city council district that suffered enormous utility-linked environmental damage over the last few years carries a major negative portent for the “Green New Deal” pushed avidly by some significant Democratic presidential candidates. Parts of the same proposed package are also embraced by California Gov. Gavin Newsom and much of the Democratic-dominated state Legislature.

       This was just about the only point of outside interest in a mid-August vote within an area of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley that has long elected Republicans to the city council, but to no other major office.

       The district includes most areas severely impacted by the 2015 methane leak from the Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon storage farm set in hills just uphill from the large Porter Ranch development on the north edge of Los Angeles. This disaster, largest natural gas leak in American history, continued for months into 2016 before it was staunched. It produced headaches, illness, thousands of evacuations, lower property values and a spate of lawsuits and fines – so far. Many individuals report they are still affected by lingering effects of the gas plume.

       So if any part of Los Angeles should have been enthusiastic about Mayor Eric Garcetti’s version of the Green New Deal environmental program, it should have been this district, so recently a victim of environmental depredation.

       What’s more, Democratic voter registration has increased in the area, just as in most of California, making this longtime Republican red stronghold into a “purple” area where either party has about an equal chance for electoral victory. “Blue” registration in the district now tops “red” by about 20 percent.

       The council seat became vacant earlier this year, when GOP incumbent Mitchell Englander went to work for a major sports and entertainment promotion firm. Into the race stepped Englander’s chief of staff John Lee and environmental activist/astrophysicist Loraine Lundquist, a professor at nearby Cal State Northridge. Lundquist has been an activist in efforts to close Aliso Canyon and hold Southern California Gas financially responsible for damages caused by its gas leak.

       While the local version of the green new deal was not the only major issue in this race, it was a significant one. The not-yet-adopted Los Angeles plan would completely eliminate single-use waste items like plastic straws, Styrofoam cups and take-out containers, with no trash at all going to landfills by 2050. It would also recycle all of the city’s waste water by 2035, seeks to put one-fourth of the city’s motorists into electric or other zero-emissions cars by 2025 and 80 percent by 2035, and wants to make the Port of Los Angeles (America’s busiest seaport) carbon-emission free within a decade. This is intended as a model for other cities.

       Good luck!, the voters seemed to say the other day, electing Republican Lee by a 4 percent margin in a nominally non-partisan election. Of course, Republicans have a long record of turning out in higher percentages than Democrats in special elections – and only 32,000 total voters participated. Plus, there’s a longstanding Los Angeles tradition where chiefs of staff often succeed departing incumbents on the strength of the contacts they’ve built up by working within the same districts.

Which gives Lundquist a decent chance to reverse the special election outcome when the seat comes up again in a city election set to coincide with the presidential primary next spring, sure to bring a much higher turnout.

       Nevertheless, if the green new deal is not a winning issue in a district that suffered greatly from the Aliso Canyon debacle, there’s some question it can be a winning issue in other swing areas around the nation.

       That’s something for ultra-liberal Democratic politicians like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to think about as they continue claiming an even wider-ranging green new deal should be imposed across America.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




       Just over six months from today, we will know the outcome of California’s primary election, the earliest big-state primary of the election season and possibly the most important of them all.

       So far in this election season, one big thing has become clear: While President Trump has no serious rival in his Republican reelection bid, no Democratic candidate has emerged as likely to knock him off nationally.

       In fact, if the primary were held today, Trump would score more votes in California than anyone else, even as the total Democratic count would swamp his.

       Every significant public poll also now indicates there is no sign of a favorite son or daughter phenomenon here in the nation’s most populous state.

       Those polls do show only a few candidates in the current vast Democratic field would actually win national nominating convention delegates here if the vote were held today.

The California standings look pretty much like the national numbers, with former Vice President Joseph Biden leading with about 23 percent support among likely Democratic voters, to 17 percent for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 15 percent for Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders and California’s own Kamala Harris at about 13 percent. In fifth place at just under 10 percent is South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, with a severe dropoff after that to the four percent drawn by former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke. No one else gets enough support statewide to win delegates.

       The meaning of all this should be clear to anyone who has followed American elections for the last half century, since primaries became the prime method for choosing convention delegates: Democrats urgently need a stronger candidate.

