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Walker administration proposes cutting staff that challenges the feds

JUNEAU -- Two of Gov. Bill Walker's departments are proposing cuts to programs aimed at fighting federal government plans and initiatives just a few weeks after Walker and state legislators loudly criticized federal initiatives to limit oil and gas development in Alaska and offshore.

Alaska's Department of Natural Resources aims to save $1.5 million by cutting a program dedicated in part to preserving access to federal lands, the Public Access Assertion and Defense Unit. And it plans to save another $226,000 by scaling back its office named for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, whose employees coordinated the state's comments on the federal government's recently released plan to designate much of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as off-limits to oil exploration and drilling.

The Department of Law, meanwhile, is proposing to save another $450,000 by cutting a pair of attorneys who work on conflicts between the state and federal government over the Endangered Species Act and other areas. And it hopes to save another $300,000 by ending a contract with an outside law firm that works on endangered species issues.

Walker, through a spokesperson, said he's still committed to Alaska's defense of what he termed "state sovereignty," and officials at both departments maintained that they'd continue doing the same work.

"The proposed reductions do not reflect a change in policy or philosophy," Walker said in a prepared statement. "The Department of Law and Department of Natural Resources are currently working together to assess resources necessary to defend state sovereignty and the most efficient way to do so in a shrinking budget environment."

But Walker's budget documents acknowledge that the cuts will have some impact, and a top official at the natural resources department said that the department's proposal could be a way to "force the dialogue" about changing the state's posture towards the federal government.

"We've spent a lot of money on some of this federal overreach stuff, and litigation. And I think what we're saying is, Alaskans need to have that discussion of: 'How effective have we actually been?' " Ed Fogels, the deputy natural resources commissioner, said in a phone interview. "Quite frankly, it's cost a lot and we've had limited effectiveness."

The planned budget cuts mark a shift from the previous administration of Sean Parnell, which hired several law firms and moved aggressively to fight federal government efforts to limit oil and gas exploration and attempts to preserve habitat viewed by environmental organizations as critical for animals like polar bears and sea lions.

The budget proposals, however, have drawn skepticism from at least one Republican leader. Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, who chairs the Senate's resources committee and is an active supporter of mining and petroleum development, said she was "very concerned" about Walker's proposal and would "probably" fight to restore some of the money.

"It's just a constant barrage and that's why we can't lose the staff," Giessel said in an interview in her office, where she brandished a map of the United States showing swaths of federal land in bright red. "The more that's taken away from us, the more subservient we become to the federal government. We become the Soviet Union."

The proposed cuts by the two departments are part of a broader effort by the Walker administration to reduce agency spending by about 6 percent in the next fiscal year, in which the state faces a deficit of more than $3 billion. Figuring out which areas are expendable is a "brutal" exercise, Fogels said.

The two staff members in the ANILCA office are responsible for reviewing and commenting on a "steady stream of draft federal policies, plans, and regulations" affecting federal conservation land, according to budget documents.

Those lands include wildlife refuges, national forests and parks, and areas overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, which amount to about two-thirds of the state, the documents say.

The natural resources department proposes to save $225,000 from the ANILCA program, in part by cutting one of its staff members, an assistant to the statewide ANILCA coordinator.

The public access unit, meanwhile, has six employees whose responsibilities include asserting the state's access to trails and roads across federal and Native corporation lands, and to claim lands underneath navigable waterways.

Fogels, the deputy natural resources commissioner, said there was some degree of redundancy between the public access and ANILCA programs as well as another program, the Citizens' Advisory Commission on Federal Areas, which has volunteer members but a staff paid with public funds.

"That's a whole other kind of entity that's essentially doing a lot of the same work, right?" Fogels said. He added, using acronyms, including the one for the access assertion defense unit: "There's got to be some kind of way to re-engineer CACFA, ANILCA and PAAD to save money."

Some of the functions and employees from both the ANILCA and public access unit will be preserved, Fogels said, but he added that even with the public access unit, the state hadn't been able to help obtain any rights-of-way tied to a defunct federal law known as R.S. 2477.

"We've spent an awful lot of money with a lot of lawsuits," Fogels said. "We haven't gotten one square linear inch of R.S. 2477 yet."

Giessel said she found the natural resources department's proposal "confusing" after Walker publicly criticized the administration of President Barack Obama last month for its decisions to restrict oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in the waters off the Alaska coast.

"He's saying one thing, and the actions are something else," Giessel said.

Separately, the state's law department said it would save $450,000 by cutting two attorney positions -- one that works on issues related to the Endangered Species Act and another who works in "statehood defense," according to budget documents.

And the department also plans to cut a $300,000 contract with a law firm, Holland and Hart, whose attorneys in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming have also worked on endangered species issues for the Parnell administration.

Much of the state's endangered species work has involved opposing new designations and efforts to restrict habitat for fishing or development. In an interview Tuesday, Attorney General Craig Richards said that the changes were "simply a matter of reorganization" and that they reflected no change in his department's policy.

The attorneys previously working on endangered species and statehood defense, he added, would be "in the same office" and "doing the same work," though he acknowledged that the attorneys would be taking on a broader scope of tasks.

Doug Vincent-Lang, a top Parnell administration official in the Department of Fish and Game who worked on Endangered Species Act and other wildlife issues, questioned what he called "serious cuts" being proposed by Walker's administration.

"I know people don't like to litigate. I understand that. But sometimes you need a seat at the table because the NGOs are litigating," he said in a phone interview, referring to non-governmental organizations like environmental groups.

Vincent-Lang pointed out that the state's past efforts had led to successes like a federal judge's dismissal of protections of the bearded seal, and had prevented fishing closures to protect the Steller sea lion in the Aleutian Islands. But the state has lost other cases, like a decision to list Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered.

"I worry that we are giving up our voice that helps us control our own future as Alaskans, and that truly troubles me," he said.

Vincent-Lang said he would be watching to see whether the proposed cuts would impact the state's efforts to comment and challenge federal plans and rulings.

However, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said he felt the cuts to the natural resources department were "appropriate" given the state's budget deficit, and given that the state's congressional delegation can provide feedback to the federal government.

"In a state where you've got unlimited money, sure," Wielechowski said. He added: "It's nice to have, but you can't afford it. That's what our congressional delegation's job is."

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Ed Fogels, the deputy natural resources commissioner, was speaking solely about his department's budget in his quote about trying to "force the dialogue" about the state's relationship with the federal government. He was not referring to Gov. Bill Walker's overall budget proposal.