Budget Cuts Stifle Rural Hunters, Fishers
$200,000 SAVED: Boards of game, fish no longer travel to Bush to hear citizens' views.

Joel Gay / Anchorage daily News / July 12, 2003


Kotzebue hunters were looking forward to November, when they could meet face-to-face with the Alaska Board of Game and lobby for new hunting regulations that will affect all of Western Alaska.

Now they'll have to fly to Anchorage to talk with the board.

Similarly, fishermen from Tuntutuliak and Emmonak who hoped to greet the Board of Fisheries next winter in Bethel will have to change their plans. The Fish Board meeting to review Kuskokwim and Yukon issues has been moved to Fairbanks.

The two boards make the rules for Alaska's world-renowned hunting and fishing. Under budget cuts announced by the Department of Fish and Game this week, the boards are dropping travel to the Bush. And when they do meet -- now only in Anchorage, Fairbanks or Juneau -- the boards will have less time to listen to testimony or debate the merits of a proposal.

The move will save the state perhaps $200,000 a year, according to Fish and Game estimates.

But some hunters, fishermen and former state biologists say the new restrictions will limit Alaskans' voices in the rule-making, dimming the state's highly vaunted system of wildlife management.

"Alaska has one of the most looked-up-to management systems in the nation, perhaps the world," said Cordova mayor and former Fish and Game biologist Tim Joyce. "When you have something that works, why fix it? I think they need to be careful."

After statehood, fish and game policy was set by a single board, picked by the governor and confirmed by the Alaska Legislature. As its work load increased, the board eventually split into separate seven-member panels.

But the work has expanded. The Game Board in recent years has met a total of 22 days. The Fish Board convened 46 days last year in half a dozen separate meetings. Both boards often meet in the region whose regulations are being discussed.

A shrinking state budget forced the cutbacks, said Jim Marcotte, the Fairbanks-based executive director of the Game Board.

"The reality is that we've got limited resources and limited staff. We're being spread thinner. But given that, we'll do the best we can," he said.

The Game Board will meet only 18 days in the coming year. It is moving its Western Alaska/Arctic meeting from Kotzebue to Anchorage. A meeting to tackle statewide game issues in Anchorage has been combined with another that focuses on Interior regulations and moved to Fairbanks.

The Fish Board is cutting 10 days off its schedule, though board chairman Ed Dersham said that does not worry him. The Anchor Point lodge owner and charter fisherman said the current board members are less talkative than their predecessors.

"I think if we really buckle down, we can do the work in fewer days," he said. "In a way, it makes it better for the public. They don't have to stay" to testify and wait for the board to act.

Four fewer days should save the state $50,000 to $60,000 by lowering hotel, restaurant and meeting room bills for the Game Board, its staff and the state biologists who attend the meetings, according to Marcotte. Using a similar rate, the shorter Fish Board schedule could save another $125,000 to $150,000.

While Dersham said his board can cope, he said he's sorry it can't afford to travel to the Bush.

"We tried to absorb the cuts and still be able to go out there, but it just isn't feasible. It's so much more expensive than having them in Anchorage," Dersham said.

Rural Alaskans echo his concerns. If the board can't visit the far-flung areas it regulates, said Thomas Sparks of Nome, "you limit the ability of people to interact with the decision-makers. I think they (the board) get a much broader view of the issues when they hear from a diverse group of people."

Even with the cuts, Alaska still has the best system in the world for managing wildlife, said Sparks, a longtime member of Nome's local Fish and Game Advisory Committee. But as the wildlife issues get more complicated, the board needs adequate time to discuss them, he said.

The decision to stop visiting Sitka, Kotzebue and other rural communities also hurts them economically, said Cordova's Joyce. The Fish Board usually comes to his town every three years to discuss Prince William Sound issues, and people fill the hotels, motels and restaurants for a week or more.

Kotzebue Mayor Frank Greene called the move a slap to rural Alaska. He said, "All the resources are coming from the rural areas, but we're the ones that get the bad end of it."

Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at jgay@adn.com or at 257-4310

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