       To beat Trump, that candidate would have to unify the party’s ultra-left wing, very vocal during the early presidential debates, and its moderates, the base of Biden’s continued support despite his lame debate showings. Such a candidate would require strong support from women voters and Latinos, as well as white males. Strong liberal stances would be a must; so would a record of standing up to Trump.

There is a candidate right here who checks all those boxes: Gov. Gavin Newsom. He’s been far from perfect in his eight months at the state’s helm, but still meets all the apparent prerequisites.

       Start with Newsom’s strong showing in last fall’s election, the first time he topped a statewide ballot. That would have made him a presidential prospect immediately, except for two factors: He has never opposed the ambitions of Harris, his friend, fellow protégé of former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and former colleague in city government, a woman with whom he even shares campaign consultants. Neither Newsom nor his campaign gurus say Word One about joining the race as a late entrant, but you can be sure they salivate while watching Democratic debates.

       Of course, Newsom promised last fall he would not run for president this year. He also has never stood in Harris’ way when she pursues her ambitions. But the longer this campaign goes, the more obvious it becomes that Harris won’t be the Democratic flag-bearer.

       Why? Start with the fact she’s never been a tremendous favorite in her home state (her first race for statewide office wasn’t decided until after Thanksgiving, an underwhelming performance in heavily Democratic California).

       Harris has no major constituency all her own within her party. Sure, she hypes Medicare for all, but Sanders and Warren were there long before she entered the Senate. Sure, she’s tough on crime, but so is Biden, to the point where it might turn off some minority voters.

       Newsom, meanwhile, gave away the store to utility companies via this summer’s bailout legislation, but he also has brought early childhood education into the limelight, aided gays, supported rent controls and housing construction and pleased labor unions at every turn. He denied parole to several serious killers, fights Trump almost daily and is business-friendly to a fault. These are necessities for a unifying Democratic candidate.

       So if Democrats really want to win next fall (and there can be doubts about that), they have a potential unifier right in front of them.


    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Friday, August 16, 2019

Alaska travel, bonus coverage for California Focus clients; Denali travel sidebar

Alaska travel, bonus coverage for California Focus clients; Denali travel sidebar

By Thomas D. Elias

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska -- The Athabaska Indians gave this place its name -- the Great One, or the High One, take your pick -- thousands of years ago, millennia before white Americans dubbed the 20,320-foot peak Mt. McKinley in the late 19th Century.

Now the  Great One has its old name back, not that there's any sign it ever noticed the change or cared what anyone called it. Regardless of name, it’s still the highest peak in North America.

 Modern Native Americans insisted on the name change and the National Park Service went along, so you will
barely find the name of the late President William McKinley anywhere in the 6.07 million-acre park.

     But you will find plenty else. A 1,700-member caribou herd, countless moose which sometimes wander right up to the park's sole significant road as they feed on tree leaves and other green matter. Grizzly bears can pop up almost anywhere in the park, plus foxes, coyotes, marmots, jackrabbits that love sitting in the middle of the park’s only road and much more.

      This is not the most accessible of national parks, but it might just be the most natural in the 190-some park system whose units appear from the Virgin Islands and Florida Keys to the Hawaiian Islands, from Acadia National Park in Maine to the Channel Islands in Southern California.

      To get here, you can drive the Alaska Highway, running north through the Canadian province of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory, ending up near 18,008-foot Mt. St. Elias, in an eponymous national park, another spectacular peak in southwestern Alaska. Denali’s parking lots are peppered with license plates from places like Texas, Colorado, Washington State and California.

     But most people get here by plane and rental car or a ship-and-train combination. That's how it works for passengers from Princess Cruise ships that ply the Alaska coast from Seattle and Vancouver, BC, often docking in Whittier, not far from Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. Many are bused from ship to train, then stay in a Princess-branded hotel less than a mile from the park entrance.

     Those passengers then must leave luxury buses behind if they want to see Denali and its wildlife, switching to converted school buses painted in Park Service green and tan, their passengers encouraged to shout out for the driver to stop so they can gaze at leisure at a moose or bear that may be right nearby, or as much as two miles off.

