JUNEAU -- Conservation groups have been cheering Gov. Bill Walker's removal of several high-level officials at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, moves that signal a shift in the state's approach to land management, permitting and public involvement.
Under Walker's predecessor, Sean Parnell, the department had begun sweeping revisions of management plans for some of the state's most pristine lands, like sanctuaries and refuges for bears, walrus and birds.
Top officials said the changes, for 32 areas such as Kachemak Bay and the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, were aimed at removing restrictions on development. But critics, and even department biologists, argued that the revision process was cutting out Alaskans.
Since taking office last month, Walker removed the division director who was leading the revision process, Randy Bates, as well as two others involved -- the department's commissioner, Cora Campbell, and another division director, Doug Vincent-Lang.
Walker's appointee as Fish and Game commissioner, Sam Cotten, said in an interview that the new administration's approach to revising the management plans would be a shift from Parnell's.
"They had a different process there, where the public wasn't going to be involved every step of the way," Cotten said. "And we intend to change that."
Reached by phone, Bates refused to answer questions, and neither would Campbell or Parnell, who was reached by email. Vincent-Lang couldn't be reached.
Both Bates and Parnell referred a reporter to an Alaska Dispatch News opinion piece Bates wrote last year in which he said Fish and Game was aiming for an "adaptive approach" to permitting for the sanctuaries and refuges, adding that the state was committed to an "open and transparent process."
But citizen and advocacy groups that followed the Parnell administration's approach said that was not the case. Michael Adams, president Friends of McNeil River and an advocate for the Alaska Peninsula state bear sanctuary there, said the management plan for the area was "in the process of being rewritten behind closed doors."
The sanctuary is a popular location for watching brown bears, and in the past supporters have battled hunters who want to target bears crossing nearby lands. Adams' group aims to keep the sanctuary as a minimally developed area for visits by small groups, in contrast to the more heavily trafficked Brooks Camp in nearby Katmai National Park. Brooks Camp has a campground and wilderness lodge.
Adams said he feared the Parnell administration was considering changes to allow more people to visit the sanctuary, and to ease access -- potentially even adding an airstrip, since conditions don't always allow planes to make water landings.
"Different alternatives have been discussed, and most of them would be bad," Adams said in a phone interview. "There was some correspondence with Doug Vincent-Lang in which he was alluding to some of the things that could happen under the new process, and it was all very terrifying. So we're happy to see the changes occurring that we've seen so far."
Others praising the removal of officials at Fish and Game include Polly Carr, the executive director at the Alaska Center for the Environment, who said in an email that Parnell's appointees operated under a "shroud of secrecy" and that Walker's changes were "refreshing."
And a coalition of groups that champion continued protection of state refuges and sanctuaries wrote a letter to Walker last week offering their support. They also said they would help his administration with an "open and transparent process" to develop and revise the management plans.
Walker's decisions haven't been met with universal approval. Ted Spraker, the chair of the Alaska Board of Game, said he was surprised by the removal of Vincent-Lang, Fish and Game's former wildlife conservation director. Spraker said Vincent-Lang was "a real crusader" when it came to issues he described as "federal overreach, and the federal agencies usurping states' authority."
Vincent-Lang and the board were aligned on issues related to the Endangered Species Act -- specifically, in fights against federal protections for animals like wolves, seals and polar bears, Spraker said.
Vincent-Lang's stances, however, often drew criticism from conservation groups and put him at odds with federal government scientists.
"He was a real advocate for states' rights, and right now there's going to be a lot of issues with the federal government really pushing their authority," Spraker said in a phone interview. "But that's the governor's authority, and the governor has different plans -- and we're not double-guessing what the governor's doing."
As for groups that support natural resource extraction, Rebecca Logan, the general manager of the pro-oil and pro-mining Support Industry Alliance, said her organization was so far giving Walker "the benefit of the doubt."
"He's made commitments to us about resource development, so until he does something else, we're going to trust that that's what he's going to do," she said.
Asked about whether she agreed with the conservation groups' criticisms of Parnell's tenure, Logan said her organization always felt confident it had the ability "to say, 'yay, we think it's a good idea,' or 'nay, we think it's a bad idea.'"
But Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, the chair of the Senate's resources committee, acknowledged that some of the permitting and land management initiatives she supported with the Parnell administration would have limited public involvement too much for Alaskans to accept. She referred to her decision to kill a controversial Parnell measure aimed at streamlining permitting, House Bill 77, in the face of broad public opposition.
"That was what the public felt, and that's why I held the bill at the end of the day," Giessel said in an interview. "That doesn't mean that continuing to look at how we do permitting and development isn't a worthy endeavor."
She added: "Nobody's trying to cut the public out of it."
Both conservation and pro-development groups are now watching the Walker administration closely to see how it approaches land management and permitting.
Commissioner Cotten on Friday said Tony DeGange, a former chief of ecosystems and geography at an Alaska branch of the U.S. Geological Survey, had been appointed to replace Bates.
In a statement, Fish and Game said DeGange had more than three decades of experience working in science and natural resources for the federal government in Alaska.
Cotten said that when it comes to creating and revising the management plans for the state's refuges and sanctuaries, the new appointee would "be very much aware that there's gonna be an opportunity for the public to weigh in at every level."
Cotten added, however, that he didn't know exactly how the department's approach to the plans would shift, like whether or not it would continue revising the plans that the Parnell administration was working on.
And Adams, the president of the McNeil River sanctuary group, said he would remain apprehensive until the Walker administration's changes are formalized.
"From what Sam Cotten and some of the others have said about the process, it seems that we're heading in the right direction -- back to where we started," Adams said. "But until we actually see something in writing, who's to know?"
Alaska Dispatch Publishing