Alaska News

Gov. Walker makes another unorthodox pick for Fish Board

JUNEAU -- Gov. Bill Walker has made a second try at filling a vacant seat on the Alaska Board of Fisheries, this time picking the director of a Kenai Peninsula conservation group for a position traditionally held by members sympathetic to sportfishing interests.

Walker on Monday appointed Robert Ruffner, the executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, to the Fish Board seat previously held by Karl Johnstone, a retired state judge viewed as a strong sportfishing partisan. It's Walker's second unorthodox pick for the slot on a board that has typically included three members representing commercial fishing interests, three members representing sportfishing interests and one representing rural and subsistence fishermen.

Walker's first choice for the seat was a campaign booster and former director of a Cook Inlet commercial fishing group, Roland Maw. Maw's appointment would have upended that balance, and the choice provoked a backlash from sportfishing advocates.

But Maw withdrew his name last month as officials in Montana said they had opened a criminal investigation to see if he illegally held licenses in both Montana and Alaska.

Ruffner is a less polarizing figure than Maw, and he isn't affiliated with the commercial fishing industry. But his appointment is already drawing criticism from some Mat-Su and Anchorage lawmakers, who are questioning his commitment, and Walker's commitment, to their constituencies of dipnetters and sportfishermen.

"This is a seat that's been a sportfishing seat for decades," said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.

Wielechowski added that he chalked up Walker's first Fish Board appointment, of Maw, to a "rookie governor mistake."

"But now I'm sort of questioning the governor's commitment to sportfishing and dipnetters," he said.

In a phone interview late Monday from Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula, Ruffner said he respects the existing balance on the Fish Board and would consider it in any decisions. And, he said, "I've killed more fish with a dipnet by far than any other way."

But the Fish Board's enabling legislation also doesn't say anything about seats dedicated to a particular interest group, Ruffner added. And he suggested that the current split between commercial and sportfishing interests doesn't always lead to good outcomes.

"What I have seen the Board of Fish do in the 20 years I've been here is, I've seen it become more polarized," he said. "That's OK if that's the model you want to pursue. But I don't think the best decisions get made in a polarized environment."

Ruffner moved to Alaska from Minnesota in 1996, he said, and quickly was hired on a part-time basis to be the first staff member for the Kenai Watershed Forum, which now has 10 full-time staff. The group researches issues like water quality and salmon migration, and it also teaches students and adults about conservation and property management.

Ruffner was careful to note, however, that the group has done "more conservation with a backhoe" than it has with attorneys.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, described Ruffner as someone who could balance the concerns of all the fiercely competing interests in Alaska's fisheries -- and who could perhaps move the board away from its current divided makeup.

"I've watched him bring together people that normally say bad things about each other's mothers," said Micciche, who represents the Kenai Peninsula and is a commercial salmon fisherman. "He's an individual that doesn't care about my fish or your fish -- he cares about fish."

Ruffner plans to leave his job in June, which should allow him to serve on the Fish Board and also to spend more time with his two daughters, he said.

It's unclear just how Ruffner will be received in the Legislature, which must confirm his appointment. He said he visited 20 lawmakers during a visit to the Capitol last week, which he paid for himself.

Wielechowski, the Anchorage Democratic senator, said he was concerned about a Kenai River water-quality study performed by the Kenai Watershed Forum that Ruffner acknowledged could force some changes to boat behavior.

A bipartisan group of six legislators met with the governor last week to urge him to preserve the existing balance on the Fish Board, Wielechowski added.

Another sportfishing advocate in the Legislature, Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said Ruffner's appointment was consistent with Walker's controversial first pick, Roland Maw, and would lead to a "commercial fishing dominated board."

"I guess 'Alaskans first, it's time' is just a slogan," Stoltze said in an interview, referring to a phrase Walker used on the campaign trail.

But other sportfishing advocates are staying open-minded.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association helped thwart the confirmation of a Fish Board nominee two years ago who it viewed as too sympathetic to commercial interests. This time, it's waiting to get more information about Ruffner's views, since he has not waded into disputes between different fishing interests in his job with the watershed forum.

"We're open to anybody who hasn't really taken a position," Ricky Gease, the association's executive director, said in an interview in Juneau, where his group was planning to host a reception Tuesday. "We look forward to interviewing Mr. Ruffner."

Asked about Ruffner's qualifications and why he was chosen, Karen Gillis, Walker's director of boards and commissions, largely pointed to Ruffner's scientific credentials. He has an undergraduate degree in geology, with specific coursework in geomorphology, engineering and numerical modeling, according to a copy of his resume.

That scientific background, Gillis said in a phone interview, "should outweigh a sector's interest in the seat." And she said it was "interesting" that the balance between the board's three sportfishing and commercial members is viewed as "an essential or critical component."

"We as a state should be looking for the kinds of members who bring a level of expertise to the board that can address issues from various perspectives -- not strictly one," she said.

Ruffner said he has a track record of working with people who typically don't work together well. But he also acknowledged that sometimes his reliance on science has forced changes on the Kenai River that haven't always been welcomed.

He pointed to research by his organization that discovered gasoline pollution from outboard motors, ultimately leading to restrictions on the use of certain types of higher-polluting motors. His group ran a buyback program for the motors, and the river ultimately recovered.

"In some cases, there's been science that has caused people to make changes," Ruffner said. And, he added: "Change is hard for everybody."

Ruffner's appointment leaves Walker with one more position on the Fish Board still to be filled by the end of the month. It's currently held by Orville Huntington, an Alaska Native, and has been traditionally viewed as representing subsistence and rural interests.

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.

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