Murkowski Game Board Fails Diversity Test
Compass: Points of View from the Community

Victor Van Ballenberghe / Anchorage Daily News / Opinion / February 13, 2003


Gov. Frank Murkowski's recent picks for the Alaska Board of Game caused howls from many Alaskans.

Some think that our rich wildlife resources represent much more than targets waiting to be converted to meat or fur. Others know that this board soon will implement wolf control programs and spark yet another firestorm of controversy. They fear the repercussions will cost the state millions in lost revenue as tourists react to what they see as wildlife management gone awry. In Anchorage, where I live, my neighbors object to having no one on the board from here to represent nearly one-half the state's population.

The Game Board is a high-profile state entity that affects the lives of many Alaskans. It sets hunting and trapping seasons and passes regulations governing how people can and can't harvest wildlife. It also makes policies on such controversial issues as wolf control. Even those who do not hunt or spend much time in the woods looking for animals often have strong opinions on board actions when they are out of touch with mainstream beliefs.

After three appointments to the Game Board by two different governors, I have a concept of what constitutes a good board and what it takes to be a good member.

The best boards I have seen in the past 28 years were diverse. Members came from all areas of the state and represented hunters, non-hunters, guides, subsistence users, biologists and ordinary citizens interested in wildlife. The best members were hard-working, fair, committed, open-minded and not tied to any particular ideology.

The Murkowski board fails the diversity test. It lacks anyone who can remotely represent those who primarily view wildlife or those whose livelihood depends on tourists who come here to see wildlife, not shoot or trap it.

Clearly, the board is stacked with hunting interests with a directive from the governor to manage for abundance. When translated, this means authorize large, widespread wolf and bear control programs. No, we don't want predators to be abundant despite their obvious values. We apparently only treasure those animals we eat. Never mind that this outdated approach has not worked in the past.

Board members fail the ideology test. Five of the six new appointees were reported as belonging to the Alaska Outdoor Council when they were appointed. One, Ron Somerville, virtually founded this lobbying organization that has single-handedly prevented a solution to the subsistence issue in defiance of federal law. In 1982, Mr. Somerville led an initiative campaign to repeal the state's subsistence law. Another, Pete Buist, has long led and lobbied for the Alaska Trapper's Association, a close affiliate of the Outdoor Council. He is a former Outdoor Council president. Recently, several new board appointees reiterated their opposition to solving the subsistence issue in legislative committee confirmation hearings.

Why is it important that a majority of the Game Board now has close ties to the Outdoor Council, with a long record of opposing a subsistence priority? Subsistence is one part of the rural-urban divide, a major problem that affects all Alaskans. Other parts include funding for education and the quality of rural schools, rural power subsidies, law enforcement and urban discrimination against rural residents.

These are problems that affect us all, problems that reflect our tolerance and ability to accept different cultures and lifestyles. Most Alaskans have agreed it is time to put the subsistence issue behind us as one step forward in healing the rural-urban divide.

What role does the Board of Game play? If fish and game management authority were returned to the state tomorrow, the board with its present makeup would likely still fail to provide rural residents with the regulations they need to survive. If I lived in the Bush, I would not trust this board with my future. I would contact my legislators and urge them to reject these appointees, not confirm them. Anything less would be a vote against subsistence, a clear signal that continuing the rural-urban divide is the road we want to travel.

Victor Van Ballenberghe is a wildlife biologist who studies moose and wolves, and a former member of the Game Board.

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