Raids Fish and Game Turf
agency now oversees biologists' former domain
Paula Dobbyn / Anchorage Daily News / December 2, 2003
Since statehood, the Department of Fish and Game has been the lead agency entrusted with managing the vast array of wild creatures that roam Alaska's lakes, rivers, tundra and mountains, not to mention its urban streams and city parks.
But a memorandum of understanding signed this fall hands over much of that authority to Fish and Game's pro-development sister agency, the Department of Natural Resources. While many people have known that Fish and Game's authority has been diminished since Gov. Frank Murkowski took office a year ago, the sweeping powers given to the DNR in the new agreement took some biologists and environment advocates by surprise.
For example, the DNR is now the voice for the state on all federal actions that may affect the environment -- everything from timber sales to oil and gas leases to hard-rock mining. With a few exceptions, Fish and Game can comment directly to a federal agency if asked to by the DNR. Otherwise, the DNR handles the matter or takes Fish and Game's comments under advisement.
"Most people are pretty stunned," said Rick Sinnott, Anchorage area biologist with Fish and Game. "It seems much broader" than what many people had envisioned, he said.
Had the agreement been in effect earlier, Sinnott said, he may not have been able to comment on how the Army's proposal to build a 34-mile fence along Fort Richardson's boundary in Anchorage could kill moose.
The Oct. 16 agreement lays out the new responsibilities for the DNR and Fish and Game after Murkowski's Executive Order 107. That order -- one of Murkowski's first policy moves after he took office -- eliminated Fish and Game's Division of Habitat and Restoration, long a thorn in the side of developers, especially the logging industry. The order created a new Office of Habitat Management and Permitting inside the DNR.
At the time, Murkowski said shifting permitting authority to the DNR was needed so that developers could clear government hurdles more efficiently. "Having a more efficient permitting process is key to creating a stronger, more vibrant economy," he said.
Much of the debate that raged last winter, when the Legislature held hearings on the matter, focused on Fish and Game's authority to regulate how loggers can affect salmon streams. So after the executive order took effect, it was common knowledge that the department was losing that power to the DNR. What many people, even inside Fish and Game, apparently didn't know, was that the executive order would transfer a wide range of other functions to the DNR, according to several Fish and Game biologists.
The kinds of projects that the DNR now has control over are many. Besides logging, oil and gas, and mining, the resource agency will also be the lead voice on state transportation projects, water and land use permits, right-of-way matters, solid waste and wastewater projects, and contaminated sites, just to name a few. The DNR is also the lead agency interacting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal bodies.
As far as what's left for Fish and Game, biologists at the agency can still issue special area permits for activities on wildlife refuges or sanctuaries, for example. They can also directly regulate mariculture, hatchery and fish resource permits without consulting with the DNR. They can comment on state land-management plans only as far as they relate to access.
"Not only can DNR choose not to forward Fish and Game's concerns and recommendations (on to another agency), it appears as though the memorandum of understanding has a 'don't call us, we'll call you' provision," Sinnott said. "It seems to be left to DNR to decide, one, which projects might have major impacts on fish or wildlife and, two, if and when Fish and Game will be informed of a project and asked for comments."
What this all boils down to, critics say, is the elimination of checks and balances over activities that could have long-standing consequences for animals, fish, water and air.
"It's a total disaster," said Cliff Eames, public lands director for the Alaska Center for the Environment.
"Clearly, DNR is calling the shots," he said. "Fish and Game is second string."
Kerry Howard sees it in a different light. Howard used to be in charge of the Habitat Division when Fish and Game still had one. She now runs the DNR's Office of Habitat Management and Permitting. Howard said the changes outlined in the memorandum of understanding are not as draconian at the critics make out and they shouldn't surprise anyone.
"It's what the administration had envisioned from the beginning," Howard said.
There are plenty of coordination and communication between the two agencies, no one's voice is being shut out, and there's a dispute resolution mechanism in place to make sure Fish and Game's concerns are heard, she said.
Doug Vincent-Lang, assistant director of Fish and Game's Sport Fish Division, agrees.
"I think things are working fairly fine," he said. "Fish and Game has a role in ensuring that habitat is protected."
But several rank-and-file biologists in Fish and Game -- who wouldn't speak on the record for fear of retribution -- said their agency has become a dead duck under the Murkowski administration.
"Fish and Game is essentially a non-player," one biologist said.
Daily News reporter Paula Dobbyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.
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