Murkowski's Plan Will Cripple Habitat Division
Should Alaska move habitat permitting to DNR?

CounterPoint / Anchorage Daily News / Don Cornelius/ February 27, 2003


Watching the debate regarding the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Habitat Division's effect on development, one thing is apparent. Gov. Frank Murkowski doesn't understand how the division works.

Fish and Game founded the habitat division to coordinate the department's response to proposed projects. When habitat biologists review permit applications or environmental documents, they rely on input from all divisions. Concerns from commercial fisheries, sport fisheries, wildlife conservation and subsistence staff all go into the equation.

When review time is short, habitat biologists verbally canvass other divisions. For routine projects, they issue permits in the field. Three-quarters of their duties involve nonpermitting activities, including consultation with developers and land-use planners, commenting on Forest Service timber sales and protecting fish streams in logging units under the Forest Practices Act.

In responses to Army Corps of Engineers permits and other environmental reviews, habitat biologists function as point men for other agencies -- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and Environmental Protection Agency. Their local knowledge and ready access to Fish and Game staff members give them credibility.

Projects that might otherwise be held up by federal agencies are cleared without controversy because habitat staff members resolve potential issues. Some developers thank division biologists for saving them time and money.

Habitat biologists work under an inflexible timetable even when permit applications needing field review come in the dead of winter when project areas are inaccessible. At such times only knowledge of local conditions and agreements with industry can minimize impacts to fish habitat. Working in field offices rather than centralized locations, permitters establish a rapport with developers, enabling them to build flexibility into permits.

Reducing and centralizing the habitat staff will only lead to tougher stipulations.

Controversial projects are held up for good reasons. Not all proposed development is benign. Some can have significant impacts on fish and wildlife. For every project the governor claims was obstructed by habitat staff, others should have been held up or even rejected. The political pressure on biologists is intense, and Alaskans now live with impacts that could have been mitigated or avoided.

Alaska has a dedicated staff of biologists who work to protect the resources that all Alaskans enjoy. Their agenda is that they take their job seriously.

Transferring habitat permitters to the Department of Natural Resources will break the link with other Fish and Game divisions. Bringing them into central offices will reduce their level of local knowledge and flexibility in permit stipulations.

With the governor's current development plans, the Habitat Division should be beefed up, not gutted, to encourage healthy debate and ensure he can keep his guarantees that fish and wildlife will still be protected.

Crippling the habitat division is no way to begin.


Don Cornelius is a former habitat biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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