Alaska Legislature

Dunleavy seeks to remove decades-old boards overseeing Alaska parks

Wood-Tikchik State Park, at more than 1.5 million acres, is the largest state park in the U.S. Located north of Dillingham in Southwest Alaska, the park — which includes headwaters important to Bristol Bay salmon — is managed by a single full-time employee.

Since the park’s creation in 1978, management has been supported by a citizen advisory council representing three village councils, the city of Dillingham, the Bristol Bay Native Association and the commissioners of the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Fish and Game. But Gov. Mike Dunleavy is seeking to eliminate the board in the “interests of efficient administration.”

According to state parks director Ricky Gease, there has never been a problem with the operations of the council. Eliminating the Wood-Tikchik management council is opposed by the Bristol Bay Native Corp., the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust and the Bristol Bay Native Association. Several members of the board testified during a recent Senate Resources Committee meeting about their opposition to the removal of the council.

Dunleavy’s executive order on Wood-Tikchik is one of 12 issued this year that lawmakers will consider overturning in a joint session Tuesday. If the order is allowed to go into effect, the council would be eliminated in July, but its members say its removal was done without support from the community.

[Alaska lawmakers to consider overturning 12 executive orders issued by Gov. Dunleavy]

Robin Samuelsen, a Dillingham resident who serves on the council, said he remembers the day in the late 1970s when then-Gov. Jay Hammond spoke to community members about the formation of the park.

“Hammond convinced us that we should support the park. Most people were against it,” said Samuelsen, chief of the Curyung Tribal Council.


Since the formation of the park in 1978, the board has met to address the needs of the communities that rely on the region for subsistence and economic needs. None of the community members who have weighed in on Dunleavy’s order said there was any reason to think the board was operating inefficiently, as Dunleavy suggested.

“I read the governor’s statement three times and each time it made me madder and madder,” Samuelsen said.

Dan Dunaway, a Dillingham resident and the previous area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said he thought “the council worked quite well.”

The order “seems like a solution in search of a problem,” he added. “I’m not sure the park would function as well as it does if we didn’t have local buy-in and local support.”

Some observers have wondered aloud if the elimination of the board is meant to pave the way for resource development, or for corporations to take advantage of the land in other ways. A decade ago, lawmakers allowed for the planning of a hydroelectric dam in the park before nixing the plan amid pressure from local representatives.

“We know that this area is mineral rich and we know what outside corporate entities have in their eyes, and that is dollar signs and development, without any regard for what that development means, which is oftentimes destruction,” said Maria Dosal, a Dillingham resident.

The Wood-Tikchik management council is one just two park oversight boards written into state law, with specific direction that their members must be appointed by the governor to represent local stakeholders. The other — for the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines — is also on Dunleavy’s chopping block despite broad support for the council from local governments and groups.

The Chilkat council was created in 1982 after years of contentious debate over resource management in the Chilkat Valley. The elimination of the council is opposed by Sealaska Corp., the Chilkat Indian Village, the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the Haines Borough and the Tongass Tlingit Cultural Heritage Institute.

“The creation of the preserve and its 12-member advisory council 40 years ago resulted from a hard-fought, multipartnered agreement that struck a balance between traditional uses of this 48,000 acres of eagle habitat and the necessary protection of the world’s largest gathering of eagles,” said Tom Morphet, Haines Borough mayor, in a letter to lawmakers.

Kimberly Strong, president of the Chilkat Indian Village, said in a letter that the village lobbied against the original designation of the preserve, fearing the loss of traditional lands and waters, but “because all parties involved proceeded with a state preserve guided by an advisory council where we have a seat at the table, we support the current preserve through the advisory council.”

Aside from the two councils, most state park advisory boards are not written into statute and their members are selected by the director of state parks.

Gease, the state parks director, said that if the governor’s orders are approved, the councils would be replaced by a regional citizen advisory boards that would be appointed by the director. Gease said that the higher the level of the executive who approves the member, the longer it takes to fill seats on a board.

As of this month, there was one vacancy on the Wood-Tikchik council for the seat representing Dillingham, and three vacancies on the Chilkat Bald Eagle council.

Samuelsen said the city of Dillingham has repeatedly submitted names to the governor for filling the seat but the governor has not selected one.

“The people of this region are very comfortable with keeping the park the way it is. We’re a little leery of the governor after our dealings with him in Pebble. He’s never spoken to us once about Pebble. What’s this bill going to do? Open state land in the park for mining development? That would be a disaster,” said Samuelsen, referring to the proposed Pebble mine, a halted project in Bristol Bay that had been supported by Dunleavy despite opposition from locals and environmental advocates.

The Dunleavy administration did not point to specific issues with the council. Asked by a lawmaker, Gease said there had been no issues with either the Wood-Tikchik or Chilkat councils during his tenure.

“This is the largest state park in the country and it is managed by one park employee. You currently have a board in statute that provides some meaningful contact for the public on the management of that park. What this proposal does is it essentially takes that public contact away,” said state Sen. Matt Claman, an Anchorage Democrat.


“I just find this troubling for a board that, by your own testimony, there has been no problem with this board functioning and doing its work,” Claman told Gease during a hearing.

Gease said citizen advisory boards could replace the work of the councils, citing the creation of local fundraising committees for the Kachemak Bay and Chugach state parks as examples of the success of such boards.

“I think if it’s less prescriptive, there’s more creativity and empowerment at the local level,” said Gease.

Gease told House members in a Resources Committee meeting this month that “anytime there’s a change, people are resistant to the change because it’s something new.”

“To the best of my ability I tried to reassure people and the management council,” Gease said. “(The division of state) parks doesn’t exist without these regional citizen advisory boards, or at least our management isn’t very good if we don’t have feedback from the public.”

Rep. Donna Mears, D-Anchorage, said during a House Resources Committee hearing that she’d be “very happy to support this change in a future bill when there is buy-in from the communities that are affected by these advisory councils and the folks serving on them.”

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Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The AP and Report for America and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at