My Turn: Habitat: Keep professionals, eschew tweaking

Posted: Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A few weeks ago, the Board of Fisheries decided to send a letter urging Gov. Sarah Palin to return the habitat protection function from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Fish and Game, reversing Gov. Frank Murkowski's earlier move.

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Moving the division was a bad idea in 2003, and moving the division back is a bad idea today.

I hold the dubious distinction of being the only person to head both Habitat Protection (chief, 1974-75) and the Department of Natural Resources (commissioner, 1976-1981). I was a state bureaucrat long enough to learn several things. One is that we do not accomplish policy changes by reorganizing - policies change only when managers change.

Habitat protection is an important sovereign duty of Alaska's government and must not be sacrificed for proprietary gains by the "owner state," such as higher wellhead prices or profit margins for a gas pipeline. Since statehood Alaska has been wise to enact and fund efforts to protect fish and wildlife habitat. Other states have ignored this function or subordinated it to economic development initiatives, and have lived to regret their loss of fish and wildlife values.

It was clear to me both as director and as commissioner that habitat protection required two things to remain effective over the long run.

First, professional biologists should make decisions regarding habitat protection. These decisions don't come instinctively, any more than does knowing where to drill for oil. Trained professionals are needed to do it right.

Second, these biologists must then work closely with other permitters, to shape rational permits that serve both habitat resources and developers' needs. The closer the habitat biologists work with other permitters, the better for habitat and development.

The governor and commissioners of Natural Resources and Fish and Game must be dedicated to habitat protection as well as development. Most administrations since statehood have passed this test. A few have not. Habitat considerations can be overridden by any governor, regardless of where the function is housed.

Experience, training and philosophies of governors and commissioners have varied over the years. Commissioners of these departments have included an office supply chain founder, a bureaucrat with a land use planning degree and wildlife and fisheries biologists, a zoologist with a doctorate, oil executives, a miner, lawyers, a Vista volunteer, congressional aides and one who began as secretary. These people's abilities, wisdom and philosophies had little to do with their training or experience, but usually served the state well.

Location of the habitat protection function and the professionals who carry it out in the Department of Natural Resources should not imply lax permitting, any more than their location in Fish and Games equates to irrationally tight permitting. It all depends on the people involved, and upon the administration in power.

It's not where we put the chairs, but the butts we put into the chairs that matters.

The discussion leading to the Board of Fisheries' decision apparently ignored some important facts: First, statutory requirements were not changed when the division was moved four years ago. The division enforces the same laws it always has.

Second, qualifications for habitat biologists did not change. To work for Natural Resources, a biologist must have the same knowledge and experience he needed to work for Fish and Game. Today, nearly 70 percent of the Department of Natural Resources' habitat group are former Fish and Gamers.

Third, habitat employees tell me they have experienced high-level access and interaction with top Natural Resources decision-makers, which did not occur before.

One should always remember the "chair" principle when wanting to influence the behavior of state agencies. Vote for the governor who shares attitudes, insist that she hire intelligent, thoughtful cabinet officers, insist that these commissioners retain qualified people to address problems, listen to these recommendations and competently apply the law.

A commissioner must believe in statutory mandate, hire competent people, and listen to them. It's a lot more effective than moving the furniture every four years.

Attempting to replicate the good old days by shaking up a smoothly operating office within the Department of Natural Resources is to no one's advantage.

• Robert LeResche has served as a wildlife biologist, governor's director of policy development and planning, chief of Habitat, commissioner of Natural Resources, executive director the Alaska Power Authority and Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Coordinator. He is now a rancher in Northern Wyoming and a financial consultant in Alaska.



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