Reflecting on Gov. Bill Walker’s first year in office (today is his one-year anniversary), he has for the most part been a real breath of fresh air after recent administrations. Walker is a true “man of the people” and has the potential to be one of the best governors in Alaska history.
But while he has been progressive on many social and economic issues, his environmental policies have mostly been a throwback to the draconian bad old days. On several critical issues important to those who supported him, his first year has been a spectacular disappointment.
Astonishingly, Walker has taken no substantive action on one of the most important threats facing the future of Alaska: climate change. He has ignored requests to reconvene the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet, endorse/sponsor an Alaska Climate Change Response Act, implement the 2010 Alaska Climate Change Strategy, or to establish an Alaska Climate Response Fund (from a nominal hydrocarbon tax) to fund the urgent climate change response needs of rural Alaska.
On wildlife, Walker has continued the same regressive policies of his predecessors. His fish and game department has refused public pleas to establish a wildlife protection buffer on state lands near Denali National Park. He refused pleas to appoint non-consumptive representatives to the Board of Game. He continues the shameful, ineffective, costly predator control program, with staff gunning down wolves from helicopters seeking to eliminate them entirely from vast areas. And he has denied pleas to protect the dwindling population of Alexander Archipelago wolves.
The Walker administration is currently seeking to transfer some 2 million of acres of prime old growth forest habitat from the Tongass National Forest to the state, so that these areas can be subjected to the same unsustainable clearcut logging that has ravaged much of the rest of the coastal temperate rainforest of Alaska.
Despite continued threats to the Arctic Ocean from offshore drilling and shipping, Walker has refused to advocate establishment of an Arctic Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council (RCAC) to engage civil society groups along the Arctic coast in ensuring the safest possible offshore operations. All the while, he champions Arctic offshore drilling and shipping without adequate safeguards.
With many Alaska’s federal offshore ecosystems in decline, there are still no permanent management protections in place. But the Walker administration opposes efforts to establish any permanent protections in Alaska’s federal offshore waters (national marine sanctuaries or marine national monuments), and has proposed no additional state marine protected areas.
In 2006, the Murkowski administration submitted a Demand for Payment to Exxon for $92 million (under a reopener provision of the 1991 spill settlement) to address long-term injuries from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. For the last nine years, Exxon has refused to pay, and the Palin and Parnell administrations did nothing to collect from Exxon. In October, over the objections of the people in the oil spill region, Walker announced that he is simply letting Exxon off the hook for this claim entirely — a profound betrayal of public trust.
And the list goes on.
Obviously, while saying that he will govern for all Alaskans, his actions so far show that, on many critical resource issues, he is still stuck in the same old backward thinking that has dominated Alaska for years. This is most certainly not what many of us voted for.
We need, and deserve, more from the next three years of Walker’s first term in office. We remain hopeful, but need to see more progressive leadership on these issues.
• Rick Steiner is a marine conservation biologist living in Anchorage, and was a professor of marine conservation with the University of Alaska from 1980 – 2010, stationed in Kotzebue, Cordova and Anchorage.