Alaska News

Fish board chairman Johnstone resigns; commercial fisherman Maw picked to replace him

Gov. Bill Walker continued his remake of state government Tuesday with a string of high-profile appointments and removals of commissioners and appointees who work in fish and game management, the justice system and taxation.

The moves amounted to an especially big shake-up for Alaska fisheries management as Walker made permanent his temporary choice of Sam Cotten for commissioner of fish and game, and said he'd appoint an antagonist of the state fish board to a vacancy created by the sudden resignation of the board's chair.

Other key appointments included his commissioners for the departments of corrections and commerce, as well as two members of a state tax panel that examines disputes between municipalities, the state and oil companies over the value of the trans-Alaska pipeline.

In a prepared statement Tuesday afternoon, Walker said he would retain Cotten, the acting fish and game commissioner, who was the only one of four applicants to make it through a vetting process conducted by the joint boards of fish and game.

Walker also accepted the resignation of the seven-member fish board chairman, Karl Johnstone, effective next week, and said he would replace Johnstone with Roland Maw -- a move likely to get the approval of commercial fishermen.

Maw is the head of a commercial fishing industry group, United Cook Inlet Drift Association. His resume says he has a doctorate in forestry and wildlife management. He applied for the fish and game commissioner's job but was spurned by the fish board, which voted unanimously against granting him an interview last week even after he'd flown to Juneau to attend a meeting in person.

Walker and House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, had been critical of the fish board's decision not to interview Maw, with Chenault writing in a letter to Walker that the board's unanimous vote appeared to be a "set-up."


Walker called Johnstone on Tuesday and told Johnstone he would not be reappointed when his term expires in June. The board's choice not to grant Maw an interview was a factor in Walker's decision, a spokeswoman for Walker said.

Johnstone then offered to resign sooner, so his replacement would have more time to get up to speed before the board's next cycle of meetings begin.

"I'm willing to do that to accommodate the governor," Johnstone said in a phone interview. "Governors want to have their own people on boards, which I'm fine with."

Maw, however, has a contentious history with the state fish board and state regulators. Cook Inlet Drift Association is a participant in a lawsuit seeking to give federal managers, not those from the state, authority over salmon fishing in Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, and in waters near the Alaska Peninsula.

"The governor thinks Roland Maw is a very intelligent man," said a spokeswoman for Walker, Grace Jang. "He's highly educated."

Maw's appointment is subject to approval by the state Legislature, and he won't necessarily replace Johnstone as chair -- the fish board votes in its own choice. Asked if he thought Maw would be confirmed, Chenault said he didn't know.

"This is a fickle little process we use," he said in an interview.

The change on the fish board represents a victory for Kenai Peninsula commercial fishing interests, and Johnstone also said he was viewed as an opponent of Chenault and Chenault's chief of staff Tom Wright, who once led the industry group now headed by Maw and who fishes commercially in Cook Inlet.

"They know Dr. Maw, and they know quite a few of the upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen. And I think they probably view me as being pretty effective as not voting with their agenda," Johnstone said.

"I'm sure there's going to be a lot of disappointments out there," Johnstone added. "But there's also going to be people who are happy, and a lot of them are from the Kenai Peninsula."

In addition to Cotten, Walker made two more commissioner appointments Tuesday. He said he would permanently retain Ron Taylor, the acting corrections commissioner, and he said Unalaska city manager Chris Hladick had been appointed commissioner of the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

Taylor was previously a deputy commissioner at the state corrections department, a job in which he oversaw inmates' transitions out of prison through probation and parole.

Hladick was the city manager of Unalaska for 14 years, according to Walker's statement. Before that job, he was the city manager of two other rural Alaska communities, Dillingham and Galena.

Walker also announced Tuesday that he replaced a member from the State Assessment Review Board, which hears appeals over the valuation of crude oil transport properties, including the trans-Alaska pipeline, which are initially set by the state Department of Revenue.

The member Walker replaced, James Strandberg, is a manager of mechanical engineering for an Anchorage-based company called Electric Power Systems and was formerly a commissioner on the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. He was appointed by former Gov. Sean Parnell in November, when Parnell had just three days left in his term -- but Walker had the power to remove him.

Strandberg's replacement, Steve Van Sant, is a former state assessor. His appointment is subject to legislative confirmation.

Walker also said he'd keep another assessment review board member, William Roberts, who was named by Parnell the same day as Strandberg.


Cotten, Walker's choice to lead the fish and game department, is a former Democratic speaker of the Alaska House and a former fisheries analyst for the Aleutians East Borough.

He was appointed in spite of a letter Walker sent to Chenault on Tuesday in which Walker said he was disappointed the boards of fish and game hadn't advanced more candidates to choose from, and that Maw hadn't been interviewed.

Asked to explain why Walker had accepted Cotten's nomination after expressing disappointment in the process that led to it, Jang referred the question to Bruce Botelho, Walker's transition coordinator.

Botelho said in an interview that Walker did "wrestle with that." He noted that Walker didn't like facing a situation where a body like the joint fish and game boards has the power "to dictate who the appointee will be by simply providing one name."

But, Botelho added, Walker has a high level of confidence in Cotten, and he said the governor didn't want to restart the application process at "a crucial time for the department, which needs some stability and leadership."

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at