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Suing feds is popular, but Alaska gains more by smart park policies

  • Author: Tony Knowles
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 10, 2017
  • Published September 9, 2017

(Pixabay)

In August of 2016 the National Park Service issued wildlife management regulations protecting the natural diversity of wildlife that were the result of 10 years of deliberation including an extensive process of public hearing and participation. These regulations encapsulated 35 years of National Park Service policy, previously agreed upon in writing by the State of Alaska, to provide a unique opportunity to all visitors to experience in our national parks and wildlife refuges natural wildlife diversity like no other place in the world.

In addition to watchable wildlife, both subsistence and sport hunting were made available in an unprecedented 20 million acres of national parks and preserves and 80 million acres of wildlife refuges.

These regulations merely codified and clarified existing federal legal requirements in the Organic Act of 1916 and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 for maintaining a natural diversity of wildlife and ecosystems. These laws prohibit any policy of species manipulation and methods that would kill predators, including wolves and bears, to supposedly inflate the number of moose and caribou. It continued the long-established policy of preventing snaring and leg trapping of bears, killing sows and cubs, killing wolves and pups during denning seasons and killing bears using glare lights in their dens during hibernation.

The State of Alaska, despite a history of formally agreeing with park service policies since 1982, sued the National Park Service for this "federal overreach." The secretary of interior, newly appointed by President Trump, has now called for a "review" of these regulations  as being possibly injurious to "sport hunting and commercial trapping."

To many, this review seems  a thinly disguised precursor to arbitrarily rejecting these legally adopted regulations for political reasons. If this were to happen, it would be a sad day for Alaska's economy, a dismissal of a lengthy public process, a rejection of the use of science in wildlife management and a concession to a cynical collusion of state and federal political agendas. Alaskans deserve better than this.

Of course, I understand the temptation of any Alaska politician to tweak the nose of the feds by taking them to court. That never loses votes. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who had previously served as governor of Arizona, told me if I didn't sue the federal government at least once while I was governor I wasn't doing my job. And indeed, that happened and we certainly had our disagreements. But disagreements never interfered with our commitment to cooperate on important issues such as opening the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska for oil and gas leasing for the first time in two decades while collaborating with the Fish and Wildlife Service and Native villages in protecting the vital migratory waterfowl ecosystem of Teshukpuk Lake in the petroleum reserve.

There is no advantage to Alaskans in suing the federal government on the national park wildlife regulations. In fact, these areas — because of their wildlife viewing opportunities — have built a tourism industry of 2.6 million national park visitors per year who put over $1.9 billion into our economy each year and directly create 19,000 jobs. This is not rocket science.

Not only do the national parks and the national wildlife refuges attract a substantial economic industry to Alaska, they also contribute over $150 million per year for all the costs of operating, maintaining and building the infrastructure of these facilities.  So these incredible assets cost the state nothing. This is a free ticket for Alaska that Homer Simpson could certainly understand with a "doh!" and a quick slap to the forehead.

For those who would continue to claim that our Statehood Act gave the state the management of all fish and wildlife resources — they should read the act. It states that while giving the state management of fish and wildlife, this transfer "shall not include lands withdrawn or otherwise set apart as refuges or reservations for the protection of wildlife …"

Furthermore, after the enactment of ANILCA in 1980, Gov. Jay Hammond's ADF&G commissioner signed a "Master Memorandum of Agreement" with the regional director of national parks stating that the state agreed to "manage fish and resident wildlife populations in their natural species diversity on Service (National Park Service) lands, recognizing that nonconsumptive use and appreciation by the visiting public is a primary consideration." This memorandum, and a similar agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by Hammond, has never been superseded. Indeed, ANILCA requires wildlife on all of the federal conservation units to be managed for "natural diversity." I guess it's just not politically convenient to remember these facts when filing a political lawsuit.

So where do we go from here? There still could be a simple conclusion that would cease the expensive and confrontational lawsuit as well as answer a groundless Department of Interior request for a new review of a long public process. Instead, both parties could agree to use the "review" period for a genuine search for relevant new information. Conducting an objective, third party, science-based review of the predator control policies of the state on federal lands as well as on the adjacent state lands could well provide an analysis leading to a mutually acceptable conclusion.

Such an analysis could be done by the National Academy of Sciences. In fact, this would just be a 20-year review of a study done by the NAS in 1997 at my request as governor. Initiated in 1995, after we experienced a grossly mismanaged wolf-killing program under a previous administration, this study gave a perceptive and sensible approach to the issues of predator control.

Making this a key component of the new request for a "review of regulations" by the secretary of interior would add credibility as well as a sensible way forward. State Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotton told me he would welcome such an analysis.

At the national level, Sen. Lisa Murkowski has provided exemplary leadership for public process and collaboration between states and the federal government on health care reform. Perhaps as chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy she could initiate and require the secretary of interior to engage the National Academy of Sciences to set the right, science-based direction for resolving this important issue for Alaska.

Who knows? Even in these times economics, jobs and common sense might trump politics as usual.

Tony Knowles is a former governor of Alaska (1994-2002) and for the last seven years has served as chair of the National Park System Advisory Board.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com.

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