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Gov.'s permitting plan once rejected by Hickel

Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2003

Gov. Frank Murkowski's proposal to have Fish and Game Department habitat permits issued by the Department of Natural Resources is not new.

Former Gov. Walter Hickel also considered doing so, but rejected the idea after his Fish and Game commissioner, Carl Rosier, recommended against it.

Rosier said he'd give the same advice to Murkowski.

"Habitat is such a cornerstone of fish and game management," Rosier said. "You want it where the expertise is."

Gov. Tony Knowles' Fish and Game commissioner, Frank Rue, also advised against the change.

Murkowski announced in his State of the State speech Thursday that DNR will become the lead agency for all permitting of development projects. He plans to move the Alaska Coastal Management Program and the Habitat Division's permitting responsibilities into DNR.

Developers need Habitat Division permits to do work in places such as wildlife refuges, critical habitat areas, and salmon and trout fish streams.

"On many occasions the Habitat Division has been the sole agency opposing and delaying legitimate projects important to the state," Murkowski said, citing Juneau-area projects such as proposed golf course in North Douglas and a proposed hydroelectric plant at Lake Dorothy south of town.

Hickel, a Republican who served from 1990 to 1994, also heard complaints from developers and considered shifting the work to DNR.

Rue was director of the Habitat Division then under Rosier, and during that time assisted with a report that concluded shifting the work to DNR would be a bad idea, he said.

Instead of moving the work, Rosier said, Fish and Game tried to standardize the process for issuing permits to deal with criticism that some biologists were injecting their personal viewpoints.

"We put together a reliable effort that was trusted by the industry," Rosier said. "It worked out pretty well as far as I was concerned."

Tadd Owens, executive director of the Resource Development Council, said he believes the kind of changes Murkowski proposed could help boost the state economy without hurting the environment.

"The state's permit process has become so cumbersome, so time-consuming, so costly that it is a barrier to investment," Owens said.

Matt Davidson of Alaska Conservation Voters said he worries the changes are intended to turn DNR into an agency that churns out permits, rather than seriously evaluating potential consequences of a proposal.

Murkowski's spokesman, John Manly, said that is not the intent.

"We have no interest at all in diminishing the habitat that's available for fish or game," Manly said. "We just happen to believe it can be protected and enhanced while at the same time allowing legitimate projects to go forward and be built."

Rue said Fish and Game is in the best position to protect habitat. DNR does not have fish and wildlife biologists qualified to gauge the effect of a project on habitat, he said.

"A forester can't do that. A petroleum geologist can't do that," Rue said.

Manly said he did not have details of how the shift would work, but he believes some Fish and Game biologists would move to the Department of Natural Resources, while some jobs would be eliminated.

Even if the expertise moves to DNR, Rosier said, he does not believe the shift is a good idea because the two departments have different missions.

DNR's focus is on developing resources, while Fish and Game's is to protect the state's fish and wildlife resources, Rosier said.

"They've got the land and we've got the critters," Rosier said.



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