Biologists Return Fire at Murkowski
MEMOS: Upset over salvos, Habitat Division employees rebut claims.
Under assault by the governor's office, state habitat biologists are firing back with feisty memos, legislative testimony and an Internet site designed to tell their side of the story.
The governor has made false and misleading statements about their work, the biologists' memos say, and with a little investigation, anybody can see that Frank Murkowski's statements fall flat.
"Most of the information reported was incorrect," wrote Clayton Hawkes, a habitat biologist in Juneau, in a Feb. 10 memo to his supervisor.
Gov. Murkowski targeted the Habitat Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in his State of the State address and in recent public appearances, portraying the biologists as obstructionists who block development in the interest of environmental protection. To spur the economy and chop bureaucracy, Murkowski announced last month that he would abolish the Habitat Division.
Through executive order, the governor is transferring the Fish and Game commissioner's authority to protect fish and wildlife habitat to the Department of Natural Resources. Thirty-six Habitat employees will move to that department, 22 will be laid off and the rest will transfer to other divisions of Fish and Game.
The Legislature has until April 15 to overturn the executive order. If lawmakers decline, it would mark the first time in state history that the Department of Fish and Game would lack legal authority over habitat.
The change would mean that decisions about oil and gas projects or timber sales that affect fish, for example, will be made at Natural Resources, not Fish and Game. Natural Resources is typically viewed as a land manager, while Fish and Game is more the guardian of creatures with fur and scales.
Murkowski said environmental protections will remain the same under DNR's watch, but critics don't buy it. And they view the dismantling of Habitat as backlash by irritated developers, especially loggers, and their political allies.
"This action appears to be nothing more than a punitive effort to punish a division and its staff for doing their jobs," state wildlife biologist David Person told a legislative panel this month.
Person was one of several biologists who have spoken out about the governor's action.
Electricity and trout
Axing the Habitat Division is necessary because its staff has developed a reputation "for delay, a reputation for inflexibility, and an import based on protection on the basis of personal viewpoint," Murkowski told reporters last month.
The governor cited a slew of projects that biologists have allegedly nitpicked to the point of causing millions of dollars in lost time and unneeded environmental studies.
Among them is the Dorothy Lake hydroelectric project.
The 4 mile-long glacial lake, high in the mountains east of Juneau, would generate electricity for Alaska's capital city. The project, which needs a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is on schedule, said Mike Henry, a FERC official in Portland, Ore. But Murkowski raised Dorothy Lake as a postcard example of Habitat's unreasonable demands and delaying tactics.
The controversy swirls around eastern brook trout. The federal government stocked Dorothy Lake with the non-native species in the early 1900s. Accessible only by floatplane, the remote lake never took off as much of a sport fishing destination. Still, the trout bred and populated the lake and continue to decades later. But if the hydro project goes in, their future could be in jeopardy. Habitat biologists said drawing the lake down to provide water for the hydro plant would make it difficult at times for the fish to reach their spawning grounds in a nearby stream.
But developers say protecting the trout would make the project too expensive.
Murkowski went a step further. The protections Habitat called for were not only unreasonable but biologically unnecessary, he told reporters. From personal experience, the governor said, he has watched water from the Ward Lake system in Ketchikan be diverted to help run the now-defunct Ketchikan Pulp Co. mill. He was referring to a dam built in the 1950s when the pulp mill was constructed.
"There are eastern brook trout in that system previous to this dam being built, and there are eastern brook trout today. And I don't know a lot about habitat biology, but I do know that they managed to survive, and they're still there for the enjoyment of folks in Ketchikan," Murkowski said.
He doesn't know what he's talking about, the biologists say. The Connell Lake dam the governor referred to perches on a lake that doesn't contain any brook trout, said Bill Hanson, regional supervisor for the Habitat Division in Southeast.
"The lake that fish are in has nothing to do with the dam," Hanson said.
