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Fish and Game weakening land-use regulations for Alaska's wildlife refuges, sanctuaries, critical habitat areas

Rick Sinnott
Emperor geese in flight at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. K. Mueller/FWS photo via flickr

This is the first of a two-part series. You can read the second part here.

While many Alaskans are celebrating the demise of House Bill 77, a far more audacious gambit to overturn state regulations is quietly coming to fruition.

HB 77 was Gov. Sean Parnell’s recent attempt to “streamline” permitting for development proposals, primarily by denying tribes and individuals the ability to reserve enough water in rivers and streams to protect salmon and other fisheries from incompatible development. It also would have excluded project reviews and appeals by the public. That bill may be dead for now; however, it’s likely to be reanimated next year.

Few people are aware of another brazen plan to “streamline” permitting because it is cloaked in secrecy. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is repealing and rewriting every management plan that regulates development in state wildlife refuges, sanctuaries and critical habitat areas. Because revoking these regulations doesn’t require legislative approval, Parnell’s secret move is more likely to succeed than HB 77.

The public and other agencies are not being offered the usual opportunities to provide input. To limit public scrutiny, eight revised plans will be released for a 30-to-45-day public review in December. These include McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Anchorage Coastal (including Potter Marsh), Mendenhall Wetlands, Izembek, Minto Flats, Yakataga, McNeil River refuges, and the Tugidak Island Critical Habitat Area.

Many of the most controversial plans are being revised first, before anyone realizes what is going on. The remaining revisions -- including the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area, Palmer Hay Flats and Creamer’s Field state game refuges as well as the Walrus Islands sanctuary -- will be released in December of 2015 and 2016.

Unprecedented assault on fish and wildlife resources

You’re probably already aware of the Parnell administration’s attempts to repeal regulations intended to conserve fish and wildlife -- or the public’s ability to review, comment on, and appeal permitting decisions by state agencies.

Parnell and his commissioners advocated giving Alaska’s coastal management program back to the feds, which meant that Alaskans now have little or no say in conserving renewable resources, such as salmon, that residents use for commercial, sport, or subsistence activities. The program had required coordinated public and agency reviews of most projects in the coastal zone and had allowed public appeals of agency decisions. Parnell is the only governor to return a state’s coastal authority to federal control.

Parnell supports the Pebble Project, which would auger one of the world’s largest open-pit mines into the world’s most productive salmon habitatMost Alaskans are opposed to the mine for that reason. 

Echoing Parnell’s preference for development at all costs, his commissioner of natural resources, Dan Sullivan, believing his department’s mission statement -- “to develop, conserve, and enhance natural resources” -- was unconstitutional, dropped the words “conserve” and “enhance.” 

But the Alaska Department of Natural Resources has always been reluctant to conserve or enhance natural resources. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has long considered it its mission to conserve wildlife, salmon and other fish. Until now.

Special areas

The Alaska Legislature created 32 refuges, sanctuaries, and critical habitat areas between statehood and 1996. These units are known collectively as special areas. They range in size from the Homer Airport Critical Habitat Area (280 acres) to the Copper River Delta Critical Habitat Area (597,120 acres). Special areas total 3.2 million acres, which is considerably less than 1 percent of Alaska’s 365.5 million acres of land. It’s considerably less because about a third of the designated acres are mudflats or submerged lands that aren’t normally considered land.

Due to the fertile mud and mixing of fresh and salt water, these habitats are critical to fish and wildlife populations. Wetlands and other waterways in Alaska’s special areas provide some of the best waterfowl and salmon habitat in the state. Other species that are valuable to Alaskans -- moose, furbearers, migratory birds, shellfish -- benefit.

Most special areas were established by grassroots efforts of local communities. Each represented a tough fight in the legislature. Extractive industries are more concerned about profits than conserving fish, wildlife, or their habitats. The public, industry, government agencies and special interests from all walks of life had an opportunity to present their cases during extended planning efforts. But in every instance, after weighing the pros and cons, the legislature elected to set aside these areas because of their value to Alaskans.

Over the past three decades Fish and Game’s divisions of habitat and wildlife conservation have jointly written management plans for many of the special areas. Some of the earliest plans have been updated. Sometimes the legislature included little or no intent language in the enabling statute. Fish and Game was expected to hammer out the details.

This was never easy. All the forces that supported or opposed the creation of a special area sharpened their swords for the second round. Even supporters of a refuge may fight one another -- think bear hunters and bear watchers, two groups who tangled over plans for the McNeil River State Game Refuge, which abuts the sanctuary. Completing each plan often took a year or more of agency meetings and public reviews. They involved reconciling, best as possible, the competing interests of stakeholders as diverse as the oil and gas industry, local communities, hunters, anglers and birdwatchers.

Regulations in the management plans fine tune which uses are compatible with fish and wildlife conservation in the special areas. Special areas without plans are covered under more generic statutes and regulations.

Open for business

Gov. Parnell likes to say “Alaska is open for business.” If you look up his administration’s list of priorities on his official website, you can read the slogan twice on the same page. Alaska’s governor has five priorities and two of them are “Alaska is open for business.” Fish and wildlife conservation is not among his priorities.

Time after time, Parnell has expressed his desire for more flexibility in making permitting decisions, which is code for “just give them the damn permit.” Habitat Division is accustomed to the scrutiny of pro-development politicians and bureaucrats. The division’s permitters used to joke that their agency’s motto should be “hold them to what they ask for.” That was in the good old days. Attempts at black humor ceased being funny shortly after former Gov. Frank Murkowski took office. Murkowski transferred most of the biologists in Habitat Division to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, a re-education camp for those who believed their job was to protect and conserve fish and wildlife resources.

No special areas have been established during the last three administrations. But no governor has done more to turn Habitat Division into a vestigial organ than Parnell. Central to Parnell’s effort is Randy Bates, the division director. When Bates worked for the Department of Natural Resources, he helped dismantle Alaska’s coastal management program. Now he’s determined to derail Habitat Division’s permitting authority in special areas. Appointed director in July 2011, it didn’t take Bates long to get started.

Showdown at Dude Creek

The first special area to experience Bates’ undivided attention was Dude Creek near Gustavus in Southeast Alaska. Local residents and other stakeholders had been working together for a couple of years to fashion a management plan. Unlike many previous planning efforts, there was little disagreement. The biggest issues appear to have been whether to allow all-terrain vehicles in the wetlands or permanent tree stands for moose hunting.

Bates found himself in charge of signing and implementing the management plan having had nothing to do with its genesis. However, his inclination to abort the plan was bolstered by another influential Parnell appointee -- Doug Vincent-Lang, Fish and Game’s director of wildlife conservation -- who also believes the existing management plans for special areas are too restrictive.

An example of what Bates considers overreach in the Dude Creek plan is a goal that references minimizing harmful disturbance to fish and wildlife. We can’t have any of that in an area designated by the Legislature as critical habitat.

Bates was handed a nearly finished draft of the Dude Creek plan in May 2013. Although it represented one of the least controversial or restrictive special area plans of the past half century, it was enough to trigger a bureaucratic reaction tantamount to anaphylactic shock. Following Bates’ directive, his staff unilaterally cut the document in half and changed much of what remained. Then, in addition to Dude Creek, Bates suspended work on the Susitna Flats, Willow Mountain, and five Bristol Bay plans. Next he decided to rescind and revise every existing management plan.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at  rickjsinnott@gmail.com