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Alaska’s wildlife refuges and sanctuaries still on the chopping block

Rick Sinnott
OPINION: Sport hunters and anglers, subsistence users, commercial fishermen, and environmentalists should all join together to fight a travesty developing in Alaska's government. We all use and enjoy the fish and wildlife produced in special areas, so if you appreciate Alaska’s fish and wildlife, it’s time to get involved. Pictured: Canada geese. Loren Holmes photo

Despite growing public awareness and resistance to the idea, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is revising its management plans and regulations for the state’s 32 wildlife refuges, sanctuaries and critical habitat areas. The revisions will facilitate development, including potentially incompatible uses.

Existing plans and regulations protect critical habitats, comprising less than 1 percent of Alaska, set aside by the Alaska Legislature for the purpose of maintaining fish and wildlife populations. Unlike parks, a wide range of human uses, including oil and gas development, are allowed in special areas as long as the use is compatible with protecting fish, wildlife and their habitats.

Apparently, this isn’t good enough for the administration of Gov. Sean Parnell, who has repeatedly said the state is “open for business.”

The first of eight revised plans will be released for public comment soon; seven more will be released and finalized by December. Among them are some of the state’s best-known special areas: McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge (including Potter Marsh) and Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge.

Fish and Game staff is unaware of any concerted outcry from industry or user groups to revise the plans. This initiative seems to be coming directly from Big Brother, a small cadre of politically appointed bureaucrats.

If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

The Alaska Legislature created the 32 special areas between statehood and 1996 to protect habitats -- particularly estuaries and wetlands -- that produce large numbers of fish and wildlife.

Management plans and regulations were developed by Fish and Game’s Habitat Division with input and assistance from its sister agencies, particularly the Division of Wildlife Conservation and Department of Natural Resources. Developing the plans required lots of input from other resource agencies, user groups, industry and the public at large. Most plans took a year or more to complete.

Now all that work may be undone by one person: Randy Bates, director of Habitat Division. In his former post in the Department of Natural Resources, Bates was instrumental in dismembering Alaska’s coastal management program, one of the only ways local citizens had to participate in land-use decisions in unincorporated rural areas. Alaska is the only coastal state without its own coastal management program, which means the federal government is now running the show without local input.

Bates has received key support from another Parnell appointee, Doug Vincent-Lang, the director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation. Defending the governor’s opposition to listing polar bears as a threatened species, Vincent-Lang once said, “They’re certainly not necessarily declining.” We certainly know their primary duty is to preserve and protect the governor, not necessarily to conserve wildlife.

Shortly after settling in to his current position, Bates set about rewriting every management plan. Only one plan, for Minto Flats State Game Refuge, has been rewritten so far. However, Bates intends for it to serve as the template for reconstituting all the other plans.

Using the first revised plan as a template ignores the obvious fact that each special area has different resources, user groups, industry interest and legislative intent. One size does not fit all.

Administrative Order 266

An Oct. 15, 2013, email from the deputy commissioner directed Bates to review and revise special areas regulations in accordance with Administrative Order 266. Bates cited the administrative order in an email to staff. In subsequent meeting notes Bates referred to revising all the special area plans in accordance with the “governor’s desires.”

But Bates and Vincent-Lang were contemplating extensive rewrites as early as July 2013, according to leaked emails. They quickly latched onto the governor’s directive to add credibility to their efforts.

Parnell signed AO 266 in August 2013. This directive was ostensibly intended to make regulations more consistent and cost-efficient; however, there was also a strong push to repeal “burdensome” regulations. For example, AO 266 directed state agencies to “identify regulations that should be repealed or amended to decrease the burden of fiscal and nonfiscal impacts on the affected public” and “discuss with members of the affected public regulations that create an unnecessary burden.”

Bates appears to be interpreting “burdensome” to mean direct impacts to industry or recreation, as in prohibitions on some incompatible uses or types of development in special areas or added costs to make development compatible. He doesn’t appear to be concerned with avoiding impacts to fish and wildlife populations that will eventually affect other publics, including most Alaskans.

This is evident in Bates’ choice of “affected publics” to whom he appears to cater. The first example listed in AO 266 is “small and other businesses subject to regulation or conducting regulated activity.” The list eventually gets around to “nonprofit organizations” and “individuals.”

However, Bates believes that when existing regulations prevent drilling rigs and jet skiing in the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area, the oil and gas industry and jet skiers are the affected publics. This pro-industry mindset tends to discount the hunters, anglers and others who will become the affected public once incompatible uses are allowed unchecked in special areas.

Nobody familiar with management plans denies the fact that after a decade or more, some tweaks may be necessary. The problem with Bates is that his goal is to make all the special areas user-friendly to developers. He wants to subvert legislative intent by removing all prohibitions and any specificity.

Rather than facilitating cooperation from permit applicants to make their proposals consistent with maintaining fish and wildlife, most of the revised regulations are likely to include “the department may issue a permit,” rendering them utterly toothless.

Bureaucratic hyperbole

Like any good bureaucrat, Bates knows how to achieve his goals and dodge criticism by telling people what they want to hear. In a July 16 commentary piece he reiterated his commitment to a public process. Problem is, he’s been working on this project for a year and hasn’t solicited public input yet. He doesn’t even listen to his own staff. He has, however, met with industry representatives.

In his commentary piece, Bates described the kind of regulations he’s trying to fix: “outdated,” “overly burdensome” and “subject to interpretation.” As an example he pointed to the Susitna Flats State Game Refuge regulations that, he claimed, prohibit a person “from entering the area with garbage (you brought a snack bar that has a wrapper)” or “disturbing or removing natural objects (your child picks a flower or tosses a rock).”

If he keeps this up he’s going to give hyperbole a bad name. Has anyone besides Bates ever described an unopened wrapper on an uneaten snack bar as garbage? Is anyone aware of a child being busted for picking a flower or tossing a rock in any of the state’s special areas?

The first regulation prohibits bringing refuse into the Little Susitna Public Use Facility for disposal or depositing garbage outside a waste receptacle. This regulation and the one that prohibits disturbing, damaging, defacing or removing natural objects apply only to the public-use facility, which encompasses just one of the 472 square miles in the game refuge. These reasonable restrictions were included at the request of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, which manages the popular boat launch.

Bates knows better but he prefers hyperbole to informed debate. He doesn’t really care about flower picking or littering. What he really wants is to allow oil and gas development and mining in highly productive estuaries and recreational jet skis in critical waterfowl habitat.

A rogue bureaucrat?

One thing that’s blatantly missing from Bates' commentary is a reference to Administrative Order 266. Anyone who has worked for government, or any other bureaucracy, knows the importance of covering yourself by citing legal or political authorities. Be assured that Bates didn’t submit his commentary independently. It was almost certainly reviewed and approved by at least the commissioner of Fish and Game and perhaps the governor’s office.

Significantly, all recent discussion regarding the revisions has dropped any reference to AO 266.

Parnell’s style of supervision seems to be “find out what your employees are doing and stop them.” Thus, if he isn’t opposed to rewriting special areas regulations, he’s for it. Maybe it’s time for the governor to show his hand.

Sport hunters and anglers, subsistence users, commercial fishermen and environmentalists should all join together to fight this travesty because we all use and enjoy the fish and wildlife produced in special areas. If you appreciate Alaska’s fish and wildlife, it’s time to get involved. If Bates has his way, there won’t be much time to comment when the revised regulations are finally released for public scrutiny.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. Contact him at rickjsinnott(at)gmail.com.

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.