     That's right -- larger animals here can be spotted at great distances from the road because most of Denali is tundra, with grassy plains and mountainsides offering grand vistas to the High One (when it's not behind a cloud bank, which means about one day out of three).

     So the park buses that everyone here rides for tours or just to reach campgrounds beyond the 14 miles of park road that’s paved, stop often and long to take in the wildlife.

     The most popular organized tour here, the eight-hour Tundra Wildlife Tour, begins a mere mile from the park entrance and goes 62 miles into the preserve, crossing wide rivers whose beds are filled with islands of dirt, rock and whatever else has washed off the mountainsides in the last week or so. Cost is $192 for adults, $87.50 for children.

     The bus we took on a July visit stopped every 10 minutes or so, whenever a keen-eyed passenger sang out that an animal was in sight. Driver-guide Mike Reifler happily hopped out from behind the wheel to man a long-lensed video camera that brought close-ups of grizzly bears wrestling playfully beside streams, bull moose standing protective guard as female moose and their kids grazed nearby and caribou seemingly in a rush to get somewhere. The show went onto drop-down video screens placed every few rows in the tour’s modified Bluebird school bus.

     "This is just a great job," Reifler confided to his charges. "I get to see the big mountain often, I get to be out in this fabulously beautiful country every day; it's my dream life." His wife also drives Tundra Wildlife Tour buses ("We try to schedule on different school days, so we can take care of our child care needs," Mike said.).

     His obvious pleasure became infectious, with passengers continuously eager to stop the bus for new encounters right down to the end of the 8-hours.

     This is a time-consuming way to see a unique national park, but on it you'll see details that never show up on small airplane tours that can cut through the clouds and get views of the High One just about every day.

     It also costs much less than plane trips offered, for one example, by Fly Denali, which operates from Healy, closest town to the park. These run $549 per adult for 100 minutes of flying time, $412 for children. That trip also includes landing and walking on a glacier for about 20 minutes. Other flying tours are available from Talkeetna, about 45 miles from the base of the big mountain, and just over 120 miles from Denali National Park by car.


Alaska Travel - Bonus coverage for California Focus column clients

Alaska Travel - Bonus coverage for California Focus column clients

    By Thomas D. Elias
    SEWARD, Alaska – A two-week trip to some of this vast state’s major population centers and some smaller towns, too, revealed the truth of the message on t-shirts commonly sold here – “Untamed.”

     At times in this fantastically scenic, rough-and-ready state, a visitor feels like the Wild West is still alive.

     Sitting in the Starbucks coffee shop section of an IGA grocery just outside the charming little town of Talkeetna, only 100 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, yielded one illustrative vignette:
     At the next table, a young man flirted with an attractive young woman. It seemed ordinary until a glance down revealed a holstered .45 caliber pistol hanging from the boy’s belt.

     Or take a hike beside a river near Denali National Park and you might notice a sign hanging from a buoy: “No shooting in the water.”

     This raw quality has survived more than 160 years of Alaska being American territory and 60 as a full-fledged state, one that produced onetime vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who seems a natural product of the society she grew up in.
     “We are few people in a vast, beautifully dangerous land,” said a letter to the editor of a newspaper.

     More and more residents of the Lower 48 states appear eager to see this place, enough to make tourism a $2 billion industry here, second only to petroleum in its economic impact.

       There are myriad opportunities for visitors to see this almost measureless land, more than three times larger than California, with a coastline four times longer than the Golden State’s – and a population of barely 700,000.

     Single-engine float planes take off every minute or two from Lake Hood, beside the Anchorage airport and just outside the coffee shop of the Lakefront Anchorage Hotel. They’re headed for tours of the 20,320-foot Denali mountain, formerly known as Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak. They’re also taking fly fisherman to lodges alongside lakes deep in the Alaskan interior.

       Almost every significant town offers helicopter tours of wild coastal lands and huge mountains including the four 16,000-foot-plus peaks in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Some choppers and planes land atop glaciers, which have receded by many miles, but still offer smooth landing areas and walkable surfaces.

     You can also land on the slopes of 18,008-foot Mt. St. Elias and many other sharp peaks. But for some, staying on the surface of land and sea offers the most satisfaction – and far lower costs than air tours, which can cost upwards of $800 per hour per person.

