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Compass: Alaska is committed to open process on state game refuge review

Randy Bates

If you want to get someone's attention, make a sensational statement. If you want even more attention, make that sensational statement an accusation.

Recent authors borrowed Joni Mitchell's lyrics, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," to disparage the Alaska Fish and Game Department's review and revisions of management plans for legislatively established state game refuges, such as Izembek, McNeil River, and Yakataga.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Alaska's legislatively established special areas are unique and extremely valuable. The department is committed to managing them and gains nothing by altering their designated purposes.

Since statehood, the Alaska Legislature has designated 32 of these special areas across Alaska, encompassing more than 3.2 million acres. The department manages these areas and permits activities within them according to statutory purposes, generally related to conserving fish, wildlife, habitats, and ensuring public access.

Currently, 17 of these areas have management plans and associated regulations. All of these plans are useful and meaningful, but some are outdated, overly burdensome to implement, and/or include language subject to interpretation.

As an example, the 1988 Susitna Flats State Game Refuge regulations are especially specific and prescriptive. They prohibit a person from entering the area with garbage (you brought a snack bar that has a wrapper), prohibit disturbing or removing natural objects (your child picks a flower or tosses a rock), and require pets be on leashes shorter than nine feet. If you plan to gather more than 20 people, you may obtain a permit. But if a couple of friendly groups run into each other or a few extra people join your family reunion, you may run afoul of regulations. These rules are overly prescriptive and may be very difficult to enforce.

To address this, the department initiated a review of the existing management plans and associated regulations to ensure they are effective, clear, understandable, implementable, and enforceable.

Through review and revisions, the department intends to enact an adaptable permitting process for the special areas. This approach is used successfully on state Fish Habitat Permit reviews and on Special Area Permit reviews for the other 15 special areas lacking approved management plans. An adaptive approach allows our biologists judicious decision making in their management and review of activities, based on varying and changing circumstances.

To prioritize the revision of existing plans and regulations, the department identified three phases of work. The first two focus on existing management plans and their associated regulations; the third phase addresses all remaining special area regulations. We expect the first phase to be completed by this December, the second by December 2015, and the third by December 2016.

The department is committed to an open and transparent public process. Proposed revisions will include opportunities for public comment and will build upon previous plan development efforts. We will solicit input and provide an opportunity for informal comments, as well, and will solicit formal comments under the Administrative Procedures Act.

The Department of Fish and Game values the uniqueness of these special areas, and I am proud of our continued commitment to manage them according to their legislatively designated purposes. Our reviews and revisions of the management plans will strengthen management of these areas for their intended purposes. Incorporating an adaptive permitting process enhances the department's ability to evaluate these resources, their uses, and mitigate any impacts they might receive.

Randy Bates is director of the Habitat Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.