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Attacks on Alaska’s fish and game habitat erode democracy

Bob Shavelson
OPINION: Democracy requires three things, transparency, accountability and participation, and Alaska's government badly needs to protect these three basic necessities in its process to regulate fish and wildlife habitat. Pictured: Sandhill cranes stopping at a Matanuska Valley field on their way south. Loren Holmes photo

A Supreme Court justice once famously wrote he could not define pornography but he knew it when he saw it.

The same can be said about the steady erosion of democracy in Alaska.

In a recent opinion piece, the director of ADFG’s Habitat Division – Randy Bates – tried to defend the Parnell administration’s efforts to roll back basic safeguards in Alaska’s most important fish and game areas – our critical habitats, our game refuges and our wildlife sanctuaries.

These are some of Alaska’s most prized hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing areas, and under our constitution, they belong to all Alaskans. Our elected officials wisely set them aside so all Alaskans – now and in the future – could use and enjoy them.

While the Parnell administration is working to weaken fish and game protections, something more important is unfolding: Our government is actively working to subvert our democracy and to strip Alaskans of our basic rights to govern ourselves.

The erosion of democracy usually doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, it’s a series of actions, sometimes a trickle, sometimes more, that over time leaves Alaskans with less and less power to govern ourselves.

The Parnell administration’s attack on fish and game habitat is a perfect example.

At its most basic level, democracy requires three things.

First, democracy requires transparency. We need to know what our government is doing, and when and how they are doing it. But unelected officials at ADFG are now working behind closed doors to fashion legal changes that will cut Alaskans out of meaningful roles governing our fish and game habitat. We’ve asked ADFG to come to our communities to explain the changes to Alaskans but they refuse to answer phone messages and emails. That’s because ADFG knows it can simply issue some draft rules, take public comments, then issue whatever final rule it wants. That’s not transparency, and it erodes our democracy.

Next, democracy requires accountability. We need to be able to hold our unelected officials responsible when they violate the public trust. Yet Mr. Bates was a leading foot soldier in the demise of Alaska’s coastal management program, which was the only law which gave local Alaskans a real voice in coastal decision making. Now Alaska is the only coastal state without a coastal program, despite the fact we have more coastline then all the Lower 48 states combined. Instead of being held accountable, however, Mr. Bates has been rewarded with his current ADFG position for cutting Alaskans out of decisions about our fish and game resources. That’s not accountability, and it hurts our democracy.

Finally, democracy requires participation, and participation means the right to engage in the process and the right to have a meaningful voice in the outcome. This is where ADFG’s special areas rollbacks really break down. Historically, local Alaskans played significant roles shaping the management plans for local refuges, sanctuaries and critical habitats. But according to leaked internal memos, the Parnell administration now plans to remove local Alaskans from their traditional roles shaping how we manage our special areas. Instead, a small group of unelected officials will decide what’s best for us. That hurts our democracy.

The Parnell administration’s ultimate goal is to allow virtually any industrial activity to occur within our special habitat areas. They know Alaskans don’t receive public notice on habitat permits, so we have no way to know about harmful plans that will destroy our fish and game resources. They also know ADFG routinely rubber-stamps thousands of habitat permits every year in less than a week’s time, with little regard to effects on our hunting or fishing grounds. That hurts our democracy.

If you like to hunt ducks on the Susitna Flats or in the Palmer Hay Flats, or fish for halibut in Kachemak Bay, or if you like to watch bears taking salmon at McNeil River, or to hear the sandhill cranes call in Creamer's Field, we need a strong and active democracy.

That’s because our democracy defines who we are -- as Alaskans and as -Americans. It’s far from perfect but it’s the best system ever devised in the history of humankind to keep our government in check and to protect our publicly owned fish and game resources. If you agree, let Gov. Parnell know how you feel.

Bob Shavelson is executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, a nonprofit group with offices in Anchorage and Homer that works to protect water, fish and game resources in the Cook Inlet region.

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, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.