     Here are a few attractions for those folks:

n   The 26 Glacier boat tour on Prince William Sound southeast of Anchorage. For
$159 for adults ($80 for children), Phillips Tours will pick you up at any of three Anchorage hotels for an 11-hour adventure where you’ll not only see glaciers calving tons of ice into the sea every hour or two, but can also take note of clear marks on nearby cliffs showing how far those glaciers reached less than a century ago.

     The six-hour catamaran ride is so smooth Phillips offers a “no seasickness” guarantee and captains of its ships like the Klondike Explorer and the Bravest actively seek out and stop near wildlife. We saw humpback whales, harbor seals, sea otters, sea lions, moose and bald eagles and their huge nests.

     A national forest ranger providing commentary on board pointed out the effects of global warming, including evidence that some glaciers have receded more than two miles in just the last two years.

     He wasn’t shy about discussing this, even though he technically works for President Trump, the nation’s leading climate change denier. “No one is muzzling us,” said the ranger. Still, his name is not given here to protect him from potential repercussions.

n There are also no muzzles on the predominantly female corps of ship captains giving commentary aboard the several ships operated by Major Marine Cruises from Seward, about 120 miles south of Anchorage. These depart from behind the waterfront Harbor 360 hotel. Major Marine runs tours of up to 8 ½ hours, priced from $89 for a 3 ½-hour wildlife jaunt to $224 for its longest trip, which features three active tidewater glaciers calving into the remote Northwestern Fjord. This one is billed as the company’s best option for wildlife photography.

   The shortest tour, down Resurrection Bay and into the Gulf of Alaska, also offers myriad glacier views and plenty of wildlife, from puffins to huge fin whales, the second-largest creatures on earth.

n  On foot. If you’re visiting Seward, where snowcapped peaks are visible year-‘round just across the
700-foot-deep Resurrection Bay, you can also see a glacier up close and personal, and free, even in the 85-degree weather we encountered.

     This is the Exit Glacier, protruding down from the 700-square-mile Harding Icefield into Kenai Fjords National Park just 12 miles northwest of town.

   The approach road features year signs showing how far the Exit Glacier extended in 1899, 1901, 1920, 1959 and more recent years. Some signs pop up along the two-mile Glacier Overlook loop trail that starts at a small visitor center where park rangers were not collecting fees when we arrived.

n Anyone who likes driving to remote areas will likely appreciate Denali Jeep Excursions along the gravel Denali Highway just south of the national park, about 250 miles north of Anchorage. Most car rental contracts in Alaska forbid driving unpaved roads. The park itself has only one road, paved for just 14 miles into its tundra interior.

    So driving more than 100 miles in a Jeep caravan to areas frequented by moose, grizzly bears, beavers and much more wildlife can be fun. For $169 per adult, Denali Jeep Excursions will pick you up at major area hotels like the Denali Princess and the Grand Denali Lodge and deliver you to a jeep compound 18 miles south of the park, near Cantwell, a hamlet of just a few buildings.

     Two-way CB radios link Jeeps on the caravan as the tour leader spots animals and delivers folksy commentary in a strong Alabama accent. You see the glacial sources of the Nenana River, a major Yukon River tributary that flows just outside Denali National Park, and you might even glimpse Denali itself on a clear day – only about 30 percent of visitors actually see the mountain.

    But you will for sure see trumpeter swans on a lake created by a beaver lodge and from the guides you’ll hear unforgettable phrases like, “men, please use the facili-trees,” just before a brief pit stop.

   It also can be easy and feel more authentic to avoid chain hotels in Alaska, even though there are Hiltons and a Sheraton in Anchorage and Best Westerns in several places.

     For one example, near Denali National Park there’s the Denali Lakeview Inn, a modern structure where almost all rooms overlook Otto Lake and several 5,000-foot Alaska Range mountains behind it. For about $230, you’ll get personal service, plus a large breakfast stowed in the refrigerator of each room, to be enjoyed whenever you like.

   Seward’s Harbor 360 offers large, modern rooms right on the waterfront for $314 per king-bedded accommodation with breakfast. This hotel features a year-‘round indoor swimming pool and hot tub.

