Rosa Meehan: Why are rules for special areas changing?

Rosa Meehan

The calls of geese and cranes calling are a welcome sound of spring, a raucous announcement of longer days and outdoor activities -- but mixed with the calls are sounds of alarm.

Every year, the migratory birds pass through, stopping to feed and rest in local wetlands. Great places to go see the birds and enjoy this spring phenomenon are state-designated special areas -- local ones include the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge and the Susitna Flats and Palmer Hay Flats Game Refuges. Initially established through public initiative and legislative process, the future of these and other special areas are at risk.

Following the governor's Administrative Order 266 to minimize and reduce regulations, the Department of Fish and Game is embarking on a drastic overhaul of special area management plans. Characterized by Habitat Division director Randy Bates as "outdated" and "difficult to interpret," plans will be updated with reviews focused on plan goals and policies and, notably, removal of prohibitions and enforceable guidelines. All to be done administratively (that is, behind closed doors) followed by a short public review of completed plans.

Two things are at stake -- first, the value of these areas to migratory birds, other wildlife and the people who enjoy recreation opportunities associated with wildlife; second, the public involvement and process that resulted in establishment of these special areas.

State game refuges and critical habitat areas provide important stopping points for geese, cranes and other migratory birds to rest and feed while traveling back to breeding areas. These same special areas provide habitat for numerous other resident species and, as noted on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's website, possess outstanding fish and wildlife-related recreational opportunities. Think of the boardwalks on Potter Marsh, waterfowl hunting out on the Susitna flats, chasing razor clams at Clam Gulch, watching for wildlife on the way to Palmer and Wasilla. Such areas and opportunities are part of what defines Alaska and the people who live here.

Relatively small areas, state game refuges and critical habitat areas are a mix of coastal wetlands, mudflats and submerged lands. Most are small sites scattered along the coast from Southeast Alaska to Bristol Bay.

Local residents initially identified many of these areas based on the area's values to wildlife and to local recreation activities. Establishment as a special area (game refuge or critical habitat area) required extensive public input and discussion by potential users. Formal designation then required legislative action. So, the goals for an area were established through extensive, open public process culminating in the state legislative approval and designation.

Given the state's history with federal land designation, approval of special areas for conservation purposes is never easy and only occurred with extensive stakeholder involvement. Fish and Game subsequently developed management plans for many areas over the past 30 years through open, collaborative planning that had wildlife professionals working with local users and other interested stakeholders. Issues such as motorized access were addressed and protocols designed based on specific area characteristics and public interests. Again, not an easy process, but important for maintaining local involvement and public support for special areas.

So why change the ground rules for these special areas? Use of a largely administrative process dismisses extensive public input and involvement. Changing goals is contrary to legislative action that established the goals in the first place. Removal of prohibitions and guidelines leaves special areas vulnerable to activities identified by stakeholders and wildlife professionals as incompatible with original purposes for establishing a special area in the first place. Finally -- couldn't the resources directed at such an ill-conceived approach be better spent on maintaining existing programs like the soon-to-be discontinued field camp at Round Island, which has a track record of protecting wildlife, supporting public access and conducting wildlife research?

For a state that decries federal overreach, ironically this seems to be a case of state overreach -- Juneau directing activities irrespective of local concerns and public input. House Bill 77 failed this legislative session due to the proposed removal of public review and involvement. Is the administration tone deaf?

To follow the fate of special areas and voice concerns, watch for the release of "completed" plans anticipated in December. Review time will be short.

Rosa Meehan is a member of the Daily News guest editorial board. She is retired from a long career in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska and now has her own environmental consulting service.


Rosa Meehan