The brook trout live in Perseverance Lake, the uppermost lake in the system. A waterfall blocks the brook trout from migrating between the two lakes, and water withdrawals associated with the dam never affected the fish, according to a memo prepared by habitat biologists and signed by Hanson, their boss.
While the Connell Lake dam and brook trout have no connection, the dam does have a relationship with other species, and it isn't a good one, critics say. The governor failed to mention that the dam "currently blocks several miles of stream and lake habitat that previously supported coho salmon, sockeye salmon and steelhead," the memo adds.
The governor also zeroed in on another hydroelectric project to make his case that habitat biologists have run amok.
At the Power Creek hydro project built near Cordova a few years ago, biologists actually made the developer, Whitewater Engineering Inc., wash boulders before placing them along the banks of a diversion channel to stabilize it, the governor said.
His spokesman, John Manly, repeated the story during a press briefing in early March.
"It seems like this particular power plant was going in way up in the hills where there are no fish. And the biologist was just requiring a lot of unnecessary steps to be taken that just didn't seem reasonable. For example, we got a big picture in here of an excavator holding up a rock, a big boulder, while they sprayed it down with water so that, I guess, the sand and gravel that was stuck to the rock wouldn't go into the creek," Manly said.
Some reporters chuckled.
Manly's statements are not supported by the facts, wrote Cevin Gilleland, the biologist in charge of making sure the hydroelectric plant didn't damage fish habitat.
Manly's first error was to say that Power Creek is devoid of fish where the hydro plant was built, habitat biologists said.
"This statement is simply false," Gilleland said.
A well-documented Dolly Varden population lives in the upper reaches of Power Creek. Sockeye, coho, pink and chum salmon as well as cutthroat trout are also present farther downstream, Gilleland wrote.
The remarks about washing rocks are also misleading, said Gilleland and his supervisor, Lance Trasky.
The Habitat Division did not require Whitewater to wash any rocks, Gilleland said, although the permit he issued told the developer not to pollute the downstream spawning grounds.
"The developer decided to try to wash the rock rather than purchase clean rock from the local gravel pit owner," his memo states.
Absurd as it may sound, washing rock before putting it into a fish stream is considered a "best management practice," a step recommended to protect spawning beds. If muddy rocks get placed in a stream, the water washes away the sediment, which can end up smothering fish eggs and choking juvenile fish, biologists say.
Although Habitat may not have told Whitewater specifically not to wash the rock, the company interpreted it as a requirement, president Thom Fischer said.
"At the end of the day, we did exactly what Cevin Gilleland said to do," Fischer said.
While Murkowski and Fischer said Habitat unnecessarily delayed the project, the biologists contend that setbacks were really caused by chronic avalanches, including one that killed a worker in April 1999; poor planning; and faulty engineering. The division has forwarded 15 alleged permit and pollution violations against Fischer's company to the district attorney.
Fischer disputes everything.
"Cevin Gilleland isn't known to tell the truth," he said.
Fischer can say anything he wants, Gilleland said.
He pointed to a stack of documents and digital photos Habitat has amassed on the project and said the paperwork speaks for itself.
The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health also has plenty of files that document the delays, not caused by Habitat but by safety violations that resulted in project shutdowns, Gilleland and other habitat biologists said.
On behalf of his company, Fischer pleaded no contest to criminally negligent homicide in 2001 in connection with the fatal accident. He said it was the Habitat Division's fault that the worker was placed in harm's way. Because of project delays, Whitewater was forced to work during the most dangerous times of the year, he said.
Whitewater failed to prepare for the hazards, and Fish and Game had nothing to do with the avalanches, Gilleland wrote.
Pizza and timber
The biologists also are disputing what they see as other reckless statements by the governor.
One of the points Murkowski has used to discredit the biologists was a 1995 annual report Habitat prepared for the state Board of Forestry. The report said that state budget cuts had enfeebled the Habitat Division to the point that it could no longer certify the long-term health of Alaska's fish and wildlife. The division simply no longer had enough staff to do the job, according to the report.
The 27-page document also said that biologists' ability to enforce the main law that regulates logging -- the Forest Practices Act -- remained "seriously deficient." Alaska could expect continued degradation in the abundance, quality and availability of fish and wildlife, especially on private land.
The timber industry vehemently rebutted the claims. Environmentalists and others waved the report as a red warning sign that years of industrial logging and budget cuts to Habitat were taking a serious toll on Alaska species.
Murkowski said last month "after more than a year of scientific reviews and investigations that consumed a vast amount of state time and state money, virtually all the allegations were proven to be unfounded."
Nothing could be further from the truth, habitat biologists said.
A committee of scientific experts looked into the Habitat report and found a host of issues that needed correcting, biologist Steve Albert said.
"The governor's statement that 'almost all the allegations were proven to be unfounded' is totally inaccurate, misleading and indicates that he has been severely misinformed by his timber industry cronies," Albert wrote in a memo.
Albert detailed some of the changes that emerged from the process, including improved standards for logging on steep slopes and recommendations for building logging roads in unstable areas.
On another score, Murkowski's comments about a mysterious pizza party to celebrate closure of the Ketchikan Pulp mill were absolutely fabricated, according to several biologists.
In his news conference last month, Murkowski chastised Habitat for allegedly sponsoring a pizza party in Juneau to cheer the controversial mill's demise in 1997. The mill was Southeast's largest private employer, with hundreds of high-paying jobs. Ketchikan Pulp also was a longtime target of environmentalists because of the mill's chronic pollution problems and its appetite for old-growth timber.
The pizza party remark made them look like a bunch of gloating greenies, not professional scientists, several biologists have said. But it also left many scratching their heads.
"Although we were certain that the division had not and would not have sponsored such an event (and certainly what employees do on their own time is irrelevant), we have asked all of our staff as well as the former SE regional supervisor whether any such event took place inside or outside the workplace. No one has any idea what the governor was referring to, and we can state categorically that this statement was erroneous," a memo by Hanson states.
The Habitat staff addressed their memos to acting division director Kerry Howard, who has declined to be interviewed. Her boss, Fish and Game Commissioner Kevin Duffy, refused to comment on the memos during a recent news conference.
Duffy said it was pointless to look to the past. The job at hand, he said, is to put the governor's executive order into effect as smoothly as possible.
One of the men widely regarded to be an architect of the executive order, special assistant for natural resources Jack Phelps, repeated Duffy's comments Wednesday.
"I don't have time to resurrect the past," Phelps said. "I'm not going to be pulled into a debate about those memos."
Phelps, former executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry trade association, said he's confident the transfer of habitat permitting to DNR will not compromise environmental protection. The same biologists will be on the job, looking out for the interests of fish and wildlife.
"There is no empowerment that will be taken away from them. We expect them to challenge the foresters or the mine folks" at DNR, Phelps said.
He denied that the Habitat move was orchestrated by the timber industry. Many Alaskans have expressed support for the move from a variety of walks of life, Phelps said.
Among those who have testified in favor are the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the Resource Development Council, shellfish farmers and dive fishermen. But at the legislative hearings held so far, the majority spoke against the move.
A gag order in December barred biologists from speaking to reporters, and many said that has crippled their efforts to defend themselves. The governor's office has since relaxed the order and biologists are hungry to talk about what's happening to the division. Besides writing memos and testifying to the Senate Resources and House State Affairs committees, the biologists have mounted a Web site that lays out their perspective and asks the public to weigh in.
Getting one's side of the story out helps ease some of the discomfort of having your name trashed in the public without the opportunity to respond, said Ben Kirkpatrick, a habitat biologist in Juneau, in an interview. But it doesn't take away all the sting.
"Morale is very low because we've had very inaccurate perceptions made about us statewide. Lots of people don't know what habitat biologists do. But everyone knows the governor. I'm just not sure where he got his facts from," Kirkpatrick said.
Daily News reporter Paula Dobbyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-257-4317.
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