   At Talkeetna, the log-cabin-style Susnitsa River Lodge offers large rooms and cabins for about $199, with the river of the same name flowing rapidly past beneath your veranda. We got our best views of Denali (and some of our best meals) in this small town 45 miles from the southern base of the former Mt. McKinley.

     Add it up and there are plenty of highly-civilized ways to see America’s last frontier by land and sea, even if you don’t like small planes and helicopters. Or add in a chopper or plane ride, too. But always be aware that most of Alaska looks and feels much as it did when the English explorer Captain James Cook landed at what is now Anchorage in 1778.
     Thomas Elias writes the California Focus syndicated column appearing in more than 90 California newspapers.

Monday, August 12, 2019




       Billboards offering home delivery of legal marijuana decorate the streets of every major city in California. Licensed pot shops sporting green crosses are commonplace. Their owners lobby for reductions in sales, excise and cultivation taxes on legal weed. Cannabinoid extracts and other products are widely advertised. And legal growers and sellers bemoan threats to their trade from black market marijuana.

       Ever since voters passed the 2016 Proposition 64 by a margin of almost 3-2, pot has been a hot commodity, its recreational use supposedly limited to adults in California. But no one seriously believes adolescents cannot get it if and when they like.

       In all this, the positive effects of cannabis are often cited. It helps alleviate pain for cancer patients and others. It makes folks more relaxed. Some people enjoy its odor and the atmosphere that can accompany its use.

       Meanwhile, the negatives of the weed seem almost forgotten in all its hype and popularity.

       And yet…new research is showing that marijuana has even more deleterious effects than were previously known. Yes, before legalization, pot was long considered an “entry” drug, said to lead users toward later use of cocaine, heroin and other narcotics.

       Its negative effects of sometimes causing short-term memory problems, severe anxiety, psychotic and incorrect perceptions of reality, panic, hallucinations, lower reaction times, increased heart rates and risk of stroke and problems with coordination were all known long before the legalization vote.

       These were some of the reasons Congress never imitated the actions of voters here and in other states like Colorado and Washington, where pot use also is now legal, while possession, use and sale remain federal crimes.

       Now comes new information about even more potential harmful effects that Californians should consider before visiting any nearby cannabis outlet or ordering home delivery.

       In a paper published this spring by the American Psychiatric Association’s newsletter Psychiatric News, McGill University Prof. Gabriella Gobbi, who holds both MD and PhD degrees, reports that “younger users of cannabis, age 14 and 15, (are) at significantly higher risk of suicidal behaviors.” The report adds that teenagers who use pot before age 18 are 50 percent more likely than non-users to have thoughts of suicide and more than three times more likely to actually attempt suicide while young adults.

       These problems are more common than ever before, Gobbi notes, because more than one-third of all American high school seniors surveyed in studies involving more than 23,000 participants reported using pot in 2018 (a total of 36 percent), with vaping of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, a crystalline compound that is the main active ingredient of pot) rising to record levels.

       The fact that adults voted to legalize recreational marijuana (it became legal for medicinal use in California when Proposition 215 passed in 1996) also has a strong effect on how youngsters perceive the weed.

       Said the psychiatric group’s report, “Perceptions of harm and disapproval of marijuana use have trended down…with only one in four high school seniors agreeing that regular marijuana use poses a great risk.” That fear rate stands at less than half what it was 10 years ago.

       All this puts California teenagers – and those in other states where pot use is completely legal – in danger, occasionally mortal danger. Their mental performance and capability can be affected by pot use. Their rates of depression and suicide risk are far higher than before legalization. These things are true even if kids quit using the weed before graduating high school.

       “Quitting cannabis by the end of adolescence (does) not protect people from some of the serious effects of the drug,” said the study.

       All of which makes legalized marijuana more of a threat to public health, especially the health of young people, than even anti-legalization forces claimed during the 2016 campaign around Prop. 64.

       If high schools and middle schools can teach youngers about the dangers of alcohol, and many do, this new information makes it vital for them also to teach techniques for resisting peer pressure for marijuana smoking and other forms of pot use.

       If there’s ever been a time of urgent need for better drug prevention focused on cannabis, this is it. For the weed is at least as dangerous as alcohol.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit