Alaska editorial: Give habitat back to Fish and Game

Posted: Tuesday, January 02, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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The Alaska Board of Fisheries is not exactly a hotbed of knee-jerk greenies. Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed all seven members and the Republican Legislature approved the picks.

The Fisheries Board includes a sport angler, an outfitter, a retired National Rifle Association field representative, some long-time commercial fishermen and a fish marketing executive. One member who works for a factory trawler trade group is the son-in-law of Alaska's famous greenie-basher, U.S. Rep. Don Young.

So when the board unanimously recommends reversing one of former Gov. Murkowski's more controversial moves, it can't be dismissed as anti-development whining. The governor in 2003 yanked the state's habitat protection experts out of the conservation-minded Fish and Game Department and put them under the thumb of the development-oriented Department of Natural Resources. The governor claimed the Fish and Game habitat biologists and other staff were too slow issuing permits for development projects.

His move weakened a healthy system of checks and balances in reviewing environmental permits. One agency gave its best advice on protecting habitat; other departments with more development-oriented missions were free to disagree. Those disputes usually came into public view, and the added attention improved the odds of a better final decision. That helps explain why five former Fish and Game commissioners argued against the switch.

Gov. Murkowski's move pushed those interagency disputes deep into the bureaucracy, out of public sight. He also pushed some habitat protection experts out of state government. The move eliminated 22 jobs.

Gov. Sarah Palin hasn't hesitated to reverse her predecessor's ill-considered decisions. Restoring what Gov. Murkowski took apart doesn't force her to choose between development and conservation. It would merely recalibrate the system to strike a balance between the two.

The Board of Fisheries is right: Alaska is better served with a more independent review of how a project affects fish and game habitat - and that requires a separate habitat division at the Department of Fish and Game.

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